Friday, August 30, 2013

Iraqi Visitors

On the eve of this Labor Day week-end where we unofficially bid summer adieu, I thought I'd use today's blog to look back at what was for me the highlight of the summer at Andalusia.  That event occurred July 20 when we welcomed to the farm seven Iraqi scholars and their host, Professor Gina Caison, from Georgia State University's English faculty. Their visit to Andalusia was coordinated through the U.S. State Department and the American embassy in Iraq as part of a three-year grant to help improve higher education in the areas of English language and literature (including American).  The grant was made possible through the efforts of Dr. Gayle Nelson and Dr. Ericson Friginal.  Under terms of the grant, the International Research and Exchanges Board paired GSU's Department of Applied Linguistics and English as a Second Language with professors at the University of Baghdad as a part of its University Linkage Program (ULP). Professors from Iraq spent two weeks this summer in Atlanta taking intensive workshops on one of three areas: literature, linguistics, and translation. The group came from the Universities of Baghdad and Erbil. They represented graduate students and professors from the Colleges of Arts, Education, and Languages. Pictured at the right are Esraa Jalal Al-Gawhari, Ammar Shamil Al-Khafaji, Ameer Chasib Furraih, Dr. Asmaa Makram Al-Sadoon, Dr. Saad Najim Al-Khafaji, Dr. Fareed Bahjat Qazzazee, Dr. Saad Kassim Sagher, and Professor Caison.  All of these participants have an extensive background in American and British literature, and it is certainly an understatement to say they were excited to visit Andalusia.  One exclaimed it was "like touching history."  While it is always a pleasure to show Andalusia to visitors who are enthusiastic to be here, it is even more so when those visitors have traveled half way round the world to see the place where Flannery wrote her novels and short stories.  Their enthusiasm underscores a point I've been making for a long time, and that is how Flannery in her quirky off-beat way is somehow able to span, indeed transcend, linguistic, cultural, and religious barriers that oftentimes separate people.  Finally, I want to thank Prof. Bruce Gentry of Georgia College for coming out here on a muggy Saturday morning for assisting me in a group tour I won't soon forget.
- Mark 

Friday, August 23, 2013

No Pain No Gain

C.E. Morgan
In other words, grace hurts.  So says novelist C.E. Morgan in an incisive article by the same title in this week's Christian Century.  For those who are befuddled by the element of violence in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, I encourage you to check out this article.  Many times perplexed visitors will ask me about why O'Connor is so preoccupied, almost obsessed, with violence.  In order to justify the literary merit of her work, I'm afraid I sometimes become defensive, almost apologetic.  "Well, it's not the kind of gratuitous violence that we've come to expect in the movies and popular culture.  It's not all that graphic."  True enough, but more needs to be said.  And Ms. Morgan certainly does in this very fine piece that explores the sacramental function of violence in three of O'Connor's short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Good Country People," and "A Circle in the Fire."  Unfortunately, only part of the article can be viewed following the link.   You'll  have to subscribe to the magazine or read it at your local library.  Either way, it's worth the effort.
- Mark

Friday, August 16, 2013

Voices in the Woods

Merton outside his hermitage
A couple months ago, Orbis Books released a splendid collection of essays by Thomas Merton.  In his essay, "Day of a Stranger," Merton mentions a number of the poets and prophets, Eastern and Western sages, men and women artists and visionaries whose disparate voices sustain him spiritually as he embarks on his new life as a hermit  in the Kentucky woods.  At the hermitage there is room for many voices: "Of Vallejo, for instance.  Or Rilke, or Rene Char, Montale, Zukofsky, Ungaretti, Edwin Muir, Quasimodo, or some Greeks.  Or the dry, disconcerting voice of Nicano Parra, the poet of the sneeze.  Here also is Chuang Tzu whose climate is perhaps most the climate of this silent corner of woods.  A climate where there is no need for explanation.  Here is the reassuring companionship of many silent Tzu's and Fu's; Kung Tzu, Lao Tzu, Meng Tzu, Tu Fu.  And Hui Neng.  And Chao-Chu.  And the drawings of Sengai.  And a big graceful scroll from Suzuki.  Here also is a Syrian hermit called Philoxenus. An Algerian cenobite called Camus.  Here is heard the clanging prose of Tertullian, with the dry catarrh of Sartre.  Here the voluble dissonances of Auden, with the golden sounds of John of Salisbury.  Here is the deep vegetation of that more ancient forest in which the angry birds, Isaias and Jeremias, sing.  Here should be, and are, feminine voices from Angela of Foligno to Flannery O'Connor, Theresa of Avila, Juliana of Norwich, and more personally and warmly still, Raissa Maritain." (Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, p. 234).  I'd say that's pretty distinguished company for Flannery to be in!  It certainly underscores the esteem that Merton had for her, but what about you?  Whose voices would uphold you if you were living as a hermit in the wilderness?  Whose books would you want to have with you - besides, of course, Flannery's? 
- Mark

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In Her Own Voice

What is it about actually hearing an author read something he or she has written that so intrigues us?  Why are we so fascinated when we listen to an audio recording of James Joyce reading from Dubliners or T.S. Eliot reciting his poetry?  Undeniably we are drawn to these recordings because of the stature of the reader.  These guys are rock stars in the literary world!  However, I think that hearing an author read a work of fiction can shed new light on the work of art itself.  By emphasizing certain words, pausing in key places, or modulating  the voice, an author is able to bring out nuances of meaning.  In other words,  authors' intentions can be made clearer when we hear them read from their own works.  A couple months ago, I listened to an audio book of Barbara Kingsolver reading her novel Prodigal Summer.  I know for a fact that I got so much more out of hearing her read this book than if I had tackled it on my own.  Another example: When I was a freshman at Denison University in 1976, Eudora Welty came and read one of her stories at a convocation (I don't remember which story anymore).  With her charm and mellifluous southern accent, this demure little lady drew me into her writing.  To top it off, the next day, to our surprise, she showed up in my English class and happily fielded questions from us guileless 18-year-olds.  I'm not sure if Flannery O'Connor sat in on any English classes when she visited Vanderbilt in 1959.  However, she did read her short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" before a university gathering.  It was recorded and now is widely available on the web.  If you wonder what the characters in Flannery's stories might have sounded like, the dialect that she heard spoken daily on the farm at Andalusia, listen to this
- Mark

Friday, August 2, 2013

Viva Artistas, Viva Espana!

What do you get when you cross Marc Chagall and Grandma Moses?  The paintings of Flannery O'Connor, of course!  While I don't know if O'Connor was influenced by Grandma Moses, she certainly had a high opinion of Marc Chagall and I think you can see traces of his influence in her art work.  In any case, he was one of Flannery's favorite artists.  In the letter to Janet McKane that I referenced last week (The Habit of Being,  p. 531) she thanks her friend for sharing a recently published article on the artist.  "I was delighted to read the piece on Chagall.  I never see the Atlantic so I would have missed it altogether and Chagall is one of my favorites. Last year I saw a television interview between Chagall and a young man from the museum in Boston.  I think it was - educational TV.  The young man was very arty. He started exhibiting his own learning along the way, giving everybody including Chagall a lecture on the nature of influences on the artist.  When he finally gave Chagall a chance to answer, Chagall said in the simplest way possible that his greatest influence was his mother. It took the poor young man an instant or two to get his bearings after that."  Further on in this letter Flannery makes an oblique reference to Picasso.  While O'Connor was certainly a capable artist, we would not be talking about her paintings today were it not for the fact that she was one of the most important short story writers of the twentieth century.  We do have to talk about the Spaniards, however, because the history of world art is incomprehensible without Velasquez, El Greco, Picasso, et. al.  For my Georgia readers who might be interested in learning more about the country that produced so many great artists, tune into GPB television tonight at 7:00 p.m. for a program hosted by noted  travel writer Rick Steves called Viva Espana!.  The region of Spain Steves is focusing on is - what else - Andalusia!
- Mark