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What does Mary Ann’s wound teach?

· Flannery O’Connor and irony ·

A strong, original and pervasive sense of humour is inseparable from the writings of Flannery O’Connor. Despite being frequently overlooked by readers and critics, it is precisely this sense of humour which is most characteristic of the vision of the world of the Savannah writer who died in 1964, when she was only 39 years old. It is not a question of extemporary jokes, but of a constant tone, a sort of fundamental substratum, also to be found in her most serious and academic texts: an irony that is never an end in itself but always oriented to the representation of a demanding content, regarding what Flannery described as “the mystery of our position on earth”.

Mary Bergherr, “Flannery O’Connor” (detail)

A passage in a letter about her mother exemplifies an irony which by then had already become an habitus, a way of being and looking at reality, even the most intimate and routine. “If my mother had a dog she would call it Spot without irony, I’d call it Spot but with irony”. In a first quip it might seem that Flannery is indulging in cheap irony about her mother, Regina O’Connor, considering her a simpleton, a “practical” person who, without asking herself too many questions, would name the dog “Spot”, which translated into Italian would be something like “Fido”, one of the most common, banal and popular names.

And yet Flannery did not put herself on a pedestal. In the course of the same sentence, she affirmed, dry and quick, that the only difference between her and Regina consisted in the “awareness” she would have had in calling the dog Spot: the writer, being ironic about herself, describes herself in reality as a simpleton just like her mother, as if the level of her “superior” consciousness didn’t really change the cards on the table. From this ironic starting point, swift, apparently insignificant, taken from a daily correspondence, we understand exactly how the greatness of Flannery’s gaze, restored through the lens of irony, lay in representing man’s limitations, his finiteness and his inevitable frailty.

Or perhaps it would be better to say man’s incompleteness, to introduce a concept of theological importance which the writer from Savannah intuits in A Memoir of Mary Anne, one of her most beautiful and unusual essays, written in memory of a child killed by a cancer which disfigured her face. Here too a dry and ironic style never ceases to mark the whole narrative. It suffices to think of the first line: “Stories of pious children tend to be false”.

Yet in these pages too Flannery’s writing is filled with a stinging but vital irony, never destructive, capable of restoring Mary Ann’s joie de vivre, describing her while she falls from a chair in the excitement of biting into a hamburger and is able with her grotesque and disfigured face to instil light and joy in anyone who goes to meet her. Irony also bombards the sisters who were caring for the child and who had turned to the writer to ask her to write a devout novel on her tribulations. Her comment in this regard was without appeal: “A novel. Horrors… certainly not!”.

However Flannery, advising the sisters to write the story of Mary Ann themselves and opting to write the introduction to it herself, does far more. With her pitiless, realistic and ironic gaze, she not only reveals the finitude of the human condition but also manages to thrust herself beyond it, introducing the concept of an incomplete human being, in other words one who is waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise. We find ourselves facing lofty and difficult theological concepts, expressed in an absolutely clear style and without technical terms, which tell us, in this case, that the illness of Mary Ann with her ravaged face, instead of being an unpleasant joke of fate, is not only an emblem of the human condition but also a resource on which we are to work in the name of a goodness that is always “under construction”. It is therefore man’s task, once he has recognized his own limitations, represented by his comic and grotesque condition, to build on it, making the very most of the goods of this world in order to participate creatively – and in this the influence of the evolutionary theory of Teilhard de Chardin may be noted – in a process of creation in action.

Irony is the key to approaching the mystery without making an abstraction of it, representing it ever embodied in reality, thanks to an authentic and truthful style. Here the devout and saccharine aesthetics which portray goodness with the canon of beauty are completely overturned: in this case goodness is represented by the category of the grotesque which, with the necessary irony that it conveys, is the most appropriate means for expressing the essential, ontological condition of man: that of an incompleteness while waiting to be healed. Flannery O’Connor’s ironic style is thus placed at the service of writing which never ceases to explore the profound meaning of our concrete life, in an active and creative relationship with the living God.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019