Monday, July 26, 2010

The sins of Oscar Wilde and the sins of Flannery O'Connor

I'm sitting in the kitchen of my sister Sue Marie's place listening to the sounds of early morning birds and insects, examining my life. Each day is a gift, of this I am aware. And I piss away as many gifted hours as I embrace. In this I am Everyman. Yet having died to Christ in the waters of baptism, I am keenly aware, each day and each hour even as I piss the gift of time away, of the ineluctable lure of the new life, the new order of grace, into which I have been born and in which I find the new Rae who walks in the garden with the new Adam and the new Eve.

And it hurts, this straddling of two worlds. Every human being feels it, and calls it by different names according to how he or she interprets the human experiment itself.

I am reading two books at the moment, both of which shed their own light on the pain of the straddling. The Abbess of Andalusia, by Lorraine Murray, examines Flannery O'Connor's life as a believer. The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde edited by Richard Ellman, presents a selection of WIlde's critical writings, after an excellent introduction to the life and times of the man and writer.

Flannery O'Connor interprets the human experiment as the Catholic Church interprets it; as I interpret it: We are created by the good, Triune God who created the universe itself. We are created for His Glory and our own. As a race, we fell under the spell of temptation and sin, rejecting our Creator and His ordering of our lives towards goodness, truth and beauty. He took our own form -- His Second Person, the Son, was born of the Virgin Mary as a true man. He -- the Christ, born Jesus -- undertook a restoration of our innocence. He repudiated our rejection of the Creator and in our name accepted the original ordering of human life towards goodness, truth and beauty. An innocent-- the new Adam teaching and healing in the world of fallen, warped and wounded men --he paid the price imposed on innocence by men and women everywhere under the spell of sin - the price of humiliation and death. But by that very act of surrendering his innocence up to whatever guilty men and fallen spirits might concoct to destroy the Creator's ordering of all things,Christ the Word made Flesh brought about the powerful breaking of the bonds of sin and death and set off the chain of events that brought complete restoration of human creature with Creator. The Kingdom of God broke into the mundane world of men in a dazzling manifestation of the new Life now offered to men and women through the Body of Christ extended in time and space - the Church with its way (imitation of Christ), truth (teachings) and life (sacramental grace).

Flannery's straddling of the worlds in her writing and in her life is always consonant with the way in which the Church interprets reality. In every human action in the mundane world, Flannery perceived a struggle between good and evil, between the new creation and the old one that labors still under the spell of sin and temptation. Grace is offered in the crux of the struggle - grace accepted or rejected, in fiction as in life.

For Oscar Wilde, sin and temptation are tools of the artist in his quest for transcendence, which requires liberation from all that is shallow and conventional (ie. mundane). Influenced heavily by the philosophies explicated by Walter Pater and others, Wilde (although flirting with Catholicism) gave his heart and, possibly, his soul for a time to the search for transcendence of the soul through transgressive experience and raw sensation of the body, as a means of fulfilling the artist's highest calling, which is beyond good and evil. If this last sounds like Nietzsche, it's because Wilde covered much of Nietzsche's philosophical ground first. In the introduction to The Critic as Artist, Ellmann writes:

"Andre Gide found Nietzsche less exciting because he had read Wilde, and Thomas Mann in one of his last essays remarks almost with chagrin on how many of Nietzsche's aphorisms might have been expressed by Wilde, and how many of Wilde's by Nietzsche. What I think can be urged for Wilde then, is that for his own reasons and in his own way he laid the basis for many critical positions which are still debated in much the same terms, and which we like to attribute to more ponderous names."

It moves me to read about Flannery and Wilde. Flannery explored the depths of trangressive experience also, in her writing. She had as little use for convention as Wilde -- less so, in fact, because Wilde although rejecting the conventions of his culture was very much committed to adhering to the conventions of transgressive conversation and shocking wit that made him the darling of the drawing and dining rooms. Flannery shocked the conventional reader and critic by the force of the grotesqueries of her imagination as put down on paper. In company, she was reserved; in her behavior, courteous. Wilde shocked not just in his writing but in his speech and in his flaunting of his culture's mores.

What kept O'Connor grounded was her fierce commitment to Catholicism. The prohibitions against sexual profligacy was not, for Flannery O'Connor, a repressive cultural convention that prevented her from exploring transcendence through experience -- it was a wise teaching of a human institution founded by the Transcendent Human Being himself, the new Adam, the Christ, firstborn of the dead. If Flannery had lived in a culture where sexual profligacy is a perfectly acceptable cultural convention -- a culture like our own, for example - she still would have been firecely committed to sexual temperance. For the Catholic, the surrounding culture may or may not hold conventions that are consonant with the New Life. It may or may not promote the classic virtues. It matters not. The committed Catholic's loyalty -- and this goes for the artist as well as the humblest worker -- is towards the gospel, the New Creation, the Kingdom of God, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

Poor Oscar Wilde. But he made his peace in the end, and found his way into the sheepfold. Flannery's life and writings shine out as a sterling example of how the artist is not compromised by religious truth, but liberated. She knew herself to be a sinner, and regretted it. She took the Church's remedies for sin. Wilde knew himself to be a sinner, and reveled in it for a time. He came late to the Church's remedies, and suffered great pain as both an artist and a man for his mistaken notion of the absolute value of flaunting convention.

No comments: