Not a Cold Eye

The works of Flannery O’Connor are not for everyone. A fair number of fellow readers that I’ve encountered have been repulsed by her violent style, her grotesque images, and her gothic setting. This is fair enough, I suppose. Some of these readers, though, are discerning enough to recognize her virtues even while not preferring them for themselves. This latter group tend to be religious and literary.

Marilynne Robinson (AP)
Marilynne Robinson (AP)

It was especially disappointing to me, though, to read Marilynne Robinson’s rather cutting remarks towards St. Flannery in her New York Times interview. Frankly, I was shocked that a writer like her—who very much occupies the categories of “religious” and “literary”—should so flatly misunderstand O’Connor. “Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me.” Truly? Has Robinson ever really read this author? To begin with, O’Connor’s prose is hardly beautiful. Plenty of authors outshine her in mere aesthetic form. But Robinson’s second proposition is correct: O’Connor’s imagination is often appalling. But this is merely to state the obvious. It’s like describing a stonemason’s gargoyle: “The stonework is so very fine! But does it have to depict something so—hauntingly absurd?” Yes. It does. O’Connor’s work is not solely populated by gargoyles; but it does feature them pretty routinely. Robinson, being a rural mainline Presbyterian, just doesn’t understand what gargoyles are for.

But Robinson’s worst comment was her personal remark that O’Connor viewed “religion” with a cold eye. Well, maybe she did view “religion” coldly. But not the Christian religion. Fatal baptisms; flaming visions; bloody redemptions, all. Her eye may be called cruel, but not cold.

To misunderstand the grotesque in O’Connor is a failure of understanding, but to miss the good in her stories is a failure of imagination. Her stories are filled with good, though not of a kind Robinson seems to be familiar with.

It has been years since I have read Robinson’s work, so perhaps a more careful reader of Robinson may stumble across this article and correct me. But as I recall, Robinson’s good is largely that of a charming Protestant reverie. It is the good of Emily Dickinson.

Flannery O'Connor (self-portrait)
Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor’s good is not like this. The good in her stories is like that found in Old Testament, with the God of Moses and Elijah; the God of revelation and not of reverie. It is not the good of “religion.” It is the good of the prophets.

And this is what I find so perplexing about Robinson’s remarks: doesn’t she know that good is a terrifying thing? O’Connor clearly does—and that is why her prose is so shocking. She knows it like C.S. Lewis does, or Charles Williams. But Robinson’s good? It is the familiar good. It is the recognizable good. I’m not so sure she knows that good can be terrifying. If she did, she might have recognized it in O’Connor.

One thought on “Not a Cold Eye”

  1. Hm. Although I agree with your praise of O’Connor, I think your characterization of the religious aspect of Robinson’s work is off-base. There is actually a quite stark sensibility and troubling darkness there, which is founded upon the Calvinist understanding of the essential sinfulness of man and a belief in predestination. Consider the chilling scene in Housekeeping when Ruthie hides in the dark, cold orchard at night. She feels herself becoming one with the still, lifeless dark of the beautiful yet irredeemably depraved natural world…

    Funny. In my view, Robinson’s description of O’Connor’s work is actually a more accurate description of her own – beautiful, but cold.

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