Susan Srigley. Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. 195pp. ISBN 0-268-01780-8. Reviewed by John R. May, For the Journal of Southern Religion.
There are some impressive recommendations on the back cover of this book by Susan Srigley, two from critics who are not only close friends of mine, but also eminent Flannery O'Connor scholars, one of whom, John Desmond (author of Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History), has obviously had a profound influence on Srigley, because he merits almost as many references and quotations in the text as Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Genoa, and Jacques Maritain. Like O'Connor, I confess to being a Catholic who was brought up, but not exactly at the same time, on Aquinas, Maritain and other Neo-scholastics—but, unlike O'Connor, without favorable memories. For Catholics especially, the Second Vatican Council represented such a cataclysmic change in the theological formulation of belief that it is difficult for many of us to return again and again to that unreformed, earlier church, unfortunately the only one that Flannery O'Connor really knew (all debates about how she would have reacted to the availability of the Council's documents and its aftermath notwithstanding).
|". . . her readings are almost exclusively ethical and theological, which results, quite honestly, in their being a high degree of abstraction in her readings of O'Connor's fiction."|
With both of these critics (Ralph Wood is the other, author of Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South), I agree that Srigley's work is "gracefully written and massively researched" and "a masterful integration of O'Connor's anthropology, her Catholic theological and philosophical beliefs, and her unique story-teller's art"—though in the latter instance, as far as interpretations of the stories go, with a generous dependence on the intentional fallacy. In all fairness to Srigley, there is purposely very little of the literary artistic in her treatments of the works; her readings are almost exclusively ethical and theological, which results, quite honestly, in their being a high degree of abstraction in her readings of O'Connor's fiction. Nonetheless, the readings of the fiction are far better than the review of O'Connor's reflections on what makes art Catholic, and those I found challenging even though I do not agree completely with her conclusions, but I must for the sake of this on-going dialogue over the impact (Srigley agrees that, in the final analysis, we are talking about the "meaning") of O'Connor's fiction be honest about my reservations.
Framed by an introduction and a conclusion, the book offers four chapters, the first and longest is the theoretical presentation of O'Connor's philosophy and theology as a justification for her art, entitled "Sacramental Theology and Incarnational Art" (collapsed in the title to "Sacramental Art"). The following three chapters are devoted to Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and "Revelation," in that order because Srigley sees a progression in O'Connor's dramatization of the need to abandon self-love and to sacrifice self for others, specifically the community. Srigley begins with the claim that "charity, as a specific form of Christian love, . . . love that serves the other, a love for neighbor that equals or surpasses love of self"(2) is the source of what she calls O'Connor's ethic of responsibility. Why ethic? Because ethics are about doing (or not doing), and fiction is about actions or their absence.
The purpose of Srigley's first chapter is "to show how O'Connor's sacramental theology and her incarnational art are connected and how both reveal her moral vision" (10). Because the entire chapter is devoted to Mystery and Manners (not to mention Aquinas, Maritain, and others) and to O'Connor's own reflections on her fiction in her letters, it seems likely that Srigley is setting up a kind of closed paradigm that will dominate her discussions of the fiction. In fact, even though she insists that "often what scholars find objectionable are religious interpretations of O'Connor's work that use her prose as a religious template to determine or finalize the meaning of her fiction"(11), she ultimately succumbs to that same tendency. (She refers throughout incorrectly to O'Connor's essays and letters as her "prose" as if the fiction was not also prose.)
Srigley's treatment of Wise Blood is, I think, the closest she comes to letting the text dictate the meaning she discerns, but even there she seems to want to have it both ways. "Love," she writes, "is virtually absent in Wise Blood" (my emphasis, 163). Haze inflicts bodily punishment upon himself, but it isn't motivated by love for others. The "virtually" is there to cover a curious and, I think, indefensible comment about Mrs. Flood. "The only glimpse of love that is not calculated or owed comes from Mrs. Flood, whose charity springs from her emerging sense of spiritual awareness and connection to other human beings" (162).
The end of Srigley's analysis of The Violent Bear It Away provides two instances of the way in which she is guided by her theoretical assumptions to read more into the text than is actually there. Tarwater's climactic vision of the "dim figures seated on the slope" being fed from one basket is not for Srigley, as the text has prepared us to assume, an indication of his reluctant, but inevitable acceptance of the "bread of life" as the true object of his hunger, as Mason had instructed him; instead it "conveys O'Connor's understanding of the mystical community" (131) of the living and dead. "In this final eucharistic vision," Srigley asserts, "Francis Tarwater's ideas of spiritual freedom find substance and deeper meaning in the obligations of love" (132). Shortly thereafter, when he heads for the city where the children of God lie sleeping, "Francis is bearing away the violence of himself and others"—implying, as Srigley has explained earlier, carrying the cross of Christ—because he "has begun to understand his limits and his responsibility for others"(132-33). To put it in a way that is more faithful to the text, Tarwater has accepted finally the call to be a prophet that Mason had, patiently, trained him for—which at no point seems to involve a mystical communion with others, or "charity" for that matter, and certainly not bearing the cross of Christ. O'Connor no doubt believed in these characteristics of the prophetic call and of the Christian vocation, but none of them is incarnated in the language of her novel.
Finally, in "Revelation," the vision that Ruby has at the end of the story of the "vast horde of souls . . . rumbling toward heaven" through the purgatorial flames is an indication that "she must empty herself in order that she might be open to receiving a new vision of who she is in relation to God and to others. This pattern of kenosis is, for O'Connor, the Christian sacramental view of love" (164). For the view of purgatory suggested in the final vision, Srigley explains, O'Connor is indebted to St. Catherine of Genoa's Purgation and Purgatory. The vision that Ruby's altered insight into the worldview Jesus proclaimed projects onto the sunset is so obviously a reversal of her earlier intolerant scheme based on racial and social classes that it seems safer to say that her transformation is more an orthodox Christian gnosis—"the first shall be last and the last first"—than a kenosis, an emptying of her selfish self. There's still some evidence of Ruby's old prejudices in the description of the procession. Love may be the core of St. Catherine's understanding of the purification of purgatory, and close to O'Connor Catholic faith, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with Ruby's conversion. Love is a very difficult optic to use in reading O'Connor's fiction; in fact, it may be next to impossible to apply it convincingly except as a kind of added theological reflection on the text, which does not seem to be Srigley's intention. One can avoid theological elaboration and still discern, admire and appreciate O'Connor's sacramental art!
My conclusion, I hope, will be taken as constructive criticism of theological literary criticism of O'Connor in general. The traditional sources, I fear, are running dry. Mystery and Manners has become a kind of sacred text that must be referred to chapter and verse by O'Connor scholars. I wonder whether, after more than a quarter-century, it isn't time to lay to rest both O'Connor's reflections on her art and her obviously very dated Catholic sources, and turn to more contemporary Christian theorists whose works may just shed some new light on O'Connor's art. I can hear a chorus of objectors saying, How is it possible to ignore any part of her oeuvre? To which I respond, It isn't, but don't impose her theology on her fiction. When she got around to talking about what was Catholic or Christian in her works in literary terms, it was in very general terms—the fall, judgment, and redemption, not mystical communion, charity, and kenosis.
John R. May, Louisiana State University
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