Friday, December 11, 2009

On Flannery O'Connor and politics and literature

Dan Green wrote this recently in a post on Flannery O'Connor:
[David E.] Anderson identifies as a flaw in O'Connor's fiction "the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement." It has always seemed bizarre to me that an "absence of attention" to this or that condition or phenomenon in a writer's work could be considered a "shortcoming," as if every writer is under the necessary burden to address every fact of life that confronted the writer in his/her time and place. O'Connor had no obligation to portray race relations or to confront issues of civil rights. Her subject lay elsewhere, in the lives of white Southerners and the effects of class and religion. If it is true that O'Connor's work is anchored in the belief that the world around her was "mired in nihilism," that view could not plausibly be embodied in stories centered on the lives of Southern blacks. They were themselves neither nihilists nor the victims of nihilism in the theological/philosophical terms with which O'Connor was concerned. They were the victims of bigotry, and this is a more mundane human evil that doesn't really get to the spiritual corruptions O'Connor was at pains to disclose. A writer should be judged by what her work does attempt, not by what it doesn't.
This leads in fairly well to some thoughts I've been having about Flannery O'Conner's fiction. I read O'Connor for the first time several months ago, in the famous story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. O'Connor had always been on my mental well-I-guess-I-should-read-it list, but I admit I'd had little enthusiasm for the idea. My interest was actually piqued by Andrew Seal's somewhat ambivalent post on the collection from April, and Shelley Ettinger's extremely negative post on O'Connor from March. I also thought it would be interesting to read these stories after having just read Evelyn Scott's marvelous Migrations—both writers being Southern women, with Scott largely forgotten and O'Connor widely hailed as a literary genius, the master of the short story. It turns out there's finally not much similarity between them as writers, other than the casual racism of their characters. Scott appears to have been more ambitious. O'Connor has an easier-to-read surface prose style and possibly the most negative view of human nature this side of William Golding.

Shelley was writing on the occasion of a review in The New York Times Book Review of a new biography of O'Connor. She highlighted these choice quotes from Joy Williams' review:
"She was a connoisseur of racial jokes." And: "The civil rights movement interested her not at all." And in response to "a request to stage one of her stories, she wrote, 'The only thing I would positively object to would be somebody turning one of my colored idiots into a hero.'"
Shelley goes on to explain why she couldn't stomach O'Connor's stories and to re-articulate her views on art and politics, and on form and content. Shelley is at all times clear that she is a communist and that she views literature through the lens of class struggle (in fact, I've merely re-worded her blog's tagline in saying so). I am deeply sympathetic to her perspective, but I disagree on some important points. I've made no bones about my leftism here, nor have I felt the need to isolate my political writing from my blogging about literary matters. I have in the past, however, struggled with the questions of politics and art, politics and literature in particular. In early posts (for example, this one), I claimed to hold aesthetics above all else, to oppose the didactically political, and so on. Since then I've realized that I don't really buy the separation of so-called aesthetic values from whatever else fiction (which is what really concerns me here) has to offer; that, in fact, I'm not entirely sure I know what aesthetics even could be, when so isolated. As I observed last Fall, literature is not innocent: it has definite effects in the world, many of which are broadly speaking political. I've intended to discuss these matters further, in part in response to certain calls for an explicitly leftwing, or liberatory, literature, and, with respect, I hope to use Shelley's ideas as a way to begin doing so. Though this post is not the place for a detailed investigation of her ideas, I will nonetheless need to address some of them here.

I happen to think that she's missing something on O'Connor, though I am by no means an immediate convert to that particular church. Rather I think that there's a misreading of O'Connor that may help me address some of Shelley's more general points. These are, as she puts it, "the old questions of (1) form and content, (2) the writer and the writing, (3) social responsibility and literary neutrality". The standard bourgeois critical positions on these matters being, respectively, (1) form--or aesthetics--trumps content, (2) the writer's politics are irrelevant to his or her work, and (3) literary art is properly politically neutral. I stand with Shelley in opposition to these bourgeois shibboleths but for, I think, somewhat different reasons. Or rather, our positions do not always coincide.

With respect to the first point, Shelley calls bullshit, and says that "content matters", period. I'm not going to spend much time in this post on this point, except to say that in my view form and content are not easily separable. That is, yes, content matters, but if a book can be easily reduced to a statement or message, then it's probably not worth reading. Form is a problem for the writer, it is not merely something lying about awaiting use—it is not a container for whatever "content" the writer wishes to use it to convey. I'm going to leave it at that, if only because this blog is in many respects basically about this question, when it's about writing. I've been working up to, or around, a more detailed articulation of what I mean, but that is for a different post. I will say, however, that the general view that the novel is a container for story and character is actually itself a major reason to take issue with calls for a more liberatory novel. Because what happens is the novel contains the politics within. Not only does it necessarily reach very few potential readers, as do the vast majority of books not written by Dan Brown or Stephen King, but its very containment within the standard novel mutes the politics. This is not to say that people can't and don't learn things from novels having bearing on political matters, but that the very private nature of reading, on balance, makes it difficult to translate what we glean from a good work of fiction into effective political action. They end up being political entertainments. People read the book and then move on, the messy politics kept safely between the covers.

With respect to the third point, Shelley says "there is no such thing as literary neutrality on the great social questions. There is faux neutrality, which amounts to alignment with the status quo." I agree without hesitation that there's no such thing as plain neutrality—that there's no such thing as being "apolitical", practically speaking. You might be apolitical in the sense that you do not follow politics, or vote, or any number of other things. But this is an effectively conservative position, and by conservative I here mean only "reinforcing the status quo" (and I am closer and closer to believing that voting, at least, is, in this sense, itself an inherently conservative act). But what does it mean to speak of literary neutrality? Shelley says, earlier in the post, that the question is "whose truth is being told, and what is it being told in service of? The status quo or change?" I don't think this question is irrelevant, but I think it's not quite as clear cut as she implies.

Let me return, then, to Flannery O'Connor. When she read her work, Shelley says she encountered "sympathetic portrayals of racist characters and varied but by my read mostly insensitive, one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans" and numerous uses of "the N word". She figured there must have been some sort of anti-racist point coming, but there wasn't. O'Connor's work, she suggests, "with skill and art, subverts fiction's promise, fiction's potential, fiction's hope, and delivers instead a portfolio for the power of words as bulwark against progress." Something like "the thinking person's Margaret Mitchell." Well, I admit that sounds pretty horrible! However, I think it unfortunate that Shelley did not continue to read; it would have been interesting to know what she thought of she'd read further. One observation: every use of the word "nigger" is by a character, not by the narrator, who always uses "Negro". Another: the characters in most of the stories are poor whites, though some are not. They are unquestionably bigoted in the most casual, unthinking way. But, though these people are indeed sketched with some sympathy, it's also true that most of them are fools or even idiots, not to mention often doomed. (Andrew is much less charitable on this score; he says "no character is ever smarter than they need to be".)

The difference between O'Connor and Margaret Mitchell is vast, and not just in the area of literary ability. Gone With the Wind is an actual fictional apologia for the Old South; it effectively mourns for a lost way of life (I am admittedly basing this mostly on the movie, which, unaccountably, I have seen several times—I enjoy the melodrama, what can I say; for what it's worth, as I learned from this piece by Carolyn Porter on Mitchell and Faulkner, which appears in A New Literary History of America, apparently Mitchell thought she was being critical of the South and expected attacks from the South for her depictions, which is quite the opposite of what happened). It is deeply reactionary. O'Connor's stories are nothing like this. For one thing, they take place in what was for O'Connor the present day, that is, the mid-20th century. For another, there is no editorializing by the narrator in favor of, say, Jim Crow, or racial bigotry. O'Connor may personally not have been interested in the Civil Rights Movement, but her fiction does not overtly argue against the aims of that movement. One may then argue that this is not enough, and one may further argue, as Shelley does in the explication of her second point, that the writer's politics will come through in the text, whether the work is overtly political or not. Possibly. In fact, I think to some extent Shelley is correct on this point. However, I would suggest that literature is more ambiguous than that. To shamelessly recycle a sentence from a comment I made to Dan's post: I think a great writer, however unpleasant in real life, will see things in his or her art that they might not cotton to outside of it. I think this was often true of Flannery O'Connor. And, I would argue further that by realistically depicting the lives and views of Southern whites during the Jim Crow period O'Connor at least enables us to learn something of value about such people.

I would like finish up by briefly considering one story in particular, "The Artificial Nigger". Right off, of course, the title seems unfortunate. In this story, Mr. Head and his young grandson Nelson take a trip into the city of Atlanta, where Nelson had been born but never revisited. Mr. Head wants to cure Nelson of any desire to ever go into the city again. He tries to scare Nelson ahead of time by telling him that the city is "full of niggers". Nelson shrugs. He's never seen a black person, and he's not worried. On the train they encounter three black people, a man and two women. Mr. Head gawks at them and asks Nelson if he saw who he saw. Nelson reports that he saw a man, a fat man, what else does his grandfather want? He doesn't know enough to recognize these people as "niggers" ("you said they were black", he complains; "How do you expect me to know anything when you don't tell me right?"). Mr. Head feels he's scored a point. When they get to the city, Mr. Head tries to avoid actually showing Nelson anything of interest; he walks them in circles. When Nelson picks up on it, they change course and promptly get very lost. Before long they find themselves in a black part of town. After much blaming and bickering back and forth, Nelson finally asks a black woman for help (he "was afraid of the colored men and didn't want to be laughed at by the colored children"):
Nelson stopped. He felt his breath drawn up by the woman's dark eyes. "How do you get back to town?" he said in a voice that did not sound like his own.

After a minute she said, "You in town now," in a rich low tone that made Nelson feel as if a cool spray had been turned on him.

"How do you get back to the train?" he said in the same reed-like voice.

"You can catch you a car," she said.

He understood she was making fun of him but he was too paralyzed even to scowl. He stood drinking in every detail of her. His eyes traveled up from her great knees to her forehead and then made a triangular path from the glistening sweat on her neck down and across her tremendous bosom and over her bare arm back to where her fingers lay hidden in her hair. He suddenly wanted her to reach down and pick him up and draw him against her and then he wanted to feel her breath on his face. He wanted to look down and down into her eyes while she held him tighter and tighter. He had never had such a feeling before. He felt as if he were reeling down through a pitchblack tunnel.

"You can go a block down yonder and catch you a car take you to the railroad station, Sugarpie," she said.

Nelson would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had not pulled him roughly away. "You act like you don't have any sense!" the old man growled.

They hurried down the street and Nelson did not look back at the woman. He pushed his hat sharply forward over his face which was already burning with shame. The sneering ghost he had seen in the train window and all the foreboding feelings he had on the way returned to him and he remembered that his ticket from the scale had said to beware of dark women and that his grandfather's had said he was upright and brave. He took hold of the old man's hand, a sign of dependence that he seldom showed.
After a bit, following the tracks and finally, to their relief, back in a white part of town, Nelson decides to rest and falls asleep. To teach him a lesson about "impudence", Mr. Head hides so the boy will wake up alone. When he feels Nelson's slept too long, he bangs a trash can lid, causing Nelson to jump up and, not seeing his grandfather, run. Mr. Head runs after him; when he finally catches up, he sees that Nelson has run into a women, who is screaming that she has a broken ankle. At first, Mr. Head hides himself before finally coming forward; Nelson throws himself around his grandfather and clings to him. By now a crowd has assembled, and, with a police officer approaching, the woman accuses and shouts "Your boy has broken my ankle!":
"This is not my boy," he said. "I never seen him before."

He felt Nelson's fingers fall out of his flesh.
As they continue walking, Nelson keeps well behind his grandfather, refusing to have anything to do with him, refusing water, "his mind had frozen around his grandfather's treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final judgment." Mr. Head is appalled at the depth of his sin: "He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without light and what man would be like without salvation." He is saved when he spies a lawn ornament in the form of a black person, the "artificial nigger" of the title, which phrase he says, and the boy repeats. They both stare at the thing. Mr. Head looks at Nelson and sees "a hungry need for [...] assurance", a need for "him to explain once and for all the mystery of existence." He says: "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one." And Nelson is, pathetically, back in the fold.

I've quoted excessively from this story in a desire to give a flavor of the flow, to allow for some small appreciation for the reading experience, also because I'm uncharacteristically focusing here on what the story might be seen to be saying about racism. Because it seems to me that if one wanted to read this story only for a reductive message, the message would have to be that bigotry is fear-based and irrational and frankly stupid. And consider that, for all his obvious flaws, and for all their incessant bickering, Mr. Head is all Nelson has in the world. When he is betrayed, he can't help but feel lost. He needs to forgive his grandfather. In finally doing so, he necessarily, though his own brief encounter with the woman who gave him directions seems to conflict with what he'd always been told about black people, re-enemizes them. Though it's possible he'll remember his experience as a counterweight to his grandfather's ignorance, it seems more likely that that ignorance will instead continue to be passed on through him. In such ways, the story could be saying, is the racism of poor whites reinforced and maintained.


Andrew said...

I think the comparison to Golding nails it, actually. I find, as a sort of corollary of the "no character is ever smarter than they need to be" rule (although I want to point out that I exempted the last two stories from it) is that no character is ever more confused than they need to be. O'Connor is, like Golding, as intensely interested in "human nature" as, say, Dostoevsky, but Dostoevsky's characters make everything so much more complicated than the story really requires it to be, and that is about 7/8 of the pleasure of reading him. O'Connor does so much more rarely, and seems quite confident that she can get by without it.

So in the story you examine, I just don't find anything new or puzzling, anything that couldn't have been arrived at without the story. I think the story *is* reductive; the boy, either by virtue of age or intelligence, is incapable of the kind of reflection which could enrich it; the grandfather disinclined to reflection; the narrator, apparently uninterested.

Richard said...

Hi Andrew - I had been thinking that I tried to do a little too much here, and your comment confirms it. At least, I didn't sufficiently tie things together.

My purpose in investigating this particular story was to try to counter the idea that her stories were racist, even if their author perhaps was. I didn't really re-address the reductiveness aspect. I agree that the lesson I forced out of the story is not itself something we needed such a story for (though who knows how earlier readers took it; I haven't looked into it). Even so, I think it's a better story than you do. The reductive message I highlight is not likely to have been O'Connor's point in writing it, and I think in the reading experience the reader's pleasures are other than the message (they would have to be).

Jacob Russell said...

Content is not only impossibly entangled with form, but (in part, because it is), also impossibly entangled with interpretation. The text is not whatever the reader makes of it, but neither is it free the associational (re)configurations necessary to make sense of it. Precisely this openness that makes it impossible to to fashion any set of signs that can't be put to use--turned into propaganda. Why for me a critical reading has to be speculative and theoretical--in the sense that it is positing and responding to (not explaining or explicating) a relationship which is only partly manifest--not unlike a dream, a cultural dream only in part already present, and in part constructed with every reading. No work of art is complete or completely successful--sounds trite, but that element of failure is all important--the interacting force that mediates and brings author, the evocation of the completed work and the reader into an encounter with what is other, not reducible to any part in this set--to what is real in the world.

Ideas here I've been working through on The Dog... and are coming close to feeling like something coherent to me.

Jacob Russell said...

I've expanded somewhat on the comment above on the Barking Dog, with links to related posts--which I hope may make this a bit less cryptic...

Thank you, Richard, for your provocative, thoughtful take the moral vicissitudes of reading O'Conner

Andrew said...

Richard, I think I just wasn't engaging with your full entry--sorry.

Perhaps the message (fear produces/reinforces racism) was not O'Connor's point, but I doubt it would seem alien to her. I think what she is depicting is a fairly class-specific form of racism, one which she seems to have condescended to. (That is, she condescended to its roots in poverty--other forms of racism elsewhere in the collection are not given the kind of flatly ironic treatment that I feel pervades the story.)

I don't say that, though, to try to rebut your argument that her stories may not be racist, but just to argue (and I guess you disagree) that the treatment of racism as she wrote it is terribly simple, direct, and not worth a short story. That may not be the last word for the story--there may be other pleasures or charms, though I personally don't find them--but I do feel that (contra Shelley, I guess) politics aren't the right ground to engage O'Connor on (I would submit religion as the more fruitful arena) because there just isn't that much in the way of ideas to debate or to discuss.

But I'm being kind of a jerk about this--I really like what you say in your post about how to handle these questions, and I think it's a very worthwhile topic.

Richard said...

B.M.- I appreciate the perspective on O'Connor, which is actually informative and helpful in its brevity, but I will thank you not to engage in gratuitous personal attacks here.

Book Oblate said...

Richard, thank you for this thinking. One of my MFA Creative Writing students read O'Connor's most egregiously racist stories and I realized I hadn't read them since I myself was a student in the 70s and should have known better. I followed all the trails in your posting and read the other posts and the NYT review of Gooch's book. Conclusion: I took O'Connor off my students' reading list. There are so many other writers I can teach from.

Book Oblate said...

And then I put it back on my list, because it's the writing, not the writer we study.