Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ozick, O'Connor, and What Literature is For

I loved my time in graduate school, but eventually grew weary, as many have, with the political, deconstructionist theory that dominates the academy. As fascinating as Derrida and Foucault and company are at first encounter, they didn't satisfy me in the end because they failed at tending my literary flame, so to speak.

Here's what I mean: I was moved to study literature, while an undergrad, because of its ability to answer one simple question: How is it that we should live? This is not the same question, I found out, as "What is the power structure of society?" or "What categories of people are the bad guys?" These are, ultimately, the only questions that critical theory asks. Its gaze is fundamentally outward, whereas literature's sustaining value is that it demands that we look inward, with the aim of understanding ourselves. Only then, once we know the personal, can we proceed to answer the social, political issues that theory raises.

With that prelude, I offer two recent essays that do exactly what good literary criticism must do, if it wants to nourish us--connect literature with our inner lives. Here's a fantastic essay by David Griffith at the Paris Review on Flannery O'Connor's long-ish short story "The Displaced Person." Griffith gets moral in his essay without getting heavy-handed, no small feat, by connecting O'Connor's story with our current situation of the treatment of "displaced people," namely, refugees. At the heart of the essay, as with any essay on O'Connor worth its weight, is her Catholic faith, which rejects, in the story and our time, our natural human inclination to turn away those who appear at our door in need.

Cynthia Ozick has the cover essay in today's (Dec. 20) New York Times Book Review. She connects our impulse to tell stories (gossip, as she frequently calls it), both to the sin that cast us Adam and Eve out of Eden and to our ability to understand ourselves. Storytelling, gossip, literature, what have you--it's the mark of our fallen-ness, but it also might save us, as she says at the close of her piece, because it leads us to that "self-conscious and vulnerable organ that humanity once dared (defiantly, subversively) to call Soul--where gossip longs to tread." The essay probably could have been written in half the words, but when you're as well respected as Ozick, that's neither here nor there.

It's worth noting that both of these authors write from perspectives deeply informed by their respective religions--O'Connor by Catholicism, Ozick by Judaism. This is all fuel for my thoughts on the relationship between narrative and religious faith, which I've explored in recent posts. Can we speak of faith without speaking of story, and of story without speaking of the soul, and so, essentially, of faith? I grow less and less convinced that there is a way of disentangling the two.

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