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The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews by Flannery O’Connor

by davesandel on April 4th, 2012

The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews, 1983, by Flannery O’Connor, compiled by Leo J. Zuber, 189 pages

Thoughts on The Presence of Grace:

             Flannery is a famous old Irish surname which means “descendant of the red warrior.”  But this baby girl’s parents named their daughter Flannery O’Connor.  There aren’t a lot of Flannerys in the world.  Parents magazine says the name “conjures a sardonic sense of humor, ironic world view and vibrant spiritual life, like the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic whose famous short stories were wound in religious allegory.  A strong, Southern-inspired, unusual choice to name your baby.”

Flannery grew up a Catholic in the Baptist Bible Belt.  In 1946 she became a student at the now famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  In 1951 she was diagnosed with systemic lupus, the disease which had killed her father ten years earlier.  She was given five years to live.  She managed fourteen and died at age 39.

Flannery O’Connor wrote 32 short stories and two novels.  Her heroes were angry, grotesque characters who lived out their legacy of original sin.  Desperate for redemption, they took out their panic on their own bodies or those of others.  In her first novel, Wise Blood (1947) Hazel Motes, a very sanely crazy Christ figure who rails against the church and speaks out for a new church, the Church Without Christ, eventually blinds himself and walks around all day in shoes filled with rocks.  Finally he is killed by police who have been assigned to bring him back to his lovesick landlady, who falsely accused him of not paying his rent.  Within Motes, as within her other heroic characters, O’Connor said, “The good is under construction.”

Flannery O’Connor also wrote essays and gave lectures at campuses around the country, while she lived the last fourteen years of her life with her mother in a small house on the edge of Milledgeville, Georgia.  She tended peacocks and wrote every morning.

Flannery said that she wrote for an audience pious on Sunday but self-righteous on Monday.  These folks saw little real need for redemption.  “To the hard of hearing,” she explained, Christian writers shout, and for the almost-blind they draw large and startling figures.”

Her remarkably short reviews make great reading, flavored with just a smidge of the black humor and deft sarcasm which lace her fiction.  She introduced me to many writers that seem well worth reading today.   Of the 120 reviews she wrote for her Georgia diocesan publication The Bulletin between 1956 and 1964, 50 were of religious books, 21 of biographies, 19 theology, 17 fiction, 8 literary criticism, 6 psychology, 6 philosophy, 4 history, 4 letters, 4 periodicals, 3 intellectual history and 1 art criticism.

Always keeping her reviews under 200 words, she cut quickly to whatever chase there was.  Evidence of vast reading and brilliant understanding runs through everything she writes.  I have the sense of barely tapping a great vein of gold, rich and near.  She does not speak of her own pain.

Early in 1964 a simple surgery for a fibroid tumor reactivated O’Connor’s lupus, which had been in remission.  The last entry in this book is a letter to her editor, Leo J. Zuber, on April 5, 1964: “Thanks for the note.  I’ve been worried about having the Claudel book and not getting to it.  I fell into the hands of the surgeons the last of Feb. and haven’t been up to anything much since.  Would you rather I sent the book back or kept it, waiting for a return of vigor?  That will return slowly I am afraid.  I hope Blanch is okay and the children doing well.”

In August, after several days in a coma, she died.

Quotes from The Presence of Grace:

from review of Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 1 and 2 by Friedrich von Hügel, 1950.

A consideration of the always measured and intellectually just tone of Hügel’s essays on religious subjects would serve as an antidote to the frequently superficial methods by which many popular American Catholic writers approach and sidestep the problems of faith or meet them with the Instant Answer.  In his introduction, von Hügel says that there is not a “paper here which does not raise more questions than it solves …” – a characteristic which the reader will observe to be the opposite of that found in much of our current writing on religion, where the solution is put forth without giving the reader any sense that the question has been experienced.

from review of The Rosary of Our Lady by Romano Guardini, 1955.

The first most noticeable characteristic of Monsignor Guardini’s writing is the total absence of pious cliché … When he turns his attention to the Rosary then, it is not to recommend its daily recitation whole as a cure-all for every spiritual infirmity, but to rediscover how it should be prayed.  “The Rosary is not a road, but a place, and it has no goal but a depth.  To linger in it has great compensations.”  It is concerned with Christ as His existence was made possible by the consent of His mother … He considers that the basis for all exaggerations about Mary is her uniqueness, but he feels that these exaggerations are useless and harmful.

from review of Further Paradoxes by Henri de Lubac, S.J. Newman, 1957.

The author describes a paradox as “the reverse view of what, properly perceived, would be a synthesis.”  Synthesis is what we seek; paradox is the search for synthesis.  It faces toward fullness.  Paradox exists in reality before it exists in thought.  Since the synthesis of the world has not been made, the universe in growth is paradoxical.  “The higher life rises, the richer, the more interior it becomes, the more ground paradox gains …; the mystical life is its triumph.”

from review of Order and History, Vol. 1, Israel and Revelation by Eric Voegelin, 1956.

In the Hellenic world man was seeking God, in the Hebrew world God was seeking man.  Real history begins when man accepts the God Who is, Who seeks him … Unlike Spengler and Toynbee, Voegelin does not see history as civilizational cycles, but as a Journey away from civilizations by a people which has taken the “leap in being,” and has accepted existence under God.  The study is a further advance over Toynbee in that it satisfactorily answers the comparativism which sees all spiritual movements as fundamentally the same and of equal importance.  “Without Israel there would be no history, but only the eternal recurrence of societies in cosmological form.”

from review of Tell Me, Stranger by Charles B. Flood, 1959.

Whenever problems of faith are dealt with in a novel, the novelist has already committed himself to enter the work at a certain level and to people it with characters more than two dimensional … (The protagonist’s) commendable action appears to stem from the faith of Mr. Flood rather than his own, and this is because he has never come alive as a person.  He is depthless and the author doesn’t seem to be aware of it.  The result, fictionalized apologetics, introduces a depressing new category: light Catholic summer reading.

from review of The Devil’s Advocate by Morris L. West, 1959.

(Part of this book’s action) makes of the book a kind of mystery novel and undoubtedly accounts for its presence on the best seller list.  The best seller list is a standard of mediocrity through which occasionally a work of merit will slip for reasons unconnected with its quality.  In spite of a style which is more frequently deft than distinguished, The Devil’s Advocate is a work of merit … This book is well worth reading for its virtues and we have its faults to thank for its being read so widely.

from review of Religion and the Psychology of Jung, by Raymond Hostie, 1959.

Fr. Hostie points out that psychology can tell us nothing about metaphysics or theology in themselves or about God, their specific object.  He says, “Jung’s contribution to philosophy, theology and religion remains … indirect.  I have acknowledged his right to enter this field … but he in his turn should be prepared to accept the limitations which his science imposes upon him.”  This is (valuable for anyone) combating a growing attitude which tends toward psychologism in its appraisal of religion.

from review of The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1959 and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin by Claude Tresmontant, 1959.

Teilhard, rediscovering biblical thought, “asserts that creation is still in full gestation and that the duty of the Christian is to cooperate with it.”  Tresmontant points out that asceticism in Teilharde’s view no longer “consists so much in liberating and purifying oneself from ‘matter’ – but in further spiritualizing matter … in sanctifying and supernaturalizing the real which has been given to us, by ‘working together’ with God.”  Actually Teilhard’s work is a scientific rediscovery of St. Paul’s thought.

from review of The Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1960.

No writer of the last few centuries is more capable of restoring a sense of expectation to the Christian world than Teilhard, whose work is both scientific and profoundly Pauline …  The Phenomenon of Man is scientific and traces the development of man through the chemical, biological and reflective stages of life.  The Divine Milieu is religious and puts the first in proper focus.  They should be read together for the first volume is liable to seem heretical without the second and the second insubstantial without the first.  It is doubtful if any Christian of this century can be fully aware of his religion until he has reseen it in the cosmic light which Teilhard has cast upon it.

letter to Bulletin editor, Leo J. Zuber, 2/19/1961.

Very crafty of you to send the penitential list at the last two weeks of Lent.  I have number four, in the order of horror, that you may get rid of on me.

from review of The Mediaeval Mystics of England by Eric Colledge, 1961.

To cut across futile intellectualizing in prayer, the author of The Book of Privy Counsel advises his monks to come down to the lowest level of their intelligence and think “not what you are, but that you are.”

from review of The Old Testament and Modern Study by H. H. Rowley, 1961.

Ironically, as more material, through excavation and more accurate methods of dating becomes available, interpretation grows increasingly difficult.  Nineteenth century Biblical scholarship, which wrecked the faith of so many, has been almost entirely discredited and the historical value of many Biblical texts attested to by chronologies worked out by radio-carbon dating and the comparison of cultures.  There is a healthy sense in this book that as our knowledge of the past grows, the mystery of it grows. likewise.

from review of Freedom, Grace, and Destiny, by Romano Guardini, 1961.

In all his work, Msgr. Guardini’s directive is this attempt to view the pattern of Christian existence as a whole, as it was viewed in early and medieval Christian thought before philosophy became separated from theology, empirical science from philosophy, and practical instruction from knowledge of reality.  He is concerned that this conscious unity of existence has been lost to a large extent even by believing Christians.  “The believer no longer stands with his faith amid the concrete, actual world, and he no longer rediscovers that world by his faith.  He has made a grim necessity of this dismemberment by constructing, if we may employ the term, a chemically pure faith in which he insists upon seeing the true form of orthodoxy.  This orthodoxy has a somewhat austere and very courageous quality, but we must not forget that it is an emergency position.”

from review of The Georgia Review, University of Georgia quarterly, 1962.

It is, apparently by design, one of the least intellectual strenuous of the college quarterlies.  Critics do not criticize the criticism of other critic’s critics in the pages of The Georgia Review … It is obviously a magazine for Southerners about Southerners. (after a couple of faint praises, she goes on:) Its fiction, with only an occasional exception, leaves the impression that it has travelled much and been rejected many times before finding asylum here.  It is the magazine’s worst feature … but the magazine is  an unpretentious, refreshing quarterly admirably suited to the Georgia temper.

from letter to Leo J. Zuber (her book review editor), 1962.

Thanks for sending me this but I am so far behind on my reviews that I had better not take any more until I do what I have.  I have been traveling around giving lectures.  Just got back yesterday from Chicago and Notre Dame … I recently lectured at Converse where I ran into Bill Davidson who edits the Georgia Review.  He upbraided me on “damning with faint praise” his sainted organ.

from review of The Kingdom of God ed. by Louis J. Putz, 1962.

This is an abridged Bible for school use, prepared for the German school system in 1960 and now available in English … It is doubtful if the illustrations in this text will appeal to children.  In every face depicted, the sign for spirituality is emaciation.

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