Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another View of Recent Biography

Ralph C. Wood, author of "Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-haunted South" has a more critical view of the recent Gooch biography:

Gooch lays O’Connor’s genuine distinctiveness to the side, and thus fails to bring her life into the sharp focus it demands. His biography has no overarching theme, no compelling trajectory, no revealing figure in the carpet. He seems to believe that O’Connor was a rara avis, but his main evidence is that, as a child, she trained a chicken to walk backward and that, as an adult, she raised peafowl and other exotic birds. The patronizing intimacy of Gooch’s title turns out, moreover, to be a distancing device. [Ouch, see this blog's title.] Instead of probing the complex depths of “Flannery,” Gooch has written a jauntily superficial book....

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It has become virtually standard procedure, among interpreters of Gooch’s kind, to say that O’Connor’s life and work must not be confined or reduced to her Catholicism, that she had not merely one but many strings on her fiddle, that we deny the variousness of her fiction by concentrating chiefly on its religious quality. Gooch establishes the small truth contained in this charge by showing that O’Connor did not confine herself within a religious cocoon but was keenly attuned to writers as various as T. S. Eliot and Guy de Maupassant, Caroline Gordon and William Faulkner, and even J. D. Salinger. He also demonstrates that O’Connor was remarkably alert to popular culture, finding both irony and revelation in seedy clich├ęs and banal commercials. Having seen a hucksterish stunt for a film called Mark of the Gorilla, she put it to hilarious use in Wise Blood, where an ape impersonator greets moviegoers in order to boost attendance. Yet Gooch doesn’t take time to observe the significance of Enoch Emery, the youth who seeks the tawdry fame of this pseudo-simian: Cut off from religious rituals that might have given redemptive shape to his life, Emery must invent his own ceremonial patterns for living. He bases his life on the vain promises of advertisements, making their blandishments his credo. The result is something at once farcical and pathetic, as Emery becomes a telling caricature of our unacknowledged nihilism.

Instead of attending to such moral discernments, Gooch chooses to make Freudian readings that obfuscate rather than clarify. He interprets the brilliant brat in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” as wrestling with her dawning erotic desires, arguing that her sexuality is finally “sublimated in religious expression.” Such sexual preoccupations blind Gooch to the child’s real problem: She is afflicted with a condition far more fundamental than her prepubescent sexuality — namely, her religious pride as a Roman Catholic.

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For Flannery O’Connor, a civil religion of “Do Unto Others” will never suffice. It has no metaphysical foundations to undergird it, no sacramental or prophetic communities to sustain it. Though her region was wracked with racial violence, O’Connor dealt head-on with the race question in but a single story, “The Artificial Nigger.” The problem wasn’t that racial injustice failed to arrest her imagination so much as that its solution required no keen moral discernment. As a Walker Percy character declares, the one thing requisite is obedience to a single command: Stop abusing Negroes. For similar reasons, O’Connor was drawn to southern fundamentalists, despite their inveterate scorn for Catholicism as the “whore of Babylon.” Like them, she sought something far more needful than political equality: the Faith that heals racial reformers of their false righteousness no less than racial bigots of their true sinfulness. Gooch misses the mark, therefore, when he says that O’Connor is guilty of “a type of artistic racism” for not seeking, by her own confession, to get inside the minds of her black characters. If O’Connor had focused her fiction on such matters, she might have become another Lillian Smith (the author of the 1944 novel Strange Fruit). But she might also have failed to become the greater writer she in fact became.

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Having recently “outgrown” Catholicism, [Mary] McCarthy opined that she still found eucharistic symbolism literarily useful, even though she didn’t believe any of its hocus-pocus. With a candor not usually encountered at New York social gatherings, the usually taciturn O’Connor could not remain silent, even at the cost of giving great offense. “Well,” she said, “if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.” Gooch makes nothing of this scandalous claim, nor does he deal with O’Connor’s later elaboration: “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

The Eucharist does not merely point or gesture toward something vaguely transcendent, O’Connor was saying; it sacramentally enacts the Reality it declares: This is Christ’s life-giving body and blood, the feast without which we are literally starved of life. Or else it is a snare and a delusion that should be denounced as such. Gooch observes, instead, that O’Connor “framed her new life in religion” when her illness compelled her to return home and live with her mother back in Milledgeville for the last dozen years. Quite to the contrary, O’Connor had already framed her life — both literary and existential — in her Catholicism. “I am a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist,” she said, “but like someone else would be an atheist.”

5 comments:

Bob said...

I just finished reading Gooch’s book and found Ralph Wood’s comments very appropriate. I think Wood’s book is the best commentary on Flannery’s ideas and the Catholicism that undergirds her work. It seems like Gooch didn’t even take into a count the Habit of Being and other non-fiction work of O’Connors that best explain what she is doing.
Bob

TS said...

Thanks for the info Bob. I really need to read Wood's book.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I thought you might be interested in this close reading of Parker's Back, interpreted as an expression of O'Connor's Catholic vision. It should have been twice as long, but it isn't without a certain thoroughness, I think.

http://htmlgiant.com/?p=5417#comments

R. T. said...

Ralph Wood says it accurately but insufficiently. Gooch's biography succeeds on a superficial "This is Your Life" melodramatic level but falls short on a sustained focus on O'Connor Roman Catholicism as her work's heart-and-soul (no pun intended). Gooch also becomes preoccupied (IMHO) with his inferences about O'Connor's sexuality, and that preoccupation goes beyond simple irrelevance (for discerning readers of O'Connor's works) and becomes some sort of a personal obsession of Gooch (as if he cannot be content to leave alone the subject for which there is no useful evidence). When I reviewed Gooch's biography for BookLoons (North America's premier book review site), I bent over backwards to be generous to the author because Gooch's book does serve useful purposes for the general reader (but not the legions of O'Connor scholars). Finally, it is worth saying again that I regret that Gooch missed the mark on such a crucial matter as O'Connor's absolute faith and her commitment to Roman Catholicism (as noted by Wood and by myself above).

Thankful Paul said...

Hello! :)