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Flannery O’Connor and the necessity of “the soul” in literature.

Detail of

Detail of “A king enthroned, speaking to a peacock” (Flannery O Connor was famous for keeping peacocks), from a 15th century medieval manuscript. Getty Museum. 

I read Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear it Away (1960) for the first time this summer, and I’ve been enjoying paging through some of her nonfiction—especially pieces that address the work of the writer.  The excerpt below is from her essay, “Novelist and Believer” (1963), published only a few years after the novel.   I’m usually wary of artists who claim to create “Christian art” (or even attempt to define it), but O’Connor’s argument here is compelling, and I think her contention makes sense even beyond the opinion of “believers.”   She claims that witnessing the drama of the soul (which we might call either the progression towards salvation or loss) is what consumers of art naturally crave.  As an answer to that craving, the “serious writer” (or, by proxy, probably any artist) “has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point.”  She continues,

Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not.  Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself.  The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is  the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time.  For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.  Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.

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I found selections from “Novelist and Believer” in Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, (Orbis Books, 2003), edited by Robert Ellsberg.

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