A few choice passages from Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant manifesto (she’d hate that word) – “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” – for the bizarre ways that larger-than-life characters of experiences somehow communicate sin, grace, and, subsequently, the possibilities of redemption. It also doubles as an oblique commentary on her biblical influences as a writer:
Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances. If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that control his destiny…
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.
O’Connor not so much pushing against theological determinism, the Lutheran bound will, or anything like that as she is the materialistic determinism. This scientific/sociological determinism springs from, as a Descartes scholar once put it, “the will to dominate, to control events, to eliminate chance and the irrational” (F.E. Sutcliffe). For O’Connor, it’s at the point of exhaustion of psychology and predictability that gratuity steps in – the writer aims for the disruptive event that points to the realm beyond our control and predictability.
Experientially, suffering takes us to the end of control, which is the place where our defenses and justifications and tinkering with our circumstances are (forcibly) laid bare. The novelist’s aesthetic equivalent is the grotesque:
Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves – whether they know very clearly what they act upon or not.
To the reader, such fiction must be suffered. O’Connor says elsewhere that the loss of the Civil War gave a few generations of writers afterward a sense of a fall, events beyond their control, and a sense of the gratuity of suffering – an “inburnt sense” of human limitation. The grotesque character does the same – when the man with demons was healed by Jesus, he was run out of town: even healings, because they point to a realm beyond our control, may be experienced as passion by their witnesses. In this light, the scientific worldview O’Connor implicates maybe isn’t anything new – just our particular form of resistance to the unexpected.
Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than fallen man usually is, his audience is going to; and it is going to ask him – or more likely, tell him – why he has chosen to bring such maimed souls alive… Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize man. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological… In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature…
There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it…
I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.
It’s the disruptive, the weird and grotesque and liminal, that can shed a light of freakishness, of fallenness, on the everyday and supposedly normal. Viewed contemplatively, bizarre Bible stories about giant bronze serpents on poles and wrestling God and drowning pigs and a crucified Savior cut to the heart of human experience by saturating and far exceeding our sense of control, what we feel we can bear. The image of a cup running over is painful as well as ec-static, and this experience of being pulled outside oneself by “violent grace” was O’Connor’s mission as a communicator. If freaks phenomenalize – or make real to us – sin and guilt and limitation, it perhaps takes an equally gratuitous, or freakish, story to communicate forgiveness.
And for yet another (hilarious) example of O’Connor and the freakish, be sure to check out her first appearance in a movie at age 6, of which she reportedly said, “everything afterward has been anticlimax.”