Since she died in 1964 at the age of 39, Flannery O’Connor has not receded from literary awareness nor from a larger consciousness we might call philosophical or spiritual or religious. Her place in the literary canon is secure in part because her reputation rests on more than the mere acknowledgment of authorities, many of whom have done everything they could to undermine critical authority. Her reputation is greater than that simply of an accomplished artist because she has appealed to (and sometimes appalled) people of various dispositions. Though she was never a popular writer, she was vitally aware of popular culture and of vulgarity. And though she insisted that her stories had to stand on their own merits, she was also vitally attuned to the Zeitgeist. Her letters have shown how committed she was to her own education and to the study of literature, philosophy, and religion; her success has been, in great part, the fusion of these levels of consciousness in fictions that are at once tense and lucid, as well as violent and comic, in their articulation of the conflict of the spirit and the flesh.
Flannery O’Connor has inspired so much comment and analysis—some of it necessary, some of it academic, and some of it spiteful—that we may wonder whether further reflections are justified. And it is just at this point that Henry Edmondson has registered his contribution. A professor of political philosophy at O’Con-nor’s own alma mater, he has seen her from a particularly productive angle—the philosophical one.
Professor Edmondson has done everything he could to justify his approach; this includes an investigation into the details of O’Connor’s undergraduate study at what was the Georgia State College for Women, where she took classes during World War II. He has grounded his study of O’Connor in her response to Nietzsche, whom she encountered in The Making of the Modern Mind, a textbook by John Randall assigned in “Introduction to Modern Philosophy,” which she took in the spring of 1945. Tracing what O’Connor read about Nietzsche at a formative age, Edmondson can convincingly claim that the Spirit of the Age that O’Connor addressed was well defined by the prophetic German who advocated going beyond good and evil, thus escaping traditional values in general and Christianity in particular. As Randall’s textbook puts it, Nietzsche’s “ideals are sufficiently in accord with the underlying spirit of the modern age . . . [as] to be fraught with great significance.” O’Connor’s own ideals, of course, were embodied by Christian orthodoxy, the reasoned Faith of the Church, and her own continuing study of the Bible and such contemporary philosophers as Maritain, Voegelin, and Guardini. In making his own argument regarding the philosophical clashes figured forth in O’Connor’s work, Edmondson has no doubt been of much service, and not only to the reader of O’Connor.
It is one thing to argue about ideas, however, and another to bring them to life. Flannery O’Connor bet the farm, as far as her writing goes, on fiction, which Edmondson reminds us is radical and philosophically grounded. In fiction, however, the clash of ideas is not so much logical as it is dramatic and ironic. The savage reduction and ideational shorthand that are required for successful fiction of a philosophical bent are rare things and place O’Connor within a tradition that has not been well defined. Though she claimed, with good reason, to be a regionalist, I think her work belongs, or also belongs, to what Vladimir Nabokov called “universal fiction,” by which I think he meant more than the widely admired classics. I mean a tradition that would embrace such writers as Aristophanes, Petronius, Lucian, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Swift, the Voltaire of Candide, the darker Melville and Twain, as well as the obvious Poe and Hawthorne, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, and that notable Nietzschean Wyndham Lewis.
The tradition of the reductio ad absurdum is part of the philosophical tradition in fiction and dramaturgy, and some of O’Connor’s work has powerful affinities with that tradition. The sound of dark laughter says something about the influence of Nathanael West and even Stephen Crane, both of whom touched O’Connor, and both of whom were closer to Nietzsche than they were to her in their values, though not in their sensibility or their technique. And I will go so far as to say that a kick to the stump of an amputated leg in Lewis’s Revenge for Love may well have been, in its cruelty and political nuance, an inspiration for the theft of an artificial leg in O’Connor’s greatest story, “Good Country People.” Stuck in the hay–loft and crawling in abnegation, if not in shame, Joy/Hulga is the farmer’s daughter of an old dirty joke everyone knows except her. This atheistic Ph.D. is left without a leg to stand on, and so is her philosophy. And her rather ugly adopted name, “Hulga,” is an anagram of “laugh.” The joke, ultimately a philosophical one, is on her. This tale of obscene humiliation or grotesquely necessary revelation is, strangely enough, based on “real life,” for O’Connor always claimed that her stories existed in potential. Strangely enough, much of the story is an attack on aspects of herself, and no female (not to mention males) ever wrote with more brass. Even better, with the citation of Malebranche and the unattributed quotation from Heidegger in her text, we have an explicit philosophical fiction—one that perhaps alludes distantly to that one-legged thinker Captain Ahab and his own long-delayed comeuppance.
Because Flannery O’Connor left the inscription of such feckless works as “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “I Stand Here Ironing” to others—and they are classified along with “Good Country People” in today’s anthologies—she has been a problematical subject for the technically female and technically unfemale powers that be. She has not been problematical for Henry Edmondson—quite the opposite, in fact. Explaining that Hazel Motes’ “high rat-colored” car is “hieratic,” he has shown his affinity for his subject and demonstrated an original understanding of her work. Realigned, refreshed, and reinforced by his distinctive exposition, we put down his study with our comprehension enhanced, ready once again to address ourselves to Flannery O’Connor.
[Return to Good & Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response to Nihilism, by Henry T. Edmondson III (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books) 203 pp., $24.95]