The Violent Bear it Away
by Flannery O'Connor
October 11, 1999
Tristram Shandy is proving too heavy for me to stay with it; I'll try again another time. For now, I'm going to stretch out my mind a bit with O'Connor.
Flannery O'Connor has always been very easy reading for me -- when I say "easy", I don't mean "lightweight"; I mean just the act of sitting down and opening one of her books feels right; I'm transported to a different space while I'm reading her and I feel like I could just keep on reading indefinitely. Everything of hers that I have read previously has been a short story; I think she only wrote two novels of which this is the second. Its first chapter, all I've read so far, is a reworking of the short story "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead" (awesome title), which I read about two years ago.
The principal characters are Francis Marion Tarwater, his great-uncle Tarwater (whose death is the first event in the story) and his uncle (who has not yet been introduced). So the whole story so far is taking place in Tarwater's head, mainly in the form of a dialog between Tarwater and a stranger whom he perceives standing behind him, surveying and judging his acions and thoughts.
I'm coming to this book having recently (about 2 months ago) read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes; since I read that book it has been influencing much of what I think about things I read and hear -- and this pattern is holding for TVBA. Old Tarwater is a very successful portrait of an Old Testament prophet (I kept thinking of Samuel but the intention was probably Jeremiah), that is to say a bicameral man. And Francis has been raised to be a prophet; I think the judgemental voice he hears is a very good example of the bicameral mind in action. It is interesting that the voice is telling him not to be a prophet (I'm reaching a little here beyond what I have read so far to what I think is being hinted at that will happen later in the story); I think that may fit in with Jaynes' ideas about the collapse of bicameral society. Not sure though, I will need to go back to Jaynes to confirm that.
October 13, 1999
Not wanting my discussion of TVBA to turn into a discussion of the bicameral mind, and not having recourse to a Jaynes page (though I may eventually put one in), I decided to write an essay today (well or at least a note) and try to figure out what fascinates me about it.
I finished the book today -- raced through the last hundred pages unable to stop or reflect on what I was reading, just driven to get the words into my consciousness. To me, the main thing about Flannery O'Connor's writing is that it's just supernaturally beautiful. The elegant austerity of her sentences and paragraphs sends me.
That said, I think a criticism could be made of the story that it's a little dry -- Tarwater's and Rayber's roles are built up so sturdily that they cannot step outside them. There are moments in the story when they start to appear 3-dimensional, but it is not sustained. Regardless, I thought it was a wonderful read -- O'Connor's character as a narrator/storyteller is strong enough to make up for any failings in her creations.
Well, time to look for something else to read.
October 23, 1999
Something that crossed my mind last night:
I read the world because it seems like the easiest way to honor it.