The Magazine

‘The Habit of Art’

Flannery O’Connor, illustrator

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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By violent means, she meant that “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—for the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Reading her fiction after looking at her art, you begin to wonder what Haze Motes’s preacher’s hat, or the “green halos” of a peacock’s tail, would look like on her block. The mature writing style and the early cartoon style are of a piece because they come from the same firm personality. But only one style is mature, and the cartoons can’t be analyzed to understand her writing.

Violence has a considerable presence in O’Connor’s fiction—characters tumble in her peaceful prose into extremes of death and destruction, much as they do in Greek tragedy—but it is not the action that haunts us after reading but the image: a girl’s wooden leg, Atlanta as Purgatory, a mummified holy child, Christ lingering in car windows, a pig charging into a river with a peppermint stick in its mouth. Revelation itself comes in the form of an image, too, when it comes: The story “Revelation” closes with a woman who is blind to her own depravity shooting water from a hose into a sow’s eye and then, suddenly, seeing a great procession of souls rising up to heaven in silence. In this moment we are watching a woman watching an event; O’Connor’s writing is dominated by sight and suffused in hard, physical images.

Many of these images, in her writing and in her art, O’Connor mined locally. The cartoons depict classmates and teachers, the paintings capture scenes from Andalusia, and the characters in her fiction draw upon what she heard on the local radio station or saw in the streets of Milledgeville or read in weekly livestock journals. Her interest was not in the intricacies of consciousness but in the “objective world outside the mind” of her own small town, she wrote, because reality does not end at the surface of things but begins there: The “things of the world pour forth from God,” and behind surfaces there is potentially everything as opposed to nothing.

Even the objects included as props in her stories—a Bible briefcase, a warthog—accumulate meaning and become symbols that are almost too heavy to exist only in ink. They refuse to be empty or random or anonymous. In Mystery and Manners O’Connor quotes Joseph Conrad verbatim, but without quotation marks, as if she had internalized his sentence so much that it had become her own thought. The purpose, she wrote, in writing so intensely is “before all, to make you see.”

Katherine Eastland is associate editor of Commentary.

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