Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/16/2010

Flannery O’Connor, Charlie Smith, British Petroleum, and the Domestication of Despair

In Mystery and Manners, her essays about writing, Flannery O’Connor says,

At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. The fiction which celebrates this last state will be the least likely to transcend its limitations, for when the religious need is banished successfully, it usually atrophies even in the [film and electronic game maker]. The sense of mystery vanishes. A kind of reverse evolution takes place, and the whole range of feeling is dulled (1).

Working in the shipping office of a steel mill in the 1970s, I discovered O’Connor’s short stories. I understood the sense of mystery had vanished and feeling had been dulled in a kind of reverse evolution. I wrote bills of lading for truckers whose loads I weighed, acknowledging that the steel had been legally “laded” as cargo on trucks for delivery to the purchasers, horrible demeaning work. O’Connor’s stories about families brutalized by serial killers, and old ladies dying of strokes brought on by their own racism, and bible salesmen stealing wooden legs of women they intend to rape seemed grotesquely normal, but somehow transcendently mysterious, in the surroundings of slag heaps and cold-rolled steel plants.

I hated the work, the place, the lack of mystery.

But I had to make the house payment, and my part-time job as a church organist didn’t cut it. Fortunately, I had not quite domesticated my despair or learned happily to live with it. I escaped from the cloud of sulfur and carbon monoxide and coal dust to become a PhD student in music, another job that could have ended in despair.

Before my escape, making the rounds of my acquaintances to say “good-bye” (I knew many office workers in various divisions of the plant because my job from time to time was in-plant mailman), I was stunned by their hostility.  “How dare you go off and leave us stuck here for the rest of our lives?” one woman in accounting said.

How dared I? indeed. How dared I become first a student and then an alcoholic who could not hold a regular job? How dared I survive at the expense of men with whom I was ensnared in co-dependency and mutual loathing? How dared I? I dared because at some moment I had seen the mystery O’Connor writes of in both her fiction and non-fiction. It is the mystery that makes sense of my life now just as it had begun to do as I sat in the shipping office at Kaiser Steel.

The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul (2).

I don’t know many novelists since O’Connor who have written about the salvation or loss of the soul. Americans, whether Tea Baggers or gay rights activists, are not much interested in the salvation or loss of the soul. Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Charlie Smith. Charlie Smith. Imagine writing a passage more about the salvation or loss of the soul:

“And not only the how of it but the way it’s complete now in a parcel, all strung up, top, bottom, and sides, so we can bring it home and put it on the table and look at it. Now we’ve got to explain it to ourselves. Now we’ve got to think about what the boy was up to all those years. And what’s amazing is that the information we’ve got, which always—and still does—seemed incredibly incomplete is all we’re going to get.”

“Maybe it was enough all along. At least for what we’re capable of doing.”

”But what is it we’re supposed to do exactly? Are we supposed to wash him clean?”

”Maybe just survive.”

“But it’s what we have to go through to do that that kills me.  And Jake couldn’t figure it out.” His voice rose. “Jake died without a clue. Isn’t it amazing that that really happens on this planet? That it’s possible to go straight through to the end without a single break in the fucking-up? Whoops, gol-lee, I’m dead and I didn’t get it. Jesus,” he said softly, his voice reedy in his nose, “what an arrangement” (3).

Smith has neither domesticated despair nor learned to live with it. His is fiction from which the sense of mystery has not vanished.

Abba Poeman said to Abba Joseph: Tell me how I can become a monk. And he replied: If you want to find rest here and hereafter, say in every occasion, who am I? and do not judge anyone” (4).

I once was convinced I had a vocation to the religious life. I made a discernment retreat but was not accepted by the brothers. I’ve thought for twenty years they were wrong—to this day I think I have a vocation for the religious life. That, in spite of the fact I have long since given up belief in all but the most rudimentary aspects of Christian theology.

Abba Poeman, a 4th century Desert Father, also said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” Abba Poeman and Charlie Smith have more in common than at first meets the eye. “Whoops, gol-lee, I’m dead and I didn’t get it,” and “say[ing] in every occasion, who am I” seem to me to be virtually equivalent. I should, if I want anyone to understand what I mean, explain that assertion, but I’ll let it speak for itself.

Asking “who am I” and not giving “your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart” are alternate understandings of “it’s possible to go straight through to the end without a single break in the fucking-up.” All are statements of the impenetrable mystery in which we live. O’Connor says that, if we believe

. . . .that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if [we look upon ourselves] as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what [we see] on the surface will be of interest to [us] only as [we] can go through it into an experience of mystery itself (5).

My brackets change her third person language naming the “author” to the first person “us” I think she would agree she also had in mind. For much of my life I have “domesticated despair and learned to live with it.” I used to accept my Calvinist upbringing insisting that not giving my “heart to that which does not satisfy it” is sinful. How dare I not give my heart to Kaiser Steel? O’Connor describes a novelist who gives [his or her] heart to that which does not satisfy:

He [or she] will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible (6).

I’d add the “eyes” of the Republican or Democratic parties, Wall Street, British Petroleum, and all manner of other institutions of despair.
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1961. 159-160.
(2) ibid. 167.
(3) Smith, Charlie. Shine Hawk. Latham, NY: Paris Review Editions/British American Publishing, 1988. 3-4.
(4) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975. 102.
(5) O’Connor,  41.
(6) O’Connor, 163.


  1. Quite an exhaustive piece of reflection. Thanks for your work.



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