I've been re-reading some Flannery O'Connor essays in preparation for a series of Sunday-school classes I'm to begin this Sunday.
Actually, re-reading is too strong a word - I'm re-skimming. Nevertheless, in even my brief perusal, I've come across several passages that astonish me and give me pause for thought.
Specifically, she criticizes a certain Mr. Brooks, who hopes for "the next literary phase... would combine the great subject matter of the middlebrow writers with the technical expertness of the new critics and would thereby restore literature as a mirror and guide of society." Flannery says that a literature that was a mirror to this society would be no fit guide, and goes on to say that "the serious realist" (which she considers herself) is not going to be understood or particularly well-liked.
This raises a dilemna for me. I would have, frankly, placed myself in Brooks' camp. The great writers, it seems to me, Homer and Shakespeare, are the ones who combined broad popular appeal with high art. Their works worked to unify the societies they were in. In short, at least in retrospect, the Bard and the Blind Man were insiders. I would have argued - and maybe I still would - that this is the highest calling of the writer, and the mark to which we should aspire. O'Connor, on the other hand, seems to posit the writer as outsider - as the gadfly stinging the rumps of complacent cattle. After all, how can the writer do any good if she merely confirms the popular pieties of the day?
Here, for the moment at least, is my provisional resolution of the dilemna. We should try to eat our cake and have it, too. Be the insider and the outsider. As chauvenistic about England as Shakespeare was - go back and read Henry V, it is an unabashed paeon to wars of conquest - he had the fearlessness to goad his own audience for their shortcomings. Shylock directly takes Christians in the audience - that is to say, Shakespeare's entire audience - to task. "If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?" Homer, who was the unifying voice of the warring Greek states, clearly makes the Trojans more noble and sympathetic than the assorted bullies, whiners, and rogues of the argive host. Twain, America's best-know writer, is the most savage in exposing hypocrisy and cant.
That's the ticket I think. Give them their medicine, Flannery, but make them like it.
I'm going to close with an appropos verse from Gilbert and Sullivan:
I can set the braggart quailing with a quip,
The upstart I can whither with a whim.
He may wear a merry smile upon his lip,
But his laughter has an echo that is grim.
When offered to the world in merry guise,
unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will.
He'd who'd make his fellow creatures wise,
Must always gild the philosophic pill.
I always wanted to rewrite that verse so it was, "Sugar coat the philosophic pill," because gilding it would do nothing to improve the flavor. But now I see Gilbert's point; we need only make the surface appetizing enough to swallow - we aren't required to make you happy to have it in your mouth.