Friday, November 28, 2014

“With One Eye Squinted”: Thanksgiving in the Wake of Flannery O’Connor and Ferguson

It seems fitting to begin this set of ruminations on Thanksgiving and Flannery O’Connor with the quotation placed on Flannery O’Connor’s plaque in the American Poet’s Corner in St. John the Divine (where our own Institute’s Fr. George Piggford spoke earlier this fall):  “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”  Certainly one would need “one eye squinted” to find the proper vision for O’Connor to view her devastating illness as a “blessing.” It is, as all who have read and studied O’Connor learn, such a vision that allowed her—and us, by extension—to understand how the very burdens life requires us to endure offer us opportunities to experience what Longinus called the “sublime”:  moments of beauty that always carry with them the imminent possibility of destruction and dissolution of the self.

For me, personally, it has been a year of grievous losses and new opportunities, and I find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate one from the other.  In May, a close relative ended her life after battling Alzheimer’s disease for almost five years—a battle never won in a medical sense, needless to say.  At the same time, another close friend’s spouse of fifty years went into a coma lasting a week, from which we thought he would not return—and today he is conscious, with no loss of mental acuity, and working through the kinds of physical therapies and treatments O’Connor herself knew only too well.  One student of mine is finally able to have surgery to correct a painful condition with which he has lived since birth—and we all wished him well as he began this journey; another student came to class bereft because a close high school friend, scheduled to graduate from college in December, had gone off into the woods the previous weekend and shot himself (thanks to the lax gun sales laws of neighboring Pennsylvania):  his “stranger,” certainly not his friend, spoke to him, as indeed a similar one spoke to Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away.

I have just returned this week from the annual convention of the National Communication Association, my scholarly and professional home, several days of celebrating our hundredth anniversary, while also looking into the future.  One of the programs was a memorial panel dedicated to the legacy of the great Mary Frances HopKins of Louisiana State University, whose own almost decade long co-existence with cancer ended about a year ago. Professor HopKins was a dedicated performer and scholar of O’Connor, well-known for her solo performances from O’Connor’s fiction and for a two-person performance of “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”  At her memorial, her close affinity for the spiritual and intellectual O’Connor was often cited (and napkins with peacocks adorning them given as souvenirs of the event).  I think O’Connor would have viewed HopKins as the anti-Hulga:  the academic woman who integrated faith, understanding, and human love in every conscious moment of her life.  It was a life well-lived, the only squinting required for the final years of her illness, which she endured with—one can only call it—grace. And  I saw my own former student, now a full-time college instructor, on his way to tenure, but also moving through his own stations of the cross, as he continues to experience ongoing effects of thyroid cancer in his late-twenties. 

And then to return to the verdict of the grand jury in Ferguson.  Whatever each of our own private opinions of the outcome of the grand jury’s deliberations, no doubt we can all agree that it takes a “heap o’” squinting to find the blessing in any moment of the entire sequence of events, from the fatal moment of encounter between the young black man and the uniformed white officer to the last few days of chaos, anger, protest, and, yes, violence in that town in Missouri and across our country. Would O’Connor herself have a sardonic laugh—tempered by righteous anger and deep pain, no doubt—for the fact that this happened in a town that seems to span the North and the South? Would she, once again, remind those of us who live above the Mason-Dixon line that we do not have clean hands in the ongoing history of racial violence about which O’Connor wrote in her own, inimitable ways? She would grieve for the parents, friends, and family of Michael Brown; pray for the souls of the townsfolk (and we are all, by extension, citizens of that Nineveh); and find what is, once again, an opportunity for us to discover God’s grace in that whole narrative.  I confess, if there is any of God’s grace in it, I have yet to find it myself.

But we do not need to squint to take the life and work of Flannery O’Connor as a blessing. And certainly foremost among the blessings with which (in which?) I have been living in the last half of this year has been the opportunity to learn from my fellow readers and scholars of O’Connor, to understand the incarnate “mystery” and “manners” of her achievements I had struggled to know, and to thank whatever powers that may be for Andalusia and the world for which it stands as a microcosm.

--Bruce Henderson is Professor of Communication Studies at Ithaca College, where he has taught the performance of literature, rhetoric, disability studies, and queer studies for twenty-seven years.  He is a past-editor of Text and Performance Quarterly and current editor of Disability Studies Quarterly, and co-author/co-editor of three books; he was a 2011 recipient of the Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies from the National Communication Association.  He attended the 2014 NEH Institute on “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” at Georgia College and State University, and is beginning a project tentatively titled The Crip-Haunted South: Disability in American Southern Fiction.  He may be contacted at

Friday, November 21, 2014

O’Connor and Song

A bookish Bruce Springsteen recently gave the nod to Flannery O’Connor as the writer who most influenced him. Milledgeville’s seediness must remind him of New Jersey’s seediness. Where I say “seedy” he says “Gothic” because he is more bookish than I. The book, he said, “landed hard” on him, though one would have to infer not as hard as on Mrs. Turpin, since The Boss only feels “fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle.” Not exactly a full-on conversion.[i] 

Wondering what O’Connor would have made of this, of course, is a cheap and writerly shot, but fitting both criteria, I offer my two cents: I don’t think it would be lost on her that she had been approved by a rock-god known as The Boss, whose name sounds like booing when arenas chant it.

Songwriting jet-star Lucinda Williams recently wrote that O’Connor was one of the mentors of her father, poet Miller Williams, and she recalls a childhood memory of waiting on the porch at Andalusia for O’Connor to finish writing. When Williams returned to O’Connor as a reader, a teenager, O’Connor’s genre-bending, sharp syntax, Biblical heft worked its dark charm. Williams writes that for her, “Flannery O’Connor was to writing what Robert Johnson was to blues.”

Recently, Dr. Monica Miller (Southernist and drumming sensation) and I found a band called Weyes Blood. The singer willfully misreads wise blood as “a bucket of blood somewhere that’s wise,” instead of a metaphor. Dr. Miller and I were quick to imagine the comics spurned from blood that would work somewhat like a Magic 8 ball. (Forthcoming.) We haven’t quite figured the mechanics yet.

But, as anyone venturing out on the Internet to read a blog solely devoted to O’Connor’s once-home probably knows, O’Connor wasn’t exactly the soc or greaser sort, jamming to the American Graffiti soundtrack or keeping up with the latest Elvis singles.

And yet.

In Milledgeville over the summer, I became intrigued by the figure of Elvis in O’Connor. In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor points to Elvis as evidence that the grotesque isn’t the brainchild of Southern writers’ imaginations, but is instead American fact[ii]. The catch: O’Connor didn’t even live to see what I consider the grotesque Elvis, mid-1970s Elvis, with his famous fried sandwiches and gaudy manse. Was it his gyrating hips, his puffed out lower lip and pomped up hair that disturbed her while striking her as funny?

In early manuscripts of “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Rufus Johnson appears, dancing with a black maid in a mother’s pilfered drawers, singing rock ’n’ roll like Buddy Holly[iii]. In the archives at Georgia College & State University, I read and re-read the copies of this scene. I still can’t make out whether the eerie interlude points to something positive about music or rock culture: integration, an overturn of convention by the character who outsmarts intellectual buffoon Rayber, or if this is wishful thinking on my part, and this modernity should strike a dissonant note, that O’Connor intends rock ’n ’ roll to represent what she considers creepy, perverted, wrong.

Then it’s also funny. Balancing moralism and humor may be the main trouble with understanding O’Connor’s work. 

Springsteen jumped the fence to Graceland to see Elvis the year before he died. Elvis was out of town and the meeting never occurred. Springsteen penned a song, “Fire,” he intended for Elvis to sing. Elvis died first. Likewise, John Kennedy O’Toole took a roadtrip to Milledgeville and may have tried to visit Andalusia before he died. Both sad and probably a little funny, if tense, though not moralistic. Home and the homes of icons, like O’Connor’s explanation of a good symbol, “accumulate meaning”[iv] that can’t be summed up in an Aesop “and the moral of the story is” fashion. 

O’Connor claimed ignorance about anything having to do with music. For someone who attended mass regularly, this doesn’t ring true. Maybe as a prodigy-graduated-to-canonical-genius, she couldn’t take not being the best, so she just avoided it. Maybe she really did not like music and I am doing the annoying thing where I try to force her to because my imagination is too small.

Instead of contemplating that, I imagine this: What would her singing voice have been like? I imagine with the right phrasing, it could have been spectacular in that Jimmy Durante way, just talking through the words, punching an occasional note. I find especial pleasure in dubbing her voice over “ye ye,” 1960s French pop, cutting out the paper doll of O’Connor and fashioning her with a beret. As I fold the tabs of her mod dress around her blanked-out bodice, I’m reminded of an equally ridiculous idea, only this time it is a memory. In other words, it actually happened.

Late nights at GC&SU dorms this summer, grown people—professors and writers, those mythical interleckchul[v] creatures of over-corrective lenses and button-downs and hifalutin vocabularies—gathered on the wide porches to howl and pick along to any song a plurality could swim through. Greatly experienced in intensive highway choruses, entertaining myself on the flat and grayer stretches of Indiana road back home, I effectively blurred together all the words I didn’t know louder than everyone else. Between songs, arguments over whether O’Connor converts readers, which stories are successful, and what her wearing plaid means. People of varying interests, backstories, and humanities-teachers-do-humidity garb joined together a little like the “battalions of freaks”[vi] at the end of “Revelation,” singing verses of hymns in no order at all, confusing O’Connor (and probably our neighbors) with our corniness, our delight in yowling. It was less embarrassing than one might imagine. Some horrific, lovely new world order, lit with fluorescents.

As any person who’s spent time on the kickball sidelines recognizes, feigning ignorance or disinterest is self-protective. It’s especially so with music—how intimate sharing music is. (Presuming O’Connor’s “feigning” is another kind of self-protection, but this blog is about her—not the lady behind the curtain.) And for O’Connor, all those albums sent from Thomas Stritch, a professor at Notre Dame in Indiana who she kept correspondence with. Who tried, at the very least, to indoctrinate her into the world of music. If she was, in fact, tone-deaf, did she try all these records out? I suspect she did, maybe while Regina was outside managing the farm or supervising the pond being filled to only four-feet deep. I also suspect that “Tristan and Isolde,” that old love story with Wagner’s over-the-top, slurred together melodrama at its 19th-century finest, wasn’t totally lost on O’Connor. Classical, sure, but steamy, too.

And what if, during that corniest of preludes, she threw her arms up, or a tear came down? What if she felt something grotesque and Elvis-y boiling over and jutting out a pouting lower lip? What if she let the record spin well in to her first writing hour? Let out a little shake, rattle, roll? There had to be at least a little laugh at the Singing Nun’s expense. Or what if the only rhythm she felt “down where the spirit meets the bone” (as one fan might put it) was the syncopation of sentence against sentence laid over the banging of typewriter keys, its alphabet rearranged in an order specifically to slow the user down, to keep from jamming?