The Story of Stuff is the Story of Us: Flannery O’Connor and the Central Mystery

For me, it all boils down to the Central Mystery, which is this: out of nothing came matter, out of matter came life, and out of life came mind.

If we’re going to allow ourselves the possibility that this is true–and there is a staggering amount of evidence indicating that it is–then perhaps the most astounding thing is that we are alive at a time when this is common knowledge, and no one seems all that amazed by it.

Specifically: no one outside the sciences.

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins: "I'm amazed, but no one seems to care!"

The Central Mystery, to me, is as outrageous as any Genesis, and in no way precludes the human as a central player. We are the ones who put this whole thing together, based on clues trailed like bread crumbs across the cosmos. We are intelligent matter. We are the self-reflexive consciousness of the universe.

And if out of life came mind, who can possibly imagine what comes next?

Writers are in the business of making meaning. Moreover, we’re in the business of stuff–physical stuff. Consider Flannery O’Connor, from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners:

“…the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”

Flannery O'Connor--image via

O'Connor: "You shall learn the truth, and the truth shall make you odd."

Making actual the mystery of our position on the planet is no small proposition, as the concrete details of life now include solid rock composed of nearly empty atoms, a night sky chockablock with stars that no longer exist, and rivers the world over full of feminized male fish.

Moreover, a life that includes the Internet, computers, and cell phones, all of which are built on the mind-bending proposition that an electron can behave as both a particle and a wave.

O’Connor calls on us to be possessed by a story, to be conscious of people and of the texture of our existence.

The Central Mystery is a fantastic story. But so far, it’s not a story that has been told in a very meaningful way. So far, the findings of science have been, as O’Connor put it, abstract notions.

And if we’re going to be conscious of people, let us be conscious of this: people crave meaning. So much so that we moderns, who communicate daily using technologies based on the precise movements of photons and electrons, are willing to embrace the worldview of those who lived thousands of years before the invention of the telescope–or indoor plumbing, for that matter–when faced with the concept of a world that was not created for us.

Specifically: we’re willing to throw science under the bus for a really good story.

The Central Mystery is a story that could mean almost anything. Our failure to exploit it, as artists, strikes me as a failure of the imagination.

Writers look to the world outside to mirror the world within. This is how we embody the abstract. This is how we give our unfleshed ideas blood and bone, skin and teeth, heart and soul. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams, the poet and physician, and many have followed the poet’s prescription, but few have changed the ideas they have based on what we’ve actually learned about things.

W.C. Williams--image via

Williams: the doctor is in.

A mountain, a traditional metaphor in many cultures, can stand for the solid, the immovable, the eternal. And yet, science has revealed that mountains are neither immovable nor eternal, or even–at the subatomic level–all that solid. Nothing is as it seems.

A fly may stand for a nuisance, a bother, a niggling doubt. But a fly under a microscope possesses a composite eye, capable of sensing  the minutest of movements–as a result, every move we make, to a fly, looks as if it is occurring in slow motion. Based on this understanding, a fly might stand for something else entirely–our own clumsiness, maybe, or those things we are too large to ever truly see.

And here’s the thing: if the Central Mystery is to be taken seriously, all three of us–the mountain, fly, and we (the ones observing)–are all strangely related, composed as we are of the ashes of one fantastic conflagration somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen billion years ago.

This is the story of stuff. Also, the story of us. As writers, it’s up to us to tell it.


2 thoughts on “The Story of Stuff is the Story of Us: Flannery O’Connor and the Central Mystery

  1. And then the mind wrapped itself around position and time of an object in relation to another and general relativity was put into words..
    And then…special relativity explored the “stuff” of motion…and my mind said…”Ouch. I’m taking Schrodinger’s cat and going back to writing fiction.”

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