From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. ~ Matthew 11:12
The Violent Bear It Away is one of the less-hyped works of Flannery O’Connor, but this is easily my favorite work of the great Southern Gothic writer.
A young boy was raised by his great Uncle, a former inmate at a mental asylum and self-anointed “prophet.” The Uncle raises him to be a prophet, but when the great Uncle dies, the boy is in his teens and must decide the course of his life. While drawn to the exotic and dramatic elements of a prophetic calling (e.g., calling fire down from heaven, etc.), he greatly fears prophetic poverty, most notably the hunger he senses from his Uncle, who longs for the Bread of Life to satiate his spiritual deprivation.
He knew that he was the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made and that he had turned his destiny as if with his bare will. He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness and when the time came for him to lose his balance he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice.
It’s typical of a young man, to be possessed with a sense that he can make his own destiny. It’s also classic O’Connor, a recurring theme that I am always fascinated by: her characters are often troubled but driven and determined, overly confident in the rightness of their cause and of the control that they have over their own destiny. It’s in this sense that O’Connor gets to the heart of the modern fallacy — that despite our great confidence in ourselves and in the existence of a fixed self, we remain at the mercy of forces outside of our own control. Along with other great modern writers, she destabilizes the modern confidence in the self.
But the boy would-be-prophet must also wrestle with two competing influences: his great Uncle, the prophet, and another Uncle, younger, who shuns religion in favor of a more methodological and analytical approach to life. In other words, the boy is yet again caught in the cross-hairs of modernity, the clash between the secular and the sacred.
Yet as with all O’Connor novels, we dig deep into the hearts and minds of the characters, and the answers to the greater conflicts and tensions of modernity are answered at a deep existential level…or failing any satisfactory answer, the tensions might just surface, at any strange time, and erupt in unexpected violence.