Flannery O’Connor, Conscience, and the Shattering Spirit of Modernity

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Flannery O'Connor

All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.

—Flannery O’Connor

 

1. Introduction: Flannery O’Connor’s Open Soul

Flannery O’Connor belongs to a very particular age of the American fiction. She is inserted in a period marked by a strong kind of linguistic realism inspired by the kinds of James Joyce and William Faulkner (as her characters’ continuous use of colloquialism and dialect tells),[1] but set against a mystical lyricism, in a clear reverence and closeness to the so-called Southern agrarians, the literary movement led by John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Donald Davidson—with the addition of a painfully Catholic spiritual outlook. She is, so to speak, an “agrarian writer” with a plus. [2]

Her intense use of orality and local dialect, therefore, do not aim to accentuate class differences or to relativize educational questions. She is not a sociological or materialist author: Her employment of grammatical errors such as “ast” and apostrophes actually give a dramatically faithful account of a land that is an indelible part of her being and is at the core or her experience as a human, as this passage of “The Artificial Nigger,” one of her favorites short stories,[3] illustrates:

“Whyn’t you ast one of these niggers the way?” Nelson said. “You got us lost.”

“This is where you were born,” Mr. Head said. “You can ast one yourself if you want to.”[4]

That is, her maintenance and inclusion of orality in her work is not a way to give a materialistic outline of society; it is actually a form of human comprehension, a complete installation—in the sense that Julián Marías utilized the word—of her geographic space of experience inside her own imagination. That is to say that not only O’Connor has a conscience of her own material installation—i.e., the space she inhabits, with all the dramas and contradictions of the Southern portion of the United Stantes, and of Georgia in particular—but also that these dramas and contradictions, which are important parts of that region’s own culture, are assimilated and accepted as a part of O’Connor’s life in the world of change (that is, reality itself).

Considering that her position was of a lupus-stricken Catholic intellectual woman in the Protestant-reigned seemingly illiterate prejudiced South,[5] her participation (methexis) within her reality (both cultural and social) was certainly a difficult one. But her life shines as a brilliant example of acceptance and understanding that reality present itself as an almost confounding mixture of miracles (as with the unexplainable a crippled bone of hers started to recalcify after a trip to Lourdes) and difficulties (her precarious health through most of her adult life).

This position of openness of the soul is a most important part if one intends to participate appropriately in the concert of reality. My thinking—and the subject of the second part of this essay—is that a great part of the social and spiritual problems of modernity is that this capacity to recognize the subtle and abrupt changes of reality rests on two sources: the first is that reality has no appropriate form; it does not have to—neither should to—to conform our expectations and desires. Reality also does not change its structure. What we can and have to do is to adapt our conscience to the changes, difficulties and impositions that it has on ours—and we have the liberty to do it however we please (including the liberty to start a mental fiction, the Second Reality, when we cannot copy with it). This is the openness of the soul.

The second source of difficulty is that we actually lost or forgot how to make this adaptation. This adaptation implies a deep understanding of our biographic conscience and of reality itself. The only thing that modern man understand—and I beg your pardon for this generalization—is that we have some liberty, but we do not understand what this liberty implies. The unique and special characteristics of the individual, in the modern perspective, are greater than reality itself, and every man sees that this liberty is subjected to no greater authority.

These two mistakes are not new: they are the development of a fundamental error that has been rolling around since the victory of Nominalism in the Middle Ages and that had its great explosion during the 17th century, as Eric Voegelin pointed out.[6] But despite of that, the study of their effect in the modern mind are worthy studying, and only a very centered mind can perform this task. Flannery O’Connor, for the reasons above exposed, was such a mind, and her work as a fictionist revealed, through her radical life experience, the bumbling characteristics of the traumatized 20th- and 21st-century man’s mind.

On account of that, this article will tackle the issue of the modern man’s mind in two part. In the first part I will analyze a short-story of O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” which is centered around a young man who won’t acknowledge the structure of reality and, facing the destruction of the mental fiction he created, gets increasingly frustrated with the disposition—both cultural and spiritual—of the world around him. On the second half of the essay we will leave the short story behind and I will show that this little character of O’Connor is a mirror image—in a micro-scale—of the mental structure of the contemporary man, who creates all sort of mechanisms to both dismiss and fear the characteristics of reality as it evolves during the ages, culminating in our age of crisis (the macro-scale).

2. Mesmerized by Reality: “The Enduring Chill”

In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill,” there is a character suffers from a clear disturbance in the unity of his identity and personality. Such a disturbance can be spotted in his phony erudition, which leads him to build and live in a densely elaborated mental fiction.

The protagonist of “The Enduring Chill” is Asbury, a young aspiring writer who unfortunately has not published nothing and because of that is victim of pinpricks by his sister, Mary George. The author informs us that his sister “had said that the age most people published something was twenty-one, which made him exactly four years overdue.”[7] The young aspiring writer is returning to his hometown, Timbersboro, from New York, to where he went with the desire to run from the “slave’s atmosphere of home”[8] and from where he returns to begin a treatment of a seemingly mortal disease. “He looks a hundred years old,” notes his sister.[9]

Asbury is sophisticated: he reads James Joyce, wants to write a play on her mother’s black lumpers—à la Zola in Germinal—and is an Atheist. A grumpy young man, Asbury feels that his mother is not capable to understand his complex feelings and vast culture, which leads him to write her a long letter. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” and it took him two whole notebooks to write.[10] Over his bed are leaks on the wall in the shape of stalactites that look like a great bird with open wings. This image haunts him—and even though he believes that “God is an idea created by man,”[11] Asbury asks for a Jesuit priest to visit him so he can have a little intellectual chat, only to mock the priest when upon noticing the priest is not as intellectual as him. In the end, after a pathetic conversation with her mother’s black workers, the young man learns that he has undulant fever, contracted after he drank non-Pasteurized milk once when he wanted to work with the black workers as part of a research to his Zola-like play. Mesmerized by the fact he is not going to die—and terrified that his mother might discover his Kafkaesque letter—, Asbury looks to the bird-shaped leak on the wall—a bird that, strangely seems like an oncoming manifestation of the Holy Ghost.

I have mentioned in this brief summary some elements that can be explored in the search for parallels between the experience of modern man and Flannery O’Connor’s work. They are the Holy Ghost (religiosity and the unity of the real), art (the work of the understanding of the real) and the location of the geographic space (the world of the change). None of these elements is explicit in the short story, or even in O’Connor’s other works of fiction: her prose always has an eminently narrative basis, though it has a very strong (and, to her, necessary) moral subtext. Necessary because, to O’Connor, fiction must bring the reader—and her characters—to a reencounter with reality.[12] This reencounter is clear in “The Enduring Chill.” Asbury is stricken by cognitive parallax: reality and his reading of reality deliberately do not match. It is also a problem of methexis.[13] In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury’s problems leads him to want to, voluntarily, abolish his participation in the world of the living: to have a spurious disease like undulant fever shocks him much more than to die and cease any chance of publishing anything ever. Asbury has no unity in his conscience—and this lack of conscience, as I said, translates into a problem of methexis and in his duel against the divinity. [14] There is no openness in his soul. In short, Asbury is a man of his age.

This has consequences. Thinking like O’Connor, Asbury’s non-belief in God does not translate into a problem of spirit. Flannery O’Connor is not an apologetic writer. She is much more radical. To her, God’s existence is a consummated fact, hallowed in the moment of the Divine Revelation. It means that God is, in a most Thomist fashion (and St. Thomas was an author she read every day),[15] a necessary part of reality, and the denial of His existence is simply madness and, sooner or later, the real will necessarily win and penetrate the Second Reality in which Asbury is living in.[16] Asbury lives in a complete fiction, a mental theater play of pure resentment and lies, cutting off almost every contact with the real: to him, he is not a problematic young man, but a failed artist who longs for something that is no longer available, who longs to be a James Joyce (he himself a deeply disturbed soul), but to whom his longings are sabotaged by the mediocre and heinous society. His reading of reality is hindered by a lack of cognitive perception to make the circuit of feelings go the other way around: the correct course of the problem is not External–Internal: it is the other way around. But to his mind, he is absolved from any guilt. He is a victim. But it is evident that nothing of what he thinks is real: Asbury is just a nagging guy—but a resentful nagging guy. His lack of courage to face this simple fact is what makes him enter in this mental fiction, this Second Reality. However, since the Second Reality is a phenomenon within the First Reality (reality itself),[17] and evidently the First Reality has to spread into it. As it happens so many times, the violation of the Second Reality by the First is a traumatic event—symbolized by O’Connor by the approaching of the icy bird of the Holy Ghost:

The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.[18]

3. Disorder and Modernity: Cultural and Religious Standpoints

Asbury’s situation is, therefore, one of great disorder. He is in a constant fight with the primary symbols and interpretation of the cosmic order, of the structure of reality: the divinity (the Holy Ghost), the craft of art, his methexis with the real, the identity of the being within its mind and geographic place. Of course, some of these symbols and variations may differ from place to place (they are not the same to Eastern cultures), but they reflect a basic unity of man’s experience within reality. They are the primary conditions to social and spiritual order and no man can live in constant fight with them or can he dismiss them as inexistent. Flannery O’Connor successfully structures in in the diminished span of a short story “the reflection of the unity of the cosmos” (that is, a cosmion, as Voegelin called). [19] But even if the reader does not agree with this sentence, you should accept that at least is able to reflect the disorder of man’s perception about the cosmos.

No one can live in disorder. This is why mankind is in a constant struggle toward the representation of reality and developing, reinforcing and adjusting the old codes of tradition—they order life in community and society. New forms of order and synthetically fabricated social codes—the codes that could only be tinkered in the City of Man, detached from any moment of divine revelation—are the paramount cause of social destruction, even if they can last for a while.

This is the one where we will leave O’Connor and “The Enduring Chill” behind and position ourselves to a meditation upon culture and order. As one refugee of the Soviet Union put it “[m]uch though I hated the Communists, I saw then that even the grim order of Communism is better than no order at all.”[20] The whole history of mankind, since our first days in the caves to our entrance into the third millennium can be retold as the search for the meeting of order and representation inside the context of the life in community. This was what the man of Lascaux wanted when he painted himself in those primitive walls: to search for or to represent his identity or the identity of his pairs, measured by certain activities that binds his people. Every culture that existed lived exactly this drama: What is the identity of my people? This question can be translated as, in a more personal fashion, Who am I?

Every civilization has a fundamental force inside its own dynamics—normally variations of some human activity essential to their survival—that is raised through the work of the poets and great cultural founders until it achieve the state of founding myth—or modular myth—of that society. To quote the words of Christopher Dawson,

In reality a culture is neither a purely physical process nor an ideal construction. It is a living whole from its roots in the soil and in the simple instinctive life of the shepherd, the fisherman, the husbandman, up to its flowering in the highest achievements of the artist and the philosopher; just as the individual combines in the substantial unity of his personality in the animal life of nutrition and reproduction with the higher activities of reason and intellect. It is impossible to disregard the importance of a material and non-rational element in history. Every culture rests on a foundation of geographical environment and racial inheritance, which conditions its highest activities. The change of culture is not simply a change of thought, it is above all a change of life.[21]

Elsewhere in Progress & Religion, Dawson reinforces the importance of the geographic location has the deep importance to the development of a culture, dictating its general outlook to the land, life on Earth, commercial activities and cultural achievements. Only revealed religion, generally speaking, since a higher authority infuses it on man, can spread and transform a culture from another geographic location, such as Cristianity and Islam. But depending on the openness of the soul of a certain culture, even religion can be morphed into just one more cultural artifact, losing all of its substantial values.

So we are at the brink of losing all the substantial value of our religion, Christianity, and Christianity is our major factor of spiritual order. Western culture, by its turn, is sustained on three legs—the Hellenic philosophic culture, the Roman legal culture and the Judeo-Christian spiritual culture.[22] It is not possible to talk about a Western culture without mentioning these three legs (that resemble somewhat the Trinitarian model of History proposed by Joachim of Fiore, although we should avoid the gnostic propositions that follow this theory); only a lunatic could deny their existence. But the denial of those pillars is precisely what is dismantling the unity of our being in our current age. This does not mean, naturally, that we should blindly accept all the doings of man and the status quo. It is quite the contrary: man should be, by principle, alert to conserve those things that deserve to be conserved and to change what should be changed. This is the basic-tension of the being and, ultimately, the drama of life in society, once that identity is forged in the dynamics of preservation and change (a personality, after all, is built on the things that we acquire and remodel over the years). But those operations of conserving and change depend on the health and maintenance of the interior order of the being—and if Plato is right and society is man in a macroscopic scale, then his disease of the conscience jeopardizes the whole structure of society.

Now we arrived at a scenario of duality between the macroscopic and the microscopic. The macroscopic is the society and the microscopic is man himself, his psychosomatic constitution. We can now see more clearly what kind of disorder is that from which young Asbury suffers.

In our society, through the last three centuries, we have entered in crazy and vertiginous spiral of compartmentalization of the unity of the identity. This process does not happen inside man himself, individually; it is the result of a general phenomenon that happens in the outside of man’s mentality, through the ages. In the past, it was very clear to mankind that there was a basic-unity of existence. The man of the Christian society modeled his life to the image of that basic-unity of human constitution. This essential image, this basic-unity, is that of Jesus Christ, the “new Adam” and “second man” (I Cor 15:45), which is the macrocosmic (transcendent) referential to which the microcosmic (immanent) referential is subject of.[23] This is made clear when we observe the popularity of certain non-Biblical writings, but still within a religious framework, such as Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, written circa the 15th century as a manner of advising and admonition to priests and monks. The Imitation is a work that within its lines “our passions break, our internal struggles are brought back to light, our miseries and regrets scream and our noblest aspirations speak.”[24] It also gained an enormous popularity among the laity since its first publication.

But why are these information important? Because the Christ’s existence reveals that the basic-unity of existence is a reality, and everything that grows around it, such as Kempis’ work, has a substance that literally speaks from the most profound depths of the cosmic order—that is, it has the Logos’ own ordination. It means that Thomas à Kempis could reflect and give witness to a transcendent truth; that he managed, in his book, to reflect like in a watermark the modulation of this man who serves as a unity of reference to ourselves. In the Imitation of Christ we feel the aspirations of this man of transcendence, who is spotless and can pass through the strait door.

The fact that our civilization grew under the shadow of the divine revelation of the Cross should not be ignored. It should not since the moment of the Crucifixion is the moment of the perfect fixation of the conscience, of the encounter of the worldly with the eternal in physical and pictorial manner. It giver a compass to the order and everything ever since evolves around this compass.

4. The Modern Compartmentalized Conscience: Political Messianism and New Synthetic Ideologies

However, as we venture into modernity (that we can pinpoint more or less around the 18th century) we cross a complex of doubt and intense immanentization of the Eschaton and the shattering of the pictorial conscience of the Cross and of our major orderly symbol occurs. This is not to say that there were no immanentist process before. As Eric Voegelin puts it, the gnostic heresy is the mother of immanentization and the fundamental key to modernity’s nature.[25] Certainly in our history we never had a period of drought that some millenarian sect had not associated with the Apocalypse or that some political figure was the Messiah Reborn. This kind of thought neither never ceased to exist nor it was confined to that historical period that people mimetically take to be the “Middle Ages”; actually, they intensified in strength during modernity, though generally detached from the spiritual (Christian or otherwise) element.

The shattering of the symbolism of the Cross leads modern mentality to a dual change of direction. One goes to the political side of human experience and the other to a myriad of synthetic theories, philosophies and religions that aim to change the way that the world as it presents to ourselves. Since man cannot return to the previous religious and cultural tradition (he cannot grasp the previous tradition because it was immanently impugned by the new synthetic tradition-makers), he wanders through a myriad of possibilities of either world renovation or world fugue. This leads us back to Asbury: the frustrated image of artist that cannot be, of the boy who resents his all-loving home and mother and the increasingly erratic behavior towards sources and symbolisms of authority comes from the fact that he cannot recognize them as such because they have not what Asbury considers the “illumination” for them to understand his complex being. It is becoming of modern man to consider that reality and tradition should wrap around our wills and desires—that everything must be changed for our comfort. This leads humanity to a process of disenchantment from which its remnants surpassed by political messianism or synthetic man-made thinking. So, again, it is a problem in the circuit of cognition about the world.

Let me start with political messianism. Political messianism is a habitual phenomenon from the end of the 19th century onward—normally linked to some kind of collective revolution, such as the October Revolution.[26] So it is nothing new. Besides, the figure of the messianic person intensifies formidably in that same period (the end of the 19th century) once that, with the exclusion of the theology of the divinity, man needs now some other kind of theology—and this is this new kind of theology that contains an Ersatz of divinity, intramundane. We need to believe in something—even if “something” means a politician. So, the modern thought suffers a process of detachment, as if it were snapped from reality’s structural unity. Together with the creation of myths of the previous spiritual period (generically called “Middle Ages”), man also invents the “outdating” of the ideas of that period, taking advantage from the new scientific and mathematical resources that come to explain the phenomena which causes were so far unknown. Even the name of this new spiritual period was made in a manner to reinforce the new social-spiritual order: Enlightenment. And together with the new lights of this period comes a new mimetic phenomenon: Progress. In this new order, the new god is the Fact, that material, visible, measurable and quantifying thing.

Many expressions of thought will appear in this historical timeframe. Unhappily—or happily, perhaps—they are not the theme of this essay. But we can clearly notice that the abandonment of our essential and structural myth (Christ’s reality) left modern man completely lost. And, as Russell Kirk said, “fact” is nothing more than an build phenomenon (i.e., accidental) and it means something only when in association, such as Aristotle’s notions of category are neither true or false—they are either one thing or the other considering the totality of the question.[27] In the light of the discovery of mechanic and mathematic doctrines—such as, and especially, Comte’s Positivism—man start to measure poetry and imagination. But this imagination he measures is not true imagination—the moral imagination that Sir Edmund Burke briefly mentions in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and that was championed by Russell Kirk. As Bradley J. Birzer points in his biography about the Michigander author, Kirk never explained what was the moral imagination,[28] but one can easily imagine: it is that that load of images and internal values that each of us carry and that allows us to see things beyond the vain and raw matter, that allow us to “raise it to dignity in our own estimation.”[29] The moral imagination is that forma mentis that makes us more attentive to the symbolic, sacred and traditional aspects of reality. That makes us aware to figure out why a king is not a simple man and that the love between a father and a mother is not a bundle of biochemical discharges. But modern man—and Asbury illustrates it—discarded the moral imagination for something else. What happened instead was the disassembling of the imagination and Burke’s prophecy was fulfilled:

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman, a woman is but an animal,—and an animal not of the highest order. […] Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence and by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide,—and if the people are by any chance or in any way gainers by it, a sort of homicide much in the most pardonable, and into which we ought not make too a severe scrutiny.[30]

On the contrary, this imagination that was asked is in truth a reflexive movement against the mathematization that was rising during those days, therefore—as it happens with all reflexive movements—catches the worst part to those things it is opposing. The apparent freedom this new imagination has from the world of facts disassembled it until we “discovered” that man has no freedom to follow his impulses and is an organism victim of the wishes and desires of unknown superiors while he is castrated from his own wishes and desires; man discovered that he is victim of truths that are selected and labeled by institutions he did not chose; he discovered that he believe in myths (in the modern sense of the word) that are perfectly inexistent. His only way out is to believe that the truths that society select are only a few truths and do not mean that there is a universal truth, but only a collection of truths that can be used or discarded in the construction of his personal narrative.[31] Again, the world must it in modern man’s wills.

In the opposite direction, discovering that he cannot live with only flesh and matter, he finds that it is necessary to fulfill the hunger of the spirit. But in the sight of the loss of the basic truths and pushed by the force of his current errors, man must establish an new universal paradigm of order. This paradigm must escape, on the one hand, the old spiritual truths that were killed by the modern arrogance that finds that calculations, patterns and mathematization must correspond to the structure of the reality. On the other hand, it must propose a establishes more flexible and individual patterns of belief and dogmatism.

The scientific frenzy that took Europe as a hostage in the 18th and 19th centuries made man mix up the parts he knew of the universe for its totality. Thinking that now he held the destiny of the cosmos on the palm of his hand, he thought that he could supplant the universal Logos with his own mental fictions and dreams of universal ruling. As a perverted return of the cosmological empires, man wants to create his own cosmological scientific rule. This is the very source of things like the Positivist Apostolate, founded by the frustrated figure of Auguste Comte and complete with its own Catechism (a thing that modern historian of the ideas rarely remember), which were followed by aberrations such as Alan Kardec’s Spiritism, with its mix of Christianism and Positivism. [32]

But even then, frustration arises because these two religions still are attached by exterior forms of spiritual and dogmatic organization that may not reflect his own internal anguishes and perceptions about the divine. In Spiritism, for example, Christ is not really Christ, the Son of God, but a “first rate medium.”[33] Without noticing that this frustration emerges from the rejection of the rejection of true divinity, modern man, like Asbury, wanders from cult to cult, from religion to religion, eternally anguished.

The new faith must show its reality here and now, and must be portable, allowing itself to be practiced anywhere anyhow. Even because religion variates from “subjectivity” to “subjectivity”—and drugs such as LSD allow a contact with transcendent elements and visions stronger and more impressive than any talking ghost. Oriental doctrines are, from this perspective, much more flexible than ours (thus establishing the other predicament I mentioned above); then, from the ’60s onward we have a magnificent parade of imported Oriental religions and spiritual habits—the I-Ching, yoga, Buddhism, Confucianism, Holism, the fear of the Kali-Yuga, badly understood symbologies (yin and yang). [34] Modern man cannot grasp their cosmological symbologies because he comes to them not searching for a spiritual complitude, but with resentment with the spiritual revelation that he himself shattered. Strangely enough, in “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury himself has a brief flirtation with Buddhism through a New Yorker friend, Goetz, something O’Connor narrates with magnificent irony:

Goetz, whose whole face had always been purple-splotched with a million indignations, had returned from six months in Japan as dirty as ever but as bland as the Buddha himself. Goetz took the news of Asbury’s approaching end with a calm indifference. […] However, out of the same feeling for his welfare, Goetz had put forth $4.50 to take him to a lecture on Vedanta. It had been a waste of his money. While Goetz had listened enthralled to the dark little man on the platform, Asbury’s bored gaze had roved among the audience. It had passed over the heads of several girls in saris, past a Japanese youth, a blue-black man with a fez and several girls who looked like secretaries.[35]

* * *

These episodes of the Western intelligence and faith from the last three centuries (and that certainly were not retold here neither in profundity nor integrally in these brief paragraphs) gave, in some way, a hand to the process of compartmentalization that I referred to a while ago. This compartmentalization untied the structure of man’s basic-unity and humanity became increasingly confused. That solid and clear structure that the Imitation of Christ gave witness melted and gave away. Man is still alive out there, but not integrally—and it is this lack of integrality makes him lost: there is no longer a unity of reference, and with no unity there is no identity, once that identity is necessarily the reference of a whole and complete being. How a being that cannot be identified as a whole can survive a world of permanent mutation? It simply cannot. This is the cause of the enormous quantity of philosophies and ideologies that rose up during the last three centuries that instead of guiding him made man even lonelier. How could it be any different if these thinks are merely human creations without any truly transcendent unity?

Asbury, the young failed and resentful writer from Flannery O’Connor, emerges from fiction like the perfect image of a world that painfully longs for some kind of ground, of anchor in the revolt sea that is life on Earth. It is meaningful that “The Enduring Chill” appeared in the 20th century, a century marked by human slaughter and the failure of so many redeeming political ideas.

Since I am an optimist, I do not believe that this process of self-mutilation and dismantling of our own identity will kill us thoroughly—and I think that O’Connor also does not. The milk that Asbury drinks, under the eyes of contempt of the black workers he thinks he knows is a perfect symbol to what mankind did to itself: the raw milk will not kill Asbury—much to his despair—, but will hurt him until he recomposes and learn to live with himself. And at the end of the day, he knows about them as much as he knows about himself: nothing.

5. Conclusion: Thauma, Conscience and Identity

Being human is painful. The convivial with pain, frustration and uncertainty is non-negotiable part of our existence on this planet. Verily, these sensations—especially when contrasted with those that are more pleasant such as pleasure, security and comfort—are what originate the effect that Aristotle called thauma, the wonder that ignites the philosophical process. This process leads us to notice that ourselves alone—that is, our structures—are not sufficient: they are passible of impression. This is what causes the “leaning towards knowledge” Aristotle points out in the beginning of Metaphysics. The world invites us to be moved as living beings, and when this process of moving is done we are allowed to discover a new part of the world that we did not had access before. But this process of movement is only available if one is aware that this process implies the knowledge of identity. And now rises one of the most important questions a human being can make during his life: Who am I?

The man who enters in state of denial of his own nature is a man doomed to confusion—and this is the state in which most part mankind is living in now. This is the state of Asbury, too. It seems that everything was promised to the young writer, something we can note through his arrogance and from his certainty on his knowledge, even if there is a filter of insecurity in his actions. In fact, this filter exists because Asbury cannot install himself in his own identity. Humanity, in our own days, also believed in a lot of promises—the promise of ideology, of hard sciences, of mathematics and materiality—and now is dazed by the discovery that those promises, or even that the so-called progress progresses to nothing if the price it costs is our own dissolution. We, like Asbury, drank from the milk of falsity and now we convalesce from our own undulant fever, a spurious disease, that could be avoided, but that, although painful and annoying, does not kill. This is our situation. And here is the key: When Asbury drinks his milk, he does it under the compassionate, but wise, of his mother’s two black workmen—believing that doing such an act he will be getting closer to some kind of truth represented by those two men. The two workmen know that the milk is contaminated, but they do nothing: they let Asbury drink so it can teach him a lesson. Likewise, our spirit—and the spirit of Unity—knows perfectly what mankind does to itself, but it waits that mankind itself understand its actions and return to its own unity. However, in order to do it, mankind has to answer that question so proper of the human spirit: Who am I?

I believe that we can surely say that like a patient cannot be cured from the disease he does not know he has, mankind will not be able to meet with itself again without understand the cause of his current dazing. We now need to find ourselves again. And this reencounter will start to happen, I think, when we can speak the words of that other fictional character that our age insist to dismiss him as a madman while he is indeed a wise man: Don Quixote. In the novel that bears his name, he says “Yo sé quién soy”—I know who I am. The conscience of oneself, in the sense that the French philosopher Louis Lavelle championed, is the first step toward the recovery of order.[36] The struggle begins in the individuality, in the small aspects, and rise up to the full recovery of mankind and of its perception of the cosmos. This is an ancient struggle, a struggle that comes since the days of Adam. For what is order if not giving the names of every animal?

 

Notes

[1] A formalistic analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s style may be found in Eileen Polack, “Flannery O’Connor and the New Criticism: A Response to Mark McGurl,” American Literary History 19, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 546–56.

[2] See Flannery O’Connor to Shirley Abbott, March 17, 1956, in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 148.

[3] O’Connor to Maryat Lee, March 10, 1957, op. cit., 209.

[4] O’Connor, “The Artificial Nigger,” in The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971), 261.

[5] I am aware that this image contains a stereotype that holds absolutely no truth whatsoever to reality, but as much as I think that the history of the South of the United States is impregnated with many injustices and distortions (such as the attribution of the American Civil War exclusively to the Confederates, as if the North had not a single slavocrate or racist representative), it is sheer naïveté to dismiss the racist characteristics that American culture as a whole presented during the 19th and part of the 20th century.

In Flannery O’Connor’s collection of letters, for instance, we find a reflex of this mind condition in an example such as this: “My mother says, ‘You talk just like a nigger and someday you are going to be away from home and do it and people are going to wonder WHERE YOU CAME FROM.’” (O’Connor to “A,” March 24, 1956, in The Habit of Being, 148, O’Connor’s caps.)

[6] See Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Eric Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” in What Is History? and Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. and intro. Thomas A. Holloweck and Paul Caringella, vol. 28 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (CWEV) (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 117–8.

[7] O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” op. cit., 361.

[8] Ibid., 364.

[9] Ibid., 363.

[10] Ibid., 364.

[11] Ibid., 376.

[12] Cf. O’Connor, “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1969), 112.

[13] The cognitive parallax is a psychological deviation that is typical of modern mentality characterized by the deviation between the imaginative axis and the individual’s real experience. See Olavo de Carvalho, Maquiavel; ou, A Confusão Demoníaca (Campinas, Brazil: VIDE Editorial, 2011), Chap. 5 and Visões de Descartes: Entre o Gênio do Mal e o Espírito da Verdade (Campinas, Brazil: VIDE Editorial, 2013), Chap. 14.

[14] The divinity has two symbolic representations in this short story: the first is the elderly Jesuit who ignores the protagonist’s Atheism and the second are the leaks on Asbury’s wall.

[15] “I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa [Theologica], except to say this: I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.” (O’Connor to “A,” August 9, 1955, The Habit of Being, 93–4.)

[16] There is a fundamental difference between “The Enduring Chill” and other stories of the author. Normally the “unbelief” factor does not translate into a simple revelation by the end of the plot. In some (like “Parker’s Back,” one of O’Connor’s final stories), Atheism is beaten by the fact that the unbelievers are actually the favorite sons of God and are chosen to spread the Word. But I repeat: O’Connor is not an apologetic writer. The fact that there are “chosen” characters does not make them into preachers; it actually symbolizes that they are returning to the unity of their consciences and are now assimilating their true personality (and their personalities may be of a murderer child, as in The Violent Bear It Away). In other cases the assimilation of their personalities and when a character discovers the meaning of his life implies in his death, such as in the case of “Greenleaf” and in the ending of Wise Blood.

[17] See Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” 113.

[18] O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” 382.

[19] See Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” in Published Essays, 1953–1965, ed. and intro. Ellis Sandoz, CWEV vol. 11 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 240.

[20] Apud Russell Kirk, The Roots of the American Order (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2008), ePub ed.

[21] Christopher Dawson, Progress & Religion: An Historical Enquiry (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 45.

[22] On the subject q.v. James V. Schall, SJ, “Why Is Political Philosophy Different?” Gregorianum 84, no. 2 (2003): 429 and Russell Kirk, The Roots of the American Order (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2008). Q.v. also, on Fiore’s theory, Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, in Modernity without Restraint, ed. and intro. Manfred Henningsen, CWVE vol. 5 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 278ff.

[23] See Olavo de Carvalho, “A Dialética Simbólica,” in A Dialética Simbólica: Estudos Reunidos, 2nd ed. (Campinas, SP: VIDE Editorial, 2015), 31–33 and René Guénon, Symbolism of the Cross, 2nd ed. transl. Angus Macnab (Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1996), 6ff. The reader should note, however, that Guénon’s study speaks of the universal man from the perspective of the Islamic esoterism (Sufism). “The effective realization,” says Guénon, “of the being’s multiple states is related to the conception which various traditional doctrines, including Moslem esoterism, denote by the term ‘Universal Man,’ a conception which, as has been said elsewhere, establishes a constitutive analogy between universal manifestation and its individual human modality, or, to use the language of Western Hermetism, between the ‘macrocosm’ and the ‘microcosm’” (ibid., 6). I took the care to use labeling that Guénon considers proper of “Western Hermertism” when I am referring to the man’s unity base within the Christian context in order to avoid misunderstandings. Carvalho, however, in his essay quoted above, uses “universal man.”

[24] Leonel Franca, SJ, preface to Imitação de Cristo, by Thomas à Kempis, Portuguese transl. by Franca, 8th ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Livraria AGIR Editôra, 1970), 9. My translation.

[25] Voegelin, op. cit., 175ff.

[26] See on political messianism and the roots of modern radicalism Howard C. Payne and Henry Grosshans, “The Exiled Revolutionaries and the French Political Police in the 1850’s,” The American Historical Review 68, no. 4 (July 1963), 954–73.

[27] Russell Kirk, “History and the Moral Imagination,” The Sewanee Review 77, no. 2 (Spring 1969): 351.

[28] See Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), Chap. 6, eBook ed.

[29] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1951), 74.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Such is, to make my argument even more clear, the source of this amazingly strange modern phenomenon called “post-truth.”

[32] This scientific-religious fever dream is mirrored by Flannery O’Connor in Wise Blood’s Church without Christ.

[33] See Fr. Alexis Henri Marie Lépicier, OSM, O Mundo Invisível: Uma Exposição da Teologia Católica perante o Espiritismo Contemporâneo, Portuguese transl. Eduardo Pinheiro, 3rd ed. (Porto: Livraria Tavares Martins, 1957), 280ff.

[34] The fear of the Kali-Yuga, by the way, is a perfect example of this new misinterpretation of Oriental doctrines (in this case disguised as an chastening from “traditionalists” individuals). The Kali-Yuga indexes the obscuring of the soul before the end of the world, bringing to the Earth an age of vices and evils, of bad mores and general damnation, becoming of the Apocalypse. Traditionalists-perennialists (such as the aforementioned René Guénon) pointed that the age we are currently living is Kali-Yuga’s age itself, and this age has no return. “[T]he particular characteristics,” says M. Guénon, “of the modern age can only be explained if one considers it to be the final phase of the Kali-Yuga.” (Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, transl. Henry D. Fohr, ed. Samuel D. Fohr [Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001], 11, Guénon’s italics). This is another case where the reaction against a general state of mind catches the worst part of what it is opposing: while there are indeed bad habits and mores in our age—and this essay is basically a discussion on this—, we cannot say, not without running into the risk of falling into the gnostic heresy, to say that we are in the age of the end (or rather, of the End), and we certainly cannot say that we are in the final age of anything on a macroscopic scale. Say this and we betray that we are ignoring the teachings of the Bible: “[Y]ourselves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night” (I Th 5:2).

[35] O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” 359–60.

[36] See Louis Lavelle, La Conscience de Soi (Paris: Grasset, 1933).

 

A modified version of this paper was presented at the II Encontro Nacional sobre Identidade, Discurso e Subjetividade held in April 2017 at the Universidade Federal do Piauí.

Victor Bruno

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Victor Bruno is a writer and researcher focused on art and philosophy. He has contributed to important and prestigious academic and popular publications on cinema and film criticism. His main interests are the modern mind, religious traditions and the unity of the conscience in today’s world.