Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/10/2011

“. . . looking for a way to live in the presence of mystery that is not fixed or doctrinal.”


Forty years ago I worked at the no-longer-existent Kaiser Steel Plant in Fontana, California. I’ve often wished I’d been there when the plant’s slag heap was removed—it seems almost impossible. A mountain of the detritus from decades of burning coal, smelting ore, and producing the basic materials on which the economy of California was founded. The plant was an intimidating—a terrifying—sight. It was even more intimidating to be inside than to see it from Interstate 10. We joked that the enormous blast furnace chimney with its unending eructation of fire and smoke and pollution was the Tower of Mordor. The effluvium covered the “Inland Empire” and often obliterated the view of the surrounding San Bernardino Mountains. 

I was not a hard-hat worker. I was much too delicate (gay). I worked in Office Services—the print shop (thousands of forms before computer records), or the mail room (in-plant mailmen knew the hundreds of acres and various divisions intimately), or the weigh station of the cold-rolled steel division. Weigh an empty truck in, weigh the loaded truck out (limit 70,000 pounds), subtract in from out and record the amount of steel the truck carried. I worked swing shift—perhaps two or three trucks per hour. I had time to myself in the little scale hut. A friend gave me The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor when I complained about boredom and wasting my more-valuable-than-those-steel-workers’ time. 

In the course of a year or so, I read all of O’Connor’s stories. If I know anything about writing, that’s how I learned. If I know anything about life on this planet, that’s where I learned.

At the time I would have said “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was my “favorite” of her stories. I’d still say it is the one that affects me the most—it’s the one my first-year writing students read. How could anything so gruesome be a favorite? It draws me in time after time. The story ends with an argument between a grandmother and an escaped murderer whether Jesus had raised people from the dead. 

slag heap

slag heap

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them (1). 

In 1971 (or even in 1991) I thought the story was simply the darkest of the dark humor I knew. I got a kick out of that foolish grandmother reaching out to touch (to reconcile with? to love?) the sociopath with a gun in his hand. 

When Professor Nelson guided us through O’Connor’s writing on writing in a graduate seminar in 1995, I came to understand the microcosm of the reality of this life pictured in the story.

Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider (2). 

Toward mystery and the unexpected. 

This week I once again learned the impossibility of guiding a young person from favoring the dark humor of the grotesque story to seeing the terrifying reality of its mystery. Students explain to me the “mystery” of the scene; it’s impossible to figure out exactly what happens or why, they say. 

“. . . if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. . .  toward the limits of mystery, because. . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do (3). 

Try to explain the limits of mystery to a nineteen-year-old who knows exactly how much money she will earn doing whatever, and exactly who the good guys (the conservatives) are and who the bad guys (the liberals) are and how the good guys will win. 

In brash temerity I will explain what happens in the story: 

Two people who have never contemplated the terror, the incomprehensibility, the probable meaninglessness of their lives—in a moment of reality so blinding neither of them can countenance it—see the overwhelming mystery of human existence together, and death (murder) is the only way out because their religiosity—on which they had pinned all their hopes—is bunk. 

Explain that to a nineteen-year-old. 

Or to anyone blissfully (or desperately) living in “getting and spending [and laying] waste our powers” (4).  To anyone who used to believe Kaiser Steel would solve the problem “that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious.” Or to anyone who believes the Auto Club Speedway (NASCAR) built on the site of the slag heap now will give their lives meaning and solve the mystery. 

Mystery?

Mystery?

I can’t explain it to myself, much less to anyone else. Am I a modern man, a postmodern man, or a post-postmodern man? None of the above. Perhaps I have simply come to view the mystery as a gift. 

We are returning to the ancient perception that life is lived in the presence of mystery, that the known is grounded in the Unknown. Institutional religion has made the Unknown known and has tried to make mystery doctrinal, fixed and formal. . . .We are looking for a way to live in the presence of mystery that is not fixed or doctrinal. We are hoping for a relationship with the Unknown that is not dependent upon a metaphysics we cannot believe, a religious orthodoxy that has lost credibility or a theology that has been overturned by philosophy and science (5). 

I’m not sure about Tacey’s qualifiers. But I do want to find out how—as I look the latter years of my life squarely in the eye—how to recapture “the ancient perception that life is lived in the presence of mystery.”
________________________
(1) O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Short Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.
(3) O’Connor. Ibid.
(4) Wordsworth, William. “The World Is too much with Us.” Lyrical Ballads (1798). Reading about the World. Washington State University. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.
(5) Tacey, David. “The gift of the unknown: Jung(ians) and Freud(ians) at the end of modernity.” European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling 9.4 (December 2007): 423-434.

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