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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pigs and pearls

I'm still thinking about Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal, published in time for Christmas gift-giving, and why that publication might have been a fairly bad idea. R. T. aka Tim brought it up on his new blog, A Commonplace from Eastrod, and there I simply said that the book was part of that unclean effort to trawl through a writer's remains and find something, anything publishable.

Long ago I was asked for my manuscripts and papers by a librarian at Wilson Library at UNC, and I replied that I was not sure that I liked that idea, and that I would think about it. I'm still not sure, though in a sense one would be lucky if anybody actually wanted to trawl through one's remains in hopes of finding a bit of ambergris in the beached corpse! Certainly a great deal has been published that would have been better to remain as rare library research material for academics or else destroyed. I'm still wondering whether it is not better for writers to burn the dross and leave the gold.

So one reason to dislike the publication of the prayer journal is that it was a private thing, not meant for people but intended by O'Connor solely for the maker of the prayers and the Maker of the maker of the prayers. Flannery O'Connor was guided by that purpose and her audience was one, or three-in-one. Some words are meant for a wide audience; some are not.

But there is another, stronger reason not to publish the journal, and it is one that surely compelled O'Connor in her writing: the well-known biblical injunction not to cast your pearls before swine. In the Bible, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a great, wondrous pearl. So when a Christian like Flannery O'Connor is enjoined not to strew pearls before pigs, she is being cautioned not to offer what is holy where it will be debased and muddied: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you" (Matthew 7: 6, NRSV.) And no, it doesn't mean people are pigs...

O'Connor the writer, reading that familiar line, knew that it was asking her to know her audience, and saying that it is wrong to be the cause (don't strew your pearls willy-nilly!) of other people trampling on what belongs to God. What is holy can be muddied and torn by people with no sympathy or understanding, and that can lead to rejection and scorn for the one who offers the pearl. Well, that's familiar as part of the story of Christ, isn't it? Interestingly, the gospel record shows that Christ was willing to say the most astonishing things to people just-met but was rather close-mouthed and oblique with unsympathetic questioners. Moreover, the gospel shows us the peculiar power of story. Parables often carry the freight of meaning; they tell the truth but tell it slant--that is, stories protect the pearl yet reveal it to those with eyes to see, ears to hear.

Flannery O'Connor seems to feel in a similar way about art and writing in her essays: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” Without eyes to see and ears to hear, one never grasps the pearl of art. And in O'Connor's view, that understanding is limited to those who will take the trouble to grapple with stories. What is regarded as the difficulty of her stories can be seen as a way of obeying the injunction not to cast pearls before swine. Only those who will take trouble to understand will, in fact, receive them.

 * * *

For further comments and some sharp arguments against me, go to Pigs and pearls, part 2. Some of them have a better grasp than I do on those pigs and pearls!


  1. Well said, and thanks for saying it. People laugh at (or are perhaps embarrassed by) the idea of the sacred, turning the whole world into the profane. I am curious, admittedly, about O'Connor's prayer journal, but as she followed Christ's injunction to pray in her closet and not on the street corner, I will not tear open the door to that closet. As you say, I'm not the intended audience, and I don't approve of grave-robbing.

    Two Christmases ago, ma femme gave me The Original of Laura, in the fancy edition with the punch-out 3 x 5 cards in Nabokov's hand. I am highly interested in Nabokov, but so far I've not been able to make myself tear the shrink wrap off the book.

  2. Yes, there's a lot of scorn and belittlement for sacred things in the world, but perhaps that only makes those who cherish them more intent on what they do. I feel precisely as you do about the journal; I won't read it.

    Leaving out the sacred can't help but weaken our arts, Yet scorn is quite common among artists of all sorts.

    I expect that I would have done the same with that gift--just kept it as an object that reminded me of the author's labors, but wrapped and secret still.

  3. Amen! You have said it all better than I could have. Indeed, O'Connor's stories are her parables--accessible to some but not others (and I wonder at times about the group to which I belong)--but her private prayer journal should have been off-limits to all. Publication profanes the sacred, personal, private communication between a young woman and her God.

  4. Ah, you made me say it! I had barely thought about it before--saw that one article and moved on.

  5. Excellent! Of course, as an artist I particularly love the last quote and the last paragraph as applied to art.

  6. Hi Marja-Leena--

    We both commented at 2:48--nice to think we were in each other's heads at the same time! That is a good quote. All of her "Mystery and Manners" essay collection is so quotable! And wouldn't it be lovely to have more people who wish to take that kind of trouble?

  7. Not to mention "…when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Public prayer can't help but give off an odor of ostentation, which in this case is unfair to the petitioner.

    That said, the posthumous publication or release of any material to which its creator hasn't explicitly consented is offensive. The burden is on the creator to verbally declare his or her intent to make a specific work public whether ante- or post-mortem. Absent credible evidence of such expressed intent (and conditions, if any), regardless of how significant, how brilliant, how edifying, how valuable the work is deemed by the estate's literary executor, the heirs, the publishers, the agent, or the friends and fans of the deceased, it must be destroyed. To do otherwise is essentially to grave-rob, and those who profit from the spoils are at best greedy assholes.

  8. Excellent points! Yes, I feel the first one pretty strongly, though I've seen some good arguments in favor of the journal on several facebook threads linking to it.

    I tend to think that an author's control over what should be published should continue after death. Exceptions should include consideration of what's on the desk at the time (as in "Billy Budd.") Also, a good many authors of note left it up to a close friend to decide whether the work was worth publishing... Terrible to think we could have lost some of those.

    It certainly suggests that perhaps a writer should not keep pieces that she does not want published. But of course writing rooms are messy places, and old manuscripts can litter the house. And one usually doesn't have an accurate idea of when death will appear with a summons.

  9. I have not read the book, so I can't say how I feel about it, but we would do well to remember that Franz Kafka wanted his stories burned!
    I for one am glad they weren't.

  10. Yes, I mentioned that a lot of writers left it up to somebody else to decide or destroy work. I wouldn't like to be without any of them... And certainly many writers in earlier times didn't publish in their lifetimes. But I think this is rather different. It's the private prayers of a very young woman.

    That said, there are some good arguments in the second post in favor of keeping them.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.