By MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Published: November 15, 2013
This slender, charming book must be approached with a special tact. To read it feels a little like an intrusion on inwardness itself. The volume contains, alongside a lightly corrected transcription, a facsimile of the Sterling notebook in which Flannery O’Connor, just 20 years old, began a journal addressed to God. Written in her neat hand, it is reproduced complete with the empty final pages (her concluding words are “there is nothing left to say of me”) and not omitting a bit of musical notation floating on the inside of the back cover. The prayers, attempts at prayer and meditations on faith and art contained in it were written in 1946 and 1947, while O’Connor was a student in Iowa. The brilliance that would make her fictions literary classics is fully apparent in them.
Martha Sprieser (Georgia College Library, Milledgeville)
The complexity of O’Connor’s thinking, together with the largely flawless pages in her hand, suggest that these entries may be fair copies of earlier drafts. Clearly O’Connor’s virtuosity makes her self-conscious. Young as she was, new to writing, she could only have been pleased, even awed, at having produced these beautiful sentences. Perhaps nothing written is finally meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the writer’s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of honesty. After a little joke about the pedestrian uses we would make of a knowledge of heaven if we had been given one, she says, remembering her intended Hearer, “But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so.” Her mind is examined, faith questioned, weakness confessed, powers tried as they might not have been under the eye of any human observer. Youth and loneliness and the unspent energies of a singular mind are testing the possible and must be allowed free play.
It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”
Every writer wonders where fictional ideas come from. The best of them often appear very abruptly after a period of imaginative drought. And, mysteriously, they really are good ideas, much superior to the contrivances of conscious invention. Such experiences are by no means exclusive to writers with religious worldviews. But believing them to be literal gifts grants them an objective existence they seem actually to deserve. This entails problems, of course. Fiction rarely shows a divine imprimatur, as its mortal creators are well aware. I would be curious to know what story or part of a story by O’Connor should be attributed to the Lord. It can seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, Hesiod, Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O’Connor, were naïve, sophistication has made language poorer. There is no way now to describe an experience many a writer can attest to, having been surprised by it, and having enjoyed it as a particular pleasure and reward of the art. Religion is by its nature more accommodating to the unaccountable than rationalism ever can be.
While O’Connor was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she was also a daily communicant at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at the edge of campus. Her journal reflects a conflict, in her mind at least, between a skeptical intellectual environment and the faith she sometimes anxiously sustains. She says: “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church.” She knows all the arguments against religion. They seem to have changed little over the last 70 years, so there is no need to rehearse them here. Considering the threat she feels them to be, it is striking that atheism, in an apparently Southern, vernacular incarnation with nothing intellectual about it, is at the center of “Wise Blood,” the novel she had already begun to write and submit to be read in workshop. This is a tale in which pathos tips into pathology and violence, answered by a penance of self-mutilation and suffering. Yet the prose is absolutely brilliant, sentence by sentence, simile by simile, and so relentlessly inventive it feels comic.
The young writer prays, “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.” At prayer she is scrupulous in her candor, and a little wry therefore. She seems already to be making important decisions about the means by which she will carry forward her intention to write as a Christian, influenced by her reaction to the assertive skepticism and the fashionable theism she senses around her. She says, “Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.” This might serve as a gloss on the fiction she was writing at the time, which conjures such a world. She asks: “Am I trying to shock with God? Am I trying to push Him in there violently, feet foremost? Maybe that’s all right. Maybe if I’m doing it it’s all right?” Certainly by the standards of the most tentative or perfunctory reverence her language can seem transgressive. Her religious sincerity is beyond question, but the forms of its expression raise many questions. This is no criticism. It is the honorable work of any writer who touches on great matters to provoke. And it is a discipline of writing well to allow the fiction to discover itself, however it may startle its writer’s intentions as it does so. She says of the story for which she has thanked God: “I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. . . . Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right — or any wrong.”
The particular pleasure of life in Iowa City rests not so much in the fact that the girl beside you on the bus or behind you in line might well be pondering a great and turbulent tradition of thought and belief, and finding new language to explore it. This could be true anywhere. It is that here the privilege of hearing or seeing her thoughts as fiction or poetry, even seeing them emerge and develop, is widely shared. This little journal puts its reader a step closer to one touching and remarkable young mind.