Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism

Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism

Return to
Good and
Evil: Flannery
O'Connor's Response
to Nihilism

by Henry T. Edmondson III
Lexington Books,
180 pp.; $24.95

Flannery O'Connor, a Southern writer of deep Catholic convictions, once wrote, "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural." On Henry Edmondson's persuasive reading of O'Connor, the distortions of modern life stem primarily from the easy nihilism of a culture soured on the dictates of both revelation and reason.

Edmondson, professor of political science and public administration at O'Connor's alma mater, Georgia College & State University, could as well have titled his book "Return to Good Through Evil." He argues that O'Connor's emphasis upon human vice and the lengths to which pride and self-justification will go suggests the grace that is necessary for man's redemption. She seeks to restore the distinction between good and evil in order to reconnect fallen man to his forgiving Maker.

The context of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, as Edmondson makes clear, was "the threat of nihilism to human civilization." As the title intimates, where Friedrich Nietzsche sought to take humanity "beyond good and evil" to a world without God or morality, Flannery O'Connor hoped to return the reader to a created cosmos with transcendent standards of right and wrong. Following Jacques Maritain, O'Connor believed that after the Enlightenment replaced faith with reason, men soon lost faith in reason itself. For O'Connor, reason "loses its footing" when one excludes God. This paved the way for nihilism, which spurred much of her literary energies.

Edmondson's interpretation of O'Connor's fiction as a deliberate confrontation with nihilism is confirmed by her published correspondence. Entitled The Habit of Being (1979), O'Connor's letters to friend and stranger alike contain many reflections on the spiritual poverty of modernity. For example, in 1955 she wrote, "If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now."

For O'Connor, the counter-claim to nihilism was the "ultimate concern" found in Jesus Christ. As the human incarnation of God on earth, Jesus stands as God's singular intervention in history. O'Connor sought to bring Christ's redemption of humanity to the attention of her readers in her own inimitable way. "All I do is follow it through literally in the lives of my characters." Think of the escaped convict's ruminations in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the pig farmer's agonizing, heaven-sent vision in "Revelation," or the grandfather's encounter with the Christlike black statue in "The Artificial Nigger."

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In an age of unbelief, O'Connor was convinced that her faith was a help, not a hindrance, to writing fiction. "It is popular to believe that in order to see clearly one must believe nothing. This may work well enough if you are observing cells under a microscope. It will not work if you are writing fiction. For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing." Nietzsche was therefore the enemy or anti-Christ, not just because he disbelieved in God but because he sought to destroy belief in God.

The death of God in modernity's waking life led O'Connor to emphasize the literal or concrete in her fiction. But with materialism replacing morals or transcendence as man's focus, she sought to bring out the divine mystery hidden in the particulars of concrete existence. That meant laying out the old Adam in all his vainglory. As she put it, "I can't write about anything subtle." She added, "I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see."

Edmondson shows that O'Connor shocked with a purpose, though to her consternation, most reviewers got "hold of the wrong horror." She was no light provoker of sensibilities, but with individual souls at stake, she deemed nothing less would do. In her most famous statement about her work, she explained that "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

And where (or what) would O'Connor's characters be without that primordial adversary, the Devil, who is shown to be not only a tempter but also God's unwitting accomplice? Again and again in her fiction, the Devil leads his prey into one prideful grotesquerie or another, only to bring into the foreground the divine grace that O'Connor meant for us to ponder above all. "All my stories," she wrote, "are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it."

For the newcomer, Edmondson's book offers a primer on O'Connor's wit and wisdom. For the seasoned reader, Return to Good and Evil offers a highly readable exposition of the philosophical and theological engagement of her stories. O'Connor once wrote that "more than ever now it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence, or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you." Return to Good and Evil returns us to O'Connor's stories with a heightened awareness of the stakes for which we mortals are playing in a world increasingly given to moral relativism. As the title of one of her best stories put it, "The life you save may be your own."

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Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, and editor of the forthcoming book, Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man.

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