Professor Richard A. Garner
The Human Situation, April 15th, 2020
I. The Best Title in All of Literature
II. Misery Like a Coastal Shelf
III. The Injury of Intelligence, the Insult of an Education
A. Intelligence is a curse
B. A Martyr to the Desire of the Other; or, that St. Sebastian Painting One More Time
C. The Terror of Identity; or, Meeting Yourself Coming and Going
Richard Sexton,Oak Avenue, Wormsloe Plantation, 2009
I. The Best Title in All of Literature
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
In a second, I’m going to talk to you about the literary genre called the Southern Gothic. It’s the best. It’s weird and uncanny and disturbing, and it’s all ours. After that, I’m going to talk about the cursed intellectuals of O’Connor’s stories in general, and more specifically of our story for today, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1961). You might want to read the last one first, as it does the most close-reading, or the second one, which has lots of maps and stuff. But first, I want to tell you that “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is the best title in all of literature.
From the moment I read it on the syllabus as an undergraduate—circa the turn of the millennium— it took on a life of its own in my head. It’s one of those phrases we encounter in life that returns over and over again, coming to mind unbidden in situations that have nothing remotely to do with the themes of the story. Indeed, every time I go back and reread the story I am struck by how the title, like many of O’Connors, creates this tiny bit of cognitive dissonance, this strangeness that makes it at once both absolutely perfect and deeply unsettling: a stark line of poetry that stands over and above the story, its own little work of art.
And I say this knowing—as you may as well, if you read Giroux’s introduction—that the phrase comes from the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin: “Tout Ce Qui Monte Converge” (xv). Robert Giroux relates that the phrases appears in French, in an anthology he had sent O’Connor of the philosopher’s work. Yet, if anything, going back and reading Teilhard de Chardin and how he uses the phrase makes O’Connor’s usage of the phrase embettered, not worsened, by the repetition. Here’s the version of the passage most often quoted, which is not actually the philosopher’s but one of his students/anthologists. From Max H. Begouen’s Foreword to Building the Earth: “He gave each of them this watchword: ‘Remain true to yourselves, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge’” (13). Here’s one version in his own words, from the essay “Faith in Man,” expressing a major theme in the philosopher’s work: “Followed to their conclusion the two paths must certainly end by coming together: for in the nature of things everything that is faith must rise, and everything that rises must converge” (186). In other words, where Teilhard de Chardin is saying something about the nature of our common humanity converging in ever-greater complexity and perfection, O’Connor is injecting something insistent, something dark into this message of hope. In doing so, she is not trying to negate the utopian vision of the philosopher, but to transform it by way of adding in the full range of human experience. For O’Connor, thinking about convergence means thinking about life in a place where sectarianism is stuck on the Catholic/Protestant divide so strongly that to be a Catholic is so alien that one might as well be Jewish (and anything further afield would be meaningless to the young Church of God boys); where buses had only been desegregated in Browder v. Gayle five years before she wrote the story; and where the number of women receiving PhDs in Philosophy in the 1950s—much less in the South—was vanishingly small. In other words, O’Connor injects a certain Southern peculiarity combined with a bit of Gothic uncanniness into this convergence. Faith, theological or not, is easy when it does not have a world to contend with, and if it is easy, it is no faith at all.
But before we talk about the Southern Gothic, I want to return to the title, because I love it so much. Ultimately, beyond any particular meaning it derives from and alongside the story itself, it’s the beauty of a phrase that lingers in one’s mind, insists on coming back again and again, that I want to discuss. I want to discuss it because it gets at the heart of something about literature. For instance, when I say it’s “the best,” on what criteria am I basing that judgement? Are those objective, or purely subjective? Am I repeating a mistake we see from so many of O’Connor’s characters, of assuming that their personal preference can stand in for everyone else’s (and that those who disagree must be wrong)? Short answer: no. I’m saying this for effect. I know it’s just me. But the longer answer is that the particularity of my judgment on this title does give us a clue to the universality of something about language. Our psyches are, ultimately, linguistic; all the sense-experience, emotions, and logic that we deploy emerges out of and is filtered through language. Language makes possible what we can know of our world, and some of the greatest tragedies of our lives are marked by our inability to find a language that fits our experience—of love, of friendship, of betrayal, of death—often because someone else is imposing their language on us, or because there is no language at all for it. Sometimes we have to invent it. I don’t know what part of my self, per se, needs the phrase everything that rises must converge, but some part does. Thank you, Flannery O’Connor.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1955
II. Misery Like a Coastal Shelf
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
—Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”
What is it about the South that lends itself to the gothic? Ever since Edgar Allen Poe’s American reinvention of that European genre—of ancient curses, crumbling castles, monsters and murderers, of innocent women in distress and dark and stormy nights—Southern literature has often veered of into the uncanny and horrific as it’s modus operandi. And the answer as to why? Well, it’s not all the decaying castles scattered across the countryside. The answer is obvious: it’s slavery. The deep secret, the obscure past, the meaningless descent into gratuitous violence, the uncanny return of repressed trauma and desire: slavery.
Let’s take a tour of some maps… First, what do you think this one is?
If you answered “a map of which parts of America started socially distancing when during the pandemic,” then you are a winner. Here’s the key I excised from the original New York Times article the map appeared in (Ganz et al).
You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a map of a lot of different things, but let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the second map:
In case you’re having difficulty reading the title, let me help with this U.S. Coast Survey from 1861: “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States.” But just in case the point is not clear yet, here’s map number three:
That, everyone, is a map of the United States as it looked during the late Cretaceous period, many millions of years ago (126-65 mya, to be geologically precise; see Krulwich). That inland sea left rich alluvial deposits that became the fertile crescent of land known as, first geologically and then politically, the Black Belt. Needless to say, the agricultural quality of the land correlates strongly with the intensity of slavery practiced in the American South.
In Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (a book we read often here in The Human Situation), the psychoanalyst uses the metaphor of the ruins of Rome to talk about the deep history of our own human minds. He wants us to understand how, even after they’ve been totally erased and are irretrievable, our earliest experiences shape who we are, just as the long-obliterated strata of Rome each successively dictated what was built after them. For me, when Larkin evoked misery deepening like a coastal shelf, Freud’s ruins of Rome and the cretaceous South sprang immediately to mind; I took it not as simile, but something that could be, often is, literally true.
This is what is meant in Faulkner’s famous epigraph about the past never being dead. Southern Gothic emerged as one of the most distinctive genres, blending mystery and murder and a deep sense of a looming violence in the world. Flannery O’Connor’s stories, as we have all seen, could easily be turned into horror movies, and William Faulkner’s work also includes many of the same themes. If we include Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy (e.g., the hauntings in Beloved or the demonic Judge of Blood Meridian), then the genre is easily the defining movement of twentieth century American literature. And it is not only slavery, but the history of violence that is the warp and weft of the institution, that colors our Southern Gothic. The Civil War is still the deadliest war in American history, and it’s not even close. Indeed, scholars have argued, often convincingly, that the region has to this day not recovered from the economic, social, and political devastation caused by the military conflict alone, not to mention its aftershocks, the devastation like a modern war fought 75-100 years before its time. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
III. The Injury of Intelligence, the Insult of an Education
A. Intelligence Is a Curse
As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, O’Connor’s stories are chock full of characters for whom their intelligence is a curse. Hulga almost causes her mother an existential crisis because the pleasure- reading she leaves lying around is Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?”; The Child is clearly the smartest one in the room; even The Misfit was marked off at a young age: “‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘some that can live their whole life out without asking about it an it’s other has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters’” (129). So, too, Julian.
Julian is a writer who does not write. Like Hulga, whose philosophy is solely for herself, Julian’s fantasy world is solely for himself. And he seems to know that he is not a writer—he never expects to make a life/career/money out of it—which forces us to ask: why does he identify as a writer? But before we answer that question, let’s get right to the stakes. The clue is in the title, and O’Connor doesn’t make us wait too long. Immediately after she tells her son that he should be proud that his ancestors owned hundreds of slaves, Julian’s mother gets down to commentary on civil rights: “They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence” (408, emphasis added). So, rise: yes; converge: not so much for Julian’s mother. It is no mistake that this story takes place on a bus, the public space Rosa Parks made famous and which the Supreme Court desegregated in its 1956 ruling in Browder v. Gayle, five years before this story was published; the bus, for O’Connor, is again not a metaphor for race relations, it is the thing itself. Thus, unlike for Hulga, Julian’s fate and choices are going to extend far beyond himself—to the status of racism in America, the history of slavery, and reparations therefore—although they will extend to himself, too. Perhaps O’Connor is saying that the repercussions of the choices of the two, philosopher and writer, have different stakes. Perhaps.
Which brings us back to all these emotionally fraught intellectuals here, decaying slowly, like fish out of water, in their Southern hometowns. This theme is important for O’Connor because it argues intelligence, reason itself even, can serve not as something that enlightens, but something that closes off, distances, and deceives. The dark of reason. Like The Child in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” they can only see the difference in all things, and not the sameness; there are parts of everyday life that they have utterly rejected, and thus cannot connect to; they are alienated on their own soil, homeless in their own homes. And often with good reason! Julian’s mother is an out and out racist, and she represents the norm. He should reject her racism. But, for some reason, he cannot reject her herself. And he cannot reconcile the one to the other. I love her: she’s a racist; I must reject racism: I must reject her. His very love for his mother is a source of immense guilt for Julian, and that right there is the essence of the Southern Gothic.
There is a deeper lesson here, one that we don’t really have time for, about how Julian is actually trying to inhabit two different symbolic worlds, ones with different rules that justify themselves in different ways and that are ultimately incompatible. It’s like he speaks two different languages, but thinks they’re the same one and so often gets hopelessly confused. And the truth is something like that, when we recognize that culture is like a language that sets up rules for what and how we make meaning of the world. Heidegger famously said: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells” (217). Hulga and Julian, justifiably reacting to the smallness and violence of the world they grew up in, have learned another world, but tragically cannot see their way back across the divide they have built; they’re emotionally attached, but intellectually distant, so they take refuge in that distance and decay psychologically, along with the old plantation mansion that Julian can’t help but dream about. Perhaps this is a problem O’Connor understood all too well. Her writing teacher in the Iowa MFA program had to ask her “to write down what she had just said” the first time they met her Georgia accent was so thick (vii, all emphasis mine).
B. A Martyr to the Desire of the Other; Or, that St. Sebastian Painting One More Time
When I worked in that highly suggestive, very famous painting of St. Sebastian into my lecture on Voltaire, I had totally forgotten that our erstwhile saint figured into our story for today, even though I had been reading O’Connor again over break. Sometimes the Unconscious, to paraphrase Larkin, fucks you up, but every now and again it does you a favor.
One of Julian’s fantasies is that he is a martyr to his mother. This should right away give us some pause. Take this for instance: “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him” (405). There is something deeply wrong with Julian’s relationship to his mother here; in fact, this is not a healthy relationship to have with any human being. Why on earth does Julian care what gives his mother pleasure? Shouldn’t he be happy that she is happy, despite it being over a ridiculous hat? Why would you ever arrange it so that, in the most important relationship in your entire world, anything that makes the other person happy makes you sad? That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster, death and disaster and tragedy. You don’t even have to read to the end. This is not going to end well.
To understand characters, you have to understand their motivations. This can be tricky. We can’t assume the characters are us, or anyone else but who they are. There are many possibilities for why Julian does what he does—alien mind control, for instance—but very few plausible ones. What, then, are Julian’s plausible alternatives here to his misery. Alternative one: leave his mother and move far away. He wants to be a writer? New York City, Paris, hell Houston or Atlanta: get thee hence. Anywhere but here (Hulga, too). Why, then, does he stay? We can be very, very cynical and say that Julian is broke and his mom’s supporting him. True! But not really enough. A lot of life can be lived in cheap apartments with ramen noodles, even on the commission of a typewriter salesman. This would be an excuse he would be telling himself, though we should also assume that many of the jobs he might be qualified for he would reject because they would conflict too heavily with his identity (as a writer), or just embarrass him (as being beneath him and his college education).
I think the real clue is in the saint imagery. But it’s not him who’s the saint, it’s his mother—a fair description for her achievements vis-à-vis Julian, which are not small, and which she is justly proud of. Even if taken literally, if he is suffering for his mother, as a saint, that means his mother is Jesus! His non-sacrifice of riding on a bus with his mother—“the time he would be sacrificed to her pleasure” (406)— is really her sacrifice. The problem is that, in this twisted relationship, his mother-the-saint is also a racist. Moreover, he knows that she’s not doing this for her pleasure: her doctor has told her she might die if she doesn’t become more active. Yet that’s how he frames it, which makes no sense … unless, here again, we should take this more literally than he means it: she’s staving off death, and as long as she is alive and enjoying life, then of course he cannot enjoy it. Ipso facto, he wants her to die, so he can move on. Again, her very existence is a source of guilt for him. Not because he hates her, but because he loves her.
C. The Terror of Identity; Or, Meeting Yourself Coming and Going
What does the phrase “you won’t meet yourself coming and going” (407) even mean? I had to pause at this phrase after O’Connor repeats it in the story, making sure to remember, as Professor Charara reminded us, that just because it is a cliché for the characters doesn’t mean that it is one for O’Connor. In short, it signifies a desire for uniqueness. If you do not meet yourself coming or going, you will not see someone else that looks like you on your journey.
This desire—to be singular, unique—is a pretty basic one. We all need some manner of distinguishing ourselves from others, otherwise the difference between self and other breaks down, and what it means to be uniquely our self does with it. This loss of self is, in almost all cases, terrifying for us. It is terrifying for Julian, because it is precisely what he fears in relation to his mother: he will never have his own desires, his own identity, but merely be an extension of hers, subsumed by his mother’s identity, her view of him. He will always be, as Professor Wallace discussed, an object and never a subject. (At the same time, to have nothing in common with other human beings is an opposite extreme, untenable as well. What it would even mean, to share no qualities with other people, no common bond over which you could unite, no language, aspirations, or anything else? Nothing.)
Of course, his mother does indeed meet herself going to the reducing class, in the form of a black woman with her child, angered about … something. Long story short, this woman hits Julian’s mother and storms off when she tries to give her child a penny. There is much to be wrung interpretively from whether or not it is this blow that causes his mother’s death, or Julian’s reaction to it. But I think this is a bit beside the point, much as the hat is. The truth of the situation is in Julian’s belated realization of his unacknowledged love for his mother—he calls out to her as a mother would to a child, or even a lover to their beloved, at the end, “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” (420)—and with that, his imminent “entry into the world of guilt and sorrow” (420). His coded wish for his mother’s death has been granted, but in so doing all the compromises he has made will no longer be tenable. He will, of course, blame himself for the way he acted vindictively toward her, even in her last moments, and he might even blame himself for her death.
Most of all, though, he will lose his ability to maintain that ironic distance that he has adopted toward the world, the one that has kept him locked into a fantasy world. There is compensation here: that fantasy allows him to live the life he secretly desires—not incidentally, the one where he can acknowledge his mother’s love and sacrifice, if not in word, then in deed. He does devote himself to his mother; despite what he says he is on that bus. The “in word” part is crucial here. Julian wants to be a writer because it allows him to keep an ironic distance toward the world as the detached observer who can catalogue all the worlds foibles while imagining that he is the hero setting them aright. But not in the real world, which is a bit too messy. When he imagines marrying a black woman, he tempers this fantasy by writing his fictional lover as not too black, her race only a suspicion (414). When he befriends black folk in his fantasies, it is only “the better types” (414). And when he imagines joining a sit-in, this is “possible but he did not linger with it” (414). Of course the possible is not something he lingers with! There is no ironic distance in the possible. Only jail, maybe even death. In fact, in a very real sense, Julian needs injustice to continue, because if it disappeared he would be forced to confront everything that he is fobbing off. Thus: “It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles” (412).
I think a more interesting question than whether or not the child’s mother is responsible for Julian’s mother’s death is why she is angry to begin with. Julian is probably not wrong, that negotiating the casual violence of an antiblack society has shaped her outlook, and primed her for confrontation as an understandable survival strategy (compare her to the man who buries his nose in a newspaper, learning about the world at large while ignoring the world at hand). But perhaps we should look closer to home. If you were a mother negotiating public transit with your child, might you be annoyed if a grown man—a white man, in this very specific instance—forced you to split yourself off from your young child? And, assuming that she’s as good a reader of the world as Julian is, when you realize that he’s forced you into this situation because of some tiff he’s having with his mother? Julian delights in the fact that the children have been split from their mothers; he is himself keenly aware of the dynamic at play here. But because he is trapped in his own bubble—his own decaying mansion of the mind—he cannot see that maybe she does, too. And if Julian’s desire to separate himself from his own mother is achieved in this awkward social situation, it is imposed upon the mother and her child. Yet the stakes for each are different, and Julian knows this, too. He sees it coming from a mile away, but what he can’t see is that the cause is not his mother, but himself, and he cannot see it because then he would be the one thing he cannot be, his mother. He would see himself coming and going, in her.
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——. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper Perennial, 1955.