Faith Is What You Have: Reading Photographs with Flannery O’Connor

On the day of my great-aunt Era Mae and great-uncle Alvin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, I wore my stepfather’s striped, navy tie and—after stopping for breakfast on the drive through North Alabama—a small grease stain on my khaki pants. Over the air conditioner, my grandmother told me I should’ve put a napkin on my lap first. My grandfather fumbled with an Altoids tin.

Is it important to remember exactly how old you are when your grandmother’s family—who she has described your entire life, from the safe distance that separates Birmingham from Southeast Tennessee, as “frustrating” or “backwards”—decides to celebrate a fact of nuptial endurance in the wood-paneled community room of a Protestant church, during which you have been tasked to sit next to the guestbook at the entrance and say to each increasingly distant and underdressed relative, “Please sign in?”

I remember my grandmother sitting with her sister Era Mae as she opened presents, a pinned yellow tulip making the right side of her cream blouse sag. A congratulatory cake, matching white-and-yellow arrangements throughout, and—memorialized in a photograph—my grandmother standing between her siblings, hair coiffed, a single strand of pearls along the neckline of an unbelted black dress worn without regard for the occasion’s theme or day’s humidity.

*     *     *

Southerners, unsurprisingly, age; why is more complicated. After announcing he keeps so young by kissing “all the pretty guls,” Flannery O’Connor’s narrator considers 104-year-old General Sash:

The past and the future were the same thing to him, one
forgotten and the other not remembered… Every year on
Confederate Memorial Day, he was bundled up and lent
to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed from
one to four in a musty room full of old photographs…

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” situates a dying, and then dead, Confederate General between the cultural and social fictions his wartime labor necessitated in a Reconstructed South, as well as the past that labor separated from the future, and present, it produces. “Late Encounter,” like most of O’Connor’s early short fiction, trades in religious undertones and images. Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

My grandmother was born in 1935; my grandfather, 1932. They moved to Birmingham from Lawrenceburg and Talledega after my grandfather’s naval service in the Korean War and started a family. My mother was born in 1962, soon after her sister who, twenty-three years later, died from a rare genetic disorder. During those twenty-three years, my grandparents bought a houseboat, kept at the nearby lake, and lived a life that seems, based on advertisements from the period, precisely metropolitan: mentholated cigarettes, late-night games of bridge, rolled-sleeves, hair buns, well-tailored blouses with accent pieces and exaggerated features. A life to which I have no direct access, under which inevitably lurked the violence and “backwardness” typifying O’Connor’s fiction, but otherwise seems in photographs and memory normal—a life from which my grandmother, at an age just older than I was next-to-that-guestbook, with a courage rarely discussed, decided to flee, leaving behind her hometown, to follow the bright meridian of what she knew she deserved.

O’Connor’s fiction is rife with Southerners torturously denying or confronting their arrogance to comprehend the land of their first or only thinking. Her characters live in and return from New York or Japan; they earn doctoral degrees in philosophy and change their names; they try to educate orphaned prophets in the ways of modern rationalism. In a letter to Robie Macauley from September 1955, O’Connor writes: “I wonder at how you can pick up the feeling of foreign places like that as I cannot put down any idiom but my own. I presume there are some advantages to not being a Southerner.” O’Connor disregards her efforts to integrate theological concepts and registers into the idioms of her characters and narrators, but does illuminate the darker condition: that language, for all the travel and knowledge it is able to communicate, is experience. Displacement is expressed throughout O’Connor’s work as a problem of utterance. What we say—or fail to say—is re-homed in the experience we have left outside our past or trapped inside the idiom of that excision, which fails to make this bright future, this fought-for elsewhere, newly different.

“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” Flannery writes in 1962. When my aunt died, the family that my grandmother had escaped converged for an afternoon in the remains of the life she had built, had selectively narrated to them for years. Inside this time my mother said it changed: my family’s shared, past experience into an unceasing experience of the past. “I know God has a plan,” Southerners are prone to say on funeral occasions, arriving themselves as O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin did at the understanding, “you must have certain things before you could know certain things.” Grief, like grace, is encountered or deepened through gestures of possession. Through these efforts, we know incomprehensibility.

*     *     *

I was given two blue-ink Bic pens to keep with the book, laughing to myself at the blunted handwriting unknown kin offered. Leaving the car, my mom told me I was only there to make sure everyone signed in, so Era Mae could review the ledger and later call the invited but absent guests, wondering with passive aggression if they’d got sick, or what had kept them from the party.

Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away.

I was too young at the time to lie under the awkward questions everyone later subjected me: “Where’s your girlfriend,” for instance, or, “You aren’t going away for school, are you?” Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away. Language that, in the old spirit of her own mother, my mom encouraged.

O’Connor was “roped and tied” into the Protestant South where, she says, with the dilution of time and matter, “the best of my writing has been done.” Her chronicle of this time exposes the fault line along which generations of families in the American South continually form: aspiration, communicated from the past, for a vague and better future is defined within the parameters of the stuck—fallen— parent. In the case of Tarwater and The Violent Bear It Away, this line runs in two directions: toward the past and death, into his uncle’s prophesying, and into the future, where Rayber offers a world that ironically contains and reproduces all the violence his modernity alleges to obviate.

“How do you like being in the country again?” [Rayber] growled. “Reminder you of Powderhead?”

“I come to fish,” the boy said disagreeably.

Goddam you, his uncle thought, all I’m trying to do is save you from being a freak.

Rayber—comically, ironically—thinks “Goddam” in his proselytizing efforts against the quiet orphan he suspects of religious zealotry. Celebratory sign-ins become carceral, and salvation is a function of unbecoming, or staying.

I study the photos from that anniversary party now—in one my great uncle covers his face in laughter—where, in looking around the room of her sister’s celebration, my grandmother refused to smile. She observed with eyes long incapable of ordinary sight. I wonder whether debility is produced by singular losses or trauma, or by the contexts these events reopen. The final pages of The Violent Bear It Away rank among my favorite—even though I’m still uncomfortable with framing Tarwater’s molestation as a prerequisite for prophetic consciousness—because the confrontation between, and the tolls of, understanding what the dead demand and the limiting registers of our sensation are created and perceived at breakneck speeds by O’Connor’s child. The novel’s dated position in its time reinforces the awful paradox of what language produces here: purpose from the absence of knowledge, and absence as the only communicable form of our shared lack.

For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary we drove them through north Alabama, past the room of yellow flowers, to Nashville, where we sat rows from a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, after which we stayed in a hotel. We ate dinner in a garden where, on a bench canopied by lights, they sat, staring at one another, smiling in profile. I try to imagine what it would mean to look at this photo and think only as my grandmother would: staring across, glimpsing a light behind my grandfather, noticing the handrail a few paces past his shoulder leading down the stone stairway to our car. At what moment she had had her vision, if she recalled that moment in the blink of my mother’s camera. If the string band and hotel room was the fate she envisioned, in a nearby county decades ago, studying the twilight road along which Tarwater comprehended God’s terrible speed of mercy.

 

Born and raised in central Alabama, Engram Wilkinson studied literature and writing at Tulane. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, LIT, Anomalous PressWag’s Revue, Room220, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript, and lives in California, where he studies law. Engram can be found online at engramwilkinson.info.