Over the past 50 years, men and women from across the artistic spectrum have found inspiration in the prolific writings of American novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor.
This was the subject of a two-day symposium hosted by Rome’s John Cabot University to mark the 50th anniversary of O’Connor’s death.
Titled “Moved by Wonder,” the two-day gathering included scholarly reflections of O’Connor’s work, as well as a showcasing of her influence over a wide range of artistic disciplines in the form of visual arts, theatre, music, and film.
The symposium opened on Friday with a dramatic reading of the short story “Parker’s Back,” one of O’Connor’s last works before succumbing to lupus at the age of 39.
The story follows Parker, a man who has covered his body with tattoos, and his wife Sarah Ruth, a deeply God-fearing woman who is unimpressed by her husband’s collection of body art.
One of the central motifs of the story is centered on a Byzantine-style icon of the face of Christ, which the protagonist has tattooed on his back.
The image was inspired by a postcard of the Pantocrator from the Monastery of Dafni, Athens, which O’Connor had received from William Sessions.
“I think it gave her the kind of cache to make what is so often in her stories, which are these convergences of very different things,” said Sessions, one of the keynote speakers at the Symposium, in an interview with ZENIT. “The Southern countryside and the Pantocrator – these are two different worlds entirely!”
A close friend of O’Connor – he is referred to as “Billy” in the collection of her letters, A Habit of Being – Sessions recalled how she was in great pain at the time she wrote “Parker’s Back.”
“Her kidneys were giving out. Her muscles were giving out. Her bones were giving out. Everything. Because the disease she had, which was strange, for her: the body turns on the body. It’s an autoimmune disease, and it’s tremendous.”
Don Carroll, who directed the reading of “Parker’s Back” in collaboration with Gaby Ford’s The English Theatre of Rome, chose this story to be featured during the event due to its significance as being among the last stories O’Connor wrote.
“I like the mystery of how each of the main characters – Sarah Ruth and Parker – are searching for something, and they don’t realize that they’re finding it in each other,” he told ZENIT. “I think they realize that they need each other. You sense that through the story, but it’s never told to you, and I think that’s beautiful.”
Other artistic renderings of O’Connor’s work exhibited during the symposium were included in an art show, “Misfit,” which featured internationally acclaimed artists and JCU students exhibiting together. The collection showcased a variety of art pieces, including a pair of oversized wooden books, constructed by Andrew Rutt, which was inspired by the short story “Revelation”; works of photography by Lauren Sunstein, which were inspired by the story “The River”; and a painting by Michelle Rogers, entitled “Baptized with desire,” which depicts the unique friendship between Flannery O’Connor and her frequent correspondent Betty Hester.
On Saturday, Jesuit Fr. Mark Bosco screened clips from his documentary, “Mystery and Manners of Flannery O’Connor,” which is currently in production. The documentary features interviews with Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Walker and Tobias Wolff.
Other speakers at the symposium included poet Davide Rondoni, and journalist Alessandro Zaccuri.
“Moved by Wonder”
The inspiration behind the conference was borne out of a desire to explore the work of Flannery O’Connor through the artistic endeavors of those who have been inspired by her writings.
The idea came when Elizabeth Geoghegan, a fiction writer and adjunct professor at John Cabot, met with fellow adjunct Andrew Rutt over a photocopier.
“We wanted to do something multidisciplinary because we didn’t want to do a conference where everybody just reads papers like this about arcane aspects of her writing,” said Geoghegan.
“Andrew and I are both artists, in a way: we’re creative people. So, we wanted to see what her influence was.”
She noted how various artists, including musicians PJ Harvey, Bruce Springsteen and U2, have cited O’Connor’s influence in their writing.
“It’s 50 years after her death this summer. How does she reverberate through the other arts?”
For her part, Geoghegan said it was her “essays on the craft of fiction writing… that were so important for me. I realized she was a kindred spirit.”
Fellow organizer of the conference, Andrew Rutt, explained the title of the conference, “Moved by Wonder,” was taken from the story “Parker’s Back.”
Rutt, along with his wife Elena, have translated much of O’Connor’s non-fiction into Italian, and together contributed to the realization of the symposium.
In the short story, Andrew explained, “the protagonist, Parker, is moved by wonder after seeing a man completely tattooed in a fair. This is a reoccurring figure that’s happened several times in short stories.”
There is something about the work of Flannery O’Connor, he said, “that moves you to wonder. It’s the unexpected. That grace can actually be violent. But there is a reawakening.”
“I think any short story… any art of any kind, which is explicitly or implicitly religious, should have that intention. It should be as if a book has hit you in the back of your head, which Flannery’s writing does.”