Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Friday, July 27, 2007

Priests, doctors, and artists . . . Oh my!

I revisited one of my all-time favorite short stories the other day and found it even more brilliant than I remembered. Flannery O'Connor's story, "The Enduring Chill," is a small masterpiece. I love the spare yet vivid prose, the wry tone, and the virtuosic use of free indirect discourse, but part of what makes the story so unforgettable for me is that -- of all O'Connor's characters -- Asbury, the main character of "The Enduring Chill," is the one with whom I most identify. I'm older now, and a bit wiser perhaps, but Asbury's sins are still my sins. I'm not much for public confessions, but we're all sinners, aren't we?

So let me tell you about Asbury. He's a young man in perhaps his early twenties who returns from college and a stint in New York to his mother, his older sister, and the Georgia dairy and farmhouse where he grew up. He is a failed writer who scorns the traditions in which he was reared and despises the mother who rendered him -- according to his own self-serving narrative -- impotent as an artist. He has diagnosed himself with an incurable illness and has come home to die. He's looking forward to it, since his death provides him with a final opportunity to do something "significant" and to get back at his mother at the same time.

It's clear that he's very sick, but it's not clear what's causing the illness, and when the "down home" country doctor vows to get to the bottom of it, Asbury pronounces his illness to be beyond the doctor's meager skill.

In a way, Asbury's illness is beyond Dr. Block, but it is even further beyond Asbury himself. He yearns, on what he considers his death bed, for a "significant experience," a moment of sudden revelation and harmony, and he expects that significant experience to come to him in the form of a Joycean epiphany. That kind of epiphany is, of course, entirely literary and secular, and -- as Asbury imagines it -- is enabled by his own subtle aesthetic sensibility.

Partly to annoy his mother, and partly to preen intellectually before of the mirror of his own consciousness, he insists that his mother call a Catholic priest to his bedside. Remembering a clever and worldly Jesuit he has met in New York, he hopes to have a conversation with someone who can appreciate him.

He wants an audience and a choir. He wants the priest to behave like an artist -- after all, isn't that what the best of them are? -- but Father Finn, "from Purgatory," has the effrontery to behave like a priest:

"It's so nice to have you come, Asbury said. "This place is incredibly dreary. There's no one here an intelligent person can talk to. I wonder what you think of Joyce, Father?"

The priest lifted his chair and pushed closer. "You'll have to shout," he said. "Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear."

"What do you think of Joyce?" Asbury said louder.

"Joyce? Joyce who?" asked the priest.

"James Joyce," Asbury said and laughed.

The priest brushed his huge hand in the air as if he were bothered by gnats. "I haven't met him," he said. "Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers?"

Asbury appeared confused. "Joyce was a great writer," he murmured, forgetting to shout.

"You don't, eh?" said the priest. "Well, you will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. "You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to him."

"The myth of the dying god has always fascinated me," Asbury shouted, but the priest did not appear to catch it.

"Do you have trouble with purity?" he demanded, and as Asbury paled, he went on without waiting for an answer. "We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it. Mind, heart, and body. Nothing is overcome without prayer. Pray with your family. Do you pray with your family?"

"God forbid," Asbury murmured. "My mother doesn't have time to pray and my sister is an atheist," he shouted.

"A shame!" said the priest. "Then you must pray for them."

"The artist prays by creating," Asbury ventured.

"Not enough!" snapped the priest. "If you do not pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul. Do you know your catechism?"

The authority of the priest as priest has -- as I've argued elsewhere -- eroded over the course of the last century, but here I think O'Connor both acknowledges that erosion and suggests the price we pay for it. And, just for fun, she lets the priests get a little of their own back.

I won't reveal how the story ends, except to say that O'Connor deftly blends both a literary epiphany and an epiphany of a rather different sort, in a way that recognizes a debt to Joyce even while it points beyond him -- and beyond all artists, doctors, and priests.


Blogger Withywindle said...

Something else to put on my reading list ...

July 27, 2007 6:39 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

I hope you like it, Withywindle.

July 27, 2007 7:15 PM  

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