Monday, June 8, 2009

but, you can't get any poorer than dead

Today's recommendation is Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear it Away.

When I was about 18, I read J.L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, which is one of the shortest philosophy texts ever written, and the easiest to understand, and the most endearingly titled. It is about performative speech acts. When speaking becomes doing. When you christen a ship or bet on the outcome of an event or marry 2 people. I have come back to it at several points in my life (see: "Short, easy to understand") and I'm coming back to it now. And I find it a useful frame through which to understand O'Connor's final novel, which deals with the fraught execution of a performative speech act Austin never discusses: baptism.

I romanticize the south. My parents are from the south, more or less. I was born there. Even though I grew up in New Jersey, I became a real person in the bastardized south - Florida - and have spent many formative summer evenings of my life on Amtrak trains in motion, speeding through crystallized slices of time and space and Carolinas. So, I have a perfectly good notion of what I think the South is and should be, and I suppose I seek that out in my reading. Sorry if that's regionalist. I was once accused of regionalism in a regionalist writing class in college.

The Violent Bear it Away teems with rage and explosions (metaphorical and literal). The rage and explosions coalesce around the tension between rationalism and Something Else, something atavistic and instinctive that was once called holy; between city and country; between knowing and believing. Then, of course, O'Connor presents each dichotomy with farcical distance and textually raised eyebrows. I'm not sure I liked that.

In the end, a novel - a story of destructive inner and external turmoil - is mounted over the act of uttering a few words and sprinkling a few drops of water; or, whatever you take Baptism to be (it is obvious from this review how I feel about evangelism). In a larger, meta sense, the story's existence seems a performative act of some sort itself. Here is where I always lose sight of what a performative speech act may or may not be. Thus, I will leave it to you, dear Blog Readers.


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