Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
This is the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away. It is, in my unapologetically opinionated judgment, one of the best and most memorable opening lines in all of literature. How can one read such a sentence and not feel compelled to continue reading?
Reading on, almost against our better judgment, we are borne away into Flannery O’Connor’s gross and grotesque world, full of characters so demonically darkened by sin that they are more like gargoyles than men. Page after relentless page, we are wrenched from our comfort zones, finding ourselves assaulted by the brute ugliness of a place in which the love of God has seemingly been exorcised. The sheer violence of it all is almost too much to bear, and yet we are borne away by it, wincing and squirming and yet unable to break the spell that O’Connor has cast on us, almost addictively desiring to know where the rollercoaster ride of misery is going to take us. However painful, we need to see it through to the bitter end.
For those who do not know the novel, and without wishing to spoil it for those who have not yet put themselves through the agonies of reading it, it centers upon a teenaged protagonist, Francis Tarwater, who has been brutalized theologically by his manically fideistic great-uncle, the latter of whom believes that his young protégé is called to be a prophet. The boy’s upbringing, in which faith is emphatically divorced from reason, leaves him utterly unprepared to face reality. After his great uncle’s death, the boy goes to stay with his Uncle Rayber who has reacted so violently against the fideism of his own brutalized youth that he has become a hardened and hard-hearted atheist. The boy, caught between two equally erroneous philosophies, struggles to find his own way to “truth” without any rational coordinates with which to orient himself. Not surprisingly, he is hopelessly lost in a world in which equally nonsensical influences battle for supremacy.
The brilliance of the novel is not, however, to be found in the battle between irrational faith and equally irrational “rationalism” but in the powerful presence of the idiot child, the son of Uncle Rayber, who probably has Down syndrome. The idiot’s name is Bishop, which was possibly selected by O’Connor with an ironic symbolism in mind, “bishop” deriving etymologically from the Greek episkopos, meaning “above-looking” or, more prosaically, “overseer.” Like the other characters, Bishop is not rational, though in his case the absence of reason is not due to the arrogance of ignorance but to a physical handicap, and yet his very existence serves to illustrate the presence of unequivocal love in the gloom of the grotesque. Since, symbolically (and even, ultimately, literally) the presence of unequivocal love serves as the presence of Christ, the Over-Seer, it is in the holy fool that we see the Holy Innocence which makes sense of the darkness of sin and ultimately vanquishes it. The novel would be meaningless, a postmodern nightmare, without the presence of such love, which is nothing less than Meaning Itself. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the equally irrational Tarwater and Rayber can see no point or purpose in Bishop’s life or existence, seeing him as subhuman.
As the father of a beautiful son who has Down syndrome, the most excruciating experience in reading the novel was, for me, the way in which Bishop, this holy fool, this holy innocent, was treated with such disdain and cruelty. To see this sweet and simple lamb of innocence abused so brutally by those who are shackled and blinded by their pride and prejudice was almost insufferable. And yet the suffering of the innocent one has to be suffered, in both senses of the word. It has to be felt as pain and permitted for the necessary lesson it teaches.
And what’s the lesson that Flannery O’Connor teaches? It is the same lesson that the life and presence of my own son teaches me and everyone else who sees him and knows him. It is that love is inseparable from suffering. It is inseparable from the self-sacrifice demanded in laying down our lives for the beloved.
Someone once told me that most of us are here to learn but that some of us are here to teach. Those with Down syndrome and similar disabilities, such as my son Leo and O’Connor’s character Bishop, are the ones who are here to teach. This, I believe, is the deepest lesson that Flannery O’Connor teaches in this most violent and brilliant of novels.
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