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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Borrowing from Robert Coles

This week I reread Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles, published in 1993.

Who and what is Robert Coles? "Social scientist, humanist, political activist, psychiatrist, minstrel, wandering storyteller, mystic, wise man, poet, dissenter, and yes, I'll use the word, secular saint." (Andrew Greeley, Chicago Tribune)

I will add to this that Robert Coles is my hero!

It is late Sunday night and I am in a borrowing mood. The following is the first page of the preface to Flannery O'Connor's South. If anyone in power at Loyola University had read this book, would Flannery's name have been removed from a building there?

"For more than thirty years now…I have been keeping company with Flannery O'Connor's fictional characters….Each year at Harvard, I bring her voice and vision, her wonderfully drawn characters to the attention of my students (medical, undergraduate, business), and we respond to the provocative ironies and the edifying paradoxes she poses for her readers. As one medical student told me, "You're not quite the same after you're finished with her." He stopped and took note of the way he had just spoken. He had left out the penultimate word "reading" and in so doing, he had spoken rather more suggestively than he had perhaps intended. Then he decided to be playful…. "Actually, I could put it this way. You're not quite the same after she's finished with you!"

"I thought at the time, and still do, that Flannery O'Connor would have loved that remark. She had such an eye for human complexity; she could fit that complexity into the plain, ordinary, blunt idiom of everyday life. She was unashamedly assertive, if not truculent, in certain important respects. And yes, she did want us all to be done with a lot of peculiar nonsense that has been touted in this century as a kind of breakthrough knowledge, even wisdom. She also wanted to make clear her impatience, her annoyance even, with those of us who are eternally gullible…ready to worship new idols even before the old ones have lost their grip on us. So that medical student was right to more than hint at the powerfully insistent side of O'Connor's voice, which was a determination, I often think, to grab ahold (aholt) of us twentieth-century readers…. It was her hope, I suspect, that a lot of us would be "finished" after meeting up with, say, Sheppard of "The Lame Shall Enter First," or Julian of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," or Hulga of "Good Country People." They are all the same person, and Miss O'Connor would be the first to remind us that she had met that person in the mirror, even as she hoped we'd be lucky enough to catch more than a glimpse of ourselves through whatever self-reflection those relentlessly incisive stories might prompt in us."

O'Connor's power as a storyteller is lacerating. This is the word Coles uses. At the core of every story Flannery wrote is the word pride, the sin of sins; a treacherous self-satisfaction that for O'Connor spells spiritual doom. And pride she shows us, does not discriminate by race, creed, class, sex, or national origin. More than any writer I have read, Flannery makes me laugh while I am being lacerated! Do treat yourself to the collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

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