Monday, May 21, 2007

O'Connor, Dostoyevsky, and Milton: An Insight

Reading in Brother Karamazov last week brought a multi-textual insight. Zossima's "moment of grace" that turned him to his life as a monk was a revelation that came after brooding on his beating of his servant the night before he, Zossima, was going to duel a man who married the woman he (Zossima) was in love with:

"What's the meaning of it?" I thought. "I feel in my heart as itwere something vile and shameful. Is it because I am going to shedblood? No," I thought, "I feel it's not that. Can it be that I amafraid of death, afraid of being killed? No, that's not it, that's notit at all."... And all at once I knew what it was: it was because Ihad beaten Afanasy the evening before! It all rose before my mind,it all was, as it were, repeated over again; he stood before me andI was beating him straight on the face and he was holding his armsstiffly down, his head erect, his eyes fixed upon me as though onparade. He staggered at every blow and did not even dare to raisehis hands to protect himself. That is what a man has been broughtto, and that was a man beating a fellow creature! What a crime! It wasas though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through. I stood as if Iwere struck dumb, while the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicingand the birds were trilling the praise of God.... I hid my face inmy hands, fell on my bed and broke into a storm of tears. And then Iremembered by brother Markel and what he said on his death-bed tohis servants: "My dear ones, why do you wait on me, why do you loveme, am I worth your waiting on me?""Yes, am I worth it?" flashed through my mind. "After all whatam I worth, that another man, a fellow creature, made in thelikeness and image of God, should serve me?" For the first time inmy life this question forced itself upon me. He had said, "Mother,my little heart, in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it'sonly that men don't know this. If they knew it, the world would be aparadise at once.""God, can that too be false?" I thought as I wept. "In truth,perhaps, I am more than all others responsible for all, a greatersinner than all men in the world." And all at once the whole truthin its full light appeared to me: what was I going to do? I wasgoing to kill a good, clever, noble man, who had done me no wrong, andby depriving his wife of happiness for the rest of her life, Ishould be torturing and killing her too. I lay thus in my bed withmy face in the pillow, heedless how the time was passing.

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My belief/satisfaction with Zossima's change of heart is informed by Flannery O'Connor and John Milton. O'Connor maintains that she uses violence in her fictions because violence has a way of turning her characters to realize their fallenness and "prepar[es] them to accept their moment of grace."

Now, reading Zossima's story brought O'Connor to mind, and in turn brought Milton to mind to explain O'Connor's use of violence. Maybe it's too simple, but here's the thought: violence, or an enlightened experience with it, moves Zossima and works in O'Connor's paradigm because violence is the convergence of sin and death, the two "ugly" problems that challenge human life. Milton personifies the pair in Paradise Lost:

Meanwhile in Paradise the Hellish pair
Too soon arrived—Sin, there in power before
Once actual, now in body, and to dwell
Habitual habitant; behind her Death,
Close following pace for pace, not mounted yet
On his pale horse;

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Beside this primary insight, is the reinforcement of another insight: that texts inform their readers as they inform each other; the interplay between texts brings increased life to each text.


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