Novel of Divine Presence –Part 3
Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away
by Charles Embry
Charles Embry is Professor Emeritus of Political Philosophy at Texas A&M-Commerce. The essay is taken from a collection of his work entitled The Philosopher and the Storyteller (University of Missouri Press). This essay is presented in three parts and appears with permission.
Being in Flux
[The grandnephew named Bishop Tarwater] also stands as a visible sign of divine presence. And just as [the protagonist, Francis Marion] Tarwater fears recognizing the material creation if he looks too closely, he also fears looking at Bishop.
He “never looked lower than the top of his head except by accident for the silent country appeared to be reflected again in the center of his [Bishop’s] eyes. It stretched out there, limitless and clear” (The Violent Bear It Away, 218).
From Bishop’s eyes the silent imago Dei stares out as a rebuke to Tarwater’s refusal of his calling and, simultaneously, as an invitation to accept it. Another instance, and a far more mysterious one, of this charged character of the narrative occurs when Tarwater baptizes Bishop, his retarded cousin, incident to his drowning; one senses in this double action an awe and mystery that is rationally inexplicable.
It is in the violence of O’Connor’s narrative “distortion” and “exaggeration” that the act reveals a mystery.
To explore further the “charged” characteristics of the story, I will refer once again to three passages from Voegelin’s work: two from his explanation of the Time of the Tale in his August 13, 1964, letter to Heilman and the passage that I have chosen as the epigraph for this chapter. In the letter to Heilman he wrote:
The basic form of myth, the “tale” in the widest sense, including the epic as well as the dramatic account of happenings, has a specific time, immanent to the tale, whose specific character consists in the ability to combine human, cosmic and divine elements into one story. I have called it, already in Order and History, the Time of the Tale. It expresses the experience of being (that embraces all sorts of reality, the cosmos) in flux.
The Tale, if it is any good, has to deal with Being in flux, however much differentiated the insights into the complex structures of reality may be. (AFIL, letter 103, August 13, 1964, p. 223)
In a later essay, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation,” he wrote that
the flux [of divine presence] has the structure of a divine-human encounter; every phase is an event of man’s responding, or refusing to respond, to the presence of the divine ordering appeal. The consciousness of divine presence as the formative appeal endows every such event with the indelible character of a “present.”34
The “charge” of awe and mystery with which O’Connor infuses The Violent Bear It Away manifests itself in the deft way that she combines “human, cosmic and divine elements in the story.” And, as we have seen, any story that combines these three components will of necessity also be expressing in the art of the narrative the experience of Being in flux, or, as Voegelin also phrases it, the flux of divine presence.