31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 12: “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor

May 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything_That_Rises_O'ConnorOn April 22 of this year, Stephen Colbert took to the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at New York City’s Symphony Space. The celebrated cable television satirist was not there in character as his bigoted, ignorant right-wing alter-ego; he was there as himself, and he was there to read a story. The event was part of the thirtieth anniversary season of Selected Shorts, a combination podcast and reading program that pairs short fiction with celebrity readers.

This was not the first time Colbert had participated in the literary programming at Symphony Space, but according to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Katherine Minton, who runs the program, thought he would be a natural fit with O’Connor. Like the writer, Colbert is a Catholic from the South, and the two share an affinity for irony and biting humour. Italie quotes Minton as saying, “I asked him and he said yes right away, and told me that he’d like to read ‘The Enduring Chill.'”

It is not difficult to understand what Colbert appreciates about O’Connor’s story. One of the author’s later works (the collection in which it appears was published posthumously, following O’Connor’s death from lupus), the piece contains the cascading ironies for which the writer is justly celebrated, but also evinces a control over its tone and its subject that is absent from her earlier works. Particularly significant, perhaps, the central theme of the story is one Colbert made much of in his career as a mock pundit: hypocrisy.

Asbury Porter Fox, a twenty-five-year-old native of a backwater Southern town with the delightful name Timberboro, has been away at university in New York. He returns home suffering from a fever and chills and convinced he is dying. This scenario – which, in O’Connor’s hands, turns out to be the set-up for an elaborate, religiously suffused shaggy dog story – provides an opportunity for the author to corrosively deconstruct the familial relationship between Asbury, his overbearing mother, and his schoolteacher sister, Mary George.

At first Asbury appears to belong to the class of O’Connor’s patented intellectuals – a group the author had little but disdain for. He attends university in the big city – a location that never bodes well in an O’Connor story – where he is a failed writer, having penned “two lifeless novels,” a “half-dozen stationary plays,” a group of “prosy poems” and “sketchy short stories.” The only writing of his he has not burned consists of a long letter to his mother – which takes up the entirety of two notebooks – meant to explain himself and his life. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” we are told.

Here is O’Connor at her most blisteringly ironic. Asbury is not an intellectual; at best, he is a pseudo-intellectual, someone who strives for credibility but continually falls short. His university friend Goetz, upon learning of Asbury’s illness, counsels that the young man consider it an illusion, like all of life, but Asbury is unable to comprehend what this might mean. Goetz has been to Japan, where he became a Buddhist; he buys Asbury a ticket to a lecture on the Hindu philosophy Vedanta (Asbury is bored to tears by the talk), following which members of the audience retreat to Goetz’s apartment. Among them is a Jesuit priest with the outrageous name Ignatius Vogle, who speaks airily about the “real probability of the New Man.”

Asbury feels an affinity for Vogel’s affectations (perhaps unconsciously recognizing in the Jesuit a fellow poseur), which seem to stand in opposition to his mother, whom the young man considers little more than a rube incapable of comprehending his artistic aspirations. “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here,” his mother says in an attempt to be encouraging. “We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” She advises her son to include the Civil War in whatever he writes. “That always makes a long book.”

Asbury’s mother – for whom the epitome of literary achievement is Gone With the Wind – has nothing in the way of artistic or intellectual ability, but the story treats her more sympathetically than her son because she is genuine where Asbury is artificial. Like her creator, she has remained close to the small community in which she has always lived and looks with suspicion on the teeming masses in New York. She insists that Asbury consult the local physician – tellingly named Dr. Block – who, despite his back-country ways and colourful dialect, is the person who eventually diagnoses Asbury.

At the risk of ruining the joke, it turns out that the young man is not dying. In this, Mary George hits close to home: “Asbury can’t write so he gets sick,” she tells their mother. “He’s going to be an invalid instead of an artist.” This is fairly close to the truth as Asbury has determined it. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, he has convinced himself he is dying and that his death will substitute for the production of a great work of art as his life’s magnificent act. “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death. He had seen this from the first with a kind of mystical clarity.”

Reading these sentences in an O’Connor story should set off instant alarm bells, and should clearly indicate that Asbury is ripe for comeuppance. (The relevant Bible text here is Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”) Nor should it be surprising that the instrument of this comeuppance is a priest – not a devotee of “the New Man,” like Ignatius Vogel, but a true fire-and-brimstone Jesuit who strips Asbury of the hypocritical mantle he has donned and leaves him naked before his God (in O’Connor, the deity always merits a capital letter).

There is irony here, too. Asbury initially asks his mother to summon Father Finn because he assumes the priest will resemble Ignatius Vogel. (His first question is about whether Father Finn has read Joyce; the other man doesn’t even know whom Asbury is referring to.) Instead of indulging Asbury’s inclinations toward intellectual pretension, Father Finn berates him for neglecting his eternal soul by not doing enough to serve God in this life.

Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not a Roman.”

“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.

Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.

“But you’re not dead yet!”

Father Finn’s retort is brutal in its directness (it’s one of the only moments in the story in which the irony is dropped and O’Connor speaks directly) and its ability to cut to the heart of the real sickness afflicting Asbury.

Asbury’s solipsism and self-involvement have conspired to convince him that he is too grand for the town of Timberboro and even for his own family. But his carefully constructed persona is easily rent by someone who recognizes the insincerity and deceit underpinning it. Asbury likens the letter he writes for his mother to the work of Kafka, but misquotes Yeats and burns his own fiction, which he considers substandard and ineffective. His climactic confrontation with Father Finn represents the moment O’Connor insisted on in her work: the dramatic instant in which grace is offered. This is often, in O’Connor, a moment of violence; here the violence is rhetorical rather than physical, but no less scalding for all of that.

The story’s final image finds O’Connor in full symbolist mode: a water stain on Asbury’s bedroom wall, which appears as a bird with an icicle in its beak, is seen to be descending toward the young man. This water stain is likened to the Holy Ghost “emblazoned in ice instead of fire,” and making its “implacable” way toward the figure prone on the bed. In this final moment, the chill of Asbury’s illness, which has proved not to be so mortal as he imagined (“People just don’t die like they used to,” his mother tells him), is replaced by a different kind of enduring chill, this one more spiritually potent and transforming. The veil of hypocrisy has been torn away and the egotistical hypocrite has been forced to confront his essential self. No wonder Colbert likes the piece.

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