Mark Greif and Mrs. Turpin

I’ve written a review of Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man for Books and Culture, but it won’t appear for a few months. I think Greif has written a very important, deeply researched, extremely intelligent, and greatly flawed book. I want to take a few minutes here to expand on something I say in the review about its flaws but could not develop fully there.

There I write, “Greif’s belief that religion is on its way out leads him to be less than scrupulous in his research on Christian thinkers and writers, so in dealing with Christian intellectuals, he is never on firm ground — his knowledge is spotty and skimpy, and his readings of Flannery O’Connor are quite uninformed by the necessary theological context. But unlike many academics of our time, he understands that Christian writers matter to the discourse of man, and for this he deserves commendation.”

The culmination of Greif’s chapter on O’Connor is a reading of what may be her greatest story, “Revelation.” I am going to seriously spoil that story here, so if you haven’t read it, please do so before proceeding with this blog post.

Okay? All set?

The story narrates a series of revelations to one Mrs. Ruby Turpin, but here is the culminating one:

At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

About this passage Greif writes,

Now, one can read this as the usual O’Connor moment of grace or action of mercy. Even the just will have “their virtues … burned away” in the last judgment. I think, rather, the change here is that there are just people, unillusioned, dignified to the end. And even up to the last, order is maintained. “[A]ccountable as they had always been for good order” is simply not ironic; where other inversions obtain (“white-trash … clean,” “black niggers in white robes”), the ordinary righteous whites are straightforward and “on key.” 

From the option to turn readers away from the worry about man, O’Connor’s last major work turns back to a vision of social order that matters more in the climax of the story than the moment in which human vanity is burned away.

There’s no gentle way to put this: Greif has misunderstood this story about as badly as it is possible to misunderstand a story. And he misunderstands it because he simply doesn’t know the biblical and theological context.

Let’s start with Greif’s belief that Mrs. Turpin and people like here are “just” — that is, righteous — people. This is to accept her at her self-valuation, and the entire point of the story is to undermine, to destroy, that self-valuation. “Revelation” is straightforwardly and openly a midrash on, nearly a retelling of, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Just as the Pharisee cries out, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” so Mrs. Turpin cries out,

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud. 

The book struck her directly over her left eye.

(In a stroke of comical over-explicitness, the book is thrown by a young woman named Mary Grace. Get it? Mary? Grace?) Like the Pharisee, Mrs. Turpin is utterly pleased with herself, satisfied in every respect, but justifies her self-satisfaction by casting it as gratitude towards God. Her constant mental theme, as she sits in the doctor’s waiting room, is her superiority to the “white-trash woman” who shares the waiting room with her. So one of the most laugh-out-loud funny but also morally incisive moments in the whole story comes when Mary Grace has been restrained and is being taken away to a hospital: “‘I thank Gawd,’ the white-trash woman said fervently, ‘I ain’t a lunatic.’”

In the sections on hope in the Summa — Flannery O’Connor’s standard nighttime reading, as Greif knows — Thomas Aquinas sees the Pharisaical attitude as an embrace of the status comprehensor, a belief that one has spiritually arrived. The proud person therefore shares with the despairing person the trait of motionlessness. (“In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”) The properly hopeful person, on the other hand, is the homo viator, the wayfarer, the one who is still on the road, the one who knows that she has not arrived, the one who sustains herself with the simple prayer of the tax-collector: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

This is why the final vision Mrs. Turpin receives is not, as Greif declares, one of the Last Judgment but rather one of souls on pilgrimage: the pilgrimage that begins in this world and in Catholic teaching continues, for the redeemed, into Purgatory. (Mrs. Turpin can be said to receive a vision of the Last Judgment only in Kafka’s sense of the term: “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of summary court in perpetual session.”) It is noteworthy that Greif slips up and speaks of the “moment in which human vanity is burned away,” when O’Connor says it is the virtues of Mrs. Turpin and her kind that must be burnt — or what they think of as their virtues — what they would appeal to as justifying them in the eyes of men and the eyes of God: “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” What they must learn, and what they will learn, eventually, is that good order and common sense and respectable behavior and singing on key count for nothing in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven — in fact, less than nothing.

Greif speaks of people like Mrs. Turpin as “unillusioned,” but this gets it backwards: they are under one of the most powerful illusions of all — that God cares about respectability and will credit the respectable with righteousness. (This is the same illusion that Kierkegaard raged against for most of his career.) Note that Mrs. Turpin is not wrong to think that she is respectable and does stand for “good order”: in that sense Greif is correct to see that the description is not ironic. Her error is to believe that to God any of that matters. It is precisely because this illusion is so pernicious that Mrs. Turpin and those like her bring up the rear of the pilgrimage — far behind the “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” who understand that to sing on key in this situation is to miss the point rather spectacularly — and make it into the Kingdom by the skin of their teeth; it is precisely because this illusion is so powerful that they persist in it even as their virtues are being burned away.

You don’t have to know Aquinas to understand all this; but you probably do have to know the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. As our cultural elites lose even the most elementary biblical literacy, this is going to happen more and more often: reading the Bible-saturated literature of the past and missing, not secondary and trivial illusions, but the entire point of stories and novels and plays and poems, and for that matter paintings and sculptures and musical compositions. The artistic past of the West will become incomprehensible, but — and this is the scary thing — no one will know that they’re misreading. Gross errors will be passed down from teacher to student, from scholar to reader, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances arising in which they can be corrected.

Walker Percy, science, and the everyday

Micah Mattix noted last week at First Things the twentieth anniversary of the death of Walker Percy. Percy sought to answer that pressing question of modern life: “How, indeed, is one to live in this peculiar time and history and on ordinary Wednesday afternoons?” It is a question left glaringly unanswered by science, and near-unanswerable by the reign of scientism; a void which transhumanism seems to answer by simply unmooring from the everyday and the weight of the question, embracing instead some (quite extra-scientific) combination of fantasy and the will to power.

Mattix’s deft and insightful post compares the legacies of Percy and his contemporary Flannery O’Connor, and I think is quite right in its analysis that interest in O’Connor now outpaces interest in Percy because she was the markedly better fiction writer. (Our New Atlantis colleague Caitrin Nicol penned a graceful essay on O’Connor’s fiction last year.)

One of Percy’s central preoccupations was with the dissolution of the self under its own image — the way the individual, whether it be a singular fish, poem, place, or person, is lost behind its own symbols and expectations:

First Bird Watcher: What is that?

Second Bird Watcher: That is only a sparrow.

A devaluation has occurred. The bird itself has disappeared into the sarcophagus of its sign. The unique living creature is assigned to its class of signs, a second-class mummy in the basement collection of mummy cases. But a recovery is possible. The signified can be recovered from the ossified signifier, sparrow from sparrow…. The German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front could see an ordinary butterfly as a creature of immense beauty and value in the trenches of the Somme.
But this very ossification is also the root problem with Percy’s fiction: he too seldom manages to recover his characters as unique individuals from the types they are meant to represent. One wishes that more of them would leap out of the pages with the same baffling realism of O’Connor’s best characters, as breathing and vital beyond our immediate comprehension; as characters who seem like real people suffering the sorts of despair Percy portrays. Percy’s depiction of The Moviegoer’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, is brilliant — but Binx’s ironic malaise, like the earnest malaise of Camus’s Mersault, is too pure. Binx is the ideal realization of a very real mode of being, but he could never exist as a real person.

The stylistic flaws of Percy’s fiction, however, are actually integral to its philosophical strengths, for central to his work is a notion that the modern individual really is at great risk of vanishing into constructed types. (This notion is played to great comic effect in the stilted affectation of characters like Walter Wade, with his “damn good bunch of guys” and “ace gents.”) And if Percy’s characters’ lives seem fragmented, and his plots sometimes lacking in narrative coherence, it is in no small part because his work seems to depict modern life as susceptible to such fragmentation and incoherence. Still, the flashes of profound insight into the human condition that make up Percy’s work might in some cases have been more effectively rendered in short stories.

Part of the reason Percy’s prominence seems to have plateaued may be that he occupied a vital but nebulous region between fiction and philosophy, and between academic and popular writing. His nonfiction work is rather too informal and literary to fit into most of today’s philosophy curricula, and too formal (or formal in the wrong ways) for many English curricula, so the contexts in which it seems appropriate to read and discuss him are relatively few. But though his muddling of forms may not have helped his legacy, it actually made his ideas all the more effective — and it would be a mistake to pin him as in essence either just a fiction or a nonfiction writer, or to argue that he used one medium to advance arguments best suited for the other. The philosophical points Percy wanted to make could not find their full weight except when we could see the slices of life from which they were drawn, but could not find their full articulation except when he could grapple with them directly in essays; the two forms in which he wrote required each other. This is the main reason why Lost in the Cosmos, the book in which he combined fiction and nonfiction, was his best (and why, along with the conceit of it being “the last self-help book,” it was his funniest).

And though Micah Mattix is correct that Percy believes “that we do not know who we are because we have rejected our sole point of reference: God,” we should be cautious of thinking this is the only or ultimate question at stake in Percy’s work, which, as Mattix hinted, is another part of the reason it has often been underrated. In fact, some of Percy’s most ardent followers have been nonbelievers, and not for lack of understanding his work: for Percy — a Catholic convert, but one whose writing suggested an agnosticism that he would have preferred to call “searching” — the source of the malaise and the possibility of a recovery from it both arise first out of the everyday, which ultimately raises but does not rest on the question of belief.

It is a shame that Percy’s prominence has apparently peaked, for his work stands today as (to my knowledge) far and away the best depiction of the existential havoc wrought by scientism run amok — a hint of which can be found in this striking passage from The Moviegoer, with which I will close:

Until recently, I read only “fundamental” books, that is, key books on key subjects, such as War and Peace, the novel of novels; A Study of History, the solution to the problem of time; Schroedinger’s What is Life?, Einstein’s The Universe as I See It, and such. During those years I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only as a diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie. Certainly it did not matter to me where I was when I read such a book as The Expanding Universe. The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable…. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.