Torn Between Greatness And Grace

Tuesday was the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. TNR celebrated by pulling Ellen Douglas’s essay “Provincialism in Literature” from their archives, which praises O’Connor for building “her life in a specific place and on a specific faith”:

In O’Connor we see the masterful presentation of the universal through the particular, the provincial. Consider, for example, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” where the evil in human hearts, and the possibility of grace, the gift of love, are made terrifyingly and magnificently real in the lives of ignorant and limited people on a Southern backwoods roadside. In this sense, then, we must rejoice when our writers are provincial and parochial.

As for the provinces we live in, the real places that we perhaps think of as our homes, we may believe to begin with that we apprehend them through our own experience; but the more we read and compare, the clearer it is that we see them through the eyes of our writers. We would be crippled and limited without the insights that fiction brings to our provincial reality.

Reviewing her recently published prayer journals, Jamie Quatro finds their “driving tension” – whether O’Connor could consecrate her life to God and achieve literary greatness:

“I want so to love God all the way,” she writes on November 6, 1946. “At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even.” The deep dive into the self that writing requires and the natural temptation of pride literary success would surely bring; contrasted with the dying to the self love for God requires, the sacrifice and suffering—how to reconcile the two? Aren’t they inherently inimical to one another?

What is a Christian writer to do but accept—indeed, possess—the struggle?

It’s striking how often O’Connor expresses her fears of “mediocrity” in both arenas, religious and creative. On the one hand, she prays against a lukewarm faith: “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love.”

… But if she fears a mediocre faith, she abhors the thought of a mediocre craft, calling it a “scourge,” saying she’d rather be an “imbecile” or “nothing” than become anything less than a fine writer. To accept mediocrity, she writes, would be to resign herself to a life of despair: “Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.” And: “Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal with it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself . . . I think to accept it would be to accept Despair. There must be some way for the naturally mediocre to escape it. The way must be Grace.”

Marking O’Connor’s birthday, Popova highlighted her classic essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” found in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. One passage worth noting:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

Listen to O’Connor read from the essay here. Previous Dish on O’Connor’s prayer journals here, here, and here. Recent Dish on Southern fiction here.