Last Friday, the United States Postal Service released a new stamp honoring the writer Flannery O'Connor. There is already a bit of controversy over the artwork selected for the new postage. Critics feel the image doesn't capture her very creatively, and O'Connor is depicted without her iconic rimmed glasses. Outrage! Nevertheless, I'll probably buy a few, if only in reverence for the biting satire in one of her short stories that once woke me up and brought some self-awareness.
I've mentioned my adolescent artistic phase here before. It was during that time that I picked up a copy of The Complete Stories at a dusty, used bookstore I used to frequent. Drawn in, most likely, by the National Book Award of 1972 seal on the front cover. I imagine it probably validated the selection to my budding mind as "real" literature and worthy of my attention. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. O'Connor wrote fiction full of odd, colorful characters set in the weird world of the deep South, and she used a lot of religious imagery that I immediately recognized from my upbringing.
One story stood out among the others, and provided what I like to call an epiphany, delivered through a scathing portrait of a young man named Asbury. It's called "The Enduring Chill." The story opens as Asbury returns back to his childhood home in the rural south after failing to make it as a writer in New York City. He is very sick, and believes he will die soon. He treats his mother, sister, and every other character in his hometown with such disdain. He feels they are simple people, who don't understand the world, and not able to keep up with his own sensitive perceptions. He dismisses the ability of the "senseless" Dr. Block, the local physician trying to cure him. He rejects spiritual aide from Mr. Bush, the retired Methodist minister, who collects rare coins. Instead, on what he believes to be his death bed, he asks for a priest (preferably a Jesuit), who Asbury views as more worldly and "able to discuss something besides the weather."
O'Connor uses these circumstances to show the tension of being a person with an artistic temperament and sensibilities, but without the talent and ethic to fully get there. The consistent urge to identify with developing tastes, without the means to satisfy or incarnate them. This turmoil leaves the young man with an unquenchable angst, which he takes out on everyone who doesn't meet his intellectual standards.
I had so much in common with Asbury. The same disdain for my hometown. The fascination with New York City. The subtle rejection of simple religion in favor of a more worldly, sophisticated theology. And the urge to not necessarily just create, but more to be identified as a creator of some kind. I remember one time, while filling out some form that asked about future occupation, I wrote down auteur.
O'Connor goes pretty hard on the young man. His thoughts and behavior are described without softening, excuses, or exemptions, while the reader is clearly in on the joke, seeing how insufferable and pretentious Asbury sounds. Really, just the kind of thing I needed at that age. Sometimes the best thing is to get a glimpse of yourself as you really are, stripped bare in the harshest light possible, before you can truly grow.
This idea of resignation through painful truth about one's self is the story's strongest theme. O'Connor points us toward it by satirically putting the words in Asbury's mouth. After writing his mother a letter that "filled two notebooks," meant to be read after his presumed death, he believes that these wise words from his artistic mind would reveal all that his mother has done wrong to him over the years, and "leave her with an enduring chill and perhaps in time lead her to see herself as she was."
I used to wonder what eventually happened with Asbury. The story ends with him in bed, learning that he is not going to die, but will forever deal with bouts of fever coming and going throughout his life. Was this a sad, tragic ending, where Asbury was doomed to live in the miserable tension of wanting to create, but not ever being able to do so? He'll have no glory, artistic or otherwise, and resign himself to a mundane existence?
After reading the story again recently, I'm hopeful for Asbury. I believe O'Connor, as in most of her work, clues us in on her character's fate through the use of religious imagery. The Enduring Chill represents the continual work of the Holy Spirit. It is foreshadowed early in the story, when a New York City priest, clearly admired by Asbury, suggests that "there is a real possibility of the New Man, assisted of course, by the Third Person of the Trinity." The Holy Spirit is also shown throughout the story as haunting Asbury, by means of a water stain over his bed in the shape of a bird. The force, described as "emblazoned in ice instead of fire," brings the chill necessary for us to reach sobering conclusions about our real afflictions. As it comes and goes, we're never really cured. But this bad news helps us to eventually accept the good news, in time leading us to a redemption which is thankfully not our burden to manufacture or create.
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