We encounter all too often in our modern world the spectacular violence of such escapades as the Misfit’s murder of an anonymous family on a Georgia back road. Our daily press is full of such incidents. Its corollary, however, O’Connor expects us to come to through reflection.
It is well to be reminded again and again that, though we like to think ourselves advance agents of such progress, the strategy of gnostic manipulation of being is very ancient. John Milton suggests the point: Satan’s metamorphosis from being the brightest of angels to alienated gnostic—his fall from love through pride and envy and his emergence transformed into the jealous lord of all self-power—that subtle angelic transformation precedes time itself. What is new to our world, perhaps, is the confident elevation and celebration of gnosis as the absolute temporal and spatial power, with so little or so ineffective an opposition to the elevation, till it pervades the popular spirit. A third of Heaven’s host fell with Satan, Milton’s poem suggests. But as Gallup polls suggest of us, our percentages are higher. Consent to the manipulation is general as never before. We hear it filtered down to the lower regions of our social world from the intellectual patrons of modernism in Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Lucynell Crater, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” When Mr. Shiftlet piously reminds her that the monks of old slept in their coffins, she responds: “They wasn’t as advanced as we are.” The shift of power to the temporal dimension, under the auspices of the finite imagination, is rather modern. But fortunately, accompanying that shift is a lingering disquiet of a conscience only somewhat allayed, as packets of resistance suggest, ranging from Eric Voegelin to Fundamentalists. One may put it metaphorically by saying that the general shift to consent has been accomplished by the deliberate metamorphosis of Satan into Prometheus.
But the rebel against existence becomes heroic, not through a violent theft of Heaven’s fire as with Prometheus, but by the very attempt to establish a new existence. Being is to be reconstituted by mind, and the gullible wait breathless with great expectations. Put another way, we have established a secular Manicheanism, one differing radically from the ancient heresy. In the old heresy, creation was seen as evil—a heresy fed in part by Platonism. Spirit was separated from nature in the interest of spirit’s rescue from its enemy nature (Plato’s shadow). The world became antagonist to the Heaven-bound soul, a distortion which has descended to us most conspicuously, it seems to me, in the Puritan mind. The Puritan mind actively contended with nature, expecting that by gaining control of being it could establish a City on the Hill, the City of God brought down to earth by man’s labor. Light contended with dark, whether the “dark” was stubborn soil or wild savage. To the ancient heretic, heaven or light or spirit found its place in the transcendent. In our new version of the old heresy, the center of reference—the place of light, from which light emanates—is no longer beyond temporal and spatial illusions; it is, once more, the mind of man. The Puritan fathers operated on Manichean assumptions more thoroughly than they supposed, assumptions we inherited through Pragmatism’s modifications of Puritanism. Today, from particle physics to astronomy, from the formulae of DNA and the mathematics of genes to the structure of nations into one nation, the order of being is largely presumed not only in the keep of human mind, as in the orthodox virtue of stewardship, but resting in the mind as cause—mind as the determinant of order. Now when this assumed position is pressed firmly, its holder will deny the charge sometimes, not always. But from our actions in nature, that supposition of man’s power as cause appears dominant of the actions. At the least we must conclude that the modern sense of responsibility to order is changed from what St. Augustine understood it to be when he defined virtue as “rightly ordered love.” It has become rightly ordered power, the rightly justified by man’s imagination.
From what I have so far argued, you will understand why I came to defend evil on one occasion. I called that lecture “Coals to Newcastle,” its subtitle “A Defense of Evil before the Philadelphia Society in New Orleans.” It was a teasing title on a subject deadly serious, an essay which yielded at last to the more sedate title, “Southern Letters in the Twentieth Century: The Articulation of a Tradition.” Despite the shift of title, however, the piece remains a defense of evil to our skeptical world. What I have to say there is that evil exists and must be reckoned with, a recognition at the center of Southern literature in the first half of this century and beyond. If the Southerner tends to be more generally and firmly convinced of the existence of evil than others of his countrymen—present company perhaps excepted—it does not mean that he champions evil, though his actions and reactions may have an ambiguous cast to them, seen from prospects afar removed. The illustration I shall bring to the point is the portrait of that potentially good man, the Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
You will remember that the Misfit, in the resolution of that disturbing story, very firmly rejects the modern excuses for evil which our world so efficiently insists upon through psychological and social and environmental determinisms of various hues. Any one of these deterministic accountants, upon examination, reveals himself elevated above and independent of determinism in an innocent—that is, ignorant—oversight. (C.S. Lewis remarks that Freudianism is capable of explaining everything except Freud.) The Misfit very firmly rejects the old grandmother’s unconvincing excuses for his violence; he clings to his evil as some sign of his particular—his personal—existence. For the world in which he finds himself has systematically denied him everything else. It attempts most particularly to deny him his own willfulness. But the Misfit is still acutely aware, as the grandmother comes only slowly to see, that willful evil threw all creation off balance, a teaching as old as Genesis. Willful Good, the New Testament teaches, comes shockingly into creation to right the balance, indeed to overcome and outweigh evil. The Misfit recognizes that this struggle toward a balance in being is the most fundamental struggle of all; because he engages the spiritual issue, he threatens to become the story’s hero. His struggle is at levels deeper than the mind’s reason alone can account for; for the mystery of good and of evil is beyond the rational intellect’s unaided power. As the Misfit puts the matter:
[Jesus] thrown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if he didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.
We encounter all too often the spectacular violence to being of such escapades as the Misfit’s murder of an anonymous family encountered at random on a Georgia back road. Our daily press is full of such incidents. Its corollary, however, O’Connor expects us to come to through reflection. For there has already occurred a violence against being in the gnostic manipulations of the Misfit’s personhood, a subtle violation he himself recognizes but cannot contend with intellectually. The violation drives him to rage in a just cause beyond his understanding and so beyond the just limits of rage. He senses that the assumptions about him in the society that tries to deal with him is that he is an accident of random force. We do not solve social problems but rather create social monsters when man is treated first as an accident and then the particular man is denied his participation in his own being on the grounds that he is only an unfortunate accident of nature. It takes no doctor of logic to conclude that if man is such a random being, it can be only a random force that man himself uses upon his fellows, even if the user is dignified by degree as a sociologist or psychiatrist. If the determinist’s premise is correct, then social or psychic manipulations may establish only a random order. Thus determinism entangles mind hopelessly in contradiction.
For O’Connor—and for others of us Misfits—there is a more deadly violence than the Misfit’s practiced in the name of social progress out of the deterministic premises. Finally, the irrational actions practiced upon our Misfits are more destructive than the Misfit’s own random violences. Through the insidious violence to spirit used by the gnostic, one’s personhood is reduced to individual and thence to a unit of energy in an amalgam from which the world is to be restructured to suit some private or semiprivate dream of progress. The Misfit’s very mannerly, and at last very personal, slaughter of the grandmother is a violence of another order. Now if we cannot see this distinction as at least a possible position to hold, it is because we have been so thoroughly dislocated from a traditional understanding of man’s essential nature. That traditional understanding acknowledges a Cause of all existence separate from the willful human mind. Any perceptive teacher encounters the dislocation in most of his students. The most apt illustration comes for me whenever I teach Dante’s Inferno. For it is not an easy point to make clear to the modern mind that, for Dante, sin destroys the sinner; that, for Dante, this point is the most central and deadly concern of all. In a world which has lost its vision of transcendence, it is a puzzling idea indeed that the murderer is of more central concern than his victim. But even Socrates insisted that an evil action cannot harm a good man, in which belief he accepted the evil action of his death sentence unperturbed. That is the central tenet of orthodox Christianity as well, without which Christianity becomes merely a mode of social science.
The Dantean point should not be so difficult to entertain, given our world. A major philosophical question increasingly dominates our domestic political concerns. Restively, the popular spirit objects that our social directors consider the criminal more important to society than his victims. Against a seemingly pervasive defense of the criminal in the judicial system—a defense whose principal source is the academic world with its array of vested social interests—there has risen an opposition to the determinist principle and a growing demand that the victim of crime be rescued from injustice. To say that the killer is no more guilty of his crime than his knife is to say an arrestingly witty thing; to adumbrate that wit through social science and political activism has led to the creation of extensive infrastructures in the universities and to vast armies of social agents. For a long time, common sense was baffled and intimidated by such assaults, though it at last begins to reassert itself after exile. There is, for instance, a growing demand for capital punishment and for prison sentences beyond the annulment of parole boards. But there is in this new stirring an ironic complication sufficient to any good dramatist: The defenders of the victims of crime tend to be, if we notice carefully, those for whom the vision of transcendence is not entirely lost. It is they who must resolutely demand the death penalty. On the other hand, the opponents of the death penalty—not invariably so, but often enough to make a conspicuous difference—are those who have lost their orientation of mind in the transcendent. They tend to champion a secular virtue out of deterministic faith; they call it rehabilitation. They would restructure the anti-social citizen like the Misfit into a “useful” member of society—through manipulation of the environment or the Misfit or both. Teach the criminal a skill and find him a job in society and he will recognize the virtue of usefulness to society.
A reminder is here in order given our emotionally confused intellectual arena. Just as one feels compelled to point out that in opposing unilateral disarmament one is not thereby championing nuclear war, so one must remind the thoughtless that in opposing unilateral disarmament of the community against willfully violent men one is not therefore endorsing willful violence. Nor am I saying that each of us does not bear a responsibility as a person and as a citizen and, above all, as a Christian (if that be our profession) to the possible rescue of the fallen. The distinction I insist we must make is in the principles out of which such rescue must be attempted. If we do so, we are prepared to see that the grandmother’s gesture in O’Connor’s story is perhaps a greater act of rescue than all of the work of social agencies that have in part driven the Misfit toward his random violence. If one does not admit the possibility of willful evil in his premises, his attempted rescue of the evil-doer is most probably going to take the form of a manipulation of being that exacerbates the problem. Against such manipulations, we may expect a proliferation of Misfits, a prophecy which we need only test in the daily press.
Those words are barely said when an instance of what I mean seizes and agitates the public mind, the trial of John Hinckley, Jr. for attempted assassination. And as an instance of a Misfit, he is particularly useful even as he is particularly confusing to the public mind, stirring up fundamental questions. For Hinckley is not poor, not disadvantaged in any of the ways that code word signifies. Neither is his victim a ghetto citizen, now or by origin. The easy social and environmental explanations such as the ones Flannery O’Connor’s grandmother attempts to apply to the Misfit have more tenuous ground with Hinckley than with the Misfit. Both Hinckley and President Reagan are suddenly juxtaposed in national attention through a violent confrontation; age aside, we discover them of similar economic and social origins and present estate. But each represents a different centering of spiritual hungers—the one upon the self as self-justified, the other upon a service (a stewardship) of transcendent obligations. The immediate effects are not here at issue, only the spiritual ground each occupies: Hinckley fails, being a poor shot; the President may fail, being a poor economist perhaps. But the source of the actions and not the fulfillment of intention is our concern here. What the general public discovers through the celebrated case, as reflected by its surrogates, the jury, is that we have no clear understanding of the spiritual origins of action, even as we have no adequate legal instrument with which to engage the issue in the name of justice. The reports of the jury’s deliberations and of statements made by individual members during and after those deliberations make of it a microcosm of the public mind, however embarrassing that admission. We see the jurors reacting to questions about the reality of event, and they are very much circumscribed in answering those questions by the pseudo-science of psychiatry. The jury, attempting to use common sense to reconcile evidence and argument to the limits imposed by law, presents itself to us in angry confusion. The law in its origin is largely the very pseudo-science that in turn is summoned to clarify action and motive. The jury is helpless. For Hinckley must be declared innocent by reason of insanity if “as a result of mental disease or defect,” he either “lacked substantial capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law or lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.” For one juror, “It just seemed like he was a sick white boy looking for someone to love him.” Thus the attempted assassination was an expression of love for Jodie Foster.* To another he is clearly insane because “Nobody, no matter how much money he has, would spend it like that. He pays a jet fare and stays a day.” Another counters that, “If he was responsible enough to come all the way to Washington, check into a hotel and pull the trigger several times, he was sane.”
Hinckley, we note, is a poet too, and some of his poetry becomes crucial evidence. Is poetry fiction or not? That metaphysical question, on which Aristotle has helpful things to say, may be answered perhaps by reference to the dictionary, a latitude the judge denies. Still, one of the poets on the jury, countering the charge that the poetry shows him insane, responds, “This man is a writer and writers are strange. He is not stranger than they are because he was infatuated with Jodie Foster. He shot four people.”
This is the second essay in a three-part series; part one may be found here.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1983).
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*As if to illustrate our concern that the imagination, liberated from its proper grounding in reality, leads to intolerable dream worlds, Hinckley has a long teller delivered to The New York Times (July 8, 1982); among his assertions: “My actions of March 30, 1981, the attempted assassination have given special meaning to my life and no amount of imprisonment or hospitalization can tarnish my historical deed….The shooting outside the Washington Hilton was the greatest love offering in the history of the world….At one time Miss Foster was a star and I was the insignificant fan….Now everything is changed. I am Napoleon and she is Josephine. I am Romeo and she is Juliet. I am John Hinckley, Jr. and she is Jodie Foster.” Before we conclude too quickly that such ravings are proof of madness, we should first see the movie or romantic history based on the life of Hinckley, both of which are “in press” or “in production” no doubt.
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