Here’s an interesting character from a late story by Flannery O’Connor. The story is called “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” and it was published in Esquire in 1963, a year before O’Connor’s early death.
Walter is the 28-year-old son of Tilman and his wife; he lives at home with his parents and his older sister on a Southern estate. Walter’s mother is a hard woman, “the last of the nineteenth century.” Tilman has recently suffered a stroke. The story opens with Tilman’s return home from the hospital after a two-week stay. “Only his left eye, twisted inward, seemed to harbor his former personality. It burned with rage.”
The smoldering rage of Tilman and the nineteenth century hardness of his wife stand in stark contrast with Walter. “He had not done anything,” his unnamed mother laments. “He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia.” Walter is a modern man.
The mother is struck and offended by Walter’s lack of direction, his lack of commitment, and even Walter himself recognizes his mother as his better: “A woman of your generation,” Walter said, “is better than a man of mine.” Walter’s only virtue, indeed the only virtue of his entire generation according to him, is that “it ain’t ashamed to tell the truth about itself.”
Walter’s lost-ness is portrayed as a generational trait, and indeed he shares some features with the nearly contemporaneous characters in Beckett who have lost their way. For example, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Walter “had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.” But unlike Beckett, O’Connor seems to see nothing either tragic or comic in this attitude. Rather, Walter’s nihilistic lack of commitment is deeply dangerous:
The man she saw courted good and evil impartially and saw so many sides of every question that he could not move, he could not work, he could not even make niggers work. Any evil could enter that vacuum. God knows, she thought and caught her breath, God knows what he might do!
Walter’s honesty about himself extends even to his own vacuum-like lack of identity. Although he writes letters frequently, he refuses to sign his real name to them. “He amused himself writing letters to people he did not know and to the newspapers,” O’Connor writes. “Under different names and using different personalities, he wrote to strangers.” This “peculiar, small, contemptible vice” deeply bothers his mother. It draws a bright line between Walter, the generation after her, and her father and grandfather from the generations before. They were men of morals who knew themselves. By contrast, “It was impossible to tell what Walter knew or what his views were on anything.”
In short, there is nothing either intense or meaningful at all to Walter’s life. His lack of commitment contrasts severely with the boldness and courage that Nietzsche finds in the Homeric age, and even with the certitude and moral direction that Walter’s mother finds in the generations of men before her. Everyone can recognize this as a woeful state; the question is what to do about it.
Here is where O’Connor’s odd obsession makes its appearance. For the story is set up from the start to go in one of two ways. Either Walter’s lack of commitment will become the embodiment of evil, or the father’s death will be the resurrection of the son. If the resurrection does occur, then it will only be because it takes this kind of violent, ruinous episode to bring people out of their spiritual stupor. Indeed, the mother in the story hopes it will work precisely this way: “Justice was grim and she took satisfaction in it when she found it. It might take just this ruin to wake Walter up.”
Walter may not get woken up – we don’t know. The story ends before we can find out, and the larger book from which it is an excerpt was never completed. But the connection between violence and salvation is consistent throughout. For the odd revelation at the end of the story, which we are led to believe is a hopeful one for Walter, is that he has been reading a biblical version of love in St. Jerome according to which love must be full of anger, a version according to which Jesus is a General with a sword in his mouth, “marching to do violence”.
Is this kind of violence – either in the ruinous death of the father or in an anger-filled love – what is necessary to wake us up from our stupor? Are we as spiritually stupid as all that?
This may be a fairly surface and obvious observation, but I am struck by how much O’Conner’s Walter resembles Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot. You have the multifaceted mastery without content, both Walter and Rameau’s Nephew seem brilliant in their own right whether it is the nephew’s ability to mimic great styles and works of art or Walter’s ability to see every side of an issue. Yet, in each case the brilliance and mastery is sterile and leads to no original outcome whether in a work of real art or a decisive action. They are both similarly neutral when it comes to good and evil, although the nephew seems to view things from an aesthetic standpoint and Walter from an intellectual one. They even share similar eccentricity, the letter writing in the voices of others to people Walter doesn’t know sounds like a reflection of the nephew’s own mimicries devoid of an independent personal voice. The major difference may be that Diderot seems to think Rameau’s nephew is utterly beyond “saving” where O’Conner holds out some hope that Walter may “wake up”. I wonder, however, if “waking up” is the real issue here. One way, perhaps, to read both the nephew and Walter is in terms of a surplus of awareness and self-consciousness. They are so aware, see and understand so much, that single pointed action, creation or thought becomes impossible. In this they resemble, perhaps, certain readings of Hamlet. If this is the case, what is necessary is not a waking up (caused, perhaps, by some violent shock) but rather a forgetting, whether it be a self-forgetting or a forgetting of some of the possibilities so painfully apparent to these characters.
Thanks for the observation, William. I haven’t read Rameau’s Nephew in years, so the comparison didn’t occur to me.
You’re certainly right that there are some surface similarities between the two figures. That said, I’d be surprised if there is anything deep in common between a Diderot character and a Flannery O’Connor character. O’Connor’s account of the good life seems to me so tightly tied to her conception of religious salvation, and Diderot’s account is so divorced from any such concept, that even if the two characters have lots of similar surface features I imagine they must mean radically different things in the two cases.
The question about Walter, for example, is whether he will be able to *commit* to anything, and related to that whether he will be able to achieve an identity. The relevant axis is commitment/lack of commitment – like in Kierkegaard, for example. The axis for Diderot must be something different – something along the lines of Enlightenment rationality and morality vs. irrationality and immorality.
But I haven’t gone back to re-read the Diderot, so let me know if I’ve got it wrong.
Absolutely, O’Conner and Diderot are going to be working from radically different worldviews. I wonder, however, if they might not be trying to address the same “spiritual malaise” from very different positions?
Your post got me thinking about the behavior I see around an office. Everyone has some kind of gadget(s) in their purse or pocket, which gets whipped out more or less as an extension of the body. I can think back over the past week to a couple of gals sharing giggles and their favorite ring tones with their smart phones; individuals listening to music or playing some kind of app on their something or another with speaker wires coming and going out of their ears; or folks on break with their PC playing some computer game which generally involves animated violence presented with all the computer power at todays disposal.
Walter to his credit at least amused himself by fabricating his own content in a confused world – yet today’s technological crutch seemingly stifles even that, rather gathering the technological everyone to some ring tone, app, song or game.
The New York Times posted on Sunday “Your Brain on Computers – Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html It may support some of the observations I made here.. Of course, all I did was read the first 1-1/2 of 5 pages – Walter might have done better. No worries though, I bookmarked it…
Dean: I saw that article too. Made me wonder whether it’s right to encourage that kind of lack of focus – in myself and others – by writing a blog.