O’Connor, Shelley, and Interpreting Beyond Intentio Auctoris

by John on October 25, 2007

I am on the road again for a few days, this time to a C. S. Lewis conference in Wake Forest, NC. Before I leave, I rush to post two interesting comments in re the events of the past week and our discussion here for your reflection and comments.

The first is from Dr. Arthur Remillard, adjunct faculty at St. Francis University, on Ms. Rowling’s situation and a famous exchange between Flanerry O’Connor and a person asking her what one of her symbols meant. Ms. O’Connor seemed to resent being asked if her drawing of a horse was a horse….

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, John mentioned the hubbub over J.K. Rowling’s “outing” of one of her characters. Admittedly, I have not read the Potter books (I have a 6 month old son, so this will likely change). Nevertheless, after looking at John’s discussion of the importance of an author’s intent, I had two thoughts. First, I imagine that the anti-Potter/anti-gay masses are gathering on rooftops shouting, “These Books Will Make Children GAY!!!” Does this mean they’re members of the “author’s have the final word” camp? I doubt it. Despite her insistence that the books are a modern rendering of the Christian narrative, I’m confident that many within this group will keep shouting, “These Books Will Make Children DEVIL WORSHIPERS!!!” As my imagined bipolar anti-Potter proclamations suggest, people will continue interpreting the books however they want, no matter what she says, and no matter how (in)valid such conclusions are.

This leads to my second and hopefully more insightful point, which concerns the great Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. When asked by a teacher if the black hat worn by “the Misfit,” a character in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” symbolized his evil nature, O’Connor responded plainly, “most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.” The questioner pressed the issue, prompting her to snap back that the hat’s only purpose was “to cover his head.” For those unfamiliar with this story, the Misfit is a rather dark character. With assistance from his gang, he murders an entire family on a dusty Georgia road. So I wonder: How unreasonable was the teacher’s question? After all, anyone who has watched a cowboy movie knows that, black hat=bad guy/white hat=good guy. Perhaps O’Connor’s response was more representative of her infamous contempt for academia (who can blame her). Or perhaps she was being perfectly honest. I don’t think it matters. The color black has evil connotations in both cowboy movies and elsewhere (i.e. “the prince of darkness”).

My point is that good fiction is (pun intended) an open book, even when a reader’s conclusions don’t match the author’s original intent. Consider that O’Connor’s Wise Blood, written in 1949, was never intended as a critique of the electronic age—but I think it is. The book’s main character, Hazel Motes (founder of “The Church of Christ Without Christ”) enters “the city” and notices its blinding lights and commercial appeal. The author’s narrative describes this frenetic environment, and observes, “No one was paying any attention to the sky.” In other words, the things of material culture had become an imperfect replacement for eternity. Hazel Motes would only find frustration here, and his inevitable path toward redemption took him far away from the city lights. Reading Wise Blood makes me think about our “plugged in” culture. Our various electronic devices keep us looking downward at a screen, oblivious to the sky above. It’s little wonder that so many desperately seek “happiness” in a time when every other television commercial promises contentment through some drug, diet plan, or cleaning product.

So, indeed, when a story becomes a vehicle to investigate and assess our own lives and the world around us, we discover the great reward of fiction. The author’s intent may be important, and even intriguing, but the discussion of a good story should never end there.

In case you missed the reference to Miss O’Connor’s disdain for academics referenced above, here it is in plain sight:

In many letters O’Connor referred in a deprecating tone to academics in general and English teachers in particular. She answered one professor’s questions about her story, “Greenleaf”: “Thank you for your note. I’m sorry I can’t answer it more fully but I am in the hospital and not up to literary questions. . . . As for Mrs. May, I must have named her that because I knew some English teacher would write and ask me why. I think you folks sometime strain the soup too thin” (p. 582). She threw up her hands at one well-known literary critic, wondering, “Can it be possible that a man with this much learning knows so little about Christianity?” (p. 411). That was the problem she faced every time she published. She was writing for an audience to whom the incarnation had little meaning, and yet her fiction repeatedly showed common people encountering the terror, mystery and beauty of the Word made flesh. She might have predicted that many of her readers would be mildly puzzled, if not completely confounded.

Ms. Rowling’s comments last week about how “obvious” she thought the Christian parallels and meaning in her books seems to echo Miss O’Connor’s frustration.

And this from a web site called “Toddled Dredge,” where a reader named Amanda, after reading a HogPro post was reminded of something Shelley wrote about poets writing wel beyond the limits of their understanding and comprehension (echoing Socrates’ experience of the poets a few years earlier). Amanda writes:

I just read Hogwarts Professor, and it is excellent. There was an interesting point made about finding a Christian meaning in both Harry Potter and in Pinnochio. When I read that, I was reminded of something written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in In Defence of Poetry.

Shelly writes, “At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The persons in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the Power which is seated upon the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understood not…”

Anyone familiar with the arc of Shelley’s personal life and his politics in addition to his poetry will especially appreciate the situation in which Ms. Rowling finds herself at the end of her Open Book Tour.

Your prayers, please, for my safe travel this weekend, for my daughter’s run in the Big South Conference Cross Country Championships, this Saturday, and for Ms. Rowling as she returns home after a very long and controversial ten day tour. I will be able to check in several times while away to post your comments and corrections, so please share what you’re thinking.

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