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BOOK REVIEW

 

 

The Thirteenth Century Lives

Oddie CoverWilliam Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), $50, 401 pp., Hardcover.

Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), $30, 448 pp., Hardcover.


Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.

 

Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton were artists, and not merely of the written word. “I don’t know how to write,” O’Connor told the adviser to her high school newspaper, Brad Gooch recounts in Flannery. “But I can draw.” In high school and college she regularly contributed cartoons to the school newspaper, and, for graduate study, she applied to “the journalism program at Iowa, mulling a possible career in newspaper political cartooning.” Chesterton, of course, attended the Slade School of Art and continued to draw throughout his life, though, notes William Oddie in Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, “his formal artistic studies did little to turn him into a real artist.”

 

In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor commented on the propensity of writers to draw. “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things.” O’Connor and Chesterton were two of the last century’s best at showing things in fiction. And neither O’Connor, a cradle Catholic, nor Chesterton, a convert, was content to depict things superficially, stripped of any deeper or spiritual meaning.

 

I found Wise Blood oppressive. O’Connor kept me pinned under her thumb for the entire novel, never letting me up to breathe. Her prose controlled my reactions, never allowing me any respite. I finished the book with no desire to ever reread it, nor was I eager to read any other novels by her. O’Connor is today best known for her short stories, many of which are brilliant, and each of which made me eager for more.

 

From childhood, Flannery O’Connor was defiantly different, a taciturn loner who was to find herself at home in the thirteenth century with Thomas Aquinas. In Georgia, O’Connor stood apart and observed others, who become the grist for her stories. O’Connor’s adult friends were from elsewhere, drawn to her by her writing. A slow, meticulous writer who produced a small corpus of work, O’Connor was nevertheless very confident.  “‘She was very serious about her mission in life, and had a sort of destiny,’ says Barbara Hamilton. ‘She knew she was a great writer. She told me so many times.’”

 

Text Box: G.K. Chesterton
 
With a wry sense of humor, “weird imaginings,” and contrariness, O’Connor is known for the grotesque, which, given her artistry, is not condemnation, but praise. As Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, artists understand that one branch of the beautiful is the ugly, the grotesque. Indeed, Chesterton frequently used the gargoyle as an “emblem for Christian exhilaration and generosity,” notes Oddie. “Laughter and love are everywhere,” observes Adam Wayne in Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. “The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques.” O’Connor is also known for peacocks, which she raised and wrote about. This, too, would have delighted Chesterton. At Bethlehem, he wrote in The Everlasting Man, “all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. The very image will suggest all that multitudinous marvel of converging eyes that makes so much of the coloured Catholic imagery like a peacock’s tail.”

 

Gooch begins with a quotation from O’Connor: “there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Many reviewers have taken this bait, commenting on the difficulty of writing her biography. Perhaps, though, it was more quip than prediction, an example of her wry wit. O’Connor, who preserved carbon copies of her correspondence and who took pains to explain her writing and control its interpretation, can easily be viewed as endeavoring to aid expected biographers.

 

Gooch thoroughly and artfully describes O’Connor’s upbringing, family, education, literary style, work habits, literary friendships, and the real-life observations and situations that underlie her stories, as well as the impact of her lupus on her writings. Gooch treats O’Connor’s Catholicism descriptively, sometimes uncomprehendingly, and he does not delve deeply into the underlying Catholicism inherent in her stories, which therefore do not spring to life in his book. “Now I think it behooves me to try to establish with you the basis on which reason operates in [A Good Man is Hard to Find],” said O’Conner in remarks to introduce a reading of that story at Hollins College. “Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception. About this I can only say that there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read, but none other by which it could have been written. Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.” A thorough biography would explore such statements in depth. Gooch’s depiction of O’Connor is more detailed than Paul Elie’s in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, but Elie’s book is more ambitious concerning the Catholic meaning in her work.

 

Text Box: “She knew she was a great writer. She told me so many times.”Although Gooch describes O’Connor’s cartoons at length and whets the reader’s appetite to sample them, none are found in Flannery. Gooch includes a man’s tasteless description of a kiss the man insists he did not force upon a passive O’Connor. And, Gooch’s depiction of her funeral is meant to be moving, but fails. Otherwise, he writes well, and the biography is well researched, informative, and worth reading, particularly by those enamored of O’Connor’s writing. Those unfamiliar with her work should instead begin with A Good Man is Hard to Find, a collection of short stories that bears the title of one of them, and, as she said in Mystery and Manners, “just try to enjoy them.”

 

Two of Gooch’s statements brought me up short. They may be the key to understanding his approach to Flannery O’Connor; they definitely color it.

 

“No matter what routines she did privately, in her stories she always presented blacks with dignity,” writes Gooch. What is he implying? That fiction must always depict blacks with dignity? That O’Connor depicted others (who? Jews? whites? Poles? Native Americans?) as lacking dignity? That blacks are exempt from original sin? Gooch’s statement is patronizing, as if he said she always presented Indians as noble or gays as superior. O’Connor would have recoiled from his generalization. When “a student complimented her dignified, respectful portrayal of a black servant,” Gooch recounts earlier in the book, “Flannery’s answer went something like this, ‘No. That’s just the way he was.’”

 

Text Box: Flannery O’Connor
 
O’Connor recognized the dignity inherent in each person as a creature and child of God, but also depicted fallen nature. Original sin and free will suffuse her stories. Her approach thus makes some people uncomfortable. After she had “shift[ed] her direction away from art toward what was called ‘imaginative writing’ at Iowa,” the poet John Crowe Ransom, founder and editor of the Kenyon Review, made a classroom visit to her writers’ workshop and chose one of her stories to read to the class. “When Ransom came across the word ‘nigger,’ he refused to read it aloud, substituting the word ‘Negro.’ ‘It did spoil the story,’ Flannery complained [later]. ‘The people I was writing about would never use any other word.’” Or as O’Connor put it in another context, “I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.” A “type of artistic racism,” Gooch sniffs, “worked well for her.” By saying that she always presented blacks with dignity, Gooch perhaps is merely signaling that it’s okay for enlightened, educated folks to read O’Connor despite her use of the word “nigger” in her fiction.

 

Similarly, when Gooch writes that O’Connor was “opening up to Teilhard, and moving beyond while never abandoning an absolute Thomism that some felt ‘too straightjacket,’ or old-fashioned,” what does he mean? How does one move beyond but never abandon an absolute Thomism? Can Gooch really mean that her views evolved but never changed? Or, again, is he again merely sending a signal, this time telling the enlightened that they may read O’Connor despite her Catholicism?

 

Edmund White, Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, contributes a blurb on the book’s dust jacket. “With elegance and fairness, Gooch deals with the sensitive areas of race and religion in O’Connor’s life,” he says. Perhaps to enlightened, educated folks, especially openly gay men such as Professor White, religion is a “sensitive area.” How, oh how, could a gifted writer be a faithful Catholic, even a Thomist?

 

Brad Gooch, a professor of English at William Paterson University, is gay, too. He has written extensively on issues of interest to homosexuals, such as “finding the boyfriend within.” His proclivity is reflected in Flannery in his discussions of sexuality, and he seems disconcerted by O’Connor’s apparent chastity. He describes Wise Blood’s cruising homosexual predator as “a broadly stereotypical character” used to exhibit “her extreme theology.” He does, however, allow O’Connor to speak for herself, and she is eloquent: “As for lesbianism, I regard that as any other form of uncleanness. Purity is the twentieth centuries (sic) dirty word but it is the most mysterious of the virtues.”

 

“When I finally printed out the manuscript,” writes Gooch, ending Flannery on a personal note, “my partner, Paul Raushenbush, the ultimate ‘good guy,’ asked brightly, after years of daily discussions, ‘What will we talk about now?’ I’m confident that we’ll find plenty of other topics to discuss, Paul, though nothing quite the tenor of Flannery O’Connor.” Even O’Connor, with her focus on the grotesque, could not have envisioned that the last words of her biography would be a schmaltzy proclamation of homosexuality.

 

Although Gooch is among that portion of O’Connor’s audience that takes exception to the central Christian mysteries, he nevertheless is attracted to her writing. For him, O’Connor’s talent trumps her medieval, backward faith, at least when it comes to her stories. And, of course, if she had not died so young, well, Teilhard de Chardin would have led her out of her primitive beliefs to enlightenment. For Gooch, it’s acceptable to read O’Connor despite her racism and her religion.

 

Flannery is an enjoyable read, but my estimation of it waned as I reflected afterwards on what I had read. In contrast, my esteem for Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy waxed upon reflection. Oddie’s volume, the first of two that together will constitute a complete biography of Chesterton, delves deeply into Chesterton’s intellectual development. Although not a difficult read, it’s a bit academic. Oddie seems intent on correcting each mistake, and clearing up each misinterpretation or mistaken emphasis, that he finds in those who have written previously of Chesterton, including, naturally, Chesterton himself. Sometimes this approach is illuminating; other times it interrupts the flow; the less important errors and discrepancies should have been relegated to endnotes.

 

DAUNTING TASK

 

Oddie undertakes a daunting task: “to trace the process of intellectual discovery which comes to a fairly clear terminus ad quem in 1908 with Orthodoxy.” His book’s “aim,” Oddie says, “is to trace the growth of Chesterton’s mind from early childhood to the point in his literary career at which … he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” He thus chooses to focus on Chesterton’s writings, rather than on a “cornucopian assembly” of “endearing anecdotes, love letters, holiday reminiscences, [and] the posthumous memories of friends.”

 

Chesterton’s wit is inescapable, so it necessarily percolates through Oddie’s analysis though it is not his focus; indeed, the volume sometimes seems to avoid it. “Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed,” commented …tienne Gilson; “he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.” Without that wit, though, Chesterton would attract far few readers today; once captivated by his wit, contemporary readers can then be captured by his depth.

 

Text Box: “He made up for being deep by being witty.”Oddie extensively uses Dr. R.A. Christophers’ recent catalogue of Chesterton’s papers at the British Library, a resource unavailable to previous biographers, which, Oddie predicts, will be “the foundations on which all future Chesterton scholarship will be built.” He has delved deeply into those archives, exploring materials unconsidered by earlier biographers and revisiting those they had used, without limiting himself to them. “One of the most tantalizing problems of studying Chesterton’s intellectual development lies in the difficulty of establishing the external influences which nurtured it,” writes Oddie. “[O]ne of the main ways Chesterton absorbed ideas” was “through the medium of private conversation, through probably endless discussions and arguments, often extending into the small hours of the morning.” For Chesterton, “personal contact, cor ad cor, was his lifeblood.” And, of course, after the death of his father, Chesterton famously had boxes of the copies of his writings that his father had kept hauled to the dump, only to have his secretary, Dorothy Collins, salvage what she could.

 

The “permanent anticipation of surprise induced by Chesterton’s father,” Oddie notes, became “the driving force of his almost unconscious tendency towards the unearthing of paradox in apparently unfruitful soil.” A happy childhood and adolescence were followed by a spiritual crisis brought on by his exposure to aesthetes, decadents, impressionists, and pessimists while he attended the Slade School of Art, but Chesterton emerged from the confusion and darkness to discover what he already knew, as he put it in his Autobiography: “The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

 

In a detailed review of Chesterton’s fiction and non-fiction writings, including a short story he dictated to an aunt when he was three years old, Oddie recounts Chesterton’s journey from doubt and anti-clericalism to faith to Christian belief to a firm Anglo-Catholicism that Oddie thinks barely indistinguishable from the Roman Catholicism that later welcomed him. “In the circles in which Chesterton moved as an Anglican, his Marian devotion was not unusual; but once beyond the invisible walls of the Anglo-Catholic ghetto, he was to find his singularity in this respect, as in others, increasingly irksome, and when in the end he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, he was grateful to find his Catholic eccentricities normalised as he joined the mainstream. As he explained in his Autobiography, ‘I do not want to be in a religion in which I am allowed to have a crucifix.’”

 

Text Box: “the abandonment of orthodoxy had had consequences, not always understood …”Chesterton’s newspaper disputes with Robert Blatchford, a determinist, in 1903-04 marked Chesterton’s emergence as a committed apologist for Christianity. “[A]fter this ‘landmark’ year of 1903, in which for the first time Chesterton publicly, persistently, and sometimes aggressively confessed his faith, nothing he ever wrote about again was ‘irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true,’” writes Oddie, quoting from Chesterton’s dictum, “You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him. … Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butcher’s shops, lunatic asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution – all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He really lives and reigns.” Notes Oddie, “if Christianity was true, then those who had abandoned it would believe what was false: the abandonment of orthodoxy had had consequences, not always understood, for individuals and for the culture they had created.”

 

In publishing Heretics in 1905, Chesterton described his method of argumentation: “I revert to the doctrinal method of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.” As he later wrote in St. Thomas Aquinas: “The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense.” By the time of The Man Who Was Thursday, published early in 1908, six months before Orthodoxy, “Chesterton has become entirely possessed by the convert’s knowledge that he is living suspended between two worlds. For him now, everything can be, inevitably must be, understood in two entirely different ways, which must somehow be reconciled. Everything has two meanings: that which can be known or experienced by human reason and the material senses; and that which may be perceived only when the world is seen, however dimly, sub specie aeternitatis. He is ‘in possession of’ the ‘impossible good news’ which ‘transforms ‘every other thing’: and almost all his writings may now be seen as an attempt – often unspoken, sometimes declared – to create a bridge, across which some part at least of this good news may be carried.”

 

This volume is the first part of what promises to be the definitive intellectual biography of Chesterton. In it, Oddie thoroughly and convincingly plumbs Chesterton’s intellectual development, culminating with “the great apologetic base camp of Orthodoxy, from which future ascents to the theological summits of The Everlasting Man and St Thomas Aquinas were to set out.” Allegations that Chesterton was an anti-Semite did not arise early in his career, but, by demonstrating Chesterton’s early hostility to anti-Semitism, Oddie sets up the discussion that undoubtedly will be included in the second volume. Serious fans of Chesterton will await Oddie’s second volume eagerly, as do I. Those less familiar with Chesterton may prefer to begin with either the more popular approach of Joseph Pearce’s biography, Wisdom and Innocence, which remains an admirable introduction to Chesterton, or Dale Ahlquist’s Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, a cheerful systematic presentation of Chesterton’s thought that brings Chesterton to life better than many biographies.CW

James G. Bruen, Jr.

This review was published in the April, 2010 issue of Culture Wars.

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