Flannery O’Connor, the Metaphysician

Flannery O’Connor, author of Wise Blood and many other iconic stories, was one of the American South’s literary geniuses. A thoughtful Catholic woman in the overwhelmingly Protestant “Bible Belt” of the United States in the middle of the twentieth century, O’Connor’s work embodies an authentic sense of what it means to live as a solitary diaspora–never quite “home”, always journeying.

While the science of metaphysics might be esoteric when restricted to the impenetrable confines of the contemporary philosophical academy, it does not have to be. Indeed, perhaps it should not be, since questions surrounding what really is, ultimately, speak to a natural curiosity of human beings.

O’Connor is a metaphysician in this sense, a student of the question of what is real. In her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor has this to say about writing with such questions in mind:

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality. 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 he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.

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. 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 in 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 it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.

The characteristic rigor and eloquence of O’Connor ought not to escape the notice of those interested in describing a world that participates in an order beyond itself.

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