Flannery's peacocks

29 November 2007

Nabokov had his butterflies, William Burroughs doted on his cats - I'm sure there's a book or two to be had on novelists and their animals. What kind of book I'm not too sure; though I bet there's one out there already, full of glossy pics of faithful hounds delivering manuscripts and slippers to their masters, or kittens adorably tangled in cradles of typewriter ribbon.

But it would be interesting to speculate on what fiction writers - for whom the web of human relationships is something of an occupational hazard - find in their relationships with their pets.

Anyway, this occurred to me the other day as I read Flannery O'Connor's essay on rearing peacocks, 'The King of the Birds'. O'Connor always had a thing for domestic fowl of one sort or another. It began, apparently, at the age of five, when she gained a certain renown for owning a bantam hen who could walk either forwards and backwards; an accomplishment deemed unusual and extraordinary enough in the world of chickens to send a Pathe News photographer from New York to Savannah to capture it on film. Soon after reaching the height of its fame the hen died, but by then O'Connor was hooked - a life-long passion had been sparked. There followed a steady procession of birds, rising up what I assume is an ascending scale in the pecking order of poultry - turkeys, geese, mallards, quail, Japanese silky bantams - until finally she got her hands on the regent of the tribe, her first peacock. It soon multiplied into a flock. They ate her mother's flowers, her neighbours vegetables, her uncle's figs. They ate everything. They roosted in the trees around her garden, in the barn, on her roof, keeping up a loud chorus of Eee-e-yoys through the days and the nights. They demonstrated a nonchalant disregard for her and (particularly the males) a preening love of themselves. And yet, until the very end of her tragically short life, she remained utterly fascinated and beguiled by them.

I think the source of that fascination lay for O'Connor somewhere between mystery and manners. These are the terms she used to express the twin concerns of her fiction and they seem to neatly encapsulate the unique charm these birds held for her. She obviously enjoyed observing their daily habits, their little foibles and eccentricities - the way they lifted their tails over puddles, the way they chased themselves around the shrubbery, the way they strutted and fretted and squawked - but as well as that, of course, they always had in reserve their crowning glory. In her essay, she describes how a peacock will often keep its back disdainfully turned to you, showing its everyday feathers whilst keeping its more spectacular plumage from your view; if you try to walk around it then it will continue to turn and conceal its front. The trick is to wait. And eventually, when it's good and ready, it will display itself.

Then … you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent. 

The quirky and quotidian is suddenly transformed into a blaze of revelation, of mute wonder. Manners give way to mysteries.

In O'Connor's fiction, so she claimed, there is a religious dimension to transformations like these. It is in moments such as this that grace is intimated to her characters - although they may not quite comprehend it at the time, and it often arrives in a far more brutal fashion. To apprehend mystery is to be jolted, in many instances violently, into the presence of the numinous; an experience which is rarely comforting, usually acutely unsettling, and often calamitous. To take just one example. In her story, 'Parker's Back', a young man named Parker attempts to turn himself into a kind of human peacock with tattoos; an impulse inspired by a formative sighting, as a child, of a tattooed man at a fairground. This sighting represents, for Parker, his first perception of mystery: before seeing the man at the fair it had not occurred to him "that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed." Thereafter, Parker tries to find respite from his restless, inarticulate yearnings in the tattooist's needle, covering his entire body apart from his back. Towards the end of the story we find him desperately seeking a way to win the approbation of his new wife, a strict and god-fearing preacher's daughter, and in the midst of an epiphany, experienced during a tractor accident, an answer to his troubles comes to him: Parker has God's face tattooed on his back. On his return home his wife accuses him of idolatry and blasphemy ('No man shall see his face', as she reminds him), beats him viciously with a broom, and then throws him out. The story ends with him battered, bruised and rejected, left crying, hopelessly and helplessly, beside a tree in the garden.

Now it's hard to get around the stark difference between O'Connor's treatment of Parker's pea-cocking and her peacocks. I suppose you could say, echoing Parker's wife, that there is a world of difference between the peacock flaunting its own god-given nature and Parker, through a tattoo, attempting to remould, or perhaps redraw is the better word, a sinful nature in the image of God - O'Connor was theologically quite orthodox, she believed in original sin. But I can't help wondering if, on a more straightforward level, O'Connor didn't just prefer her peacocks to her characters. She is more accommodating of their idiosyncrasies and pretensions. She forgives them their vanity, their indifference, their haughtiness, their greed. And in return they afford her a glimpse - in the iridescent unfurling of their tails - of what she would call grace.