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The Poet and the Disquieting Shadow of Being: Flannery O’Connor’s Voegelinian Dimension

Out of the formless stone, when the artist
United himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the
Soul of man that is joined to the soul
Of stone.
—T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock”

It has not been popular in our recent literary criticism tobring the arguments of the historian of ideas or the philosopher or theologian to bear centrally upon literary concerns, since it is supposed that such emphases must distort the aesthetic center of art. Like the student who resists the analysis of a poem on the ground that analysis destroys poetry, his teacher may resist the introduction of problems of epistemology, except as they may be thematic materials of a particular poem like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” We become uneasy before the possible threats to aesthetic integrity. We would prefer to limit our concern to an encounter of sensibility with art in an arena removed from the larger context of mind’s varied address to the problem of being. But concerns other than the strictly aesthetic are inescapable; the aesthetic moment cannot be sustained as timeless, a moon feast of sensibility in art’s Eden. Disquieting shadows intrude, willy-nilly. Yet intruding argument is not necessarily the defeat of aesthetic’s value. It may be rather that an enlargement of argument offers one—the student of literature, for instance—the excellent advantage of enlarging upon those aesthetic virtues of art which he may have learned of in such specialties as the New Criticism. The aesthetic purity of a work considered in and of itself, valuable and necessary as that consideration is, must yet prove too limiting upon the work, as close reading of Croce and Eliot and Ransom and a host of critics must demonstrate. It is inadequate because the work necessarily encroaches upon provinces of thought separate (or seemingly separate) from the aesthetic the moment the work becomes more than the poet’s or reader’s exercise in craftsmanship. In the literature of “alienation,” as we see it stretching from Milton to the newest New Yorker story, alienation is not simply a theme upon which the poet practices variation. It is an idea of an experience in whose depths stirs a devouring problem, growing to the point that it threatens not only individual sanity, but the whole community of mind. The aesthetic experience of Paradise Lost or The Dubliners or The Waste Land gives rise to a disquiet which a term paper or critical article on images and motifs will not allay. That disquiet begins to elicit the aid of all the faculties of the intellect and all the disciplines of the mind, turning the mind outward from its restricted attention in the work toward questions of being itself. The dissociation of sensibilities, the problem of objective correlatives in plays and poems—these do not yield comfortably under the authority of aesthetics alone, neither to poet nor reader.

One begins, then, to discover that Keats’s concern for “negative capability” is a concern in him beyond the demands of art; what is at stake for Keats is mind itself, and the mind’s vision. The individual object, whether it be an object of his aesthetic sensibility or of his senses alone, impinges upon that complex continuity of mind in time (which we certify as tradition) and upon its deepest hungers for the timeless. The poet finds that his word, in spite of his intentional or innocent attempt to protect it from deeper terrors, bears marks of the secret hunger of mind and heart. One encounters in the poet’s word the drama of mind and heart in quest of some Word in the word, of some sustaining will, human or immortal or both. We may observe, almost as a measure of the poet’s greatness, his troubled engagement of questions larger than the aesthetic. When Faulkner chooses to stand at the center of our attention, whether we be aesthetician, philosopher, scientist, or simply the mythical “general reader,” we find he addresses himself as poet to a metaphysical inclusiveness in his desire to restore the community of mind. He speaks of art in its moral and spiritual dimensions. The poet’s duty, he says in his Nobel acceptance speech, is to the complexity of man’s “soul,” to man’s “spirit,” which is “capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” The poet’s voice “can be one of the props, the pillars to help [man] endure and prevail.”

Faulkner makes a very large claim for the poet, or rather he enunciates a very large responsibility in the poet. We may be hesitant before this claim because we hear in it a continuation of that old “romantic” invasion of the provinces of intellect whereby, since the Renaissance, the poet increasingly assumes the responsibilities of the priest, philosopher, prophet, and politician. But the suggestion of inordinate usurpation does not make the claim absolutely invalid, any more than it proves the poet to have abandoned his responsibilities to aesthetics by his presumptions. Alas, the position Faulkner announces requires the considerable analysis of the metaphysician to set the relation of the poet to philosopher or prophet, an analysis freed of the specialized thinker’s territorial concerns. Our world has scant respect for metaphysics. The “place” of the mind, Lucifer argues, is its own; since Milton, each mind’s place has increasingly shrunk in the sometimes desperate and usually arrogant establishment of specialized sovereignties. And nowhere is that civil war more evident in the community of mind than in what used to be supposed the proper place for the preservation and nurture and propagation of mind, the academy—a realization the poet came to early in this century.

The poet, of course, is no less susceptible to the dangers of territorial jealousy than any other mind, as his war with science at this moment may show, quite often to the embarrassment of his position. Still, his concern for the technical side of his craft, and for craft’s relation to an encompassing aesthetics, is likely to be a private concern, one considered in the company of his peers, his fellow craftsmen. One studies James and Joyce and Flaubert if one’s vocation is poet, exercising one’s peculiar gift in relation to the gift revealed in James and Joyce and Flaubert. But understanding the “quaint devices” of art (in Sidney’s phrase) is still a limited way to the fullness of gift. The greatness of the poet, as he learns in pursuing his vocation, lies in his vision, made accessible by art, and it is that vision of man to which Faulkner addresses himself in his Nobel Address. If art is that which hides art, art is also that gift whereby the artist rises to the level of a vision which aesthetics alone will not fully explain.

We have lost this old truth, I suspect, in consequence of that very fragmentation against which Faulkner argues. And because we are always tempted to elevate our weaknesses to virtues, our failures to successes, we take a refuge in a “professionalism,” a further narrowing of the vocation of mind and soul within our inherent limits. The decline of the academy itself, a growing subject of concern and controversy is, as we see more and more, an effect of our fragmentation. Now the poet, if he develop beyond the limits of the lyric cry, comes to feel rather desperately the need of some metaphysics to sustain his vision. Keats remarks in a letter, rather naively, that perhaps Hazlett can name three or four books that will answer his necessity, uncloud his vision. In contrast, the typical college president feels the need of some system of accounting which will name fragmentation in an illusion of order; he is understandably confused by the chaos of disciplines and goals in the fragmented “professionalism” of mind. He settles for a “vision” which may balance resources and still somewhat a multitude of disparate and raucous demands. The academy, the medium of mind in history, flounders, and we have the poet’s own raucous response to that tragic comedy of mind, from Pound through the Beat poets. Very occasionally we have a mind who struggles to exorcise Lucifer from the Prometheus he wishes to appear, to establish the limits of the finite intellect as a protection against such possession. Less occasionally that mind is the poet’s, and such a rarity, I contend, is Flannery O’Connor.


Flannery O’Connor speaks of herself as a “realist of distances,” as a “prophetic poet,” and the complexities of such a claim in a specialized age such as ours, in which intellect is fragmented and the fragments seized and elevated to absolute authority, points to the difficulty of valuing not only her claim but her accomplishment as artist as well. She reminds us that the prophet she means to be is the one who recalls us to known but forgotten truths, to the necessity of our casting backward in our thought to some point where thought went astray. The relation of poetry to truth is a vexing one in itself, not so easily satisfied by paradox as we desire. That beauty is truth, truth beauty is itself a claim that arrests, though it is with difficulty riddled. But for a poet to complicate the problem by engaging reason in prophecy, as a guard against the poet’s old easy dependence upon intuition and a too easy comfort in paradox, well nigh confounds the attempt to value the poet. In Miss O’Connor wehave interesting and helpful assistance beyond this prophetic poet herself, to which she gives us clues. She asserts a kinship in her thinking with a variety of minds in whom common problems are addressed, minds as various as Hawthorne and Aquinas, Faulkner and Eric Voegelin. We may discover through her suggestions of such kinships at least what she understands to be the relation of truth to beauty and her role as prophetic poet in revealing that relationship.

Like Eric Voegelin, Flannery O’Connor is particularly interested in the effect of Enlightenment thought upon the “popular spirit of each succeeding age.” That erosive process is, as she sees it, a force integral to her fiction, a force against which her protagonists come at last to set themselves with a violence that speaks the heroic. For that reason, a work such as Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution or Josef Pieper’s In Tune with the World: a Theory of Festivity reveals a vitality and an intellectual dimension to Miss O’Connor’s fiction as yet insufficiently acknowledged by her more strictly literary critic. It is evident that she knew neither of these particular works, the first appearing in 1975 and the second in 1965, but she knew other work by the two. Pieper’s Leisure: the Basis of Culture is in her library. Voegelin’s tribute to the Western mind, Order and History, is conspicuously present—the first three volumes—heavily marked in her hand. (These volumes she reviewed for the Bulletin, adiocesan periodical).

There are a number of reasons, however, that I should prefer to use the later works, which appear only after her death, a principal one being to suggest the importance of a community of thought, rather than be led too easily astray into the cause-effect over-simplification which one is tempted to in the study of “influences.” Independent minds do often agree. Another advantage of using Voegelin’s recent book is in particular that it addresses itself systematically to that tangled intellectual background which Miss O’Connor studies in a variety of critical minds, a background to which she repeatedly alludes, often cryptically, and which she carefully involves in the dramas of her fiction. In that growing intellectual confusion since the Renaissance, as Voegelin says, “The Christian credo ut intelligam, which presupposes the substance of faith, is reversed into an intelligo ut credam.”It is against this change that Miss O’Connor develops the assurance in her “intellectual” agents of their own purchase upon the truth, in characters like Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away or in Asbury and Hulga and Mrs. Turpin of the stories. The comedy of her self-assured psychologists and sociologists and would-be writers, however, is also accompanied by the pathos of their emptiness. Not seeing the relation, a critic may too hastily conclude that she is anti-intellectual, that she calls reason in question, when in truth it is inordinate or inadequate reason that she rebukes. Through the pathos in such characters one begins to recognize them, in Miss O’Connor phrase, as “Christ-haunted.” They know, though not intellectually, a spiritual disorientation such as results when (in Voegelin’s words) “The transcendental constitution of mankind through the pneuma of Christ is replaced by faith in the intraworldly constitution of mankind through ‘compassion.’” Though such a replacement still requires the assurance of some authority, the only authority remaining after the attrition of authority is the individual’s belief in the sufficiency of his own feelings, a new faith buttressed as well as intellect can manage with the sciences of the intraworldly.

It is against the chaos of such thought, born and bred in the Enlightenment and grown up to dominate the present moment, that the resonance of her fiction takes dramatic form—not against the local “Southern” materials she adeptly turns to the service of her art. Haze Motes, of Wise Blood, mayappear an ignorant Georgia country boy, but appearance is shockingly deceptive. Thus one finds on reflection that the semi-literate Haze has certain origin in Locke’s position that “Good and evil are nothing but pleasure and pain, or that which occasions or procures pleasure and pain to us,” a proposition Voegelin sets in its historical perspective. We read in this light also her Misfit’s sad words that “It’s no real pleasure in life” except in “killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness.” So often in her fiction, wherever the hunger for spiritual food is thwarted by a substitute appeal to what Voegelin calls the “intramundane spirit of man,” violence and destruction ensue, though not always without some triumph for the spirit in itshunger, as with Hazel Motes and Tar-water, Julian, Mrs. Turpin, Mrs. Cope.

Locke’s central point, distorted in its dissemination, infects Western thought and festers in it. It does so because it is a principle pragmatically convenient to individual and collective appetites for power, serving as well the lowest dimension of being, both social and private, reducing life to the primitive and thence to the animal. At the same time natural wit, through which the principle is exercised, creates a complicated facade of civilization exhibiting the orders of power—commercial or political or social. The result is the now famous “machine in the garden.” Haze has his machine, his Essex, which he attempts to transform into an immortal God, though Miss O’Connor’s humor makes the Essex rather a machine in the zoo of the city than in any garden. The contemporary products of our natural wit are exhibited in a spectrum from the advertising of deodorants to the advertising of political programs, each of which must be convincingly newto attract the satiated, whose pleasures have been increasingly anchored in the senses alone, since the time of Locke, by the entrepreneurs of power. (For the development of the intellectual program, in the interest of power, see particularly Voegelin’s “Helvetius and the Genealogy of Passions” and “Helvetius and the Heritage of Pascal” in From Enlightenment to Revolution.)The meaning one finds in Miss O’Connor’s “wise blood,” as explored through Haze Motes and Enoch Emory, is very much a commentary on this strain of Western thought.

Speaking of this secularization of Western thought, Voegelin remarks that “with Voltaire begins . . . the concerted attack on Christian symbols and the attempt at evoking an image of man in a cosmos under the guidance of intraworldly reason.” The crucial shiftis in the meaning of virtue so that virtue is concerned not with the individual soul’s relation to God but to social man. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, Voltaire speaks prophetically: “Virtue among men is a commerce of good deeds; who has not part in this commerce should not be counted.” As Voegelin remarks, “Behind the phrase that a man who is not socially useful in this restricted sense does not count looms the virtuous terreur of Robespierre and the massacres by the later humanitarians whose hearts are filled with compassion to the point that they are willing to slaughter one half of mankind in order to make the other half happy.”1 Miss O’Connor comments on the same idea in ironic references to the easiness of compassion on modern lips, a compassion much changed in the interval since Voltaire’s remark toward Voegelin’s logical extension. It is “popular pity,” through which (Miss O’Connor says) “In the absence of . . . faith, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. Itends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” And Miss O’Connor’s “tender” characters whose compassion is “wrapped in theory” reveal again and again, in her sharp reading of the narrowing of vision, our heritage from the Enlightenment. One notices particularly such characters as Rayber and Sheppard and those scattered characters whose religion is social man.


Voegelin’s analysis of the texts of recent Western thought throws a helpful light upon Miss O’Connor’s artistic devices no less than upon the history held as background to her drama. There is, for instance, her concern for Christian symbol. Of the conflict between Christian symbols and the rational historical critique of them, Voegelin says:

The language of Christianity becomes a “myth” as a consequence of the penetration of our world by a rationalism which destroys the transcendental meanings of symbols taken from the world of senses. Inthe course of this “de-divinization” . . . of the world, sensual symbols have lost their transparency for transcendental reality; they have become opaque and are no longer revelatory of the immersion of the finite world in the transcendent. Christianity has become historicized in the sense that a universe of symbols that belong to the age of myth is seen in the perspective of categories which belong to an age of rationalism.

And when symbol is reduced to the perspective of category, when rationalism governs symbol absolutely, the effect upon the popular spirit is predictable, since ideas do have such consequences. One sets beside Voegelin’s remark a statement Miss O’Connor made in an interview, in response to questioning about her distortions of “reality.” She found it necessary to shake up, in so far as art may do so, the comfortable categories settled in the popular spirit:

If I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I know that for a large percentage of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite; therefore I have to imbue this action with an awe and terror which will suggest its awful mystery. I have to distort the look of the thing inorder to represent as I see them both the mystery and the fact.

To replace Christianity, there emerges that new religion we have beentalking of, which concentrates its worship upon secular man to the general exclusion of the spiritual, a deficiency in the rationalistic version of being through which in Voegelin’s words, “the symbolic expressions of spiritual experiences become opaque and are misunderstood as depending for their validity on their resistance to rational critique.” That is the inevitable consequence of severing reason from faith and of casting faith in the category of superstition, the province often visited by our “folk” critics. Thus, Voegelin continues, in the process “the principles of ethics are severed from their spiritual roots, and the rules of conduct are determined by the standard of social utility.” What is prepared thereby is the grounds for that “mobocracy” against which Kierkegaard was to rail. The mob, in the name of humanity, appropriates not only the natural world, but individual lives, on the strength alone of a vaporous desire multiplied by number. And so community becomes a matter of statistics, as does the quality of life itself. The person becomes an individual, well on the way to becoming an integer.2But always, of course, in the name of that abstraction in whose name power is gathered and exercised: humanity, a generalization erected on man’s biological nature. Thus, ultimately, the mystical body of Christ has substituted for it the “mystical bodies of nations,” since some symbolic focus is necessary to the appropriation of force, through the alchemy of numbers. A new symbology emerges, a new calendar of holy days to satisfy the mysterious desire in the blood for an object of devotion greater than the self. For without such symbols the accretion of numbers to the uses of power disintegrates.

The necessity of festival, public devotions, as Josef Pieper points out in his In Tune With the World, requires a shifting of the very grounds of festival in the new religion. For “To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” But if the celebration of festival is a sacrifice to the whole of creation—“a festival without gods is a non-concept,” Pieper says—then the reduction of creation to mechanical law denies, even in the seasons themselves, the presence of deity. The real hunger must be met by synthetic substitute. Thus one arrives at Comte’s reformed calendar which establishes festivals of Humanity, Paternity, Domesticity, and the like. One may assume the necessity of festival as simply psychological. That was Jean Jacques Rousseau’s solution: “Plant a flower-decked pole in the middle of an open place, call the people together—and you have a fete!” And thus “altars of the fatherland” were erected, at that Festival of Reason celebrated at Notre Dame in the 1790s. The rituals in celebration of the mystical body of the state are legislated ones, the citizenry coerced to participate: “When the bells ring, all will leave their houses, which will be entrusted to the protection of the law and the Republican virtues. The populace will fill the streets and public squares, aflame with joy and fraternity. . . .” The “liturgist” of this celebration of the Mass of the mystical body of the masses is St. Robespierre.

Such a celebration of “fraternity” is, of course, wildly divorced from the reality of creation. Its symbols are also opaque, so that the individual is not only free to, but must, find his particular desire reflected in those symbols. The accomplishment of that desire depends in the last analysis upon his skill in the accumulation of power to the service of his own desire turned into appetite, whether the magnitude is that of a Robespierre or Flannery O’Connor’s Mr. Shiftlet. The seeming complexity of the modern world is in considerable degree an effect of the fragmentation of the old sense of community into pockets of power, larger and smaller, according to the combination of wit and ruthlessness in individuals who accumulate that power. The accumulation is in the form of an accretion of “citizenry” in the support of particular shibboleths, advertised in a rhetoric that conceals its enslaving powers.

One sees a brief history of the evolution of secular festivals in Pieper’s survey of May Day. Its connection is not with Spring festivals out of a pagan world, but rather with “moving day, the usual date when leases and other economic agreements ran out.” The International Labor Congress in 1891, a hundred years after the elevation of Reason as God under the guidance of Robespierre, proclaims the first of May a festival, “in order to preserve its specific economic character.” The placards read “This is the day the people made” and “Socialism, thy kingdom come!” And again, “Our Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit of Socialism rushes through the world, making converts.” Pieper concludes from his survey of the perversion of festival that even so, “Two extreme historical potentialities have equal chances: the latent everlasting festival may be made manifest, or the ‘antifestival’ may develop in its most radical form,” adevelopment faradvanced in both China and the Soviet Union at this point in time. (Lest we feel too much relieved, we might observe the same spirit long at work in our own nation; birthdays of Founding Fathers are easily shifted on the calendar to the general utility inherent in such shifts, and our celebration of the Bicentennial has more than the casual presence in it of attempts to erect altars to the fatherland.)

Our digression into secular festival throws light on Flannery O’Connor’s concern for the recovery of that “latent everlasting festival” which she attempts to make manifest in its power to heal the fractured world of the self and the community, through the mystical body of Christ. That is her message as prophet. The fruit of festival, says Pieper, “is pure gift.” It is a sacrifice in no way affected by temporal goals, though it is a temporal sacrifice. A definite portion of one’s life, says Pieper, quoting ancient Roman usage, is made “the exclusive property of the gods.” It is an act “in affirmation of the world.” A tradition in the strictest sense of traditum, “received from a superhuman source, to be handed on undiminished, received, and handed on again.” As Saint Thomas Aquinas asserts, “The sacrifice is the soul of festival,” so that exclusion from communion was called by the early Christians “banishment to unfestivity.” Festival then involves one in a sacrifice which is a renunciation of the world, a free giving of the world to the source of the world, through love. In such openness of surrender, grace answers, and in the context of such reflections, it will occur to one that the Mass is itself the highest festival, in which one freely receives that incommensurate gift through which creation is reconciled to its Creator. It is with this particular gift that Miss O’Connor’s fiction is always dramatically concerned, the drama lying between her character’s resisting the gift and the threat of that gift. In her characters’ struggles with festival sacrifice, one discovers how intimately related in her thinking is the concern for manners, in whose healthful recovery lies the possibility of an encounter with mystery and the recovery of that joy implicit in the whole of creation. But she sees that, as Pieper says,

[T]here can be no festivity when man, imagining himself self-sufficient, refuses to recognize the Goodness of things which goes far beyond any conceivable utility; it is the Goodness of reality taken as a whole which validates all the particular goods and which man himself can never produce nor simply translate into social or individual ‘welfare.’ He truly receives it only when he accepts it as pure gift. The only fitting way to respond to such gifts is: by praise of God in ritual worship.

That seeing of the “Goodness of reality” is very close to what Miss O’Connor affirms in calling her vision that of a “realist of distances,” seeing the created world, in Voegelin’s phrase “immersed in the transcendent.” For her, as for Voegelin and Pieper, “Existence [in Pieper’s words] does not ‘adjoin’ the realm of Eternity; it is entirely permeated by it.” That is the vision which is lost to us, the vision she would recover to us.


And that is why she was disturbed on occasion by misreadings of her work. A critic like Isaac Rosenfeld, from his perspective as a late child of the Enlightenment, must inevitably conclude that “Everything [O’Connor] says through image and metaphor has the meaning only of degeneration.” For Rosenfeld, Haze Motes is “nothing more than the poor, sick, ugly, raving lunatic that he happens to be.” Yet we see when we look closely at the images and metaphors of Wise Blood that whole larger world of which Pieper speaks. It is implicit in them, a world denied to such a mind as Rosenfeld’s. His is a mind we shall see dramatized—not without sympathy from Miss O’Connor, though it is an uncompromising sympathy—in the figure of Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away. Meanwhile, it is well to remember that Miss O’Connor herself sees and speaks of that gnostic election of rationality which excludes the spiritual dimension of being, that election which Voegelin adumbrates in his work. We repeat her words:

Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man.

To which she adds that such grotesque characters as she makes into her heroes “carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.” They are stumbling prophets out of the intellectual desert we call the modern world.

One final general reminder concerning her use of images and metaphors: Voegelin, surveying the destruction of our symbols of belief and finding them increasingly opaque to the dim eye of an increasingly gnostic world, suggests the necessity of new symbols, requiring “a new Thomas rather than a neo-Thomist.” But Miss O’Connor is confident of those symbols’ continuing vitality since they are anchored in that ground of being which is unchanging. What is necessary, in her view of our problem, is a healing touch upon the diseased eye. Itis a touch she intends to perform through those very symbols, in her “incarnational” art. The healing power lies in the fact that her symbols are fed continuously by the reality of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Redemption which those symbols make manifest. The world, one says, is created, not was created. And most important to her fiction, her symbols are fed by the witness of creation itself, by the natural world and by such revitalized persons as her fiction imitates. The created world is to her, as it was to Pascal, “an image of grace,” a continuing witness of and medium for the incarnation’s access to the created soul. When seen in its reality, the meanest leafsparkles in the sunlight, revealing the constancy of grace in nature; to her, as to Saint Bonaventure, the sun casts a more than symbolic light upon the struggling characters of her fiction.

We remarked earlier that when the metaphysical defenses of hierarchy were reduced to the intramundane, hierarchy becomes an instrument in the hands of the lords of worldly power. The displacement becomes possible through an assault upon the old scholastic authority, particularly as symbolized by the Summa Theologica. But authority in any of its forms becomes fair game once it is reduced to the arena of the intramundane, the justification of revolution resting upon the successful use of accumulated power. The usesof power accelerate, particularly in the intellectual sphere, though we speak of the development (in its empirical effect upon a mankind reduced to the “masses”) asdevoted to “humanity,” that ultimate object of secular worship. Yet we best measure our progress in this line symbolically from the cannon to the atomic bomb. And if mankind is reduced, so too is the general body of nature, having expelled from it that authority Saint Thomas found inherent in it, the authority of its Cause and Creator.

It is by that expulsion that the poet robbed of his visionary authority which he once exercised through visionary symbol and metaphor. “How happy is he,” says Donne in a couplet Miss O’Connor marks in her text of his poems, “which hath due place assign’d / To’his beasts, and disaforested his mind!” Donne is not longing, of course, for mere imposition of order upon the world by the reason; he is lamenting the loss of vision, such vision as has led the poet since Donne to struggle in holding creation to a recovered vision, through the yoking of disparates by violence together. As the authority of the mind and of nature was increasingly called in question, the role of the poet was no less so. And what results from that questioning by the popular spirit of each succeeding age is a settling symbol to Voegelin’s residual status. Eventually it settles to the murky region of the “subconscious,” in which symbol becomes subjectively opaque. The question becomes whether art has any call upon the intellect. That is the question Miss O’Connor addresses herself to, seeing that the decay is not necessarily in symbol and metaphor but more likely in the mind that uses and abuses them. And that is why she does not call, as Voegelin does, for a new symbology. For nature does not lack authority merely by the mind’s declaration that it does. It is for her still the present signature of its Creator, as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas argue, in which the poet finds his own authority. Thus there may be a special relationship established by art between the Creator and his creature, so long as the limits of art are recognized.

Not, of course, that authority is abandoned in the overthrow of the transcendent, a point by now sufficiently made but here hopefully repeated. It is rather that the claims of authority multiply as particular minds establish individual satrapies in the country of the mind, from which position nature and the mind are foraged upon. Engels, says Pieper, “infers from productibility of artificial things the possibility of exhaustive knowledge of all natural reality.” But Saint Thomas distinguishes between the “nature” of man and the “nature” of a letter opener as Engels does not. That is a distinction generally lost to us, to which Miss O’Connor speaks in her metaphors of mechanical art, in Haze’s Essex or Rayber’s can opener or hearing aid and glasses. In the confusions following the separation of grace from nature and of reason from faith, one sees a most particular effect upon the prophetic poet, caught up as he is in that long confusing war between the authority of beauty and of truth, a civil war in which Miss O’Connor does not take sides. Perhaps a speculative comment may be in order here, to suggest why she finds that conflict futile, the antagonists supporting only partially sound positions through inadequate authority. It may enlighten as well her own contentment with traditional symbology and its sources in Thomism, as well as suggesting why she anticipates an effect through art beyond the aesthetic, a partial healing at least of that breach made by the mind between grace and nature, reason and faith.


When through the reason one establishes a ladder for an ascent of the mind to being (for whatever purposes), as Hegel does in his Aesthetics (art, music, poetry, philosophy are an ascending order, each absorbing the earlier), he is engaged in mythologizing man’s experience of being. That procedure leads to an address to the world through category. The effect is a de-divinization, de-humanization, de-naturalization of being through the autopsy of category. Such an autopsy is a limited necessity, given the discursive nature of the mind, a burden some of us hold consequent to Original Sin. The philosopher as pathologist of being, however, must remember the whole nature of hierarchy, whether of mind or of any creation separate from the mind. That hierarchy requires of one’s faith in being that it remember always the parts as members one of another. The strong temptation to gnosticism lies in forgetfulness at this point of the rational “X-raying” of the world’s body by reason, for in that very activity is exercised a certain control over being which to the incautious or prideful appears to provide an avenue to the domination of being. It is against this temptation that Wordsworth protests when he charges the modern mind with murdering to dissect. Though they do not share the same terms, there is a sympathy between Wordsworth’s and O’Connor’s thought here. For Miss O’Connor, it is through faith and the support of grace, given the Enlightenment’s insistent autopsy, that some recovery of our sense of the unity of being is possible. And in such a new spiritually sensitive state, the question of beauty’s relation to truth as an analytic topic becomes irrelevant to the experience of being. In our recovered sense of being, we perceive beauty and truth participating ordinately, not experienced as separate.

Thus one has not reached the fullness of Saint Thomas’s definition of beauty—that which when seen pleases—if he separates the pursuit of the good from the contemplation of the beautiful. What remains to be said is that, to our fallen nature, the beautiful is a sign of the good. When one sees and is pleased, he is not pleased by an accident of the being. There is a mystical relation between the object as art and the perceiver of its beauty, as there is a mystical relation between the object as art and the Cause of all beauty, of which art is in imitation according to the rules of nature. As for the relation between the object and the beholder, what is experienced is a revelation through beauty, activated by that suspension of the will which makes one open to the beautiful, or by a consent of the will which draws one to the beautiful. (Coleridge’s argument for the “suspension of disbelief” may be said to call for that openness to beauty of which we speak.)

The experience of beauty is of the nature of a revelation, the effect of which upon the beholder is (in a very real and not simply metaphorical way) that the perceiver is “realized” by the experience. But the disposal of the will to the possibility of beauty is an active disposal, though one’s more immediate experience of beauty seems a passive one, as if one is acted upon by the object. That is the mystery of a spiritual aestheticism such as Wordsworth, once more, attempts to describe in speaking of the mind’s relation to the object, with the image a medium in that relationship. Thus in speaking of “the mighty world/ Of eye, and ear,” that world is said to be “half created” and “half perceived,” a union of “nature and the language of the sense” which the discursive mind feebly attempts to rationalize. In that experience, the mind is aware of a certain “feeling” which is realized in the experience—a feeling latent, potential. By virtue of the experience, through which one is changed, we recognize in the object and through theobject—the work of art—a feeling we did not know we possessed as a part of our being. This “feeling” is an action toward the world, a reaching in us by that which has been waiting to reach.3 In the aesthetic experience there is analogy to that experience of nature one comes to through a more active rational address to the external world. When Saint Thomas says that “It is natural for a man to tend towards the divine by the apprehension of sense-objects” or that “A perfect judgment of the mind obtains through turning to sense-objects which are the first principles of our knowledge,” he is speaking to this experience in which one recognizes as undivided the true and the beautiful. Whether one’s experience leads him to the poem or to E = mc2, the arresting moment is that in which the perception of a truth and an aesthetic pleasure in that truth are wedded in the experience. Wonder and awe mingle, before one’s falling away from that experience through a pride in possessing a new advance in one’s own being. That pride is the gnostic temptation of which we have so often spoken, an inclination to understand the experience as if it were drawn from the object, abstracted by the intellect, so that the object becomes warped as a creature of man’s intellect.

The supposition that “feeling” is either poured into the perceiver or drawn by him from the object is the error underlying and making possible that sentimentality practiced by artist and perceiver alike, either supposition being in effect a distortion of being in the perceiver on the assumption of a neutralized will, on the assumption that the perceiver is the passive object of the aesthetic experience. The tacit assumption is that the feeling is an additive related to a beauty which itself is conceived as an accident of being. The attempt to acquire or to produce the “aesthetic experience” in this manner is a short-circuiting of the currents of being, of the relationship between the perceiver and the beautiful (the beautiful: being which is seen). It easily develops the assumption in the “popular spirit” that one grows “culturally” through a mechanism of senses, or of purely rational perceptions—of any partial relation of the perceiver to that which is perceived. But as we have said, to grow culturally is not the same as to grow a culture on a host as the pathologist does, though the dominant belief in our age that such is the case accounts for the modern mania for “cultural” overlays of “society,” that spawn of courses and programs of cultural indoctrination usually provided as “outreaches” (in the popular jargon) of the academy.

The popular spirit, in so far as it has become separated from being, can only be further distorted, made more grotesque, by the supposition that culture is super-added to one’s being, as when in the name of cultural education, night classes in classical music are given for ten weeks to whatever elements of society may be drawn together in the name of culture. Such vaccinations, if they take at all, take in ways quite different from the expected.

For a long harboring of beauty as it speaks being through the senses is required. Beauty is a devotion of a lifetime, because the cultural experience which is desirable is a coming to be, as when the flower opens to the sun and moves on toward seed. In that continuing and continuous experience, one is continuously awakened by awe. We speak of this awe when we try to describe the experience of “finding ourselves” through beauty. (Again, we say through beauty.) When Rilke says of that experience with the partial bust of Apollo that the perceiver must change his life, it is of this opening as the flower to the sun of which he speaks. When Hopkins considers the “inscape” that is his poem, he considers the freshest deep down things as the experience to which we are brought, the experience of the cause of all beautiful things, through which one draws and is drawn. Just as spiritual growth is a slow construction of the good in us, pervasive of our undivided being, so too is the aesthetic sensibility, which is but another of the categories which we use to talk of our coming to be. A spiritual growth through beauty is one of the modes of grace whereby our being is realized and all existence celebrated, in its multiplicity, as yet a body. For, in seeing that which is, accompanied by the pleasure of seeing it, one’s being is moved toward that sacramental relationship with being in which we discover that the beautiful and the good are inextricable. One goes from strength to strength in the perception of being through the senses, when the will is ordinate in its reverence for being. “Seeing” in the aesthetic sense and “seeing” in the mystical sense are separations by our analytic minds before the mystery of being as we attempt to understand why we are moved or what it is that moves us to awe in the presence of what is. The answer to the what and why is deep down things:

The uncaused
Cause, which causes that we may be.



  1. Voegelin, a refugee from Hitler’s “compassion” is in a position to speak of the consequences of such ideas as he examines. In this connection we should remember as well another refugee, Karl Stern, who in his autobiography The Pillar of Fire recalls an effect of Enlightenment thought upon the Jewish community of Europe, which in Stern’s view contributed to the attempt to annihilate that community. He speaks particularly of the effect of a decay of orthodoxy in that community. His grandfather, who practiced the formalities of his religion, did not want his grandchildren to do so, since they were to be part of a “generation of enlightenment” which was to follow the loosening effects of religious tolerance and political liberalism after World War I. Judaism as “tolerant eclecticism” led to an anemia in the Jewish community which Stern feels became a sort of death wish. Stern’s own progress in reaction to the decay bears striking analogy to the progress of Haze Motes. His recollections might also cast a somewhat different light upon the liberal’s evidence of “anti-Semitism” in Eliot and Pound. The grandfather practices his spiritual commitment in gestures without motion. Pound’s comment on his Brennbaum, in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, seems of a Jew such as Stern’s grandfather;
    The heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and forty years,
    Showed only when the daylight fell
    Level across: the face
    Of Brennbaum “The Impeccable.”
  2. See Maritain’s analysis of Descartes’s angelism, in Three Reformers, in which he examines Descartes’s denial of the mind’s discursiveness, thus separating mind from nature, a drift of thought which falls to the uses of Locke and Kant and helps establish an isolation of mind from nature.
  3. Eliot, before the time of “Ash-Wednesday,” is highly suspicious of the feelings, especially as such a term is used by Wordsworth: in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he expresses those reservations, and in his concern for the “objective correlative,” he is acutely concerned with the danger of feeling. But in 1929 he writes Dobre: “I doubt myself whether good philosophy any more than good criticism or any more than good poetry can be written without strong feeling. . . . I am sure that any prose I have written that is good prose, is good because I have strong feelings(more than adequate knowledge). . . .”

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