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Wise Blood (Harcourt Brace, 1952).

Wise Blood (Harcourt Brace, 1952)

by Flannery O'Connor

Complaint about our Patent Electric Blanket has been common enough. In varied note it has made up the bulk of our literature and art for half a century, to be sure--not to mention the more oblique use of it in political oratory.

The day when the outcry arose over who could or should come under the blanket, or how far it could or should be stretched, now dims in memory (except for Politics' ghostly official ritual). And for a long time now complaint has been directed at the blanket itself.

Political short-circuits having produced two devastating general electrocutions in the past forty years and brought about a chronic state of localized slaughter, no one even among its manufacturers regards the old blanket with complacence any more. Inspecting it and proposing fumigation, renovation, etc., are the preoccupations of our age. In this country, where the blanket was warmest and most of the people slept next to it, in the raw, there was paradoxically in the distant South a ravelling edge.

The edge of man's social covering has always interested the artist, and the existence of these loose antique strands in the South has not gone without notice. It has received literary treatment over more than two decades. The significance of our unravelling even has been suspected.

No more dramatic representation of it, however, has come to my attention than that made in Wise Blood by Miss Flannery O'Connor. And let me add, no wiser blood has brooded and beat over the meaning of the grim rupture in our social fabric than that of this twenty-six year old Georgia girl in this, her fist novel.

Two earlier novels dealing substantially with the same material--Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying--can, I believe, be drawn upon to illuminate and give us perspective for Miss O'Connor's dramatic revelation. These three stories present the same sort of people in the same passage of history, although a quarter of a century separates the Lesters and the Bundrens from Hazel Motes. To be sure a little more has transpired historically for "Haze," than had for Jeeter or Anse. There has been a political revolution in this country and another world war. But this is of no great importance in their predicament

The significant difference comes in their creators' definition of this predicament.

Caldwell--no artist and only a dull pornographer and entitled to mention in this company only because of the accident of his comment on the material in question and public reaction to it--saw only the physical poverty and hunger of his Lesters in Tobacco Road. In the Marxist morality which he reflected, this was mortal sin, and, with the anger of the sentimental and confused, he heaped every conceivable indignity that could be heaped on the human animal, upon them.

Perhaps the only reason why he did not do them deeper degradation was because he knew of no other dimension in which to degrade them. His references to religion were purely nominal. He had too little imagination to use his woman preacher, Bessie, for anything more than a labeled effigy on which to smear sexual imbecilities. He granted Jeeter and Ada Lester a tragic death only because death for him was merely phenomenal--and literary.

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner knows that death is not merely phenomenal and he remembers that there is a more persistent hunger than physical hunger. The Bundrens are not absorbed in their precarious economy. At the story's opening, however, Addie, the religious one, is dying and their drama concerns itself with the ritual burial of her remains. Their religious rite gives them significance while it engages them, yet they do not seek salvation and when it is ended they slip back into naturalistic anonymity. Faulkner, one of the great visionaries of our time, showed religious perspective here, but he had not been granted the grace of vision.

To be sure time has passed, events have transpired and we all understand more about the limitations of materialism than we did twenty years ago. This is true even for artists and their Lesters, Bundrens and Moteses, too. Tobacco Road received serious critical as well as popular acceptance and praise, while Faulkner was being rebuked for As I Lay Dying by those who slept warmly, in the raw, next to The Blanket. But to make my point, the suspicion I wish to give voice to here is that Lesters, Bundrens and Moteses alike, were gnawed by the same secret hunger.

It has remained for Miss O'Connor, twenty years after their earlier appearance, to see what these people's destitution signifies and to fully appreciate their motivation.

Wise Blood is not about belly hunger, nor religious nostalgia, but about the persistent craving of the soul. It is not about a man whose religious allegiance is name for a shiftlessness and fatalism that make him degenerate in poverty and bestial before hunger, nor about a family of rustics who sink in naturalistic anonymity when the religious elevation of their burial rite is over. It is about man's inescapable need of his fearful, if blind, search for salvation. Miss O'Connor has not been confused by the symptoms.

And she centers her story frankly and directly on the religious activity and experience of her simple and squalid folk. Didactically stated her story seems over-simple: Hazel Motes, an hysterical fringe preacher, tried to found a church "Without Christ" and, progressively preaching nihilism, negates his way back to the cross.

The point is, however, that there is nothing didactic about her statement of it. Her statement is completely dramatic and dramatically profound.

I would agree, however, that Miss O'Connor could not have done what she has done twenty years ago. We have here essentially the same people and the same essential motivation, but the Lesters and Bundrens could not have been made to force the issue of the Church Without Christ. The technique Miss O'Connor employs had not ripened then and, if it had been so employed perhaps could not have been generally understood.

In contrast to Caldwell's reportorial naturalism and Faulkner's poetic expressionism, she uses, under the face of naturalism, a theologically weighted symbolism.

When the story opens, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, and just released from the Army after four years' service, is on his way to preach "the church without Jesus Christ Crucified." He doesn't believe in Jesus and he doesn't believe in sin, he confides to passengers on the train taking him to Taulkinham, the city.

His first act to disprove his belief in sin on his arrival is to share the bed of Mrs. Leora Watts, said to be the "friendliest bed in town." His mission complicates his life with that of a phony, blind, street-corner beggar-preacher and his young daughter, whom Haze plans to seduce to prove to the blind preacher that he is serious in his repudiation of Christianity.

Haze is impressed with the preacher's story that he blinded himself with quick lime to justify his belief that Christ had redeemed him. Still Haze suspects its validity. In the course of events he succeeds in finding out what the reader already knows, that the preacher had funked his demonstration with the quick lime and did not put it in his eyes, and is not blind. Moreover, the preacher's fifteen-year old nymphomanic daughter turns the tables on Haze in his plans to seduce her and forces him to take her into his bed.

To the theater crows, he preaches nightly from the hood of his rat-colored, high-back automobile, which he bought for $40.00--preaches at the outset that "Jesus Christ is just a nigger trick," and he talks about a "new Jesus." Later he contends that he cannot commit blasphemy, because there is nothing to blaspheme.

His talk about a new jesus attracts a street mountebank who wants to join him, capitalize on his idea and make money out of it. When Haze refuses, the mountebank, Onnie Jay Holy, finds a double for Haze and tries to carry on without him.

Haze, who feels that he is trying to bring Truth to the world--the truth that there is no truth--will have no counterfeit of himself preaching a new jesus to take people's money. When warning does not stop his deceitful imitator, he runs him down with his car and kills him.

In his treasured automobile, he plans to drive to another city to found his church, leaving behind his crime, the people who did not appreciate his message of truth, and the preacher's feckless daughter who has proved too much for him. On the journey, he is overtaken by a traffic cop, who, when he finds Haze has no driver's license, has him drive his jalopy up on the next hill-top, to see the "puttiest view you ever did see." Here the cop pushes Haze's car over the embankment to its destruction, with the words, "Them that don't have a car, don't need a license."

For a long time Haze stares at the desolate view "that extended from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space." When the now solicitous patrolman offers to give Haze a lift, he says he wasn't going anywhere.

Up to this point the surface action has simulated naturalistic motivation, but evidently Miss O'Connor felt that, to a world which does not yet accept the idea of the devil, she had better emphasize his allegorical appearance. It is the first apparent clue to Haze's reembodiment of the Christ myth, this ironic temptation from the mountain-top.

He returns to blind himself with quick lime and spends his remaining days in mortifying the flesh. The anti-Christ messiah's lone disciple is his hard-bitten landlady, a shrew who had always felt cheated. And her curiosity to know that that "crazy fool," sitting on her porch, staring off into space with his sightless eyes sees, finally gets her. "Why had he destroyed his eyes and saved himself unless he had some plan, unless he saw something that he couldn't get without being blind to everything else?" And his other silent penance--rocks and broken glass in his shoes, barbed wire around his chest--when she nosily discovers it, fascinates her by its very illogic: she suspects that she is being cheated somehow, because of something he sees that she can't see. She pursues him, finally falls in love with him, and with mixed motives tries to force him to marry her.

He will not "treat" with her, flees her house into a storm, dies of exposure and a policeman's billy. His death only fixes his fascination for her.

Miss O'Connor employs symbolic motivation, allusion, parallel, irony and understatement, among other things, to suggest her indirect and deeper meanings. The surface story as a whole makes its allegorical emphasis by being beside any logical point, except the allegorical point. These are all known devices, but she employs them with fine skill and tact and dramatic insight.

There is the obvious suggestion in Wise Blood that that terrible heretical misconception of religious freedom which regards every man as potentially his own priest, has come to the end of its row. But the dramatic impact for me lay in my share of the landlady's chill (and fascination) over the undescribed vision that filled Haze Motes' sightless eyes--Haze Motes, who had never got far enough under the Patent Electric Blanket to be lulled to sleep in its security.

Nota bene: This review originally appeared in Shenandoah, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1952) pp. 55-60.
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Title Annotation:60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue; Reprinted, Shenandoah, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1952) pp. 55-60
Author:Cheney, Brainard
Publication:Shenandoah
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:2119
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