Misfits, Complacencies, and the Gods of Violence
Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.
What leads us to have a lecture series on violence, at this late date in a very violent century, is not hard to discern. I suspect that our other lecturers will touch on everything from hate crimes to domestic rage to ideological genocide, but I also suspect that what we will be doing in this series will seem more like taking the advice of old Phoinix in the Iliad than finding practical solutions to the problems. In his plea to Achilles in Book IX, the old man says that
Prayers are the daughters of great Zeus, halting and wrinkled and of eyes askance, and they are ever mindful to follow in the steps of Violence.  But Violence is strong and fleet of foot, and she far out-runs them all, and goes before them over the earth making men fall, and Prayers follow after, seeking to heal the hurt. Now those who revere the daughters of Zeus when they draw near, they greatly bless, and hear him, when he prays;  but if a man denies them and stubbornly refuses, then they go their way and make their prayer to Zeus, son of Cronos, that Violence may follow him.
What we will be doing is trying to understand what the violence that we suffer, personally and culturally, tells us about where we are, as opposed to where we want to be. I find my own imagination returning to several episodes of violence this year: the sudden eruption of killing by two teenagers in Columbine High School on April 20, the shootings at Momentum Securities and All-Tech Investment Group in Atlanta on July 29, where a day-trader shot nine people to death last summer, and the church service at Wedgwood Baptist Church last month in Fort Worth, when a man shot and killed seven people, before committing suicide. Each story has its particular twists, its history, its questions of whether or not it could have been predicted, based on the previous behavior of the perpetrators.
What gives them a common thread, I want to suggest, is that with each one, it is difficult to feel that their hatred and frustration were not somehow directed at us. I say directed at us in two senses: first, because, in the arbitrariness of the shootings, we or those close to us might just as easily have been the victims as those who died, and second, because these acts were performed with the awareness that they would have a national, even a global, media coverage. If we were spared the role as victim, we nevertheless became the audience, horrified and arrested by the profound illogic of the acts. When literary critics speak of the “intentional forestructure” of a poem or novel, they mean the way that the author intentionally structures the work in such a way that the reader will have to complete it with interpretation. These killings had a similar forestructure, not because the killers knew exactly what they wanted to say, like terrorists or perpetrators of hate crimes, but because the deeds seemed to be performed both in order to be interpreted and in contempt of the interpretations likely to be offered. These were not pleas for understanding, but acts in defiance of complacent truisms such as “adolescent frustration” and “the midlife crisis.” Yet some kind of metaphysical importance, some kind of address, nevertheless seems to comes through them.
Complacency, in the sense that I mean it, is the assumption that we understand, the sense that we have anticipated the possibilities, and that as long as expert counseling is available for the malcontent, we are all essentially safe. But when the gun comes out in the middle of the ordinary day, the problem is no longer the killer’s dark tangle of psyche, but ours, and that moment is the absolute. Violence has a terrible capacity for clarification; as Flannery O’Connor writes, “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him” (MM114). It is this dimension that I particularly want to address by thinking about some images in literature. Great poetry has always centered on this power of the violent act to destroy our complacencies, and it has something to say in our circumstances. The greatest literature has always moved its audience from a certain pleasure that it takes in violence to an exploration of the terrible revelatory power of real violence. In fact, this is one of poetry’s earliest preoccupations. My first examples will be very old ones, in part because the problem is very old, but I also want to about what the vision of Flannery O’Connor might have to say about these contemporary acts.
Every good writer knows that violence has a powerful narrative appeal. Some of the best fairy tales, for example, feature witches who eat children, and the satisfaction of the ending is seeing the witch herself shoved into her own stove. The Odyssey’s most appealing episodes, such as the adventure of Odysseus and his men in the cave of the Cyclops, involve the giant’s relish for the raw flesh of Odysseus’ men as well as the vividly described retribution: blinding the Cyclops’ eye with a sharpened beam of olive wood heated in the fire. The Iliad would be a weak poem without the realistic physical descriptions. Violent death and dismemberment mark the narrative to an extent that can still shock contemporary readers because, unlike the anonymous victims in movie violence, the people who die in the Iliad are neither anonymous nor bad. The men and women of Troy, including Hektor’s parents, watch in horror from the walls of the city while Achilles runs down his enemy, kills him, and drags his body by the heels behind his chariot around the city. The poem moves toward an ending involving a reconciliation and compassion, but it does so through an unsparing depiction of violence and an implicit recognition that this depiction gives the poem a great deal of its stern revelatory pleasure.
But the violence we are likely to encounter, if Littleton, Atlanta, and Fort Worth are any indication, will not come from an Achilles held outside the city by the great walls, dangerous only to those who venture beyond its boundaries, but from the metaphysical outsider in the uncanny disguise of the ordinary, the monster who suddenly appears in one of us, inside what we had thought was the safe place: the school, the office, the sanctuary. One of the first great images of this kind of outsider, stripped of his disguise, occurs in the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf: the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain who embodies a spirit of resentment and fury aroused by the attempt to build a great hall of gift-giving and communion. Hrothgar, lord of the Danes, has been victorious in his battles, and as a crowning success, it occurs to him to build
A royal building
a gabled mead hall fashioned by craftsmen,
which the sons of men should hear of forever,
and there within he would share out
among young and old all God had given him . . . . (68-72)
But as Hrothgar completes the “cliff-like, horn-gabled” hall and names it Heorot (or the “Hall of the Hart,” symbolic of kingship), he awakens the envy of Grendel. “The great monster in the outer darkness” suffers because he can hear the voice of the scop or singer inside the hall telling the story of Creation. Heorot itself symbolizes “all of human society–its noble aspirations and desperate instabilities” (Beowulf 283), according to Howell Chickering, who goes on to say that the goodness of its order, associated with the singing of Creation, “is metaphysically obnoxious to the demonic Grendel” (283). Like Milton’s Satan, who can see the happiness of Adam and Eve but never participate in it, Grendel is the “huge moor stalker who held the wasteland, / fens, and marshes; unblessed, unhappy,” and he takes his only satisfactions from violence. When night comes, he enters to find Hrothgar’s nobles defenseless:
asleep after banquet– they knew no sorrow,
man’s sad lot. The unholy spirit,
fierce and ravenous, soon found his war-fury,
savage and reckless, and snatched up thirty
of the sleeping thanes. From there he returned
to his home in the darkness, exulting in plunder,
took his slaughtered feast of men to his lair. (119-125)
Grendel keeps up his nightly attacks until Heorot lies useless and deserted, and for the next twelve winters no one can break his hold. The Danes are supposed to be Christian, although they seem more to embody an Old Testament foreshadowing than Christianity itself; in any case, they revert to heathen practices, the poet says, and say “old words aloud, / that the great soul-slayer might bring some comfort / in their country’s disaster” (176-78). In other words, Grendel has ruined by violence the image of Creation as an order of beneficence and harmony; he has reasserted by force the place of those excluded from joy and demonstrated the vulnerability and illusion of goodness; he has not only darkened Heorot and made its complacency impossible, but also, perhaps even without intending it, brought back a fearful religious homage to darkness. Grendel marks a high water mark of violence that would have been impossible without Hrothgar’s attempt to establish his high hall.
When the hero Beowulf finally hears the story of Heorot and comes from his country to fight Grendel, none of the men that lie down with him in Heorot to await the coming of Grendel think that they will ever return home. The complacency, by this time, belongs to Grendel, the “dark walker,” who bursts through the iron-bound doors, and like the Cyclops, immediately begins to eat the sleeping nobles. He
seized a warrior,
gutted him sleeping –ripped him apart–
bit into muscles, swilled blood from veins,
tore off gobbets, in hardly a moment
had eaten him up, all of the dead man,
even hands and feet. (740-45)
Impervious to weapons, which he has put under a spell, he is subject only to the powerful hand-grip of Beowulf, who seizes Grendel’s claw and overpowers the monster: “a gaping tear / opened in his shoulder; tendons popped, / muscle slipped the bone.” Grendel escapes, mortally wounded, “screaming his hate-song,” and Beowulf’s hangs his arm and claw above the threshold of Heorot.
The heroism of Beowulf lies in his capacity for a counter-violence that does not rely on weapons but on a strength, “jewel of a gift that God had given him” (1271), that makes him capable of withstanding the monstrous metaphysical outsider on his own terms. (I am reminded, in a very different context, of Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, encountering the great bear in the wilderness only after he puts aside, not only his gun, but also his watch and compass.) Beowulf even pursues the vengeful mother of Grendel down through the bloody waters of a lake full of strange serpents and water beasts into her underworld den: it is not only an encounter with the night walker, the slayer of men’s sleep, but a descent into the monstrous unconscious in the live grip of the mother. Again, no mortal weapon has any effect on the monster, though he finally beheads her with a magic sword from the smithy of Wayland, the Norse smith-god, and the blade then melts away from the heat of her poisonous blood. After this success, one would imagine Beowulf awarded in some monumental way–perhaps by marrying Hrothgar’s unmarried daughter, Freawaru, and becoming the heir to the kingdom. But Hrothgar will not break off her engagement to another warrior, and neither Hrothgar nor Beowulf’s own king Hygelac offers a daughter or arranges a marriage for him. In fact, the Beowulf poet makes it clear that Beowulf never marries, though he is king for fifty years after the death of his own king Hygelac. Despite his success, his fate suggests that the hero who encounters and defeats the monster remains somehow monstrous himself. His true place seems to be only in this kind of uncanny encounter, and nothing is said about him until his final battle, in old age, against the dragon who kills him. He has no real part, it seems, in the ordinary communion of men, as though, having been in such proximity to the body and blood of the Grendel and his even fiercer demonic mother, he were himself unclean.
George Dumezil and others have written about the phenomenon of the returning warrior who “carries the seed of violence into the very heart of his city” (Girard 41). The warrior-hero like Beowulf bears the stain of contact with blood–in his case, both of the son and the mother–and Rene Girard writes at length about the “universal attribution of impurity to spilt blood” because of its close link to violence. “When men are enjoying peace and security,” says Girard, “blood is a rare sight. When violence is unloosed, however, blood appears everywhere–on the ground, underfoot, forming great pools. Its very fluidity gives form to the contagious nature of violence. Its presence proclaims murder and announces new upheavals to come” (34). Good violence–the sacrificial spilling of blood–is the only way to cleanse someone stained by bad violence, and the victim must be a substitute not identifiable as the recipient of revenge–an animal, for example. Beowulf receives no such sacrificial absolution. It is not blood alone, however, not even the demonic blood, but Beowulf’s participation in a realm of primal evil and uncanny distortion that marks him. When he returns, he bears with him the powers and dangers of the outside, not only the moors, fens, and marshes, but the stain of the unconscious, unimaginable water at whose bottom lies the undersea anti-Heorot. Surrounded as he is with the aura of danger and a residual ghastliness, his very participation in violence has left something of Grendel and Grendel’s mother alive in him, if only in the interiority of memory. Like Grendel, the hero becomes the permanent outsider. Although he has overcome the darkest possibilities of the psyche and sacrificed too much to turn against the ordinary good, he appears to have a lonely existence.
Euripides’ tragedy Herakles takes up the theme of the returning warrior and takes it a step further, into a more troubling and uncanny place. Like Beowulf, except on a grander scale, Herakles is the Greek hero who confronts, not other men, but monsters. As Euripides’ play opens, Heracles is still missing from the last of his great labors for the tyrant Eurystheus–his descent into the underworld to bring back the three-headed hound Cerberus. With the aid of a powerful faction, a man named Lycus has killed Creon, king and father of Herakles’ wife Megara, and seized power in Thebes. Because of their lineage, Herakles’ wife and children pose a threat to his rule, and when Lycus appears, he argues with Herakles’ father Amphitryon that his intention to kill them all is a rational political act. All of them assume that Herakles is dead; in any case, there is no difference between being in the Underworld and being dead, because, as Megara says to Amphitryon, “Do you think your son will return from beneath the earth? And who ever has come back from the dead out of the halls of Hades?” When she and her children prepare to submit to death, the chorus laments that it sees “the children of Heracles who was once so great, wearing the clothes of the dead,  and his loving wife dragging her babes along at her side, and Heracles’ aged father.” Megara prays to her husband, “O my dearest Heracles, to you I call, if perhaps mortal voice can make itself heard in Hades’ halls . . . . Come to our rescue; appear, I pray, if only as a phantom,  since your arrival, even as a dream, would be enough, for they are cowards who are slaying your children.”
When Herakles unexpectedly returns as their savior, then, as if in answer to her prayer, the whole play seems to be taking place on the strange borderline of the psyche between the living and the dead. Those who are already dedicated as sacrifices for their descent to the Underworld meet the hero-father-husband just returning from his ascent. His language, when he hears about Lycus’ usurpation, at first seems consistent with a victory over the grave: “Cast from your heads these chaplets of death, look up to the light, for instead of the darkness below your eyes behold the welcome sun. ” But in fact he is not so much a savior as an anomaly, still thoroughly permeated with the aura of the monstrous. When he thinks of Lycus, for example, he goes on to say,
I, meanwhile, since here is work for my hand, will first go raze this upstart tyrant’s halls, and when I have beheaded the villain, I will throw him to dogs to tear; and every Theban who I find has played the traitor after my kindness,  will I destroy with this victorious club; the rest will I tear apart with my feathered shafts and fill Ismenus full of bloody corpses, and Dirce’s clear stream shall run red with gore.
Herakles’ father persuades him to be wary of the members of the Theban faction that put Lycus in pwoer, and first, before appearing in publc, to go into his palace with his family and purify himself at the household altars. While he is still inside with his children, Lycus returns to take Megara and the children, and Herakles slays him inside the house. Far from being cleansed, however, Herakles then goes on to commit the worst act of pollution. Just at that moment, Hera sends down the messenger goddess Iris and the child of Night, Lyssa or Madness, to force Herakles into the abomination of killing his own family. As Iris tells the chorus, “until he had finished all his grievous labors, Destiny was preserving him, nor would father Zeus ever suffer me or Hera to harm him.  But now that he has accomplished the labors of Eurystheus, Hera wishes to brand him with the guilt of shedding kindred blood by slaying his own children, and I wish it also.” After the terrified cries from the house, a messenger comes out to tell the chorus what happened:
Victims to purify the house were stationed before the altar of Zeus, for Heracles had slain and cast from his halls the king of the land.  There stood his group of lovely children, with his father and Megara; and already the basket was being passed round the altar, and we were keeping holy silence. But just as Alcmena’s son [Herakles] was bringing the torch in his right hand to dip it in the holy water, he stopped without a word. And as their father lingered, his children looked at him; he was no longer himself; his eyes were rolling; he was distraught; his eyeballs were bloodshot, and foam was oozing down his bearded cheek. 
The messenger goes on to describe how Herakles hunted down his sons around the altar and shot them, believing them to be the children of his arch-enemy Eurystheus, then killed his wife and the last child with a single arrow before Athene knocked him unconscious with a stone. When he wakes to discover what he has done, he wants to kill himself, but Theseus–whom Herakles has just saved from the Underworld–returning with his men because he has heard of Lycus’ usurpation [this strange Euripidean mixture of the political with the mythical] persuades him that since Hera maddened him, the responsibility lies with the gods. Herakles cannot stay in Thebes, but he can go to Athens to be ritually purified..
What can this strange action mean? Rene Girard thinks that the play is about the failure of sacrifice. In his theory, there must be an absolute distinction between good violence and bad violence, between the sacrificial blood that cleanses from guilt and the blood that pollutes. In this story, according to Girard, the rituals of purification that Herakles was about to perform did not draw off the violence that, like Beowulf, he carried with him from his deeds, but instead, the rites “brought a veritable flood of violence down on the victim” (40). Those whom the ritual was meant to protect became its victims. Girard is primarily interested in ritual violence, but there is a strong parallel between the good violence of sacrifice and the good killing that hero does in ridding the world of its monsters. But in this play, killing monsters converts to killing his own children. More to the point, the household in its inwardness as a sanctum, a sacred center protected from violence, becomes the Underworld. Waking after the slaughter and seeing the bodies strewn about in their blood, Herakles at first cannot distinguish: “Surely I have not come a second time to Hades’ halls, having just returned from there for Eurystheus? To Hades? From where? No, I do not see Sisyphus with his stone, or Pluto, or his queen, Demeter’s child. ” In effect, it appears that his own return from the Underworld must be purchased by the loss of all those to whom he was returning, in a kind of terrible exchange, an economy in which death will not be thwarted. In this version of the returning warrior, those whom he means above all to protect from the monstrous outside become the victims of his own monstrosity. No Grendel is necessary, because Herakles himself acts the part.
In this play, Euripides turns the satisfaction of violence against the usurper and the tyrant–the kind of pleasure we take in seeing Grendel defeated–into a violence that erases all distinctions. Yet Euripides has a very dangerous imagination, one feels: what does it mean to describe the murder of children, then to grant Herakles absolution? Is it right to excuse, almost to sanctify, the hero who turns child-killer, when the images released by such a play seem to participate in what Girard calls “the contagious nature of violence”? Something in the way that poetry ought to work–a protection against images as well as a powerful use of them–seems to me missing in this play. He wants to make us recognize that this indiscriminate potential is always closer than we want to admit, always more of a possibility, but at the same time he actually brings that possibility about. The play has a strange chill, an odd odor of the dark. Euripides cuts through our moral categories and destroys our complacencies, but he might also leave dangerously ajar the gateway from the Underworld.
The Odyssey, the earliest of the works I have treated so far, seems more sophisticated and responsible in the way that it takes up the theme of the returning warrior’s violence and explores the difference between hearing poems about violence and actually experiencing the effect of killing. You know the story: the suitors of Penelope have taken over the household of Odysseus for the past three or four years. They eat up his flocks in their impious sacrifices and listen to the singer Phemios at every meal, delighting in his inspired stories about the Trojan War–stories no doubt along the lines of the Iliad that include tales about the very man whose house they are despoiling. The problem for the suitors, however, is that violence has become fictional and vicarious to them, a matter without responsible distinctions. They sacrifice animals, but with no sense of cleansing themselves or drawing closer to a divine truth. They listen to stories of death, but they do not think that they themselves will ever be put to the test. Their complacency stems from the power of their numbers. No one in the vicinity can force them to desist, and no one speaks against them except Telemachos, whose inheritance they are consuming. They have an articulate, forceful leadership in Antinoos and Eurymachos, men from the most prominent families who argue that they act as do only because Penelope will not admit that Odysseus is dead and choose one of them. Both Antinoos and Eurymachos plot against the life of Telemachos, but neither thinks for a moment about the possibility that their view of the world has anything wrong with it. The others follow their lead.
Homer deliberately sets up a situation in which a whole community of men has come to embody an unjust life; as much as the den of Grendel’s mother, Odysseus’ house has become an anti-Heorot. What is normal and enjoyable for the suitors is this outrageous violence to another man’s household, as bad in its way as Lycus’ usurpation of Thebes and his attempted murder of Herakles’ children. Into this scene of arrogant usurpation and complacency, of course, comes Odysseus, the returning warrior, in disguise as a beggar. After testing the suitors by seeing how different individuals treat him, he reveals himself to them in a famous scene; then he and Telemachos and two servants slaughter them all, with only a few exceptions (including the poet). The revelatory dimension of the violence lies in the way that the scorned beggar, the outcast, suddenly puts away his disguise and shows himself to be the master of the house, the true husband of Penelope, supported by the gods, who exposes as ludicrous the suitors’ assumption that they understand the way things are. When Odysseus first strings the bow and strips away his rags, he scatters his arrows in front of him and aims the first one at the most influential speaker of the suitors:
He spoke, and steered a bitter arrow against Antinoos.
He was on the point of lifting up a fine two-handled
goblet of gold, and had it in his hands, and was moving it
so as to drink of the wine, and in his heart there was no thought
of death. For who would think that one man, alone in a company
of many men at their feasting, though he were a very strong one,
would ever inflict death upon him and dark doom? But Odysseus,
aiming at this man, struck him in the throat with an arrow,
and clean through the soft part of the neck the point was driven.
He slumped away to one side, and out of his stricken hand fell
the goblet, and up and through his nostrils there burst a thick jet
of mortal blood, and with a thrust of his foot he kicked back
the table from him, so that all the good food was scattered
on the ground, bread and baked meats together. . . . (Odyssey 22.8-21)
Antinoos dies as the very picture of unrighteous complacency. Some might say that under these circumstances, Antinoos has the best death, because he never knows what hit him; but from Homer’s perspective, I believe, his is the worst, because he is denied clarity. Justice, in respect, actually constitutesmercy when it restores someone, however painfully and belatedly, from illusion to truth. Antinoos never sees the truth that all the other suitors do–that Odysseus himself has returned, that their certainties have been profoundly illusory, that there is a standard of right order being harshly reasserted. After the distinctions between suitors that has gone on, some proving to be kinder and more just than others, this wholesale killing of the others might seem unfair. Perhaps by legal standards it is, but countering this view is a series of prophecies and injunctions sanctioning the killing of the suitors and suggesting, along with the presence of Athene, that these men are being made a divine lesson.
Homer has the difficult task of making Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors more than another fictional satisfaction of the urge for violent retribution and more than an instance of the returning warrior’s dangerous presence or the potential for Heraklean violence in his own household. As a poem, it leads to a recognition that both convicts the audience of its own short-sighted complacencies and spares it the ultimate cost. It uses the imagery of violence to correct the complacent flow of our inner fantasies. At the same time that we are drawn into identification with Odysseus, we are forced to recognize all the evasions and excuses of the substitutes who constantly attempt to usurp his place. The slaughter has a certain feeling of divinely sanctioned excess at the same time that it carefully avoids the dangerous release of unconstrained images. Odysseus himself is the key, because he must be a figure of restraint. His own pollution from being in the monstrous realm of his travels and descending to the Underworld has been largely, though not entirely, removed by the seven years he spends hidden away on the island of Kalypso, weeping for his homecoming. Because of this buffer, his return from the space of indiscriminate violence, psychic horror, paranoia, and hatred does not become disastrous for his own family–or the psyche of the reader–but becomes the means of a harsh renewal of justice. Even so, the violence would be merely terrible, not merciful, if Odysseus did not represent the restoration of a high and difficult inner measure to which the poem’s audience is also being called.
This kind of measure brings me, strange it may seem, to the work of Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of lupus in 1964 at the age of 39 after compiling a major body of short stories that treat violence as profoundly and prophetically as any writer of the century. In some remarks that she wrote as the introduction to a reading of her short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor gives a spirited defense, not only of her own use of violence, but of its presence in serious writers, past and present:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader. . . . (Mystery and Manners 112)
There are many examples of kinds of violence that she means. A woman named Mrs. May, convinced that she has finally gotten the upper hand of her shiftless employee, Mr. Greenleaf, drives out into a pasture to shoot the scrub bull who has escaped from his sons’ dairy down the road. Mrs. May’s complacency and self-deception end with the story’s climactic violence, when the bull escapes Mr. Greenleaf and charges the car, where she is waiting on the front bumper:
the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed . . . and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable. (Stories 333)
In “Revelation,” one of the great stories of her last year, a woman named Ruby Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s office across from a pleasant lady and her ugly daughter, Mary Grace, who goes to Wellesley College. Ruby is busily comparing herself to the other people there–the white trash, especially–and thanking Jesus for all the good things she has and is. At the climactic moment, she is flooded with gratitude: “‘O thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!’ she cried aloud. // The book struck her directly over her left eye” (499). Not only does Mary Grace hurl the book, but she attempts to strangle Mrs. Turpin, and at the moment when the girl is pulled from her and taken away, she whispers to Mrs. Turpin, “‘Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.’”
Strangely, Mrs. Turpin accepts it as a direct message from God, a revelation, and the consequences of this vision of herself lead to her turn by the end of the story.
I could cite other examples–from “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” or “Parker’s Back”–but I want to turn to the story that in some ways presents the definitive image of violence in its ambiguous relation to complacency, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” O’Connor herself summarizes the plot in her own sardonic way: “I’ll tell you,” she says to her college audience, “that this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by an escaped convict who calls himself the Misfit.” The family is made up of the Grandmother, her son Bailey, his three children, and their mother. The Grandmother does not want to go to Florida in the first place, and early in the story she uses a news item about the Misfit to try to dissuade the others. But a series of circumstances, most attributable to her folly and hypocrisy, lead them to take a side road in search of a mansion that she thinks she remembers. Also because of her, they have a wreck, and the Misfit, a man with spectacles that give him “a scholarly look,” and his two fellow escapees find the family in a deserted place beside the road. The Grandmother blurts out, “You’re the Misfit!” and he tells her that it would have been better if she hadn’t recognized him. On his instructions, the two others first take Bailey and John Wesley, his son, off into the woods to shoot them, then the mother and the two other children. Meanwhile, the Misfit and the Grandmother have a serious conversation, in which she keeps desperately trying to assure him that she knows he must be a good man and that she can tell he “must come from nice people” (127). “Nome,” he says, “I ain’t a good man.”
She tells him to pray, that Jesus will help him. He says that he knows it. “‘Well then, why don’t you pray?’ she asked trembling with delight suddenly. / ‘I don’t want no hep,’ he said. ‘I’m doing all right by myself’” (130)
By the end of the story, he has laid out a kind of philosophy that centers on his contradictory rejection of Christianity:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then its nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. (132)
If he had been there, he says, he would have known, and when he looks as if he is about to cry, the Grandmother suddenly murmurs, “‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’” The Misfit leaps back as if she were a snake and shoots her three times through the chest. When the convict named Bobby Lee comments, “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” The Misfit replies, “She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”(133). In effect, despite his intentions, the Misfit has been the Good Samaritan. He recognizes, if some of O’Connor’s early readers did not, that he has been the occasion of the “moment of grace” for the Grandmother. In her comments on this story, O’Connor writes that “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences that precede and follow them” (MM 112).
This ending answers a question that the feeling of a metaphysical address in the forestructure of violence posed at the beginning: it suggests that the real forestructure does not come from the killer, but from what is already being fashioned from his act. What, then, can we say about the events in Littleton, Atlanta, and Fort Worth? Only sweeping things. The killers all seem to be Misfits, anticipated by O’Connor in their metaphysical grievances. Grendel the night walker outside the mead hall where Creation is being sung says something about the man who attacked Wedgwood Baptist Church; it must have become for him, on that night, a kind of Heorot, unbearable, metaphysically obnoxious. The two boys responsible for the shootings at Columbine High School have been analyzed obsessively because they seemed so normal in many ways. Their deed, as I said at the beginning, cries out for interpretation at the same time that it seem to defy it. A Washington Post story that came out in late April focused on one of them’s obsession with war:
[He] thought about war, fantasized about war and wrote about war. He was thrilled when he heard, one morning in philosophy class, that the United States was on the verge of bombing Yugoslavia. Rebecca Heins, who sat next to him, remembers him saying, “I hope we do go to war, I’ll be the first one there.” He wanted to be in the front lines, he said. He wanted, as he put it, to “shoot everyone,” Heins recalls.
Did it trigger his homicidal frustration, as the article suggests, when he was turned down for the Marines because he lied about taking an antidepressant? Was he a kind of Herakles denied the outlet of legitimate violence? Or a kind of returning warrior, whose imagination had been contaminated by images irresponsibly let loose from the Underworld? He came from nice people, but was there some point at which, like the church killer and the Misfit, he said to himself, “it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him”? The Atlanta killer, for his part, never seemed stressed, according to a neighbor, “even though he worked in the pressure-cooker world of day trading,” but that world released something in him that recalls Herakles in his madness. He seems to have wanted to protect his family. He drove his son and a neighbor’s to Boy Scouts every Tuesday. He would play video games with the boys during sleepovers, the neighbor said, and always get them to school on time the next day. But after losing over $100,000 in June and July, he killed his wife and children with a hammer in order to spare them “a lifetime of pain,” then drove into Atlanta, planning to live, as he wrote, “just long enough to kill as many of the people that greedily sought my destruction.”
When we look at these instances of violence culturally, they seem somehow emblematic and illustrative of a lost boundary between the imaginary and the real, an imbalance in our institutions. Take for example, Toni Morrison’s description of the organized trenches of high school, where shame, is the plate-shifting time it takes to walk down the hall, failure is a fumble with the combination lock . . where smugness reigns, judgments instant, dismissals permanant. And the adults haven’t a clue. Only prison could be as blatant and as frightening, for beneath is rules and rituals scratched a life of gnawing violence. (Paradise 254)
Violence obviously makes us reconsider institutions. But what would be worse than not understanding the particulars is indulging a complacency that would keep us from seeing what O’Connor calls “the lines that create motion” in these actions, and those might have little to do, ultimately, with the structure of institutions. We see only the merest surface of these events, and when we focus too much on the violence, we might miss what O’Connor calls the “imperceptible intrusions of grace.” To the extent that we are not ourselves personally involved in the metaphysical address of these events, but simply suspect that there is one, these intrusions might be more perceptible in fiction than in life, because it is difficult to reconstruct the literal action of actual events, no matter how much we think we know from media accounts.
This is what O’Connor means when she defends “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” against the charge that it is grotesques; she prefers to call it literal:
A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies. (MM 113)
The more I think about particular deeds, the more important it seems to me not to believe that they can be understood in their truth on the basis of reports and not to dwell on the psyche of the killers, as though doing so could prevent something; it might have exactly the opposite effect. For purposes of contemplation, the indirection and distance of great literature give us the advantage and the protection. And on the other hand, it seems to me futile to try to outrun Violence, but crucial to be mindful of the approach of the halting and wrinkled daughters of Zeus, lest we miss the return to reality that constitutes their blessing.
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