Susan Sontag and a Valentine for Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s stories stir a natural absurd mix of violence and comedy. Characters argue and alienate themselves from one another. They have difficulty communicating, and they torment one another. Yet, throughout the stories, we find humor – comedy in situation, language, and setting. What better day to read a Flannery story than Valentine Day?

In O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back,” Parker, having experienced the epiphany at the scene of the tractor crash, drives straight to the tattoo parlor, where he’s a frequent visitor, yet the tattooist at first doesn’t recognize Parker, and there’s humor in their brief exchange, Parker calling out that surely the tattooist must know him. “You must have been in jail” the tattooist says. “Married,” Parker answers.

That “The world of the absurd delighted her” (Sally Fitzgerald) is clear in any reading of Flannery’s stories. Albert Camus also delighted in the absurd. But it’s Susan Sontag who best illuminates “Parker’s Back.” Borrowing Sontag’s terms, from her essay on Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, Parker is body, and Sarah, his wife – well, is not body, but what is she?

Sarah dislikes color, and color, for Flannery, is sacramental raiment; her stories create a collage of peacock feathers. “Christian asceticism,” O. Brown writes, “can carry punishment of the fallen body to heights inconceivable to Plato, but Christian hope is for the redemption of that fallen body.” Sarah, who is “saved,” rejects Parker’s vestmented body. “…by putting his ideas in the framework of Christian eschatology,” Sontag tells us, “…Brown’s analysis, by allying itself with some of the submerged promises of Christian eschatology, opens up the possibility of a psychoanalytic theory of history which does not simply reduce cultural history to the psychology of individuals.”

Of course, Sontag also gave us this – from “Against Interpretation”: “…interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art…it is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’” Happy Valentine Day, Flannery.

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