On Belief, Conflict, and Universality: Flannery O’Connor, Walter Benn Michaels, Slavoj Žižek

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Editor: Catherine C. DiMercurio
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 262. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,684 words

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[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Haddox uses the theories of American literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek to analyze universalist themes in O’Connor’s short fiction.]

This is an essay born of exasperation, of the futility that I feel in confronting the interpretive impasse to which Flannery O’Connor drives me and, it would seem, just about everyone else who values her work. We all know, thanks to O’Connor’s essays and correspondence, what her intentions as a writer were; we all know whether we are persuaded by her arguments; and we have probably decimated forests staking out our own often mutually exclusive positions. The distinguished company of readers who share O’Connor’s theological premises, viewing her as a prophet who lashes our fallen world with the painful truth that Jesus died to save us, is matched by the distinguished company of readers, going at least as far back as John Hawkes, who hold that O’Connor is unknowingly of the Devil’s party. And these two contending sides are joined today by historicist-minded critics from Jon Lance Bacon to Patricia Yaeger, who see neither salvation nor nihilism in her work but only the distorted reflections of the racist, sexist, class-obsessed, and Cold War—damaged culture that was the South of her lifetime. The situation has not changed much since 1992, when Frederick Crews complained that “there is never a shortage of volunteers to replace the original antagonists” (156) in the fundamental debates over O’Connor’s work. Some of us ask, “Should we take O’Connor’s Catholicism seriously or stow it away in a box marked ‘false consciousness’ or ‘irrelevant window dressing’”? Others among us ask, “Should we condemn O’Connor for remaining silent before the racial injustices of her time, or praise her for registering some slight or partial resistance to them?”

These questions will outlive us, because they cannot be definitively answered as long as we continue to act as though O’Connor’s literary corpus provides all that we need to answer them. Although we pride ourselves on having escaped the limitations of the New Criticism, and although we repeat the notion that there is no disinterested point of view so often that it has become a bromide, the protocols of academic discourse still require us to act as if our arguments were latent in texts themselves and only incidentally positions in which we happen to believe. When we approach O’Connor, however, such protocols get us nowhere, for at this late date, it should be clear that all of these contending positions are amply supported by textual evidence. There is no good reason to doubt the sincerity or the orthodoxy of O’Connor’s beliefs, and once we know how these beliefs informed her fictional practice, we must acknowledge her consistency in applying them: there is no necessary contradiction, for instance, in the claim that the Grandmother’s murder in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, or Mrs. May’s goring on the horn of the scrub bull in “Greenleaf”, might simultaneously function as the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420125475