The Other Side of Silence

I’m writing today from Dunedin, FL.  I’m down here with some friends to catch spring training baseball.  Tomorrow I’m interviewing Gene Smith’s octogenarian first cousin in Bradenton and then Sunday a loft veteran that we’ve been trying to find for a decade who turned out to be living in the Dominican Republic and moved to Orange City two weeks ago.

I left North Carolina in my car on Tuesday, a cooler packed with Diet Dr. Pepper’s, and 14 cd’s of Wagner’s Der Ring cycle conducted by von Karajan.  I’ve never listened to those operas in a concentrated sequence and I figured this 900-mile trek down to the Gulf Coast was a good opportunity.  What made me resist Der Ring all these years?  It may have been Wagner’s reported anti-Semitic views.  Or it was the daunting, Smith-like volume of Wagner’s material and drama.  Or both.  I also threw in some Wayne Shorter, John Hicks, My Morning Jacket, Patty Griffin, Rene Marie, the new Brad Mehldau, Mastodon, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Maria Schneider, Frank Kimbrough, and a killer set of old music compiled by the wonderful Old Hat label, Good for What Ails You. My wife was supposed to make this trip but she missed a lot of work last fall and winter.  She stayed home and wished me a good journey.

I stopped in Milledgeville, GA on Tuesday for a long overdue Flannery O’Connor pilgrimage.  Her old family farm house and grounds, Andalusia, are neatly preserved and it was moving to see her bedroom and workroom on the first floor just inside the front door.  She had lupus, of course, and hiking the high stairs – the house has 12-foot ceilings – wasn’t possible.  A living room became hers.

At 7am on Wednesday I visited O’Connor’s grave in a beautiful cemetery in downtown Milledgeville.  Today’s graveyards are typically clear of trees and shrubs so riding mowers can race through freely.  This one, aptly named Memory Hill Cemetery, is a horticultural marvel, with hints of both a wild and nurtured garden.

I made the following two photos of O’Connor’s gave with my iPhone.  In the first, her grave is on the right and her mother’s on the left (her mother lived ninety-nine years until 1995, Flannery died at age 39 in 1964).  The second photo is a close-up of O’Connor’s grave and you can see coins on it.  There was about $2 in loose change on top of her grave.  I go to a lot of graveyards – random graveyards plus special ones where my heroes are buried – and I’ve never seen change on top of a grave.  Have you?  Pouring whiskey on Faulkner’s grave makes some sense.  Why put coins on O’Connor’s grave?  I’m down here in Florida with a couple of O’Connor aficionados and nobody can come up with anything from her stories or biography or Georgia tradition that would make people inclined to put change on her grave.  Maybe it’s a fluke, a one-time thing.

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This morning in Dunedin I woke up to find a Powell’s Books Review of the Day in my email in-box featuring a new book on the great writer W.G. Sebald.  Here is the link.  The last two paragraphs of this review made me think of O’Connor and the Jazz Loft Project.  I’ll try to make sense of the connection I felt:  Two weeks ago in New York a top editor made an offhand comment to me that the major high brow periodicals in America today – he named the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic – no longer do history.  Everything is about now, or the future.  His nonchalant comment was chilling.  If these upstanding periodicals aren’t doing history, who in the media is?  The capitalist, history-vaporizing machine of our culture has, at last, conquered everything.  What’s left?

I’m not sure the Academy is a good answer because, God knows, Flannery O’Connor sent many comic daggers through the heart of any and every sort of hifalutin, prideful intellectual enterprises (check out her stories, “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person.”).  Hitler Germany taught us there is nothing about education and erudition and human talent that prevents a culture from turning into an evil, murderous beast.  Ignorance and ambivalence can be conditioned into even the most intelligent and trained folks.

George Eliot’s line quoted by this reviewer says everything:  “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”  O’Connor achieved this as well as any writer I know.

In the prologue to the Jazz Loft book I quoted James Baldwin:  “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.”   Eliot is saying the same thing about the “roar” of “ordinary human life.”  History and documentary work merge in these two quotes.  In her way O’Connor was a first rate historian, too.

-Sam Stephenson

Click here for “The Other Side of Silence, Pt. 2″

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