Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Is Grotesque Subjective?

In the process of describing what grotesque is in her essay The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, Flannery O’Conner mentions the fact that a Northern reader might find something that is grotesque to them when it is a part of the norm in the South.

“… I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic,” (O’Conner 815).

            I feel like this begs the question: is grotesque, ultimately, something that depends on the readers? A possible follow up question would be: is it possible to make something that is a part of a normal setting grotesque? It would seem to me that the answer would be yes to both questions but I am not entirely sure. I see that O’Conner is definitely aware of the fact that the readers do have a hand in the matter.

“Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is, his audience is going to; and it is going to ask him, or more often tell him, why he has chosen to bring such maimed souls alive,” (O’Conner 816-817).

            O’Conner mentions the fact that a grotesque writer would achieve their means through way of distortion of their characters and/or real life. This distortion can reach a point where anything after it would be considered too much even for a Northerner, apparently.
            So, with this everything in mind, I go back to the questions I have and still contemplate them. Even though it would be easier for a Northern reader to find something grotesque, is it possible for something be grotesque in a setting that it normal for some readers? Certainly not everything would be considered weird for the reader but possibly some of the events/actions could set the tone for the whole book so that it can be considered grotesque fiction.

The Grotesque is in my Blood

I encountered O'Connor as a high school tot, and now getting to meet with her again with a little more experience behind me is all the more enjoyable. Throughout reading Wise Blood I am constantly feeling... something. The oddity of her characters, the grossness of their everyday lives... the shrunken bodies left in coffins, the dirty oily women with friendly beds, the fake preachers with fake disabilities… it all invokes a feeling. While reading I was not sure how to put these feelings into words... (I've never claimed to be a poet)... but that's just it... it IS poetic. Just like a song, film, or work of painted art makes us feel something, sometimes unexplainable, so O'Connor successfully does so in her unique writing. After all, "Fiction begins where human knowledge begins- with the senses- and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium" (816). 

Being as I'm a good Mississippi gal, I have a good deal of Faulkner under my belt, even true to a pilgrimage to his Oxford home... He was my first experience with "the grotesque." Naturally, one can see the similarities between Faulkner and O'Connor go far past their disposition to a... 'southern draaaaawl.' In fact O'Conner says herself that ".. particularly in Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." Now that I have been able to put this oddity into words... I am even more concerned not only with why in the world this theme is prominent in Southern fiction, but why a good pure Southern girl like myself takes such delight in it? I often find myself smiley and getting tingly upon experiencing good writing but... really? What is this and why do I like it?? Is it really because it's a form of truth that so successfully describes the nastiness of the world?   Maybe I’m strange… but after all I AM Southern, and therefore the grotesque seems to be in me somewhere. Is anyone else with me?
But there is a truth in the TMI descriptions, a truth that isn’t found in other works. There is a truth in the depravity of a people Christ-haunted and depraved by what is around them and what they know that they know that they know.

Veering slightly from my existential crisis… I want to bring in the grotesque in the light of Maritain and “Christian Art”… I haven’t thought it out completely… but maybe there can be some sort of redemptive quality in the grotesque. In fact there must be. To be lifted out of the miry clay… from the Church with out Christ, from out Christ-haunted fields, and even from ole girls friendly oil stained sheets… to see where we were, where we are, where everyone IS or has been… and to see hope? I’m just going to leave that there for meditation because I’m being borderline to wordy. I feel a paper topic coming on.

DM, not sure if you’ve missed my blogs of random thoughts that probably don’t make a point or satisfying the assignment. Or maybe it did? You can chastise me or congratulate me later.


Haze's Self-Destruction

Haze has struck me as one of the most real characters I have read in literature. I wouldn't doubt if every modern has had similar impulses against the world (though maybe not so rashly--O'Connor did enjoy the grotesque and exaggerated).

Despite her use of the grotesque, O'Connor makes Haze's reactions seem like his only realistic option. Haze feels physically estranged after separating from his father and escaping the war, and he feels spiritually estranged as evidenced in his obsessive denial of sin. He desires to see the world as a cohesive environment, but he knows he cannot fit into the world. Such is the consequence of sin.

Haze proves his own reaction against the world on page 69 when he encounters Sabbath, the preacher's daughter, "He looked at her irritably, for something in his mind was already contradicting him and saying that a bastard couldn't [be saved], that there was only one truth--that Jesus was a liar--and that her case was hopeless."

Haze fights violently in his mind to disprove Christ. He consistently assumes that the easiest way to avoid salvation is to deny Christ. Even after chapter nine of the novel, Haze tries to take seriously his own answer to his problems, and he becomes frustrated at Onnie Jay's theft and twisting of his new religion.

But why? Why does Haze become upset? The answer is apparent: he has built his own castle of "salvation" or solace by non-sin rather than redemption from sin, and it is threatened. However, Haze is not as keen at developing unique ideas as he would like people to believe. Haze is actually sensitive to the evil of others in the world. To prevent the same pain, Haze simply acts opposite of them. They acknowledge a god...there is none. There is uncleanliness...wrong...there is no standard.

When he runs out of ideas (after they are stolen), he reverts to a primitive, self-wounding lifestyle. He does not know how to remain clean and thus desires to destroy himself.

Edit: Maybe not destroy...maybe cleanse. Self-mortification. Cleansing by way of self-punishment, self-atonement.
“Let there be no mistake: it is the actuality of love, contemplation in charity, which is here required. A Christian work would have the artist, as a man, a saint” (55).

 Maritain says that Christian art is “difficulty squared” because it is a “question of reconciling two absolutes” (53). Often we assume that in order for art to “Christian” it has to be cute and nice and inoffensive so as to avoid heresy (think Hallmark Channel). Or we limit the forms of art to which the word “Christian” can apply. Of course music can blend the two harmoniously without raising any objections (unless its rap), but we limit what can and cannot be considered “Christian”.  Even when someone does venture out into various art forms, like film or fiction, it’s rarely considered art by secular critics because it’s often too safe. We have access to and communicate with the most creative Being in existence, yet we suppress our imagination and curiosity. We should cultivate our creativity, rather than worrying about receiving condemnation for stepping over boundaries. Christian art is “the art of humanity redeemed”, and redemption is inspiring, provocative, and enlightening. Our art should always reflect that.

"But all such forms of art will bear a family likeness and all differ substantially from non-Christian forms of art, as the flora of the mountains differs from the flora of the plains" (55).

Maritain also argues that secular art can contain Christian elements such as hope and harmony. There’s a secular song by Andrew Duhon called “Just Another Beautiful Girl” that condemns a small town church for “[wearing] their Bible belt[s] a little too tight” and out casting a girl for her rebellious actions. Some would hear the song and assume that Duhon is too critical of Christians. But when I listen to it I hear the voice of someone who has found hurt instead of love from people who claim to possess the love of Christ. The only difference between Duhon’s song and Bebo Norman’s song “Britney”, which apologizes to Britney Spears for what  is that Norman writes “we stood aside and watched you fall apart” instead of “they”. Both songs inspire sympathy for the girl gone astray, yet Norman's accepts blame rather than placing blame.  

The Need for Self-Justification in Wise Blood

Reading Flannery O'Connor for the first time is a plethora of emotions.  In "Wise Blood", the horror and grotesque of description and personal actions of the characters is are both repellant and enticing. The continuous themes of justification throughout the book are particularly intriguing to me, both in self inflicted violence in Haze and in the false blinding of the "preacher".  The fleeing from good into what is evil was very perplexing, especially apparent in the supposed "blinding" of Hawks.  His original purpose in blinding himself before the entranced crowd of believers was to "Justify his belief that Christ Jesus had redeemed him." The picture O'Connor paints of this scenario particularly stood out to me, especially in the details of the horrible evangelist.

"Over the headline was a picture of Hawks, a scarless, straight mouthed man of about thirty, with one eye a little smaller and rounder than the other.  The mouth had a look that might have been either holy or calculating, but there was a wildness in the eyes that suggested terror."And then later, "He had been possessed of as many devils as were necessary to do [pour lime in his eyes], but at that instant, they disappeared, and he saw himself standing there as he was.  He fancied Jesus, who had expelled them, was standing there too, beckoning to him, and he had fled out of the tent into the alley and disappeared." (64, 65)

His terror of being stopped by Jesus himself in his supposed "justification" of Christ's sacrifice is poignant, especially when compared to Haze in the end of the book.  Haze attempts to cleanse his evil he has constantly denied throughout the book by actually blinding himself, wrapping barbed wire about his chest, walking on stones, etc.  While the preacher was calculating enough to demonstrate supposed sacrifice for personal gain, Haze himself, who claims throughout the entire book that he is not evil and that there is no truth, is the one who physically attempts to punish himself for his guilt.  His self mutilation is particularly sad when one realizes that in the end, he was aware that there was truth, that there was good, that there was evil, and was aware of his fallen state, yet still rebuked the name of the man who saves even the most calculating and horrible from evil.

Crystal Clear

            It's no secret that there is a very distinct flavor to Flannery O'Connor's stories that at once entices and repulses, there really is nothing quite like it. One of the most frequent and distinguishing features of O’Connor’s literary style is the pervasiveness of momentum dilucide, the moment of clarity (everything sounds sexier in Latin), wherein a character and/or the reader experience a single moment where certain features of their life and the world are made brilliantly apparent. Analogous to O’Connor’s history as a cartoonist, these moments primarily exist as images, screenshots if you will, that wedge themselves in the minds of both the character in question and the reader himself. These golden instants are hard won by O’Connor’s protagonists after much moral hemming and hawing, and often serve to define the end of the story’s journey, perhaps the genesis of an unwritten one. Likewise, the moment of clarity is designed to haunt the reader as the takeaway image that, though the rest of the script may be forgotten or overlooked, these crucial few seconds will always be remembered and may cause the reader to revisit the story another day.

Although plenty of other stories by O’Connor such as Revelation and Good Country People are known for these moments, her novel Wise Blood demonstrates this concept just as well as any. Consider the end of Chapter 2, where Haze Motes deliberately sleeps with the filthiest prostitute in town to mark the beginning of his quest for unredeemed blasphemy as well as Chapter 13, when the blue-eyed policeman drives Haze’s Essex off into a ravine and Hazel returns to his apartment with buckets of lime and water with which to blind himself. Enoch Emery is a master of such moments, well known for the end of Chapter 5 when he is assaulted by Haze and wakes up staring at his own “wise blood” or the end of Chapter 8 when, despite the warnings of his conscience, he determines that Haze’s “new jesus” is none other than the museum’s mummy and he goes off to retrieve it and store it under his sink. Best of all is the end of Chapter 12, when, after being told to "go to hell" by a man in a gorilla suit, Enoch proceeds to rob that man of his gorilla suit, put it on, accosts a man and woman on the side of the road, and exits the story not as the young man he once was but a confused and dissatisfied gorilla. These moments serve to open the character’s eyes to the reality of their own depravity and the sheer comedy of their lives, gradually moving them to a sense of self-knowledge or redemption – the reader, hopefully, feels something to the same effect.

Fear of Community?

     O’Connor’s works are filled with people who claim not to need community, but it can be argued that they are simply in denial of their need for companionship. There are several characters who claim that they will simply not accept human companionship, or put off an air of excessive independence, but their actions within the stories tell the reader something completely different. The Geranium and The Life You Save May be Your Own both have very good examples of this. It is clear from the beginning of the story that the old woman Lucynell Crater has intentionally separated herself from the world. One can assume that it is mostly to try and protect her daughter’s innocence from the world. When Mr. Shiftlet arrives Lucynell instantly puts her guards up. She picks him to pieces and gives the reader the idea that she will pull out a gun to try and chase him off at any moment. However, she suddenly offers him a place to stay in her house.
“The old woman began to gum a seed. “What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?” she asked. “Tools,” he said, put back. “I’m a carpenter.” “Well if you come out here to work, I’ll be able to feed you and give you a place to sleep but I can’t pay. I’ll tell you that before you begin,” she said.”
Why this immediate shift from the unwelcoming person she seemed to be, to a lady willing to open up her home to a strange man? Did she really desire a separation from people, or was it forced upon her?
    A similar situation is seen in The Geranium. Old Dudley is not portrayed as the friendliest guy in the apartment building. He does not really care to talk to his daughter and avoids even going outside. One immediately jumps to the conclusion that Old Dudley does not wish to have any type of community. However, a lot of the story is Old Dudley reminiscing on the time spent with Rabie. It might be a bit of a jump to say that Rabie was Old Dudley’s friend, at least not in the traditional sense, because of the situation, but he did provide Old Dudley with companionship that was obviously very significant to him. When the African American man moves into the apartment next door, Old Dudley is furious, but then he wonders if the man knows how to fish and if they could go fishing together. Old Dudley dreads leaving his room, he even fears that people in the apartments will hear him, but when he passes the lady in the staircase, “He wondered if she would speak to him.” They pass each other on the stairs without a word and he then, “felt heavy in his stomach.” If he really wants to avoid people, why is he always wishing for someone to speak to him?

     O’Connor’s characters are constantly contradicting themselves when it comes to idea of the human need for community. This is all part of the old southern ideals; the idea that to really be successful in the American South is to be independent, own your own land, and essentially be self-sustaining in every area of life. Does that seep into a person’s need for community as well? Is this idea dripping from O’Connor’s work in these stories? 

Inverse Images

No, there are not many mirrors in Wise Blood, but there are characters and details that are like mirror images. The one is almost just like the other, but the other is the opposite of the first. This aspect of the story begins with Haze’s memories of his grandfather. Haze was the exact image of his grandfather and everyone he met asked him if he was a preacher. His grandfather was an evangelist and preacher. Haze wanted to prove everyone wrong. Strangely enough however, he did claim he was a preacher, but he preached a very different message than his grandfather.

His grandfather urged for the repentance of sin. Haze however, preached a message oozing with post modernity, there is no sin, no truth, nothing outside of you of any significance. Later Haze bought a new hat a white one instead of the black one that reminded him so much of his grandfather.

Haze and his grandfather are not the only mirroring images a close reader will notice. In chapter seven when Haze and Sabbath are stuck out by the field they come to a gas station with a large cage that says, “TWO DEADLY ENEMIES. HAVE A LOOK FREE” (71). In the cage there was a bear with one eye and a bird with a part of his tail gone. The one eye of the bear is similar to Hawks who had one eye that was smaller than the other. Interestingly, the only person at the gas station that was there to help was a man with only one working arm. What is the significance of these little details?

Finally, at the end the reader comes upon the ultimate mirror image in the book. Mr. Shoats (otherwise known as Holy) employs a man who looks just like Haze. In order to compete with Haze, he dresses this man up to look just like Haze. In the end, Haze kills his mirror image. Did Haze kill the man simply because he was threatened and angered by his competition or was there a deeper significance to the action?

Parallel details, images and even characters seem to be a theme in Wise Blood. I wonder what we might discover about O'Connor's writing as we finish up our first work of the semester. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Existence of Art Through the Grotesque

           Can art even exist within naturalist works? Because art achieves beauty through uniformity and order, but a naturalist shows the natural disorder of the world through detailed characters and daily life. According to Maritain, "The imaginative and verbal riches of romanticism, the instinct of the heart, for all its intimate lack of poise, and spiritual penury, still keep alive within it the concept of art. With naturalism it disappears completely" (Maritain, 63). For Maritain, there is no art in naturalist works; this implies that art can only exist in romanticism because of how it expresses the ideal and because of its lofty morals imposed on the characters that exist within the work.

            O'Connor expresses naturalist qualities in her work Wise Blood, through the extensive use of the grotesque. Haze Motes and the other characters in this story exist in a grotesque world, whether it is a prostitute clipping her nails with scissors, wrapping yourself with barbed wire, or blinding yourself by destroying your eyes with quick lime. The details that O'Connor gives are detailed to the point of being grotesque, which she uses masterfully to covey the grimy details of everyday life to the reader. Haze repents for his sinful life by stuffing rocks and broken glass in his shoes, so that he injures his feet while he walks around. Why does O'Connor give these details to the reader? Why could she just not say that Haze hurt himself to repent for his lifestyle? She gives the details to emphasize the pain he is inflicting upon himself, because this makes the pain a real experience for the reader. These details make it both real and believable. O'Connor does the same thing when she describes Mrs. Leora Watts, "Mrs. Watts was sitting alone in a white iron bed, cutting her toenails with a large pair of scissors. She was a big woman with very yellow hair and white skin that glistened with a greasy preparation. She had on a pink nightgown that would better have fit a smaller figure" (O'Connor, 17). O'Connor describes the details to the reader to emphasize the fact that in real life, there are disgusting details that are experienced every day. And on top of that, Haze has intercourse with said woman. Mrs. Watts is described in such a way to make no man in his right mind actually desire her, yet Haze does. Why would O'Connor create such gross characters? Because these characters show distorted qualities that emulate natural qualities of people in real life. Regular people can be gross, so O'Connor makes her characters downright disgusting. The grotesque details of this story also emphasize the extent of the depravity of her characters.

            This is her way of being an artist, despite Maritain's claims that art cannot exist in naturalist works. O'Connor is artistic because she uses the grotesque to emphasize natural, gross details to the reader. Art exists O'Connor's works because she uses the grotesque to create believable characters. Some would argue that her characters are seen in a fun-house mirror, because they are distorted to the point where they are hyper-real, or simply unbelievable. O'Connor acknowledges this in her essay The Grotesque In Southern Fiction, "The problem for the novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying" (O'Connor, 821). Does O'Connor ironically do this in her own work, Wise Blood? She does not, because even though her characters are very distorted, they are still believable. Any man could become as anti-religious as Haze if the right buttons are pushed. And any person could become as crazy as Enoch if he is pushed to his limits. This is why O'Connor can function as an artist that utilizes the grotesque: she has the balance necessary to create grotesque, but ultimately, real characters. 

The Boss, the Wayfarer, and the Peacock

Listen to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, one of the best acoustic albums ever recorded, and you'll hear the marks of Flannery all over it.  Percy, as it happens, was a Boss fan and actually wrote Springsteen, without response.

Here's an essay from Dappled Things on the Boss and O'Connor: "Naming Sin:  Flannery O'Connor's Mark on Bruce Springsteen."