David said: “To use the good as a means of letting evil be seen more clearly, rather than to use evil as a means of letting good be seen more clearly by contrast, is an inversion as radical—and, I think, as disastrous—as anything Descartes came up with.”
I�m not sure that this formulation of inversion explains O�Connor�s aim so much as her technique. Her vision of evil is still meant to ultimately point toward the good�she has also said that all of her stories portray the movement of grace�but her focus does become so narrow that I understand why it can be hard to see what she is doing.
O�Connor focuses on evil and the way the good shows us clearly what evil is because that is the first step of the soul�s journey toward conversion. Why does Dante the pilgrim begin his journey toward heaven with a descent into hell? Because before the soul can repent and be purged of the evil it has embraced it first must recognize evil for what it is. The strayed soul at the beginning of the Commedia has so lost sight of the good that it cannot recognize the evil in which it is steeped for what it is, the lost soul perceives evil as good. Dante has to slog through all of the circles of hell, having his good guide, Virgil, point out to him the nature of evil. Dante also uses good to show his reader what evil is.
I am reminded of the gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the story of the woman at the well. My bible study group was discussing it last night and one person pointed out that it is the story of the soul�s conversion. Jesus confronts the woman with her sins asking about her husband. She replies: I have no husband. And he in turn seizes on this self-revelation to rebuke her further, confronting her with a clear vision of her sinful state: she has, in fact, had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Jesus knows that before the Samaritan woman can be open to hear the saving Word she must first recognize her own state of sin. This is the purpose of O�Connor:�s focus on evil: the sinner is confronted by evil so that recognition may occur and conversion may begin. Her fictive vision is infernal in the same way that the first third of Dante�s Diniva Commedia is infernal. She means for the reader to confront evil and perceive it as such because only through that moment of recognition can grace begin to work.
God works in the same way in salvation history. Conversion begins with a vision of the cross, the greatest evil that mankind has ever committed: to torture and kill the Author of all. Paul refers to the cross as a scandal; Christ realizes it will be a stumbling block. All of the apostles but John run away when confronted with this great evil. But that most evil moment of crucifixion, the death of God is also the moment of greatest grace. O�Connor chooses to focus on the way God transforms the evil that men do into moments of grace. It is a supremely Catholic vision because it brings us back to the cross.
O�Connor creates a vision of evil and uses that small movement of grace to show us evil�s true face not to glory in evil but because the first step in conversion is the recognition of evil for what it is. I don�t think her fictive methods are an inversion of the proper order because I see other writers, like Dante, doing the same thing. O�Connor differs from Dante only in the narrowness of her focus. She doesn�t continue to show us the movement of the soul through purgatory to paradise. Or to use the metaphor that Jesus introduces in the story of the woman at the well, she shows us the moment the seed is planted but we are not privileged to witness the harvest.
She is a Good Friday author. And if she chooses not to explore Easter Resurrection perhaps it is precisely in response to a Protestant culture, which rejects the crucifix because it finds the corpus on the cross too disturbing.
I think I like O�Connor for precisely the same reason that Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is one of my favorite saints. It is a particular devotion, to embrace the cross, though it is also the universal calling of all Christians.