January 28, 2023

Flannery O’Connor Reads the Riot Act

“Sentimentality always leads to the gas chamber.” — Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 and died in 1964. She described her life as wandering between the house and chicken yard. John Updike wasn’t fooled by her Georgia hideaway, praising her while still in her early 30s to Hemingway and Faulkner. In a 2009 article for the Atlantic, Joseph O’Neil writes, “She was touched by evil and no doubt knew it. That is what makes her so wickedly good.” The characters in her stories were authentically low life because she lived in the same world. She was taught by the masters of the literary world and received enough acclaim to be compared with the grand master Hemingway. Unlike Hemingway, she was touched by evil close to home, where there was “no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles,” as one of her characters complained in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

She doesn’t have the face, or biography, to be described as touched by evil. Hemingway experienced the evil of World Wars and had the face to prove it. But Flannery O’Connor? Look at that face. She’s smiling as if she knows your secrets. The voices in your head will become the dialogue in her penetrating stories.

“You needn’t act as if the world has come to an end,” he said, “because it hasn’t. From now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change. Buck up,” he said,”it won’t kill you.”

I wonder what the reaction would have been if someone in the State Department had the same gleam in the eye as Flannery O’Connor and quoted her in response to the Muslim rage. I doubt the world would have come to an end. There was a story this weekend about a woman in Iran who was ordered to cover her face. She responded with a punch to the official’s face. There could be a market for Flannery O’Connor in Tehran.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters live in a mental bubble, a fantasy world, where they have set the rules about trespassing. She punctures it with a sharp wit and dialogue of a writer who has absorbed the evil into her imagination. The diplomats in Washington express support for their Muslim friends as the Flannery O’Connor character says she always had respect for her colored friends.

“They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”

“The ones I feel sorry for,” she said, “are the ones that are half white. They’re tragic.”

A great story was just published in time for the movie released in October. Argo is about the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran. Six Americans were able to flee the embassy and hide in the Canadian embassy. A CIA officer, Tony Mendez, created a Hollywood fantasy, entering Iran as a Hollywood producer and leaving under the noses of the ayatollahs with the six Americans as his film crew. Mendez, one of the CIA’s top 50 officers in 50 years, was an expert forger, artist, and creator of fictional identities.

Mendez writes of his love for the great movies of the 70s for stirring his own artistic vision. He approached his document and “authentication” work at the CIA as a great Hollywood director or writer. The eye for detail and ear for language meant the difference between life and death. His power of observation was on the level of a Flannery O’Connor, and surrounded by bad guys for three hundred miles. The wrong shoes, no signs of rust on a staple for the visa, a slight hiccup in the accent. His work required a novelist’s imagination and a touch of evil.

“What all this means,” he said, “is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.”

“You aren’t who you think you are.”

The mother collapses on the pavement with her old world and her son’s world of guilt and sorrow awaits as he runs for help.

Flannery O’Connor died just as the riots of the 1960s spread throughout the country. Detroit was crippled permanently from the 1967 riots. The CIA officer Tony Mendez mentions Detroit once in his book. A hotel in Iran reminds him of a Detroit hotel. Mendez dismisses the James Bond stereotype. The lead characters, the true stars, are the gray men and women who enter and leave without a compelling memory of them ever being there. While Hemingway’s face seemed to be on every magazine cover throughout the American Century, O’Connor disliked having her picture taken.

Flannery O’Connor probably wouldn’t be afraid of the ayatollahs putting a bounty on her head. She said once that sentimentality leads to the gas chamber. She’d tell the State Department and everyone else to buck up.


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