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

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