There are small moments within the letters of O’Connor and Gordon that open into larger worlds—moments I’ve been exploring without any goal or endposts. Here is one.
On 29 January 1953, Flannery O’Connor wrote to her new friend Caroline Gordon about her reading of George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans):
I got me the Modern Library edition called the Best Known Novels of Geo. E then and thought I would have a great time with them but I didn’t. I started on the Mill on the Floss but that thing must be a child’s book or I don’t have any perseverance or those big books are just too heavy to hold up. I started on one about some Methodists and didn’t finish that either. I remember something from Middlemarch about “the roar on the other side of silence.” That’s what you have to pick up in a novel–I mean put down in one, I suppose.
The passage O’Connor mentions is interesting. The main character in Middlemarch, the newly married Mrs. Dorothea Casaubon, experiences “Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary.” She is describing (sigh) marriage—how her idealized husband is being displaced by the glare of reality. Eliot writes, “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 heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
Jill Carattini (in “The Other Side of Silence”) writes, “The world Eliot saw around her is not unlike our own in its capacity to silence the dissonance of details, the frequency of pain, the roar of life in its most minute and yet extraordinary forms. We silence the wild roar of the ordinary and divert our attention to magnitudes more willing to fit into our control. The largest tasks and decisions are given more credence, the biggest lives and events of history most studied and admired, and the greatest powers and influences feared or revered most. And on the contrary, the ordinary acts we undermine, the most common and chronic angst we manage to mask, and the most simple and monotonous events we silence or stop seeing altogether.”
Fascinating that O’Connor picks this passage as noteworthy, right?