Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Reading F. O’Connor is a disturbing and slightly terrifying experience. It’s a lot like wandering through a carnival where all the freaks, clowns, bearded ladies and sword swallowers look even more ghoulish than they ordinarily do. When a new character is introduced in Wise Blood, even a minor one, I often cringe. The very sight of them is disgusting, like shredded carrion with a pulse or a twitching lip. It’s not that they’re ugly, which they very often are. Nor that they lack any of the customary social graces, which they almost always do. It’s that there’s something fundamentally inscrutable about them. This isn’t by accident, either.

In Kafka’s fiction, by way of contrast, an aggrieved consciousness confronts an external world that doesn’t make sense, be it a bureaucracy or one’s newly hatched condition as an insect. The aggrieved consciousness is largely intact, however. Not so in O’Connor’s world, where the interior dimension of her characters’ lives is profoundly unhinged, misaligned, broken. They stagger across the pages like obscenities to common sense.

“Eyes like bullet holes”

O’Connor sustains an eerie mood with demented little touches. Black clothing is common; people drive “high rat-colored cars”; faces have expressionless eyes and sharp, dirty teeth. To heighten the sense of isolation and loneliness, characters talk over, around and through each other without ever really exchanging thoughts and feelings. Wavering shadows in the streets or reflections in glass or storefront windows might mingle, but people rarely do.

Because O’Connor’s project is one of heresy and blasphemy, she HAS TO traffic in ugliness. Her literary techniques MUST glorify this chief end. She has no choice. In many respects, O’Connor is like Nietzsche, at least the Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols. Suppose Nietzsche is correct and the body is the manifestation of one’s soul. Then Socrates’ ugliness has a spiritual cause, and if Socrates is as ugly as a pig, then it’s not at all surprising that O’Connor’s characters are, too.

A tilted wacky world

Although Nietzsche wins cheap laughs with a funny ad hominem at Socrates’ expense, O’Connor is deadly serious about the derangement of subjectivity and the torments of interior life. She dramatizes this by presenting characters who are not only ugly but whose beliefs and actions are systematically unhinged. Objective appearances and subjective realities are torn apart. Hazel Motes is an atheist who is a theist and blinds himself with lye and walks with barbed wire around his chest and shards of glass in his shoes; a blind evangelical preacher is a sighted crackpot; an innocent girl is a sexually precocious freak gone wild; and a scam artist is an earnest but lapsed Christian who confesses his sins right before he dies at Hazel’s hands for not being “true.”

A broken human being kills another broken human being. One is tempted to see in homicide a crime. But in O’Connor’s fiction, murder pales in comparison to a more basic and fundamental crime. Namely, being “guilty of the sin before sin.” Presumably this is the guilt of mere existence. Remediation of this disease goes well beyond the powers of any author, whether of words, deeds or worlds.

Compared to O’Connor’s universe, Kafka’s is downright homey.

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10 Responses to Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

  1. Frisbee says:

    I agree that Flannery O’Connor is terrifying. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” makes me shudder. I’ve had trouble reading this Southern writer–Eudora Weldy is more my speed–but I should try to read Wise Blood.

    Great review!

  2. Thank you, Frisbee. Good Man is Hard to Find is a favorite. If you ever do read Wise Blood, please let me know. Lastly I’m writing one more piece on the novel and would appreciate your reaction.

  3. Steven Riddle says:

    Dear Kevin,

    Hmmm. I now HAVE read it and while you seem to have gotten the gothic pretty clearly, it appears to me that one’s intrinsic stance occasionally makes it difficult to hear some of the nuances of a given author. While much of what you say here is true, it is the window dressing and the main point is wrapped up in “The Church of God without Christ.” If one misses that, one misses everything in the novel. If one cannot translate Motes’s alienation then the whole is nothing more that a Carson McCuller’s ugliness or a Truman Capote grotesque.

    Those elements are here–no question. I would suggest that you look into “The Violent Bear it Away.” All of O’Connor’s fiction homes in on exactly the same point and it is perhaps best exemplified by her reaction to some of the thought of her Christian neighbors–“If the eucharist is only a symbol then to hell with it!”

    As a Catholic in Georgia, I would venture to guess that Flannery’s encounter with the world shared much in common with Kafka’s. (One must remember that while less pronounced, the KKK was/is just as fond of burning crosses on a Catholic’s yard as they are of other similar hateful activities.)

    What I think Flannery best captures is the power of human hate unchained–and the power of human love. Sheer human cussedness–and original sin–that propensity of humans (so often ignored by our Rousseaian [and gravely mistaken] liberal thought machine) to do harm to others for no reason other than it can be done.

    Hope I haven’t too overwhelmed with this comment and thank you for the invitation back. It was most refreshing to read again. Perhaps I can reorder my life to get back in touch with this material that I enjoy so much.

    As always, (even if my comment doesn’t seem to say so) I enjoyed reading and am deeply grateful for the invitation to come and look.

    shalom,

    Steven

    • Hi Steven, great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to read my bit on O. Greatly appreciated. And thank you, too, for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I’ve reread your comment and am not entirely sure where the point of disagreement lies.

      I suspect you disagree with the claim that O is engaged in heresy and blasphemy.

      The claim is defensible, I think. But it would take more space than a single post. I look at the central “point” of the novel through the lens of three theses:

      (1) There’s no freedom in Wise Blood. Everything is compulsion. Hazel returns from war profoundly disaffected. An avowed atheist and a bearer of a “truth,” (i.e, Jesus is a liar), Hazel wears a stiff, black broad-brimmed hat and a glare blue suit, looking like the very country preacher he’s trying to distance himself from. Enoch hasn’t a clue what he’s doing, literally. He hardly has any agency whatsoever. He operates on blind instinct and finds himself unhappily devolved from a busted man into a demented ape by the time his story ends.

      (2) There’s no healing or redemptive moment in Wise Blood. Hazel is just as alienated at the end of the novel as he is in the beginning, even on the assumption that he returns to the fold.

      (3) The power of love is very nearly absent in Wise Blood. Like light that never reaches a forest floor. Everything is darkness, ignorance, lunacy, meanness.

      O’Connor’s Catholic convictions aside, she has written a deeply heretical novel in Wise Blood. At least that’s my take on it.

      Like Enoch, I think I’ve discovered a secret. I’ll share it with you in my next post, my final one on O. This will give you a chance to play Hazel to my Enoch.

      Thanks again for the vist.

      Best,
      K

      • Steven Riddle says:

        Dear K,

        So that this does not become an exchange such as what we had before–let me say only that you and I have read very, very different novels.

        shalom,

        Steven

  4. Tony says:

    Hmm, I think this is a writer that North Americans would be shocked to discover doesn’t really feature on the radar outside their continent. Or maybe I’m wrong, and it’s just me that only has the vaguest idea of her and her writing…

  5. I don’t think many Americans know who she is either, for the most part. She’s read in the university, but I’ve never seen anyone turning pages of O’Connor at a coffee shop or an an airport, for instance. Highly recommend her though.

  6. Biblibio says:

    Yes, I will read Flannery O’Connor. It will happen. I mean, just reading your post has sufficiently set me on edge, but… that further convinces me that I should read something of hers. I just need to find the right jumping off point…

    • It will happen, as it should, compulsion being one of her great themes! Look for jumping off point no further: Wise Blood. That’s the one you want. It’s brilliant. Geronimo!

  7. I fought to do the cover art for this book series, having studied her work for years and really wanted todo it justice. (That is my cover you posted).
    If you liked or were confused by ‘No Country for Old Men’, you need to read Flannery O’Connor. Her work is strong and unforgiving, but also, it’s full of dark humour. John Huston’s film of Wise Blood really ‘gets’ it.

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