A Defense of the Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Art

flannery oconnor

Art is the pulse of the soul. It expresses much of what is kept hidden and even what could not be expressed in any other form. Many people talk of a crisis in modern art—its abstractness, banality, and, could we even say, ugliness. If there is such a crisis, to me, it is nothing other than a reflection of the fact that art is the pulse of the soul. The art we produce in our culture reflects who we are, how we feel, and what we believe.

How does the Christian artist respond to this situation? There are a few options. One, the artist can conform to contemporary standards and be limited by these conventions. Two, and this seems to be the choice preferred by many, we could look back to a purer age and attempt to copy its art and extend its influence into our own age. It is true that this art can help form the next generation as it looks for ways to express its soul, but, on the other hand, this looking to the past is clearly limited in its impact on the broader culture. Third, the Christian artist can bring the power of the Christian spirit into contact with all of the problems and limits of the contemporary culture and its art. The Christian artist can forge a powerful dialogue between the two spirits in an attempt to communicate and ultimately to transform the spirit of the age at its very root.

This last response is probably the most difficult of the three, and without a clear path to follow. It is not altogether clear what Christian art would look like that would both be profound in its own right and could speak to the needs of the contemporary world. If this art makes clear the spiritual dilemma of contemporary culture, however, the results may not be pretty. In fact, they would probably be grotesque.

A student once asked me, how can we call Flannery O’Connor’s writing beautiful when it is so focused on the grotesque? First of all, we could point to the elegance of her style and her perfection of the craft of writing. That seems clear to all, even her critics. We could also point to the beauty of her vision of reality, a hidden spiritual reality, which comes forth in her stories precisely through the grotesque. I would argue that her use of the grotesque is needed today, despite criticism, for a few important reasons.

First of all, our culture is marked by a peculiar dichotomy—we are a culture of death that is fixated by violence and its spectacle and yet we refuse to face up to death in any serious way. We keep suffering and death removed from our everyday experience: we cover it over with pharmaceuticals and drugs, remove the sick and dying from the home, and generally distract ourselves from facing up to its reality. This strange dichotomy presents us with the need to communicate the reality of death and suffering to our culture in an arresting way—waking people up to the ultimate spiritual realities of life, which are being ignored, and to have a frank encounter with suffering and death.

Flannery O’Connor herself describes the need for violent means to awaken the reader:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience (“The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Collected Works, 805).

For an audience that does not agree with you, O’Connor says that the artist makes his “vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures” (ibid.).

The grotesque is also needed, because a more direct presentation of spiritual themes would be immediately dismissed by most people today. It is generally recognized that O’Connor, along with many other contemporary Catholic writers, wrote with a sacramental style. This style seeks to portray the ordinary things of human life in light of their truly extraordinary significance—signs of both the truth of God in creation and also of the working of grace (even when not perceived on the surface). In light of this, Ralph McInerny describes O’Connor’s understanding that “all literature—as in all—is anagogical, that is, takes its meaning from the transcendent reference of human actions” (“Literature and Georges Bernanos,” in Christianity and the West, 89). The violence and even death that O’Connor portrays in her stories anagogically points toward the ultimate stakes of human life, without explicitly preaching to her readers.

O’Connor describes this point as well:

When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God (“The Church and the Fiction Writer,” 810).

Third, it may just be the truth that in this world we find deeper beauty in the grotesque than in a straight forward attraction to what is perfect. We are broken and fragile beings and because of this reality, we can see beauty communicated in that brokenness. O’Connor herself realized this in her “Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann,” written by a group of Hawthorne Dominicans to eulogize a young girl in their care who died of cancer. Mary Ann’s face, deformed with this cancer, provided O’Connor with a “new perspective on the grotesque.” She realized that the face of the good too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look. When we look into the face of the good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann’s, full of promise (830).

There is more to this insight than meets the eye. Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of Christ as “the image that reveals the invisible God” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 32). Christ is therefore the greatest icon or image (even from eternity as the Word of God, but made accessible to us in the form of man in the Incarnation), through which we can contemplate reality. The highest expression of this image on earth, however, is grotesque. When we love Christ, we “have been inflamed by the most sublime of beauties—a beauty crowned with thorns and crucified” (ibid., 33). The ultimate meaning of human life and the deepest glimpse that we have into the eternal love of God comes to us on the Cross. This tells us something of the deep meaning of human suffering, in which we can catch a glimpse of this love, or at least an order toward it, even if unfulfilled.

O’Connor was aware of the fact that many Catholic readers objected to her style of writing. She describes this criticism as follows:

Catholics readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works permeated by a Christian spirit. It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt generally to be lost (“The Church and the Fiction Writer”).

Speaking more positively of her own vision, O’Connor notes that the purpose of the grotesque is that through it “the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man many never experience in his ordinary life” (“The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” 815). The grotesque, she says, helps us to make connections we may overlook in a more straightforward narrative. The point is not to be caught up in what is outside of the ordinary itself, but to see the ordinary in a new light. The ultimate purpose of the grotesque may actually be surprising. It is the need “to be lifted up.” O’Connor describers this further:

There is something in us, as story-tellers and listeners of stories, that demands a 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. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration” (ibid., 820).

O’Connor takes us into the world of the grotesque not to be shocked and awed by darkness, but to begin to see reality rightly again—to recognize evil and to yearn for redemption.

In conclusion I would echo Archbishop Chaput, who recently revised Chesterton’s phrase that every age gets the saint it needs to you may not get the pope you want, but the pope you need. I would rephrase it again: You may not get the artist you want, but the artist you need. What we need is to recognize the message of modern art as a reflection or pulse of our soul. What we have in Flannery O’Connor, in particular, is a writer who combines a profound understanding of the richness of our faith and the reality of our culture, drawing them together in a way that challenges us—both as Catholics and secular Americans. Her prowess as a writer has given O’Connor a place in the canon of American literature. Let’s hope that she can help us to recognize the grotesque within ourselves, not for its own sake, but to point us toward our redemption.

R. Jared Staudt

By

R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

  • She past 50 years ago, nearly three generations have lapsed and know zero of the ‘culture’ and life that ‘needed’ her.

    • luis

      “Catholics readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place.”

      QED

  • NE Forever!

    She ranks with De Sade, Bellow, Shelley (Frankestein), etc. – shock and horror, no longer relevant, shocking nor informative. Her ‘sell by’ date has long since expired. Surely you can find someone more relevant to write about.

    • Guest

      Relevant? Sounds like the 1970s still live.

    • luis

      Right.
      The gospels & their gory ending are even ooooooooooooolder!
      Keep clear of them!
      Avoid also Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoievsky…

      • Carl

        Through Jesus, God finished revealing Himself to his creation. To be Christian is to be like Christ. Jesus taught in parables and He did not focus on minute grotesque examples to make his point. Neither should we. We have an idea of what Paul of Tarsus and what the Prodigal son did and we don’t have to get into the weeds and know every detail of their sins. But know they were redeemed.

        • Guest

          Many saints have been shown hell. They were terrified. Who showed them hell?

  • Carl

    While I agree with Father Pravone of Priests for Life that abortion will not be banned until everyone sees in pictures the murder for what it is, but I don’t believe I need to immerse myself into evil to redeem myself.

    I’m of the believe that we desensitize ourselves on the road to perdition and NOT scare ourselves into faith and devotion.

    As the encyclical humanae vitae predicted the use of contraception and sexual immorality would lead to all kinds of depravity and corruption of society. Homosexual unions are almost an after thought today and now the next step of Throuples and other polyamorous relationships begin.

    It’s like the common home school argument that children “not exposed to public schools” will not cope well when adults. My response to this is to question this response with, “really, I should bus my children into bad inner city schools so they can be exposed to violence and moral depravity because the will learn and develop into mature adults?” Which I either get no response or I get, “your exaggerating the point.” No I’m not, if a little bit of immorality is good wouldn’t a lot of immorality be better?

  • mary jo anderson

    @NE forever! please pause a moment to reconsider Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Have you read the book? that is, read it, not watched movies made from the novel? FRANKENSTEIN ought to be taught as required reading in every Catholic high school. Though it was written two centuries ago, it is so prophetic that we marvel. The issues today that threaten the dignity of Man– cloning, embryonic stem cell research, surrogate mothers, genetic manipulation– all bear witness to the horrors that Shelley warned about in her cautionary tale. Our students need to see the horror of these threats embodied in a real character whose tragic plaintive plea about being created not in love but by stitching evils to good…this is an urgent message our youngsters need to hear.

    Flannery too is prophetic. We tend to turn our face from the ugly issues and paste smiley face over it .Flannery insists that we look at what it is, and only then is redemption possible.

    • Guest

      The little children at Fatima where given a glimpse of hell. They almost died from terror. They were little kids. Would the critics here think that our Lord was wrong?

      We are an effete generation for certain.

      • mary jo anderson

        Thank you, that is a very strong point. If Our Lady gave these children such a horrifying view of hell, that those who criticize Flannery may want to reconsider the value of an honest look at the horrific. And what is more horrific than hell?

        For those who hold that fictional examples of virtuous lives is a better approach, please re-read Flannery’s stories. Her characters usually understand themselves as virtuous, or smart and wise. Ruby Turpin in Revelation understood herself as very virtuous. Ruby was utterly blind to her peril, to her hypocrisy. It is these same people that Our Lady weeps for. Only a violent event would have jerked loose her smugness. Remember that God wants our ultimate good, eternity with Him. If it takes a wake up call for us to recognize our need for penance and mortification, so be it. That was Flannery’s genius– she understood.

      • Carl

        Yes, “a glimpse of hell.” No one is hating, no one wants to ban books, no one says there’s no value in horror or the grotesque. Proper portions people! I sat in a meeting with a Diocese Lay Group and many there enjoyed Dan Brown novels explaining there just books. When I asked them want Catholic novels they read no one raised a hand. And the portions of Dan Brown type books to any religious books was terrible.
        I don’t see how Flannery’s writtings should be “mandatory readings. If someone is inclined to experience this as a sample or “glimpse” fine, an infatuation with the grotesque can’t possible be healthy.
        I’ve studied the Exorcism Rite and found it very edifying learning the traps and snares set for us and how living a holy live dependent on Christ’s gifts of the sacraments we can avoid much of these entrapments.
        God makes good out of human suffering, He doesn’t will it to scare us to instill faith and love.

  • mary jo anderson

    Well done, Mr. Staudt.

    • luis

      Sure. We are Catholic (i.e. universal, including stultorum numerus infinitus est).

  • Hilary Poitiers

    The acute observation of a friend stays ever with me, and is not irrelevant here: “We do not navigate by negative reference points.” We are edified and develop, as Christians, principally by positive examples of virtue.

  • Otto S.

    Seems to me that fans of the “grotesque” (a literary tool to capture the fantastic) like to share their ‘experiences’ to validate their special educational level, like in the proverbial ivory tower, unintelligible to the common crowd.
    Sure the “grotesque” is fascinating and entertaining, as one can write and/or read so much into it.
    Perhaps, even what appeared to be “grotesque” a while ago, can turn out to be reality now.
    Horror and prophesy are not necessarily congruent. It is always what one “reads into it”. Like looking too long into the mirror.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    A word to the haters: the grotesque is a legitimate way of seeing the Truth. The only way? No. But legitimate. Perhaps it helps if you are Southern or have a sense of humor. Remember we celebrate the Massacre of the Innocents within the octave of Christmas and the story Thanksgiving/Squanto will not teach us much about the sacrifices of Sts. Joques, Goupil, Lelande and a host of others whose blood consecrated this land from New York to Florida.

  • peter wilson

    Flannery O’Connor–the greatest Catholic artist 20th century America was fortunate to have. She ‘belongs to the ages’.

  • JDM85

    Sad, that you don’t know a truly relevant author when you read or hear about one.

    What makes O’Connor relevant to day is the eternal relevance of her message: The need for redemption, and its availability via the Sacraments. All else are cheap imitations and pretenders to the throne.

    And God’s grace through the sacraments are so efficacious that even flawed human beings, with souls and motives twisted and (dare I say it?) grotesque can communicate it to those that need it.

    What, pray tell, is irrelevant about that?

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    Just now, I am re-reading Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov’s dream about the horse being beaten to death by malignant peasants is more grotesque than anything in O’Connor. And no educated Catholic denies that Dostoyevsky’s book is a Christian classic.

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