(We’re working on curating a show of “freak flags” to debut last Friday in June this year. I’ve written this to try to theorize a little about how “freakishness” is a way more interesting and insightful model for looking at and philosophizing about unconvetional art and artists than “outsiderness” is. Being a freak is a philosophical/political/spiritual stance. Thank God for Flannery O’Connor, as always.)
“Inclusion” is a word – like “tolerance” and “community” and “diversity” – batted around by well-intentioned (and maybe some not so well-intentioned) people who want to believe there is a Utopia at the end of all our messy struggles being in this world together.
There are barely discernible moments of Utopia, perhaps, intimations of it – but human nature, from what I can tell, does not include an all-encompassing instinct to be around people who are fundamentally different from you. By “fundamentally,” I mean people who don’t speak like you, don’t eat like you, don’t have the same ambitions as you, don’t make as much money as you, etc. In other words, human beings are not “wired” for “inclusion,” and in fact many times you have to fight off the desire to ignore and run away from people in order to be an okay human being.
In reality, exclusion is usually the rule of thumb. Folks rally around what they have in common after they filter out the people that just don’t quite fit in. (Check out a high school cafeteria in the middle of the lunch period and you’ll see what I mean.) These likeminded exclusionists then open up their own country clubs. Or art galleries. Or museums. Or businesses. Or schools. Or theater groups. Take your pick.
“Inclusion” from the other side, from the point of view of those folks who don’t look, act, eat, and/or talk like you, is often posited as a request to be able to sit at the Big People’s Table at Thanksgiving, instead of that old rickety card table in the kitchen with the rest of those pesky kids. So the people I’m around a lot – the artists labeled “outsider” I always go on and on about – are supposed to ask for entrance, or be grateful when they are asked to enter the hallowed grounds of “inclusion,” i.e., a church when it has Disability Day, or there’s an “outreach program” at the school, or a great big professional artist visits the sheltered workshop and helps folks there make paper or do contour line drawings. A sort of condescending sense of being included placates or supposedly placates everyone into feeling Utopian. For one day, we’ll pretend like we’re all the same, raise some of that “awareness” we all hear about, and then it’s back to business. You go over there and do whatever people like you do, and I’ll stay over here and do what I do.
In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor writes about how she envisions the freaks in her stories (usually grotesque figures haunted by Jesus Christ or haunted by the lack of Christ) as “figures of our essential displacement.” This means that O’Connor views the imagining of freaks as a way of placing yourself in the position of your own dislocation and discomfort: of becoming what you fear. “The lame shall enter first,” as the Bible says. O’Connor used this sentence as a title for a story actually.
In her penultimate story titled “Revelation,” O’Connor writes about Mrs. Turpin, a figure of complacent judgment and cowardly moral uprightness. Mrs. Turpin begins the story with her husband Claud in a doctor’s waiting room. While waiting for an appointment for Claud (who has been kicked in the leg by a cow), Mrs. Turpin assigns judgment to all the other people in the doctor’s office, from the white-trash mother and her dirty baby to the well-dressed lady and her acne-faced teenaged daughter to the African American delivery kid. While mentally classifying where all the waiting room people fit on her personal scale of human worthiness, Mrs. Turpin is reminded of how she lulls herself to sleep at night. O’Connor narrates:
Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please Jesus please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available,’ and he would have said, ‘No, you have to go right now and I have only those two place so make up your mind.’ She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, ‘All right, make me a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black. (407 – 408, Three by Flannery O’Connor)
In this passage, O’Connor illustrates Mrs. Turpin using her imagination to placate her worries of self, and in the process Mrs. Turpin is able to figure out a truncated and self-congratulatory form of empathy. She imagines her creator giving her the ultimate in ontological ultimatums, and Mrs. Turpin uses this occasion to reinvent herself as the same entity, only with black skin. The empathy she constructs is one most of us create when we feel like being charitable: the fashionable, lazy sort that usually goes along with the word “inclusion.” It’s the same kind of lazy imaginative process we use when we say shit like, “Black or green or white – it doesn’t matter what color you are you just have to work hard.” Or when we have kids in school put blindfolds on and pretend to be blind for a half hour in the classroom, walking into walls and stuff, in “Everybody Counts” programs.
Mrs. Turpin imagines herself as someone she despises (“a nigger”), but really it’s still just her. This tautological exercise creates complacency beyond just self-satisfaction; it makes Mrs. Turpin a prime candidate for displacement, a moment in the story that paves the way for revelation beyond just Bible verses and talk of charity.
The acne-faced teenaged girl in the waiting room, angrily reading a book on “human development,” while her well-dressed mother and Mrs. Turpin talk about how wonderful and put-upon they are, finally reaches her limit in the middle of the story. She literally throws the book at Mrs. Turpin in a scene both hilarious and necessary. Mrs. Turpin falls backwards and the girl completely loses it.
Right after throwing the book and hitting Mrs. Turpin in the head, the girl screams, “’Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,’” (416)
This statement, even more than the brutality, pushes Mrs. Turpin into a new world of thought.
The girl is taken away in an ambulance, called a “lunatic’ by the white-trash lady, and Claud and Mrs. Turpin go home. But what the girl has called Mrs. Turpin, and the ramifications of this classification eat away at Mrs. Turpin, who happens to be a landowner and rancher with a beautiful “pig parlor” in her backyard, a concrete den filled with shoat that she has to spray and clean out toward the end of her very horrible day.
As she cleans out the parlor with her hose, Mrs. Turpin inevitably starts up a conversation with God Himself:
“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” (422)
These questions are essential. They are the beginning of the end of Mrs. Turpin’s old self. The idea that she is both who she thinks she is and a hog, both an upstanding Christian lady landowner who works very, very hard and is clean and charitable and sweet, and the fact that she is from hell – these two notions don’t come together for her right away. She just can’t come to terms with this new knowledge. She is mystified and this mystification sends her further into her discussion with God.
“If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she railed. “You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash?” (422)
And a few sentences later:
“Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!” (422)
Mrs. Turpin cannot return the gift the acne-faced lunatic in the doctor’s office has given her to the store. She cannot come to an understanding of this new identity she has been given, and her imagination cannot justify or validate the reasons for this new identity. She is pissed, in other words, having to lay claim to a self she would have rather seen carted off to a death camp. She has been forced into seeing herself for what she truly is. This process for Mrs. Turpin is terrifying, and O’Connor’s triumph, both as an artist and a moralist (which are usually the same thing), is that she forces the reader into that same predicament.
We cannot judge Mrs. Turpin as she is forced out of judging; we are in the same moment she is. Mrs. Turpin and her transformation have entered our consciousness now.
At the very end of the story, Mrs. Turpin is visited by a grand and delirious vision above the pig pen she is spraying out on her property. It’s a celestial and nightmarish vision that God grants Mrs. Turpin out there:
“A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” (423 – 424)
Mrs. Turpin’s imagination witnesses the bottom of the barrel marching toward heaven. They are the first to arrive, and the last to arrive are folks like Mrs. Turpin, intelligent, successful, brilliantly coiffed, having lived virtuous lives. What is alarming to Mrs. Turpin is that everything she thought was wonderful about herself is being burned away in a beautiful fire. All that work, all that thought, all that judgment, all that moral authority, burned off, as you step last into the Kingdom that you thought God had promised you because you were so good and kind.
“Revelation” is a story not just about Christ and heaven – it is about how we use our imaginations to invent ourselves, and also in doing so how we invent the lives of others so we can exemplify the perfect self we have created. There is a reason for art, O’Connor says implicitly, and that is for everyone to realize how close we are to “them,” and how eventually all the fences we build, all those dry-wall and marble suburban villages with water-parks and Barnes and Nobles, all the institutions and ghettos we complacently foster – all of these are just sad attempts at blocking out the truth: we are all freaks, deep down, the freakiest of the freaks. And eventually it is that truth that will save us from ourselves.
O’Connor writes in her book of essays, Mysteries and Manners:
“It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” (45)
She’s talking about “literature” here, but I am taking the concept beyond that, from art into life, which to me are best when they are synonyms anyway. If we approach life as if we are essentially displaced, then we begin in humility, and this humility helps us to figure out how to be better on a grander scale. If makes art more artful, and life more livable, not just for ourselves, but for others. This is when the stereotypical version of “inclusion” can become the reality of learning how to be a better person by not thinking your school, you church, hour home, your “self,” are wonderful examples of how things/people should we, and in fact you may want to “include” yourself in the lives of people you think are inferior to you so that you can reinvent those classifications.
To be honest, all of us are versions of Mrs. Turpin. We are trained in the grand aspects of pigeonholing from the get-go: we don’t want to ride the little yellow school bus EVER, and of course “special education” is just another word for the end of the world. But what would it be like to actually be on that yellow bus? How could riding the yellow bus to school everyday inform your character and give you a new kind of knowledge?
“The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity. The prophet in him has to see the freak. No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made. I think it is usually some form of self-inflation that destroys the free use of a gift. This may be pride, or it may only be that simple-minded self-appreciation which uses its own sincerity as a standard of truth.” (81 – 82)
All of us are guilty of using our own sincerity as a standard of our own truths, but O’Connor is challenging artists to become prophets, for artists to look beyond themselves and to see “the freak.” The freak in her oeuvre is someone you challenge yourself to be. This is a paradox for people who view art-making as a way to subsidize their pride, who are working really hard at making a career out of it. Of course, you can make a career out of anything if you have the will and the patience. Art in this instance is about thinking beyond your own means of making cash and winning awards and giving talks about how your art is this and how your art is that.
In the end, we as artists are all Mrs. Turpins spraying out our pig parlors in public, having a conversation with our makers about why we are this and why we are that. Mrs. Turpin is brave in her attempt in figuring out what it means to be who she is, but not brave enough to face the facts without divine intervention.
Artists need to be brave. They need to know who they are and who they aren’t is what they are, and in that negotiation of self is the beginning of the real work.
“A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path.” (84)
“Freak,” perhaps, is a better moniker and theory through which to see/view/understand the art made by Raymond and many others like him (labeled and not labeled with “disabilities.”). It foregrounds the discomfort and the arrogance associated with insider/outsider, and it also cuts to the chase.
Do you consider yourself a freak?
Make a flag by early June and bring it to Thunder-Sky and you can join us in spraying out that universal pig parlor…