Friday, September 27, 2013

Papal Pundit

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. interviewing Pope Francis
If you've been following the news the last couple weeks you are aware that there are big changes afoot in the Catholic Church thanks to Pope Francis and his desire to restore the primacy of Jesus' teachings on social justice.  As earth shaking as this is, it would not merit mention on this blog were it not for the fact that  this came out in an interview conducted by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. who just happens to be a huge Flannery O'Connor fan.  He has been to Andalusia on a couple different occasions and is a delightful man.  The interview with the pope was published by America magazine (a journal to which Flannery herself subscribed) with the title A Big Heart Open to God.  The title, of course, refers to the new pope, but it could just as easily be applied to Fr. Antonio.  Since the publication of this article, Fr. Antonio has been enjoying some well deserved public recognition.  This past week he was interviewed on the Stephen Colbert show.  I did not see the interview, but I am told that it was both entertaining and revealing to those who have ears to hear.  Way to go, Antonio!
- Mark

Friday, September 20, 2013

Love from New York

It is indeed ironic that nearly fifty years after her death, Flannery O'Connor is finally getting her due from The New Yorker.  Even more ironic is the fact that the magazine is devoting so much space to a work of a religious nature.  I think Flannery would find it pretty unbelievable that the esteemed journal that once rejected her cartoons and dismissed her prose would deign to publish a review of her forthcoming prayer journal in the Sept. 16th issue (unfortunately, the article is unavailable online without a subscription).  Though O'Connor continued to read The New Yorker throughout her life, she had serious issues with its editorial philosophy - see for example her letter to Betty Hester where she refers to it as "moronic." (The Habit of Being, p. 90).  Perhaps O'Connor was predisposed to dislike the magazine since it rejected the Thurberesque cartoons she had the temerity to submit when she was just a teenager (see her letter to Janet McKane - The Habit of Being, p. 536).  Perhaps she felt, with some justification, that they dismissed her too easily.  For her part, O'Connor could be equally dismissive of The New Yorker, whose critic panned The Violent Bear It Away in a "nasty," one paragraph review.  When Elizabeth Fenwick Way sent Flannery a clipping of it, O'Connor replied sardonically: "Thanks for the love letter from the New Yorker." (The Habit of Being, p. 388).
- Mark

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sainte Simone?

Simone Weil
Well, not in the opinion of Flannery O'Connor.  And yet, the author was drawn to the writings of the French philosopher/social activist/mystic Simone Weil (1909-43)  like a moth to candle light.  So influential was Weil (pronounced "vay"), that it is possible that one of O'Connor's better known characters was modeled on her.  Jewish by upbringing, in her later years Simone Weil turned more and more towards Catholicism, but could not bring herself to be baptized and so chose to remain outside the institutional church.  Today, she is recognized as one of the most brilliant and original minds of the twentieth century.  As sublime as her thought can be, her writings can also be confusing, contradictory, and impenetrable as granite.   It was the person of Simone Weil rather than her work that simultaneously attracted and repelled Flannery.  In a letter to Betty Hester, O'Connor says "The life of this remarkable woman still intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me.  Her life is almost a perfect blending of the Comic and the Terrible.  Simone Weil's life is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible.  If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman - and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth." (The Habit of Being, pp. 105-106)  Sound like a character in an O'Connor story?  In a follow-up letter, Flannery admits that such a fictional character would not be a "hypothetical Miss Weil.  My heroine already is, and [her name] is Hulga." (The Habit of Being, p. 106)
- Mark

Friday, September 6, 2013

More Merton

Thomas Merton
Over the Labor Day holiday I finished reading Thomas Merton: Selected Essays.  It is striking how many times Flannery O'Connor's name appears in these writings.  Even in one of Merton's later essays on Faulkner, she pops up.  That the monk recognized O'Connor's genius is not surprising.  Others before him had (e.g. Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren etc.).  What is noteworthy is Merton's astute reading of O'Connor in the days before there was much literary criticism devoted to her.  Here, for example, is Merton's take on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find":  "[In O'Connor's story] evil is not so much in the gangsters, so fatally and so easily 'found,' as in the garrulous, empty-headed, folksy, sentimental old fool of a grandmother.  Not that she is deliberately wicked, but the fact is, she does get everybody killed.  It is her absurd and arbitrary fantasy that leads them directly to the 'good man' and five deaths.  She is a kind of blank, a void through which there speaks and acts the peculiar nemesis that inhabits (or haunts) the world of Flannery O'Connor - and doubtless ours too, if we could but see it as she did."  He goes on to add "The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O'Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled.  The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem.  This is not in itself unusual.  But her crazy people, while remaining crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity.  In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics.  The 'good,' the 'right,' the 'kind' do all the harm.  'Love' is a force for destruction, and 'truth' is the best way to tell a lie."  (Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, Patrick F. O'Connell ed., pp.261-62).  I wonder how many other people reading O'Connor's story in 1965 recognized the Misfit as the "good man"?
- Mark