Tuesday, November 15, 2011

444. Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor

History: This book was published in 1952. The novel was assembled from several disparate stories first published inMademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review. The first chapter is an expanded version of her Master's thesis, "The Train," and other chapters are reworked versions of "The Peeler," "The Heart of the Park," and "Enoch and the Gorilla." The novel concerns a returning World War II veteran who, haunted by a lifelong crisis of faith, resolves to form an anti-religious ministry in an eccentric Southern town.
The novel received little critical attention when it first appeared, but has since come to be appreciated as a somewhat unique work of "low comedy and high seriousness" with enduring if disturbing religious themes.
Plot: Recently discharged from service in World War II and surviving on a government pension for unspecified war wounds, Hazel Motes returns to his family home in Georgia to find it abandoned. Leaving behind a note claiming a chifforobe as his private property, Motes boards a train for Taulkinham. The grandson of a traveling preacher, Motes grew up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin; following his experiences at war, Motes has become an avowed atheist, and intends to spread a gospel ofantireligion. Despite his aversion to all trappings of Christianity, he constantly contemplates theological issues and finds himself compelled to purchase a suit and hat that cause others to mistake him for a minister.
In Taulkinham, Motes initially takes up residence with Leora Watts, a prostitute, and befriends Enoch Emery, a profane, manic, eighteen-year-old zookeeper forced to come to the city after his abusive father kicked him out of their house. Emery introduces Hazel to the concept of "wise blood," an idea that he has innate, worldly knowledge of what direction to take in life, and requires no spiritual or emotional guidance. Together, Emery and Motes witness a blind preacher and his teenage daughter crash a street vendor's potato peeler demonstration to advertise for their ministry. The preacher introduces himself as Asa Hawks and his daughter as Sabbath Lily; Motes finds himself drawn to the pair, which Hawks attributes to a repressed desire for religious salvation. Angry, Motes begins shouting blasphemies to the crowd and declares that he will found his own, anti-God street preaching ministry. Motes' declarations are lost on everyone except for Emery, who becomes infatuated with the idea.
After a bored Leora destroys his hat for her own amusement, Motes moves into the boarding house where Asa and Lily live. Motes becomes fixated on the eerie Lily and begins spending time with her, learning that Asa blinded himself with lye at a revival in order to detach himself from worldly pursuits. Initially intending to seduce Lily in order to corrupt her spiritual purity, Motes discovers that she is in fact a sexually experienced nymphomaniac, which puts him off of sleeping with her. Now skeptical of she and Asa's entire ministry, Motes slips into Hawks' room one night and finds him without his sunglasses on, with perfectly intact eyes: Hawks faltered at the last moment because he did not have strong enough faith, and ultimately left the ministry to become a con-artist. His secret found out, Asa flees town, Lily in Motes' care. The two begin a sexual relationship and Motes begins to more aggressively pursue his ministry, purchasing a dilapidated car to use as a mobile pulpit.
Meanwhile, Enoch Emery, believing that Motes' church needs a worldly "prophet," breaks into the museum attached to the zoo where he works and steals a mummified dwarf, which he begins keeping under his sink. He ultimately presents it to Lily to give to Motes on his behalf; when Lily appears to Motes cradling it in her arms in a parody of the Madonna and Child, Motes experiences a violent revulsion to the image and destroys the mummy, throwing its remnants out the window.
Inspired by Motes' fledgling street ministry, local con-artist Hoover Shoats renames himself Onnie Jay Holy and forms his own ministry, the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ," which he encourages the disenfranchised to join for a donation of $1. The absurdity amuses passerby and they begin to join as a joke, angering Motes, who wants to legitimately-- and freely-- spread his message of antireligion. Despite Motes' protests, Holy moves to the next level in promoting his ministry, hiring a homeless, alcoholic man to dress up like Hazel and act as his "Prophet."
Enoch, during a rainstorm, seeks refuge under a theater marquee, and learns that as a promotion, a gorilla will be brought to the theater to promote a new jungle movie. An excited Enoch stands in line to shake the gorilla's hand, but is startled to find that the gorilla is actually a man in a costume who, unprovoked, tells Enoch to "go to hell." The incident causes Enoch's "wise blood" to give him some inarticulated revelation, and he seeks out a program of the man in the costume's future appearances. That night, Enoch stalks the man to another theater, stabs him with a sharpened umbrella handle, and steals his costume. Enoch takes the costume out to the woods, where he strips naked and buries his clothes in a shallow "grave" before dressing up as the gorilla. Satisfied with his new appearance, Enoch comes out of the woods and attempts to greet a couple on a date by shaking their hand. Enoch is disappointed when they flee in terror, and finds himself alone on a rock overlooking the night sky of Taukinham.
Back in town, Motes angrily watches as Holy begins to grow rich off of his new ministry. One night he follows Holy's "prophet" as he drives home (in a car resembling Hazel's), which he runs off the road; when the man exits the car, the stronger, more forceful Motes threatens him and orders him to strip. The man begins to comply, but Motes is overcome by a sudden rage and repeatedly runs the man over. Exiting the car to ensure he is dead, Motes is startled when the dying man begins confessing his sins to Motes.
The next day, Motes is pulled over by a strange policeman with unnaturally blue eyes, who claims to be citing him for driving without a permit. He orders Motes out of the car, then without explanation pushes it off of a nearby cliff, destroying it. The incident, coupled with the false prophet's death, causes Hazel to become sullen and withdrawn. He throws away all of the money people donated to his ministry, and after an extended period of living as an ascetic at the boarding house, blinds himself with lye and begins walking around with barbed wire wrapped around his torso and shards of glass in his shoes. Believing that Motes has gone insane, the landlady, Mrs. Flood, hatches a plot to marry him, collect on his government pension, and have him committed to an insane asylum. In attempting to seduce Motes, Mrs. Flood instead falls in love with him. After she suggests to Motes that they marry and she care for him, Motes wanders off into a thunderstorm. He is found three days later, lying in a ditch and suffering from exposure to the elements. Angry at being asked to return what they believe is a mentally-ill indigent, one of the police officers who finds him strikes him in the head with his baton while loading Motes into a police car, exacerbating Motes' rapidly deteriorating condition.
At the boarding house, a dying Motes is presented to Mrs. Flood. She has him placed in bed and cares for him during his final moments, telling him he can live with her for as long as he likes, free of charge. As Motes dies, Mrs. Flood thinks she sees a light twinkling in his empty eye sockets.
Review: Wise Blood is Flannery O'Connor's grotesque picaresque tale of Hazel Motes of Eastrod, Tennessee; a young man who has come to the city of Taulkinham bringing with him an enormous resentment of Christianity and the clergy. He is in an open state of rebellion against the rigidity of his itinerant preacher grandfather and his strict mother. So when one of the first people he encounters is the blind street preacher Asa Hawks and Motes finds himself both attracted and repelled by Hawks' bewitching fifteen year old daughter Lily Sabbath, he reacts by establishing his own street ministry. He founds the "Church without Christ".
As you can guess the church is singularly unsuccessful, although he does attract a couple of other crackpots: Enoch Emery a young man who works at the zoo and longs for a kind word from anybody; and Onnie Jay Holy, yet another rival preacher who believes Motes when he says he's found a "new jesus."
While at first this cast of bizarre characters, ranging from merely repugnant to truly evil, and the scenes of physical, moral and spiritual degradation through which they pass all seem to be just a little too much, the reader is carried along by O'Connor's sure hand for dark comedy. The book is very funny. But as the story draws to a close, O'Connor's true mission is revealed; Motes loses his fight against faith and he achieves a kind of grace, becoming something like a Christian martyr to atone for his sins. O'Connor has something serious and important to say about the modern human condition and the emptiness of a life without faith. That she is able to disguise this message in such a ribald comic package is quite an achievement.
Opening Line: “Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down theaisle at the other end of the car.”
Closing Line: “And she saw him moving farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pinpoint of light.”
Quotes: “Listen you people, I'm going to take the truth with me wherever I go. I'm going to preach it to whoever'll listen at whatever place. I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.”
Rating: Very good.

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