Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Today is the birthday of one of the most gifted (and most quoted) essayists of the 19th century, G. K. Chesterton. His more well-known books include The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross, What’s Wrong With the World, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. When he converted to Roman Catholicism he saw that priests learned more about depravity by hearing confessions than anyone else — and that became the basis for his famous “Father Brown” mysteries. He was brilliant, quick witted, and hilarious. Everybody has a favorite Chestertonism, so its dumb to try to pick out the “best” ones, but here are a few pretty good ones:

“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

“Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.”

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

“Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.”

“What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism.”

“The aesthete aims at harmony rather than beauty. If his hair does not match the mauve sunset against which he is standing, he hurriedly dyes his hair another shade of mauve. If his wife does not go with the wall-paper, he gets a divorce.”

“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”

“Do not enjoy yourself. Enjoy dances and theaters and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if you can enjoy nothing better; enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to the other alternative; but never learn to enjoy yourself.”

My favorite Chesterton story comes from his years-long “war of words” with playwright and skeptic George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton was a very large man and Shaw never tired of gigging him about his girth. Once, at a party, Shaw came over to Chesterton who was entertaining a small group of listeners and said, “By the way, Chesterton, I see that you’re pregnant and was wondering what will you name the baby?” Chesterton never hesitated, “Well, if it’s a boy we’re going to call him George and if it’s a girl, we’ll call her Betty, but if it’s just gas, we plan to call it George Bernard Shaw.”

[Visit this page for more Chesterton]

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“Though they’re all mostly short and entirely unpretentious, O’Connor’s stories leave me feeling winded and humbled. Her endings always manage to surprise me even when I’ve read them numerous times before. As a rule, you can generally read the first paragraph, close your eyes and imagine what the worst possible fate could be for the characters described, and then continue reading to gradually discover that whatever the worst-case scenario you had in mind, it probably wasn’t sufficiently horrifying. And yet somehow, with your head pounding, you know that the story was accelerating inevitably to this point from the very first word. This is the way it had to be, and to insist otherwise feels almost immodest. Somehow, you can even sense, beyond whatever it is O’Connor herself had in mind when she started, a voice affirming, amid the mind-bending messiness, ‘It is good.’ . . .

[O’Connor] can never be popular enough, because there’s something uniquely healing in her powers. She cures the heart of all desensitizing sentimentality. In her company, we will be shocked awake from whatever anaesthetizing spirits have rendered us incapable of thinking clearly about ourselves and the world we inhabit. She delivers us from the deluding evil that is ever apocalyptic’s moving target. Listening to her stories changes everything. A new world is busting through the fabric of folly. It isn’t polite. It isn’t what we’re expecting. And it’s offering us a choice that we will have to make, even if it kills us.”
(Everyday Apocalypse, 28-29)

And I says, yep and right on, amen, hear, hear, and all that.

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Flannery O’Connor once described the “liberal” mindset (which is of course anything but liberal) to Cecil Dawkins in a letter written in 1958:

The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own unaided efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgement is out of place because man is not responsible.

Modern liberalism produces not compassion but sentimentalism, not mercy but cruelty walking around with sandwich boards that say “mercy.” It is a mindset that talks of love and tenderness but ends up loving no one and nothing but death. Its logical end is tyranny and terror. (more…)

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I’m not one who finds neat things on the Internet. I never have been able to use Google like everybody else I know (who seemingly can find anything within 30 seconds). But occasionally I stumble across a really nice site, like this one — (now of course, I’ll learn that everybody has known about this site forever! but that’s ok). One thing though: their list of contemporary women writers is far too short.

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Flannery O’Connor’s stories don’t lend themselves to simplistic interpretations. There is good and there is evil but the edges are frayed and the colors are often indistinct. The ambiguity in her stories often rattles us because we like our morals sharp-edged and uncamoflaged. But in Flannery’s stories it is not so. Each one demands reflection and care and leaves itself open to various interpretations. This was intentional. Even when others asked about the particular meaning, she was hesitant to say much. She preferred to leave the mystery rather than have it all explained. (more…)

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From “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor 
Scene: Mrs. May speaks with Mr. Greenleaf about the new dairy barn his sons have built: 

The barn was down the lane from the house. She had not seen it before but Mr. Greenleaf had described it in detail for it had been built according to the latest specifications. It was a milking parlor arrangement where the cows are milked from below. The milk ran in pipes from the machines to the milk house and was never carried in no bucket, Mr. Greenleaf said, by no human hand. “When you gonter get you one?” he had asked.

“Mr. Greenleaf,” she had said, “I have to do for myself. I am not assisted hand and foot by the government. It would cost me $20,000 to install a milking parlor. I barely make ends meet as it is.”

“My boys done it,” Mr. Greenleaf had murmured, and then— “but all boys ain’t alike.”

“No indeed!” she had said. “I thank God for that!”

“I thank Gawd for ever-thang,” Mr. Greenleaf had drawled.

You might as well, she had thought in the fierce silence that followed; you’ve never done anything for yourself.

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There’s always a danger in commenting on an O’Connor story. She often protested about the tendency of literary critics to see things that weren’t present; importing into her stories all sorts of symbolic meaning that she never intended. She wanted to preserve the ambiguity and mystery of her stories and never appreciated the strained efforts of English teachers to explain them (“If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable as along as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.”). But, since I’m not a literary critic or an English teacher, I guess I’m free to make a few observations (and where I’m off-base, feel free to let me know). John Updike picked “Greenleaf” for inclusion in his Best American Short Stories of the Century so this is a good place to start.

In “Greenleaf” O’Connor draws a number of contrasts — the chief being that between Mrs. May and the Greenleafs (and especially Mrs. Greenleaf). The narrator informs us that Mrs. May thought of herself “as a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” Stephen Sparrow observes, “She is like those who give Christianity the same seal of approval that they extend to the Armed Forces. They’re glad each exists but have no intention of being a part of either.” On the surface Mrs. May comes across as a good woman, but for all her apparent virtue, she is in reality small-minded, small-hearted, and insufferably self-righteous. (more…)

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Ok. So what are the top five Flannery O’Connor short stories? Everyone always lists “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and, of course, that would have to be in the top five, but that’s too easy. Let’s agree to place it to the side for the purposes of this list. What are the five best other than “A Good Man”? Here’s my list:

1. “Greenleaf” (the Bull takes care of business: “‘With the Momma I got it’s a wonder I turned out to be such a nice boy!’”)

2. “The Enduring Chill” (the arrogance of the modern gets a rebuke from purgatory: “‘Don’t you think if I’d wanted to go to a doctor I’d have gone up there where they have some good ones?’”).

3. “The Lame Shall Enter First” (shepherd or Savior: “‘Save yourself,’ he hissed. ‘Nobody can save me but Jesus.’”)

4. “Parker’s Back” (can’t get away from Jesus: “‘Mr. Parker,’ she said, ‘you’re a walking panner-rammer!’”)

5. “Revelation” (Mrs. Turpin gets brought down a notch . . . or two: “When I think who all I could have been besides myself . . . . I feel like shouting, ‘Thank you Jesus for making everything the way it is!’”).

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Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Enduring Chill,” contains one of the most entertaining confrontations between the Church and the world in modern literature. In the story, Asbury, the spoiled son of a Southern farmer, has been forced to return home from New York City because of illness. Asbury fancied himself a highly sophisticated artist. In fact, he was an abject failure. But now, he’s convinced that he’s dying and has badgered his mother into calling a Roman Catholic priest to visit him. Asbury had met a Jesuit priest in New York who was hip, witty, intellectual—all the things he fancied himself to be. Starved for intellectual stimulation, Asbury assumed that another priest would be the perfect conversation partner. At least he would be far better qualified than any of the narrow minded, uneducated Protestant clergy in town. When the local priest finally arrives, however, he is not at all what Asbury was expecting. What entered his room was not a polished intellectual but “a massive old man” who introduced himself as “Father Finn—from Purgatory”:

“It’s so nice to have you come,” Asbury said. “This place is incredibly dreary. There’s no one here an intelligent person can talk to. I wonder what you think of Joyce, Father?”

The priest lifted his chair and pushed closer. “You’ll have to shout,” he said. “Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.” (more…)

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(this is taken from a lecture given at the Bucer Institute on Flannery O’Connor; thanks to Doug Jones, Peter Leithart, and others who’ve helped me to appreciate her even more than I did already)

One of the things we see throughout Flannery O’Connor’s writings is the truth that God works in and through the physical and material. God works through fire and water; bulls and peacocks; cats and grandmothers; and, of course, ultimately through His Word read and proclaimed, and in the waters of baptism, and by the bread and wine of the table. The prominence of this reality in her writings was intentional not accidental. She was attacking  the gnosticism of the modern Church; the denial that the material and physical can be means by which we commune with the Lord.

For too many of us, bread is simply bread, wine is only wine, water is merely water and nothing more. Bread and wine can never be the means by which we commune with Christ and feast upon His body and blood. Water can never be the means by which the Spirit brings us into communion with the Trinity. The Church must only be an assembly of people who profess the same theology, it can’t be “the body of Christ.” Not really.  (more…)

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