Sunday, April 01, 2007

Flannery O'Connor and Abu Ghraib

One of a couple of books receiving attention this year about the deeper meanings of the scandal of Abu Ghraib, and the reaction of Americans to it, is "A Good War is Hard to Find," by David Griffith. He was inspired by some of the themes contained in the American fiction writer Flannery O'Connor, who brutally represented some of the deepest hypocrisies and contradictions, or 'discrepancies,' in the American soul. The New York Times reviews the book, and provides the first chapter. Quoting from it:
CATHOLIC WRITER FLANNERY O'CONNOR would have considered the images of the prison scandal grotesque, but not in what she called "the pejorative sense"-of just plain images of ugliness and ignorance. For O'Connor-whose characters are some of the most memorable grotesqueries in American literature-the grotesque makes visible hidden "discrepancies" between character and belief. Such images "connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye."

Take Cpl. Graner, for example. His pick-up truck still parked in the driveway of his Uniontown, Pennsylvania home at the time the pictures broke into the news, bears a license plate with the word Jesus and a picture of a cross. There is also a smooth stone in, appropriately enough, a "weed-choked" flower bed in front of his house, painted with a verse from the book of Hosea: "Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to see the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you." [Hoses 10:12 NIV]

This stone is mentioned in most of the early news coverage of the scandal, treated as a bit of profound irony, the kind of coincidence newspaper reporters salivate over. How could a man with this bit of scripture displayed in his "postage-stamp" of a front yard, as one Pittsburgh news weekly described it, commit such atrocious acts? It's an irony the media isn't equipped to engage at any depth.

Such ironies were the stuff of O'Connor's stories. Her characters think of themselves as Christians or otherwise "good people," but their actions or attitudes reveal otherwise. Their pride blinds them to their own flaws, and only violence-usually from an unlikely source-opens their eyes, and offers them a chance at redemption.

Griffiths continues this same passage in an earlier article at Godspy magazine, and I find his viewpoint provocative and different, and I also love O'Connor, so:
For O'Connor, her native American South was the perfect landscape against which to paint her grotesque figures. But to Catholics in the 1950's O'Connor's fascination with bizarre characters from the nation's most Protestant region was unsettling. She addressed their "certain impatience" with her work in 1963 at a speaking engagement at Georgetown University, in a speech titled "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South":

The American Catholic trusts the fictional imagination about as little as he trusts anything. Before it's well on its feet, he's busy looking for heresy in it. The Catholic press is constantly broken out in a rash of articles on the failure of the Catholic novelist. The Catholic novelist is failing to reflect the virtue of hope, failing to show the Church's interest in social justice, failing to show life as positive good, failing to portray our beliefs in a light that will make them desirable to others.

O'Connor accounts for this by accusing the Catholic reader of being "more Manichaean than the Church permits... by separating nature from grace."

"Manichaeism"—or Dualism—was a third-century religion inspired by a Persian, Mani. It claimed the universe was governed by two eternal, separate—and equal—forces: Good and Evil. Dualism has a certain attraction for Christians. In fact, in his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, "I personally think that next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market." But, Lewis continued, "It has a catch to it." Lewis, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, does his usual brilliant job of refuting Dualism, and showing why Christianity is not dualistic—that the one eternal principle in Christianity, God, is good, that everything God made is good, and that evil is merely a perversion of the good:

"And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers that enable evil to carry on are power given to it by goodness. All the things which enable a man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things—resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why dualism, in a strict sense, will not work."

How to account for evil, then? Lewis continues: "God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right." Evil is the pursuit of good things—pleasure, money, power, etc., "by the wrong method."

That's O'Connor territory. Her stories reveal the hidden evil residing in the human heart, the pursuit of good that masks a secret pride.

Some have questioned her preoccupation with the sins of upright, decent people. But there's a significant precedent—in the Gospels. Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." [Luke 18:10-14]

The parable seems overly harsh on the Pharisee. But that's only because we've forgotten what pride is. Lewis reminds us: Pride is "the essential vice, the utmost evil... it is the complete anti-God state of mind." Then there's St. Thomas Aquinas: "Pride extinguishes all the virtues and destroys all the powers of the soul, since its rule extends to them all."

Pride sets us against each other, and, most important, against God. To cure us of it, God allows us to sin. Again, St. Thomas: "the gravity of sins of pride is shown by the fact that God allows man to fall into other sins in order to heal him from pride."

For O'Connor, God's providence was realized not despite our sins, but through them. Removing sin from life—or fiction—meant essentially cutting yourself off from the possibility of grace. Life—or literature, becomes either sentimental or obscene, and while "preferring the former, and being more of an authority on the latter," the Catholic reader fails to see their similarity. "He forgets," she continues, that:

sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence and that innocence whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite... Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.

The opposite of innocence? Abu Ghraib, maybe? When we consider the United States, was there ever a country more naively, optimistically moral? But by separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil. Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?

For Flannery O'Connor, such contradictions explained Southern literature's tendency toward the violent and grotesque.

The South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies. An identity is not made from what passes, from slavery to segregation, but from those qualities that endure because they are related to truth. It is not made from the mean average or the typical but often from the hidden and most extreme.

According to O'Connor, the South was not so much "Christ-Centered" as "Christ-Haunted." She believed that the most challenging images of Christ were pushed aside in the South in favor of more palatable ones, ones that would allow for the continued separation and inequality between the races. However, these sublimated images eventually return as "fierce and instructive" ghosts, to cast menacing shadows across the landscape. These menacing shadows are the raw material of much Southern literature, from the well-mannered, sober Eudora Welty to the drunken tortured genius of Faulkner. And as Susan Sontag pointed out in her New York Times Magazine essay about Abu Ghraib, "The Pictures Are Us," those same ghosts can be seen in the lynching photos of the late 19th and early 20th century.

And so we see America, 2004, also as "Christ-Haunted." Tom Junod's article "Jesus 2004," which appeared in the May issue of Esquire, reports that 80% of Americans believe in Jesus Christ and consider themselves Christian. What differs wildly, however, is exactly who these 80% think they're believing in. Junod's piece reveals there is no consensus, but in general Christ is a good guy, he's there for us when we need him, he's personable, even handsome. Ultimately, Junod's piece suggests the personalization of Jesus, the recasting of Jesus in our own (inevitably disordered) human image. This is a phenomenon O'Connor was witnessing even in the early sixties. Our concept of Christ has, O'Connor wrote, "gone underneath and come out in distorted forms."

Griffith's blog is a good read too.

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At 1:26 PM, Blogger groepshuwelijken said...

There is a village of new mexico which name is truth or consequences.
do you have any relationship with that city?


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