Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners

Flannery O’Connor, apart from writing two exceptional novels, and a series of extraordinary short stories (both of which continue to present profound challenges to the modern reader in terms of their forceful rendering of the operations of grace in the world, and represent some of the most lean and graceful prose written in the last century), also kept up a wide range of correspondence, and wrote essays for both local and national publications. The collection Mystery and Manners collects some of these prose pieces, together with typescripts from talks given to university groups, writing workshops, and many other audiences.

The title given to this collection comes from the connection O’Connor frequently makes in these essays between mystery (a concept which she deemed essential for any serious writer to come to terms with) and manners (the habits and speech of the people one is familiar with in life, and from whom one inevitably draws inspiration from in developing characters of one’s own). The connection between these two is most evident when we consider that the writer’s ‘voice’ will be shaped both by environment (manners) and the particular perspective through which one receives and interprets reality (mystery). This profound connection, O’Connor argues consistently, is done violence to when the writer is simply asked to reflect popular opinion:

The Christian writer will feel that in the greatest depth of vision, moral judgement will be implicit, and that when we are invited to represent the country according to survey, what we are asked to do is to separate mystery from manners and judgement from vision, in order to produce something a little more palatable to the modern temper. We are asked to form our consciences in the light of statistics, which is to establish the relative as absolute.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1970), p.30, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

            Conversely, the Christian (and more specifically, the Catholic) author will not be able to accept this premise at all, as it creates a division between what one observes in the world and the lens through which one observes it; it presupposes a supposedly neutral way of seeing reality which denies that our act of seeing is shaped by our worldview:

In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgement is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the story-teller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.

ibid, p.31.

            What O’Connor is drawing attention to here is the contrary to what we hear so often today, namely that dogma is restrictive and prevents us from embracing mystery. She correctly observes that the sort of ‘mystery’ we are allowed to embrace in a dogma-free world will simply be the impression of the spirit of the age onto our soul – we leave ourselves wide open to the secular air that pervades the culture, an air which is essentially nihilistic, and which leaves no room for any sense of human drama, or of mystery, at all. Christian dogma however, provides a set of boundaries which shape our imaginations, protecting them from being shaped by passing cultural whims, and focussing them on a view of man and the world which intuits and therefore actively desires to enter further into the unknown:

If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny…

…On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.

ibid, pp.41-42.

            Whilst the author enamoured of a secular vision of mankind may well consider that this enables them to focus more on the mundane and thus more credibly give a sense of the human condition, the reality is that this worldview restricts the writer to a narrow and impoverished vision of the human person, which does not (and by the nature of the case cannot) account for or do justice to the transcendent dimension which lies at the heart of each individual. The Catholic writer however, who sees things not just in the light of mankind’s relation to its Creator, but also through a deeply incarnational and sacramental lens, will see the ‘manners’ exhibited in concrete situations to always be suggestive of and linked to a larger and richer vision of reality:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. About the turn of the century, Henry James wrote that the young woman of the future, though she would be taken out for airings in a flying-machine, would know nothing of mystery or manners. James had no business to limit the prediction to one sex; otherwise, no one can very well disagree with him. The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

ibid, p.124.

            O’Connor continues this point in another essay, with specific reference to the Catholic writer, whose vision is given contours and boundaries that much more precise, because of his or her submission to the teachings of the Church, and which boundaries will provide that much clearer a perspective from which to experience reality:

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add a dimension to the writer’s observation which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge exists, but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist…

…The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth. The Church, far from restricting the Catholic writer, generally provides him with more advantages than he is willing or able to turn to account, and usually his sorry productions are a result, not of restrictions that the Church has imposed, but of restrictions that he has failed to impose on himself. Freedom is of no use without taste and without the ordinary competence to follow the particular laws of what we have been given to do.

ibid, pp.150-153.

            What Flannery O’Connor writes about here is applied specifically to literature, but also must apply to the way each individual encounters reality in general. The writer, after all, is only trying to penetrate deeper into those things which we all experience, and to give a more honest account of our place in the universe. Whilst the routines of our daily lives to do not provide us with the opportunity of entering into our experience at such a level, or of uncovering the subtleties of that experience, we are all inevitably shaped by a particular perspective, and what we believe about life’s mysteries will indeed determine to some extent how we encounter and use ‘manners’.

The Catholic vision of reality is, as O’Connor says, a deeply sacramental one, built upon the central dogma of the Incarnation, and the belief that this joining of human nature to the divine was not a one off event, but something perpetuated and continually deepened through the life of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. The belief that Christ still operates in and through His Church, and does so using mundane means, commits the believing Catholic to an unavoidable impression that everything is in some way consecrated to God, and that the concrete situations we find ourselves in within His creation present us with unlimited opportunity for encountering the mysteries of His grace.

This is a vision given a deliberately vivid expression in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, but the technique she uses therein (of using often shocking events to awaken a secularised world to the operations of God’s grace within it) should help us to see that this is also a vision that is, so to speak, the birthright of every Catholic. Mankind is a creature that knows mystery through its manners, and to separate the two is to make us less than what we are – Catholicism unites these two at a profound level, and thus can offer a powerful antidote to secularism’s attenuated vision of humanity. Both in fiction and in life, this vision is one that needs to be reappropriated and delivered afresh to the world, lest, in breathing in too much of the nihilistic air of our culture, it forgets the great and mysterious drama that mankind is involved in, and in which we find our true sense of dignity and worth.

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