“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
That’s Flannery O’Connor, and I won’t even begin to try to unpack all that’s there. I simply wanted to post the quote, because I’ve been eagerly re-reading and studying O’Connor. I’ve always loved reading her works, but I think there’s something in what she does with her characters that seems extremely helpful for me, in the last push of getting my novel ready for publishing. [Fingers crossed] She often works with very common characters, many of whom are steeped in prejudices, and through freakish turns of fate, they confront something essential about themselves. Well, maybe it’s not even about self-knowledge, so much as a sort of “letting go” that opens them to a certain experience of grace and openness.
In any event, the ghostly metaphor of a “Christ-haunted” culture is, I think, a beautiful one, and eerily accurate — and I think it makes sense across the diverse American cultures. Even some hundred years or so after O’Connor talked about a Christ-haunted culture, even as we continue the slow slide into a post-Christian society, I think there’s still something of a significant shadow cast.