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Grace and purification in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor

UPDATE 2016: This has proven to be one of the most popular posts on the blog, which suggests that lots of people enjoy, but perhaps are puzzled by, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I would be happy to explore more of her stories (I’ve got a couple of half-written posts that are hanging fire). If you have a particular O’Connor story that excites, interests, or puzzles you, leave a comment at the end of this post and let me know — or you can email me, if you don’t want to leave a public comment.

Original post:

A recent comment on an old post about Flannery O’Connor raises some questions that I thought I would  respond to in a separate post, rather than depositing them in the obscurity  of the comm box. Janet Baker left a long comment (you can read it in its entirety there), which says in part:

I’m currently working on the short story Revelation, looking at the text for what it says about Flannery’s Catholicism, rather than listening to her pronouncements in non-fiction, like her letters. If you read the story, you will note that it is Mrs. Turpin’s virtues that must be burned away before she enters heaven, and that people enter heaven in groups, racial and social. Perhaps you don’t read either St. Thomas Aquinas, or Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I extensively, but if you begin to read about it, you’ll see that St. Thomas promotes the virtues of which Mrs. Turpin is guilty–generous almsgiving, supporting the Church, helping others regardless of their worthines [sic] of help. It was Teilhard, whom Flannery really loved and read even when it wasn’t time for bed, as she did Thomas. Teilhard, on the other hand, supports the idea that we enter heaven in groups and all enter, all, after their individual identities had been burned away. That’s why he was a heretic and rejected by the Church, along with all his bogus evolutionary crap, although he influenced the Church deeply, and perhaps mortally.

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Be thankful that Thanksgiving is still a national holiday

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

With religious liberty increasingly under fire, and religion almost completely erased from the civic sphere, we should be grateful that, here in the United States, we still have a national holiday on which we are exhorted to give thanks to our Creator.   

The Catholic Thing posted some wise word from Bl. John Henry Newman for Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of them:
We are not our own, any more than what we possess is our own. . . .We are God’s property by creation, by redemption, by regeneration. He has a triple claim upon us. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way, — to depend on no one, — to have to think of nothing out of sight, — to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man — that it is an unnatural state — may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end. No, we are creatures; and, as being such, we have two duties, to be resigned and to be thankful.
Let us then view God’s providences towards us more religiously than we have hitherto done. Let us try to gain a truer view of what we are, and where we are, in His kingdom. Let us humbly and reverently attempt to trace His guiding hand in the years which we have hitherto lived. Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in time past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given. Let us dwell upon times and seasons, times of trouble, times of joy, times of trial, times of refreshment.

“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Happy Thanksgiving Day.

Something to help us keep perspective — the real meaning of life

Remember that Catholic Social Teaching, like all Catholic doctrine, is merely an application of Charity, and the hope that we have in Christ. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I do! Enjoy! Vivat Christus Rex!

Read any work with greater understanding

Owl reading a book

You’ll grow wiser as you read!

I thought I would offer here the following method of analyzing any serious work, which can be used by intelligent readers with no particular expertise in the subject matter of the work being read (I’ve also published this over on my Catholic Social Teaching blog). This is a method I developed for my Humanities students at the University of Southern Indiana, who were usually not accustomed to dealing with primary works and needed some guidance in developing good reading skills. This method is intended to be used for “non-fiction” works of all sorts, although it can (and has) been adapted for reading literary (poetic, fictional, or dramatic) works.

I will confess that this method (which the students found very helpful, not only in my class, but in upper level classes in their majors) is one I boiled down from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (which I’ve referred to several times before). One way in which I’ve improved on Adler’s method (if I may say so) is to put “evaluation” last – with undergraduate students particularly, who seem to have remarkably few analytical skills, it was necessary to emphasize that an opinion must always be predicated on knowledge and understanding of the matter being opined, otherwise it is just prejudice (i.e., literally, judging before having knowledge or understanding).

Anyway, I offer this method to my readers, as it may be useful in reading all sorts of works in fields in which one is not particularly well-versed. If you use it consistently, over time you’ll find that you can read all sorts of serious works with greater ease and understanding. You’ll also find, as you read a broader range and more books, that you begin to hear a kind of ongoing conversation amongst the books of your acquaintance. As you’ll see, the absolute key to understanding any work is context-context-context!

Four-Question Analysis of Any Work of Non-Fiction

You’ll find as you go through this method that the keynote is “context.” No work is self-interpreting, neither should it be read simply against the background of the reader’s own experience or opinion. To learn from any work, one must be careful to read it by its own lights in order to understand what the author was trying to convey. Once this understanding has honestly been reached, one should see how the work has contributed to, or perhaps even diverted, the historical discussion of its subject matter. When this has been done – and only then – can the reader arrive at an intelligent evaluation of the work.

1. The Rhetorical Context: What is it about as a whole?

  • What kind of work is it?
  • What is the central thesis or claim? How does the author support his argument?
  • What kind of audience does the author seem to address?
  • What purpose is the author trying to achieve?

There is nothing more surely guaranteed to produce misunderstanding than  to fail to read a work in its proper context. This is true of everything from the Bible to the instruction manual for an appliance. Consider how disastrous it would be to read the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual, like the one that comes with your toaster or hairdryer (undeniably, many people have tried to do so), and or to fail to notice that Jonathan Swift is being satirical when he suggested in “A Modest Proposal” that English overlords deal with the overpopulation of their Irish subjects by eating their babies as a delicacy.

2. The Argument of the Work: What is said in detail, and how?

  • What are the key terms and what is meant by them?
  • What are the author’s leading propositions?
  • What argument does the author present, and what are its components?
  • How do the different parts of the argument work together to support the leading propositions?
  • Does the author solve the problem he  addresses? If not, does he recognize or acknowledge that he has not solved it?

Understanding key terms is crucial to comprehending what the author is trying to say. Once again, context is important in understanding terminology correctly. Then again, it is important not simply to understand individual examples or claims, but to understand them in the context of the work as a whole – are they major claims, or do they support some proposition? Are they statements the author makes, or propositions he is refuting?

(In a fictional work, you should consider the theme of the story. What point is the author making about the way life is, or the way we should live? Do the choices and actions of his characters realistically support or illustrate that point?)

3. The Significance of the Work: The work in literary, historical, or cultural context

  • How does it relate, or respond, to other works?
  • How does it relate or respond to the cultural conditions in which it was produced?
  • How does this work reflect, change, or advance a particular understanding of human concerns?

No work stands completely on its own, nor does our attempt to understand it occur in a vacuum. Again, context is key to understanding the significance of the work. In this case, this means that we should consider how this work relates to others on the same, or similar, subject, how it changes or adds to what we already knew or what had already been said on the subject, or even how this work has changed the ongoing “discussion” represented by its particular literary tradition.

4. Evaluation of the Work: To what extent does the work express or illuminate Truth?

  • Would you say that the work is true, in whole or in part?
  • What specific valuable and true insights does the work provide?
  • To what extent does the author’s analysis or account seem incomplete?
  • In what ways does the author seem uninformed, misinformed, or illogical?

Intellectual honesty mitigates against crude dichotomies of right and wrong; a qualified appraisal is often more appropriate than an absolute approval or disapproval. A work which is mistaken or illogical in some regard may nonetheless offer insights worth gleaning. We shouldn’t disdain Aristotle’s ethical insights simply because he erroneously believe that frogs are spontaneously generated out of pond water, nor dismiss Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern problems out of hand simply because his prescription for solving those problems seems so wrongheaded. Anyone who truly desires to grow in wisdom must restrain (and retrain) the impulse to rely on gut reactions or to give thumbs up/thumbs down evaluations of serious works.

So there it is. Try it, you’ll like it. And if you don’t, let me know why.

The grandaddy of Catholic Social Teaching: St Augustine and the City of God

Illuminated capital, Augustine writing the City of GodOne could say that the source of Catholic social teaching starts long before the promulgation of Rerum Novarum. See the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles. But as far as non-Scriptural sources go, I’d pick St Augustine of Hippo’s City of God as the first Christian teaching to address the question of the well-ordered society, and the contribution that Christians can make to the common good.

You’ll find a succinct summary of this massive work here on Sparknotes, and a book by book summary here on New Advent. The City of God was written as a response to the accusation by pagans that all of Rome’s problems at the time were the fault of the Christians (sound familiar?). St Augustine first points out that pagan society carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and then goes on to show that although Christians are citizens of the City of God (a heavenly City), as “resident aliens” in the City of Man during their earthly lives, they can and should contribute to the common good of the society in which they live.

City of God, Image paperback, with intro by Etienne GilsonI’ve written a bit previously about this work, here where I summarize the introduction to the Image edition by Etienne Gilson, the French historian of philosophy and a Neo-Thomist philosopher in his own right. Here I go on to comment on what Gilson had to say.

Augustine’s City of God is a timeless work relevant in any age, for the City of Man will always be looking for a scapegoat on which to pile blame for its own problems. Certainly that is the case these days.

How is abortion like slavery?

The principals in an earlier pro-life debate

One of the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching is respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. This principle comes into play in all sorts of “life issues” from abortion to euthanasia. In this article from The Catholic Thing, Randall Smith reminds us that a century and a half ago, some people contended that the morality of slavery was a matter on which good people could disagree, and on which politicians should compromise — much as some argue about abortion today.

It would be a mistake to treat all issues as though they were of the overriding importance of slavery, but it would be equally a mistake not to realize that there are historical moments when injustices so fundamental arise that they simply outstrip all else, although the seriousness may not be clear to everyone at the time.

Abortion, he argues, is no more a matter of private “choice” or moral ambiguity than slavery was. Smith cautions Catholic voters:

The Church cannot compel, as governments often do; she can only appeal to the consciences of men and women of good will. Would this sort of clarity help? A Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors allowing abortion over who one favors restricting it any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate. Would anyone today argue that a Catholic would have been somehow justified voting for Douglas over Lincoln, or a Nazi over a Jew?

Don’t fool yourself. Those with ears, let them hear. 

On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, film by Peter Jackson

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien’s famous novel about Bilbo Baggins’s taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a bunch of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he’ll similarly distort this story of a beloved Hobbit, as well. As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it (the extended editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas), I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel.  (I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga.)

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar
in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films

However, as a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition – at least, up to the invention of the modern novel – bears witness to this fact. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, even not-so-great and lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales, having been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (Here endeth the rant, before it is even begun. Another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, are rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action star or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson in The End of the Affair, 1955

The End of the Affair (1955), a good film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel

Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.)

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. (Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I could explain why I thought the film was such an awful distortion of the novel.) This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”?

My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in his An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important
theme that can be found in the literary original in such a way as to enrich – or at least ratify – an intelligent reading of the original, even if it has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective.

A still from Erich Rohmer’s film, Perceval le Gallois, a truly excellent film adaptation of the 12th century romance.

A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. I suggest that, according to this criterion, Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval/The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon the Gawain strand of the narrative, which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever, and for the better, once I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if the film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation. Notice that this is quite different from saying that it is a bad film qua film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation (which is still my assessment, although I’m planning to re-watch both the 1955 and 1999 films, to see if my opinion still holds).

Tolkien, The Hobbit book coverAt any rate, it is a truly intrepid (or, sometimes, ignorant) filmmaker who dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel, to create two films, suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who like seeing film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a film you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Booklovers, a section of a larger web site called The Greatest Literature ofAll Time which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works.Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice before re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love ’em, hate ’em? Click “comment”  at the bottom of this page and chime in.