Jewish World Review Dec. 29, 2003 / 4 Teves 5764
A letter from Flannery O'Conner
SUBIACO, Ark. Some years ago, I found a way to get out of writing a speech whenever asked to appear before students like the ones here at Subiaco Academy.
I ask the students to submit a list of questions. Then I choose the ones that sound most interesting and respond to them. That way, the students get to hear their questions addressed, and I can just talk instead of speechifying.
Which is how I wound up talking about Flannery O'Connor here at Subiaco. All because one student wanted to know if a law against desecrating the flag as a form of protest wouldn't violate an American's freedom of speech. Good question.
My response: No, because the desecration would not be speech but action - like burning a cross. Over the years I've tried to explain this simple distinction ever so patiently to the Supreme Court of the United States, but to no avail. The court remains adamant in its opinion to the contrary.
Which is no surprise. Hasn't the Supreme Court ruled that even a striptease joint can't be shut down because the striptease, too, is a form of freedom of expression?
Soon the students and I were into the question of what the lawyers call symbolic speech. But the flag is more than a symbol, it's a presence. And so merits special protection.
When does a symbol become a Symbol, a Presence? Flannery O'Connor came closest to answering that question in one of her splendid letters. She was writing a friend of hers about a soiree she'd attended as a student at the University of Iowa's writers' workshop:
"I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, "A Charmed Life.") She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.
That about says whatever can be said about the unsayable - the ineffable. It also explains why to talk of some things, like the flag or a transforming religious ritual, as "just a symbol" has always struck me as, well, inadequate. It may be just a symbol to those who can take it or leave it, but not to those of us who revere it. Saying the flag is just a symbol is like speaking of the Bible as just a book.
That wasn't the last appearance Flannery O'Connor put in at this literary weekend at Subiaco. The abbot, hearing me quote her, was kind enough to share a letter she'd written one of the brothers in 1963 after he'd sent her a copy of the abbey's newsletter.
Written on an old typewriter that needed cleaning, it was a short letter but pure Flannery in her best upset-all-applecarts way, complete with typographical errors and a few uncomfortable truths. The point of reading Flannery O'Connor is not to be comforted in our complacency but to be shaken out of it.
After all these years, her letter was still provocative. Her point: "I don't think the state of American Catholic fiction is going to improve until our people become Bible-readers . . . ."
What she said about American Catholic writers could apply to American writers in general. We separate the English language from its roots in the King James Bible, and then wonder why so much of today's writing is shallow.
A rabbi once told me that the surest sign of the Presence was surprise - and delight. A letter from Flannery O'Connor, no matter how long it took to get to you, is both.
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