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Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love
Richard Giannone. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. New York: Fordham UP, 1999. xxi + 268 pp.
With Flannery O'Connor's works steeped in so many religious elements, it's not surprising that critics fall prey to the temptation to focus exclusively on her theology. As Jon Lance Bacon claims in his Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture (1993), the tendency, historically, among O'Connor scholars has been to "assign [. . .] priority to the 'universal' religious themes with which her stories of the Bible Belt resonate." But while Bacon and an increasing number of O'Connor commentators have sought newly to contextualize O'Connor's religious impulses within the political and social issues of post-World War II American and Southern culture, a steadfast group of critics continue to advance Saint Flannery's religion as something that transcends the cultural situation in which it was produced.
One of these works is Richard Giannone's recently reissued Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love, first published in 1989 by University of Illinois Press. Attempting to "re-create [. . .] the transforming power of guilt and love in each work," Giannone skillfully articulates O'Connor's complex presentation of divine love and grace. Proceeding with an analysis that follows the chronology of her texts, Giannone recognizes that O'Connor's knotty matrix of divine grace challenges her readers as much as it challenges her characters: "O'Connor herself is always respectful of the unbelief that prevents her audience from discerning the charity shaping her mortal comedies."6 [End Page 1026]
In his understanding of O'Connor's theology, Giannone draws on the familiar theological influences that are frequently associated with O'Connor's work: the Apostle Paul and Karl Barth. In particular, Mystery of Love draws a connection between the work of French theologian Père Teilhard and O'Connor's work. "Christianity for Teilhard," claims Giannone, "complements the massive phenomenological mystery in nature by accounting for its thrust as a movement toward sacred wholeness." Wedding O'Connor to Teilhard, Giannone believes that the foundation for O'Connor's work lies in a belief that "the entire universe is, and always has been, in perpetual evolution toward cosmic convergence into a single whole."
Reading O'Connor as a Teilhardian, though, restricts O'Connor's oeuvre into a progression toward this "convergence," a teleology echoed in his chapter titles: "Looking for a Good Man"; "Finding a Good Man"; "Convergence"; "Preparation"; "Fulfillment." Though Giannone, in the additional preface that accompanies the new edition, acknowledges that "[h]istoricizing O'Connor's art and thought in her class, region, and era [. . .] promises to enlighten us about how this woman of quiet faith addresses the anguish of our time," his narrow focus disregards the relationship between the religious elements in O'Connor's works and the post-World War II South. His unapologetic reading of O'Connor's fiction "on its own terms" reduces each work to a litmus test centered around whether grace has been accepted by her characters.
Nowhere is the narrowness of this approach more glaring than in those O'Connor works that prominently mix religion and racial issues. Though O'Connor herself felt great trepidation about representing the black characters in "The Displaced Person" ("I can only see them from the outside. I wouldn't have the courage [. . .] to go inside their heads."), Giannone barely deals with the social conflicts that permeate this horrible Southern Armaggedon. Guizac, whose presence catalyzes latent racial anxieties, represents the "historic passion" of the era, according to Giannone; but Guizac's main role is as a formal device that "call[s] the characters to feel themselves a part of God's plan."
Even worse is Giannone's treatment of "The Artificial Nigger," a story that explores how Mr. Head's and Nelson's subjectivities are forged through their encounters with blacks in the Atlanta neighborhoods and the Sambo figurine in a wealthy white Atlantan's front yard...