Monday, October 29, 2007

O'Connor and Malebranche

In August I received a comment on an old post that I think I completely missed at the time, by Ben. But it's an interesting comment worth answering. The comment was:

I realize you wrote this entry a while ago, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on a possible further point of contact between O'Connor and Malebranche.

O'Connor's best-known story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," ends with the Grandmother's murder at the hands of the Misfit, who then offers the following comment on her life:

"She would of been a good woman," the Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

The image of constant, presumably divine intervention here gives the passage a sort of occasionalist flavor to my ear. But if occasionalism is principally a metaphysical rather than an ethical doctrine, perhaps I'm off base. Any thoughts?


I don't know if there is a connection; but occasionalism as found in Malebranche is, in fact, as much an ethical doctrine as a metaphysical doctrine. (I discussed some of the ethical aspects here.) But the sort of thing that Ben seems interested here is perhaps more closely connected with Malebranche's doctrine of the interior teacher: The Divine Word, as interior Teacher (Malebranche adapst Augustine here), teaches us constantly by light and sentiment -- the latter being reprimands and exhortations of conscience. Perhaps there might be a connection there (certainly the notion of conscience and moral intelligence is a common theme in O'Connor).

Incidentally, with regard to the original Hulga and Malebranche, I find that students of O'Connor tend not to think that she was deliberately engaging in irony there. Of course, students of O'Connor tend not to realize that there is any irony in the situation. A typical instance seems to be Ralph C. Wood:

This is an apt, if pretentious, allusion for Hulga the Heideggerian to make, for Malebranche stands in the Cartesian tradition that runs from Hume and Berkeley through Kant and Heidegger. Malebranche held that we do not, in fact, see by our own light but by what he called "vision in God." He was obsessed with the Cartesian problem of human knowledge about objects outside themselves. Together with Descartes, he argued that knowledge of the world does not come from either sensation or imagination but from clear and distinct ideas perceived by the understanding. Yet unlike his master -- and much closer to Spinoza -- Malebranche held that "created things are in themselves causally inefficacious and that God is the sole true cause of change in the universe" (Willis Doney, "Malebranche, Nicholas," in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. V, ed. Paul Edwards [New York: Macmillan, 1967], p. 140). Malebranche's denial of the mind's ability to perceive truth through the natural order of things, together with his denial of secondary causes and thus of real human freedom, would make Hulga an ideal disciple of so unsacramental a thinker.

[Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 201n.]

There are a number of confusions here (I wasn't aware that the Cartesian tradition ran from Berkeley to Heidegger, which is a new twist on the history of philosophy). But whereas I would suggest that Hulga's taste for Malebranche is highly ironic -- Malebranche is explicitly and aggressively Catholic, and his ontologism is an odd contrast to Hulga's nihilism -- Woods treats them as well-matched. I think there are two questions raised by this:

(1) What is the real function of Malebranche in "Good Country People" and, if there are any Malebranchean links elsewhere, in other stories?
(2) What did O'Connor actually know about Malebranche?

With regard to (2) I find Wood's interpretation rather implausible; surely O'Connor would have heard enough of Malebranche to know that he was both a Catholic and an ontologist -- she knows enough that she has Hulga quote Malebranche's favorite quotation from Augustine. Perhaps she didn't recognize that it was Augustinian? So that's perhaps a third question:

(3) Did O'Connor recognize the original Augustinian implications of the statement, "We are not our own light" or did she interpret in another way?

There is, related to this, another irony that I did not mention in the first post: namely, that Hulga's entire problem throughout the story is that she acts as if she were her own light. This confidence in her own intellect is what allows her to be deceived by Pointer.

O'Connor's use of, and knowledge of, Malebranche is certainly a worthwhile research project, if there's anyone out there interested in doing it.

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