“My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnoxious. I Am in a State of Shock” — Flannery O’Connor Responds to an English Professor

From a 1961 letter by Flannery O’Connor to an English professor, who wrote her asking for an interpretation of her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In his letter, the professor concludes that the second half of the story is imaginary, an interpretation that seems to give Ms. O’Connor the vapors:

   The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be.  If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology.  I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

There is a change of tension from the first part of the story to the second where the Misfit enters, but this is no lessening of reality.  This story is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia.  It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious.

Bailey’s only importance is as the Grandmother’s boy and the driver of the car.  It is the Grandmother who first recognized the Misfit and who is most concerned with him throughout.  The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.  If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.  Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious.  I am in a state of shock.

Newt Gingrich (And Other Portraits of Old, Rich White Men) by Thomas V. Nash

I recently saw this portrait of current Republican nomination candidate/constant font of regressive ideas Newt Gingrich on an image board I frequent. It’s by Georgia-based portrait artist Thomas Nash, whose website I had to visit after seeing this picture.

For some reason I can’t quite articulate, Nash’s portraits are surreal to me. I don’t think it’s purposeful, of course—he’s clearly a technically competent artist whose oil paintings are meant to confer a sense of power twinned in benevolence.

It must be my own sense of history, of power, of irony, that makes me feel thoroughly creeped out by this portrait of Newt—the manically glib glint in his eye (his left eyebrow ever-so slightly arched in cocky condescension), the sinister light that seems to emanate from his upraised, extended left hand, the mysterious document casually clutched in his right, the phallic authority of the Washington Monument jutting out from the Mall in the background as tiny tourists mill about, one even pausing to aim his camera from behind the scroll work at the viewer . . .

It’s odd, malevolent, and engrossing, but when paired against the other portraits in Nash’s collection of “Men,” like former Democratic Senator (and George W. Bush supporter) Zell Miller, it seems even more sinister and ironic to me, as if some evil scream lurked in the background, suppressed, detained, a black hood over its metaphorical head:

Or these guys:

In some sense, these paintings strike me as the strange dry twins of the work of sensualist John Currin, a subjective claim that is perhaps unsupportable but nevertheless seems true to me.