O'Connor, Flannery Entries

Wise Blood


I'm glad I picked up Wise Blood relatively soon after perusing A Good Man is Hard to Find, because this novel clarified some things in my mind about Flannery O'Connor's theology. I'm now certain that I disagree with just about every aspect of her worldview, to the point where I am actually repulsed by her assumptions and arguments. But I also find her thought processes fascinating, and her writing tight and, often, darkly funny. Moreover, it's probably a good exercise, every so often, to stretch one's brain around concepts completely foreign to one's way of thinking, and that Wise Blood most certainly requires me to do. Through Hazel Motes and his frantic attempts to escape his own religious conviction; through Enoch Emery and his resentful adherence to the mysterious dictates of his "wise blood"; through the sham blind-man Asa Hawks and his gleefully wicked daughter Sabbath; and through the blunt apathy and ignorant cruelty of all the regular citizens of the town of Taulkinham, O'Connor presents a vision of the world in such marked contrast to my own, that I can only make sense of it in glimpses, as if through a veil.

I should admit up front that I am not the ideal reader for this book. O'Connor writes in the Author's Note to Wise Blood:

That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to.

I am one of the former class of reader: a secular humanist of the type that O'Connor ruthlessly lampoons throughout this novel, even if I'm not as stupid as most of her characters or as set on the triumph of consumerism and scientism over the mysteries inherent in human existence. Still, perhaps O'Connor would see me as stupid and cruel. That's the way she seemed to see everyone, after all, Christians and secularists alike: she seems to have interpreted the doctrine of original sin to mean that all humans are doltish and mean, all equally bad, not just imperfect but bound to do a poor job at whatever they set their minds to, which will undoubtedly be a petty, irrelevant thing to begin with. Irrelevant, that is, because human intention seems not to matter to O'Connor. Enoch Emery, for example, is resentful and mean about the mysterious messages he receives through his "wise blood," but despite his lack of understanding he must obey; he is subject to grace. Hazel Motes attempts to deny his faith in Jesus, but Christ haunts him wherever he goes and whatever atrocity he commits, a nightmare figure whose presence implies that Hazel needs salvation and is therefore unclean.

Did they know that even for that boy there, for that mean sinful unthinking boy standing there with his dirty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let him lose his soul? He would chase him over the waters of sin! Did they doubt Jesus could walk on the waters of sin? That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn't going to leave him ever. Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed. What did the sinner think there was to be gained? Jesus would have him in the end!
          The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.

But Motes cannot escape sin; he cannot escape Jesus; he cannot escape into some kind of humanist daydream that declares him already clean and in need of no salvation. For O'Connor humanity is inherently sub-par—the hucksters out for a buck, the sleazy waitresses and their sleazier customers; the tight-fisted landlady plagued by the suspicion that she's being cheated. No character in Wise Blood is empathetic; the best you could say for any of them is that they're conventional, or, looked at another way, that they're tortured and struggling. And it matters not whether they try to be good, or try to be bad: God is an incomprehensible mystery, and his grace is given regardless of human intent or action. That the two most sympathetic characters in the novel commit murder before the end of it, seems hardly relevant to their, in O'Connor's word, integrity: as she herself wrote, "grace changes us and change is painful." Based on her writings I'd say she opined in the other direction too: not only did grace imply pain, but pain equaled grace.

When O'Connor's characters endure pain, they are closer to a state of grace. When Enoch Emery is most resentful; when Mrs. Flood is most troubled; when Hazel Motes wraps himself with barbed wire and fills his shoes with broken glass; they are, in O'Connor's mind, closer to God than when they are comfortable, and closer to God than the oblivious, semi-religious or secularist folks who stream by in blithe ignorance in her crowd scenes. Just as the murdered grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" "would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"; just as the young boy in the story "The River" is closer to God when alone and drowning than at home with his drunk parents, tortured struggle is a sign, in Wise Blood, that grace has been received. Not because the recipient has become a more virtuous or better person, or because his tormentors are enlightened; on the contrary, the acts of torment are themselves more evidence of universal human corruption. It's just that, because of all humans' inherent badness, because they are intrinsically unable to fathom the mysteries of God and because their wills are inherently warped to desire the wrong things, human pain and discomfort is, for O'Connor, a fundamental symptom of the approach to the divine. The sham preacher who tells his congregants that "You don't have to believe nothing you don't understand and approve of" may be more comfortable and happy than Hazel Motes, and he may be no worse a person than Haze, but he is less in a state of grace. You can tell because he's not suffering, and because he is disregarding the fundamental mystery of existence.

(Can I just reiterate that I IN NO WAY relate to this. Nor do I imagine that this is official Catholic doctrine or the majority Christian view. O'Connor was seriously dark! I am just trying to fathom the way her philosophy worked.)

Much of the humor in Wise Blood comes from the disconnect between people who are suffering—people who are struggling, and doing daily battle with their religion—and those who are happy enough to drift along with conventional flow of life. O'Connor does not endow the sufferers and strugglers with any more intelligence than the complaisant secularists; most everyone in her novel is stupid as dirt. The strugglers, though, are gifted or cursed against their will with an instinct for living life at a symbolic, mythological level, which passes completely over everyone else's head. In this scene, for example, the protagonist Hazel Motes has just spotted a man he sees as his doppelgänger, another false prophet preaching from the hood of a car:

          Haze was standing next to a fat woman who after a minute turned her head and stared at him and then turned it again and stared at the True Prophet. Finally she touched his elbow with hers and grinned at him. "Him and you twins?" she asked.
          "If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it'll hunt you down and kill you," Haze answered.
          "Huh? Who?" she said.
          He turned away and she stared at him and he got back in his car and drove off. Then she touched the elbow of a man on the other side of her. "He's nuts," she said. "I never seen no twins that hunted each other down."

Hazel is either too noble, too apathetic, or too self-centered, here, to notice that "If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it'll hunt you down and kill you" is not an appropriate thing to say out loud in company, even if you believe you have spotted some kind of shadow-self whom God is telling to to search out and destroy. Not too surprising, since by this point it has been long established that Hazel is well-nigh driven mad by his religious angst. What's funnier, to me, is the response of the fat woman. She doesn't think to herself, "Wow, that is a batshit crazy thing to say! Maybe I should call the cops." She doesn't even become alarmed and inch away from Haze through the crush. No, she has decided she's going to have a superficial conversation with another member of the gawking crowd, and when Hazel gives her an answer she's not expecting, she just turns to someone else and responds to the absolute surface level of his comment: "I never seen no twins that hunted each other down." It's hilarious because the two people appear to be having a conversation with each other, but they're actually not interacting at all. He's too deep into symbolism and metaphor to be conscious of the surface, whereas she's too committed to the superficial to recognize a metaphor when it's standing in front of her.

And that's pretty much the fate, I think, of a secular person like me and a person of O'Connor's particular brand of extreme religiosity: we may attempt a conversation, but our words do not point to the same referents. I deeply admire what O'Connor does with the English language, and laugh at the bizarre interactions of her characters. I can even relate to the value of discomfort, in that it can stimulate human growth, and mystery, in that our existence contains more than we can fathom. But I, like her supposedly misguided secularist landlady, can't bring myself to admire what O'Connor admires, can't help asking myself why anyone would put themselves through such suffering if they believed in no hope of becoming a better person, especially considering all the pain and cruelty that already exist in the world. To do so is not useful—a shortcoming beyond which I am simply too utilitarian to move. For O'Connor, it is a mark of Hazel Motes's integrity that he is unable to escape his religious conviction; for me, who finds plenty of struggle and inspiration in secular life, it, and he, are merely incomprehensible.

She was not religious or morbid, for which every day she thanked her stars. [...] What possible reason could a sane person have for wanting to not enjoy himself any more?
          She certainly couldn't say.

A Good Man is Hard to Find


Maybe it makes me a snob, but I have a strong visceral aversion to evaluating novels based on their topicality. With certain reservations, and the knowledge that, of course, every piece of art is informed by and mired in historical context, I'm more or less with Ben Jonson: a truly fine piece of literature should be not for an age, but for all time. To me, a discussion of (for example) Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go will generally be so much more interesting and worthwhile if it focuses on issues of human mortality, the role of art in life, and the effects of socialization and nostalgia, than if it becomes a discussion about the current moral debate around human cloning - especially one claiming that Ishiguro's main point is that we shouldn't clone humans. Very silly, in my opinion. Similar to the rationale that "You should read Halldor Laxness because Iceland's economy is collapsing" or "Mrs. Dalloway is more relevant than ever as the debate over gay marriage rages on." Dude. You should read Laxness and Woolf because they are masters of their genre, because their prose makes your heart sing, because their characters will stick with you through all the years of your life. Not because world events make them a hot accessory this summer. Jeesh.

I know I can be a little shrill on this issue (after all, people really should read for whatever reason they want, regardless of my opinion), so I was intrigued when My Friend Amy pointed out Newsweek's 50 Books of Our Times list. Here was a chance to meet the topicality demon on its own turf, and see if allowing myself to think in terms of topicality could add something to my own analysis of fiction. I intentionally chose a book for which Newsweek's own explanation is vague: all it says is "Stories of the New South, Christ-haunted and out of control, are as scary as they were when published in 1955. 'Shut up, Bobby Lee, it's no real pleasure in life.'" Why does Newsweek think we need such stories at this particular juncture? They don't go into it.

But my bet? It's on the list because of American Christianity, and the culture wars. And luckily, religion is one of the most fascinating - and consternating - aspects of these stories anyway.

O'Connor was a devout Catholic who claimed to be writing to "reveal the mystery of God's grace in everyday life"...and at first this seems totally bizarre. In fact, when I was discussing this book with my mom (herself a Catholic, although a liberal, west-coast one), and brought up the "reveal God's grace" quote, she stated bluntly that she doesn't think O'Connor saw any. Which is a totally understandable opinion. Because these stories, while exquisitely crafted with a taut, brutal beauty, are extremely dark. To me, they at first seemed nihilistic. The characters are drawn vividly, with a few unflinching strokes of a scalpel-like brush; their guts and follies are exposed to the reader unapologetically, and by the end of any given story their hopes are efficiently and systematically crushed. They are lucky to make it out alive - or perhaps, as O'Connor implies in the titular story, the ones who don't make it out are the lucky ones: "'She would of been a good woman," the fugitive says after shooting an elderly woman twice in the head, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"

As untutored as I am in theology of any stripe, this idea of grace through pain and violence, that pain, whether physical or mental, is a sign of progress along God's path, seems to me one of the only ways to reconcile O'Connor's stories with her stated religious purpose. Sometimes this interpretation is fairly obvious; in the story "Good Country People," for example, the atheist daughter Hulga is humiliated for believing herself superior to an ostensibly simple Bible salesman, when he turns out to be even more of a nihilist than she. In perhaps the most uncomfortable story to many modern readers, a poor white grandfather and his grandson, estranged through an act of treachery on the grandfather's part, find forgiveness for each other while gazing together at a lawn ornament caricature of a black boy. (This was, to me, the most compelling example of O'Connor's point that grace, suffering, and oppression are inextricably interwoven.) In "The River," a young boy being raised by neglectful parents is exposed to Christianity for the first time by his baby-sitter, and later ends up running away from home and drowning in the river where he was baptized:

He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.

Mr. Paradise's head appeared from time to time on the surface of the water. Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed, staring with his dull eyes as far down the river line as he could see.

The idea that this four-year-old boy is closer to God while drowning in the river than back at home with his drunk parents is a harsh one. And frankly, the whole "grace comes through pain" philosophy isn't one that I find particularly compelling. Sometimes wisdom and peace do come through the process of suffering, but I believe that crucible usually has to take place on a foundation of love and support in order for a person to gain from the experience. In other words, I don't believe that having a literal or figurative gun pointed at one's head throughout one's entire life is generally conducive to becoming a good person. I think this is just an area in which O'Connor and I profoundly differ, and I have to enjoy her writing (if I can) despite the lack of a shared philosophy.

Luckily for me, there's plenty to recommend these stories besides a grimly Catholic worldview. O'Connor's ear for cadence is truly breathtaking:

He asked a lot of questions that she didn't answer. He told her that he was twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land, and that everywhere he had seen people that didn't care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn't been raised thataway.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.

The melancholy and foreboding that steal into the atmosphere whenever anyone in these stories opens his or her mouth (and often even when they don't) is masterfully evoked and controlled. And it's a credit to O'Connor that although nearly all of her characters are deeply flawed to the point of being unsympathetic, I could usually still relate to them on some level, and doing so forced a little bit of honesty from me about times I've acted in similarly shabby ways.

Is A Good Man is Hard to Find a "book for our times"? It's an extremely well-written and thought-provoking collection of harsh yet beautiful stories, and such things are to be treasured regardless of era. More topically, it raises interesting questions about the role of religion in daily life, and could spark conversations among Americans from different regions and backgrounds.

(A Good Man is Hard to Find was my second book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1950s.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography