“I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him—only to bring him to life.” -G.K. Chesterton
Shakespeare and the Hallmark channel both agree: the essence of comedy is revelation of goodness. We laugh when misunderstandings become understood, when the grander scheme of life sheds light on the troubled past, when the anticipated punchline hits home. Comedy as a dramatic device works much the same way–think of your favorite rom-com. After whatever love potions, jealous friends, misplaced letters, comas, bets, or affairs muck everything up, the end is much the same. Fate or grace reveals the hearts of all and we have a wedding, the ceremony which most fundamentally embodies everything good; out of disunity comes unity, fruitful love out of sterile solitude.
I first read Flannery O’Connor at the time when I most needed a little blunt force darkness. No more sentimentality, no more unrealistic romance, no more lies- if O’Connor is anything she’s honest, and that honesty sometimes seems brutal, even unmerciful. If you’ve read her, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, pick her up someday when you’re in the mood for granny-slaying or prosthetic-leg-thievery. Given this pension for darkness it puzzled me when in the introduction for her novel Wise Blood, a grotesque epic which in many ways represents her entire body of work, she calls the book a “novel written in the comic mode.” Flannery O’Connor writes comedies, not tragedies.
I could easily explain away this odd description by saying that the book makes you laugh–but I think she intends something grander here, something that touches the very meaning of comedy and draws it into a supernatural, mystical spectrum: a new comedy.
The modern moment in which Flannery O’Connor wrote invariably shapes this new comedy. Her characters incarnate the spirit of the age in every walk of life: the grandmother stuck in her mildly racist ways, the jaded communist, the fake Bible salesman, the pastor of the Church Without Christ, the dramatic and cowardly academic. To all these characters the transcendent goodness and mystery of two “others” becoming one “together” has disappeared into The Wasteland of inhuman materialism; it no longer reveals anything good. They see the everyday trappings of traditional comedy, usually pregnant with joy and mystery and love, as more or less boring. Disappointing. Dangerous, even.
The revelation which makes the comedy, the “punchline,” must therefore prove more radical–more to the roots–not an encounter with a wedding or feast, but an encounter with goodness itself. And a fairy godmother cannot do much for modernity. Modernity needs a pistol to its head.
In one of her famous stories a truly intolerably backwards southern woman has a last minute realization after an outlaw has killed her family and turns the gun to her. Facing death, she suddenly looks intently at the man, cries out “Why, you’re one of my babies!” touches him, and subsequently gets shot three times through the heart. She dies smiling. The experience of death cuts through the artificiality of this woman’s life and abolishes it just long enough for her to see reality clearly–and out of this clarity goodness reveals itself. She realizes the universality of the human family and reaches out to the outlaw and touches him: a magnificent show of unity, two others becoming one together. She dies in this almost familial revelation, smiling at the cloudless sky, a good woman.
Without death, this story would end a tragedy. She would end her life the way she lived it, not like a wedding but a funeral–isolated, cold. Death saves the day, opens the way for her to truly encounter beauty and die in a different way than she lived; death makes the story a comedy.
Afterwards the stunningly insightful outlaw says “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” We try so hard to avoid death in all her masks. We avoid discomfort, silence, embarrassment, pain, the possibility of being forgotten. But what do we get? Mediocrity? Laziness? Boredom? Beauty longs every moment to put a knife to our throats, to make us uncomfortable, to kill our nice quaint image of ourselves and our rather flat image of our neighbors. If we let that knife knick us “every day of our lives” then the great comedy might open up to us and we may go from “other” to “together;” we may die in a way different than we’ve been living.