The Spur of Mortality: Robert Greene and Flannery O’Connor

Earlier this year I was listening to the Audible version of Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature and was intrigued by his discussion of Flannery O’Connor. It occurs in the last chapter of the book where things take a deeply serious turn and Greene urges us to “Meditate on Our Common Mortality.”

In that chapter he draws inspiration from the way in which Flannery O’Connor was able to turn her mortal illness into a spur that motivated her creative drive and led to some of the greatest American prose of the twentieth century.

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Robert Green’s Personal Road to Recovery

It turned out that Robert Greene himself had come close to death while writing the book. He was driving his car when he suffered a stroke. Fortunately, his wife was with him and was able to summon an ambulance. Robert Greene wrote the concluding chapter to 48 Laws of Human Nature as he was slowly recovering, and it has clearly been written from a deepened sense of urgency that is often the fruit of a full awareness of the proximity of death.

Robert Greene describes his experience and how he is coping with it and rebuilding himself in this discussion with Tom Bilyeu:

On Reading Robert Greene

I find Robert Greene a very engaging writer, largely because of his Machiavellian facility for finding apposite literary or historical examples with which to illustrate the themes of his books, and his Theophrastian wit in compiling compelling typologies of characters, notably his typology of seducers in his book Seduction and of toxic personalities in The Laws of Human Nature.

The conceit is that we, the readers, will learn how to live, seduce, gain power and so forth, and the appeal to our vanity is compelling.

The conceit is that we, the readers, will learn how to live, seduce, gain power and so forth, and the appeal to our vanity is compelling. We willingly enter into the imaginative world that Greene paints for us, identifying ourselves with the heroes and enjoying a frisson of horror, contempt or amusement at the villains and fools who populate it.

Then there is the pleasure of seeing how he treats a familiar figure and turns his story into a case study for our edification and entertainment.

And then there is the even greater pleasure of discovery, when Greene introduces us to someone, historical or fictional, whom we may or may not have heard of but had not read about before.

The Seduction of Reading “Seduction”

When I read Seduction in 2017, for example, which is itself a seductive read, it caused me to return to Plato’s Symposium with a heightened awareness of Alcibiades’ complaint that he had totally failed in his attempts to seduce the ultimate seducer, Socrates.

Reading Seduction also led me to pick up Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand and finally prodded me into reading Les Liasons Dangereuse by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos.

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Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

And so when I listened to the eighteenth chapter of The Laws of Human Nature as narrated by Paul Michael, I was intrigued, as I say, by the story Greene told of Flannery O’Connor using the knowledge of imminent death to generate a dynamic sense of purpose in her life:

For Flannery, her proximity to death was a call to stir herself to action, to feel a sense of urgency, to deepen her religious faith and spark her sense of wonder at all the mysteries and uncertainties of life.

Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature, p. 572

Her multiple blood transfusions gave her the idea of calling her first novel Wise Blood. Hearing Robert Greene’s narrative, my interest was sufficiently piqued for me to buy the Audible version of Wise Blood, and what a treat it was.

Set in the Deep South, where Flannery O’Connor was from, the novel is a dark Dostoevskian comedy about a taciturn returning war veteran who believes he has “wise blood” and therefore no need for Jesus in spite of his religious upbringing.

However, the influence of that upbringing is all pervasive, as he attempts to found a church “without Christ” in the style of a southern street preacher who uses the hood of his car for an impromptu street pulpit.

But what struck me as I listened to the Audible narration was the paucity of conversation between the characters; they seemed to talk past each other from the depths – or should I say the shallows – of their own preoccupations.

This trailer of John Huston’s excellent film version of the novel gives you something of the flavour.

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Flannery O’Connor, Grace and the Grotesque

Flannery O’Connor wrote the novel from the perspective of a devout Roman Catholic. If you read Wise Blood from a Protestant or non-religious background you may be puzzled to find there is not a single pious character, let alone a Roman Catholic one, to be found. As Dana Gioia writes,

Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.)

Specifically about Flannery O’Connor, he notes,

Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.”

The “return to reality” through sadistic and masochistic violence in Wise Blood may be seen as a return from a grotesque Protestantism to a “grace” inspired Catholic asceticism. Once, when the grotesquery of O’Connor’s characters attracted criticism from the north she responded acidly,

anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose

Flannery O’Connor and Robert Greene

And that brings us back to Robert Greene. Flannery O’Connor and Robert Greene occupy very different landscapes of the mind. But what they have in common is an acute sense of the deeper human motives that lie behind the masquerade of everyday life.

Whereas O’Connor sees humanity through a catholic lens and creates fictional characters that are raw and recognisably real in spite – or perhaps because – of their grotesque distortions, Greene plucks “cases” from history or fiction and presents them in their historical or psychological context.

They are both didactic writers. One seeks to show us how we are ignorant creatures, fundamentally broken and in need of God’s grace. The other proposes to teach us how we can master ourselves, read the hidden motives of others and gain control of our circumstances.

Both writers came to look death firmly in the eye and find a more urgent and engaged meaning to life by accepting their mortality. For all their differences in style and circumstances, it is their respective meditations on mortality that bring them closer together.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that Robert Greene concludes The Laws of Human Nature with a quotation on death from the loyal Catholic philosopher Michel de Montaigne,

Let us get rid of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects… It is uncertain where death awaits us: let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom… He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.

Michel de Montaigne, Essays I: 20