- Darkness Rising:Shadowing Flannery O’Connor
Whenever I teach O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away in one of my classes, the first response by students is usually always the same—why is this novel so dark? The question is completely understandable: O’Connor’s works present misfits, freaks, lunatics, and prophets all violently vying for power in an unforgiving and brutal world. Fortunately, three recently published works (O’Connor’s notebooks, one strongly edited collection, and one stalwart reprint) shed some light into the shadowy universe of O’Connor’s faith. The recent publication of O’Connor’s journals written between January of 1946 and September of 1947 opens with a conceit that might seem familiar to students and scholars. In her opening prayer, O’Connor senses an awareness of [End Page 125] a shadow obscuring the dreamy moonlit world of her faith: “Dear God,” she writes, “I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.”
O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal presents its readers with private teleological meditations, fears, insecurities, and successes that O’Connor experienced in over a year and a half during her early twenties in Iowa City. One notes immediately what W.A. Sessions labels “her own prayer form,” at once lyric and ornate but also self-effacing and brutal. Her struggles between private desires (artistic and aesthetic) and religious desires come across most poignantly as O’Connor begins her training in the university. She is both elated at her intellectual freedom and terrified of what it might lead to: “I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise,” she writes of her journal, “but something in praise of God.” Later, she will admit, “I want to be a fine writer … If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.”
With a fascinating facsimile of her notebooks as an appendix, the collection of prayers manifests Flannery O’Connor’s own desperate struggle between the secular world of the academy and the deeply felt world of her faith. Unsurprisingly, her meditations turn dark: she moves from despair and misery (“My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on”) to self-flagellation (“Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought”), but the real benefit of the journal is in seeing O’Connor’s private dialogue with herself. It is a window into O’Connor’s wrestling with the same darkness we find embedded within her work.
Reading O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal in concert with Susan Srigley’s 2012 edited collection shows how O’Connor’s darkness is not simply rooted in aesthetic, or Gothic, posturing, but, in fact, a real expression of the author’s faith, one that necessarily engages in apocalyptic discourse. Together with Carol Shloss’s indispensible O’Connor meditation—Flannery O’Connor’s Dark Comedies—now out in paperback from LSU Press, both offer an analysis of O’Connor’s dark obsessions and how her shadows illuminate her interest in prophesy and conversion. [End Page 126]
For those unfamiliar with Shloss and her monograph, the book is a useful, albeit somewhat...