Charlie's Blog: The Softness That Ends in Bitterness


The Softness That Ends in Bitterness

To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.

I love Flannery O'Connor. You know you love a writer when you want to read them again. I can't say that for any other writer. I like Tolkien, but it is all I can do to read him the first time. When I get done with Lord of the Rings, I know I will never pick that book up again. As for Hemingway, you finish the book and feel like you never actually read the book. Flannery is the only writer in any genre I ever cared to read again.

My first encounter with Flannery was in high school when I had to read the short story "Good Country People" for an English class. Needless to say, I was amazed and enthralled. I can honestly say that it was the best thing I ever read in my young life in terms of fiction. I loved Flannery so much that I took a class for an entire semester in college on her work. It was worth it and remains the best literature class I ever took.

Why did I fall in love with Flannery O'Connor the way I did? That is easy to answer. Her stories struck me as gritty and real. They were without sentiment and unflinching in their portrayal of life and human nature. I realize that I never truly understood O'Connor. I understand her completely now. When you become Catholic, you are able to grasp the deeper things behind those stories.

There are four facts you have to understand about Flannery O'Connor. The first is that she was Roman Catholic. When I first read her in high school, I didn't know this. I just found her jarring and unsettling and a bit sarcastic towards Protestant types like myself. But her stories are complete enigmas without this Catholic understanding. Catholicism is not Protestantism. It is a shock to the system. Flannery shocked me, yet there was that strange attraction.

The second fact is that Flannery O'Connor was a Southerner. I am a Southerner, so I get this part about Flannery. Here is a telling quote from O'Connor:
Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
What makes the South so different from the North? What makes Southerners so different from Northerners? The answer to that is easy. Southerners know that you can't fix what is wrong with human nature. This is reflected in the South's love for religion that is virtually non-existent in the rest of the country. Even the Catholics in the South are better than the Catholics in the North.

Southerners have a good view of God and a dark view on life and human nature. They know this world is not Heaven and never will be Heaven. Northerners tend to think they can fix everything, but you only have to look up north to see that this is a terrible lie. When people from the North encounter the South, they either describe the South as stupid or scary. In time, the stupid thing vanishes leaving just the scary.

I think Flannery found reinforcement for her Catholicism in the South. As she put it so well,
I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.
What this means is that Southerners know two things. The first is that human beings are wicked. The second is that they are unable to save themselves from their wickedness. When you visit the South, you will notice the remains of the old plantations, a lot of cemeteries and headstones, and a church on every corner. The result is a mix of past sins, mortality, and a knowledge of the Almighty and the need for salvation.

The third fact about Flannery is that she lost her father to lupus when she was 15 years old. This tragedy could only serve to reinforce in Flannery a belief that life was awful and short. This third fact also dovetails into the fourth fact about Flannery O'Connor. Flannery had the same condition as her father. It would cause her a great deal of suffering and eventually kill her at age 39.

These four elements about life served to eradicate from Flannery O'Connor's life any notions of sentimentality. Sentimentality is where you put emotions and feelings over reason. A great example of this is how people look back with nostalgia on the good old days of their youth forgetting the hell that it actually was. Another great example is the way people look with optimism to future plans thinking that things will be awesome in the future. For Flannery O'Connor, lupus eradicated nostalgia and optimism from her life. She was not sentimental.

Sentimentalism always ends in sadness. Sentimentality is the wish for a world that does not actually exist. It is the desire to create a delusion and then live in that delusion. If you want to know what this sort of thing looks like, you need look no further than Ayn Rand.

Flannery O'Connor despised Ayn Rand. No two women could be more opposed in their worldviews. Rand was an atheist who concocted her own philosophy of life based upon capitalism and selfishness. She weaved a personal fantasy about herself that looked like the fantasies of the characters in her novels. Rand was a neo-romantic preferring to write heroic stories about idealized beings. The result was that her work comes off as unreal, cheap, and pathetic. This is what Flannery had to say about Ayn Rand:
The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.
The conflict between these two women is easy to understand. Rand lived in a world of self-made delusion while Flannery lived with a grotesque reality. For Rand, fiction was an escape from reality. For Flannery, fiction was a shock to the system that forced you back into reality.

I have read both women, and they represent two worldviews that I have embraced at different times in my life. When I was a libertarian atheist, I was down with Ayn Rand. She felt like hope and life in a world that only offered nihilism. I embraced that libertarian life and philosophy and the bad taste that goes with it. It also left me empty and with the sneaking suspicion that I had substituted the delusion of one religion with the delusion of another religion of sorts. Atheists do not close themselves to religion and delusion. They actually open themselves to the religion and delusion of their choosing.

Atheists are not realists but reductionists. For them, existence is reduced to the material. Your experience of this existence is purely subjective. This leaves you with two options--bleakness or sentimentalism. Rand chose sentimentalism. Flannery chose neither.

For O'Connor and all real Catholics, the choice is not between bleakness or sentimentalism but between becoming bitter or becoming better. Our bitterness comes when life does not meet our expectations of it. If you are fortunate, you will experience sharp pains and disappointments in life. This suffering has the effect of stripping away our hopes and delusions of making a Heaven in this fallen world. Conversely, grace enables us to see and find hope in the world beyond this world.

In Flannery O'Connor's stories, the characters come to a moment of grace when their illusions about life get stripped away or shattered in some way. These are usually unsettling or even violent encounters. But at the same time, the characters are given a glimpse of true bliss if even for a moment. As Flannery put it,
All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.
You see this sort of mystery reflected in Christ's passion and in your own suffering. Agony is painful but also an encounter with grace.

The world wishes to escape suffering. Catholicism embraces suffering. Flannery O'Connor was someone who suffered in life. Yet, she lived in a way that seems more alive than the plastic fantasies of Ayn Rand. O'Connor harbored no illusions about life or human nature, but she was not without hope or joy either. Flannery offers us two great remedies for dealing with life.

The first and most obvious remedy is faith. Flannery O'Connor was a woman of faith. She attended Mass daily and read Aquinas as devotional reading. From all I know, Flannery never wasted a moment of her life contemplating any other path in life except the Catholic path instilled in her by her upbringing in the Church. There's a reason our Lord gave us prayer, the Word, and the sacraments. They sustain us. For some odd reason, we forget that we need them.

Flannery's second remedy was humor. As bleak and grotesque as Flannery's stories can be, the humor comes through. As Flannery put it,
Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.
There are many stories and quotations that show Flannery O'Connor's funny side. She was a Catholic smart ass. There is a certain type of humor that is unique to the Roman Catholic. Jewish humor takes ordinary things and makes them painful. Catholic humor does the opposite. For the Catholic, pain is the ordinary.

You are allowed to laugh. You are allowed to cry. But you are not allowed to whine and complain. When we complain, we imply that things could be different from the way they are. This is sentimentality. Life is the cross. We are fools to think life is not the cross. And that's the gist of Flannery O'Connor's thoughts and writings. This life is to be endured on the way to something better and permanent. As long as we accept this, it keeps us from the softness that ends in bitterness.