I don’t know if you ever had the chance to meet a prophet — and I mean a real one — dressed with proper prophet apparel: sandals, sackcloth and a long white beard. Well, in Jerusalem, the city I live in, you get a chance from time to time. They come in the traditional way, but armed with megaphones and other devices to get across their message. No matter the means, the words have remained more or less unchanged throughout the centuries: "Get ready, Salvation is coming". Few people halt their shopping when they hear them preaching in the city streets. In fact, I cannot recall anybody actually stopping for more than two seconds. It's sad that an SMS message is far more interesting than a prophetic message.
In fact, the so-called "Jerusalem Syndrome" has become a recognised psychiatric condition. Every year, about a hundred pilgrims report powerful mystical and religious experiences which cause them to manifest extreme changes in their behaviour, personality and lifestyle. This would have been grist for the mill of American writer Flannery O’Connor. As a specialist in prophets and preachers with frightening messages and frenzied eyes, she surely would have stopped to listen to their harangues. At least that’s the impression you get from seeing how often they appear in her writings.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925 —in the land sometimes called the Bible Belt—, she must have met many preachers. The South of the United States, at least at her time, was "a Christ-haunted region", to use her words: a place where the big questions were still hovering in the air. Maybe the Southerners where not explicitly posing those fundamental questions but at least they felt their presence. This is one of the central issues of O’Connor’s fiction: the struggle between those who can still see and those who have become completely blind. Sometimes the struggle is between people, but more often it takes place within the characters. It is a struggle to accept the vision of faith or to be trapped in the claws of nothingness — faith against nihilism.
This might seem a bit radical of putting things, but Flannery O'Connor was a radical. She did not like half-truths and compromises. "Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it," she once said. Her Christ was demanding: one of her characters had tattooed on his back a Christ with "all-demanding eyes".
I don’t want to give the impression that her fiction is an uncompromising apology for Catholicism. Few of her characters are Catholic and she seldom explains the meaning of their actions (which are often not exemplary). She strongly believed that good literature reveals the mystery of man’s freedom, but the task of penetrating that mystery is left to the reader.
Let’s take The Violent Bear It Away, her second novel. The central characters are a country prophet called Mason Tarwater and his great-nephew, an apprentice prophet, Francis Marion Tarwater, and Rayber, a normal city fellow. The prose flows calmly but ceaselessly, going back and forth in time with perfect ease. The flashbacks are so well done that you are almost unaware of them, but you start to understand what is going on in Tarwater’s mind from his present and his past. Then, little by little, as the story unfolds, the shock arrives. You realize that this is not the story of a troubled young man haunted by his past and by his great-uncle's ideas. The real freak is Rayber, the normal modern fellow who believes only in scientifically proven fact.
Freaks like Rayber have been become blind to their need for Redemption. They have been poisoned, because "if you live today you breathe in Nihilism…; it’s the gas you breathe". Then they also turn into prophets of their nothingness and start preaching about it, like Rayber, who hopes to cleanse Tarwater’s mind of nonsense. "The great dignity of man is his ability to say: I'm born once and no more," he says." What I can see and do for myself and my fellowmen in this life is all my portion and I am content with it. It is enough to be a man".
For Flannery O’Connor, this is the uttermost example of a deformed man: the pitiful product of a process started in the 18th century that has attempted to wipe out any traces of mystery in life. A man who does not believe in freedom, who is unable to sense evil in himself, has lost the consciousness of guilt that would enable him be redeemed.
In order to awake this type of man from his numbness, to penetrate the thick crust of nothingness, normal means are not enough. "To the deaf you shout" — said O'Connor. That explains her grotesque scenarios: standing in front of a criminal about to shoot him, waiting to be killed by a bull; or being robbed of a wooden leg by a Bible salesman. These are moments when the voice of grace penetrates their deafness.
After O’Connor’s death at the age of 39, Thomas Merton said that he would not compare her with people like "Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather [with] someone like Sophocles." He was highlighting not only the greatness of her work, but also its deeper meaning: the Greek tragedians sought the purification of catharsis for their audiences. O’Connor seeks this purification as well; but through supernatural grace in the journey of their lives, a journey guided not by blind destiny, but by divine providence.
Here in Jerusalem Israeli police occasionally pick up a delusional fellow striding about clad in animal skins who claims to be John the Baptist. His message is seldom as coherent as that given to God-obsessed Francis Marion Tarwater, but it is a good reminder that sometimes truth flowers in the bizarre and grotesque incidents of life, as Flannery O'Connor's fiction shows in such a masterful way.
Alejandro Bertelsen studied Mathematics and Computer Science and has been living in Jerusalem since 1996.