There is a loneliness within each of us, because only we are in our heads. We fill that void with all sorts of things, good and bad.
I’ve sat at a keyboard, trying to put characters on a page that live in some way, fictional people whose inner world is cracked open like fruit to see and taste, and hopefully there’s company in the writing process and the reading. But that’s really hard to do well. The fruit is often stinky and rotten.
Of course, how can a Georgian try such a thing without looking toward Milledgeville and the great work of one woman? As long as there are humans, people will look with wonder at the mind of a woman who died of lupus at 39 in 1964. Flannery O’Connor is rightly revered as one of — if not “the” — great short story writers in American history. But the prestige aspect is a cloud to cut through, not a stopping point. Too often, someone gets a big name and the fame overshadows the work itself, especially for a reader. If you know you’re supposed to like something, but then you discover that you don’t, it’s really annoying, isn’t it? What if I just don’t get it? It makes us feel worse about ourselves, as if we’ve stumbled on fresh evidence of a humiliating lacking. And this can make us not want to look or read. I have felt this about a number of things that I just don’t “get” and never will. I imagine some people feel this about O’Connor.
But I look at O’Connor and think less about something “to get” — her mental acrobatics, her wizardry of language, the symbolic particulars in her work or her view of “the South” — and more simply about a frail human battling her own isolation and alienation, and doing so in a fantastically powerful way. She focused that effort into a living world of her own, which reflected what she saw in the real world. This process was her company — her battle against silence, darkness and loneliness. And this inner fight produced something that lives on without her.
O’Connor’s mother, Regina, wanted her to write about nice characters. Well, nope. Her characters were not the stuff of breezy romance novels. They were broken, bitter, cruel, prideful and sometimes redeemed. They weren’t actual people, but they were certainly real.
Of course, O’Connor was first recognized, not for her writing, but for her backwards-walking chicken. There’s black-and-white footage from 1932 of 5-year-old Mary O’Connor (she was called “Mary” as a child) and her “moonwalking” bird. She later wrote that “I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens.” Ha, that’s some early, strange creativity, right? She also famously had an affinity for peacocks. Her father, Edward, adored his young chicken-fashion designer daughter and encouraged her writing. The two wrote to each other. He was diagnosed with lupus when she was 12 and died when she was 15. That pain was surely transformative. And the suffering characters in her writing are surely painted with that brush of hurt and darkness from a young daughter losing her father way too soon. Later, her mother kept her diagnosis of lupus, the same disease that took her dad, a secret from Flannery until Sally Fitzgerald told the writer she didn’t have “arthritis,” but lupus. O’Connor said it was bad news but that she was glad not to feel insane for believing her own “arthritis” was actually lupus. Imagine not being included in the shared secret about your own body. That’s a real kind of alienation, I believe. And when she spoke of being “crazy,” she did so in the town of Milledgeville, well known as the home of the massive state mental hospital. It seems fitting that O’Connor’s hard tales were written against such a backdrop of inner strife and alienation.
O’Connor never found love and felt the sting of rejection, which was alive in her when she wrote her famed, “Good Country People,” about one-legged Hulga, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, whose mother is ashamed at her being “different.” Hulga falls for a traveling Bible salesman, who steals her prosthetic leg. This was written shortly after O’Connor was rejected by a college textbook salesman who had been romantically involved with her. She turned this pain into a literary classic. The short story was not specifically about her relationship, but the tale was informed by that hurt, which her mother said was intense. This experience was surely painful, but writing that striking story must have been such a powerful and sweet catharsis, which is what art can offer, whether in the making or consuming.
I read one of O’Connor’s two novels, “Wise Blood,” years ago. And I’m thinking of that now after watching the 1979 John Huston movie by the same name this weekend. It was filmed in Macon when I lived there at the age of 6. I grew up in north Macon and never spent much time in downtown Macon, but I’m familiar with it. As I watched the film, I looked closely at the roads, the cars, the buildings and the skyline from a time gone by. Any other Maconites should check this out if they haven’t seen it. I thought the film was good, not outstanding, the way movies usually are in comparison to a book.
But I’ve been thinking about the story. Several characters seem wildly desperate to break out of their loneliness, with three unsuccessfully latching on to the main character, Hazel Motes. But Motes is driven by something else, a desire for pure truth. He despises spiritual fakery to murderous proportions. He is lonely within himself and only truth will fill the void. He ultimately rejects all who seek his company. Instead, he is focused on establishing his own “Church of Truth Without Christ,” where anyone is welcome, no matter their sin or identity. But it is a Godless church, needing a new Jesus. He stands on his failing red car, preaching his Godless church on the street.
He is tortured inside. And he is going against the “wise blood” within him, which pulls him toward Christ. He finally blinds himself, wraps barbed wire around his chest, walks with rocks in his shoes, and appears to the innkeeper, who takes care of him, as a sort of monk or holy man. The innkeeper falls in love with him and says she’ll take care of him forever if only he’ll marry her. But he won’t be possessed by another, so he leaves her in a downpour, then police deliver his dead body back to her, finally her possession, but gone.
Motes is any number of things. Art leaves us thinking like that. We wonder, what does this tale mean? I don’t know objectively. But I know what I feel. O’Connor was a serious Catholic. But she was not writing for an atheist or a Christian audience. She seemed to be writing for herself and her own battle for what is spiritually real in a complicated world. I look at this work and think of all the expectations on people, all the pressure of conformity on us, which is heavy. We are seeking some kind of truth, and that is also interwoven with what everyone else thinks is true. But what everyone thinks is not necessarily our own truth. We are alone in our heads. So truth is not just some out-there statement of fact. It’s also a particular lived experience — your own, which is seen only through your eyes. Motes is battling this fundamental loneliness in his truth. He’s trying to be one way about it, but being pulled toward another, which happens in spite of all his raging effort. And this inner tug of war is part of being human, a self trying to come to peace with the self. It drives Hazel Motes mad, causing him finally to blind himself. His tale makes me think of “Amazing Grace,” but in some haunted, crooked form. “I was blind, but now I see.” I wonder if O’Connor had that familiar tune in her head when she blinded Hazel Motes and he gained some new vision in his darkness.
Flannery O’Connor was battling with something in herself until she died, even making notes while she was in the hospital, knowing her time was coming. Her best human company was her own unique brain working on some vision. And that was mighty fine company, for sure. It is for us, too. It’s nice to sit with that company for a while and to travel with her, visiting the misfits, the alienated, the strange landscape inside of her skull as she saw it, uniquely for a time, alone, but not alone.