February 22, 2009

Wood's Review of "Flannery: A Life"

I read modern biographies of devout Christian or Catholic figures merely hoping that it won't be too irritating. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable biogtry among elites so I expect a certain amount of misrepresentation, wilful neglect, and flat out bias. So because Gooch kept them in check, I personally found his biography of Flannery O'Connor non-irritating and thus enjoyable: I wasn't looking to know FoC better, so much as to know the events of her life better, and I think Gooch succeeded swimmingly in that. Besides, how many biographies really allow us to understand someone? People are complex. Gooch was at least outwardly respectful of her Catholicism which was the best I figured I could hope for.

Ralph C. Wood, however, is less easily satisfied. He devastatingly critiques the biography in the latest issue of National Review, beginning with the title of the book: "The patronizing intimacy of Gooch’s title turns out, moreover, to be a distancing device." Ouch, I say, given how the title of my other blog is If Flannery Had a Blog. I'd realized the title was a bit too familiar only long after I began that blog.

Gooch does seem, oddly, to see the whole secret to understanding O'Connor bound up with peacocks rather than Christ. Woods writes:
Gooch lays O’Connor’s genuine distinctiveness to the side, and thus fails to bring her life into the sharp focus it demands. His biography has no overarching theme, no compelling trajectory, no revealing figure in the carpet. He seems to believe that O’Connor was a rara avis, but his main evidence is that, as a child, she trained a chicken to walk backward and that, as an adult, she raised peafowl and other exotic birds... Instead of probing the complex depths of “Flannery,” Gooch has written a jauntily superficial book....

Gooch chooses to make Freudian readings that obfuscate rather than clarify. He interprets the brilliant brat in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” as wrestling with her dawning erotic desires, arguing that her sexuality is finally “sublimated in religious expression.” Such sexual preoccupations blind Gooch to the child’s real problem: She is afflicted with a condition far more fundamental than her prepubescent sexuality — namely, her religious pride as a Roman Catholic.


Flannery O’Connor found herself sent on a similarly urgent mission at a now-famous dinner party hosted by Mary McCarthy. Having recently “outgrown” Catholicism, McCarthy opined that she still found eucharistic symbolism literarily useful, even though she didn’t believe any of its hocus-pocus. With a candor not usually encountered at New York social gatherings, the usually taciturn O’Connor could not remain silent, even at the cost of giving great offense. “Well,” she said, “if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.” Gooch makes nothing of this scandalous claim, nor does he deal with O’Connor’s later elaboration: “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

The Eucharist does not merely point or gesture toward something vaguely transcendent, O’Connor was saying; it sacramentally enacts the Reality it declares: This is Christ’s life-giving body and blood, the feast without which we are literally starved of life. Or else it is a snare and a delusion that should be denounced as such. Gooch observes, instead, that O’Connor “framed her new life in religion” when her illness compelled her to return home and live with her mother back in Milledgeville for the last dozen years. Quite to the contrary, O’Connor had already framed her life — both literary and existential — in her Catholicism. “I am a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist,” she said, “but like someone else would be an atheist.”
Wood also asks a fascinating question:
The deeper problem is far more perplexing: Why, prior to Flannery O’Connor, had this country — the only Western nation “with the soul of a church,” as G. K. Chesterton famously said — failed to produce a single major writer whose work is Christian in both form and substance? Why would a triple outsider to the American project — a self-declared advocate of 13th-century Catholicism, a southerner who refused to apologize for the evils of her region, a sympathizer with backwoods Protestant fundamentalists — become this country’s first thoroughly Christian writer of fiction? Why are nearly all of our eminent writers — Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Frost, Faulkner — heterodox at best, atheist or even nihilist at worst? Why was Flannery O’Connor the first distinguished American writer to have her imagination shaped by the scandalous claims of the Gospel? Why, above all, does her greatness lie precisely in her being “such a Roman Catholic,” a Christian convinced that the triune God has uniquely and definitively identified Himself and His will for the world in the Jews and Jesus and the Church?

1 comment:

wl said...

I think Wood has the goods on this guy. That reading of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is about the stupidest I've heard. But Caroling Gordon would take Wood to task for including Faulkner in his list of the heterodox. She wrote a long essay demonstrating that he is one of the most Christian of our writers. Read Light in August.