Monday, July 25, 2005

The Violent Bear It Away

It's official: I'm on something of a Flannery O'Connor kick. The Violent Bear It Away was her second and last novel. Gripping and sickening, it tells the story of a strong-willed, self-declared prophet in a Georgia backwater, his rationalist nephew struggling to free himself from the influence of his uncle's misguided zeal, and his reluctant successor grandnephew, all of them working out their destiny frenetically and enthusiastically, with terrifying consequences. Read more . . . .

The world of this novel is a place where familial relations exist, but appear as if in funhouse mirror images. The odd circumstance is that apparently almost everyone is someone's uncle. Prophet Mason Tarwater is schoolteacher Rayber's uncle. Rayber is, in turn the uncle of prophet-in-training Francis Tarwater, who has lived all his life with his great uncle Mason. These avuncular relationships approximate and seem to replace the paternal ones, but inadequately. And mothers qua mothers are absent entirely: women are only referred to in conversation, never seen in the actual novel, and the characters can only see the women who are mothers as whores or as confused women on a voyage of self-discovery. "Mother" is not in our characters' lexicon.

Reflecting this, the actions of the Tarwaters reveal a distorted and truncated trinitarianism, in which Father and Son are subsumed into the Spirit and vanish, leaving blind enthusiasm outside of relationship and fellow feeling. Similarly, Rayber is possessed of an impersonal drive to rational goodness, to the betterment of his fellow man. His uncle rejects him because he insists on holding all things and persons in the world in abstract judgment within his mind; both elder and younger Tarwaters refuse to let Rayber place them "inside his head," to reduce them from acting subjects to intellectual objects. Rayber paradoxically struggles to deny his natural affections for his retarded son Bishop. He seems capable of loving only in the abstract, indeed, to be following some rationalist maxim to stamp out the irrational wellsprings of love for his insufficiently gifted son.

It's powerful work. The first two parts in particular are tight and arresting leading to a tragic climax. The third part is somewhat cryptic. I have no idea how O'Connor intends us to take Francis Tarwater's resolution at the end of the novel, but that's a strength. This is a novel to be read again and again.

John Huston created a movie adaptation of O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, which I saw many years ago. Of directors working today, someone like Robert Duvall seems well-suited temperamentally and artistically for realizing O'Connor's terrifying and befuddling visions. However it happens, Flannery O'Connor's work deserves to be brought to life for another generation of viewers and readers.
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