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Volume 18, Issue 2: Flotsam

Jael

Nathan Wilson

I sit in an old basement, the sort of basement that has wood paneling and a mortared stone foundation hidden beneath walls smoothed in the 1940s. The table that we sit around is unique at this school, which is more prone to use tables topped with thick slabs produced in a wood shop on campus. This table is big, but it was intended for a dining room, a banquet room, and the varnish is better treated than that on the others. There is no ink, no subtle graffiti, and there are no long gouges traced into the real wood by the faux-thoughtful. The chairs are designed for sitting upright, for eating.

In a school dedicated to the classics, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a semester digging through the work of a woman, a Catholic woman, who does not belong in any set of the great books. She hasn't been dead long enough, and she didn't produce much.
Flannery was born in 1925. She did not survive middle age. She barely reached middle age, dying in 1964. C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (not to mention J. F. K.) had collectively died in November, eight months prior.
Miss O'Connor died of complications associated with lupus. Her father had also died very young, and at the hands of the same disease. Flannery knew she lived in a world full of disfigurement, full of things like lupus; she knew this and she embraced it as much as any of us, made from the dirt, can. Her stories seem to focus on such things, the things healthier, shinier, kittens-in-a-basket Christians might call "tragedies," and thoughtful poseur Christian thinkers would consider "evil"—to be classified under "the problem of."
In Flannery's stories, such disfigurement is always a messenger, and it only ever delivers one thing. That thing is grace.
I am curious about this professor. I haven't had him in any other classes, but I have heard about him. Some of the things needed confirming. He and J. F. K.'s niece (his eventual wife) had spent a young summer floating the Mississippi on a raft because they needed to understand Huckleberry Finn. Somewhere in there, they had taken their ease on Faulkner's front porch, where the author had once allegedly sat, drunk and typing. I don't hear anything about them tromping on the grounds around Andalusia, Flannery's home, chasing the peacocks.
We have all finished our first reading, and are gathered around the long dinner table, waiting for the ice to melt, for the first seminar. I'm watching an ant walk the table in front of me, two ants, four ants. Only they aren't ants, they're termites.
The professor begins, referencing O'Connor's letters, pitting them against a story. Grace, he says. Where is the grace? Every story hinges on it. He demands discussion.
The girl's name is Hulga. At least that's the name she's chosen for herself, and she's chosen it specifically because it's ugly, and because it annoys her mother. She's a philosopher, and she intentionally thumps her prosthetic leg, the leg she lost to a shotgun. The Bible salesman is naïve. Hulga will enlighten him. She will seduce him and introduce him to a reality free from his innocence. But she can't, because he steals her leg and ditches her in a hayloft.
Rayber is a man caught in the gears of causation and reason. Love is not reasonable. His son, Bishop, is retarded. Rayber tried to drown Bishop one afternoon but he couldn't even do that. He can't act. Old Tarwater can, even to the point of kidnapping. Folk in the city can't tell their right hand from their left.
The Misfit shoots everybody, especially granny.
Deborah. Jael. That's how I found myself thinking of Flannery. She asks the kings and queens of secularism, sentimentalism, and religious hypocrisy to lie down in her tent, offering them all a bowl of grace—a tent peg in the head. But don't mistake Flannery for a dark lady. Deborah wasn't always leading men into battle. Jael didn't always have a mallet in her hand. Flannery isn't all black and white and sepia.
She kept peacocks. Lots of peacocks.
"Many people, I have found," she once wrote, "are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is `good for'—a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none."
The last of them outlived her by more than fifteen years, dying in Ohio in the 1980s. They were eaten by foxes.
At most secular schools, classrooms function with a default secularism. Discussion never assumes Christianity, never assumes anything beyond a plain-jane materialism. This class is different. We're all reading O'Connor. Christianity will out, and I am surprised. In seminars, more and more is revealed about my classmates. An occasional Episcopalian, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, a Baptist or two, and Presbyterian me. The majority is clear and the atheists start sitting together.
And then one snaps at an allusion to a minor prophet.
"I don't see what the deal is," she says. "Why do we always have to talk about Christianity? We could just as easily be reading O'Connor in light of the Greek myths."
We look at her irritation, her discomfort with Flannery's classroom. We look at the professor. He speaks slowly.
"There are a lot of people in here who are very familiar with the Bible," he tells her. "I'm sorry if you can't keep up."
And we continue. Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Nineveh. The city is Nineveh.

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