Recognizing a Freak: An Atheist Reads Flannery O’Connor

By Raul Quinque

Pho­to Cred­it: flan­nery o’con­nor and pea­cock pub­lished by will (50 watts)

The read­er and the writer. Two sides of the same coin. Par­don, the same page. Rela­tion­ship sta­tus: It’s com­pli­cat­ed since only one gets to state what’s on their mind. Thus, it’s only fair to talk back via text. Flan­nery O’Connor (1925–1964) may be long gone from this world, but her lit­er­a­ture endures as an eter­nal mes­sage. And so does the ques­tion how an athe­ist-by-con­vic­tion con­nects to Catholic O’Connor’s South­ern Goth­ic reli­gious themes.

Let’s start at the begin­ning and put the title of this post into con­text, for instance with O’Connor’s own words from the chap­ter “The Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion” in Mys­tery and Man­ners, a col­lec­tion of essays and lec­tures on writing:

When­ev­er I’m asked why South­ern writ­ers par­tic­u­lar­ly have a 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 a man is still, in the main, the­o­log­i­cal. That is a large state­ment, and it is dan­ger­ous to make it, for 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.

O’Connor was both a Geor­gian and a staunch Catholic, and in her sto­ries, we encounter every­thing lack­ing and vile in human­i­ty. In oth­er words: Every­thing that sep­a­rates human nature from god accord­ing to Chris­t­ian per­cep­tion. If there’s holi­ness, there’s deprav­i­ty. This dichoto­my makes sense even to peo­ple with­out one spir­i­tu­al bone in their body. What about this state­ment: What doesn’t make any sense begets faith? To approach this idea from an athe­ist point of view is like try­ing to take a pic­ture of the moon: There will nev­er be a sat­is­fac­to­ry out­come, yet it seems worth it – maybe pre­cise­ly because of its elusiveness.

Mys­tery is both O’Connor’s premise as well as the effect in her writ­ing. There may be the (under­stand­able) temp­ta­tion to dis­miss the words of some­one whose assump­tions of the world are dif­fer­ent from your own – but then a sen­tence from her short sto­ry “Green­leaf” (1956) comes along and upsets every­thing you thought you under­stood: “She was a good Chris­t­ian woman with a large respect for reli­gion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

This one line speaks vol­umes on the char­ac­ter it describes, but it also char­ac­ter­izes the dichoto­my we often feel our­selves – believ­ers and non-believ­ers alike. It’s a mys­tery how some have faith in divin­i­ty while oth­ers can­not per­ceive of a world with­out divine intent. And yet – as O’Connor writes in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fic­tion” – we all have a notion of how to rec­og­nize a freak: “The type of mind that can under­stand good fic­tion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the edu­cat­ed mind, but is at all times the kind of mind that is will­ing to have its sense of mys­tery deep­ened by con­tact with real­i­ty, and its sense of real­i­ty deep­ened by con­tact with mystery.”

Sen­tences like these make me want to react and cry out to her: “I don’t believe in the super­nat­ur­al, but I get your mys­tery. I dis­agree with you all the time and yet your writ­ing inspires me not just as a read­er and writer, but as a human. How can that be?” And just like that, we’re back to mys­tery as the alpha and omega in this con­ver­sa­tion. If all that sounds exhaust­ing, then that’s because it is.

Chris­t­ian or not, it’s fair not to want to engage with O’Connor, not least because she held and expressed racist sen­ti­ments through­out her life, her racism being entire­ly delib­er­ate and cru­cial­ly inter­twined with every­thing she authored. It’s also fair to spend hours on sun­ny sum­mer days read­ing O’Connor, try­ing to come to terms with anoth­er incred­i­ble para­graph, and know­ing damn well that every ques­tion it rais­es will remain unanswered.

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