Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Conner

The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep and 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 then suddenly know it and drown.

Spoilers abound.

Chris read Wise Blood last year, and it stumped him, to use his words. He talks about it at length in his review, and I can’t disagree with him—this is a difficult book that seems completely packed with ideas, many of which seem strong enough to carry a novel themselves. Tying them all together is quite a challenge.

A summary of the plot: We begin following Hazel Motes, a disillusioned former Christian who would now probably be considered a nihilist. He doesn’t believe in Christ, or redemption, or sin. We meet him on the way to a new town, where he meets the novel’s other central characters: Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old looking for a father figure and some direction, Asa Hawkes, a street preacher pretending to be blind, and his daughter, a teenage girl named Sabbath Lily Hawkes. Hazel hears Asa preaching and, offended by his message of Jesus, decides to begin preaching himself, founding a movement he calls the Church of Without Christ. He also decides to seduce Asa’s daughter to prove his commitment to his new beliefs. After preaching for several weeks without a single convert, Hazel’s ministry is co-opted by The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, which employs a Hazel lookalike. Angered by their cynical co-option of his belief system—they don’t actually believe it and are charging members to join—Hazel attempts to sabotage their work, escalating his attacks until he commits homicide. There’s more to the story, but I’m going to halt the summary there.

Enoch has what the novel calls “wise blood”, a sort of mild psychic ability that shows him the tiniest bit of the future and guides his life. There is no particularly straightforward way to tie this to the rest of the narrative, but here’s what I’ve come up with. Early on in their relationship, Enoch tells Hazel that he doesn’t believe in Jesus much, but that he does have his father’s “wise blood” which guides him. I see parallels between the “wise blood” and Christ—that is, as full of Christ figures as Wise Blood is, the titular blood may be one itself.

There are similarities between Enoch’s “wise blood” and Asa’s “spirits” in that both are nearly irresistible and both give seemingly poor guidance: Asa feels led to blind himself, and upon being unable to do so forsakes his faith entirely; Enoch is compelled to steal a mummy from a museum to be a “new Jesus”, which he does, indirectly leading to Hazel’s shift in belief, which seems to be the point on which the novel turns. Looking at Enoch v. Asa in this way brings up an interesting question. That is, Asa’s decision, which seems reasonable, has only negative consequences, while Enoch’s, which seems stupid, may in fact have led to Hazel’s awakening, if not quite his redemption.

There’s a lot here about identity and honesty. No one in Wise Blood is particularly honest. Hazel at first seems to be telling the truth, but there are hints that he’s deceiving himself when he says he doesn’t believe in Christ. His initial reasoning for rejecting Christ is that without Christ, there is no need for belief. Consequently, there is no way he can commit any sin—there’s no sin without an ultimate moral authority, after all—and, as a result, he doesn’t need redemption from Christ or anyone. This is oddly circular and seemingly sincere until, in the closing pages of the novel, Hazel tells his landlady, who is also not what she seems, that he is “not clean”. Additionally, throughout the novel, characters mistake him for a preacher—perhaps ironically since he later becomes one, however untraditional—and both Enoch and Sabbath are convinced that Hazel rejects them because he “only wants Jesus”.

Then there’s the weird stuff, like Hazel blinding himself, in an inverse parallel with Asa, which I guess proves that Hazel’s late-period belief in Jesus was more sincere than Asa’s earlier ministerial zeal. There’s also Enoch dressing up in a gorilla suit, a fairly brutal murder, and Hazel’s landlady, seeming important but not introduced until the last 20 pages of the novel. I feel like there are some nice thematic parallels in some of these storylines, but this review is plenty long already.

The characters all end up in situations that seem fairly ambiguous: Sabbath ends up in an orphanage, Enoch ends up in a gorilla costume, which Chris discusses in depth in his review, Asa disappears to who-knows-where, and Hazel, the protagonist, dies searching—or does he? In some ways, the end of Hazel’s story recalls the ending of The Power and the Glory, because both deal with a protagonist seeking redemption he cannot find, and both end somewhat unresolved. We cannot know if Greene’s whiskey priest will be received into Heaven in spite of his inability to make confession, and we are not told the meaning of Hazel’s ultimate fate.

His final scene is bleak—spoiler, he dies—but there’s a bit of light, both literally and figuratively. The last line in the book pictures Hazel as a “pinpoint of light”, and “the beginning of something [that we] cannot begin”. O’Conner seems to foreshadow Hazel’s eventual redemption—a character states near the beginning of the novel that redemption, once received, cannot be rejected—but then holds the reality of that redemption at arm’s length, where we, like the landlady at Hazel’s deathbed, can see it only as a possible beginning we cannot begin. Hazel cannot escape Christ, the real thing or the flawed substitutes, and O’Conner’s God, as inscrutable as He might be, never stops pursuing. It’s sort of a beautiful picture in such a bleak landscape.


Christopher said...

Thinking back upon this book I think maybe I was a little put off not only by its thematic inscrutability, but its limp sort of patchwork plot--a lot of the smaller incidents, including that gorilla suit one that you and I both like, are also O'Connor short stories. Hazel, I suppose, has a pretty clear trajectory, but there's something strange about the episodic way she populates the rest of the book.

In any case, I was intrigued enough that I'd like to read her only other novel, The Violent Bear it Away.

Brent Waggoner said...

I had two long comments eaten. Short version: I'm reading The Violent Bear It Away now. Review hopefully coming soon.

Hacker said...

I had two long comments eaten. Short version: I'm reading The Violent Bear It Away now.
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