In an essay about her prayer journals, published last year, Paul Elie focuses on the inspiration O’Connor found in the work of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain:
[Maritain’s] Art and Scholasticism offered an account of the nature of art—and of artistic inspiration—at once more sophisticated and more Catholic than any O’Connor had encountered. Drawing on Aquinas, Maritain—a French convert who was teaching at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton—makes the case that virtue, for the artist, consists in “the good of the thing made” more than in upright behavior or efforts at personal holiness. Art is “reason in making,” and good art is distinguished by “wholeness, harmony, and radiance.” The most direct way for the artist to live a good life is by making good art. To this task the artist must bring, not so much Christian principles, but the whole of his or her personality, including religious faith. A particular artist’s work begins with his or her distinct talents and preoccupations.
Yet much of the self must be left behind in the act of making. Virtue, for the artist, involves subordinating the good of the self to the good of the thing made; and to do this, the artist must cultivate “the habit of art”—by developing skills and work habits and purifying the source of inspiration. There is service in this, even holiness; at the same time, there is freedom for the artist to put some of those scruples about everyday life aside.
O’Connor read Maritain’s account of art in Iowa and embraced it enthusiastically. In the Prayer Journal, on April 14, 1947, she wrote: “I want to be the best artist I can possibly be, under God.” And that yearning was more than a desire for personal fulfillment. It carried obligations, because as she put it, “God has given me everything, all the tools, even instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate for others.” It was a calling.
Previous Dish on O’Connor’s prayer journals here, here, and here.