• Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    I love porn, but let's have a nice clean story about racism instead of sex.

    The title of the story comes from a passage by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled the "Omega Point":
    Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge. — Wikipedia

    There is no murky abstraction or complex literary technique in this story. It's crystal clear, closely controlled, and tightly written. And it is short. And Julien's sarcasm directed at his mother (to whom he owes a great deal) is sharp.

    The story takes place during a short ride on a southern city bus in the early 1960s. An ugly confrontation between the rising up oppressed and the descending oppressor erupts over a penny. The effect is unexpected.

    Flannery O'Connor's stories are penetrating, witty, compelling, appalling, and more. Go Here.
  • Baden
    7.3k
    I love porn, but let's have a nice clean story about racism instead of sex.Bitter Crank

    Porn and story don't make much of a cocktail anyhow. ;)

    I seem to remember reading this one a while back and liking it. I'll give it another shot and swing back here.
  • Baden
    7.3k


    It is powerful isn't it? I didn't quite see the ending coming (if I did read it way back I'd forgotten it) but the message was pretty loud and clear from the start. Julian's mother is caught in a cultural straitjacket that has bred in her contempt for the "lower" classes, particularly black people. In a more subtle way, Julian is caught in the same cultural straitjacket, but its mirror image; he's purely a reaction against his culture as personified in his mother. This sets them on a collision course with Julian seemingly having the advantage because he has all the "right" ideas on his side. But we are invited to question how "right" they are as the story progresses. And it becomes apparent that Julian is in a way as blind as his mother; black people to him are dehumanized not by being inferior in the obvious way his mother sees them, but by being all lumped together as the heroic oppressed. Even when the black woman assaults his mother for her well-meaning, though silly and patronizing, action with the penny, he takes the side of the aggressor. He's so far down the rabbit hole of his own counter-ideology, he can't even—in the face of a physical attack on his own kin—give a black person the credit for being able to do wrong. Instead, he lauds her. At this point the author almost has us flipped from seeing the racist mother as the more contemptible figure to the son. The heart attack/stroke is the coup de grace. Empathy is not a political position, it's a way of life, and if you can't apply it to your own mother then maybe you are "too intelligent for success".
  • Sir2u
    1.5k
    I love porn, but let's have a nice clean story about racism instead of sex.Bitter Crank

    I really don't think that the story is about racism as such. It is about peoples ability or lack of ability to adapt to change, Baden's "cultural straitjacket" says it nicely. But it is also about meanness and self righteousness, the guy did not really have to rub his mothers nose in it.

    I know of a family that this happened to, but not because of race. Their problem was religion. Many generations of stout catholic upbringing came to an ugly end when one of the 2 sons left the church and became a mormon.

    Even though the parents had made sacrifices to educate them, in catholic schools and colleges, one of them took every opportunity to show them the bad things about the church, its decadence, the abuse, oppression, and corruption before he left the church.

    The father died a year or so later, the mother said of a broken heart.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    I really don't think that the story is about racism as such. It is about peoples ability or lack of ability to adapt to changeSir2u

    People have difficulty adapting to change, true enough. But which changes were going on in the south in the late 50s, early 60s, that an author might have found significant for a story? Hint: it wasn't changes in agriculture or industry.
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    1k
    I think that the author, more than less, tries to portray the old woman's gesture as condescending, so I don't take it, as Baden does, as a well-meaning one. The black woman could have taken it as well-meaning but silly (i.e. ignorant), so that her reaction could have been more temperate, but that's simply because she does not have all the information that we have. Since we know that the lady can be "nice" to those she sees as inferior, precisely because she sees them as such, I don't think we have to interpret her action differently. So, the son did not take the side of the aggressor. The original aggressor was his mother. That he's lost to the resentment he feels towards his mother, so that he has to see everything through that lens, is part of the story but not that relevant with regards to who the aggressor was. What's important is that even though his mother was the aggressor, he could have been less mean to her once she was ridiculed and embarrassed. He's so caught up in his disgust that he continues to beat up the one who's already down. His behaviour towards black people is not so much contemptible because he can't see their faults; rather it is contemptible because he ends up using them to score points against his mother. Also, I don't think that up to the point of the penny incident the author tried to show the son as less contemptible. To me it seems that she just tries to expose the different ways bitterness and resentment plays out. This then relates to the point Sir2u raised; I agree with him that racism is not the main subject of the story; it's more of a setting.
  • Baden
    7.3k


    By aggressor, I meant the one who carried out the apparent physical assault. In a sense the mother's act is aggressive too, and I don't condone it, but I don't think she's conscious of that. It's well-meaning in the sense she really thinks the kid is cute and wants to give him something in my view (even the son acknowledges in the text the mother sees all kids, white and black, as more or less the same). There's certainly institutional violence in place as the context for the action though, which she is a part of.

    His behaviour towards black people is not so much contemptible because he can't see their faults; rather it is contemptible because he ends up using them to score points against his mother.Πετροκότσυφας

    That too. But don't you think he seems to see black people as more or less all the same person, a symbol of the oppressed rather than individuals? Whereas the author portrays them as just normal people, with both good and bad in them, real human beings in other words.

    Also, I don't think that up to the point of the penny incident the author tried to show the son as less contemptible.Πετροκότσυφας

    Well, personally, my sympathies are more with the son at the start. The mother is portrayed as pompous and horribly racist whereas he is portrayed as resentful and bitter to a degree but at least a counterpoint to the racism. But his views towards black people are shown to be more and more superficial as the story goes on, and the penny incident is the most extreme and unreasonable example of his contempt for his mother.
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    1k
    By aggressor, I meant the one who carried out the apparent physical assault. In a sense the mother's act is aggressive too, and I don't condone it, but I don't think she's conscious of that. It's well-meaning in the sense she really thinks the kid is cute and wants to give him something in my view (even the son acknowledges in the text the mother sees all kids, white and black, as more or less the same).Baden

    This quote: "I think he likes me,” Julian's mother said, and smiled at the woman. It was the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior", and the fact that the author does not say anything to counter the son's accusations, who saw the gesture as objectionable, make me doubt that she wasn't conscious.

    But don't you think he seems to see black people as more or less all the same person, a symbol of the oppressed rather than individuals?Baden

    To an extent. And when this happens it's the result of him being unable not to be "dominated by his mother". I say to an extent because we're given clues that that's not always the case; he does distinguish between behaviours and different black persons. For example, the author writes "He had tried to strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types" or "He saw his mother's face change as the woman settled herself next to him and he realized with satisfaction that this was more objectionable to her than it was to him". He does see things he doesn't like, but he's willing to ignore them, or fails to address them, for a "higher purpose". To annoy his mother, to teach her a lesson. To show himself better. And, of course, this is how he is dominated by her.

    Well, personally, my sympathies are more with the son at the start. The mother is portrayed as pompous and horribly racist whereas he is portrayed as resentful and bitter to a degree but at least a counterpoint to the racism. But his views towards black people are shown to be more and more superficial as the story goes on, and the penny incident is the most extreme and unreasonable example of his contempt for his mother.Baden

    The following paragraphs are from the 5th page:

    Reveal
    The old lady was clever enough and he thought that if she had started from any of the
    right premises, more might have been expected of her. She lived according to the laws of
    her own fantasy world outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was
    to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a
    mess of things. If he had permitted her sacrifices, it was only because her lack of
    foresight had made them necessary. All of her life had been a struggle to act like a
    Chestny and to give him everything she thought a Chestny ought to have without the
    goods a Chestny ought to have; but since, said she, it was fun to struggle, why complain?
    And when you had won, as she had won, what fun to look back on the hard times! He
    could not forgive her that she had enjoyed the struggle and that she thought she had won.

    What she meant when she said she had won was that she had brought him up
    successfully and had sent him to college and that he had turned out so well-good looking
    (her teeth had gone unfilled so that his could be straightened), intelligent (he realized he
    was too intelligent to be a success), and with a future ahead of him (there was of course
    no future ahead of him). She excused his gloominess on the grounds that he was still
    growing up and his radical ideas on his lack of practical experience. She said he didn’t
    yet know a thing about “life,” that he hadn’t even entered the real world - when already
    he was as disenchanted with it as a man of fifty.

    The further irony of all this was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite
    of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a firstrate
    education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a
    large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face
    facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him,
    he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity.
    He was not dominated by his mother


    I think that this passage is there to expose the sad state the son is in, despite his non-racist attitude. The third paragraph especially. It's full of irony, or at least that's how I read it.

    The greatest irony of course was that: "He could not push her to the extent of making her have a stroke". Funny!
  • Sir2u
    1.5k
    Hint: it wasn't changes in agriculture or industry.Bitter Crank

    Not in the deep south definitely.

    I lived around New Orleans from early 60's to 71. It was not much fun sometimes.

    I went to all white schools, rode on all white school buses, ate in all white restaurants and lived in all white neighborhoods. When we went to live there I had no idea that such feeling of superiority over other people could exist. While it was not everyone that was like that, the ones that were were often so intense about it that it was scary sometimes.

    We went to a Woolworth's that had 2 snack bars, the difference between them so sad. But even those that were not racists accepted that was what it should be like. The day after arriving in New Orleans after a 6 day drive from Montreal, we went to wash the dirty clothes at a launderette next to the hotel, it had a sign on it that said "Whites Only", I was worried about not being allowed to wash my shirts.

    In England there had been a few black people but mostly there were Pakistani, Indian and Chinese. And no one really bothered about them back them. I never heard anyone say anything bad about them or tell me to keep away from them, so I never developed any emotions about them. Being white down south you were expected by a lot of people to treat the blacks as though they were inferior by at least ignoring their presence.

    When the government decided to start integrating the school bus services I got to see the black kids neighborhood and school for the first time because our driver had to pick up a bunch of them and pass by their school to drop them off first. That was an eye opener.

    The first few days there were some scuffles but nothing to serious. In the afternoon we would pass by to pick them up again. On about the third day a black girl sat down next to me. She spent the whole trip staring at me as if expecting me to do something. The next day a bunch of idiots started calling me nasty names because I had not sat in the center and refused to let her pass and sit next to me. They said that I should have made her stand up.

    After a few months had passed, I asked one of my friends why our school was so much better than theirs. He answered that it was because most of their parents did not work so they did not pay taxes and therefore could not afford anything better.

    Most of the people we knew were not racists, some of them were so used to the situation that to them it was considered normal, the mother.
    Some were aware that it was not quite right that the black people should be treated like that but were not prepared to go out and do something about it until pushed to do so by something, the son. And it was usually for selfish reasons that they stood up for the black people, not love for them.

    The year I left the US they had their first black students in the school.
  • csalisbury
    1.6k
    The greatest irony of course was that: "He could not push her to the extent of making her have a stroke". Funny!
    Missed that, so good.

    This quote: "I think he likes me,” Julian's mother said, and smiled at the woman. It was the smile she used when she was being particularly gracious to an inferior", and the fact that the author does not say anything to counter the son's accusations, who saw the gesture as objectionable, make me doubt that she wasn't conscious.

    I think I understand what Baden's saying. I think it might harmonize with what you're saying, if I understand what you're saying too.

    So, my dad was raised in an ultra-WASPy family, disdain for blue-collar people through and through. His approach to blue collar folks is much more complicated than Julian's Mother (he's Julian as much as he is his mother, even married a blue collar person), but he still immediately adopts this kind of friendly but condescending tone whenever he talks to someone he (reflexively) considers to be of a lower class. But I'm pretty convinced now that he doesn't even realizing he's doing it. Clearly the tone is a manifestation of a deep-seated mix of ideas and feelings, but I don't think he consciously experiences it that way. The vibe I usually get is that he thinks he's just being friendly. Like, in some ways he knows what he's doing, but to him he still thinks he's just being straightforwardly magnanimous.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    1.2k
    ↪Πετροκότσυφας
    The greatest irony of course was that: "He could not push her to the extent of making her have a stroke". Funny!
    Missed that, so good.
    csalisbury

    Funny until the last line of the story when actually she had the stroke (or heart attack):

    The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow. — ETRMC
  • csalisbury
    1.6k
    but that’s what makes it funny (in a pitch black way.)
  • csalisbury
    1.6k
    Also interesting that of the four stories recently talked about here, two (the other is the Oates) involve domineering mothers and a “be careful what you wish for” tragedy
  • csalisbury
    1.6k
    Here’s a thing: does this story correspond to a particular stance on 60s civil rights?
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    So, my dad was raised in an ultra-WASPy family, disdain for blue-collar people through and through.csalisbury

    We don't talk about it much, on TPF or in real life, but as some people say, "The only war is the class war." Most people don't see class as a problem because they think class is a dead issue. If you think we are in a post-racial society, as some people do, it's also possible not to see racism. Or, for others, it's possible not to see racism because it is ubiquitous.

    The mother thinks about class as well as race. If the son thought about class much, he would realize his status is uncomfortably ambiguous: maybe he has an education (which is a leg up in class) but he doesn't have the connections or the ambition to go with it.

    Given her class inheritance, she's pretty much compelled to construct a fantasy in which she is not as humbled as she in fact is. (Who the hell does want to deal with all that?) The son is going to have a harder time of it. He's not going to be have the shelter of a fantasy world, and he won't have many means to make life better, either.

    Why does the son have such poor prospects?
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    Also interesting that of the four stories recently talked about here, two (the other is the Oates) involve domineering mothers and a “be careful what you wish for” tragedycsalisbury

    As somebody once said, "Your mother knows which of your buttons to push; after all, she put them there.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    Here’s a thing: does this story correspond to a particular stance on 60s civil rights?csalisbury

    That's a very good question. She was dead by 1964 (age 39). As far as I know, O'Connor wasn't a civil rights campaigner. Her world was fairly small, I think. She had lupus (from which she died) and stuck pretty close to home. She was a Catholic southerner, something of an outsider. Most of her characters have glaring faults, whether it's spiritual faults, false pride, predation on the simpleminded, or what have you. People trip over their own delusions. But O'Connor also understood Grace.

    My impression is that she was unlikely to look at black people as an amorphous oppressed group. She was a very sophisticated, educated woman. A black character in her stories is likely to fall prey to self-delusion, just like their white brothers and sisters. She probably viewed real blacks that way too -- as likely to be as full of bad faith as her white neighbors.
  • csalisbury
    1.6k


    If the son thought about class much, he would realize his status is uncomfortably ambiguous: maybe he has an education (which is a leg up in class) but he doesn't have the connections or the ambition to go with it. — BC

    Why does the son have such poor prospects? — BC

    My reading of the story, much in line with Πετροκπτσυφας's, I think, is that he is as sheltered by his mother's fantasies as she is. He hasn't thought about class much, because he's focused all his emotional energy on his mother's worldview. And like he's drawn to the old mansion, right? His mind keeps straying back there. He kind of wants it. He lives in squalor, like her. Like her, he is drawn to the old mansion.

    He's not going to be have the shelter of a fantasy world, and he won't have many means to make life better, either. — BC

    Exactly. He has a little of a fantasy in the mansion, which is her fantasy too. But he can't accept it. So there's nowhere left, but... he can at least have the shelter of attacking another's shelter. And so that's what he does. He's kinda like a hermit crab that hates his shell. "I'd drop the shell, if only it wasn't [x].' It's 100% a defense. So he has a kind of emotional stroke as soon as his mother has a real one. They both live in the same shell, though they have different attitudes toward it. But either way, once the shell's gone: pure trauma.

    Her world was fairly small, I think. She had lupus (from which she died) and stuck pretty close to home. She was a Catholic southerner, something of an outsider. Most of her characters have glaring faults, whether it's spiritual faults, false pride, predation on the simpleminded, or what have you. — BC

    This is going to sound petty, but you're leaving one thing out, and petty as it is, I think it's relevant. O' Connor was unattractive. She wasn't a good-looking person. Her stories, what I've read, have the mean streak of someone very smart who won't ever be part of the sex-game, at least in the soft romanc-y way, and so can look at it coldly from the outside, and then look at everything coldly from the outside. This usually comes with a kind of sadism, and she does seem sadistic.

    To go back to the civil rights thing. My gut feeling (based on very little, this story and some bio details) is she was a little bit indifferent to all of it. Not because she was racist, but because she saw all people as equally awful. If this story has a stance on the civil rights movement, it seems to me to be something like this: basically a externalization of a collective psycho-drama where both sides rely on the other. The protestors need the old guard, and the old guard needs the protestors. At the center of it all is a kind of black hole which leaves no room for goodness.

    In short: it seems cynical about civil rights, unapologetically. But also fatalistic - like, this is gonna happen and it’s gonna fuck everyone up, and who knows what the moral is, or if there's one.

    But, all that's based on a limited sampling.

    But O'Connor also understood Grace. — BC
    I've been very taken by the idea of Grace the past year, and also really liked this story, as troubling as I found it. I'm really curious about her take on grace (especially because I think you can only get grace if you can get its absence, and she definitely does.) Where does she get into the nice stuff?
  • Moliere
    1.6k
    That's a great story. And I didn't see the ending until it was too late, too -- sort of like what the son went through.

    I thought the story was definitely about race. And, in particular, race in the United States. The author had a very clear picture of the minds of white people which still relates to today. The only time that our characters interact with black people is through whiteness -- and they are both condescending to blacks in their own way. We just get two sides of the same coin; whiteness is the basis of each of their interactions towards blacks, be it of a genteel southerner used to looking down on blacks or an educated white man proud of himself for being beyond race.

    I like the title as well. It seems to go along with the mother's dreams for herself and her son -- and rather than live in a world where whites are integrated, she would die on her path to the pinnacle.

    The son is equally rotten. He's just so mean to his mom. He thinks it's because of this or that moral platitude, but really I think the author lets on enough that it's because she didn't secure enough for him, and he is bitter about his lot in life and he takes it out on his mother. Not that he really wanted her to die from it; he just wanted to lash out at something, and his mother was an easy target. His meanness went beyond mere annoyance at having to escort her because of integration. I think that the imaginings of the mansion are the clue to his mean spirit.
  • Bitter Crank
    7.2k
    This usually comes with a kind of sadism, and she does seem sadistic.csalisbury

    . Not because she was racist, but because she saw all people as equally awful.csalisbury

    O'Connor was a faithful pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. She saw people unavoidably falling into sin; we can't avoid it. On the other side of falling into sin is God's grace. She gets into the "nice stuff" in a story like "A Good Man is hard to find". However, the moment of grace--as profound as it is--is short. Very short. But yes, her characters are decidedly fallen.

    Someone asked O'Connor why there are so many freaks in southern literature. She said there were so many freaks "Because we can still recognize them." (I don't know whether there are more freakishly awful people in the American South than in the American North or in London, England or Shanghai. "Freakishly awful" isn't a category that demographers track, unfortunately.

    This is going to sound petty, but you're leaving one thing out, and petty as it is, I think it's relevant. O' Connor was unattractive. She wasn't a good-looking person.csalisbury

    Two questions: was she unattractive? Shall we have a poll? Was she too ugly to have a normal romantic life?
    Flannery-O%27Connor_1947.jpg 10847985_10153562453584657_6164719469421070978_n.jpg?_nc_cat=0&oh=4d56d598f1d44a234a81adc13b9689d5&oe=5B50F864

    Hair and glasses can undo one, and the glasses she was often photographed in (1940s-50s black plastic) were not flattering. She had a receding chin which some people like, some people don't like. But, really, she didn't need to wear a bag over her head when she went out in public.

    I dislike the theory that a lack of physical beauty or the presence of a physical deficiency (like a degree of deafness) determines the kind of people we are. Of course, it has something to do with it, because we live in a social context and it will affect us. But it shouldn't. Really, it shouldn't.

    What else in her life may have kept her out of the dating/mating game? For one, she was afflicted by Lupus, a painful, not-too-common chronic autoimmune disorder that can result in organ failure (which was the cause of her early death at 39). She also needed to use crutches to get around, because of lupus. I don't know when she was diagnosed with it.

    To get a better grasp of her literary work one would probably have to read her substantial literary criticism writing, which is quite interesting--as little of it as I have read.

    It's been a long time since I read all of O'Connor's works (maybe 40 years, give or take). I just don't remember enough about most of them at this point. I don't remember any stories where the warm sun shine of grace pervades a whole story. And I haven't read her work in sequential order to measure how her writing changed over time.
  • Baden
    7.3k
    I got too distracted with politics to write more, but I'm really enjoying reading all this. :up:
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