A few years ago, I started trying to read some of the books that Flannery O’Connor had read, the ones that seemed to have the deepest impact on her. This project has led me to some wonderful books, and deeply humbled me. Damn, O’Connor wasn’t only wickedly funny and a terrific writer, she was incredibly smart.
I’ve gotten to read I & Thou by Martin Buber, and started The Divine Milieu by Teilhard de Chardin (which is great, but very difficult bedtime reading) but I think my favorite book that O’Connor has led me to is The Notebooks of Simone Weil. This book isn’t actually included in Resources of Being (this is a wonderful book that includes the titles that were in O’Connor’s library, including her marginalia—I love love love this book). She had borrowed it from her friend Betty Hester, who had warned O’Connor, “The margin is for the Holy Ghost.” (Hester was a terrific reader herself and wanted to be a writer—this line makes me sad that she didn’t ever achieve that goal.)
O’Connor, like many other people, was both attracted to Weil and repulsed by her. Weil was a philosopher, a devout Christian who refused to join the Church (and who rejected the notion of Providence, building her view of God on his absence in creation), and a radical. She was clumsy and headstrong. She refused to allow any gaps between her beliefs and her practices, and this grim insistence led to her own blind spots (for instance, she desperately wanted to be parachuted into Nazi-occupied France though she ate almost nothing and was physically frail and extraordinarily clumsy). She ate so little that the official cause of her death is suicide by starvation (though recently there has been some talk that there might have been an underlying medical reason for her increasingly limited intake of food). In her last letter to her parents, she wrote that she felt she had a deposit of pure gold inside of her that no one would receive. The lines jotted down in these notebooks are pure gold, particularly for poets such as Adrienne Rich (see On Lies, Secrets and Silence), Anne Carson (see Decreation, which is an idea of Weil’s), Stephanie Strickland (see The Red Virgin and the recently re-issued Losing L’una/Wave Tercets out from SpringGun Press), and Jorie Graham (see Overlord).
I became so enamored of the lines in the Notebooks that I composed a crown of sonnets using some of her lines. But I couldn’t stop and ended up writing three crowns, all using the same six lines, so that you could create hundreds of crowns from mixing and matching. I’ve included one of the sonnets below, using Betty Hester’s admonition to O’Connor as the title.
If you want to find out more about Weil, I recommend An Encounter with Simone Weil, a documentary by Julia Haslett. Haslett has an actress play the part of Weil, sort of, and I have to admit those parts made me squirm a bit. But Haslett also talks with people who knew Weil and/or who know a lot about her. You can watch this on your own on DVD but wouldn’t it be more fun to come to the Madison Central Library and watch it with a bunch of folks on Tuesday, July 22 at 6:30? After the viewing, we’ll talk with an artist, a doctor, a pastor and a poet about the role of attention both as a response to suffering and as a key element in creativity.
The margin is for the Holy Ghost
The pain that opens the door is not God
though you worship it & fear it
& pray to it with your loose, odd
devotion, your stuttering, cross-eyed faith. Were it
only a little taller a little less full
in the hips it wouldn’t stun the nuns
to silence burn the priests to fulminate
on redness & virginity—the sun
you carry low, the woe you carry high.
You are 9/10ths the heresies you cherish
1/10th something saintly, beaten & sly.
On your face love lies garish.
You turn off the lights when you look in the mirror
& pray there’s a usage for every kind of error.
I remember O’Connor saying that evil was the defective use of the good. I believe she got this at least in part from Simone Weil, who believed that the true value of Christianity is that it provides not comfort for suffering, but rather a supernatural use for it. She believed that there is a use for everything, even our errors.