Thursday, June 20, 2013
Older, Wiser: A Delayed Appreciation Of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood"
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Ramona Ausubel's A Guide To Being Born, and in the review, I had to offer an apology. Two years ago, I read and dismissed one of her stories, only to read it again and be enthralled. The change in my reading skills and styles always changes for the better as I get older, and I feel a strange disconnect between who I am now, and the kinds of books I read (and the quality of my critical readings) years ago. Of course, I'm being very harsh on myself--everyone goes through adjustments, changes in taste, and develops a better eye with more learning and much more reading. However, I'm still on my little self-critical soapbox. During the summer before my senior year in high school, one of the required books was Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I have some memories of reading it and coming to a seventeen year-old assessment that it was "weird." I've owned the book since then (part of an out-of-print trilogy of her work, including Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away, both of which are on my list). It's graced several bookshelves and book piles from Chicago to Seattle back to Chicago and in various apartments. However, it was only recently that I decided to give it another look, and I'm still amazed. O'Connor's strikingly modern prose, her scary, unrepeatable characters, and her intense looks at philosophy and religious fervor are just as fresh now as they were in 1952. Of course, I'm not even close to being the same reader at thirty that I was at seventeen. However, I'm shocked that I wasn't even remotely as hooked as I should have been. I can't imagine that anything I think about Wise Blood hasn't been thought or written countless times, but I want to do so anyway. In a way, this is a celebration of my growth, and a meaningful apology to a writer who died nineteen years before I was born.
Wise Blood follows the humorous and grotesque interactions of Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran determined to start an atheist movement of The Church Without Christ. His dark clothes and hat give people the assumption that he's an actual preacher, and he comes from a lineage of holy men ("His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger"). After shacking up with a prostitute, he meets the acquaintance of a crazed zookeeper named Enoch Emery. Enoch, despite his nonstop attempts, fails to forge any kind of friendship with Hazel, who keeps rebuffing him. The obsession is very likely a repressed attraction, and the two men's personalities bounce off each other. This is evident even in the most basic dialogues, and Enoch's fascination/obsession becomes more disturbing than Hazel's steely resolve to be left alone with his goals.
"'I'll look after him,' Enoch Emery said, pushing in by the policeman. 'He ain't been here but only two days. I'll look after him.'
'How long you been here?' the cop asked.
'I was born and raised here,' Enoch said. 'This is my ol' home town. I'll take care of him for you. Hey wait!' he yelled at Haze. 'Wait on me!' He pushed out of the crowd and caught up with him. 'I reckon I saved you that time,' he said.
'I'm obliged,' Haze said.
'It wasn't nothing,' Enoch said. 'Whyn't we go in Walgreen's and get us a soda? Ain't no night clubs open this early.'
'I don't like drug stores,' Haze said. 'Good-by.'
'That's all right,' Enoch said. 'I reckon I'll go along and keep you company for awhile (O'Connor 22-23)."
Enoch and Hazel meet Asa, a corrupt, blind preacher and his innocent daughter, Lily. As a reader will quickly assume, their public personas are lies--Asa isn't blind, and Lily is very sexually confident, leading to a series of sexual tensions and games between her and Hazel. Enoch, consumed with the idea of "wise blood" and being more noble than he really is, takes it upon himself to serve Hazel, and eventually his "church." All of these characters and their missions lead to a series of mishaps, some that are natural plot progressions, and some that seem to come from nowhere. Enoch, despite being a supporting character, drives the developments with his creepy obsession. He steals a mummy that he hopes will be an idol or prophet for Hazel's mission; this mummy eventually causes the biggest clash between Hazel and Lily. Hazel's preaching gains no attention or followers, until another corrupt preacher appears out of the blue, claiming to the crowds that Hazel has "saved" him.
"'Then I met this Prophet here,' he said, pointing at Haze on the nose of his car. 'That was two months ago, folks, that I heard how he was out to save me, how he was preaching the Church of Christ Without Christ, the church that was going to get a new jesus to help me bring my sweet nature into the open where ever'body could enjoy it. That was two months ago, friends, and now you wouldn't know me for the same man. I love ever'one of you people and I want you to listen to him and me and join our church, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, the new church with the new jesus, and then you'll all be helped like me!'
Haze leaned forward. 'This man is not true,' he said. 'I never saw him before tonight. I wasn't preaching this church two months ago and the name of it ain't the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ (O'Connor 77-78)!'"
I'm trying to tread carefully in my plot summaries--while the statute of limitations on spoilers has passed, each of the developments and characters are so ripe for analyzing and quoting that virtually every one is worthy of multiple essays on their symbolism and personalities. Also, a summary without context wouldn't hint to half of what truly happens. For example, the gorilla scene, which leads to Enoch's final, desperate acts, is one of the more unique scenes in literature, and is only truly appreciated and understood in the context of how Enoch gets to his current point. The scene is exactly what I described as "weird" in high school, and today, I'd describe it as "weird" in a positive way. It's suspenseful and absurd at the same time, as Enoch is driven to madness, not out of religious or anti-religious desperation, but out of an insult by a man in a gorilla suit.
"There were only two children in front of him by now. The first one shook hands and stepped aside. Enoch's heart was beating violently. The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion.
It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.
For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. 'My name is Enoch Emery,' he mumbled. 'I attended the Rodemill Boys' Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I'm only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com...' and his voice cracked.
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. 'You go to hell,' a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.
Enoch's humiliation was so sharp and painful that he turned around three times before he realized which direction he wanted to go in. Then he ran off into the rain as fast as he could (O'Connor 92-93)."
In the end, Hazel opts for a drastic action that, despite its hinting at a serious mental illness, proves his conviction to his cause. It leads to him being subjected to yet another con, which then turns into a hazy, strangely genuine death, as he suffers for his personal shortcomings and sins. When the novel concludes, the reader is swamped with almost too much sensory and tangible information to process. A simple "What is the moral of this story?" is almost an insult to ask, since O'Connor leads us down so many paths. Religion and its negative effects is an overriding part of the narrative, and I can only imagine the backlash it received. In a way, the novel shows how any fundamentalism, from extreme religious belief to extreme distancing from religious beliefs, can have harmful outcomes for an individual, and therefore society at large. Corruption in various forms is so rampant that the reader becomes jaded, insofar as any emergence of a new, minor character toward the end immediately puts us him or her on alert, since a con or some form of violence is likely near. All of the characters have their own innate views of salvation, even if said salvation is some grotesque, surreal closure. Hazel is at odds with the world, and even the most basic actions exasperate him. Early in the book, the simple act of buying a cheap car puts him up against two strange characters selling the automobile.
"He bought the car for forty dollars and then he paid the man extra for five gallons of gasoline. The man had the boy go in the office and bring out a five-gallon can of gas to fill up the tank with. The boy came cursing and lugging the yellow gas can, bent over almost double. 'Give it here,' Haze said, 'I'll do it myself.' H was in a terrible hurry to get away in the car. The boy jerked the can away from him and straightened up. It was only half full but he held it over the tank until five gallons would have spilled out slowly. All the time he kept saying, 'Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus.'
'Why don't he shut up?' Haze said suddenly. 'What's he keep talking like that for?'
'I don't never know what ails him,' the man said and shrugged (O'Connor 37)."
There are so many small subtexts as well, as Wise Blood truly demands multiple readings. While flipping through after my reading, I discovered this passage:
"Hawks kept his door bolted and whenever Haze knocked on it, which he did two or three times a day, the ex-evangelist sent his child out to him and bolted the door again behind her. It infuriated him to have Haze lurking in the house, thinking up some excuse to get in and look at his face; and he was often drunk and didn't want to be discovered that way.
Haze couldn't understand why the preacher didn't welcome him and act like a preacher should when he sees what he believes in a a lost soul (O'Connor 74)."
Haze rebuffs and dismisses every shred of Christianity and religion, yet feels confused when salvation isn't offered to him. Of course, Hawks is hiding a big secret, and Lily's presence in the sexual dynamic is a delicate balance in the power struggle between her father and Haze. Haze is new to sex, but not inexperienced; he knows that sleeping with Lily right away will give Hawks the upper hand, even though he knows he's a con man. In a way, Enoch is the least corrupt of the characters. He's very likely bipolar, he's alienating, yet tries to be pure in his own misguided way. Mrs. Flood, Haze's landlady at the end, schemes a plan to steal from him, yet ends up with her own form of peace and salvation. Long studies of even the most minor characters could take up several pages. Getting even a simple grasp on them is complicated.
However, with all these forms of symbolism and sociology, Wise Blood is a fantastically entertaining novel. Without resorting to stereotypes, it explores the Southern relationship to religion in a way that sociologists and historians could likely glean major parallels between sects and actual preachers and the way religion permeates the book as a whole. Corruption and dishonesty are expected from leaders, but O'Connor doesn't go for obvious examples or actions. Even from the start, the reader has an idea that unsavory ends are going to meet the characters, but the climaxes come in very unique ways. In the end, we have to wonder who is truly saved or at peace when the novel reaches its end. This very well may be one of my more scattered book pieces, but I kept thinking about so many of the nuances and imagery that O'Connor kept putting into the text. There is so much that I missed in my early reading years ago, and today, this has taken a place as one of my favorite novels ever. I'm very excited to read Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away. I have a tendency to state reading goals that don't always come to pass, but I'll be finishing this trilogy, hopefully by the end of the summer. I have no ideas or synopses of the other two books, but I'm eager to see what else O'Connor's works can do. Wise Blood 's imagery is going to stay with me for awhile, and the fact that this is a debut novel is even more astounding. I hope I've somewhat atoned for my high school transgression.
O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. Copyright 1962 by Flannery O'Connor.