Flannery O’Connor – Writing on Freaks

I just started reading Flannery O’Conner; it is quite a journey to say the least.  Here’s a small taste of her wit, humor, and “realness.”  By the way, those of you from the South may have more insight here than I do.  I’ve only spent six months of my life in the South, and that in Uncle Sam’s custody.  Feel free to shed some more insight!

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.  To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man.  And in the South, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.  Of course, the South is changing so rapidly that almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety.  But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.  It is interesting that as belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction.  What is pushed to the back of the mind makes its way forward somehow.  Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.  They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature, for it is the business of the artist to reveal what haunts us.  We in the South may be in the process of exorcising this ghost which has given us our vision of perfection.”

“Robert Penn Warren has said that in twenty years there may be no such thing as Southern literature.  By that time the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

This paragraph from page 861 in O’Connor: Collected Works (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988) is loaded.  Not only does it (at first) make the reader chuckle, it is nearly prophetic.  She wrote this 50 years ago, give or take.  I can’t help but think how this can be applied to the American pulpit as a whole, especially the part about the ghost-like Christ-figure.  Perhaps we could also say that it is the “business of” the pastor “to reveal what haunts us” as well.  Use your Christian imagination here!

To wrap up, read O’Connor’s Wise Blood for starters.  She sort of puts that above paragraph into literary action as she writes about a certain man (Hazel Motes) who was so sick of religion/church that he started his own church, “The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.”  His sermons sounded like this: “I’m going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two” (Ibid., 59).  Most interestingly of all, he preached to people who said, “I got a church in my heart where Jesus is King” (Ibid., 68).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “Flannery O’Connor – Writing on Freaks”

  1. Thanks for that, Shane. I’ve been reading O’Connor for the last year or so, just a short story here and there. There’s no doubt that she was a powerful, gifted writer. But I do find that she’s a lot like the blues: morbidly obsessed with the tragic. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a good example.

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  2. Good note, Wes. I got the “blues” theme as well; oddly, for no reason I grabbed Kierkegaard’s work on sin/despair and O’Connor at the same time. On top of that, I just preached through the themes of Lord’s Days 2-4 on misery. However, the key text for all the sermons was Rom 5.20b.

    shane

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  3. And let no one forget O’Connor’s great short story, “Revelation,” pp. 633-654 in the Collected Works. Her image of the “battalion of freaks” (654) making their way to heaven is one of the most amazing images in all of American literature.

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