Monday, September 07, 2009

Happy to Be at Odds
With Rest of Society

'You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.'
--the late writer Flannery O'Connor. We think this is perhaps the best explanation we've ever come across of why intellectuals and other ravenous-minded folks are sometimes so out of step with the larger culture around them. You can learn about a foundation dedicated to keeping her memory alive and a short fiction award named in her honor.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

they are the most interesting folks. I always say they are here to do what they were born to do - odd or not.

At 4:59 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it, Diane. There may be no greater cause of misery than doing something other than what you were intended to do. Of course, some people have a terrible time figuring out just what that should be.

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Scott Crawford said...

Hmmmm. Y'know, it's funny, John, but a little part of me wonders if Flannery might flinch just a little at the notion that she can somehow be used to explain the ways of intellectuals.

Have adored her work ever since being introduced in college. Thanks for stirring the fond soup.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Scott, how nice to see you stopping by. I've liked her work too, and decided to do without the ubiquitous description of her as a "Catholic" writer or a "southern" writer, which always seemed more like a putdown than anything. She's just a great writer, one who earned her way into the canon, and she had a major influence on many writers, among which included one of my favorites, Walker Percy.

I take your point about intellectuals, but let me stipulate that I was using that word carefully, and not in the incorrect way it's come to be thought of as a synonym for "sophisticated" or for someone who holds fancy college degrees (and of course I added the hungry minded description to emphasize this). I meant it simply in the sense of someone who processes the world as much in their head as externally, and of course someone who is endlessly inquisitive (and thus tends to read a lot). In that sense, I don't think she'd have any problem with it at all, because of course that described her completely.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Eccentricity merely for the sake of being eccentric is not to be applauded: it is mere anti-fashion, merely anti-something-or-other.

Genuine eccentricity is a reflection of authentic personality in that strong personality traits cannot be suppressed. You don't act weird because you want to act weird, rather you act yourself because you want to be yourself, and what you are is out-of-step with everyone else's expectations of how they think you're supposed to act.

Story of my life.

And that's what I think O'Connor meant.

And I think it can be taken to a deeper level still: There is something very Camus-like in this comment, in that it underlines how the authentic person who has confronted the true absurdity of life can act as they genuinely need to act, because what they have realized is that we as individuals are not odd, but that all of life is odd, is absurd. A related saying goes, "In an insane world, sane people appear insane." Camus spent a lot of his writing on this.

There is also a Zen-like element to the comment. I am reminded of an old Japanese samurai saying that goes, "When you know you are going to die, you can do anything." That is, you can do more than you or society thinks you can: you can break all of The Rules: you can take on your enemies with your full attention, fierceness, and power. You are acting our of your true, authentic self, and ignoring all the cultural rules that normally keep that self under wraps. When you know that no matter what you do, you are going to die, you are truly free: you can do whatever you need to do, because you'll die anyway.

Not a bad rule for life. Jung would call this the opus, the true work: finding the authentic self amidst all the shadows and mirrors, integrating that into one's true self, and acting from that place. That can certainly make one seem odd, to others.

(On the other hand, the verification word here was ironically absurd: wisese)

At 3:08 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That is absolutely the sense in which O'Connor meant it, because the idea of her trying to be eccentric merely for the sake of eccentricity is utterly foreign to everything we know about her life and personality.

Interesting tie to Camus. I never thought of that--and of course they were approximate contemporaries, and for all I know she might well have been deeply influenced by him (any guesses about that, Scott?).

Lastly, any comment that considers O'C, Camus and Jung together will always get my attention. Thanks for adding so much value to the discussion, Art.

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Shannon said...

Those who earnestly seek the truth and observe all that is around them - as objectively as is possible - perhaps that is what the truth is. But there's that pesky word, objective, which really just seems to spoil it all. But I suppose the truth is still all relative there, right?

I agree, John, that O'Connor really does know the ways of the intellectuals. Even if she doesn't mean to characterize all of them with that one sentence, I'm sure most of us can agree that truth/eccentricities do go in hand. Thanks for the reminder, I must go read some O'Connor.

At 11:51 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Shannon, I hope you'll come back and let us know what you think of her writing after you've checked it out. And good luck on that writing project you told me about last time we chatted. Thanks for stopping by.


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