Flannery and The Birds

When the late American writer Flannery O’Connor was six years old, she had a chicken she taught to walk backwards. She became so famous for her backwards-walking chicken that Pathé News came from Paris to the O’Connor farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, to make a short film about little Flannery and her talented bird. Anyone familiar with her life could conjure the scene: a curious little girl in glasses, looking like a miniature librarian, shyly showing a strange French camera crew around a Southern backwater.

Looking back on the event in later in life, Flannery remarked that “it’s all been downhill since then”. This was characteristically dark humour, but at the same time she wasn’t entirely joking, having started to succumb to a hereditary blood disease called lupus. The condition is ravaging and merciless, and Flannery accepted it stoically and quietly, moving back to the family farm, living with her Mother, losing all of her hair and raising mostly peacocks on the land available to her. She died aged just thirty-nine.

That O’Connor should fall to a blood condition passed down from her Father was not without grim irony. The theme of inheritance is felt strongly throughout her oeuvre, and with uncanny aptitude in her novel Wise Blood, a slim masterpiece about a sort of secular preacher, attempting to start the “Church Without Christ”, informed by vague, hereditary guiding principles.

The theme of change through pain is also huge. A devout Catholic, Flannery believed that God’s grace would inevitably touch all living souls, albeit opaquely, and often in epiphanies of shocking violence. Her work is unsettling, but powerfully and rightly so. She believed that human experience was essentially mysterious, and that fiction should only deepen that mystery, rather than make it understood. It is a testament to her power as a writer that she made such ideas universal, beguiling, and pertinent to both spiritual and secular readers, rather than dogmatic, tiresome and unlikely. It is a bitter thing indeed that she was forced to live so acutely by her own belief, then die by it.

Whether in her darkest moments she ever doubted the force of her conviction I’m not certain. What I can say without doubt is that between her infant act of avian instruction and her bad death in rural Georgia, Flannery O’Connor wrote at least four dozen of the best short stories anyone has ever written, as well as two utterly peerless novels, all shot through with profound mystery, religious enquiry, violence, providence, and a keen observation of human failings. With her spiritual sensibility, she was able to to arrest exact moments where what we think we know about the world is made to behold the vast ambiguities of what we don’t. In most of these instances, the self comes up wanting. The mystery is darkened as it is illuminated.

I see her sometimes, keeping counsel with the decorative fowl she raised for comfort. The famous little girl never lost sight of the sympathy of birds, nor her own attendant sympathy, however obliquely realised, for essential human frailty. I picture her again now, walking through the Spanish Moss around her Mother’s farm in the humid Georgia evening, the fans of the peacocks throwing shadows around her feet.