Friday’s Flannery: A Late Encounter with the Enemy by Flannery O’Connor

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After a long hiatus, I have decided to take up again Friday’s Flannery, beginning with the wonderfully odd story of the “General” whose death is told in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.”

Flannery’s stories often concern death. She herself was slowly dying throughout most of her writing career owing to a case of lupus which at an earlier age she had watched as it inevitably, painfully took her father’s life. Flannery was long and intimately familiar with death and its impending visitation.

The “General” was no general at all. At 104 most of his life he had already forgotten. Memory having failed him and his body as well, he had little to look forward to other than brief moments when he had his picture taken with festival parade queens and some Hollywood models. He had little to look back upon, little to look forward to except the brief occasions when he served as a prop recalling a fading collective memory of a South long since past and quickly losing its significance in the modern world except as a subject for movies. It was not the Confederate Army, nor the Federal Army that had made him a General, but Hollywood.

Flannery tells the story with various portents of death. The granddaughter hopes he lives for her graduation, he thinks he will out of force of habit, the juxtaposition of parades and processions, the long black procession at the graduation. Death, or at least its possibility, hangs in the air throughout this story.

Much has been made of Death being the ultimate enemy in this story and maybe the titles supports this, but this is the perhaps a thin reading. The clever device that Flannery employs in the second to the last paragraph is telling on several levels:

The words began to come toward him and he said, Dammit! I ain’t going to have it! and he started edging backwards to get out of the way. Then he saw the figure in the black robe sit down and there was a noise and the black pool in front of him began to rumble and to flow toward him from either side to the black slow music and he said, Stop Dammit! I can’t do but one thing at a time! He couldn’t protect himself from the words and attend to the procession too and the words were coming at him fast. He felt that he was running backwards and the words were coming at him like musket fire, just escaping him but getting nearer and nearer. He turned around and began to run as fast as he could but he found himself running toward the words. He was running into a regular volley of them and meeting them with quick curses. As the music swelled toward him, the entire past opened up on him out of nowhere and he felt his body riddled in a hundred places with sharp stabs of pain and he fell down, returning a curse for every hit. He saw his wife’s narrow face looking at him critically through her round gold-rimmed glasses; he saw one of his squinting bald headed sons; and his mother ran toward him with an anxious look; then a succession of places—Chickamauga, Shiloh, Marthasville—rushed at him as if the past were the only future now and he had to endure it. Then suddenly he saw that the black procession was almost on him. He recognized it, for it has been dogging all his days. He made such a desperate effort to see over it and find out what comes after the past that his hand clenched the sword until the blade touched bone.

I do not think a close reading supports the interpretation that death is the General’s final enemy. Rather, it is his past that fires upon him, his life that horribly flashes before him, a past he had preferred to forget, a past full of pain experienced and perhaps inflicted. The details are not made known as his memories flood his mind in reverse order.

One of Flannery’s perceptions about life in the modern world is that it is so full of distractions that it forms a kind of shield over the soul, making self reflection and the inner life almost inaccessible. The general could not idly attend to the more frivolous details of life and at the same time attend to the overwhelming material of his own past. It was his past he feared, a past conjured by the words…words like the names of civil war battles, words like sacrifice, valor, God, the fallen, comrades, faith, family, country, the South…words that had once defined his life and his world…words he had put away, run from, escaped, so he thought.

That Flannery used words as the searing realities which penetrated his soul’s shield and uncovered his hidden wounds is perhaps not surprising in that she is a writer and that words are her essential tool. I suspect also that as a Catholic of her time, Flannery had a deeper relationship with the Word, as well. Prior to the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the liturgy, each mass ended with what was called the second Gospel—a reading, always the same, of the Prologue of John’s Gospel.

“In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God. And the Word was God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it..” John 1:1-5

As a devout Catholic who for years was alerted to and daily reminded of the proximity of her own death, it would not at all be surprising that she reflected on this cosmic image of Christ as the Eternal Word, the Light amid the darkness which in John’s Gospel is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The General’s wall of darkness is but the backdrop to this litany of memories, times, places, persons all created by the Word, all instances of sin and grace, all instances from which the Word, the Just Judge will bring his mercy to bear. His life flashing before him is his final preparation for his meeting with his eternal destiny.

That one of her characters, who is also in a constant dance with death, is confronted in his death with words speaking the truths of his life he most fervently wished to forget, is revealing of perhaps her own preparations for the encounter with her Lord, Judge and Savior.

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