Flannery on Art

peacockFlannery, again. On art:

St. Thomas called art “reason in making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.

I wonder what Flannery means by “reason” when she says that “reason has lost ground among us.” She must mean more than narrow rationalism or intellectualism, which seem to be gaining rather than losing. I suspect she means something along the lines of the (metaphysical) glue that holds all that exists in its divinely ordained order: reason, in that understanding, is the Word and Wisdom of God which makes cosmos (rather than chaos). That has certainly lost ground. We live in chaos.

By this definition, it makes sense that the artist’s reason can discover “an answering reason in everything he sees.” That makes sense because the classic catholic vision is that everything coheres in God. A deep likeness makes all things kin, despite appearances.

Finding in things “the spirit which makes it itself” comes at a cost. The cost is self-emptying– what Flannery is alluding to when she mentions the artist’s  “single-minded respect for the truth.”  That single-mindedness of the artist is the turning away from ego-satisfaction, and the turning toward contemplation: away from self-absorption, toward absorption in the sensible world.  Or, as Flannery says in another place, there’s nothing not worthy of the writer’s stare.

 

 

 

 

 

Flannery the Awesome

Flannery O’Connor

I got re-acquainted with Flannery O’Connor this summer. What a treat!– witty and sometimes biting, always insightful, faithful, and refreshing. She’s a good tonic.

I’m speaking especially of her collected prose here. The stories merit their own superlatives, of course: they hold an integrity of vision and execution characteristic of any work that deserves to be called “art” rather than “propaganda” or “entertainment.” For now, though, let’s just consider the prose.

Here’s a snippet from “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” Provoked by an editorial in “Life” magazine brimming with optimism about American power and prosperity, and decrying the lack of any American novelists who would glowingly “show us the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose,” Flannery says this:

What these editorial writers fail to realize is that the writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today. For him, the fact that we are the most powerful and the wealthiest nation in the world doesn’t mean a thing in any positive sense. The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.

Flannery’s faith was the light by which she saw things that those invested in American triumphalism did not see. The distortions she perceived in 1957 persist today: in the light of faith, power and wealth wielded solely for “me” and “mine” are nothing at the end of the day.