The Violent Bear It Away: A Novel of Divine Presence

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“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.’ the artist.”

– Eric Voegelin, “Wisdom and Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation”


“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

– Mark 9.24


Flannery O’Connor and Eric Voegelin: A Shared Understanding

When Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39, she left two novels, twenty-nine short stories, numerous essays, speeches, and interviews, and close to 800 letters.1 Many read­ers find O’Connor’s work archaically strange. It is, and moreover was, intended to be thus, for as she writes in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “fiction should be both canny and uncanny.”2 All her stories emerged from her vocation as an artist-storyteller and Roman Catholic who lived in what Ralph Wood has called “the Christ-Haunted South.”

I intend here neither to justify O’Connor’s work as a Catholic writer nor to explore her personal relation to the “Christ-Haunted South” in which she lived and from which she drew the inspiration for, and the vernacular of, her stories. But neither will I ignore the central role that Christian faith plays in her writing, since to do so would be missing the point of her work. What I propose instead is to explore the ways in which the novel The Violent Bear It Away3 captures and evokes the experience of mystery that O’Connor intended to embody in the story. The Violent Bear It Away, written from within the differentiations in consciousness effected by Greek philosophy and Christian revelation, exemplifies Being (the time­less) that has entered time, i.e., the Time of the Tale.

Because there exist striking parallels between the philosopher Eric Voegelin and the storyteller Flannery O’Connor, I will first focus on the theoretical principles that O’Connor expressed in her prose writings and letters before I approach the novel itself. This is a departure from my procedure elsewhere, since for the most part I have avoided the nov­elists’ own theoretical statements about their work. While this departure may appear to diverge from the approach to novels that I have advo­cated [in an earlier chapter], my response to The Violent Bear It Away still relies upon an imaginative-cognitive reading followed by meditation so that the symbolization is permitted to elicit the experiential complex that the novel enacts.

Reenactment to Restore Reality

Reenactment, as we will see, is not inconsistent with O’Connor’s understanding of the nature and purpose of fiction. More­over, the reenactment that I recommend is rooted in both Voegelin’s and O’Connor’s understanding that the truth of art is evocative. I [remind] the reader that what I have written and am writing about liter­ature, philosophy, and reading only points back to the novels them­selves. Reenactment can only happen in the consciousness of an individual who invites evocation to occur. Experiencing the novel is the first step toward reenactment. In the case of an O’Connor novel, this experience almost always begins as a jarring confrontation with the reader’s sensibilities. The novel then becomes the way back into the experience that gave birth to the novel originally.

For O’Connor, the experience of mystery that the novel elicits leads the reader deeper into reality and the mystery of existence. She writes that:

“the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deep­ened by contact with mystery.”4

Of course, reenactment rooted in read­ings structured by imaginative-cognitive-meditative participation can only occur because of the “circumstanced equality”5 of all human beings, i.e., because human beings exist in the metaxy as participants in the reality of the community of Being.

O’Connor’s aesthetic and theoretical principles and concerns con­verge with the broader philosophical work of Voegelin in several areas. Both thinkers observe in the modern world a “loss” of reality and call for either a return to reality (O’Connor) or a recapturing of reality (Voegelin). Both thinkers understand reality to mean something more than the visible-sensible world. Both thinkers recognize that at the core of reality there exists a fundamental and impenetrable mystery. Both thinkers emphasize that human experiences of what O’Connor calls the “invisible world” and what Voegelin calls “non-existent reality” are expressed in imaginative linguistic symbolizations. I will focus on these points of agreement.

Violence is a Wake-up Call

O’Connor often uses violent episodes in her stories, and conse­quently her stories have many times been characterized as too dark or too strange. In commenting on the use of violence in her story “The Misfit,” she wrote:

“in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”6

Her call for a return to reality relies, of course, upon the Christian vision of reality, which includes more than the visible-material world, the belief that human beings are more than their bodies, and that human consciousness is more than a biochemical accident. Thus the call for a return to reality is an invitation to her readers to recognize that insofar as they ignore or deny this more-than-material reality they have become alienated from the true source of their humanity, of their human beingness as imago Dei.

The Invisible Reality and Reductionism

Voegelin’s call to recapture reality is rooted, we will recall, in the experience of economic, political, social, and spiritual disorder that led him to search for the source of order. As Voegelin discovered in his his­torical search of order, the experience of social and political disorder has led human beings throughout time to search for and experience an order in the cosmos that is deeper than the experienced disorder of their own times.

But even after the articulations of experiential discov­eries of an invisible reality behind the visible (or, in Voegelin’s terms, of a nonexistent divine reality behind existent reality), the burden of the material-visible reality is perceived to be so great or, as in the modern era, the sciences of the natural world are so successful, that some have chosen to deny the reality of the invisible, except perhaps as rarified extensions of the visible. Love, for example, would thus be understood as the result of biochemistry.

Others have denied the invisible simply because it would remind them that there exists a reality greater than themselves, which resists attempts to control it. Still others have resorted to Doderer’s Apperzeptions-Verweigerung (the refusal to apperceive the reality to which their own composite nature grants them access), designating themselves as the source of their own order and meaning.7 Finally, others simply live as though the invisible reality does not exist, thereby denying their basic humanity. Even material disor­der–such as war or genocide or economic exploitation–and denial, however, must be recognized as manifestations of reality.

Recapturing Reality Through Philosophy or Literature

Thus, Voegelin calls for a recapturing of reality from those who would appear to deform the invisible reality but who are only deforming their capac­ity and ability and will to understand and love the nonexistent divine ground as the source of order. In Autobiographical Reflections, Voegelin succinctly outlines what it means to recapture reality:

“Recapturing real­ity in opposition to its contemporary deformation requires a consider­able amount of work. One has to reconstruct the fundamental categories of existence, experience, consciousness, and reality.”8

In O’Connor’s stories, the fundamental philosophical categories of existence, experi­ence, consciousness, and reality are transposed/transformed into literary expressions: characters engaged in the struggle to respond to or deny the divine ordering reality. While Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas observes that all novels wade “through lived experience,”9 O’Connor reaches in her own fiction for “the concrete expression of mystery–mystery that is lived.”10

What is this reality to which O’Connor recalls her characters and to which we as human beings “must be returned at considerable cost”? Since O’Connor is neither a theologian nor a philosopher, she is not concerned to articulate her experiences and understand reality, except as they concern her vocation as a storyteller. So while she addresses the importance of a writer’s view of reality for the fiction that she writes, ultimately she intends that her vision of reality, governed by Christian belief and Catholic dogma, will emerge from her stories. Therefore, whenever she refers to reality in her prose writings or letters, the references are almost always made in the context of her view of the nature of fiction.

For example, she clarifies the simple dec­laration made in a letter to Elizabeth Hester that “the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe”11 in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” There she asserts, “All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of real­ity.”12

At the Borders of Understanding

And what are the “ultimate reaches of reality” for O’Connor? If we read the following statement in conjunction with her declaration that in her case Christian “belief . . . is the engine that makes percep­tion operate,”13 her understanding of the “ultimate reaches of reality” becomes clearer.

In “Novelist and Believer,” she asserts that:

“it makes a great difference to the look of a novel whether its author believes that the world came late into being and continues to come by a creative act of God, or whether he believes that the world and ourselves are the product of a cosmic accident.”

“It makes a great difference to his novel whether he believes that we are created in God’s image, or whether he believes we create God in our own. It makes a great difference whether he believes that our wills are free, or bound like those of the other animals.”14

Of course, in each of these dichotomies, O’Connor identifies with the accepted Christian view, i.e., that the world exists by a creative act of God, that human beings are created in God’s image, and that human beings are essentially free beings.

At the core of the “ultimate reaches of reality” though, lying deeper than the Christian dogma, is the experi­ence of mystery. And in O’Connor’s fiction the experience of mystery drives her storytelling. In another passage, from “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she addresses the consequences for fic­tion writing of the belief in the mystery that lies at the depth of the “ultimate reaches of reality.”

If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysteri­ous, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of inter­est to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.

Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.15

The Cosmos and the Mystery Remains

O’Connor’s focus on mystery has the distinct quality of the recogni­tion of creatureliness, of having been created and of existing in a world that is divinely created. This focus connects O’Connor’s work with what Voegelin calls the primary experience of the cosmos, which character­izes the literary form of myth found in cosmological societies and civi­lizations before the leap in being or the differentiation in human understanding of the cosmos into the divine-transcendent and the worldly-immanent.

Voegelin, in his later work, explains that even after differentiation of the cosmos into transcendent and immanent, viable philosophical thought must build upon that primary experience of the cosmos; for without it, philosophical symbolizations are experientially ungrounded. He expresses this in the assertion that “the cosmos does not go away” simply because of a differentiation in our understanding of ourselves as human beings. As a philosopher, Voegelin sought to understand and articulate through his imaginative-cognitive talents the truth of existence. All that the philosopher can do is to give voice to his experiences of reality insofar as these experiences can be symbolized.

But ultimately, even the philosopher’s love of the ground of his being must yield to the recognition that, as Voegelin writes in his last work, “the epiphany of structures in reality–be they atoms, molecules, genes, biological species, races, human consciousness, or language–is a mys­tery inaccessible to explanation.”16

The philosopher, as representative for all human beings, asks as Leibniz does, Why is there something, why not nothing? and Why is the something as it is and not different?; but these questions cannot alter the impenetrable mystery of metaxy, of the “mortal-immortal” human being. The recognition of mystery is an important component of philosophical wisdom, as Glenn Hughes asserts:

“The mysteries about which Voegelin writes are depths of meaning whose hiddenness is apparent, and which could be known fully only if reality as a whole were known, while the human knower remains a participant in reality with a limited perspective, unable to fully penetrate the meanings that constitute human existence.”17

Accurately Depicted Existential Drama

Just because a fiction writer is interested in mystery, O’Connor main­tained, does not mean that she is able to dispense with the visible, con­crete world. “I would not like to suggest,” she said:

“that this kind of writer, because his interest is predominantly in mystery, is able in any sense to slight the concrete. Fiction begins where human knowledge begins–with the senses–and every fiction writer is bound by this fun­damental aspect of his medium.”18

Like Joseph Conrad, whose work she admired, O’Connor was committed to rendering the “highest possible justice to the visible world,” for only through the observable world of the senses could the invisible world and its mystery be accessed.

Only by embodying in her stories the “concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality,”19 could O’Connor begin to express her conviction that “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”20 Like Dostoyevsky, O’Connor expected that the reader will be:

“drawn into the cast of characters in real existential dramas structured by the twin abysses of experience–the underground of nature and the divine ground of being–as apprehended through all the modalities of thought and passion.”21

In addition to emphasizing the expression of the mystery of the depths of ultimate reality through the replication in language of the concrete, visible world, O’Connor aspired to the creation in her stories of a wholeness of vision that also expressed mystery. John F. Desmond observes that “probably more than any other American writer of her generation, she managed to create a coherent wholeness of vision and form.”22

The coherence of O’Connor’s stories issues from two sources: (1) a technical commitment to the idea that the form of a story emerges from the content of the story (hence the meaning cannot be divorced from the story itself), and (2) her belief in a divine creation. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” she wrote that “in the best stories [tech­nique] is something organic, something that grows out of the material, and this being the case, it is different for every story of any account that has ever been written.”23 In the same essay she wrote: “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.”24

The Permanent Gift of Prophetic Vision

Flannery O’Connor’s belief that the meaning of a story is fully embodied in the story itself arose from her conviction that observable reality is not just a cre­ation but a continuing manifestation of divine-invisible reality, and that through her creative efforts she could evoke divine-invisible reality via the linguistic rendering of concrete-visible reality.

To accomplish this, O’Connor argued, the storyteller relies upon a “prophetic vision” that interacts with the imaginative faculty of man and makes the fiction writer “a realist of distances.” She believed that only this prophetic real­ism produces great novels. Moreover, she asserted that this vision, char­acteristic of the fiction writer, “does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth.” 25

While this prophetic vision may be a personal imaginative gift possessed by the writer–O’Connor cer­tainly believed that she was given the gift of writing26–vision in her own case was “lengthened” by the Church. “For the Catholic novelist,” she declared:

“the prophetic vision is not simply a matter of his personal imaginative gift; it is also a matter of the Church’s gift, which, unlike his own, is safeguarded and deals with greater matters. It is one of the func­tions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.”27

Elsewhere she called the faculty of a fiction writer to deepen the meaning of his story “anagogical vision,” which, she clarified:

“is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation. The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.”

“Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a perma­nent part of our literature.”28

A Complement to Voegelin’s Recapture of Reality

The embodiment of invisible reality in an art dependent upon a faithful reflection of the material world was for O’Connor an incarnational act. Rooted deeply in her Christian faith, her fiction expressed through the Tale the historical Incarnation of the Divine. Desmond argues that since she believed her fiction to be incarnational, the medieval doctrine of the analogy of being, or analogia entis, was:

“cen­tral to her aesthetic because it gave a philosophical foundation to the kind of typological fiction she aimed to write–with one action convey­ing several layers of meaning. But most important, it provided a coher­ent unity between her technique and her vision of history–between fictional incarnation and the Incarnation–and thus, I believe, enabled her to create that unique wholeness which is such a distinctive feature of her work.”29

To the extent that Flannery’s vocation as an artist seeks to “penetrate the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality,” her work is an aesthetic complement to the philosophical vocation of Voegelin: to recapture an understanding of nonexistent, divine reality as a ground and source of meaning and order in the visible world.

Furthermore, O’Connor’s view that her own stories arise from her belief in a divine creation and the parousia of the divine in time, the Incarnation, parallels Voegelin’s philosophical quest that proceeds from “the divine kinesis” that moved him to seek the divine ground of his being as well as his quest understood as a fides quarens intellectum.

In introductory remarks that prefaced her reading of the story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor asserted that “a story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already.”30 Despite the fact that The Violent Bear It Away resists para­phrase both of form and content (I will discuss the reasons for this resistance below), I must at least indicate through a very general sum­mary the content of the story.

The Violent Bear It Away: An Overview

The primary focus of the story is a fourteen-year-old boy, Francis Marion Tarwater (called Tarwater in the narrative), whose destiny–made clear in the story–is to be a prophet. Tarwater had been baptized and kidnapped to be raised up for his prophetic vocation by his great-uncle Mason Tarwater (referred to as Old Tarwater), also a prophet of the Lord: “I brought you out here to raise you a Christian, and more than a Christian, a prophet!” (132).

Tarwater and his great-uncle live deep in the woods, on Old Tarwater’s subsistence farm called Powderhead, where the old man also makes moonshine. The story opens immediately following the death of Old Tarwater, whose aim in life had been to baptize his grandnephew Bishop, the retarded son of his nephew Rayber Tarwater. Before he died, Old Tarwater had instructed Tarwater to bury him on the place and erect a cross above him; then Tarwater was to baptize Bishop. “‘If by the time I die,’ he said to Tarwater, I haven’t got him baptized, it’ll be up to you. It’ll be the first mission the Lord sends you’” (128). Since Old Tarwater failed to baptize Bishop, the task falls to Tarwater.

Tarwater seeks to avoid his great-uncle’s instructions first by getting drunk and burning the cabin in which they had lived (thinking that the old man’s body was still there) and then by going to the city, where Bishop and Rayber live, in order to confront and deny his vocation to baptize Bishop. Tarwater’s struggle to deny his vocation to baptize Bishop and to become a prophet supplies the tension and focus of the story. The devil appearing to Tarwater in the form of his alter ego, first as a stranger and then as a friend whose voice mimics his own, and Rayber, who had himself been kidnapped, baptized, and instructed by Old Tarwater, bolster Tarwater’s intention to become free by denying his destiny.

Baptism is the central thematic focus of the story–the baptisms of Rayber when he was seven and Tarwater as a baby by Old Tarwater, and the baptism-to-come of Bishop by Tarwater. At some mysterious level these baptisms define the vocations and responses to the divine appeal of Tarwater and Rayber.

A Reluctant Baptizer

It is clear that Tarwater is aware of his vocation as a prophet, because he expected his call to come in the dramatic ways that Old Testament figures like Daniel, Moses, or Joshua had been spoken to by God. Moreover, not only had he been baptized by Old Tarwater, but he had also been educated by the old man in:

“Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment” (125).

Finally, Old Tarwater:

“had schooled him in the evils that befall prophets; in those that come from the world, which are trifling, and those that come from the Lord and burn the prophet clean; for he him­self had been burned clean and burned clean again” (126).

Rayber, a schoolteacher who has spent his life rejecting his baptism by Old Tarwater and his own call to a religious vocation, plays a crucial role in the story by trying to convince Tarwater that every man’s salva­tion is in his own hands.

We learn that the old man had once recounted to Tarwater that Rayber had rejected in the name of human dignity his attempt to baptize Bishop. Rayber had asserted that Bishop would be “brought up to live in the real world” and to expect only what he could do for himself. “He’s going to be his own saviour. He’s going to be free” (165). As to his own destiny, Rayber had said to Old Tarwater: “I’ve straightened the tangle you made. Straightened it by pure will power. I’ve made myself straight” (166). Tarwater’s struggle to deny his vocation results in his drowning Bishop, whom Rayber had earlier attempted, and failed, to drown. As Tarwater is drowning Bishop he involuntarily speaks the words of baptism, thereby failing to avoid his destiny.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

After the drowning of Bishop, Tarwater hitches a ride with a stranger in a “lavender and cream-colored car,” who gives him drugged whiskey, takes him into the woods, rapes him, and leaves him alone, unconscious in the woods. When Tarwater comes to himself, “his expression seemed to contract until it reached some point beyond rage or pain. Then a loud dry cry tore out of him and his mouth fell back into place” (261).

He lights a pine bough, burns the site of the rape, and trudges off to Powderhead, where he discovers that Buford Munson, a Negro who had come to get a jug of moonshine right after Old Tarwater had died, had in fact taken on Tarwater’s job of bury­ing the old man and had erected a cross above his grave. Then, in a vision of Old Tarwater finding his place among the mul­titude to be fed on the bread of life, Tarwater sees “a red-gold tree of fire,” the same fire that had appeared to Daniel, Elijah, and Moses:

“He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood” (267).

The novel ends with Tarwater smearing dirt from his great-uncle’s grave onto his fore­head and setting off “toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping” (267).

Reading The Violent Bear It Away

My comments on The Violent Bear It Away are based upon reen­actment [ed-discussed dearlier in the book]. Consequently, my understanding of the novel and what I will say about it grew over time as I proceeded through the stages of a first reading, an analytical reading, reflection, and finally a synthetic rereading. When I begin the third sentence of the next paragraph with “The first indication that The Violent Bear It Away is a myth or cosmion . . .” one must understand that my “first indica­tion” did not necessarily arise nor was it evoked immediately upon the initial reading.

The Violent Bear It Away is a cosmion, defined by Voegelin as “a reflection of the unity of the cosmos as a whole,” and like a cosmion it is “some sort of myth.” Voegelin observed that the problem in art is “how to produce such units and make them convincing models of the unity of the world.”31 The first indication that The Violent Bear It Away is a myth or cosmion that reflects “the unity of the cosmos as a whole” comes as one attempts to place the characters and events of the novel in space and time.

While the physical setting of the story is realistic–the events of the story happen on a farm deep in the woods, at a rural “lake resort,” and in a city with residential areas possessing the material accoutrements of modernity like roads, automobiles, lawyers’ offices, restaurants, boat rentals, and so on–these places and things are not named. Their realism derives from the attention that O’Connor gives to the material, visible details of place and things.

A Placeless Place and a Timeless Time

Consequently, the reader is projected or invited into a place that seems real but unplaceable geo­graphically. About all the reader can say regarding the setting is that the story takes place in the rural American South. But this statement itself derives primarily from external knowledge–about the South and about Flannery O’Connor and her commitment to the region of her birth and residence–that the reader brings to the story.

With regard to the time of the story, the reader is also left in the dark. Of course, the reader can infer a general time frame from the descrip­tions of events and places or even from the fact that Tarwater was edu­cated in history “beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment.”

The initial phrase grounds man’s existence in the divine creation; the mid­dle phrase, “going down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover,” brings the reader up to the Great Depression; and the final phrase pro­jects the reader out of time and into the timeless.

The Metaxic Structure

From the chronology of Tarwater’s history lesson we understand that the existential time of humanity is flanked by the “time” of the beginning in creation and the “time” of the ending of time in the Beyond. This “time” of the Beg­inning and of the Beyond is the “time that is out of time” of the “Time of the Tale.”

We also understand that this time that is flanked by the timelessness of Beginning and Beyond is the time of the metaxy, the In-Between of man’s existence as mortal-immortal. The reader more than anything else “senses” the wholeness and unity of the story through the placeless rootedness in space and the timeless rootedness in time. Locating the story in a place out of space and a time out of time in this way enabled O’Connor to draw the reader into the metaxic struc­ture of the story; that is, the real place and time in which the story occurs is the consciousness, the metaxy, of the mortal-immortal reader.

In O’Connor’s terms, this location technique enabled her to unify form and content so that the story itself is the meaning and so that the reen­actment of the story becomes the experience of meaning. When this wholeness of the placeless and timeless nature of the story envelopes the reader, the analytical distinction between the story and its meaning dis­appears. One no longer needs to ask “What is the meaning of this story?” because the meaning has mysteriously been delivered as the story–like the silent seeds blooming in Tarwater’s blood–blossoms in the consciousness of the reader.

Deliberate Charged Excitement

The second indication that the story has a mythical wholeness derives from the cognitive-imaginative excitement that it generates in the consciousness of the reader. The only term that I can find to describe how the components of the story (plot, character, actions, occurrences) collectively result in this excitement is that they are charged. This “chargedness” of the story signifies both an emotional loading (analogous to loading an explosive charge for a gun) and an electrical charging (analogous to the charging of a battery) and is com­municated to the reader by the narrative/literary compactness of a story from which, according to O’Connor, not one word could be stricken.

While I only dimly perceived or intuited this excitement on the first reading, it fully emerged into my consciousness during the synthetic rereading of the story itself. I do not fully understand how O’Connor accomplished this, but that she intended to implant an emotional impact in her story is beyond doubt. In a lecture at Sweetbriar College, delivered in 1963, she said:

“When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaning­less rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recogni­tion of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel–its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.”32

Certainly one indication of this “chargedness” is her description of Tarwater’s relation to all of creation and material reality.

A Deliberately Shallow Perception

Very early in the story, Tarwater remembers that Old Tarwater preached to him that “Jesus is the bread of life,” and he asks himself:

“Had the bush flamed for Moses, the sun stood still for Joshua, the lions turned aside before Daniel only to prophesy the bread of life? Jesus? He felt a terrible disap­pointment in that conclusion, a dread that it was true” (135).

Even more, he feared that this conclusion lay at the heart of his great-uncle’s “madness, this hunger” and that it might be passed down to him in his blood, only to strike him one day with the same hunger. In order to avoid these thoughts and conclusions, Tarwater tried to keep his per­ception of the world around him shallow, for the world and creation itself carried, he feared, the truth of the old man’s beliefs.

It was as if he were afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something—a spade, a hoe, the mule’s hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him—that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it.

He did all he could to avoid this threatened intimacy of creation. When the Lord’s call came, he wished it to be a voice from out of a clear and empty sky, the trumpet of the Lord God Almighty, untouched by any fleshly hand or breath. He expected to see wheels of fire in the eyes of unearthly beasts.33 (136) Creation itself stands as a visible sign of the divine presence that Tarwater must not recognize for fear that he would have to affirm the truth of the old man’s faith.

Being in the 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” (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.

Employing Voegelin’s “Participation” Concepts

The cosmic elements of O’Connor’s novel mediate the flux of divine presence as this presence “reveals” itself to the characters of the story– especially to Tarwater and Rayber. Not only does O’Connor manage to express in language the divine appeal mediated by cosmic elements to Tarwater and Rayber, she also expresses the existential struggle that these characters endure in their freedom to respond, or not, to that appeal. Finally, their responses are structured: in the case of Tarwater, by his experiences of the Beginning and the Beyond, and in the case of Rayber, by his rejection of the reality of the appeal, which results in the deformation of his life. To these expressions of the divine appeal and to the existential responses of Tarwater and Rayber we now turn.

The combination of cosmic, divine, and human components charac­terizes a Tale that is mythical in nature, but to specify what these elements are and how they combine to form a mythical tale is difficult. In read­ing the story, one “senses” or intuits this combination; and as one didac­tically attempts to identify this combination, the living tissue of the story recedes into the background. Nevertheless one tries.35

One of the difficulties of specification arises from the interpenetration of the dif­ferent elements in the story; but if we understand the cosmic element as thing-reality, the divine element as the It-reality, and the human as the metaxy, or In-Between reality, it becomes possible to specify and discuss these components.

The Human Component: Consciousness

The human component, consciousness, exists in the metaxy because it participates both in thing-reality insofar as its locus is the mortality of the body and in the encompassing It-reality insofar as its locus is the immortality of the divine ground. The metaxy of human consciousness is the spatio-metaphorical-ontological place where the apperception of mortality–those things that come into existence and must go out of existence–mingles with, interpenetrates, and partici­pates in the apperception of the immortality and lastingness of the timeless divine.

Thus in talking about the combination of components in The Violent Bear It Away, we emphasize the fact that the divine It-reality that is mediated (even in the differentiated galaxy of O’Connor’s Christianity) by the cosmic Thing-reality is experienced in the embod­ied consciousness of the human characters.

Bearing in mind Voegelin’s emphasis on participation as central to understanding the human expe­rience of reality will help us open O’Connor’s story to reveal how the combination of cosmic, divine, and human elements is achieved, for the combination is rooted in the participation–especially of Tarwater’s consciousness–in the cosmic world around Tarwater and its envelop­ment by the divine presence.

The Autonomous Man

The actions of Tarwater and Rayber represent different responses to “the divine ordering appeal,” even though “the presence of the divine ordering appeal” manifests It-self differently for each. Rayber personi­fies, in his agony and his obstinacy, modern man in revolt against the divine ground of his existence. In the story he embodies the deformed man, the man who simultaneously apperceives but refuses his own apperception–as Voegelin says is characteristic of Hegel or Marx.

Rayber is the man who knows, even experiences, the divine–his know­ing is in his blood and its manifestation is in the “undertow in his blood”–but who nonetheless denies the divine reality (192). Not only does he experience the divine, he even recognizes his own vocation as originating in the divine ground, but he wills his denial in the name of the real world–the material world in which “what’s dead stays that way”36–and the human dignity and freedom of autonomous man.

“The great dignity of man,” Rayber said to Tarwater, “is his ability to say: I am born once and no more. What I can see and do for myself and my fellowman in this life is all of my portion and I’m content with it. It’s enough to be a man” (225). Rayber believes that:

“the affliction was in the family. It lay hidden in the line of blood that touched them, flowing from some ancient source, some desert prophet or polesitter, until, its power unabated, it appeared in the old man and him and, he surmised, in the boy. Those it touched were condemned to fight it constantly or be ruled by it. The old man had been ruled by it. He, at the cost of a full life, staved it off. What the boy would do hung in the balance.” (192-93)

Rayber shares with Tarwater the “affliction” passed down to both of them by Old Tarwater, and he understands that Tarwater’s “compul­sion,” as he calls it, is to baptize Bishop; but he says: “my own is more complicated, but the principle is the same. The way we have to fight it is the same” (238).

Avoiding Love

Rayber believes that the old man’s legacy both to him and Tarwater was a psychological compulsion that must be fought. Without fighting his compulsion, a man cannot maintain the human dignity of autonomous man. But what is Rayber’s “more com­plicated” compulsion, what is the nature of the divine appeal as it comes to him? Love. It is love, all-encompassing, all-embracing, uncondi­tional, mystical love that he rejects; and as with Tarwater’s response to his fear of the intimacy of creation, Rayber struggles to maintain a shal­low perception of reality.

He refused to look at anything too long, for anything–“a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk”–could bring on “the love that terrified him” (192). Through a rigid asceticism–refusing to look at anything too long, denying unnecessary sensual satisfactions, sleeping in a “narrow iron bed,” working “in a straight-backed chair,” eating sparsely, speaking little, socializing with the dullest friends–Rayber obstinately denied the divine pull of love.

“He was not afraid of love in general. He knew the value of it and how it could be used. He had seen it transform in cases where nothing else had worked, such as with his poor sister. None of this had the least bear­ing on his situation. The love that would overcome him was of a differ­ent order entirely. It was not the kind that could be used for the child’s improvement or his own. It was love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of himself in an instant.”

“And it only began with Bishop. It began with Bishop and then like an avalanche covered everything his reason hated. He always felt with it a rush of longing to have the old mans eyes–insane, fish-colored, violent with their impossible vision of a world transfigured–turned on him once again. The longing was like an undertow in his blood dragging him backwards to what he knew to be madness.” (192)

Rayber cannot abide the mystery of his inexplicable love for Bishop. As Old Tarwater says of him, “He don’t know it’s anything he can’t know” (156).

To Embrace Nothing

The consequence of Rayber’s willful and stubborn asceticism, of his denial of “love without reason,” was an indifference to life–even his own. Lying in bed at the Cherokee Lodge, knowing that Tarwater had taken Bishop out in the rowboat to drown him, Rayber thought to himself that:

“all he would be was an observer. He waited with serenity. Life had never been good enough to him for him to wince at its destruction. He told himself that he was indifferent even to his own dissolution. It seemed to him that this indifference was the most that human dignity could achieve, and for the moment forgetting his lapses, forgetting even his narrow escape of the afternoon, he felt he had achieved it. To feel noth­ing was peace.” (241)

Nevertheless, Rayber awaits the pain of Bishop’s loss in order to demon­strate the strength of his denial of love and his embrace of the most that “human dignity could achieve,” but he is denied his pain. His indiffer­ence bears the fruit of its barrenness:

“He stared out over the empty still pond to the dark wood that sur­rounded it. The boy would be moving off through it to meet his appalling destiny. He knew with an instinct as sure as the dull mechanical beat of his heart that he had baptized the child even as he drowned him, that he was headed for everything the old man had prepared him for, that he moved off now through the black forest toward a violent encounter with his fate.” (242-43)

“He stood waiting for the raging pain, the intolerable hurt that was his due, to begin, so that he could ignore it, but he continued to feel noth­ing. He stood light-headed at the window and it was not until he realized there would be no pain that he collapsed.” (243)

Rayber’s strength of denial, his iron-clad will to embrace nothing, defines his role in the story; but when O’Connor permits him to col­lapse after realizing there will be no raging pain to deny, the reader rec­ognizes that there may be hope that Rayber will accept the divine love he fears.

Ignoring the Prompting of Grace

The divine presence reveals It-self to Tarwater as a silence that man­ifests itself in the visible-material cosmos to include Tarwater’s embod­ied consciousness. This silence appears to Tarwater in the landscape; in his Tarwater blood and the blood of the prophets; in his hunger; and, sometimes, in the stars above.37 In addition to the silence as it appears in the landscape, the silence “speaks” in the blood of Tarwater: as he receives the divine command in his final vision, “The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood” (267).

Or the silence may infuse the hunger that he experienced and could not satisfy with food after leaving Powderhead:

“Since the breakfast he had fin­ished sitting in the presence of his uncle’s corpse, he had not been satisfied by food, and his hunger had become like an insistent silent force inside him, a silence inside akin to the silence outside, as if the grand trap left him barely an inch to move in, barely an inch in which to keep himself inviolate” (219).

The stars also participate in the silent manifestation of the divine presence. Sitting on the doorstep of his uncle’s house in the city, “he was unpleasantly aware of the stars. They seemed to be holes in his skull through which some distant unmoving light was watching him. It was as if he were alone in the pres­ence of an immense silent eye” (174).

Every time the silence almost persuades Tarwater to baptize Bishop, thereby accepting his vocation, the devil in the form of the stranger-friend who speaks in Tarwater’s voice advises him to ignore such “sensations,” for his call must be as dramatic as God’s dealings with the Old Testament prophets:

“Tarwater could have baptized him any one of a hundred times with­out so much as touching him. Each time the temptation came, he would feel that the silence was about to surround him and he was going to be lost in it forever. He would have fallen but for the wise voice that sus­tained him–the stranger who had kept him company while he dug his uncle’s grave.”

“Sensations, his friend–no longer a stranger–said. Feelings. What you want is a sign, a real sign, suitable to a prophet. If you are a prophet, it’s only right you should be treated like one. When Jonah dallied, he was cast three days in a belly of darkness and vomited up in the place of his mission. That was a sign; it wasn’t no sensation.” (218–19)

A Revelation and a Drowning

There are two particularly powerful instances of the divine presence manifesting itself in silence to Tarwater that stand out: the moment when the revelation came to him that he was called to baptize Bishop and to prophesy, and the moment when he finally accepted the divine call of his prophecy. The first instance occurs right after Tarwater has hitched a ride to Rayber’s house. We have already seen Tarwater waiting on Rayber’s stoop and sensing that the stars above were holes in his head through which an “immense silent eye” watched. After Rayber opens the door and Tarwater has entered, he sees Bishop in the hallway peering at him, “dim and ancient, like a child who had been a child for centuries” (177):

“Tarwater clenched his fists. He stood like one condemned, waiting at the spot of execution. Then the revelation came, silent, implacable, direct as a bullet. He did not look into the eyes of any fiery beast or see a burn­ing bush. He only knew, with a certainty sunk in despair, that he was expected to baptize the child he saw and begin the life his great-uncle had prepared him for.”

“He knew that he was called to be a prophet and that the ways of his prophecy would not be remarkable. His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of him­self, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”

“The Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire all to baptize one idiot child that He need not have created in the first place and to cry out a gospel just as foolish. He tried to shout, “NO!” but it was like trying to shout in his sleep. The sound was saturated in silence, lost.” (177-78)

After Tarwater has drowned-baptized Bishop, he feels assured that he has successfully defied God’s plan for his life.

As he trudges home to Powderhead, which he now believes his own to do with as he wishes, he thinks that his act has saved him from the fate of “trudging off into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, lost forever to his own inclinations.” (254-55). But that he spoke the words of baptism as he drowned Bishop disturbs him. He reasons with himself: “It was an accident and nothing more. He considered only that the boy was drowned and that he had done it, and that in the order of things, a drowning was a more important act than a few words spilled in the water” (255). He was once again, however, aware “of the coun­try which seemed to lie beyond the silence, or in it, stretching off into the distance around him” (255).

Granted a Second Vision

But then Tarwater is raped by the stranger who drives a “lavender and cream-colored car,” and by this act of violation, he is prepared to receive his moment of grace, as Old Tarwater had prepared him. Arriving at Powderhead, he is sent the vision of Old Tarwater finding his place on the hillside to be fed by the loaves and fishes, the “bread of life” that he hungered for, a vision Tarwater now recognizes as the source of his own hunger. Tarwater is granted a second vision, a second call, to which he can now respond with acceptance.

“There, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spo­ken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him.”

“He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood.” (267)

Now lost to his old intentions, “he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping” (267).



1. While only 259 letters are included in her Collected Works, almost 800 were pub­lished in an earlier collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, ed. Fitzgerald.

2. O’Connor, “Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 79.

3. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, in Three by Flannery O’Connor. Although all page references are to this edition of The Violent Bear It Away, I have checked the edito­rial accuracy of selected passages against O’Connor, Collected Works. I should note that The Violent Bear It Away was originally published in 1960.

4. O’Connor, “Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 79. Thus openness to reality and its mys­tery is a necessary prerequisite to “understanding” an O’Connor story.

5. Cf. chapter 2 above for discussion of “circumstanced equality.”

6. O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” 112.

7. As we will see below, the character Rayber Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away denies the divinely ordering reality and deforms his life in the belief that as a human being with human dignity it is within his power to create his own meaning and order.

8. Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, 96.

9. Péter Nádas, “The Novelist and His Selfs,” 18.

10. O’Connor to Eileen Hall, March 10,1956, in O’Connor, Habit, 144.

11. O’Connor to Elizabeth Hester, January 13,1956, ibid., 128.

12. O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” 40-41.

13. O’Connor, “Her Own Work,” 109.

14. O’Conner, “Novelist and Believer,” 156-157.

15. O’Connor, “Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” 41-42. Emphasis added.

16. Voegelin, In Search of Order, 31.

17. Hughes, Mystery and Myth, 2. In the “Voegelin Glossary,” Sandoz defines mystery: “Mystery is knowable only through participation and by way of analogical symbols or myth” (Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Sandoz, 168-69). While mystery is knowable through participation, it cannot didactically be encapsulated in the intention­alist language of the external world but only symbolized in myth–story–and through analogical language in philosophy. Hence the necessity of the imaginative reenactment of literary symbolizations.

18. O’Connor, “Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” 42.

19. O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” 157.

20. O’Connor, “Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 73.

21. Sandoz, Political Apocalypse, 276.

22. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History, 12.

23. O’Connor, “Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 67. Cf. Voegelin’s statement to Heilman (cited throughout our text): “Underlying all later, differentiated forms, however, there remains the basic Tale which expresses Being in flux. Time, then, would not be an empty container into which you can fill any content, but there would be as many times as there are types of differentiated content. . . . This reflexion would lead into a philosophy of language, in which the basic Tale would appear as the instrument of man’s dealing with reality through language–and adequately at that. Form and content, thus, would be inseparable: 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” (Voegelin to Heilman, August, 13, 1964, in AFIL, letter 103, p. 223).

24. O’Connor, “Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 77.

25. O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 179.

26. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she said: “Last spring I talked here, and one of the girls asked me, ‘Miss O’Connor, why do you write?’ and I said, ‘Because I’m good at it,’ and at once I felt a considerable disapproval in the atmosphere.” She went on to say that “there is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us” (81).

27. O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” 179-180.

28. O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” 72-73. Emphasis added.

29. Desmond, Risen Sons, 31. God, according to the medieval doctrine of analogia entis, is “radically transcendent Being Itself (Aquinas’s Ipsum Esse Subsistens), in which all particular entities or existents exist by ‘participation.’ Implies that the only adequate language for transcendent reality is analogical and that the relative adequacy of such language is grounded in the inherently analogical character of all participated being” (Sandoz, “Voegelin Glossary,” in Autobiographical Reflections, 150).

30.O’Connor, “Her Own Work,” 108.

31. Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” 240.

32. O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” 162. Emphasis added.

33. Rayber too must suppress his apperception in favor of a shallow perception of the world around him, especially to his perception of Bishop, in order to deny what he experiences and knows to be true.

34. Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” 346.

35.  For this reason it is important to have read cognitively-imaginatively-meditatively the story before attempting the specification. Therefore as one meditates on the story as meaning, one relies upon tacit knowing, to use a term developed by the philoso­pher Michael Polanyi. The specific knowledge of the events and occurrences in the story can only be understood against this tacit dimension of meaning. Cf. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 1-25.

36.  O’Connor, Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery O’Connor, 54.

37.  There are twenty-five passages in The Violent Bear It Away where silence or some variant appears with reference to Tarwater. I cannot comment on all these passages, but I list the phrases or clauses here: “the silent woods that encircled them” (159); “the old man’s words had been dropping one by one into him and now, silent, hidden in his bloodstream” (159); “alone in the presence of an immense silent eye” (174); “The quiet seemed palpable” (174); “the implacable silence descended around him” (174); “the rev­elation came, silent, implacable” (178); “sound was saturated in silence” (178); “his silent adversary” (179); “a continual struggle with the silence that confronted him” (218); “a strange waiting silence” (218); “the silent country” (218); “the silence was about to surround him” (218); “an insistent silent force inside him” (219); “a silence inside akin to the silence outside” (219); “threatening the silence” (220); “hush in his blood and a stillness in the atmosphere” (220); “distinct tension in the quiet” (221); “friend was silent” (221); “flinging the silent words at the silent face” (221); “the light silent eyes of the child “ (251); “the country which seemed to lie beyond the silence” (255); “two silent serene eyes were gazing at him” (256); “A deep-filled quiet pervaded everything” (265); “words were as silent as seeds” (266); “that violent country where the silence is never broken” (267).


This excerpt is from The Philosopher and the Storyteller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth-Century Literature (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008)

Charles R. Embry

Written by

Charles Embry is Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University at Commerce. He is author of several books, including The Philosopher and the Storyteller (Missouri, 2008); Voegelinian Readings of Modern Literature (Press, 2011); and, with Glenn Hughes, co-editor of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).