Why Scorsese and Springsteen Love Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor wrote about losers and misfits; Scorsese makes films about them; Springsteen sings of them.

Bruce Springsteen photo by Takahiro Kyono; Martin Scorsese photo courtesy of the Peabody Awards; Flannery O’Connor photo by C. Macauley
Bruce Springsteen photo by Takahiro Kyono; Martin Scorsese photo courtesy of the Peabody Awards; Flannery O’Connor photo by C. Macauley (photo: Register Files)

“All my work was informed by my years in Catholic school. All that redemption, damnation. ... As I got older I stopped fighting against it. Now I draw on it and enjoy it. There’s no greater well to draw on than myths of Catholicism. Everything is in there.”

The words of American musical icon: Bruce Springsteen. As reported by the Associated Press, these words were spoken in a conversation with award-winning film director, Martin Scorsese, also a Catholic, held this May before an audience in Los Angeles.

During Springsteen and Scorsese’s recent conversation, singer and filmmaker waxed lyrical on what the Catholic faith means to their creativity and its wider cultural significance, and on their joint admiration for American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised at this unexpected shared enthusiasm. All three artists, Scorsese, Springsteen and O’Connor, deal with the grotesque to greater or lesser degrees. All deal with the “mess” of ordinary life — a theme close to the heart of the current pope. In the songs, the films and the stories of these three artists, we do not have to look too closely to see that the characters or voices in their works are not only messed up themselves but also that they exist in a truly messed up world. It would be fair to say that O’Connor wrote about losers and misfits; Scorsese makes films about them; Springsteen sings of them.

Although such subject matter is by no means unique, what all three artists have in common — albeit to varying degrees — is a shared Catholic understanding of what “being a loser” is all about. As one would expect, that understanding is not how mainstream Protestant America, or indeed much of the world, views it.

For a real life misfit, look no further than the subject of Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the 1980 film based on the life of the boxer Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro). The man may be a world champion boxer but his relationships with others and with himself are as destructive as LaMotta is in the boxing ring. But whereas, in the latter, violence is a winning strategy in life outside the ring: it wreaks havoc. By the film’s end LaMotta is so filled with his own self-deception, however, that the world of cheap hustlers and ever-cheaper hotels in which he lives after his moment of fame has passed is, for him, all illusory. He is — and will always be – ‘the champ.’ LaMotta’s final monologue to the camera at the end of the film – tellingly speaking to a reflection of himself in a mirror – reveals just how deluded and lost he has become.

Springsteen’s songs are full of misfits, too, even if these are often more sympathetically drawn. Springsteen’s Thunder Road (1975) is a song of marked pathos. The longing expressed is for love, for escape from the confines of the small town in which the narrator resides and for more than what it can offer now or at any time in the future. At one point, the voice rises as he talks of getting away from this “town full of losers” to make a new life elsewhere. Of course, we know the singer is going nowhere. So many Springsteen characters are trapped: emotionally as well as physically. They never make it anywhere; they are stuck. In this Springsteen song the narrator sings of Thunder Road, “two lanes that will take us anywhere” — but, by the despairing end of the song, Thunder Road leads to a nowhere in particular: a dead end. In Springsteen’s universe escapism is the only avenue left to those who have no real escape.

The characters who populate O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted South” are similarly misfits and losers. They cannot, seemingly, be anything else since the world they inhabit appears to be so disordered. Flannery O’Connor is often described as “a Catholic writer.” This attracts to her work some readers who are unaware of anything about her writing other than that the label: “Catholic.” I have known one young man, who expected her stories to have a “nice Catholic glow,” open the pages of A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953), only to find instead, with shock, a deranged serial killer executing a doomed dysfunctional family.

For some of us, however, having a Catholic writer like Flannery O’Connor is a relief. Reading her many stories with characters that have grotesque bodies and ugly minds, who are sad and depressed, overly optimistic and fatally flawed, mad and bad, is an encounter with reality. Her parade of humanity, is all too familiar, exaggerated though it may be, if even today all too easy to recognize.

O’Connor was once asked about the presence of the “grotesque” in her writing by a religious sister who worked with those dying of cancer. To write of such things, O’Connor replied, was her vocation. She then turned to the sister who had posed the question and said: “It’s your vocation, too.”

As it turned out, in that cancer home there had lived a girl called Mary Ann Long. She was a child who had come into the care of the Dominican sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Help home in Atlanta, Georgia. Aged three, she had been left at the home by her mother. Mary Ann was expected to live for six months; she ended up living with the sisters until she was 12 — dying in 1959.

Born with a cancerous tumor disfiguring her face, Mary Ann was as physically deformed — as “grotesque” – as any character in an O’Connor tale. Yet she was something else. The true – eternal — beauty of the child was there for all for those who had eyes to see it. The Dominican sisters saw it as they nursed and cared for Mary Ann until her death. And because of this beauty, they contacted O’Connor to see if she might write about the child. In the event, she offered to introduce and edit their memories of her. From when the nuns contacted her in 1960, the lupus-crippled O’Connor – she would meet her own death four years later — saw the same thing as the nuns in regard to Mary Ann. Increasingly, in fact, as she researched her life and witness, studied the photographs of the recently deceased child.

Intrigued by what she was discovering about Mary Ann, O’Connor wrote to a friend of “the mystery, the agony that is given in strange ways to children.” Although in some ways Mary Ann was the living embodiment of what Flannery O’Connor had written about in her fiction, the child began to symbolize something else for the seriously ill author. In the introduction she penned to the sisters’ memoirs of Mary Ann, O’Connor wrote of the child’s pain and death as being “something full of promise.” She went on to add that Mary Ann’s life was an example of the “good under construction.”

Pain, suffering, isolation from the wider word, and an all-too-early death were to be the common marks of suffering for both the child and the writer. Both were led through this dark night of suffering by the light of faith. Both saw God’s loving hand in something so blighting that only faith could make sense of it. O’Connor said of Mary Ann that she carried “ an outsize cross and [bore] it with what most of us don’t have and couldn’t muster.” The fact was, so did Flannery.

Whereas the misfits and losers of Springsteen and Scorsese remain trapped in their own misery. By contrast, in O’Connor’s universe, there is a meaning revealed to the grotesque lives suffered by her characters. Springsteen and Scorsese admire O’Connor’s work. Perhaps, what it reminds them of, however obliquely, is, buried in their Catholic past, the Cross – the greatest good under construction – and the promise that with it comes the Resurrection.