Beneath the Southern Cross

Flannery O'Connor, 1925-1964

Flannery O’Connor, 1925-1964

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”
-Matthew 11:12

300,000 years ago, archeological evidence indicates that early hominids were prone to “caching” their deceased within caves, or on mountaintops. It wasn’t really burial, per se; more like storage. In later years, Neanderthals developed this notion further in the direction of traditional burial, fulfilling a primal urge to acknowledge the significance of death. Burial became, in essence, a way of ritualizing this act of recognition.

Throughout the years, numerous burial rites have come and gone: the mummification process of the ancient Egyptians; the Roman catacombs; the act of cremation (its origins tracing back at least 20,000 years to the “Mungo Lady” in Australia). During World War I, soldiers were buried in mass graves—their arms linked together, some dismembered and reassembled to the best of their inexperienced morticians’ abilities. It is overwhelming to contemplate the number of human bodies that have lived and died on this planet, and the multitudinous means by which their remains were put away. It is easier—and far more alleviating—to consider this basic compulsion of humans to achieve some kind of peace through the burial of their loved ones. What lies behind this compulsion? Why do we feel this need to formally acknowledge death whenever it strikes—when it has struck so many times that it can only be considered a commonplace occurrence?

Flannery O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear it Away, opens with an old man’s death and the immediate need to bury him. It is a need he recognized while still alive, which is why he took it upon himself to adopt his great-nephew Francis Tarwater; that, and he felt it was his responsibility to baptize the boy—to save him from eternal damnation. The basic drives which interest O’Connor are laid out from the very start, and yet the reader cannot help but feel that she knows more than what she lets on at any given moment. However one looks at it, the dichotomous relationship between eternity and mortality has seldom been explored this cohesively in a 150-page volume.

Francis Tarwater is an unforgettable literary protagonist: a fourteen year old without any formal education, raised in seclusion on a desolate patch of southern farmland, he comes across as a hybrid between the Wild Child and Huckleberry Finn—with shades of Hazel Motes (the fanatic hero of Wise Blood) thrown in for good measure. Within the first couple of chapters, the reader learns how young Tarwater was born into this world amidst a car wreck, a flourish that lifts his later struggles to near-epic proportions. Raised initially by his scholarly and atheistic uncle, the boy was abducted by his great-uncle and brought to live in the middle of a cornfield. The secluded aspect of the Tarwaters’ existence underlines the insanity of their theological convictions: old Tarwater is so concerned for his great-nephew’s eternal security that he would rather have him go crazy in his solitude (much as he has himself) than risk pollution in the ungodly outside world.

The relationship between insanity and belief in a higher power is explored extensively (and obsessively) throughout the written works of Flannery O’Connor. It would almost appear as a clinical concern, if not for the passion with which she repeatedly tackled the subject: as she explained in the preface to a reprint of Wise Blood, “The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way.” Unlike many of the beat writers that were published during her own shortened lifetime, she never employed insanity as an aesthetic choice, or in service of stylized writing; by comparison, the works of Kerouak and Bukowski appear so extremely poeticized as to belittle madness to a matter of preference, like jazz music or punctuation. One gathers the impression upon reading O’Connor’s stories that insanity is much more than a whim she indulged in for entertainment or poetic license: she genuinely seemed convinced that a world without insanity would be a world without meaning.

In The Violent Bear it Away, we are not only granted a believable study in certain origins of insanity, but a full-blown appreciation for the frailty of the human mind and spirit. O’Connor doesn’t simply make the reader appreciate madness, she makes us love and care about the people who go insane in the wilderness of her writing—and furthermore, she enables us to recognize ourselves in the same wilderness.

The contrasts and similarities drawn between the three principal characters (old Tarwater, young Tarwater, and the scholarly uncle) are broad yet entirely credible; of the many memorable family portraits in American literature, this is indeed one of the most affecting I’ve ever read. It is especially affecting that O’Connor shows ancestral zealousness to yield its most drastic consequences upon the family atheist, embodied here by the uncle. Whereas the boy is essentially castrated by religion and forced to follow in old Tarwater’s footsteps for lack of another way out, the atheistic uncle (who is so neutral he does not even have a name) is merely crippled—caught forever between his rational desire to lead a human existence separate from the lies of his childhood, and the innate knowledge that he will never be entirely free of their sway. O’Connor reveals his particular insanity to be the more tragic variation, for he is doomed to an unhappy existence in this world and, quite possibly, in the next as well. And here we find yet another uncommon divergence from the writing of other theologians—many of whom view those who willfully reject the tenets of spiritual faith as deserving of their discontent. O’Connor appears at times to empathize with the uncle more than any of the other characters: unlike the ignorant (young Tarwater) and the deranged (old Tarwater), he has been cursed with the gift of rationale—the ability to recognize the irrational nature of the family religion, combined with the inability to wipe it out. His impotence is further emphasized by the contrast between his capacity for thought and the boy’s capacity for action.

The unexpected fourth character in the book is Bishop, the uncle’s developmentally disabled child. An abstract parallel is drawn by O’Connor between God and Bishop—both inscrutable beings existing in a state of perpetual grace. Possibly the most perplexing (certainly the most devastating) development in the book is the child’s drowning at the hands of Young Tarwater, who realizes after the fact that he has unwittingly performed a baptism; even an act of murder is revealed here to carry religious implications. The killing is a culmination of the crucial difference between the boy and his uncle—the fact that one can only act, and the other can only think. In less capable hands, the contrast might come across as naive, but by maintaining her focus on the multi-generational impact of religious fervor, O’Connor succeeds in bringing the characters full circle. The boy wants nothing other than to distance himself from his adoptive father, but in the process he becomes the living reincarnation of the old man; the uncle wants to obliterate the influence of religion from the boy’s life (to break the chain of blind theistic deference) but he is capable only of intellectualizing a concept which he hasn’t the fanaticism to enact. And thus the paradox of religious insanity is allowed to survive in perpetuity—to contaminate, cripple, and confound subsequent generations.

A truly fascinating achievement of the book is the way in which O’Connor uses this extreme focus on faith and religion to flesh out her characters, and not to restrict them within a narrow range of human functioning. We seldom are granted a glimpse of Francis Tarwater’s explicit pathology outside of his moral and spiritual conundrums, yet he appears to the reader as a fully-formed individual—a living, dynamic, and sexual being. Unlike other theological approaches to storytelling, in which humans are reduced to static asexual caricatures, O’Connor presents an understanding of spiritual pathology so astute and all-encompassing that her creations practically leap off of the page.

One of the most startling passages in the book actually pertains to young Tarwater’s apparent rape by a man who has given him a lift as a hitchhiker: the boy’s quietly startled reaction to the event is both entirely plausible and highly effective character development. We immediately become aware of how little opportunity Tarwater has been given in his life to contemplate himself as a sexual being; growing up in complete isolation on a farm in the middle of nowhere, the only obsession he’s been allowed to cultivate has been a spiritual obsession. There is a powerful sense of tragedy inherent to this sequence—the implicit negation of his own sexuality, rendered explicit through the act of torching the leaves on which he was molested.

Admirers of O’Connor are most likely familiar with her own personal theological perspective (that the question of God is a literal matter of life and death—of salvation or damnation). A large part of the beauty behind The Violent Bear it Away stems from another strange and parallel duality: on the on hand, the incredible conciseness of the narrative, along with its self-contained symbolism; on the other, the tangible struggle to account for every human variable and find its proper place in a determinist belief system. That O’Connor never fully succeeds on the second point is evidence of the struggle’s validity, as well as a possible testimonial of the author’s personal doubts and fears. Where does human desire fit into the picture of black-and-white theology, for instance? How is it that the generational thrust of religious fanaticism can become so powerful as to suppress biological urge? O’Connor never fully resolved these long-standing concerns (as no one ever will), but she never stopped posing the question, either. And for this, her fans are forever indebted.

As far as I am concerned, The Violent Bear it Away comes as close to perfection as any book in existence on this planet. Seldom has such a simple narrative illuminated so much existential truth, touching on issues of life, death, love, loss, science, and faith—never drowning one out with another, even at the apex of a typically ardent conclusion. It is one of the rare religious books that succeeds in incorporating secular knowledge without losing its heart and soul along the way.

Nick Cave, author of And the Ass Saw the Angel

Nick Cave, author of And the Ass Saw the Angel

And the Ass Saw the Angel, the first novel from famed musician Nick Cave, provides another, equally affecting take on mortality and religion in the South. It presents as its protagonist Euchrid Eucrow, a mute adolescent born and raised in the fictional Ukulore valley. The book has an unusual yet engrossing structure: it is, in fact, composed of three separate books—the first chronicling a history of the Ukulites (complete with maps and charts), the second detailing the core narrative events from multiple perspectives, and the third consisting of a single chapter depicting the culmination of Euchrid’s growing insanity.

Much like The Violent Bear it Away, there is an extremely personal vent to the religious fascination at the heart of Cave’s novel. Cave’s interest is arguably more detached and objective (he seems to have more of an appreciation for religious insanity than an actual conviction towards it), but it is noteworthy how his portrait comes across as no less passionate. In some regards, his writing is even more immediate than O’Connor’s: he burrows so deep inside the pathology of his principal character that, if not for the shifting authorial perspective, it would read like some strange diary dug up from a desert canyon in the Bible Belt. There is quite a bit of stylization throughout And the Ass Saw the Angel, but it never seems entirely gratuitous. Many of the passages and characters in the book can be found in Cave’s songs, as well (such as “Crow Jane” and “Wings Off Flies”); they truly have a life of their own, existing in spite of their stylization, not because of it.

Again, burial plays a significant role. The reader discovers early on in the book that its narrator is recalling these events while sinking beneath a swamp—his body slowly pulled into a primordial soup of sorts. We also learn of the means by which his loathsome parents are buried, both of them tucked away in an unmarked grave, thus honoring the despicable nature of their existence. The burials in Cave’s book are at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from the burial in O’Connor’s novel, but they are no less revered. Cave succeeds remarkably well in making sacred the profane: he does not sink to the level of simply mocking religious fanatics, or creating heresy for the sake of instigating its opponents. In this rather marvelous book, he conjures up an entire slew of zealots, harlots, and would-be prophets; he then invites us to admire and respect them as much as he does—and it is hard to resist the invitation.

The putrescence of the Eucrow family is of John Waters proportions, but it could just as easily be something out of a Bruegel painting. There is a quality to Cave’s writing which can only be described as artistry: it shines through all of his work in the medium of music, and is equally apparent in his literary endeavors. Cave has, indeed, taken more than a few cues from the fanaticsm of southern gothic culture in the creation of his stage persona—which is (oddly enough) part of what endears him to so many non-religious readers and listeners. His approach is not parodic, vindictive, or reductionist; he reveals an intricate appreciation for zealotry, and presents it in all its ghastly glory, without undue exaggeration or mockery.

I often contemplate what it is, exactly, that drives the fascination of writers from around the world with the religious fanaticism of North American Christians: though fanatics of countless varieties can be found in any given country, there appears to be something about the American zealot that stands above all other zealots for sheer literary potential. I believe part of the appeal for writers stems from the inability of so many folks living in this country to assimilate secular science with personal faith. Unlike the English, Europeans, Asians, and, well, just about every other developed nation on the planet, North American Christian fundamentalists are so driven in their fanaticism that they would sooner modify science to fit dogma than develop a dialectical understanding for the coexistence of subjective and objective realms of thought. Moreover, the refusal of our religious zealots to kowtow to reality never fails to fuel the ire of atheists and non-denominational theists, whose subsequent attempts to illustrate the insanity of it all only serve to inspire renewed determination in their opponents.

These issues appear (to this writer, at least) only to have been exacerbated by the age of social media, in which the private lives of individuals explode of their own volition, and many find a baffling amount of spare time to argue with one another in written form over the validity of individual perspectives. It seemed as though fanatics and rationalists coexisted far more peaceably in times prior to these technological advancements—that the possibilities for the thinking individual to analyze the relationship(s) between religion, science, and society were once more firmly grounded in a diplomatic sensibility. Whether or not one could appreciate the writings of O’Connor, for instance, was (and remains) irrelevant to the fact that they were written with a highly developed sense of discernment: agreeing to disagree used to be an acceptable response, and apprehension was not invariably yoked to personal convictions. Like all of the arts, written communication is daily being reduced to a lower denominator, and the denominator no longer appears common. It is as though we have stripped away the complexity of all issues to the point of forming incomprehensible fractions—resulting in frustration, aggravation, and increased irritability.

Perhaps now, more than ever, the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Nick Cave can serve to reorient folks who are weary from being tossed and torn by dogmatic friction. These books offer solid proof that the quality of a written work is not inherent to the private beliefs of the writer, but can instead exist on its own terms, and may in turn be appreciated by readers across the spectrum of rationale. This is, indeed, the ultimate power underlying a true work of art: to illustrate something so basic and universal about humanity that it transcends the cognitive and spiritual limitations of its creator (as well as its interpreters). Art does not enslave its witnesses to ideology; it liberates them from personal convictions, and enables us all to accept global diversity with a more profound sense of awareness. In this regard, art is not unlike the act of burial: it acknowledges the significance of death, and puts its participants at peace with life.

With this in mind, it seems entirely fitting that so many separate paths (actual and literary) should lead to the same place. For when one has considered man’s wretched, god-obsessed nature to its full extent—along with the horrible and beautiful acts he commits to spite himself—one really has no other option than to love him in all his lunacy, and then return him to the earth from which he fell.

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