When Fiction and Philosophy Meet

A Conversation with Flannery O'Connor and Simone Weil

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E. Jane Doering, Ruthann Knechel Johansen
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , April
     2019.
     240 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881466966.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In When Fiction and Philosophy Meet, E. Jane Doering and Ruthann Knechel Johansen explore the various means by which the French philosopher Simone Weil and the American writer Flannery O’Connor sought to create an awareness of and response to divine presence in everyday reality among their readers. While O’Connor’s references to Weil have previously been noted and examined, this is the first study to consider each author’s body of work in an attempt to identify common themes, interests, and concerns expressed therein. In doing so Doering and Johansen combine philosophical exposition and literary criticism out of respect for the genres of their subjects and in order to make their work accessible to audiences from multiple academic fields (xiii-xiv).

The chapters are structured appropriately, with each beginning with a discussion of Weil followed by a discussion of O’Connor. Although the two women’s lives overlapped, they never met or corresponded; Weil died just as O’Connor’s writing career was beginning, and O’Connor knew Weil only through her own voracious reading.

An initial chapter outlines the life of each woman, including a discussion of the contexts in which O’Connor likely read Weil, followed by a chapter which describes the major concerns, influences, and writing styles of each. The next four chapters are the heart of the book, identifying eight specific themes and analyzing the role of each in Weil’s philosophy and O’Connor’s fiction. A concluding chapter summarizes the main relationships found between their works and discusses their relevance to our contemporary landscape.

The eight themes—attention, apprenticeship, beauty, charity, suffering, affliction, grace, and decreation (a term repurposed by Weil from the work of Charles Péguy; 195, footnote)—are identified and described first in Weil’s writings and then discussed in the context of O’Connor’s short stories and novels. Though this would seem to privilege Weil’s thought, the correspondence with elements of O’Connor’s fiction never seems forced or artificial.

At times the relationship is a simple matter of direct comparison of elements found in both writers’ work, as in their discussion of attention found in chapter 3. At others, a contrasting theme within O’Connor’s work relates to the theme found in Weil’s—as when Weil’s concept of decreation as a means by which humans learn to love God is contrasted in chapter 6 with O’Connor’s tragic depictions of the distance that her characters have created between themselves and God and themselves and other people.

In their concluding chapter, Doering and Johansen situate each writer as a prophetic voice in her own context as well as a voice of enduring challenge to the issues of the present day. Weil sought to locate God’s presence in the world at a time when Europe was fractured by social and economic divisions and was facing the evil and destruction of the holocaust and World War II.

O’Connor created characters which highlight humanity’s need for the divine, often in deeply disturbing situations, while living in an American South which was struggling through the racial conflicts of the civil rights era. The writing of both Weil and O’Connor transcends the limits of their particular situations and experiences to address the universal human desire for connection with truth and beauty beyond our individual lives. This universalizing aspect of their work renders both women’s writing still relevant today, over fifty years after O’Connor’s death.

Doering and Johansen’s book can serve as an introduction to the work of either Weil, O’Connor, or both, but it is better read as a fine example of interdisciplinary scholarship. Neither of the two figures is given short shrift, and the two disciplines—philosophy and literary criticism—receive equal attention in the dialogue. Though the focus is clearly on the religious elements in Weil’s and O’Connor’s work, enough attention is paid to other aspects of their thought and writing that a clear picture emerges of the larger respective contexts of those elements. All in all, this book provides unique insight into the work of two important 20th-century intellectual figures and should serve as a model of interdisciplinary study for future scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim Sharp is Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Colorado State University, Pueblo.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

E. Jane Doering is Professor Emerita of French Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame.

Ruthann Knechel Johansen is President at Bethany Theological Seminary, University of Notre Dame.

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