I recently had a bout of Covid. The symptoms were pretty mild aside from persistent brain fog, which in my case has been a good cover for creeping senility.
A much younger friend of mine confessed that she and her family celebrated their defeat of Covid with a summer beach holiday in Delaware. She and her husband still had a bit of Covid-brain — enough, apparently, that when they drove back, they came back in one car. They had driven up in two. It took them four days to figure this out.
My own sense of disorientation, confusion, and fatigue has not been so dramatic. I might have fired off the odd, undiplomatic email. But I often do that. I might have wondered about where I left my reading glasses. But they are invariably suavely tilted back on my head. And there are times when late into the evening, I agree to watch a movie with the family, and even if the movie involves spaceships and dinosaurs on a lost continent, I have a hard time following the plot, despite staying well-hydrated, as old people are advised to do, with copious glasses of soda water, purified by the Famous Grouse.
While I was doddering through the worst of my Covid confusion, I pulled the Library of America edition of Flannery O’Connor’s collected works off my bookshelf, and read pretty much the whole thing: her two novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away and her two major short story collections A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. O’Connor and reruns of the A-Team were my cultural lodestars during my Covid convalescence.
I wouldn’t prescribe that combination to most Covid sufferers, and if I had to suggest one cure over another, I would definitely lean towards the A-Team. But then I work in publishing, and escaping books is sometimes a necessity, especially these days. It has become a game for me, when reading the trade magazines announcing new books, to see if I can guess which combination of words will be used to describe any title, because the descriptions almost invariably involve some arrangement of these key selling points: black, Latinx, genderqueer, neurodivergent, gender-nonconforming, gay, lesbian, anti-racist, bisexual, tattooed, trans, drag-queen, feminist. I could go on, I’m sure. It is beyond parody — and, in the end, a little troubling when you realize that a great many people’s thoughts are beyond parody.
O’Connor was quite good at recognizing the ridiculousness of most human thoughts, but you could play the same fill-in-the-blank game with the ends of her stories. Okay, let’s see now, is this the one where he drowns the child or the one where the child is swept away in the river? Let me think, is this the one where the old lady gets shot or the one where she gets assaulted and has a stroke and dies? Is this the one where the hard-working refugee gets run over by a tractor or the one where the proprietress of the small farm gets gored by a bull?
With O’Connor, you pretty much always know that something bad is going to happen. Her tales of lunatics and obsessives, of lowlifes, of there-will-be-blood endings, may not be the best thing to read when you’re sick.
But…unlike today’s neurodivergent, genderqueer, mandated-conformist nonconforming sputterers of insane gibberish, Flannery O’Connor is a great writer. Some of the stories are simply outstanding, and despite the horror that often punctuates them, she has a great sense of humor (which shines through in her letters), wisdom and knowledge (ditto), and a profound realist’s sense of the meaning of life (even when related through the lives of grotesques).
But something else struck me. Aside from the backwoods, religion-haunted peckerwoods of her stories (the deplorables of their time), O’Connor, writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, is brilliant at skewering those educated, secular liberals who think they’re better than their uneducated, manners-make-the-man/woman, “classist” and “racist” parents, family members, and fellow Southerners. She shows how callow and cruel is the secularists’ own glowering, ready-to-burst-forth, ill-directed hatred. The secularists recognize what they think are the ignorant and ignoble limitations of the struggling farmers from which they sprang, but are utterly blind to their own cosseted, shallow, self-deceiving, and, in the end, haplessly destructive and wrong-headed view of the world. It’s not the crazy backwoods preacher obsessed with baptism and salvation who is wrong — or who is wrong only because he lacks a proper theology — it is the selfish secularist who thinks he has no soul to be saved.
O’Connor is great with titles. One of her last efforts, a fragment really, is titled, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” Isn’t that the question of our time? And, alas, in the end, it is one unlikely to be resolved by the machine gun-toting problem-solvers of the A-Team. Worse luck for me.