imaginationHow fallen we are, from Dante and Beatrice to John Hinckley and Jodie Foster. “We did the best job with what we had to work with,” the twenty-two-year-old jury foreman said after the unanimous decision that Hinckley was innocent by reason of insanity. And surely that is a conclusion we must come to, examining the evidence. The poet Hinckley is now remanded to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where some time ago the poet Ezra Pound was held. Pound’s retention was not, however, on the grounds Time magazine states of him: “The most prominent American to plead insanity was Poet Ezra Pound, who did so to avoid going on trial for 19 counts of treason for his pro-Fascist radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II.” On the contrary, Pound struggled to be tried, insisting that a trial would justify him. Ironically, psychiatrists for the prosecution attempted to prove his insanity by the evidence of his poetry, finding in his celebrated work evidence of derangement in the technique that alone supports many academicians in our day.[2]

In the trial of Pound there is dramatic potential, but even more so in the trial of Hinckley. The implications of the spiritual malaise affecting our whole culture are heightened by the obvious limits of the agent and his antagonists, implications that Euripides could turn to an effective, disturbing, devastating account, though such a new tragedian might also find himself in exile from the public anger he might arouse. It is much safer to dramatize older witch-trials. Lacking such a poet, we at least move toward some minor accommodation to the disturbing disorientation of justice that has evolved. We seem near to declaring that one may be both insane and guilty, in which acknowledgment we will have taken a giant step toward the spiritual grounds of our actions. It is a ground still defended, as we were saying, by a remnant, usually designated the advocates of law and order.

Though law-and-order advocate is a term we shall employ, given its popular currency, we might first see it in relation to an argument we urged earlier. The newly proposed national law, a direct consequence of the Hinckley trial, that says a defendant may be both insane and guilty is a considerable modification of both the transcendental Platonism we have discussed and its secularized image, mechanistic Platonism. To declare a person who commits a criminal act not culpable by reason of insanity is to indict a failure of reason in the perpetrator (as we have come to call him evasively) for which he himself is not responsible. To declare the culprit guilty, however, implies that he possesses adequate reason. He knows right from wrong, but has willfully chosen to do the wrong. The transcendental Platonist’s position must find the failure, not in the will, but in the incompleteness of knowledge, and the remedy must be a perfection of knowledge through reason. The secular Platonist, whose position we may describe as mechanistic Platonism since it rejects transcendent grounds, also finds the failure elsewhere than the will. It sees the difficulty in the human mechanism as mechanism—as machine—and its remedy is to modify the machine through psychology’s technology; that is, through psychiatric readjustment of the machine. To say that one may be both insane and guilty, then, is to acknowledge two conditions of being in one contingency of act. To do so allows a conclusion that either may be the initiating source of the evil act, or that they are separate and to be treated separately. But the new position has nevertheless recovered for us a complexity of being which is rejected by both the transcendental Platonist and the mechanistic Platonist. (Both species of Platonists are “idealists,” are they not?) I wish it were unnecessary to say that in my argument I do not mean to deny or unduly deprecate either the advantage to the individual of a fullness of knowledge pursued to the extent of his gifts, or that there are certain advantages to a person’s being which psychiatric technology may provide. The point is rather that neither faith, transcendental or mechanistic Platonism, is in itself sufficient to deal with the complexity of our being, though both incline toward an absolutist position which assumes itself sufficient. It is also necessary to say that in our century, the one (mechanistic Platonism) has gained such a consent to authority that it takes a spectacle like the Hinckley trial to call it in question.

We have introduced a concern for the difference between two extreme understandings about the criminal and his victim, and to this concern we return. In doing so, we discover that the two understandings of the criminal and his victim reflect very contrary understandings about the role of justice in the world. We may put the two positions at the extreme of their implications about man in the world.

On the one hand is the law-and-order advocate, who is more likely to believe in the immortality of the soul than his adversary. He is a popular figure for the editorial cartoonist. His adversary, on the other hand, sees mankind in general and the criminal in particular as victim of environment or circumstance or even genes; if the adversary is depicted at all by the cartoonist (except perhaps in the National Review), he will appear as reasonable, intelligent, and learned in the ways of the world. If not that image, then by a borrowing from the ground belonging properly to his enemy (the law-and-order advocate), he will be shown deeply compassionate, his face that of love beyond understanding. The term law-and-order advocate has been made a pejorative one by his adversary, a circumstance that would baffle a Socrates or St. Augustine or St. Thomas or Dante suddenly come among us. On the other hand, his adversary, the mechanistic Platonist whose other names may be rehabilitationist or social reformer, is at best doubtful that the soul exists, which means that the significance of life for him must rest in a materialistic ground, a ground which centers upon biological existence. For the one (the law-and-order advocate), capital punishment is not seen as the end of justice but the beginning; damnation through willful evil is the burden the soul may be required to bear for its willfulness, even as a rescue from such an exile from being (damnation) is possible through confession, contrition, and amendment under the auspices of grace. Not, of course, that all law-and-order advocates so believe. I know one who bases his argument entirely on the general safety, his most telling argument being that there is no known record of an executed murdered who subsequently commits another murder. But our concern is with the spiritual dimension of the question, a more crucial concern among the law-and-order advocates than allowed by the popular portraits of them in the media. The soul is at issue in such a concern, which consideration can but baffle one who does not believe man possessed of a soul.

My students are equally baffled, being children of modernism, to find Dante’s position exactly that of the law-and-order advocate. In their confusion about man as spiritual being, they are even more shocked, however, to find some of those souls guilty of violent crimes located on Dante’s Purgatory Mountain rather than in his Hell. It seems an inconsistency to them (a point quite beside whether they believe in capital punishment, as most do not, parroting popular sentiments on the subject). How can it be that some murderers are bound for Heaven and others are eternally confined to Hell? Of course what they suspect is an arbitrariness in Dante. They are, however, more sympathetic (being young) to those souls guilty of excessive love—lust, gluttony, avarice—whom we find in the Purgatorio just short of the Garden of Eden. (What they have yet to learn is the limit of analogy; expecting to sigh oneself into a state of ecstasy—”tender is the night”—is to confuse ecstasy with hyperventilation.) The difference in attitude between my students and Dante, the difficulty of our world’s reconciling feeling to reality in these high questions, is an indication of how far we have come in establishing sentimentality as the mode of popular thought. For the rehabilitationist? Well, for that mind, the life to be saved is the biological or social integer, and sentimentality is a welcomed climate of mind within which to manipulate mind. It feeds those frequent orgies of common social guilt advanced by deterministic arguments, in a culture where euthanasia is reserved to fetuses but denied even the most brutal criminal.

Now rationally one has many questions to bring to bear upon such a complex argument as this over capital punishment. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that I think it is a simple problem. In opening the complexity, one might start, for instance, with the puzzle of Socrates’ deliberate refusal in the Crito to allow his friends to bribe the jailor so that he might escape into exile. If his own death is unjust, he argues, a greater injustice is done by traducing the law of the state upon which the general well-being of the polis depends. Therefore he will stay and take his medicine, which for him can only mean a restored health of soul through curing it of the disease of body. Socrates’s position in the matter makes interesting juxtaposition to Thoreau’s argument about civil disobedience. Or one might very profitably reflect on the questions that arise when we set beside Socrates and Thoreau the position Ezra Pound affirms in “Canto XIII”, where he presents the Confucian position. Kung’s disciples ask him, “If a man commit murder/should his father protect him, and hide him?” To which Kung replies, “He should hide him.” For to protect him would require a violence against the order of the state. There is a world of difference between Pound’s answer to the question posed and the one St. Augustine gives: “it is one thing to tell a lie, another to pass the truth over is silence. If…we would avoid exposing a man to the risk of death, we must be prepared to conceal the truth but not to tell an untruth. We must neither expose him or lie, otherwise we shall kill our own soul for the sake of another man’s body.” (The passage occurs in St. Augustine’s Commentary on Psalms 5 and 7.) The difference has to do with man believed immortal, his soul at issue for St. Augustine—at issue through the dangers of his willfulness—and man considered as a temporal creature by Pound.

On this question of capital punishment, there lies the distance of a whole world between the law-and-order advocate who is fundamental about man’s nature and the secular intellectual who supposes himself liberated from any bonds in the transcendent. The confused rhetorical position of the one, who is most likely labeled Fundamentalist as a strategy of repudiation, and the dialectically logical position of the other, tend to make the dialectician’s seem the valid position. But that can be an illusion accomplished only by the subtle exile of argument by the trained mind, an accomplishment of the new gnosis in its deliberate strategy of dislocating the popular mind from its tradition; thus the popular mind is left with the residual language of rhetoric which it uses poorly. (As a corollary illustration of the point, see Milosz’s Captive Mind.) I’m using the term rhetoric here in the medieval sense, recalling that in the teaching of virtue by the schools, there was of old a very careful hierarchy which moved from grammar to logical use of grammar to rhetorical use of logic and grammar; our traditionalists have often lost their grammar and logic, which leaves their arguments often vulnerable in the intellectual arena. But there is a distinction to be made here and always remembered: the truth of a position and the argument for that position are not always the same. (In recovering these terms, grammar, logic, rhetoric, one finds Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Tools of Learning,” most welcome.)

The distinction I’ve suggested between the traditionalist mind and the modernist gnostic mind is certainly one Flannery O’Connor knows and uses in building the enveloping world of her fiction. She uses it, for instance, in her pursuit of the theme of goodness with her Misfit. And that is why he is a disturbing presence in her story, a presence the modernist mind has difficulty in dealing with, even as it disturbs that mind. We tend to side with the Misfit, though we feel uncomfortable in doing so. We are so irritated by the anonymous family by the time he comes upon the scene that we are almost prepared ourselves to pull the trigger. Those children, in particular, deserve at least a good thrashing beyond what most school boards or child care agencies would permit. But is it the Misfit’s bloody violence that disturbs us at last? Or does the violence disturb because it is excessive of the force we think might be used to order the family’s being, to exact discipline? Rather, what is confusing, I suspect, is his calm, orderly rejection of those modernist clichés about the nature of evil that have become our new tradition, clichés which we have taken to heart, believing we have taken them to mind. After all, there are bounteous studies, many of them statistical no less, to support the clichés—or so it is said. The Misfit’s refutation of modernist clichés comes before his violent act and stirs in us recollections of a just cause violated, not by the Misfit, but by our own society. In the Misfit’s deportment it is almost as if some minor dignity remains to him through his oppositions, and at last even through his acts of violence, a dignity which perhaps a Jean-Paul Sartre seizes upon and raises to new moral imperative. But our speculation as to why we are so disturbed by the Misfit suddenly enlarges our question: What seems most disturbing of all in the Misfit’s presence is not so much his opposition to those modernist excuses for evil which even a Sartre is capable of accepting (as Sartre’s flirtations with Stalinist social order indicates). The Misfit unsettles us by attempting to stand in opposition to good itself. In choosing his opposition, he pays tribute to the existence of good in a sense we have—in our modernist aberrations—attempted to deny. It is as if he reserves the sin of hate from its transformation to love of power. He shifts the ground of the question. For the Misfit at least knows where the real question lies and so he is in a country beyond that of our secular gnosticism. His agony is an agony of soul—not a puzzle of mind to be solved by gnosis. With considerable discomfort to us, we have been drawn into a world-strange, but strangely real.

The Misfit’s risk is one to his being, a deliberate risk that sets him quite apart from the secular world that seems to have him so firmly in its grasp. That world seems to have explained him almost out of existence, but not quite. A touch out of that secular world, a reaching beyond that world, occurs as the denouement. It is a movement by the grandmother into the country the Misfit occupies, as he surely understands. The grandmother at last declares, “Why, you’re one of my children” and touches him, whereupon he leaps back “as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” One appreciating Miss O’Connor’s metaphysical wit will perhaps discover in her language a playfulness through which she approaches serious depths: To the soul lost almost beyond recovery, the gesture of rescue is a terrifying threat. Our old metaphor for Satan, the serpent, can be turned inside out with a rather startling recognition: From Satan’s position, Christ is the serpent, the invader of the garden of the mind as its own place, and this is a point that recurs in Miss O’Connor’s fiction. The Misfit flinches from a gesture of love, a gesture the grandmother cannot resist. It is a gesture in sharp contrast to her pretenses of concern for the Misfit up to this point through which she has attempted only to save her own life. Now losing it, she has in Miss O’Connor’s vision, rather gained life. And in an essay, Miss O’Connor says a very interesting thing about the Misfit himself:

however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.

It is a story which is concerned very much with rehabilitation, but at a level beyond the secular dimension of that term. If one is interested in that other story, it is called The Violent Bear It Away, the it of that title being “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Let us conclude here, however, by a reiteration: In her story, one has a stirring of the soul to agony, a concern far beyond the spectacle of violence in the story, as Dante would easily understand. The soul at issue is, first of all, the grandmother’s, who in the context of the fiction seems rescued beyond death through her compassionate gesture that precipitates her worldly death. It is a gesture which has to do with spiritual—not social—rehabilitation. That is, it has to do with a movement of love, her own most immediately, but within the conditions of the grace of love. As she moves, she is moved. (One cannot separate the movements, lest one be forced to say on the one hand that the grandmother is determined by grace or on the other that her action precipitates grace. The action of grace in relation to the actions of will is a mystery beyond the reach of purely rational explication, being in the province of our faith in mystery.) That is why you will find Miss O’Connor, in speaking of this story, remarking that it is an intrusion of grace through the old lady’s gesture that resolves the fictional tension Miss O’Connor has built from the opening sentences. The Misfit is right about the old woman and her problem with virtue: “She would of been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” That is a judgment appropriate no doubt to most of us, since most of us need shocking out of our private pastures where we sport with our various green horses. Conscience has been largely exorcised from man by modern gnosticism, through enticing illusions foisted by liberated imagination. Perhaps we shall have an increasing need of Misfits. At least that way an occasional grandmother or grandfather may be rescued, may be forced toward recovering abandoned virtues, forced toward a “rightly ordered love.”

This is the third essay in a three-part series; part one may be found here, and part two here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1983).


[2] One may have some measure of how far either poetry or its audience have fallen if we recall Sophocles in his old age. The story is that Sophocles, nearly ninety, was hauled into court to be declared mentally incompetent so that the son could take over his estate. Sophocles read a chorus from Oedipus at Colonus, which he had just written. The judges threw the case out of court on the evidence of the poetry.

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