Life Notes: Flannery O’Connor, Intellectual Virginity, and Turtles

Florida_Box_Turtle_Digon3When I was a girl I always wondered what a turtle’s body was like inside its shell.  I imagined a very tender, rag doll of a being, slightly sticky, utterly vulnerable, a sort of worm with arms and legs. It was innocent as a pre-mature baby, a filmy membrane just barely containing a lumpy, pulsing heart and lungs.  To see that being—to cut it out of its shell–would be intolerable, and, before I even knew the word: obscene.

Which brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” a  story I recently read.  In that macabre and complex tale—some would call it obscene—a great tragedy has occurred.  The daughter in the story’s family had her leg blasted off by a gun at age ten, and her mother and she have been left to cope with this misfortune.  Both have dealt with this great, essential sadness—the girl now wears a wooden leg—by developing tough carapaces of thought.  The mother has determined only to see the good in life—her name is Mrs. Hopewell.  And the daughter—she was named Joy by her mother but has re-named herself Hulga, the ugliest name she could find–has determined, in reaction, only to see the bad.  Mrs. Hopewell’s motto is “A smile never hurt anyone,” while Hulga’s position is “We are all damned…but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see there’s nothing to see.”  Their outlooks are opposites, but, as with all opposites, two sides of the same shell. Here: the shell of encased, hardened up, self-protective thought.

The story turns when a bible salesman seduces the daughter, now 32 and a nihilist philosopher, and steals her false leg in a horrifying version of a rape scene set in the loft of a barn.  There are myriad ways to think of this prismatic story, but one way is to see it as an intellectual hymen-rupturing.  Joy-Hulga’s cherry of certain knowledge is ripped open and stolen from her forever.  The bible salesman, whom the young woman had assumed to be an innocent “good country person” and whom she planned to seduce, and, through shame, teach a deeper understanding of life, turned turtle on her, and forced on her the lesson instead.  Perhaps, this makes occur to me, there is a kind of intellectual virginity.  Until you have your shield of ideas penetrated or violated or stolen away forever—hopefully in not  quite so violent a way as in the story—you remain an intellectual virgin.  Indeed, perhaps until that moment, you do reside in a safe Garden of Eden—but haven’t even a sip of certain complex but worthwhile, not-to-be-missed pleasures.  Until your armor is shattered, only after your shell is penetrated, in fact—do you truly enter the world of adulthood.

Before this shattering of set ideas, I suggest, you are essentially autistic—autistic in the sense of the word I was taught in the late 1970s in social work graduate school.  Back then I learned that an autistic child was one who resided inside a shell, a shell impervious to the world.  The metaphor widely used by psychological thinkers then was that of the egg—I  envisioned a little da Vinci baby inside a pure white shell—and this child living inside her egg was produced by a “refrigerator mother.”  This whole theory—widely accepted at the time—was another notion, another shell, that needed cracking…

Which returns me to Mrs. Hopewell and Joy-Hulga.  Each, as I envision her, was an intellectual autistic, as in this obsolete theory, living within her pure, virginal shell…

It is important to have compassion for us human beings.  In order to cope with life’s pains, we need tough, protective shells sometimes, or think we do.  And we keep them, polished and shiny, until they are blasted off us or stolen from us and we are left flailing and forced to manage in a new way.  Or, sometimes, we maintain our shells and think we need them…until, we don’t…and, one day, take it upon ourselves to toss off our armor and walk out naked into the world.  The inclination to disrupt our routine habits of thought can just start pulsing from within at certain life junctures.  It takes enormous courage to acknowledge this internal call to burst our own thought-carapaces, to lose our intellectual virginity, and even more, to take action upon it.  This is an adventure for the hardy, maybe the foolhardy and the slightly masochistic, but nonetheless the brave.

Since I was a girl, I’ve learned that turtles’ shells are not detachable.  You can’t remove the shell without killing the turtle.  There is no independent rag doll within. Turtles’ shells are formed from the rib cage and spine, and attached to the reptile’s internal bones.  Their shells just grow as they grow, and as part of them, the shells sluffing off the armored plates, the scutes, as needed, to make way for larger ones.  The turtle’s shell is part of it—not removable.  Some of us are like turtles.  We have shells so thick and so much a part of our structure that they could never be broken and/or we would die without them.

It would be ideal to have a portable shell and be able to shrug it on and off, and to know when you’d need it, so you could slip it over your head at just the right, and not other, times.  Don it just for the tragedy and not ever afterward.  I don’t know many who have this down.

But, in the end—and this is what O’Connor’s story suggests to me—until we lose our shells, or have those tender parts within pierced, in a sense, we don’t really have a leg to stand on.  Hard shells are brittle ones.  Maybe Joy-Hulga will be better off without her false leg. Maybe one leg is as good as it gets.  The world is, after all, a complicated, confusing place with, perhaps, more questions than answers…Hulga will almost certainly have less protection after her tussle in the barn, but perhaps she will gain access to something immeasurably richer, and—eventually, reborn—don, with pleasure, her given name.

One day recently, right around the time I read the O’Connor story, I saw something I hadn’t seen in years: a turtle shell.  A friend had come upon it in the woods.  It was a striking gold and onyx case, an haute couture armored jerkin with holes for the arms and legs.  It was an elegant thing.  Probably much more alluring—all polished and shellacked—than all that pulsing tenderness it had housed.  There is sheen and then there is joy.

You must lose in order to win…love, truth, the world.

Originally posted Friday, May 24th, 2013

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