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Misappropriating the Misanthropic May 16, 2009

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Joseph O’Neill’s recent article on Flannery O’Connor “Touched by Evil” in the Atlantic this month gets Flannery and her work entirely wrong. O’Neill seems unable to grasp that O’Connor is a metaphysical writer whose “realism” is simply the way she lures the modern reader into her fables of faith gone wrong—or simply dumped by the roadside as trash. Instead, he looks at her tales for evidence of how she compensated for her life’s tragedy—basically, he thinks, by projecting her inner demons onto the people around her. He can’t allow himself to credence her view that we are living in a “distorted” world, completely thrown over to the seductions of materialism. For O’Neill, what is distorted is not the world. It is O’Connor herself.
      O’Neill falls into the category of progressive civic-minded reader who does not perceive the fact that O’Connor is not a social chronicler out to represent, journalistically, the character of her surroundings in rural Georgia. His take on her would make an interesting O’Connor story, because he falls into the trap of not scenting the game she is hunting, and so his explanations of her weirdness and wickedness fail to find the level of her intentions, and he writes off her vision as psychological compensation for the deficits in her personal life, including her physical degeneration from lupus. In short, armchair psychologist O’Neill is so essentially secular in his thinking that he doesn’t possess the native sympathy to see what a writer like O’Connor is actually up to, or understand the highly radical nature of her work, an aesthetic vision that is more medieval than modern, a division O’Neill, a modern, can’t cotton to because O’Connor on the surface seems to have so little conventional sympathy for her characters—a criminal offense to secular progressive like O’Neill, who sees literature as a vehicle for voicing enlightened social programming—a tool progressives can use to foster their notions of social utility by raising awareness of what life is like for the marginalized. This is a level of consideration that poo-poos metaphysics and links art and aesthetics with access and education. Such a mindset naturally perceives an obsession with divine grace as weird and disturbing in a world that clearly needs better housing, medical aids, and literacy campaigns. O’Neill sees O’Connor as a gifted wacko, and O’Connor would likely see O’Neill as a fairly average pervert.
      Secular Progressivism: The belief that if we change the economic character of our lives then we change ourselves for the better is the kind of distortion of “progress” in the modern mind that a writer like Flannery O’Connor found so disturbing. Modern liberals and people who count themselves as enlightened often have no metaphysics, and so from O’Connor’s point of view, they also have no morals of any enduring value. The type of reformer who thinks social perfection is achieved by improving testing in schools and giving kids access to larger incomes and more comfortable neighborhoods are people who have let go of the idea of an immortal soul and who have therefore also let go of the true Christian vision—that this material world is an analogue screen whereby we reckon the truth of our inner, and eternal reality, by taking dire heed of the shadows we cast over its surface. O’Connor’s claims to “realism” center around this aspect—the anagogical reality of human life—the fact that, in O’Conner’s view, God found human life worth dying for. To O’Connor all our actions unquestionably have moral, metaphysical and spiritual resonance and central value—that is not debatable. It’s the truth. Period. People are morons and idiots and so forth because they have been lured by secular modernism into thinking there is no great consequence—no eternal consequence—to the way they live now, with their mindless embrace of the body, i.e., falling prey to the enticements, allurements, and shallowness of materialism, the faith that possessing the right objects equals a possession of the good life. O’Connor wanted to say No to this view—to her, the embrace of secularism is itself “backward.” Why? Because any outward embrace of living is non-essential. What counts is how a person lives inside themselves: what they think about and what sets of desires they allow themselves to entertain and be in service to. The “Statistics” of the progressive, the people who count themselves as pro-human fighters of the good fight, who want to stop racism and poverty, and who tend to be shocked by O’Connor’s blunt “unsympathetic” representations of “backward” characters and mocking-comic language, do not get what she’s going after because they don’t have Catholic spiritual imaginations, or the sympathy or intuitive sense to develop one as they read her words. The stories are parables demonstrating O’Connor’s commitment to the existence of a “real” metaphysical realm that no one escapes. The poverty, backwardness, and illiteracy she renders so fiercely, and which the progressive reformers she often mocks take so literally, are, for her,  representations of a truth that exists beyond the premises of psychology and social conditioning. But modern progressive thinkers don’t often recognize that there is anything beyond psychology and social conditioning. So they don’t want to go where O’Connor is offering to take them. They would rather not relinquish the DSM IV for the Cross. And they would rather not see that the roughness of her stories is there because she is representing analogues to the vapid spiritual poverty of the modern, materialist mode of life that has become “normal” and “natural” for pretty much all Americans—who are only capable of understanding the exteriors of things, the literalness of life, and who therefore go around collecting “statistics” thinking it is doing some good: but they are barking up the wrong tree. Everyone in the modern world is, essentially, barking up the wrong tree. And certain progressives, convinced that they are good people and securely in the right—who basically see all problems as economic problems with economic solutions—can’t really stand the suggestion that they too, are, essentially, from O’Connor’s point of view, “idiots.”

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