Fierce and Dreamy Both
"We think we are kind when we are only happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds,
to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble" (49).
C. S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain (1940)
Points of Reflection
The Bible: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1. speaking of himself in the third person, Paul describes an experience he had years earlier in which he communicated with God in a paradisiacal setting. Does his uncertainty about whether he was bodily transported to heaven or whether the experience was a waking vision add or remove credence from his account?
2. Bible commentators and historians have spent much time trying to identify the specific weakness, what Paul calls "a thorn in [the] flesh," which he says was given him to keep him humble (v.6-9). The two primary possibilities considered are: 1) sexual temptation of some sort, and 2) some physical ailment which never went away. Since Paul doesn't provide his audience a definitive explanation, readers then and now are left to their own devices. Which of the two options do you prefer embracing, and why? Do you prefer a third possibility.
1. do you enjoy experiencing the Fine Arts in person (e.g. recitals, plays, concerts, museums, etc.), or do you believe a virtual, digital experience of such things to be just as rewarding?
2. do you think the Fine Arts deserve funding from local, state, and/or federal governments, or that they should only survive and thrive if they can generate enouogh funds on their own?
3. which of your fears and anxieties do you think healthy, and which maladaptive?
4. how encompassing is your definition of beauty, as pertains to the Arts?
5. can you identify a negative, or even traumatic, experience that seemed unbearable at the time, but appears invaluable in retrospect?
Flannery O'Connor's talk "The Teaching of Literature" (date unidentified) / PDF (print out & bring to class)
1. O'Connor notes that folk jump into a novel for an array of different reasons, and tend to judge the book's merits by whether they find what they seek (122). What do you tend to look for in a story, whether it's conveyed via the page or the screen?
2. what does O'Connor mean by the claim that fiction should "embody mystery through manners" (124)? Specifically, what does she mean by "mystery" (124-25) and what by "manners" (124)?
3. do you agree that western education now attempts to express most truths with "figures" (i.e. numbers) whenever possible (124-25), that it tends to devalue abstract and intangible truths relative to those certainties that can be weighed and measured?
4. recall your own literary education in secondary school. Does your experience map onto any of the strategies used by teachers to "ignore the nature of literature, but continue to teach the subject" (125)? Did any of your middle school or high school teachers: 1) privilege literary history over literary analysis (125-26), 2) focus on the author's life and psychology more than the motivation of the characters in question (126), or 3) use a story primarily as a way of talking about a social problem (126)?
5. consider O'Connor's claims that the "form of a story gives it meaning which any other form would change" and that "the proper study of a novel [or story]" involves "contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not of some proposition or paraphrase . . . of an expressible moral or statement about life" (129, emphasis added). How can readers go about seriously, intently discussing a given narrative and yet avoid reducing it to a sound bite? Is this possible, in our day and age?
6. O'Connor holds that the real explanation for the proliferation of freaks and violence in modern fiction lies not in statistics but in the author's "examination of conscience" (130). What does she mean?
7. similarly, O'Connor maintains that poverty is a common subject in the fiction of her time not just because socioeconomic poverty is ubiquitous, but because material poverty functions as a symbol for that "poverty fundamental to man . . . the experience of human limitation" (131-33). Is this true of storytelling in the twenty-first century? Do depictions of poverty in contemporary fiction, film, and television tend to signify something more than what they literally denote, or do we only render scenes of poverty in story so as to identify a material problem that human ingenuity can one day, completely and utterly, solve?
8. does the following assertion by O'Connor suggest that she employs "freaks" in her fiction primarily for symbolic purposes? "The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state. The only time he should be disturbing to us is when he is held up as a whole man" (133).
Flannery O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" (1954), 197-209
1. upon what criteria does our twelve-year-old, unnamed protagonist rely when deciding that her older, second cousins are intellectually inferior to herself?
2. besides intellectism, of what other –isms and failings is the child guilty, and is she aware of these faults in herself?
3. under what circumstances is the clause “I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost” first introduced in this tale, and what does the child make of it?
4. does the child’s creative imagination serve her well?
5. why does the child’s mother invite the Wilkins boys, Wendell and Cory, to hang out with her nieces?
6. the child thinks these two boys stupid because they do not know Latin and are unfamiliar with the "Tantum Ergo," the final verses of the "Pange Lingua" written by Thomas Aquinas (c.1264). Is the subject matter of this eucharistic hymn at odds with the content of the Protestant hymns sung by the boys?
7. what four occupations does the child consider for herself, and which does she currently think best? Why?
8. though the child usually says her prayers automatically, sometimes her mind strays to and lingers upon what particular, pictorial narrative?
9. what is the unnamed condition of the “freak” whom the two girls see at the fair? What attitude does this individual adopt towards the condition in question?
10. as the child mentally plays back her cousins’ account of the "freak," what new elements does she insert into it? Does her imagination turn the event into something resembling more a Catholic mass or Protestant revival, and what is the tone of the reimagined scene?
11. immediately following her prayer to behave with less ugliness towards others, the child notices the Host (bread, symbolizing Christ’s body in the Eucharist/Communion) and envisions the freak (208-209). Can you trace any thematic connections among these three narrative elements?
12. tackle the latent symbolism of this story’s final line.
"The Vertebrated Cavern," series of decals
gouache on black paper
Dr. Paul Marchbanks