Giving the Devil His Due

Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Jessica Hooten Wilson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     156 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scholarship in what the American Academy of Religion presently denominates “Arts, Literature, and Religion” [ALR] had its genesis—as is the case with the study of religion generally—in the study of Christianity and, within that study, in a theological interest. In the case of ALR, that interest achieved trenchant and sustained expression in Nathan Scott’s Tillichian-based formulation of “theology and literature.” In the half-century since Scott launched his program, ALR has expanded hermeneutically and comparatively in ways that were overtly revisionist and, in the aggregate, salutary. Age, nonetheless, has not withered nor custom staled Scott’s claim for an integral reciprocity of literary expression and theological formulation, which has retained lively expression, even when it proceeds unaware of its own modernist heritage.

Jessica Hooten Wilson’s comparison of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Giving the Devil His Due gives recent testimony to this abiding interest, even as it is at manifest odds with Scott’s liberal theological program. This book pursues the claim that modernity is characterized by its promulgation of “the lie of the autonomous self” (2), and that this has served to dislocate its predecessor’s source of ultimate value, the God of classical Christian theism. O’Connor and Dostoevsky testify—in their fiction—to the untenability and inevitable failure of this modern dislocation. The juxtaposition of these authors underscores the stakes of modernity’s transition, which has been a covenant not with the deity, but with the devil.

So this is, in sensibility, an anti-modern book (its first citation is 1 John 3:13). To borrow the admittedly flawed parlance of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), modernists have traded enchantment for ratiocination—and are, in this author’s judgment, decidedly the worse for it. Hooten Wilson’s rationale for her chosen comparison hinges on its signal capacity to show us the ways in which each author “gives the devil his due,” a not solely imaginative reckoning of the true stakes of modernity’s tradeoff. O’Connor and Dostoevsky alike give form to the paradox that modernists are sinful, yet don’t realize that they are.

This controlling paradigm informs the book, even as it comes in and out of focused expression. However controlling, the paradigm is of secondary concern to Hooten Wilson, who focuses on the animating comparison that it prompts, and that the book itself proposes and seeks to sustain.

That comparison is theoretical rather than historical; on a few occasions Hooten Wilson suggests the possibility of influence, noting that O’Connor might, or could have, read or consulted Dostoevsky in the course of writing a particular passage, but her major comparative mode is to show the reader the common interest both writers evince in the devil as the apposite metonymy of modernity. In Dostoevsky, the touchstone text is The Brothers Karamazov, which Hooten Wilson sees as rendering in its depiction of father-son relations (crucial to her notion of “mimetic appropriation,” discussed below) the fundamental modern dilemma of the father who fails to nurture his sons, and the sons who, as a result, misconstrue love of the deity for hate, with disastrous consequences for love of neighbor. In the case of O’Connor, Hooten Wilson’s range of textual reference is broader but the text of choice—appositely—is “late” (if a career of less than two decades merits such appellation). It is in O’Connor’s second and last published novel, The Violent Bear It Away (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1960), in which Hooten Wilson suggests resonances between its triad of Rayber, Bishop, and Tarwater and The Brother Karamazov’s of Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Here, O’Connor’s slimmer canon receives broader allusion: several of the stories—recurrently “The Enduring Chill”—receive paragraph-length attention, and the book makes a more sustained reference to the Hazel Motes narrative in Wise Blood (Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1952)while neglecting the parallel plot involving Haze’s comic counterpart, Enoch Emery. O’Connor’s Memoir of Mary Ann (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961) makes a marquee appearance in the opening of chapter 2.

As crucial to Hooten Wilson’s comparison of their literary works is what these respective authors wrote by way of commentary about them. O’Connor’s essays and, on occasion, her letters and Dostoevsky’s early drafts and correspondence are invoked as gold mines for authoritative interpretation. This reflects an implicit entailment of the book’s comparative claim—that O’Connor and Dostoevsky themselves held precisely the view of modernity that the Hooten Wilson herself holds. This book risks a hermeneutical circularity that is, in Ricoeurian terms, vicious: the informing paradigm of interpretation elicits representations of the world that accord to precisely that paradigm.

Hooten Wilson seems to want to avoid such circularity and establish comparative bona fides via recourse to René Girard’s idea of “mimetic appropriation”—implicitly defined as the propensity of a son to reject, and in rejecting unwittingly to imitate, the identity of the father (57). This dynamic characterizes Dostoevsky’s and O’Connor’s sons, and bears crucial implications for modernity’s misconstrual of Christian Trinitarian dogma rightly understood. Distorted relation to God leads, inexorably, to distorted relation to the neighbor such as with eugenics or the Holocaust. This is the shared sensibility—across authors rightly read—that Giving the Devil His Due seeks to establish.

Readers of O’Connor and Dostoevsky may still wonder about ways in which specific texts ambiguate these claims. How do we reconcile Hazel Motes’s mimetic appropriation with the very different behavior of his foil, the orphan Enoch Emery? Why does the priest in “The Displaced Person” (A Good Man is Hard to Get, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955) waste the Eucharist on the peacocks and read from the catechism to Mrs. McIntyre? Comparably better in this respect is Hooten Wilson’s discussion of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, but such discussion only serves to acknowledge the extent to which Dostoevesky’s text complexifies “mimetic appropriation.”

As should be manifest, Hooten Wilson’s book is itself a specimen of mimetic appropriation; an imitatio on precisely her own terms of Nathan Scott. That Scott is nowhere cited in the book, and that Hooten Wilson takes the work of “theology and literature” some distance from Scott’s initiating formulation—in both her dismissal tout court of modernity and her concomitant disparagement of liberal theology—only confirms that alliance. What disappoints about this book is not this unintended revisionism, but its propensity to assertion over argument, and its at times slim, while at others abbreviated, supporting apparatus: Girard’s theorizations are widely contested and Harold Bloom did not “prove” that American religion is Gnostic. Scott and Hooten Wilson share the claim that modernity transformed religion, and that theology-in-modernity will best address this transformation by attending to modernity’s literature. Hooten Wilson implicitly rejects Scott’s liberal paradigm; but her bid to support a claim undreamt of in Scott’s philosophy does not, at least here, offer a fully developed alternative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard A. Rosengarten is associate professor of religion, literature, and visual culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Hooten Wilson is associate professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University, where she directs the Giving Voice Writers Festival and is associate director of the Honors Scholars Program.


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