By Mary McWay Seaman
New Oxford Review
Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. Edited by Susan Srigley. University of Notre Dame Press. 212 pages. $28.
To offer a critique of critiques is akin to interpreting interpretations. However, the task here is eased because each of the essays in Dark Faith presents a unique focus on the celebrated second novel of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). The Violent Bear It Away, written in the Southern Gothic tradition, examines the struggles between faith and secularism through a prophet, a nihilist, a rationalist, and a child — all males of three generations. The novel is awash with religious allusions, imagery, and poetic metaphors, and no moral relativism is found therein, as each of the nine esteemed essayists attests.
Richard Giannone, professor emeritus of English at Fordham University, finds that, for O’Connor, “darkness is the condition of the modern age.” He declares that darkness is part of seeking belief: “All faith is dark. For God, who is incomprehensible, is like the dark to the human spirit.” O’Connor’s haunting symbols of pits, or ditches that suck folks into nihilism, are scattered throughout her book. The novel’s sullen teenage nihilist, educated by an elderly prophet to continue the old man’s tradition, fell into “the godlessness of the modern age” — one of O’Connor’s darkest pits. Giannone observes, however, that darkness enables belief to spring forth from “the ruins of individual human evil and political annihilation.” The darkness of faith is also explored by Professor Gary M. Ciuba of Kent State, who remarks concerning O’Connor’s view of Hell, “Children know by instinct that hell is an absence of love, and they can pick out theirs without missing.” Ciuba observes that ditches motivate the sinner “to assume responsibility in a fallen world.” Both essayists see a thorough scourging at the ditch’s bottom as the impetus that propels one upward. Sin exacts its own penance.
Karl E. Martin of Point Loma Nazarene University discusses parallels between the novel’s elderly prophet and John the Baptist, wilderness men preaching baptism and repentance as escape routes out of the ditch. The nihilist is led by a child who presents “an alternative way of being in the world.” The little one’s baptism and death serve in a sacramental manner to aid the nihilist’s move from a “prophetic kingdom to the messianic kingdom of heaven.” Ruthann Knechel Johansen, emerita professor at the University of Notre Dame, posits “an intellectual-spiritual kinship between O’Connor and [Simone] Weil” derived from Weil’s essays and O’Connor’s novel. Johansen points to O’Connor’s depiction of how “three implicit forms of the love of God — the religious ceremony of baptism, the beauty of the world, and the love of neighbor — can be perverted through rebellion, denial, and violation.” These perversions, or ditches, can serve as turning points to faith for errant souls who are well and truly beaten.
Professor John F. Desmond of Whitman College probes the novel’s rationalist character: a condescending, confrontational, and coarse stooge with a mindset acting “as a defense against the vulnerabilities and needs of his heart and the deprivations and confusion he experienced as a child.” A cogent argument finds such rationalism “truly demonic because he uses his crafty intelligence as a weapon to manipulate those around him.” Professor Jason Peters of Augustana College asserts that O’Connor was “thoroughly suspicious” of abstraction or visionary theories derived from objects — the rationalist’s ailment. Peters takes up alienation themes while discussing the “condition of placelessness” that permeates the novel. “Placelessness is not a morally neutral condition for the writer” as it deepens hardship, heartache, and strife.
Associate Professor Scott Huelin of Union University examines the imago Dei, the assertion that humans are made “in the image and likeness of God” through the attributes of reason, will, and love. A tyrannical interpretation of reason surges through O’Connor’s rationalist technocrat, a cool customer who adopts a “perverse asceticism — perverse because it constricts rather than enlarges the heart.” Huelin finds that, for O’Connor, humanity is “constituted by its capacity to enter into meaningful, responsible, and responsive relationships with others, and the unbending of the self, its opening to the other, precisely is the restoration of the image of God.”
Baptism is the “central action of the novel,” according to McMaster University’s P. Travis Kroeker. His essay centers on the conflict between the novel’s rationalist and prophetic visions as an intertwined baptism and murder shout out both worldviews. The dark faith’s “path to life, then, for those with eucharistic vision, must pass through a suffering and death in which Christ gives his flesh and sheds his blood for all — a vision that remains as offensive today as it ever was, world without end.” Susan Srigley, associate professor at Nipissing University, probes the novel’s treatment of self-renunciation and the possibilities of self-fulfillment, seeing a “double movement of renunciation and fulfillment as possible only through an expanded vision of both individuality and community that extends from the living to the dead and back again.” She emphasizes “the relationships between the living and the dead and the spiritual ties that bind them.”
Structural loneliness saturates the characters’ lives in O’Connor’s novel, but this area goes largely unexplored by the contributors to this volume. Where are the neighbors’ visits, religious communities, schools, sporting events, card games, concerts, radio programs, or communions of living saints? A bitter isolation figures into the spiritual pathologies of several ingrown, single-minded, self-absorbed characters. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that O’Connor’s novel remained above doctrinal sectarianism, containing none of that era’s dark, old-time Southern, idolatrous-papist-versus-blaspheming-Protestant stuff.
Literary criticism, a niche pursuit, is often a lofty, parochial sport with many participants drafted from academia. That said, this particular collection of essays reveals the genre at its most exacting as Dark Faith dissects disorderly journeys from ditch to eternal destiny through the offerings of nine admired minds. Mary Flannery O’Connor would be pleased!