The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 150-152
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O'Connor, Percy, and Orthodoxy
Walker Percy approved of Flannery O'Connor, and she of him, though, of course, he had published only The Moviegoer and a handful of philosophical essays by the time of her death in 1963. Both were committed Catholics, one by birth, the other by conversion, and their faith deeply informed their fiction. Neither of them would have been ashamed to say that they pursued a religious agenda in their writing, though neither of them was willing to sacrifice art to propaganda. According to the best theological thinking of the time, it would not be necessary to do so since faith fundamentally harmonized with fact whenever the details of human existence were truthfully explored.
Neither do John F. Desmond and Ralph C. Wood have any problem in defending their respective subjects. Desmond's book is the more narrowly focused, the exploration taking place to a surprising degree within the received idioms of Catholic commentary. Wood's account is more broad-ranging and combative, vigorously defending O'Connor's positions on a number of controversial issues but frequently ready too to present an opposing point of view in some detail.
Desmond sets out to show how Charles Sanders Peirce's philosophy of signs—the author's presentation here makes for excruciating reading—influenced Percy, giving him grounds for arguing that man is essentially [End Page 150] a social being. Desmond admits that the "depth of Percy's study of Peirce has yet to be firmly established," and that Peirce himself would probably be "upset" to see his writings serving to support Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Percy, in fact, wanted to use the philosopher to reunite "forms of knowledge and experience that have followed divergent paths at least since the late Middle Ages" and, thus, correct the errors of the Enlightenment, a familiar Catholic enterprise.
In spite of the extended Peircean prelude, however, and with the exception of some interesting commentary on the final pages of The Second Coming, Desmond's analysis offers little that is new on the individual novels. He concedes that ideas sometimes drive the plots, especially in the case of Percy's last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, where the writer is opposing "the popular Enlightenment notion of human perfectibility." It must seem sadly ironic today that the pedophile abuse that Percy there attributes to a godless scientific ethos should now, unfairly or not, have become most associated in the public mind with the activities of Catholic clergy. So much for Desmond's claim that "pornography and sexual perversion, as both Percy and Flannery O'Connor indicated, are signs of the times in a desacralized culture driven by theory."
Ralph C. Wood's Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, though sharing Desmond's philosophical and religious views, is altogether more engaging. It is good to be reminded just how philosophically and theologically aware O'Connor was and how little respect she had for excessive Catholic devotionalism or sentimental invocations of a phony Irishness in that regard. She even asserted at one point that "if I hadn't had the Church...I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw." Paradoxically, she also admitted a strong sympathy for something quite different, southern fundamentalism.
Wood shows how O'Connor's anti-bourgeois stance paralleled those of C. Wright Mills, Marshall McLuhan, Vance Packard, and others in the 1950s. But while her range of interests was wide, "It was no sacrifice of her intellect to honor the Vatican's Index of forbidden books, for she believed obedience to be a virtue not meant only for monks." Thus an early interest in the ideas of Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin turned into later rejection when his promotion of an evolutionary Christianity became theologically suspect. At the same time...