‘Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite’ at the Liverpool Museum. See details.
A 12-year-old girl’s caustic, aggravating, proud, funny observations about her two 14-year-old girl cousins visiting from Mount St. Scholastica, a convent school. The title is taken from Corinthians 6:19 (“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself) and anticipates in remote ways The Handmaid’s Tale. The younger girl, who takes to the notion that she could be a temple of the holy ghost and becoming a saint but for the tortures she might have to endure, makes fun of the older, seemingly more simple-minded girls. The older girls go to a fair and see a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite shows them his genitals and says repeatedly, “God made me thisaway… and I ain’t disputing His way.” O’Connor would like us to think that he represents the acceptance of god’s will. Of course that implies that there’s something wrong with the hermaphrodite–a prejudicial, a priori judgment by O’Connor necessary as a premise for the story to “work.” The judgment is a distasteful construct. This being O’Connor, the girl has an epiphany at the end, accepting grace, letting go of her pride, embracing Catholicism. Drench the ending in sun all you like, it’s a preachy, flimsy story saved by its humor and the girl’s curious insights. But it’s no “Keela.”
Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
One of her startling stories, combining the breezy, the humorous, the sinister and the horrible as “Bevel,” the little boy at the center of the story, moves toward a drowning. His parents party, his mom is a drunk. They hire a sitter, Mrs. Connin, to take care of Harry for the day. She claims him and tells the couple they’ll be going down to the river to see Rev. Bevel Summers, an itinerant preacher. Harry, who is 4 or 5, decides to call himself Bevel, because it’s funny, because Mrs. Connin doesn’t know his name, because he’s looking for himself, because he likes trying new worlds, the impulse that will doom him. They spend a little time at Mrs. Connin’s house, an interlude with three other boys and a girl, there to set up the final scene: the boys play a trick on Bevel and frighten him by having him startle a pig that runs out from its pen and scares him. Pigs are not the cute characters of children’s books after all, and he was not birthed by a doctor but by Jesus Christ, as Mrs. Connin tells him. At the river, Mrs. Connin tells the preacher that he shares the same name as the boy’s, and the boy makes fun of the name as the preacher talks to him, and dunks him in the water to baptize him, and becomes angry when Harry-Bevel tells him his mom is hung over after Mrs. Connin tells the preacher to pray for her for being ill. Around the river, ”this was no joke. Where he lived everything was a joke.“ Mrs. Connin brings him home. The couple make fun of her, or at least of the preacher, and laugh when they discover Harry has been calling himself Bevel. Mrs. Connin refuses the money. After he goes to bed, and the next day, while everyone is sleeping off their booze, Bevel (O’Connor still calls him that) walks out with money he takes from his mom’s purse and goes all the way back to the river because he wants to find Christianity in its waters, dunking himself.
Mr. Paradise had been at the revival. He has cancer. He’s never been healed. He made fun of the preacher and laughed when the child tells him his name. He saw Harry walk by unaccompanied, and took a stick of red and white peppermint and followed, apparently to look after him (or to seduce him, to molest him: who knows). The boy gets in the river, dunks himself, can;t feel it, keeps dunking himself, Mr. paradise comes abounding, waving the red and white stick and shouting, Bevel thinks it’s a pig coming after him just like at Mrs. Connin’s house and dunks down, but this time the current carries him off and he drowns, despite Mr. Paradise’s efforts to find him.
Is O’Connor judging the parents on various levels—for their drinking, their intention, their making fun of Ms. Connin and the preacher? Is this O’Connor’s way of taking revenge? On the boy? Seriously? The bitch once wrote that Harry “comes to a good end. He’s saved from those nutty parents, a fate worse than death. He’s been baptized and so he goes to his Maker; this is a good end.” Fuck you, O’Connor. You’re the nutty one.
From Wikipedia: “While Bevel’s drowning in the river that promised him baptism and eternal life, that promised him that he would ‘count’ for something, is a grotesquely humorous irony, typical of O’Connor’s stories, it might be pointed out that Bevel does indeed seem to experience an ‘epiphany’ of sorts as he is swept away to his death; ‘for an instant he was overcome with surprise; then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.’ Baptism in christian theology has long been associated with death and christian detachment; in baptism a christian enters into the death of Christ, undergoing a ‘dying to sin’ and a ‘dying to self.’ It is perhaps this dying to self that Bevel is experiencing as ‘his fury and fear leave him’ and why ‘he knew he was getting somewhere.’”