Flannery O'Connor's Mrs. Turpin, Hannah Arendt's Adolf Eichmann, and Dreams of Boxcars
After covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which ended in 1962, Hannah Arendt turned increasingly to the life of the mind, man in the singular rather than the men in their plurality she'd long insisted upon. To understand how we might avoid future evil by developing our capacities for thinking and judgment, Arendt drew on Socrates's idea of the individual as "two-in-one." Here, I use Flannery O'Connor's story "Revelation" to illustrate Arendt's conception of two-in-one. Finally, I consider how another O'Connor story, "The Displaced Person," challenges the reader to become "two in one" herself.
What I learned from you and what helped me in the ensuing years to find my way around in reality without selling my soul to it the way people in earlier times sold their souls to the devil is that the only thing of importance is not philosophies but the truth, that one has to live and think in the open and not in one's own little shell, no matter how comfortably furnished it is, and that necessity in whatever form is only a will-o'-the-wisp that tries to lure us into playing a role instead of attempting to be a human being.—Hannah Arendt, "Dedication to Karl Jaspers"1 [End Page 165]
On YouTube, you can find a recording of Flannery O'Connor reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It is fun to hear the audience erupt in laughter when O'Connor, in her thick southern accent, has the grandmother say to the daughter-in-law: "The children have been to Florida before. . . . You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee." This is funny—obviously—because East Tennessee hardly counts as a different part of the world but it is also funny—intuitively—because O'Connor has just told us that the daughter-in-law has a face "as broad and innocent as a cabbage." Without being conscious of it, we enjoy the close use of "broad" in such different, even contradictory senses—the woman's broad face indicating a person unlikely to be moved by the thought that her children should be cosmopolitan.
Can we learn to be broad, though? For O'Connor, it would seem not. In her stories, "man needs to be 'struck' by mercy; God must empower them."2 Only chance events and extraordinary moments disorient her characters enough to enlarge their perspectives—think of Mrs. Turpin's shock when called "an old wart hog" in "Revelation" or Joy-Hulga's humiliation when deprived of her prosthetic in "Good Country People." By contrast, Hannah Arendt imagined we might cultivate broadness. Each of us might develop the habit of making moral judgments out of our inherent "two-in-oneness"—the fact that we human beings hold dialogues with ourselves in the solitude of our minds. This practice can't yield rules that apply in all contexts, because, as she wrote, "the series of crises in which we have lived since the beginning of the [twentieth] century" have taught us "that there are no general standards to determine our judgments unfailingly."3 Nonetheless, we form our consciences out of the conversations we have with ourselves, and our consciences are the precious little we have after the crises destroy our remaining ties to tradition.
While moral growth appears to require divine agency—or at least something unexpected outside ourselves—in O'Connor, Arendt gambles that the resources we need might be found within. Yet are they so far apart? After covering the Eichmann trial, Arendt turned increasingly to the life of the mind, contemplating "man" in the singular rather than the men in their plurality she'd so long insisted upon. If she turned to the singular, though, it was in a specific "two-in-one" form that offered humanity "some hope of finding a firm footing" (RAJ, p. 27). Here, perhaps perversely, I turn to Flannery O'Connor, a committed Catholic, [End Page 166] for an illustration of Arendt's decidedly secular vision of two-in-oneness. One of those "properly narrated" stories with which Arendt said no philosophy "can compare in intensity of richness and meaning," O'Connor's "Revelation" walks us through the formation of conscience.4 Finally, I consider how another O'Connor story, "The Displaced Person," challenges the reader herself to become "two in one."
In chapter 9 of Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt shows how the existence of millions of refugees after World War I shattered the illusion first projected by France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The stateless people were walking examples of the fact that people are not born, and do not remain, free and equal. Human beings are born into body politics with uneven track records for securing freedom and legal equality for their people, and if a person is expelled from such a body, they are without rights altogether, "the scum of the earth."5
Arendt's original title for the book in which her end-of-the-rights-of-man argument appears was not Origins of Totalitarianism. It was "The Burden of Our Times," which is the better title for a number of reasons. For one, Arendt insisted that nobody has a crystal ball—history is not preordained—and thus, no matter how tightly circumscribed we might feel ourselves to be at any moment, the miracle of freedom cannot be ruled out. And yet the title "Origins of Totalitarianism" predisposes the reader to view the innumerable historical details Arendt excavates as coming together in a conspiracy of inevitability. For another, the publisher-imposed title does not ask anything of us, the readers. It does not ask us to assume a burden, an obligation, whereas "The Burden of Our Times" implicitly makes a claim on the reader to accept responsibility for something. More specifically, when considered in light of the book as a whole, this title asks us to assume the burden of those abandoned by our current political formations. About a decade after publishing Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann's trial and published Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In 1962, O'Connor wrote to a friend: "Right now I'm reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. My, what a book. I admire that old lady extremely. . . . I've always been haunted by the boxcars, but they were actually the least of it. [End Page 167] And old Hannah is as sharp as they come."6 The boxcars haunted every member of Western civilization after the war. No image of dislocation in the twentieth century is more terrifying than that of being packed in a car like cattle with no idea where you are being taken.
Why then does O'Connor say that this is the least of it? Is it because in Eichmann Arendt focuses on the perpetrator, not the victim? Is the more difficult but potentially more pressing task that of understanding the psychological experience of the perpetrator and the bystander—the officials who designed the policies, the ones who implemented them, and the ones who ignored them? We might think here of Arendt's point, in the chapter discussed above, that "none of the statesmen was aware that Hitler's solution of the Jewish problem, first to reduce the German Jews to a nonrecognized minority in Germany, then to drive them as stateless people across the borders, and finally to gather them back from everywhere in order to send them to extermination camps, was an eloquent demonstration to the rest of the world how really to 'liquidate' all problems concerning minorities and stateless" (OT, p. 290). How to prompt awareness? How to call upon the people not in the boxcars to assume the burden they carry?
Arendt's observations of Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem led her into an exploration of the human conscience. "Could the activity of thinking as such," she asks in The Life of the Mind, "the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually 'condition' them against it?"7 She is compelled to ask this question after finding that the most remarkable thing about Eichmann is that he seemed incapable of thinking. He "repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés." "The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else," she continues. "No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such."8
Here, Arendt gives us Eichmann in a tone that, appropriately enough, might be described as "gallows humor":
Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. . . . He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely [End Page 168] himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: "After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them." In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was "elated" and he forgot that this was his own funeral.(EIJ, p. 252)
Eichmann doesn't know where he is. He floats above the gallows ("elated"). He is not in command of himself because he is himself, which means he is not "two-in-one," with one in command of the other, much less in conversation with the other. He may appear with great dignity, but he lacks integrity because each cliché he utters conjures a self that is new but predictably the same as all the others, and these various selves are not in dialogue with one another; they are not integrated. He is the same series of men he has always been, speaking of an afterlife the existence of which he denied seconds before.
O'Connor's work is thick with such people—not persons in charge of orchestrating millions of people into boxcars, of course, but "good country people" who speak in stock phrases and don't feel obliged to reconcile who they are with who they were moments before, or who they are with where they are. As Arendt said of Eichmann, these characters are "quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous" (LOM 3, p. 4). Take Mrs. Turpin in the doctor's waiting room, expressing how grateful she is that she is a person who possesses the capacity for gratitude. Gratitude suggests humility, but this is what Mrs. Turpin does not have, being convinced of her superiority to black people on the one hand, and poor white people on the other. Mrs. Turpin is a woman who "sometimes occupied herself at night naming the classes of people," starting at "the bottom of the heap" with "most colored people" and making her way up her identity-affirming hierarchy.9 In the waiting room, the mother of the girl who will soon assault Mrs. Turpin is anxious because her daughter is being rude. She has told Mrs. Turpin that "the worst thing in the world is an ungrateful person," triggering in Mrs. Turpin an explosion of self-satisfaction:
"If it's one thing I am," Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, "it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, [End Page 169] 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!' For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud." At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. "Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cried aloud.("R," p. 499)
Mrs. Turpin stops speaking to the other people in the waiting room but, crucially, she does not speak to Jesus silently. "The book struck her directly" begins O'Connor's next sentence ("R," p. 499). O'Connor does not write, "The girl threw the book." The book comes out of nowhere to remind Mrs. Turpin that she does not have a private audience with Jesus but is in a public space. Her lack of regard for the others in the room knocks Mrs. Turpin off her pedestal. This disregard is implicit in everything she has said up to this point to the others, some of whom she gave "the merest edge of her attention" (p. 493), and culminates in her forgetting they are there at all.
Arendt tells us that Eichmann "refused the help of the Protestant minister . . . who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live and therefore no 'time to waste'" (EIJ, p. 252). No doubt Eichmann congratulated himself on his consistency—being no Christian in life, he won't start now simply because death is imminent. His contempt for religion ("no time to waste") signals this pride. Arendt grants him this consistency, only to say, in effect, yes, you are consistent—consistently banal. If Arendt thought Eichmann was foolish for refusing the help of the minister, it would not have been because she thought Eichmann should have found Jesus before death but rather because he should have wanted to talk to or with someone. Jesus would have been a start.
Jesus is Mrs. Turpin's start. Her flush of sincere, if self-congratulatory, feeling prompts her to thank Jesus. It might seem that O'Connor punishes her for this "terrible pang of joy" by clocking her with the book, but the book is the beginning of a conversation for Mrs. Turpin ("R," p. 499). Instead of writing the girl off as a "lunatic," as the "white-trash woman" also sitting in the waiting room does, Mrs. Turpin asks the girl a genuine question: "'What you got to say to me?' she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation" (p. 500). The girl tells her to go back to hell where she came from and calls her an old wart hog. This in itself is not helpful, but the girl is not Mrs. Turpin's true interlocutor and neither, really, is Jesus, though Mrs. Turpin believes that Jesus sent her a message by way of the girl. Later, after a series of [End Page 170] other failed conversations (with Claud, with some farmhands), Mrs. Turpin stands by herself.
She stood for a moment in the middle of the kitchen. The dark protuberance over her eye looked like a miniature tornado cloud which might any moment sweep across the horizon of her brow. Her lower lip protruded dangerously. She squared her massive shoulders. Then she marched into the front of the house and out the side door and started down the road to the pig parlor. She had the look of a woman going single-handed, weaponless, into battle.("R," p. 505)
Arendt tells us in Life of the Mind that Socrates used the metaphor of wind to explain the activity of thinking, a metaphor that can also be found in Sophocles, who speaks of "windswept thought," and in Heidegger, who speaks of the "storm of thought" (LOM 3, p. 174). We might say that a tornado cloud of thought sweeps across Mrs. Turpin when, alone in the pig parlor, she asks Jesus how it is possible to be two things at once (wart hog and human) and in two places at once (hell and saved). She shouts the question, only to have it returned to her as an echo. She opens her mouth again but now no sound comes out. Instead, she sees a "vast horde" of people "tumbling towards heaven" ("R," p. 508). Like Eichmann to the gallows, her "kind" of people marched to their deaths "with great dignity," following the poor white trash and black people into the all-consuming fire. "Yet," O'Connor adds, "she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away" (p. 508). Mrs. Turpin "lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead," O'Connor continues (pp. 508–9). If, according to Arendt, "Eichmann forgot that this was his own funeral," Mrs. Turpin fixes her eyes "unblinkingly" on her funeral pyre to better observe how everything that differentiates one human being from another burns away in death. "In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was" (p. 509). We don't learn what is going on in her mind as she remains fixed in place but we have no doubt, to quote Arendt on thinking, that "what cannot fail to look like paralysis from the outside—from the standpoint of ordinary human affairs—is felt as the highest state of being active and alive" (LOM 3, p. 173).
"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it," O'Connor said elsewhere and, here, O'Connor lets Mrs. Turpin "grip the handrails" and allow the uncomfortable truth to settle. "At length" Mrs. Turpin makes her "slow way" back to the house. On her way, she [End Page 171] hears the "voices of the souls . . . shouting hallelujah" ("R," p. 509). Here, in the story's last words, she hears her "kind" and all those kinds she previously saw as beneath hers shout in unison, and we know this means that she understands now what seemed impossible before. She is two things (animal and human) and in two places (hell and saved) at once. Becoming "broad," Mrs. Turpin has "squared her massive shoulders" and gone into battle in order to digest what initially seemed an irreconcilable contradiction. "Moral conduct . . . seems to depend primarily upon the intercourse of man with himself," Arendt writes. "He must not contradict himself by making an exception in his own favor, he must not place himself in a position in which he would have to despise himself" (RAJ, p. 67).
A popular response to the Holocaust was to imagine that each of us could have been a Nazi. The evil lurking in each breast was a fashionable motif that flattered its purveyor and consumer that he or she was bravely facing up to the dark reality of the human heart. Arendt's point in Eichmann in Jerusalem is, however, that a new kind of criminal appeared on the world stage with Eichmann, one we shouldn't mistake for Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. Kurtz indulges himself in the belief that anything is possible. According to Arendt, "It was sheer thoughtlessness . . . that predisposed [Eichmann] to become one of the greatest criminals of that period" (EIJ, p. 287). Eichmann, at least according to the version of himself he gave the court, was a bureaucrat following orders, a cog in the machine. Arendt imagines the judges saying to him:
You told your story in terms of a hard-luck story, and knowing the circumstances, we are, up to a point, willing to grant you that under more favorable circumstances it is highly unlikely that you would ever have come before us or before any other criminal courts. . . . Nothing more than misfortune . . . made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder.(EIJ, pp. 287–88)
Misfortune alone is not enough to absolve a guilty conscience, in Arendt's view, but she can imagine judges saying this and envisioning any number of Eichmann substitutes who could be standing in his place were their biographies to have unfolded differently. Indeed, Arendt writes, "The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal" (EIJ, p. 465).
A perverse pride might come in "admitting" that one's own heart may hear the call of darkness, but surely there can be no pride in admitting [End Page 172] that one's heart might be deaf to any claim upon it whatsoever because one has become a cog in a machine. It is not clear to me why our self-respect can endure the thought that we might be savage but cannot survive the idea that we might be bloodless bureaucrats; however, this seems to be the case. In Kant, no man has the right to obey, Arendt liked to say, meaning that no man can do something just because he's told to; he must follow his conscience. If he does something simply because he's told to, he risks forfeiting his self-respect and "would have to despise himself" (RAJ, p. 67). "Morally speaking," Arendt continues,
this should be enough not only to enable him to tell right from wrong but also to do right and avoid wrong. Kant . . . therefore puts the duties man has to himself ahead of the duties to others—something which is certainly very surprising, standing in curious contradiction to what we usually understand by moral behavior. It certainly is not a matter of concern with the other but with the self, not of meekness but of human dignity and even human pride. The standard is neither the love of some neighbor nor self-love, but self-respect.(RAJ, p. 67)
Since Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, more information about Eichmann has emerged, and the perception that he was just a "cog" following orders has been ably refuted, most notably by Bettina Stangneth in Eichmann Before Jerusalem.10 Eichmann was not a hollow bureaucrat but actively desired the destruction of Jewish people. As Roger Berkowitz has explained in a discussion of Eichmann Before Jerusalem, Arendt wasn't wrong about Eichmann, as some might now conclude, because "obedience and support are the same" for her as they were for Kant.11 Arendt disagreed with those in mass society who imagine that the lower one's rung on a bureaucratic ladder, the more diminished the responsibility. Regardless of how we think about Eichmann, it nonetheless remains interesting to entertain the idea that a person who wished to get along with others more than he cared about getting along with himself might be capable of outrageous acts. Indeed, "the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience," Arendt says of Eichmann, "was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution" (EIJ, p. 116). (Arendt says there was one exception to this, a Mr. Kastner who asked him to "stop the death mills," to which Eichmann replied with—naturally—stock phrases: he would do it "'with the greatest pleasure'" but it was "outside his competence" [p. 117].)
Mrs. Turpin learns; Eichmann didn't. Is the comparison reasonable, though, even if we invoke not the Eichmann we now know but Arendt's [End Page 173] version of a conformist? Mrs. Turpin is guilty of speaking in clichés and indulging in forms of classism and racism fueled by self-satisfaction, not hatred. She is smug and seemingly unable to hear anything that doesn't affirm what she thinks she already knows: "There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn't know already," she thinks to herself at one point ("R," p. 497). Yet she sees herself as a good person. O'Connor tells us that "if Jesus had said [to Mrs. Turpin], 'You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can't be a good woman with it,' she would have had to say, 'Well don't make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don't matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!'" (p. 491). Mrs. Turpin's self-respect matters to her, even if her self-love often gets the better of her self-respect (the very next lines read, "Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything.")
The difference between Mrs. Turpin and (Arendt's) Eichmann, then, would seem to be a matter of self-respect. Mrs. Turpin regains her equilibrium (self-respect) by suffering the girl's insult rather than denying it. Mrs. Turpin makes herself equal to the company she keeps—meaning she does not put herself above others but also not below Jesus and, thus, exempted from having to keep the same standards he does. Like Jesus, she must find in the fact that "the lame shall enter first" a cause for rejoicing, a reason to shout "hallelujah." The cliché itself—if "the lame shall enter first" might be called a cliché—is not necessarily the problem then. The problem is the circulation of clichés without the obligation to think about what they really mean and reconcile ourselves to their meanings if we find, once thinking has unfrozen them, that we want to continue to circulate them.
In an interview, Arendt was asked about "the old simple proposition that it's better to suffer injustice than to commit it." She answers:
Look, this proposition comes from Socrates. . . . What Socrates always added, or rather Plato did, is that we can't prove this proposition. For some people, it's absolutely evident, and you can't prove to the other people that this is how they should behave. So what is the reason for the belief of those who view it as evident?12
It's a good question: why is it evident for one person but not another? But doesn't Arendt's subsequent answer only defer the question? She says "there's another proposition of Socrates's, which in my view does provide us with a reason": [End Page 174]
It's this: "It is better to be in disunity with the whole world than with oneself, since I am a unity." For if I am not at unity with myself, a conflict arises that is unbearable. In other words, it's the idea of contradiction in the moral realm, and it's still authoritative for the categorical imperative in Kant. This idea presupposes that, in actual fact, I live with myself, and am so to speak two-in-one, so that I then say, "I will not do this or that." For I do not want to live with somebody who has done this. . . . Now living with yourself means, of course, talking to yourself. And this talking to yourself is basically thinking—a kind of thinking which isn't technical, but a kind of which anyone is capable.(TLI, p. 59)
Doesn't this just replace the question of why some people possess a conscience and others don't with the question of why some people experience disunity with themselves and others don't?
We know that Mrs. Turpin experiences "disunity" well before the girl's physical and verbal assault. In fact, like virtually everyone else at the time O'Connor writes the story, and like O'Connor herself, Mrs. Turpin is haunted by Eichmann's boxcars. When we learn early in the story that Mrs. Turpin "occupie[s] herself at night naming the classes of people," we also learn that she gets confused as she moves toward the top of her race-and-class hierarchy and is forced to consider such contradictions as the fact that "some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were some colored people who owned their homes and land as well" ("R," p. 491). Where to place, for example, such an embodied contradiction as the "colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered whiteface cattle on it"? (pp. 491–92). The anomalies and paradoxes overwhelm her, and "by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven" (p. 492). The people trapped in boxcars were there from the start of the story, we may or may not recall when we get to the story's end and hear their souls shouting in unison. Mrs. Turpin's own unconscious had threatened her all along with the realization that the differences among people are nothing next to our common mortality. The hurled book, which is aptly enough entitled Human Development, is the occasion for her to make conscious something already housed in her unconscious but as yet unintegrated into what we might call her conscience. [End Page 175]
Are dreams the antidote to clichés? "Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognizable function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence," Arendt writes (LOM 1, p. 4).13 Instead of protecting us from it, do dreams place reality in displaced form before us so as to trick us into seeing it? Do they nag at us to begin the conversations with ourselves we should be having? The boxcars are the claim Mrs. Turpin's dream makes upon her and the thinking through of religious clichés that she's fond of using (without necessarily believing) is how she answers that claim. "Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all," to quote Arendt for my purposes here (p. 4).
"The Displaced Person" was published in 1954, only a few years after Arendt's "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man" appeared.14 The Polish refugee Mr. Guizac is among the four hundred thousand legal beneficiaries of the Displaced Persons Act signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1948, but he has little chance on the Georgia farm where Mrs. McIntyre takes him in as a worker.
The character Mrs. Shortley reflects on the Guizac family's imminent arrival to the farm, where she has been working for a few years. She recalls a newsreel image: "a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing." What should inspire compassion, and a quiet "there but for the grace of god," triggers fear: "If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them," Mrs. Shortley thinks to herself, "who was to say that they were not the kind that would also do it to others?" ("DP," p. 196).
The implosion of mid-century Europe has destroyed the legitimacy of affiliations based on race, territory, or history, and now the only moral bond left to build solidarity is the shared fragility of the human body. Newsreels notwithstanding, nobody on the farm other than the Polish refugees grasps this new reality, however. Images of nondifferentiation in the story—body parts strewn together, indistinct borders between one body and another—might prompt the characters in "The Displaced Person" to contemplate our commonality as mortals, as they did with [End Page 176] Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation," but they don't. Instead, like the peacocks on the farm that are slowly dying off, concentration camp victims are exceptional creatures, freaks of nature or circumstance who attract attention but deflect identification. The newsreels barely register on people's consciences since, "before you could realize it was real and take it into your head, the picture changed and a hollow-sounding voice was saying, 'Time marches on!'" ("DP," p. 196).
Mrs. McIntyre is Mrs. Shortley's boss, the farm owner who takes in Mr. Guizac and his family when asked to by the local priest. For a while she is thrilled with a man who is so capable he threatens all the other farmhands with superfluity. She feels differently when she learns that he is trying to obtain a visa for his niece by marrying her to one of the black workers: "'Mr. Guizac!'" she exclaims; 'You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger!'" The girl lives in limbo in a displaced persons camp, one of the many stateless Europeans liberated by the Allies but with nowhere on earth to go. "'She no care black,'" Mr. Guizac replies; "She in camp three" ("DP," p. 222). Mr. Guizac resides in a post–World War II reality as yet foreign to Mrs. McIntyre. He knows that anything is possible and that mortality, not race, is our common denominator. Ironically, this knowledge destroys him in the eyes of Mrs. McIntyre, who now views him as a hodgepodge of human material, as if fabricated out of the corpses Mrs. Shortley pictured earlier: "His eyes were like two bright nails behind his gold-rimmed spectacles that had been mended over the nose with haywire. His whole face looked as if it might have been patched together out of several others" (p. 222).
After this conversation, Mrs. McIntyre decides there is no room on the farm for the Guizacs. When she tells the priest that she intends to expel them, he invokes Jesus when asking her to reconsider. Mrs. McIntyre responds acidly, "As far as I'm concerned, Christ was just another DP" ("DP," p. 229). The exceptional figure—whether concentration camp victim or savior—does not inspire identification but a resentful hostility that draws everyone else into passive and unhappy conspiracy. As if fueled by the collective unconscious of the farm residents as they watch and do nothing, the tractor rolls over and crushes Mr. Guizac when he's working underneath it. Mrs. McIntyre "had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever" (p. 234).
Mr. Guizac's death does not restore harmony on the farm because there is no going back to the world in which they lived before the [End Page 177] displaced family arrived. Mrs. McIntyre "had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone" ("DP," p. 234) and this knowledge thrusts her into Mr. Guizac's reality. She is the foreigner now: "She felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger while the dead man was carried away in the ambulance" (p. 235).
We know that the "little noise the Pole made" teaches Mrs. McIntyre something about the fragility of the human body, because the story's concluding paragraph emphasizes her physical deterioration: "A numbness developed in one of [Mrs. McIntyre's] legs and her hands and head began to jiggle," one sentence reads, "and eventually she had to stay in bed all the time" ("DP," p. 235). It is not clear, though, that the accident compels her—or any of the other characters—to develop a conscience. O'Connor has the displaced person and Mrs. McIntyre switch places—she's the foreigner now—but this "walking a mile in someone else's shoes," as the cliché goes, doesn't seem to trigger a conversation within Mrs. McIntyre's head. If anything, it seems we are to read the symptoms of her "declining health" as an indication that her guilt remains unconscious, externalized on the body because it remains undigested in the mind.
Mrs. McIntyre has a dream about Mr. Guizac before his death:
She dreamed that the priest came to call and droned on and on saying, "Dear lady, I know your tender heart won't suffer you to turn the poor man out. Think of the thousands of them, think of the ovens and the boxcars and the camps and the sick children and Christ Our Lord." "He's extra and he's upset the balance around here," she said, "and I'm a logical practical woman and there are no ovens here and no camps and no Christ Our Lord" . . . "The ovens and the boxcars and the sick children," droned the priest, "and our dear Lord." "Just one too many," she said.("DP," p. 231)
Mrs. McIntyre does not want to make room for the Polish refugees on her farm. Mr. Guizac, she says, is "extra," as if she were the judge of who is superfluous. Judith Butler argues that the crime for which Arendt ultimately condemns Eichmann to hang is that he believed he had the right to choose with whom to cohabit the earth. In this, he denied reality. "Cohabitation with others we never chose is, in effect, an abiding characteristic of the human condition," Butler writes.15 Mrs. McIntyre's dream is a promising beginning of a conscience that grapples with reality, but she tells her conscience, which appears in the form of [End Page 178] the priest: "Don't talk to me" ("DP," p. 231). "To cohabit the earth with those one never chose," Butler writes, "and to develop an ethical and political obligation to preserve the lives of those one never chose is no easy task" ("HADS," p. 292).
If Mrs. McIntyre does not learn to be broad the way Mrs. Turpin does—indeed, if nobody in the story has room to harbor a "two-in-one"—then what are we to make of the story? The lack of any satisfying point of identification for readers in a story populated by unpleasant characters—the only possibly sympathetic figure, Mr. Guizac, is never developed but is a black hole into which the rest tumble—forces us, the readers, back on ourselves. And this is surely by design. Given that it gives us nobody with whom to ally, the story leaves us alone with ourselves. And since we wish to keep company with nobody in the story, don't we ourselves need to become someone with whom we want to spend time if we intend to see the story through?
At one point, one of the farmhands says to Mrs. McIntyre about Mr. Guizac, "We ain't never had one like him before." Mrs. McIntyre replies: "Times are changing. Do you know what's happening to this world? It's swelling up. It's getting so full of people that only the smart thrifty energetic ones are going to survive" ("DP," p. 216). While Mrs. McIntyre is threatening this man with superfluity (at this point she is still so pleased that the very industrious Mr. Guizac has materialized that she views everyone else as expendable), she "can see down the road to where the Displaced Person" is standing:
There was a certain stiffness about his figure that seemed to make it necessary for her to approach him slowly, even in her thoughts. She had decided this was because she couldn't hold an easy conversation with him. Whenever she said anything to him, she found herself shouting and nodding extravagantly.("DP," p. 216)
It is not surprising that Mrs. McIntyre cannot "hold an easy conversation" with Mr. Guizac since she treats him as if he were deaf. The conversation with the farmhand continues with Mrs. McIntyre telling him that she is not going to hire any more "trashy people" now that "the world is full of people who have to work," referring to the stateless people represented by the Polish refugee. "How come they so many extra?" the man asks. "People are selfish," O'Connor has Mrs. McIntyre answer. "They have too many children. There's no sense in it any more" ("DP," p. 216). Mrs. McIntyre has clearly never asked any questions about how and why displaced people come to be standing stiffly in her vicinity. "She [End Page 179] didn't know anything about him except that he did the work," we read. "The truth was that he was not very real to her" (p. 219). Watching Mrs. McIntyre move about her farm, treating everyone as disposable and listening to no one, we say to ourselves, "I want to be otherwise; I want to see and hear the reality of others."
In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, O'Connor writes:
Violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.16
In "Revelation," Mrs. Turpin's "big head"—her inflated sense of self—is returned to reality. In "The Displaced Person," it is the reader herself who must make her way around in the new post–World War II reality.
There is something heartbreaking about the intensity, evident on each page of The Life of the Mind, with which Arendt wishes to answer the question "What makes us think?" When she finishes Eichmann in Jerusalem, she seems reconciled to the apparent truth that there is no foolproof way to prevent future horrors while also preserving human freedom. When she writes about "the lesson" to be gleaned from stories of resistance to the Nazis, we hear this note of reconciliation:
For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody's grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.(EIJ, p. 233)
Given that some people exist who continue to think even under extreme pressure to conform, the world is one in which we can bear to live. But in The Life of the Mind, she seems at odds with the world again when she writes, "If . . . the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to [End Page 180] 'demand' its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to be" (LOM 1, p. 13). Of course, nobody can "demand" that another person think, as Arendt knows when she puts the word in quotation marks. In The Life of the Mind, though, Arendt wants very badly to lay her hands on the "thinking ego," to "bring it out of hiding." She wants to get hold of what she calls "this slippery fellow, not only invisible to others, but also, for the self, impalpable, impossible to grasp," so as to learn how to prod him into activity whenever he lies dormant (LOM 3, p. 167).
Arendt's desire that thinking might be taught manifests most directly in her discussion of Socrates. His statement that "the truth is that I infect [people] with the perplexity I feel myself," she says, "sums up neatly the only way thinking can be taught" (LOM 3, p. 172). Part of what seems to attract Arendt to Socrates as a model is the attitude he has about irresolvable perplexities: his cheerfulness about asking questions without being able to control their answers. "Socrates, asking questions to which he does not know the answers, sets them in motion, once the statements have come full circle, it is usually Socrates who cheerfully proposes to start all over again," she writes (p. 172). It's as if Arendt herself would like to be able to continue to ask the questions she needs to ask while being a little less haunted by them.
Of course one would prefer to be cheerful about reality rather than being haunted by it, but when one is haunted, the sense of urgency is surely heightened and this urgency propels action, even if that action is simply writing words. After all, the printed word has as much power to infect others as the spoken word—maybe more, since we typically have much more room in our heads to talk with ourselves while we're reading than we do while talking. Literature, though, has its ways of giving us more or less room in our heads. "Revelation" keeps the reader close, moving us through a cycle of emotions that mirror the main character's: we begin with smug contempt (for Mrs. Turpin's own smugness) and end in humbled relief (over the conscience we didn't expect Mrs. Turpin to develop but that she nonetheless did). "The Displaced Person," on the other hand, distances us, leaving us in our own, often uncomfortable company. "The Displaced Person" offers no moment of uplift. Its final sentences do not deliver souls shouting "hallelujah" but this:
[Mrs. McIntyre's] eyesight grew steadily worse and she lost her voice altogether. Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag [End Page 181] of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.("DP," p. 235)
We might want to find something redemptive in the idea that the priest explains the doctrines of the church to Mrs. McIntyre, but we have just learned that she "lost her voice altogether," so we know that this is no conversation between the priest and Mrs. McIntyre. There is no dialogue. The words that were always one-way in this story remain oneway at its end. This is unsatisfying and we are frustrated, thrown back on ourselves again at the story's end. With no sense of closure, we cast about for what should remain with us.
One might think that O'Connor wants us to be haunted by Mr. Guizac's death, but we aren't because the other characters have done that emotional labor for us. The death may not have provoked in them the kind of thinking—and self-reckoning—that Mrs. Turpin undertakes in "Revelation," but they are nonetheless haunted by it to the point that they leave the farm, as everyone but Mrs. McIntyre does, or take to their bed, as Mrs. McIntyre does. Perhaps we might be haunted by Mr. Guizac's children, the boy and girl mentioned at the start of the story. What will happen to them in this new and strange country now that their father, the breadwinner, is gone? But O'Connor doesn't provide much to infect us with this thought other than the mere fact of their existence.
I suspect many readers are left troubled by the vulnerability of another pair of children in the story: Mrs. Shortley's daughters. When Mrs. Shortley realizes that she has drastically misunderstood the situation—the black farmhands are not going to be fired with the arrival of the productive Mr. Guizac, her husband is—she is lost. She had suspected unpleasantness from the future but not this. She imagined that Mrs. McIntyre, carried away by the profit she's making off Mr. Guizac, would invite another Polish family onto the farm and that with the two refugee families outnumbering her family, "there would be almost nothing spoken but Polish!"
The Negroes would be gone and there would be the two families against Mr. Shortley and herself! She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She [End Page 182] saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel.("DP," p. 209)
Mrs. Shortley imagines words that cannot communicate but only fight. This is a shocking and terrible image. We are familiar with the idea that failed words lead to violence but the image of words themselves as naked bodies piling up without meaning is altogether new. If we are happily surprised by Mrs. Turpin's imagination and disappointed by Mrs. McIntyre's failure to have enough of one, then we simply don't know what to make of Mrs. Shortley's. But to her daughters, Mrs. Shortley is a god, described this way by the story's third sentence: "She stood on two tremendous legs, with the grand self-confidence of a mountain, and rose, up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy blue points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything." She is the center of their family, and even their father "had never in his life doubted her omniscience" ("DP," p. 212).
The Shortleys pack up their belongings and leave the farm in the early morning. "'Where we goin?'" Mr. Shortley asks his wife after a few minutes. He asks again and when she again doesn't answer, "he turned and looked at her" and finds "a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes." "All the vision in them might have been turned around, looking inside her," O'Connor writes ("DP," p. 213). Mrs. Shortley has had a heart attack and her eyes don't see anything outside or inside because they are now nothing more than "blue-painted glass." O'Connor writes:
The two girls, who didn't know what had happened to her, began to say, "Where we goin, Ma? Where we goin?" They thought she was playing a joke and that their father, staring straight ahead at her, was imitating a dead man. They didn't know that she had had a great experience or ever been displaced in the world from all that belonged to her. They were frightened by the gray slick road before them and they kept repeating in higher and higher voices, "Where we goin, Ma? Where we goin?"("DP," p. 214)
With this, O'Connor concludes the first of the three parts that make up "The Displaced Person." The Shortley girls are not mentioned again. The last time we see them they are scared and repeating a question that will never be answered, because their mother, "displaced" for the first time ever, is dead. They are packed in a car with no idea where they are being taken. [End Page 183]
1. Hannah Arendt, "Dedication to Karl Jaspers," Essays in Understanding (New York: Schocken, 2005); pp. 213–14.
2. Thelma J. Shinn,"Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Grace," Contemporary Literature 9 (Winter 1968): 58–73 (58).
3. Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), p. vii; hereafter abbreviated RAJ.
4. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harvest, 1970), p. 22.
5. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1951); p. 267; hereafter abbreviated OT.
6. Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), p. 539.
7. Hannah Arendt, Life of the Mind (New York, Mariner, 1981), p. 5; hereafter abbreviated LOM and cited by section and page number.
8. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin, 2006); p. 40; hereafter abbreviated EIJ.
9. Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation," The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971): 488–509 (491); hereafter abbreviated "R."
10. Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Vintage, 2015).
11. Roger Berkowitz, "Did Eichmann Think?" The American Interest, Sept. 7, 2014: 3.
12. Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013); p. 58; hereafter abbreviated TLI.
13. For a sustained treatment of the cliché in Arendt, see Jakob Norberg, "The Political Theory of the Cliché: Hannah Arendt Reading Adolf Eichmann," Cultural Critique 76 (Fall 2010): 74–97.
14. Flannery O'Connor, "The Displaced Person," The Complete Stories, pp. 194–235; hereafter abbreviated "DP."
15. Judith Butler, "Hannah Arendt's Death Sentences," Comparative Literature Studies 48, no. 3 (2011): 292; hereafter abbreviated "HADS."
16. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), p. 112. [End Page 184]