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.