“Meditation on chance which led to the meeting of my father and mother is more salutary than meditation on death.”
Whenever I asked my students “Why would you have children?” I was usually met with a stunned silence. When pushed further, they proffer such lame responses as: “to carry on my name” or “it might be cool.” Some more thoughtful ones might rejoin my question with a question of their own: “Why even bring a child into this world”? GenNexters may be more optimistic than their predecessors who worried about nuclear holocaust but their well-laid economic plans have no room, at least at the present time, for the thought of, much less the reality of, children. Ironically, I find my students much more articulate about the prospect of their own deaths than this mysterious and, for them, frightening thing called birth. Schooled by “death education,” they have gone to morgues, written their own obituaries, planned, fully, their last exit. They have become comfortable, too comfortable perhaps, with the thought of death. More uneasy are they with the thought of birth and children. They wish to thrive in the “Sex and the City” culture where babies can prevent women from purchasing their Louis Vuitton handbags and men their Rolex watches. My anecdotal experience with students is confirmed by the well known statistics about the alarming decline of birth rates in Europe and reports that children rate very low on the scale of happiness for married couples in America. Explaining those phenomena is best left to the social scientists but exploring the meaning of our unease about having children is something that our literature and philosophy could illuminate. What might be the meaning of this stunned silence at the prospect of progeny? In this essay, I would like to explore that issue through a relatively unknown short story by Flannery O’Connor, “A Stroke of Good Fortune.”(2) It has something to say, I think, about young adults’ (and our own) uneasiness about bringing children into the world. While Ms. O’Connor’s protagonist, Ruby Hill, is older than most college students, her anxiety is strikingly similar and she affords us an instructive contrast to that touchstone figure in the existential encounter with death, Ivan Ilyich.
In his often-read tale, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a masterpiece of psychological and spiritual self-deception about our own mortality, Leo Tolstoy recounts the ruses an individual uses to avoid an encounter with death.(3) Respice finem (p. 51), the words on Ivan Ilyich’s watch, tolls the theme of the book: “Look back to the end”…to find meaning now in my life. The philosopher, Martin Heidegger, explicated the inherent meaning of Tolstoy’s story in well known passages in Being and Time.(4) Briefly put, Heidegger argues that in my flight from death the finite reality of the human condition is ironically revealed. An authentic encounter with the possibility of my death, of my own mortality, however, radically individualizes me and makes authentic existence possible.
However brilliant, and controversial, Heidegger’s existential analysis, on this issue at least, operates well within the Western tradition. From Socrates’ characterization of philosophy (in the Phaedo) as the study and practice of dying to Schopenhauer’s characterization of death as “the inspiring genius of philosophy,” there is a continuous—though richly diverse—tradition in which the topic of death initiates the practice of philosophy. (5) Flannery O’Connor’s short story, A Stroke of Good Fortune, definitely plays off that approach and yet offers an intriguing contrast to it. Her story is less known (some would say deservedly so) and less admired (even perhaps by the author herself) than many of her other works. There is no denying that the story has a somewhat contrived look to it; the symbolism is perhaps a bit too pat and the metaphors a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, the undeniable power of Tolstoy’s tale is derived in large part also from the author’s single-minded devotion to its theme. At any rate, A Stroke of Good Fortune affords us an opportunity to think what difference there might be in the existential encounter with birth as distinct from death.
Ruby Hill’s Encounter with Pregnancy and an Impending Birth
A Stroke of Good Fortune is a compact account of Ruby Hill, age 34, coming to the awful moment of recognition about her “condition.” Since the story is not as well known as O’Connor’s other works, let me summarize it briefly. Ruby arrives home on the steps of her fourth floor walkup with groceries in tow. Upstairs, her younger brother Rufus, home from the European Theater and worn out, waits. He is an embarrassment to her with his unpolished ways, “sounding like he’d never been out of a hog lot” (p. 98); his lack of get up “good,” she says, “for absolutely nothing” (p. 96). Breathless and feeling ill, she leaves the groceries, including collard greens (symbols of fertility abound in the story), for her husband Bill B (who once sold “miracle products” in Florida) to pick up while she begins her slow, painful ascent up the “steeple steps” (p. 96). As she mounts the stairs, she ruminates about her good fortune, disturbed only recently by her nagging illness. She takes pride in the fact that, unlike other members of her family, she is much better off because she has been so careful to exercise control over her life. Most significantly, she has avoided the awful fate that wore her own mother down--birthing and raising eight children. Because she and her husband Bill have been careful not to get her pregnant, she has achieved a modest measure of financial security and hopes soon to realize her dream of moving to the suburbs and owning her own home. Conscious that she is not well, she nonetheless remains confident that she can handle whatever it is that is wrong with her. In her ascent to the second and third floors, Ruby encounters two comic characters: the old, pedantic, goat-like Mr. Jerger with his green-black coat who foolishly thinks he has discovered the fountain of youth in his own heart, and her friend, the younger, salacious Laverne Watts, with her lime green shoes, who will reveal, to Ruby’s horror, the nature of her condition, that she is not ill but pregnant. Staggered by this awful revelation, she climbs to the fourth floor and collapses. She hollers into the womb-like vacuum of the stairwell her Tolstoyan “Noooo” (p. 106) and then the “charging chipmunk face” of six year old Hartley Gilfeet, crashes into her on his way into the “whirl of dark” that is his apartment on the fifth floor (p, 107). The story’s title, rife with layers of irony, comes from a fortune telling Ruby received from a palmist, Madame Zoleeda: following a long illness, she will receive a “stroke of good fortune” (p. 96). Not unlike the poor unfortunates who misconstrue the Delphic priestess pronouncements, Ruby interprets it to mean that she would, at long last, move to that home in suburban Meadowcrest Heights.
The story is at once familiar in the sense that it evokes the now well known philosophical themes of existential encounters with awful events that disrupt a person’s world and yet perplexing because, instead of death or illness, the event here is the natural and usually more positive event of pregnancy and anticipated birth. Still, the shunning of birth, not unlike death, might reveal its uncanny, disruptive power over us, better perhaps than any sentimental cooing over a new born baby. Karl Jaspers, the influential Existentialist thinker, called the experiences that disrupt our well laid plans “boundary situations” (Grenzsituationen).(6) As such, they are situations on the borderline of our ordinary lives—like death, guilt, injury—which have the power to disrupt our world, unmask our vulnerability and call ourselves into question. Ivan Ilyich’s confrontation with his own death is paradigmatic here; but I also think Flannery O’Connor had a similar idea in mind when she developed Ruby Hill’s chance pregnancy. Like Ivan, Ruby is faced with an existential crisis, a crisis which she would prefer not to acknowledge, much less accept. She too, in Heideggerian terms, is filled with angst (dread), quite literally nauseous, in the face of an event which she does not at first suspect. Even when, at the end of the story, she names the source of her unease, “Baby,” she remains in horror before the reality of it.
The news of the impending birth shocks her out of her everyday world precisely because it is a world in which she has happily been in control. The realization of her pregnancy came crashing into her, like little Hartley, and “rocketed through her head” (p.107). This can be true for any birth, even those which we excitedly await but Ruby’s shrinking from it reveals perhaps better than the positive anticipation the very real character of birth as not just one more event in our everyday world. Ruby had created an ordinary, modest life. She had cut back, simplified, even sacrificed so she could establish a measure of control, a “clean well-lighted place” (Hemingway) for herself far from the life Ruby knew as a child back in her hometown of Pitman. She has seen what the ravages of eight children did to her mother and she wants none of that. More enlightened than her mother and her two sisters, she has taken care (or so she thought) to avoid the awful “dried and puckered up” fate of the other women in her family. Ruby’s childless life has been comfortable and will become more so when she gets that long wished-for suburban home. Her mother and that brat boy, Hartley, remind her of a fate she wishes to avoid, a fate perhaps even worse than death, a fate she thought she could control. That illusion of control, however, is shattered; it appears that her husband Bill, knowingly perhaps, has “slipped up” (p. 104). Ruby goes through the now familiar stages of loss: she denies any hint of her condition, bargains that the illness might be a heart problem rather than cancer, and is furious with Laverne for revealing the truth. Just as, years ago, she had run away—ten miles to the picture show—when her mother was in labor with Rufus, now she wants desperately to flee from her condition; but she cannot. If Ivan Ilyich earns a hard acceptance at the end of Tolstoy’s story, the more modern author, O’Connor, gives us no such satisfaction. All we hear is Ruby’s anguished “no” reverberating down the stairwell. Her pregnancy has upended her world, sent her careening into the abyss, and that’s where O’Connor in typical fashion leaves her.
Literary and Philosophical Reversals
While it could be that Flannery O’Connor simply had in mind an ironic application of the Tolstoy story, it is unlikely that the author, master as she was of her craft, would have been content with such an obvious trope. Perhaps she deliberately invited comparison with Tolstoy’s story to accentuate the differences. Whatever her intent, the short story offers some fascinating differences with The Death of Ivan Ilyich and it is those differences which I find philosophically more intriguing. Although she employs what I would call the formal structure of an existential encounter, the substantive content of that encounter is markedly different. To put the issue as simply and as starkly as possible: With tragic seriousness, Tolstoy’s story presents a man who confronts alone the meaning of his impending death; with comic irony, O’Connor’s story presents a woman who encounters with others the meaning of the impending birth of her child. That perspectival shift from mortality to natality generates a series of literary and philosophical reversals; from eternity to temporality, from private to public, from the individual to the communal, from a man to a woman, and from tragedy to comedy.(7) These reversals call us to re-think the familiar existential claim that authentic existence can only be found in the encounter with the possibility of my own death. In the rest of this essay I would like to hold fast to that distinction between birth and death and reflect on that “chance encounter” (Weil) which led to Ruby’s condition.
When the perspective shifts from the “respice finem” (“look back to the end”) lesson in Tolstoy’s story to what might be called O’Connor’s “prospice initium” (“look ahead to the beginning”), what happens to our understanding of the human condition? Let me start by stating the obvious truth: birth represents a beginning, death an ending. That might be a truism but in philosophy and in literature one finds a curious tendency to conflate the two—think of T.S. Eliot’s famous phrase: “In my end is my beginning.” In the ending of Tolstoy’s story, Ivan’s death is much like a birth and Heidegger quotes approvingly, in Being and Time, Jacob Boehme’s line: “As soon as a human being is, he is old enough to die” (p. 228). Hannah Arendt, a student of Heidegger’s but one of the few philosophers to take seriously the event of birth, disagrees sharply with her mentor’s single-minded focus on death: “Human beings, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”(8) I found a reverberation of Arendt’s point in a comment by an Iranian father, quoted a few years back in the New York Times. While watching his son play soccer, after long years of war, death and martyrdoms, he remarked: “You can distinguish [now] between birth and death.”(9) The births of children create a world where young ones play on soccer fields and parents watch with enjoyment. In a culture of death that seems to matter. The rambunctious play of Hartley Gilfeet in O’Connor’s story evokes a similar but darker impression because, for Ruby, the birthed child represents on the outside everything she fears about the unborn child inside her.
The Temporal, Public, Communal World
If I meditate on the possibility of my own death, I am wrenched from this ordinary world because, as Heidegger often reminded us, death is not an event in my world but the end of my world. In this worldless encounter, the awareness of “my ownmost possibility” casts me back upon myself and holds out the possibility of an authentic existence in the face of my mortality. Anyone familiar with contemporary philosophy will recognize here the (admittedly clipped) account of the existential encounter with death. A reflection on the phenomenon of natality—of engendering and being engendered—can set us off in an entirely different direction, towards a temporal, public, communal world. That phrase needs some philosophical unpacking. First of all, encountering my death means understanding that my time will run out; Ivan is “out of time.” O’Connor, by contrast, describes Ruby’s child as “out nowhere in nothing… waiting with plenty of time” (p. 107). Ruby’s trial is just beginning. She will live on after her “stroke of good fortune”; she will bear the pregnancy and birth in a way Ivan does not have to bear any longer his ordeal. The wither and the whence of human existence both signify temporality as fundamental for mortals, but not in the same way. In her 1929 dissertation, Arendt takes up the Augustinian theme of human existence as the “in-between” of the nondum (the not yet) and the iam non (the no longer).(10) Though nothingness bookends our lives, she argues that the two negations are not the same. To be called out of being, out of the nondum, makes us look at the world in a very different way than when we reflect on my iam non. The faculty of remembering, so fascinating to Augustine, points not to anxiety in the face of the future but to wonder at the sheer chance of existence. Such a call out of nothingness can leave us miserable as Ruby is or filled with gratitude, as is Walt Whitman’s Thanks in Old Age to his mother “for life, mere life.” In either case, the response has to do with not the anticipation of death but a looking back (the prospice initium) at birth. No more dramatic contrast with the fixation on death in existentialism can be found in Arendt’s revised dissertation: “It is memory and not expectation (for instance the expectation of death as in Heidegger’s approach) that gives unity and wholeness to human existence” (p. 56). We cannot analyze that far-reaching claim here; but we can point out the irony that Ruby’s identity is presented in O’Connor’s story through recollections of her mother, her childhood and home; all the while fleeing in horror from that very identity in herself.
Secondly, Ruby’s encounter with birth is a much more a public event than Ivan’s encounter with death. Arendt makes a lovely point about the surprising transition that birth marks—from the most intimate, private sexual act between two people to the undeniably public appearance of a child.(11) In Tolstoy’s story, we are thrown out of Ivan’s public, inauthentic world into the private, authentic world of the self whose only audience is God. Ruby’s ordeal, by contrast, goes in the opposite direction. Initially, she hides her condition, even to herself and it is only when Laverne “outs” her and her swollen belly that she can no longer hide the truth of her condition. In O’Connor’s tale, the public world is not a foil to the private; rather it un-covers (Heidegger’s aletheia) the truth about our world. Such considerations lead to a more striking existential contrast. If Ivan’s encounter is a rather worldless affair (he is, after all, leaving it), Ruby’s is conditioned by the world in which her child, as an “other,” is waiting to emerge. Natality forces us to take the world more seriously. Without a world to be born into, there can be no births and, without birth, there can be no truly human world shaped by the unique story each new birth brings.
In this temporal, public world, it follows, thirdly, that ours is not a private world but one shared with others. Ivan’s ordeal is shared with no one, except perhaps Gerasim, who still cannot experience what Ivan does because the encounter with death radically individualizes each of us—“You’ve got to walk that lonely valley; you’ve got to walk it by yourself.” That view may account, in part, for the reason why Existentialist authors betray such a mistrust of society. There are but a few real Christians in Tolstoy’s and Kierkegaard’s estimation. Terms of denigration accompany the social: for Heidegger, the “they; for Nietzsche, the “herd” and for Jaspers, “mass society.” The authentic self can only truly ex-ist (literally “stand out”) against the background of the crowd. But, between the “I” and the nameless “they” lies a phenomenon too often neglected or seen as derivative by the existential tradition: the “we.” One may question whether an individual can or ought to face death alone; what cannot be doubted is that there is no such solitary existence in birth which signifies a trinity of parents and child. There is already a “we” whether we like it or not—Laverne even hints that Ruby may have twins. Ruby’s existential choice to accept or run away from her condition carries more that the usual freight in that she must choose not just for herself but for the developing child (children) in her womb. Communality is not just an add-on to the structure of human existence but is required by the public world into which we are born. “Non nobis solum nati sumus” (“We are not born for ourselves alone”) is the way Cicero puts it.(12) For Aristotle, community (koinonia) is established when we have something to share (koinein).(13) That sharing begins, as Ruby is all too aware of, in the womb we all shared with our mothers. Pregnancy and birth open us up to—even force us to confront—the reality of the other. The reality of our dependence on others precedes whatever lofty image we have of an autonomous self.
Unlike Ivan who falls alone into that dark, womblike sack, Ruby must ascend the stairs with child. Between Laverne’s unmarried flat on the third floor and the fifth floor where the child Hartley lives with his mother is Ruby’s “home” on the fourth. Whether, with her husband Bill, she can ascend into motherhood is uncertain, maybe even improbable. But one thing is certain; she will not be able to do it alone. Ivan’s sin is an individual one, an inability to see the truth about his mortality; Ruby’s is a communal fault, an unwelcoming of the child within her. We should not be too hard on Ruby though. Victimized as she is by an ungenerous culture, and manipulated by her husband into an unwanted pregnancy, she is not an unsympathetic character. Even her friend Laverne is distracted; her eyes are on Ruby’s brother, Rufus. We look in vain for a “we” to support her. An individual cannot alone take responsibility for our world; only we can recognize our common responsibilities for a world that will outlast us and children who will succeed us. Natality and mortality imply that “new ones” replace the “old ones.” At the end of the story, young Hartley caroms by the elder Jerger, who grasps futilely “with clawed fingers” (p, 107) at young Hartley’s shirt. He leaves the “old goat teacher” behind—as every new generation does.
Armed with these considerations, we can better diagnose Ruby’s condition—and, by extension, our own. In a world where the future can be fraught with peril—as in the war-torn Middle East—nothing perhaps but fool-heartedness or great faith could stir us to bring a new one into a world. But Ruby’s world is a far cry from that. Why, then, is she so horrified by the prospect of a new one coming into her well-ordered world? She resents the prospect of sharing her womb and her world with someone else. What horrifies Ruby is not the prospect of her own death but that an-other will disrupt her well laid plans. Ruby cannot accept her pregnancy in part because she sees the child in her womb as a competitor, just as a little girl, she saw her brother Rufus’ birth as a threat. In a world of limited resources, where each of us are in competition with each other, Ruby’s calculation not to have new competitors (children) who just wear you down, makes some sense. She wants her freedom from want in this Hobbesian world of inexhaustible desires and limited resources. While most of my students would shrink back from such a bleak picture of the world, it is, nonetheless, surprising to me how often you hear the complaint about having children voiced this way: “They are so expensive!” To place them in such an economic calculus puts them squarely in Hobbes’ and Ruby’s world. In becoming expensive commodities they lose their uniqueness and any possibility of experiencing the sweet surprise of birth is lost.
As is common in her stories, Flannery O’Connor suggests only by indirection what “cure” might be indicated. My personal favorite comes at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (which appeared in an early collection of four stories with “A Stroke of Good Fortune”) when the Misfit says to his companion after he has killed the chattering grandmother: “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”(14) It is not the constant threat of death that Ruby needs, however, but something like the reality of twins to make her “good.” However we speculate, it is clear that another reversal—this time of that hollered “no”—is indicated. But it could not be cheaply acquired and maybe even more difficult than Ivan’s acceptance when he finally, at great cost, is able to break through the black sack of despair (pp. 132-133). Ivan’s relationship with his distraught son is instructive here. His failed attempt to connect with his son, when he asks him right before he dies to “forgive” and it is heard as “forget,” is of little concern for Ivan because the only audience that counts, God, has heard the words of his heart. But it seems it may well have been of concern to his son for when we recall at the beginning of the story where we first meet him, brooding and alienated, it does seem a “forgetting” has already occurred. His son may well be a symbolic stand-in for us all and our “forgettings” but this particular child needs a father to guide him. (Tolstoy’s own neglect of his children while he was alive is a sad case in point.) So, Ruby’s acceptance would involve an abandonment of her resentment and, in William May’s evocative phrase, a generous “welcoming the unbidden.”(15) Ruby’s unwelcoming attitude is at its heart a failure to love. Following again Augustine, Arendt suggests that to love is to will that someone be (Amo: volo ut sis). The source for the love of this world, the amor mundi, must be not the worldless prospect of death but hope in a world that can house and nurture the new ones who come into it, even if it signals, as surely it does, making room for them.
O’Connor’s story explores the uncoupling of Eros and birth. Despite the symbols of fertility that are present in the story, what Ruby cannot accept is that Eros means what it has traditionally meant: the engendering of new life and, in that, she represents what has become the commonplace attitude toward sex—it can be kept completely separate from making babies. There are undeniable benefits from such a stance (as my young students were quick to remind me) but the uncoupling of the act from its meaning reveals Ruby’s ungenerous ethos for what it is. But, in a deeper irony, Eros does not just mean the horrified “baby”; it also implies thanatos (our deaths) because our love-making signifies making a space for the next generation and a consequent willingness on our part to “pass on.”
A Stroke of Good Fortune is sometimes criticized as a Catholic’s screed against birth control. (There are some resemblances between Ruby’s and Margaret Sanger’s mothers.) The word “control” certainly goes to the heart of O’Connor’s critique of the culture but I think that her point can be taken as more existential than moral. Avoiding or even terminating the pregnancy, whatever its moral ramifications, is not the issue because that would throw Ruby back into her unexamined life, in the same way a cure for Ivan’s cancer would only distract him from his encounter with death. Having complete control of reproductive processes, however “useful” that may be, hardly changes the truth of the human condition that existence for each of us is a given, a gift both miraculous and mysterious. Ruby’s self-deception—and perhaps ours too—is to flee from that truth. The effort to control is laid bare throughout the story. Ruby’s marriage to Bill, for example, seems nothing more than one of convenience, a contract to foster her individual ends—at least, until Bill slips up. Old man Jerger’s quixotic fountain of youth would create a world in which new births would be no longer needed or desirable. What could we say about those who live on and refuse to give birth? That lack of a generous spirit is what I believe O’Connor is after.
In fact, let us take the insight further, beyond, but faithful to, the confines of the story. It would be a distortion, the fallacy of concreteness perhaps, to make into a fetish the particular experience of pregnancy. Ruby is a striking example of a closed heart and shriveled spirit but there is a bit of Ruby in all of us, those who do not have children (like O’Connor and Weil) and those who do. There is a moment in the story when Ruby imagines herself as young Hartley’s mother, wearing “the seat of his good fortune out” (p. 98). Motherhood itself can be a controlling state, witness the “Tiger Mother” phenomenon. Ruby’s resentment of her brother is but another example of her lack of welcoming of a new sibling into the family. Here again the insight can be extended if we but think of our own experiences with sibling resentment or the proverbial young husband’s resentment of the first born—the wonderful stuff of comedy. It is worth pointing out that the existential encounter with birth can be a cultural marker for our own narcissistic lack of generosity.
A Woman’s Laugh
I have saved what is perhaps the most obvious reversal in O’Connor’s story until now: a man’s confrontation with death to a woman’s encounter with birth. (In fact, the original title of the story was “A Woman on the Stairs”). I did not want the reader to be distracted from the human condition of natality by O’Connor’s late 1940s portrait of a somewhat traditional woman. O’Connor’s story certainly is not a feminist tract; the great tragic irony of the story is that this particular woman, born of a woman, cannot summon up enough of the same generous spirit to welcome the new one. Though natality is a universal condition, there is a particular viewpoint on natality, born of woman, that is often neglected in philosophical accounts…and, indeed, in our practical everyday living. As my female students often express and as is obvious in Ruby’s case, the real burden of an unwanted pregnancy is borne most heavily by women. (Both Ruby’s husband and her brother appear in the story only through her ruminations.) It is not just that pregnancy and birth are largely a woman’s affair; it is not just that Ruby’s nausea is very real; it is not just that she thinks concretely of what this impending birth means—it is all of that—but it is more importantly what a woman’s perspective can bring to the meaning of the human condition. Ivan can dismiss his son at the end to spare him further discomfort; Ruby cannot so easily dismiss the child in her womb. Her pregnancy anchors her body and self in a way that Ivan does not have. He is alone with his thoughts; Ruby is heavy with child. The reversals already executed—to a temporal, public, communal world—anchor the human condition and point to a woman’s perspective. However much a woman like Ruby hates her condition, it is impossible to characterize it as isolated and worldless. For good or ill, her existential encounter makes no sense unless it is seen as a public event shared with others. Her fault in the author’s mind is chiefly, though not exclusively, the fault of this woman.
A man’s fault can be of a different sort and is vividly and painfully made explicit in the diaries of Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia.(16) Even accounting for the defensive and one-sided nature of her account, the portrait of her husband is devastating. In the year that their son Aleksei dies and Tolstoy publishes The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Sophia asks: “Why do fathers not grieve for their children?” (p. 77) She cannot understand why he is so distant from his own children, this man whom she acknowledges has “extraordinary understanding of people’s psychology in his writings” but acts with “incomprehension and indifference to the lives of those closest to him” (p. 238). She reports that he berates her for her “animal love” displayed in her grief over her dead children and ridicules her love of music and art, claiming women’s “only real purpose in life is sexual love” (p. 294). My point is not to bash Tolstoy or get into a “he said; she said” debate or even talk of the transcendent demands of the artist; rather I simply mean to show that this author of “universal love” does not seem to understand the demands of his particular family nor share in “the joys and griefs of those closest to him” (p. 244). This universal-particular dichotomy is not completely gendered-based as Ruby (and Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby) demonstrates but it does reveal a lacuna in the heart of any universalist like Tolstoy. The only birth he seems interested in is the transcendent, spiritual rebirth that formed the mission of his later life. This woman, who had a rich and, admittedly, torturous spiritual life could comment about her husband: “The world doesn’t exist for him” (p. 207). That is the world into which his own children were born.
O’Connor’s choice of a woman to represent the resentment of others who impinge on her world is particularly poignant, then, because it is harder to imagine (though not impossible) a pregnant woman proclaiming that the world is a “war of all against all.” In the well-known existential image of the lonely, thinker (male, of course) who dwells alone on the mountain top it is hard to picture a woman with child there. We academicians seem to forget, to run away from, to deny even (think of Parmenides and Bishop Berkeley) that we have all been bodied forth from a woman’s womb. We cannot explore this theme in great detail because it will track us far from our story but we can, following O’Connor, point out that taking the woman’s perspective seriously may mean we take ourselves less so. Reminding ourselves that we all started out as mewling infants might be just the antidote for our pretentiousness and inflated sense of self. When I tell my wife that I am writing on birth, she laughs and asks what I could possibly know about giving birth. That laugh is reminiscent of the way-too-maligned Thracian maid who laughed at Thales stargazing as he fell into a well or the Aristophanic Lysistrata’s pricking of man’s pretentious warring bluster. These stories present us with voices not often heard in the philosophical tradition. It is not inconsequential, then, that O’Connor chose a woman to tell the existential encounter with birth; and, to tell it with a goodly dose of humor.
The classic dramatic conventions required that, in a tragedy, the hero dies; in a comedy, death, if it occurs at all, is off stage. Births, sometimes strange and miraculous and often accompanied with sexual humor, are the stuff of comedies. Despite Ivan’s redemption, Tolstoy’s story is heavily laden with tragedy, while O’Connor’s story is lightened by comic moments. The pedant, Jerger, is a pathetic but comic figure and, as such, he occupies, on the second floor, the lower level of O’Connor’s purgatory. His idea for cheating death mocks our own obsessions with exercise, health and drug elixirs. Ruby’s flopping on Hartley’s toy gun reminds us of the old May West joke and the reader cannot help but smile at the erotic, ironic punning of B.B. Hill’s “slipping up.” It is Laverne, though, who is the true comic figure in the story. She cannot stop from laughing when she sees Ruby, gun in hand, at her front door on the third floor. She imagines that her new green shoes will make an easy seduction of Rufus. Most critically, it is she that brings Ruby to her moment of recognition with a comic dance, that old vaudeville routine that spells out M-O-T-H-E-R (p. 104). Ruby, of course, is not laughing at her condition—the joke is on her—but one could wonder what might occur if she did experience what Kenneth Reckford called “the sacred and healing laughter” that is associated with comedy.(17) O’Connor’s “modern” story “fails” as a comedy because of the oppressive, sterile atmosphere brought on, perhaps, by Ruby’s refusal to laugh at herself.
The comedic nicely captures the reversals suggested in this essay and implied, at least, in O’Connor’s story. Aristophanes and the Greeks had a phrase for the topsy-turvy, upside down world of comedy—hypertera nertera. When used in the Lysistrata as a tongue-in-cheek oracle, one wife quickly interprets it, erotically and politically, to mean that woman will be on top!(18) The surprises of comedy are not unlike the surprise of birth itself. This element of surprise or wonder opens us up to what is new, unplanned for and uncontrolled. It permeates our lives from birthday surprises to the surprises of history; all traceable back to the initial surprise of birth. It keeps us young we say, our fountain of youth that, unlike Jerger’s, spells our own replacement by what the Greeks called the neoteri,the new ones. A Stroke of Good Fortune is a post-war story in which the Aristophanic celebrations of peace are absent. And that gives it a particular poignancy and sadness. In that O’Connor, as she always does in her stories, points by indirection to what could redeem the situation, there is, at last, an element of hope for a world in which children could be welcomed.
It may be that, for philosophical reasons, I have strained against the literary boundaries of O’Connor’s little story. But, at the very least, the philosophical stretch marks I have added are in keeping with O’Connor’s sensibilities. It might be argued, against my position, that the existential encounter with death has priority because only in light of my mortality can I experience the true meaning of natality. If, though, there are meanings to the human condition that cannot be uncovered by the encounter with death, then meditating on the chance encounter that is birth may well be “more salutary” (Weil).
More problematic for my argument, however, is the framing of the counter-positions; birth against death, individual against the communal, woman against man, comedy against tragedy. Admittedly, there are elements of both polarities in both stories. And the truth of the human condition does, it seems to me, lie between these polarities. To further explore those “in betweens” would be a fruitful task. The rhetorical stance I took here was due to the fact that the tension at the present moment in philosophy is hardly balanced; the one side is barely visible and hardly audible. In the western tradition of philosophy, birth has too often become merely and literally an “after-thought.” It is my hope that O’Connor’s story, and our philosophical musings, offers a corrective vision that helps restore the tension.
Francis Kane, professor emeritus at Salisbury University, has published in various journals, including The Cambridge Journal of International Health Care Ethics and Commonweal. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, America and Vogue. His book, Neither Beasts nor Gods, is published by Southern Methodist Press. He is currently at work on a manuscript on the philosophy of natality.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
(London: Kegan Paul, 1972), “Chance,” p. 97.
(2) Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Geroux, 1980), pp. 95-107. All page references are to this edition.
(3) Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (New York: Bantam Books, 1981). All page references are to the popular Bantam edition.
(4) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Translated by Joan Stambaugh (New York: SUNY Press, 1996), sections 46-53. Page references are from that edition.
(5) Plato, Phaedo, 64a and Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Translated by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1958), Vol. II, p. 463.
(6) Karl Jaspers, The Way to Wisdom. Translated by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), p. 20.
(7) Following Hannah Arendt, I am going to use the word ‘natality’ to express a whole cluster of words and concepts that point to the universal human condition of being born and its impact on the meaning of our existence. Although the word may seem a bit awkward it helps underscore the fact that a philosophical reflection on birth is different from but not in conflict with the experiences surrounding our entrance into the world.
(8) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.246. All page references are to the second edition. A helpful secondary source (and one of the few) on Arendt’s philosophy of natality is Patricia Bowen-Moore, Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Natality (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
(9)New York Times (Saturday, June 10, 2006), A3.
(10) Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). References are to the paperback edition. Arendt worked on her dissertation, which she never published, up into the 1960s.
(11) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 242. Reproductive technologies have altered that standard private/public image; whether for good or ill is the subject of much debate.
(12) Cicero, De Officiis, Book I, chapter 7, l. 22, p. 22 (Loeb edition).
(13) Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chapter I, l-2, p. 2 (Loeb edition).
(14) Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, p. 133.
(15) William May, President’s Council on Bioethics, October 17, 2002, session 1: http://bioethics.georgetown.edu/pcbe/transcripts/oct02/session2.html.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that Tolstoy does hint at a similar generosity but it remains worldless, even as he tries to connect with his son and wife at the end. Heidegger, too, postulates that, in the face of my being on-the-way-towards death, “resoluteness” is called for but that is hardly adequate to address the demands of parenting. Heidegger does characterize the human being’s condition as constituted by Mit-sein (being-with) but nearly everyone agrees that the theme is undeveloped. Might it be because of his intense focus on death?
(16) The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter (New York: Random House, 1985). All references are to this edition.
(17) Kenneth Reckford, Aristophanes’ Old-And-New Comedy (North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 49.
(18) Aristophanes, Lysistrata, lines 772-773, pp. 372-373 (Loeb edition).