The Georgian Sage

Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, her family’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, 1964; photograph by Joseph De Casseres

As I write this, the Dylann Roof mass murder trial is in the penalty phase. For purposes of this blog, I am not interested in the final sentence (nor in the trial itself). What does intrigue me is that his existence and his actions would have made perfect sense to a woman who died more than fifty years before he committed his terrible crime. Flannery O’Connor, from neighboring Georgia, depicted again and again in her fiction the sudden, irrational outbursts of violence that punctuate human existence, including a feature that came out at trial, namely that gestures of kindness sometimes serve only to escalate the aggression. One thinks of the Misfit, in the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” lashing out to shoot the Grandmother when she tenderly claims him as one of her babies, recoiling from her touch as from the bite of a snake. She reminds us, too, that in the right hands tractors can be as deadly as guns, even if farm vehicles, harder to reload, are strictly one-time weapons. O’Connor, a devout if somewhat idiosyncratic Catholic, had a theory of “redemptive violence,” although it is hard to diagnose anything like redemption in this current, decidedly non-literary calamity. She would have understood the hate, denial of common humanity, fixation on an idea (however bad), and unreason perfectly.