15 May 2021

Flannery O'Connor's faith-based fiction


The title of Flannery O'Connor's 1960 novel comes from Matthew 11:12 "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."  I don't understand the theology behind that sentence, but there is a lot of violence in this brief novel, including the attempted drowning of a Downs syndrome child by his father -
He had taken him out on his shoulders and when he was chest deep in the water, had lifted him off, swung the delighted child high in the air and then plunged him swiftly below the surface on his back and held him there, not looking down at what he was doing but up, at an imperturbable witnessing sky, not quite blue, not quite white.  
A fierce surging pressure had begun upward beneath his hands and grimly he had exerted more and more force downward.  In a second, he felt he was trying to hold a giant under.  Astonished, he let himself look.  The face under the water was wrathfully  contorted, twisted by some primeval rage to save itself.  Automatically he released his pressure.  Then when he realized what he had done, he pushed down again angrily with all his force until the struggle ceased under his hands... Then as he looked at it, he had a moment of complete terror in which he envisioned his life without the child.  He began to shout frantically.  He plowed his way out of the water with the limp body... The [next day's newspaper] caption said, OVERJOYED FATHER SEES SON REVIVED.
- and the shooting of a cousin, the successful drowning of that same child by a 14-year old boy, and the subsequent rape of that boy by a stranger.

The driving force of the novel is a religious fanatic who feels called to prophesy:
With no one to  hear but the boy, he would flail his arms and roar, "Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can!  Spit out the bread of life and sicken on honey.  Whom work beckons, to work!  Whom blood to blood!  Whom lust to lust!  Make haste, make haste.  Fly faster and faster.  Spin yourselves in a frenzy, the time is short!  The Lord is preparing a prophet.  The Lord is preparing a prophet with fire in his hand and eye and the prophet is moving toward the city with his warning.  The prophet is coming with the Lord's message.  'Go warn the children of God,' saith the Lord, 'of the terrible speed of justice.'  Who will be left?  Who will be left when the Lord's mercy strikes?"
An eleven or twelve-year old girl prophesizes at a public gathering:
"Listen you people," she said and flung her arms wide, "God told the world He was going to send it a king and the world waited.  The world thought, a golden fleece will do for His bed.  Silver and gold and peacock tails, a thousand suns in a peacock's tail will do for His sash.  His mother will ride on a four-horned white beast and use the sunset for a cape.  She'll trail it behind her over the ground and let the world pull it to pieces, a new one every evening." 
To Rayber she was like one of those birds blinded to make it sing more sweetly.  Her voice had the tone of a glass bell.  His pity encompassed all exploited children - himself when he was a child, Tarwater exploited by the old man, this child exploited by parents, Bishop exploited by the very fact he was alive.
This was not an easy book to read in terms of content, but Flannery O'Connor, like William Faulkner, has a wonderful ear for the language and speaking style of rural Southerners. 

Everything That Rises Must Converge (title from Teilhard de Chardin) is a collection of short stories, completed in 1954 and dedicated to the Fitzgerald family with whom she had lived ("Nine stories about original sin, with my compliments").   Her delineation of characters is compared to another Christian writer - T. S. Eliot - both of whom are able to reveal "the skull beneath the skin."

Looking at the skull beneath the skin, I found the characters in these nine stories to be almost uniformly disagreeable (bigoted, greedy, violent, abusive, or - like the "girl from Wellesley" - apparently psychotic).  For today's reader the most difficult aspect is the racist language.
"Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself.  If Jesus had said to her before he made her "There's only two places available for you.  You can either be a nigger or white-trash," what would she have said?... She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then - but that don't mean a trashy one"  And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black."...

"Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.  On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them - not above, just away from - were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.  Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-face cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven."
Flannery O'Connor is frankly harsher in her treatment of "white trash," but the casual categorization of African-Americans as lazy, ignorant, and childishly naive is grating for the modern "woke" reader.  Certainly her language is consistent with (though perhaps not representative of) the culture of 1950s, southern America.  But whether the spiritual enlightenment to be gained from the reading is worth the voyage will depend on each reader.  

The best discussion I have read regarding O'Connor's depiction of violence, religiosity, and racist language is in the introductory essay of A Good Man Is Hard To Find, by Lauren Groff, from which I'll take the liberty of quoting at some length: 
A Good Man Is Hard to Find is the most American book I know. By this I mean that it speaks of the hypocrisies of the American soul in microcosm; it is an eruption of the particular half-buried traumas of the Jim Crow South as seen by a brave, blazingly angry, and mordantly funny observer...

Although O’Connor was herself a southerner, A Good Man Is Hard to Find could not be nearly as good as it is if the writer weren’t also an outsider, made all her life to stand in the chilly shadows because she was a highly educated (and highly critical) woman at a time when the gender roles of a soft and amiable southern femininity were rigidly enforced; and, more importantly, because of her devout Catholicism in the largely Fundamentalist Protestant South...

At the deepest, most molten core of all of O’Connor’s work is her Catholicism, or, as she says, "the stinking mad shadow of Jesus." Every story she wrote hinges upon her characters’ stain of original sin, and what grace they are sometimes allowed is hard won, fleeting, and almost always too late to make much of a difference in the end. Her violence, which is the most shocking and immediately apparent attribute of her work, is the violence of Catholicism, a religion in which in the central symbol—fondled on a rosary, hung over the bed, worn on a necklace at the throat—is a crucifix, an aestheticized rendering of the bloody, suffering, broken body of Jesus after he was nailed to a cross and left in the sun to die. She saw her Catholicism in harsh opposition to the wishy-washy moral relativism of the mostly agnostic or atheistic writers of her time...

If a book is to live for decades, as A Good Man Is Hard to Find has done, it must be flexible; it must bend and shift under the various pressures of the changing world, which the author at the time of writing couldn’t possibly foresee. Since the book was published, we in the culture at large have become aware of the tremendous violence that a single word can contain, and a modern audience has to address the fact that O’Connor frequently uses the N-word, one of the most hurtful and hideous epithets in the English language, meant to degrade and dehumanize black people. It’s worse to see that the writer uses it with seeming relish, even titling a story The Artificial Nigger. Some people may try to defend O’Connor by saying that the word didn’t fully hold the freight when she was alive as it holds now—that the word was commonly used in the South at the time and the use of it was in service of verisimilitude—but these are explanations that go only so far, because surely O’Connor, with her subtle understanding of cruelty and pain, knew how hideous the appellation was, how much violence it carries...

No one can decide on behalf of any individual reader whether O’Connor’s use of the word is justified or not, and whether it can be explained away by historical context; I’m personally on the fence, and the fence feels pretty wobbly. In the end, though, I do believe that it’s not all that useful to avoid reading an influential and important author because of her problematic writing, nor is it helpful to run away from a thorough and respectful discussion of racism, both structural and tacit, because of queasiness or guilt or a lack of tools to understand foundational racism and its reverberations.
After reading these three books, I found the racist language less difficult to deal with than the invariably unpleasant and frankly despicable main characters of the stories (as was the case, cited above, after my reading of Everything That Rises Must Converge).  The bad guys in the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find casually murders five people, including two children.  The delinquent Bevel "emptied a few of the ashtrays on the floor, rubbing the ashes carefully into the rug," before drowning himself.  A tramp takes a mentally retarded girl away from her caring mother for a car ride, then abandons her at a roadside diner far from home to fend for herself.  A gang of white trash delinquents deliberately start a forest fire during a drought.  And in my view the most despicable of them, an itinerant Bible salesman, seduces an inexperienced young woman away from her family to a remote rural barn, lures her up into the hayloft, takes some liquor and condoms out of a fake Bible in his briefcase, and then... [spoiler alert] takes off her wooden leg and runs away with it.   For fox ache.

I can't in good faith add this post to the hundred entries in the category of Recommended Books; I'll file it under Literature and under Sociology. 

See also: Who Was Flannery O'Connor and Why Is She Being Canceled, in The National Catholic Register or On Flannery O'Connor Chronic Illness... and Chronic Racism or The New Yorker's How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?

Also relevant is the post I wrote about her ten years ago: A Memorable First Line, which has some useful references.

Perhaps best of all, watch the PBS American Masters biography of Flannery O'Connor.

Daybreak at "Austin's Swamp" (Longville, MN)


Just wanted to share this photo recently taken by my cousin up at the northern Minnesota traditional campground I featured in a post two summers ago.  Hoping to visit there again this year.

14 May 2021

Geography quiz


That group of islands in the center of the picture - Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou, Lihou,  et al - belong to what country?

A)  France
B)  The U.K.
C)  The European Union
D)  China
E)  They don't belong to any country

Answer in the Comments section.  Some of you will be surprised - as I was.

Reposted from 2010 to add the trailer for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society:


I read and enjoyed the book back in 2010 (after writing the original post), but didn't see the movie until tonight, when I found it on Netflix.  It's an absolutely delightful romance, with top-notch performances by Lily James, Penelope Wilton, and others.

Three-banded armadillo in "safety mode"


The word means "little armoured one" in Spanish.  Image via.  Reposted from 2019.

Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes in 1973 - his "tremendous machine" performance


Everyone who watched the Belmont 40 years ago will never forget Secretariat's race that day.  He had already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; this was his bid for the Triple Crown, and he was so good that few owners wanted to enter their horses against him in the Belmont - that's why there were only four racing that day.   The track didn't even take "show" bets, and it's an interesting (?unique) anomaly that Secretariat was so favored by bettors that he would have paid more to show ($2.40) than he did to win ($2.20).  

Over 5,000 winning tickets were never redeemed because the holders valued them more as souvenirs than for their cash value.

And to this day his speed for 1.5 miles has never been equaled.  Even if you have no interest in thoroughbred racing per se, you owe it to yourself to watch this 3-minute clip to see one of the iconic moments in the history of sport.

Reposted from 2013.

New Jenga record


Over 1,500 blocks stacked on one, via.

The most recent Randy Rainbow offering

The hairdo looks odd, but it's because this is a parody of Judy Garland's original performance of the song.

09 May 2021

"Steve" is a new type of Northern Lights

You might wonder what Steve means. At first it didn't mean anything. It was just a name. Steve comes from the animated movie Over The Hedge. In the movie, the main characters were watching bushes rustle. Out came an animal that they didn't know. So they named it Steve.

That's how Steve, the new type of northern lights, got its name. Citizen scientists took a few photos of Steve and showed the photos to NASA scientists. NASA scientists initially couldn't explain the newly discovered aurora type, so they all decided on naming it Steve for now.
NASA scientists have now created a "backronym" - Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
NASA has set up a project called Aurorasaurus. At Aurorasaurus, you can see where the northern lights are predicted to be located in the near future, and actual reports of the northern lights from people around the world.
Reposted from 2017 to add this spectacular photo of a STEVE. 


Discussion and multiple relevant links at the APOD source.

Introducing Carla Juri


I recently rewatched Blade Runner 2049 and was impressed by the portrayal of Dr. Ana Stelline, the "memory maker" who designs implanted memories for replicants.  The character has arguably the most important role in the movie, and the actress - Carla Juri - was unknown to me.

She is a Swiss actress, with experience in European films, such as Feuchtgebiete ("Wetlands") in 2013:
This is arguably the role she is best known for. The novel it is based on was a controversial best seller in Germany. To prepare for this role, Juri wore the clothes of her character, Helen, for several weeks and spent a lot of this time in Berlin, where her character lives. She even went undercover as a student in a highschool where only the director of the school knew she was an actress.
So I borrowed the DVD from our library, and it was a real eye-opener.  I should note here that the trailer is quite NSFW:


TYWKIWBI does not normally embed NSFW material, but I think this is a useful portrayal of how differently European cinema (and European society) treats sexual function and sexual organs compared to Hollywood and Americans in general.  This is an enjoyable movie and was I think rightfully celebrated at various film festivals,

Treasure

"Workers found large number of ancient coins at a construction site in Baishui county of Weinan, Northwest China's Shaanxi province which, according to archaeologists, mostly belong to the Song Dynasty (960-1279)...

Archaeologists later arrived at the site and collected about 100,000 coins, weighing 460 kilograms... initial analysis showed that the coins belong to the old-style Chinese private bank that buried the coins during wars."

Not treasure


As reported by NBC News:
A Missouri woman was out gardening in her yard last week when she discovered something unexpected in her grapevines — a World War II era Japanese bomb.

Lovett was using the Google Lens tool to try to identify the strange object, which Coffey initially thought was a deep sea diving weight. The online search led them both to realize it was likely a bomb... It was determined that the bomb, even in its old age, was live and still had a 500-ft. blast range. "It wasn't just the shell. This thing was live. They confirmed it," said Coffey.

There is still no reasonable explanation as to how this bomb could have wound up buried on their property...

Interesting rock


Best explanation from the discussion thread:
It's not carved. These are likely iron and manganese concretions that develop similar to the way a pearl develops, but in a swamp. When soil undergoes constant wetting and drying it forms super concentrations of certain minerals; iron, manganese, and calcium being some of the most common. As it formed, gaps were filled in with silt and eventually it became encased in a mudstone. It has since eroded to reveal the layers of build up.
I've encountered a few concretions, but never any as elaborate as this one.

Magnet fishing


As reported by the StarTribune:
Long before next week's fishing opener, a few Minnesota anglers were avidly casting lines into the water and hauling in hefty catches.  But they weren't hooking walleye, bass or northern pike. They were hoping to reel in an antique metal sign, a safe full of money, maybe even a gun.

It's part of a new, and admittedly niche, sport of magnet fishing, where you "fish" with a super-powerful magnet tied to a strong line.  Most of the time, magnet fishers pull in mundane scrap metal: old nails and bolts, a length of rebar, fish hooks, beer bottle caps...

Even if it's just scrap metal, local magnet fishers don't catch and release, but rather dispose or recycle their finds and consider themselves to be helping the environment by hauling hundreds of pounds of metal out of local rivers and lakes...

The hobby is also growing in parts of Europe, where there's a lot of metal in canals and other bodies of water thanks to centuries of warfare.

"England is very, very big for magnet fishing," Shoemaker said.
More information at the link.  I've wanted to do something like this ever since I was a kid in a boat spotting lost lures at the bottom of a lake.

Proof that plants don't "eat" dirt

"A seventeenth-century Flemish scientist by the name of Van Helmont... planted a willow sapling in a container that held 200 pounds of soil and, for five years, gave it nothing but water.  At the end of that time, the tree was found to weigh 169 pounds, and the soil 199 pounds, 14 ounces - from just two ounces of soil had come 169 pounds of tree."    
---Michael Pollan, Second Nature: a Gardener's Education. Grove Press, 1991

04 May 2021

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