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Precision and Depth in Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories
Karl-Heinz Westarp
Aarhus (Denmark): Aarhus University Press, 2002.
16.95 euros, 146 pages, ISBN 87-7288-937-3.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Karl-Heinz Westarp is associate professor at the department of English, Aarhus University. Judging by the “list of the author’s previously published material on O’Connor” that completes the bibliography of Precision and Depth in Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories, he has spent much of the last twenty years reading and writing about Flannery O’Connor. Westarp has been repeatedly published in The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin (seemingly soon to become The Flannery O’Connor Review), and few will question his authority on the subject. As he tells us, he has extensively researched her manuscripts, which are to be found at the Ina Dillard Russell Library in Milledgeville, Georgia (her hometown). Considering the title of this book, I was mistakenly expecting a study of “precision and depth” in O’Connor’s stories as they stand. So I cannot help feeling that he makes a little bit too much of the manuscripts. After all, we are dealing with a twentieth-century author, and it is not very risky to assume that the texts O’Connor agreed to see in print (in book form at any rate) can be seen as what readers should primarily read and what literary critics should primarily study. Maybe I lack imagination; as a mundane lecturer teaching O’Connor I may be thinking too much in terms of immediate student use. So when Westarp builds on “manuscript studies”, “manuscript evidence”, or wonders, “how do the final changes affect the story as a whole?”, I find myself wishing he had more straightforwardly examined the texts that can be found at the bookstore of your local mall. Hoping (probably against all odds) that my undergraduates as readers will enjoy O’Connor, I’m not sure they want to know that O’Connor had written, say, “bee” in a first draft, and then opted for “wasp”. The second choice might be immensely more adequate, but if they appreciate it only because they know that there was a less inspired first choice, isn’t their fun (I’m being wildly optimistic here) somewhat spoilt? This minor objection only concerns chapters I and II, however, which are by no means uninteresting. On the contrary. As a scholar I found them rather thrilling.

Chapters III, IV, V, and VI, concerned with “translucency in O’Connor’s settings”, mystery and evil, as well as with very helpful comparisons with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, are much more traditional in terms of literary criticism; some might even say too traditional, since the shadow of Derrida certainly does not hover over these pages. The precision and depth of the title are mostly of a spiritual nature, obviously. Even people who have never read more than one or two O’Connor stories know that she is a Catholic. Indeed it is quite impossible to study her without delving into it, even if one decides to privilege the Southern and / or gothic angle. Westarp succeeds in showing that on the whole O’Connor reached her aim, i.e. to write fiction where every word serves her religious vision, if not message. “O’Connor was fully aware of the detrimental impact that her religious upbringing might have upon her prose”, writes Westarp [14]. She was aware that her religious convictions could discourage some readers, “the people who think God is dead”, as she put it. Westarp reminds us of the often bad reception of her books as they were released in her lifetime, and of the accusations of gratuitous grotesque. As O’Connor saw it, when as a Christian with firm convictions you are addressing spiritually near-blind and near-deaf people, you generously splatter your garish colors and scream your philosophical / theological concepts in their ear. I am paraphrasing one of her most famous and constantly quoted lines, which is: “To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”.

Westarp is particularly good when he undertakes to trace Teilhard de Chardin’s influence on O’Connor’s work. He begins with a reminder of a text most O’Connor exegetes have read, Ralph C. Wood’s “The Heterodoxy of Flannery O’Connor’s Book Reviews”, published in 1976 in The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin. In that article, Wood attempts to show that O’Connor’s (uneven) book reviews and her fiction indicate a “critique rather than a vindication” of Teilhard de Chardin’s special brand of mysticism, notably when it comes to his approach to science and evolution. Westarp disagrees with Wood, and his refutation is very convincing. Of course, as O’Connor “seems to have become aware of Teilhard de Chardin only after the American publication of The Phenomenon of Man in 1959” [82], his influence on her writing is not to be found in the early work. One cannot help wondering how different (if at all) Wise Blood (1952), The Violent Bear It Away (1960) and the stories of A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) would have been if she had read Teilhard de Chardin before writing them. They might conceivably have been hardly different at all, since there is ample evidence in them that in many respects O’Connor and Teilhard de Chardin shared numerous ideas to begin with. Westarp tells us that when O’Connor began studying him, she “found Teilhard difficult reading” [86], but she “adopted Teilhardian thinking as her own” [83]. That is slightly exaggerated. Such thinking is indeed at work in the story entitled “Parker’s Back” (Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965). Westarp identifies it persuasively in the progress of a man, Parker, who after a series of very Old Testament events decides to go to a tattoo parlor and get “the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” tattooed on his back. He already has many tattoos. Later, Parker knows that “the eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything.” The tattoo will remain unappreciated by his “religious” wife Sarah Ruth. Westarp concludes:

Flannery O’Connor has dramatized a heresy, which is the backcloth for the drama of the history of the universe from the creation to its final fulfillment in the cosmic point Omega, who is already with us in Christ. Moreover, she has dramatized Teilhard’s scientific-philosophical-theological vision in a unique way. Against Sarah Ruth’s bloodless denial of the flesh and heretical misunderstanding of Christian life, she places—with Teilhard—a Christian spirituality, which accepts with all its consequences that ‘The Word was made flesh’ (Jn 1:14). The order of the tattoos on Parker’s body is the symbolic rendering of the inner life of the creation and its convergence towards Christ. However, the eschatological point Omega is not reached yet, and the entire creation is still groaning under the retarded effect of evil. Only if Sarah Ruth opens her eyes to the light shining through Parker’s back, i.e., only if mankind opens its eyes for Christ and freely accepts His offer, will the child of the future or the future generation, move further towards convergence in Omega.

The book lacks an overall conclusion, but is on the whole appealing enough to make one try to locate Westarp’s previous O’Connor material. Flannery O’Connor is sometimes underrated, and books like this contribute to dispel certain misapprehensions. She wrote in Mystery and Manners (1962) that the fiction writer needs to have anagogical vision, he must “cultivate [it] if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature”. Well, her stories definitely have. These days in the US alone, some five book-length critical studies come out every year, and O’Connor creeps up everywhere. As Hilton Als puts it in the New Yorker, “one can hear her syntax and thoughts in the stories of Raymond Carver, in Robert Duvall’s brilliant movie The Apostle, [and] in the Samuel L. Jackson character’s final monologue in Pulp Fiction.

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