Beethoven's Violin Concerto
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A Note On Flannery O'Connor and Race

Having read a bit more about the unpublished Flannery O'Connor work mentioned in this post, I'm getting the impression that much of the discussion about it, and possibly the book itself, are focused on Flannery O'Connor's views on race. 

This interview with the book's editor, Jessica Hooten Wilson, by a couple of slightly obtuse Georgia Public Radio guys, is an instance. I'm sure they're smart guys who went to college and all, but this is the way they see the world:

Orlando Montoya: So I'd like to think that this story would have become Flannery's statement on race, that she might have come down on the right side, and that it would have clarified a lot of our doubts about Flannery and race. But it's also possible that she could have just ended up making some other point.

Peter Biello: Like, well, what other point?

Orlando Montoya: Religious.

Peter Biello: Oh, okay.

Orlando Montoya: A religious point. I mean, her entire body of work is just oozing, as you said, with this Catholic sense of the world. And so there's a reason Catholics just love Flannery. And to me, when I read Flannery and this story's no exception, there's just a lot of judgment, from everyone to everyone. And so that's why I kind of find her kind of difficult. Her pages are just dripping with judgment, this Catholic sense that there's going to be a reckoning and you better be on the right side. And these fragments are no different.

Oh, okay.

They're creatures of their time and culture who don't see their own as clearly as O'Connor did hers. And they are, in a limited way, admirers of her work. At least the one guy understands that the Catholic viewpoint is not just accidental to the stories. But to view the very glancing connection between O'Connor's views on race as more interesting and important than the theological-philosophical foundations of her work is indicative of a very defective understanding of it (and possibly of art in general, but never mind that now).

Moreover, the clear implication here is that the Catholic aspect is something at least mildly negative, which certainly indicates a view of the work that is seriously limited at best. We have to put up with her weird religious obsession, they seem to suggest, but we can hope that she might, in keeping with our expectations of what constitutes progress, have set that stuff aside and talked about what we think is important, i.e. race, come down on "the right side" of the matter, and "clarified a lot of our doubts." (What does that mean, exactly? Remove our doubts, I suppose. "Clarified" could mean either confirmed or contradicted.) And if she didn't? Well, clearly our doubts must remain; Flannery O'Connor is "problematic." 

It's especially wrong-headed, downright ludicrous, for a 21st century progressive to complain of an excess of judgment, when the more zealous among them rarely stop judging everything and everyone in Western civilization, apart from themselves and the present moment, as inadequate if not evil. And let us note, too, that it is often precisely the harsh, stubborn, and ignorant judgmentalism of her characters that is seen to be under the judgment of God.

I sometimes wish I could be transported several hundred years into the future so I could participate in the establishment of the judgement of "history" on our own time. The confidence that we are on its "right side" is probably going to be one of the more risible things about us. Our culture has rightly rejected blatant anti-black racism, but influential sectors of it have embraced a long list of other absurd and harmful views, not least of which is another form of racism, in which white people are considered to be indelibly stamped with something called "whiteness," an ontological stain with which they are born and which can never be erased, and which requires perpetual acts of penance. Penance, not atonement, because atonement is impossible, except perhaps by civilizational suicide. (The parodic resemblance to Christianity has often been noted; it's one of the most visible motifs of post-Christianity.)

I've been annoyed for a long time by the treatment of "racist" as a binary condition rather than a thing, like any other single human vice or virtue, that exists in degrees. If that label can be stuck on a person, it works pretty much like the old death's head symbol for poison: you're either racist or not, poisonous or not, and sensible people will keep away. Real people, real hearts and minds, of course don't function that way. One can have mild and even harmless prejudices against people of another race or culture without being guilty of any serious moral wrong. A few years ago the writer Paul Elie published an article called "How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?" I didn't read it, though it was recommended to me, because I disliked the "When did you stop beating your wife?" tactic of the title: in a culture where anything and anyone who can be plausibly tagged with the word "racist" is to be condemned without reservation or nuance, it seemed a poisoning of the well. (This tactic has been overused to the point where it may not be effective anymore. I noticed a few years ago that many of the taggers have switched to "white supremacist.")

The truth is that race is just not a very significant aspect of O'Connor's work, which deals above all with universal questions, posed by means of an extraordinary skill in evoking those questions within a very specific, concrete, and limited place, time, and culture. Whatever racism she was personally guilty of is pretty mild stuff (and if you don't think it was mild you've led a sheltered life). She seems to have granted the basic rightness of the civil rights cause, which a serious racist of the time would not have done.

In that interview Jessica Hooten Wilson says, in defense of O'Connor's treatment of black people in her work, that

...she only knew how two Black people would talk when a white woman was in the room...

Well, of course. And she recognized that that was the situation. I think she mentions in one of her letters that she understands that what she sees--what any white person in the segregated South would see--in black people is often a carefully mannered façade, and she didn't feel able to write from within the consciousness on the other side of that façade. Call that an artistic limitation if you want to, but it's not a sin.

Although she was my parents' age, I grew up in the same segregated rural Southern world that she did. I was in high school when the passage of the Civil Rights Act began the process of putting an end to that world. It is a personal and living memory for me, not something I've read about. And I can testify that when she does picture, in her work, black people as seen by white people, the two so near and yet so distant, she is very accurate. Do the people who worry so much about her opinion of black people not notice that she doesn't think very highly of white people either?

Examination of conscience is much more easy, pleasant, and rewarding when the conscience being examined is someone else's. Those who want to put Flannery O'Connor on trial would do better to read, or re-read, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."


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All very good points, Mac. I'm not sure where we go from here with so much of our culture and how it works (or, does not). Something as mild as a review of a book concerning a famous writer who is long dead. No one is worthy until their lives are picked apart as much as possible to ensure they never did or said anything "wrong". It is all ludicrous, of course. I've still really only read the two novels O'Connor wrote; and enjoyed both. The shorter a prose work is, the harder time I have remembering much about it.

In my opinion the stories are the best of her work. I don't know how widely shared that view is. I think Wise Blood is better than The Violent Bear It Away, but I only read the latter once, decades ago. Both are good, but stories like "Good Country People" are masterpieces.

I've always thought or at least suspected, that, as great as her gift is, it's somewhat limited. I strongly suspect, from what I've been reading, that the novel she was working on when she died would not have been a success (literarily speaking). But who knows? I will probably have a firmer opinion after the GCL seminar in June.

When I was looking around for info for this post, I ran across one assertion that "some scholars" don't believe she should be read at all by us modern enlightened people. Nobody specific was named so I didn't quote it. But I guess you'd expect that from the truly "woke." Notice btw that I didn't use that word in the post, though it would fit. I don't really like it.

"let us note, too, that it is often precisely the harsh, stubborn, and ignorant judgmentalism of her characters that is seen to be under the judgment of God."

How anyone who's read O'Connor could miss this, and furthermore, fault her instead for some sort of Catholic hyper-judgmentalism, is beyond me. To call these guys "slightly obtuse" is far too kind. But as you say, this type of progressive is completely blind to his own judgmentalism, and this blindness is related to his tendency to see it everywhere else, even in places where it doesn't exist. It's Christ's speck and beam but worse, because it not only sees the specks as beams, it sees them everywhere.

I think the general consensus is that while the two novels are good, it's the stories that are the masterpieces. I think I've read each of the novels twice, but I've read many of the stories multiple times.

"...far too kind." I chuckled at that, because I had originally said "dim" and been otherwise more harsh, but decided to be nicer. I tried to keep myself from going off on an even longer complaint about progressive narrow-mindedness. The kind we're talking about are comically un-self-aware, because the confidence that they are the most open-minded people around, in fact the most, if not the only, truly open-minded people ever, is such a central part of their self-image.

The open-minded part is gone for the extreme left. So now we have one group that do and say what they want and dare you to be offended, and the other group offended by everything. With rational people in the middle. Maybe that's how it has always been.

It hasn't always been this way. You can see people walking around in public in t-shirts etc with deliberately obnoxious messages in words that simply would not have been publicly tolerated in public fifty years ago. And I'm not talking about left-wingers with "f the police" or something--just ordinary but very crude people. It's a massive change that people too young to remember the "before times" don't really grasp. Hippies and others insisting on their right to use crude language freely may have opened the door, but much of the rest of society walked on through.

It's interesting that you can't say "the N word" in public even when quoting someone else (unless you're black) because you may cause offense, but you can drop any number of F-bombs even in the presence of children with most people barely blinking an eye.

I remember once when my daughter was little, we were in a store that sold music, games and videos, and they were playing some horrible rap garbage with loads of F-bombs and other crude language. There were a couple other parents in the store with children and I couldn't believe they were playing this rubbish with kids present. I was about to go up to the front desk and say something, but another parent beat me to it and the stuff was taken off. The point is that there was definitely a time when this "music" wouldn't have been played in public at all, let alone in a family store with children present.

You can't say the n-word anywhere, at any time, for any reason, unless you're black. If I'm not mistaken the NYT science editor lost his job because in a private discussion about a rap lyric he quoted one that used the word. That's just insane. And it's kind of a bizarre and fascinating thing: a word so horrible that it literally can't be spoken by those not authorized to do so. Like the Deplorable Word in the Narnia books. Another thing future historians will marvel at. Or at least may.

Quite a few years ago, at least fifteen, my wife and I were in the car at a traffic light in Mobile and the car next to us started blasting out, very intelligibly, rap with sexual lyrics that would be out of place anywhere but in a porn film. Fortunately the light changed pretty quickly.

Something similar happened to a college football coach, iirc. Quoted a rap song with "that word" in it and got suspended or something. Crazy.

I seem to remember reading about that. Some of these cases seem to involve, in addition to wokeness, more ordinary personal motives--a way to hurt somebody you don't like. It's said that in some environments, like the NYT, younger people who combine wokeness with intense competitiveness use it as a way of getting rid of older people who are in their way professionally. I have no experience of such places so I don't know how much there is to that. But it's plausible. Similar motive to people in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia informing on a neighbor to get his property.

Interesting piece by John McWhorter, in which he writes about a "shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity":

"This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that [the word*] itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment."

*Pondered whether to use the actual word here as McWhorter did, and decided to go with the consensus forbidding it.

"How the N-Word Became Unsayable"

I can't see the full article, but on the basis of that excerpt I'd say he nails it.

I'm not a fan of stand-up comedy but you can see it as a microcosm of what McWhorter is talking about. Today's comedy is loaded with raunch and obscenity, but it's not the "dirty" comics who are considered edgy, it's the un-PC, un-woke ones.

The sexual revolution made any restriction of sexual matters unacceptable and the f-bomb is one part of that.

Today's Washington Post has a review of Kristi Noem's memoir with this sentence about the scene where she shoots her dog and a goat: "For a few glorious pages, Noem feels like a Flannery O'Connor character with tax cuts."

I don't quite get the tax cuts part. That she benefits from them? That she advocates them? I guess the idea is that she's a crazy country person with money? Might be something to that comparison.

"...the f-bomb is one part of that." Yes, and both it and other previously off-limits language were explicitly put forward as important in themselves by the Berkley Free Speech movement in the mid-'60s, causing people to mock it as the Filthy Speech Movement. They considered it really important that they be allowed to bellow those words to the world at large. All part of the tear-down-the-walls mentality.

Good point about comedy, Rob. I've never heard any of the comedians involved but I've seen the news stories go by. No news stories about somebody being in trouble for raunch. Probably the only way that would be news is if some conservative religious group complained, and then they would be cast as the villains.

Are you judging my Iron Maiden shirt?

Meh. That’s just a gruesome rotting head, nothing to do with race or sex, so totally cool.

Though I do think Maiden should be modeling more diversity in their rotting heads.

Eddie was based on an American photo of a severed VC head that was past its expiration date. That’s pretty diverse if you ask me.

That was fine for a start, but it was 40+ years ago. Society has made a lot of progress since then and "Eddie" is now problematic on several counts.

1) Arguably that's cultural appropriation.
2) Asians are now white-adjacent and should not be centered. Where are the decayed heads of other people of color?
3) On the other hand, why did white Englishmen choose a person of color to be their decayed head? It's whiteness and white privilege in action.
4) I don't see any representation of gender diversity there. The name "Eddie" and references to them as "he" codes as gender-binary, heteronormative and patriarchical, inasmuch as it suggests, for instance, English monarchs named Edward.

I could go on but I'm sure none of you would understand.

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