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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2008

A Vocation for the Grotesque

by Kathleen Reeves

The acclaimed American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) took her Catholic faith seriously. Within her works, however, Christianity tends to be strange and oblique. Indeed, her tales often horrify, with a vision of cruelty and destruction more apocalyptic than comforting or inspiring. “I have found ... that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil”, she wrote. Her characters, if not physically unattractive, are often spiritually repulsive. She felt that “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have ... the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.... The reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and [those of] their audience”.

The reader, she suggested, was so accustomed to the distorted shown as “normal” that the writer was “forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little ... [but] when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”. Beauty is hidden and unexpected; the Son of God manifested in a stable. In Atlanta, the Hawthorne Dominicans believed that Flannery O’Connor was just the one to tell the story of Mary Ann, a very small but “startling figure”.

Founded in 1900 by Rose Hawthorne, daughter of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Sisters specialize in those whose terminal cancers cause people to look away with pity and horror. In 1949, among their dependents was a little girl, Mary Ann, three years old, brought to the free hospice to die. Although the diagnosis of the time would not have given it a name, the child was undoubtedly afflicted with Burkitt’s lymphoma, which often rapidly metastasizes into tumors. Mary Ann’s tumor destroyed an eye. One side of her face was horribly disfigured by the surgery. Physicians said she had but a short time to live. Contrary to prognosis, Mary Ann lived until she was 12, profoundly affecting everyone who met her, first with pity, then with wonder.

The care and affection poured upon her by the Dominicans fed her need for love. In that environment, she bloomed. Perhaps she did not know she was “different”. Her life, wrote O’Connor, “was full of dogs and party dresses, of Sisters ... of Coca-Colas and Dagwood sandwiches and of her many friends....” The nuns themselves, loving her as they did, quickly stopped thinking in terms of “disability”. People who met Mary Ann were touched by her vitality and goodness.

When she died, the Sisters wanted her story known and asked the author to write about her; perhaps even a novel. Miss O’Connor struggled with the idea but felt that it was much easier to build a tale around a wicked than a good child. There would have been no problem if Mary Ann’s soul matched her poor body. How does one write about a truly good person without making a hagiography, or worse, a maudlin, moralizing tale, less bread than treacle?

After due thought, Miss O’Connor refused the Dominicans. She suggested that the Sisters themselves should write it. She promised to do some editing. The Sisters went to work and did as she suggested, but when she read the manuscript, she found that The Story of Mary Ann was largely hagiography. Yet, to excise all the parts pertaining to her goodness would eliminate the story altogether. When the Sisters and the writer met her at her farm, O’Connor suggested to them that the child could hardly have been anything but good, having seventeen Sisters to mother her.

O’Connor reported, “Sister Evangelist leaned over the arm of her chair and gave me a look. Her eyes were blue and unpredictable behind spectacles that unmoored them slightly. ‘We’ve had some demons!’ she said, and a gesture of her hand dismissed my ignorance. After an afternoon with them, I decided that they had had about everything and flinched before nothing, even though one of them asked me during the course of the visit why I wrote about such grotesque characters, why the grotesque (of all things) was my vocation. I was struggling to get off the hook ... when another of our guests supplied the one answer that would make it immediately plain to all of them. ‘It’s your vocation too’, he said to her”.

Each in their own way, Flannery O’Connor and the Dominicans focused their work on the outcasts of the world — the unsightly, the unwanted, the unloved — in order to manifest the beauty of Christ. Out of this, as Mother Teresa and saints before her have shown, comes boundless grace.

Judging by much of what goes for “high art” at present, we are inundated with sheer ugliness. So much of the music and art of the last 100 years, to say nothing of the current media, is awash with distortion, unspeakable vulgarity and the cruelty that goes with it. And, as Miss O’Connor observed, it has become the acceptable; the “normal”. Were there a Fra Angelico painting a glimpse of Paradise today, his work would elicit little more than a shrug of a shoulder. Yet, the billions that both women and men spend on cosmetics prove that an obsession with human exteriors remains a focus above almost everything else except being “with it”. That demand has not changed despite tattoos, piercing, green hair and absurdities of fashion. In spite of the negatives that the present culture pounds us with, we were created for beauty as well as love, manifestations of our Creator in His wisdom. To see Christ is to see the culmination of all beauty. The challenge is to perceive Him in those whose faces or personalities make us want to look away and quickly put them out of our minds. Saint Francis grasped this when he kissed the lepers. The Missionaries of Charity spend their lives in the service of many souls like that. The Dominicans of Hawthorne understand it and continue to provide hospice for terminal cancer patients. Indeed, they are beginning a new foundation in Kenya where there are many children, like Mary Ann, suffering from Burkitt’s lymphoma.

There are those among us now who would say, with Ebenezer Scrooge, why not just let them die (or help them to die) and “decrease the surplus population”? Or better yet, now that we understand genetics so well, why not choose who live before they are born and who shall die later if their “quality of life” doesn’t meet the standardized requirements? The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology enjoin universal prenatal genetic testing to eliminate babies with Down Syndrome, dwarfism, spinal bifida and other imperfections. How long until standardizations of beauty, intelligence, strength, athletic ability, musical gifts are requisites? The possibilities are without limit. Everyone would be bright, attractive, talented. The world would be spared endless and unnecessary suffering.

O’Connor’s insights are worth considering. “One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit to goodness of God, and when you have discredited Him, you are done with Him.... In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

It is frightening to think how merciless “compassion” can be. We must cling to the Church’s definitions of mercy and most of all, to the Source of all mercy if we wish to truly make sense out of a world that has perverted the meaning of almost everything that matters with the well-meaning and deadly intention of manufacturing “exterior” perfection. Who will make the rules? Will it be a political party controlled by a powerful elite, or a small group of earnest bureaucrats deciding whose life has enough “quality” to exist?

All of this seems to hinge on the idea of the Beautiful and the Useful. Perhaps only the most determined urban dweller ignores the splendor and limitless varieties of the natural world. It is easy to love the beauty of Creation; flora, fauna and attractive people. The next, more difficult step is to love those who are anything but beautiful: the demented person in the nursing home spewing curses, the derelict begging to support his habit, the adolescent with his hat backwards and his pants at half-mast. “All creatures are living in the hand of God”, says Caussade, “the senses perceive only the action of the creature, but faith sees the action of God in everything”.

So we must try to look past appearances. We’re able to anticipate the glory hidden in the brown husk of a daffodil bulb. So we must transform the gospel of the grotesque, which Flannery O’Connor would insist is shouting at us, into the Gospel of Christ’s love, as He has shown us in the most terrible and beautiful way with His own body.

Author’s Note: Those interested in reading more commentary from Flannery O’Connor will enjoy her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The quotation from Fr. J.P. de Caussade, SJ is in Self Abandonment to Divine Mercy, his great masterpiece. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” show his prescience of where the pursuit of “perfection” must lead.

Kathleen Reeves is a member of the Voices editorial board and describes herself as “ordinary housewife, happily practicing those ancient arts, who lives in the Wisconsin countryside with my husband of 50 years, five cats, gardens, wild birds and flowers”.

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