53. (Flannery O’Connor)

Irony, so common, sets her apart. She is ironic without archness, without super-subtlety, without glib or coy superiority, without contempt, without cynicism, even without skepticism, and without self-satisfaction. Her irony does not flash out from of history’s tragedies; neither does it peek from life’s more curious byways. It is neither tragic nor comic. Even accepting that irony is everywhere in literature, hers is unlike that of any other modern author.

The irony is so plain that it feels like it would miss the point to laugh at it (or, worse, to believe oneself laughing with it), just as it would be to take it amiss to feel crushed by its weight. When we read, at the start of “The Artificial Nigger,” that Mr. Head “could have said to” to moon that

age was a choice blessing and that only with years does a man enter into that calm understanding of life that makes him a suitable guide for the young.

or when she describes Mr. Head thus:

He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly on the side of Tobias

we have to feel that, even though he will end up lost and helpless, even though is a racist, even though he is essentially stupid, these statements are still valid, still correct, in a straightforward way.

Ironies such as these are the boards on which life’s tragedies and comedies are acted; but O’Connor does not mistake them for the comedies and tragedies themselves. Solid facts and aspects of the world, they receive the same kind of accepting and occasionally whimsical description as the furniture.

Perhaps she can write this way because she does not concern herself with free-will, even as she concerns herself with the disfigured habits and personalities of her characters. (I was going to write “and souls,” but she never pretends to have access to those). They are grotesque in the same way that a decayed, moulded living space is grotesque; which is not to say that she would value human life as she would value a decayed, moulded living space, but which is perhaps to say that she seems to see human life as we know and see it as, like such a living space, a habitation for something more essential, to which only God has access, which only God can retrieve. But she does not blame the inhabitant for the state of the habitation; she chuckles wryly in acceptance of what she finds there, never surprised; things go bad, because that is in their nature. For her, there is nothing ironic in that.


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