Sunday, January 01, 2006

Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor

Author Flannery O’Connor said of fiction writing in general, “it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values” (“Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners 167-168).

Even more than her stories, O’Connor’s novels have a, mythic, almost cartoon-like feel to them. The characters are somehow larger than people, or maybe just their heads stand out. I used to picture characters in medieval morality plays whose names conveniently represented their governing characteristic—Truth, Death, Evil—as actors whose heads had been replaced by giant three-dimensional letters spelling out their names. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery and Hazel Motes are quite apparently these sorts of allegorical characters, only I spent the whole novel squinting to try to read the larger-than-life letters that spelled out their names.

The plot of the novel, Wise Blood, is strange. We meet Hazel Motes, a young man who is a drifter of sorts, behaving strangely on a train. He’s rude to a woman who speaks kindly to him and rude to a porter. When he begins to ask strangers, “Do you believe in Jesus?” and say, “If you’ve been redeemed…I wouldn’t want to be” we have all the evidence we need to know that Motes is troubled (7).

When Motes arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he meets Enoch Emery, a young man who lives in town. Emery knows he has “wise blood, like his daddy” (40), and he’s going to show his new friend something secret—which turns out to be a shrunken person from the museum, who he thinks is the new Jesus for the church Motes wants to start. Oh, it gets even more bizarre from there, when Emery dons a gorilla costume at a movie theater…but I could go on and on…

In her essay “Novelist and Believer” (in Mystery and Manners), O’Connor talks about the role spirituality plays in her work. She explains, “[w]e live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual. There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself but who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern” (159). In this description I see a picture of Enoch Emery, who is completely lost in what he thinks is his own “wise blood.” He’s only wise to himself. He worships the bizarre, the unusual, but not the spiritual—and in doing so he’s lost.

In the same essay O’Connor describes “another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known anagogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally. [...] Man wanders about, caught in a maze of guilt he can’t identify, trying to reach a God he can’t approach, a God powerless to approach him” (159). Here I see Hazel Motes, who wanders and follows after the (ostensibly) blind man who he thinks is a preacher, wondering why the blind man doesn’t try to convert him. The blind man even accuses Motes of following him, saying, “I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice” (25). The blind man tells him, “you can’t run away from Jesus” (26). Though Motes insists there is no Jesus, he thinks and talks constantly about there being “no Jesus,” and he tries to start his own church and tells others to repent. Just as O’Connor says, he’s “trying to reach a God he can’t approach.”

O’Connor says, “some tell me that Protestantism in the South is not at all the way I portray it, that a Southern Protestant would never be concerned, as Hazel Motes is, with penitential practices. Of course, as a novelist I’ve never wanted to characterize the typical South or typical Protestantism” (164). In being penitent, Motes blinds himself with lime, which makes his landlady decide to take care of him, and which makes Motes in some ways “see” better spiritually—it’s a classic F. O’Connor ending, really, where a smug character undergoes a soul cleansing and gets real as a result. But the great part is where it gets completely absurd and hilarious in the middle, where she lets “the maximum amount of seriousness admit the maximum amount of comedy.”

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