Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Fulminating, Cultivated Despisers, and Ms. O'Connor

An interesting micro-discussion of the word "fulminate" and its use on some blogs (who knew?) has popped up at a Catholic blog site recently.  I find it fascinating.  

I find, on consulting my OED, that the use of the word "fuliminate" (a usage now rare) in its literal sense, to mean "thundering and light(e)ning," dates from 1610 in English sources.  Its specific theological usage--to thunder against or about something in theological terms--dates from 1639, and the word was so used by Dryden in 1687.

An old-fashioned word, then.  One once burnished and now tarnished, perhaps, with the patina of an antiquity considered slightly risible by the cultivated despisers of . . . well, risible antiquity?  The cultured despisers of talking monkeys that posture as talking humans, using far-fetched, outmoded, polysyllabic words whose meaning they cannot possibly grasp? The despisers of people living in the hinterlands who take it on themselves to comment on the ideas and behavior of people who count?

Or perhaps the kind of cultivated despisers about whom Schleiermacher wrote, and whom Flannery O'Connor's fiction constantly and deliberately assaults for religious reasons.  As she famously wrote in her essay "Mystery and Manners,"

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

I've always been fairly confident that, as a fellow Southerner (and fellow Southern Catholic), I grasp why Flannery O'Connor employed her shocking gothic narrative devices and those surprising parabolic twists and turns her fiction takes: she wanted to assault the sensibilities of readers who were convinced, since they were members of the right crowd, had gone to the right schools, and lived in the right places, that they weren't either blind or deaf.  But whose blindness and deafness affects all of the rest of us, precisely because they have gone to the right schools, live in the right places, and occupy the right circles.  And so their power rules our lives.

As she says often, in her letters and essays commenting on her fiction, one of the things she learned growing up in the Christ-haunted netherlands of Middle Georgia was that those with ears often don't choose to use them, and those with eyes are sometimes incapable of seeing.  One of the things she learned growing up in the Christ-haunted evangelical South was the power of a text, the King James bible, with its risible, antiquated, fulsome words, to shape consciousness and even, sometimes, induce conversion.

And so she shouted.  And so she wrote in huge figures.  She fulminated.  She chose risible antique words and risible antique devices--many of them from the Holy Bible--to make her point.

Since she thought the salvation of folks' souls and the real reality of the Eucharist were worth shouting about.  And perhaps even fulminating about.  Just a little bit.

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