Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O'Connor

For those eager to learn about American religion – especially in its current George W. Bush, born again variety – and its battle with secular American society, The Violent Bear It Away may well be the book to answer all questions.

In short, it tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, who is brought up by his religiously devout great-uncle (he is more than a touch mad, having spent some 4 years in a mental institution). He instructs the boy on what to do when he dies, how to bury him etc, and also tells him he will be a prophet. He is also given the task of baptising his uncle’s son – who happens to be retarded.

His uncle Rayber is a school teacher. When Tarwater finally makes his way to meet him Rayber tries to sway him away from his great uncle’s teaching and towards more ‘rational’ thought.

To begin with Tarwater rejects all his uncle had taught him, but finally, inevitably, comes around to being a prophet.

I didn’t find this novel nearly as humorous as Wise Blood. There were a few moments, like the young girl preacher who grandly tells a crowd of onlookers of how the world begun. It’s a really, really dark novel that is thoroughly disturbing. And very violent.

To be honest, I can’t figure out what the novel is really all about. Although Flannery O’Connor writes with great sympathy about her, if you can call them that (and this is probably not the right word), misfits, I couldn’t figure out whose side she’s on. She seems to be saying that the religious side will always win out, and that the secular is wafer thin and with no substance.

I know that Flannery was a devout Catholic, but the humour in her stories points to a very ironic personality. That’s one reason why I would find it hard to believe that she was what we would call today a fundamentalist. What are we to make of a young girl preacher who tells everyone that she knows the history of the world? It’s funny, but Flannery also seems to be saying that we’re pre-programmed with religious feeling or knowledge.

Also, in her short stories she likes to satirize writers or intellectuals, which I thought might be her taking the mickey out of herself. In the short story Everything That Rises Must Converge she makes fun of an intellectual son who can’t stand his racist mother. Flannery is very sympathetic to the mother character, even though she is a sad, narrow minded racist.

What I’m trying to say is that I find everything that happens in her work so mixed up it’s impossible to walk away with a definite idea of how to ‘read’ her work. Although, having said that, the violent contradictions all build up to something that strangely does make sense.

At the end of The Violent Bear It Away you can’t help but feel that Tarwater is on the right track by becoming a half crazed prophet, like his great uncle. If he turned out like the rational teacher Rayber you’d be disappointed.

I found this useful review at Amazon, that says Flannery would have been 100% on the side of Tarwater. Personally, I can’t think of her as some sort of fundamentalist – she would be humourless if that were the case. And she’s not humourless. Anything but.

‘ I think it's important to correct a common misperception that's been cropping up in the reviews here. I can understand how someone might come to the conclusion that The Violent Bear it Away is an exposure of, or an attack on, religious fanaticism, but I can say with almost absolute certainty that this was not the author's intention. Flannery O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic, and nearly all of her stories (check out especially A Good Man is Hard to Find) carry a very extreme and uncompromising religious message. Everything connected with her - the other stories, her personal correspondence, and the text of Violent itself - suggest that it was meant as, crudely stated, an endorsement of fanaticism; or more accurately, a spiritual call to arms, and an attack of meek secularism. This doesn't mean that the book is only for religious people. Someone reading it from an antifanatic standpoint might well benefit, if only by discovering in the person of the author herself an example of the fanaticism they find so distasteful. A religious reader, though, should not be frightened away by all these reviews suggesting that The Violent is a plea for religious moderation. O'Connor's vision, above all, was radical and unconventional, and for either a religious, an agnostic or an antireligious reader, it presents something to think about.’

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