Saturday, November 08, 2008

Flannery O'Connor - Wise blood

Wise Blood was Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, a philosophical/religious allegory written in 1952 and called by the author herself her ‘opus nauseus'. As a first novel, it is remarkably assured. It is, however, an ultimately unsatisfying piece of propoganda in which she creates a Nietzschean straw man so that she can knock him down and claim victory for God.

The novel tells the story of Hazel Motes, just released from the army at the end of the war and drifting in and around his home state. In a series of encounters he repeatedly claims to believe in nothing and argues that while others are seeking redemption he is not. “I reckon you think you been redeemed,” he says to one character on the train:

“If you’ve been redeemed,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to be…. Do you believe in Jesus? … Well I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.”

To another character he asks: “Where has the blood you think you been redeemed by touched you?” He continues in this vein with everyone he meets, while insisting that he is not a preacher. “You look like a preacher,” a taxi driver tells him. “That hat looks like a preacher’s hat.” And Mrs Watts, the prostitute he visits, tells him: “Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher.”

But of course he is a preacher. He is a preacher of nothingness. “I don’t say [Christ] wasn’t crucified but I say it wasn’t for you. Listenhere [sic], I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth…. I’m going to preach a new church – the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” Later, he rationalises his thinking:

“Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption. “

While Haze is not seeking his redemption, he is, as he repeatedly stresses, in search of truth. This is O’Connor’s take on Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead and that man must seek instead to break free from conventional, Christian morality and move beyond good and evil. What Haze and the other characters represent is the Nietzschean will to power, as it is progressed through a search for truth. Truth, for Nietzsche, was something of a chimera: it was not an absolute or a universal, but manufactured through, by and because of the moral fashions of the time. Clearly, this is the converse of an O’Connor view of life and so O’Connor, in this novel, seeks to portray Nietzsche’s will to power in entirely negative terms. Motes tells a crowd (and us):

“I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth,” he called. “No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach!”

So Motes is a true nihilist, a believer in nothing. And thus, as Edmonton explains, the novel: ‘illustrates the dangerous pursuit of nihilism through the rejection of God and traditional morality. [1] Edmonton then points out that Haze’s ‘arrogance consists of his assertion that he can believe in nothing and still avoid evil.’ [2] That, essentially, is a summary of the plot of the novel. In a series of encounters, Haze preaches nothingness and tries to prove that he neither seeks nor requires assistance from God in facing down mortal dangers. He is, of course, doomed to failure, because the human conscience will not allow such degeneracy. Of conscience, Haze says: “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it’ll hunt you down and kill you.” This novel is the story of that hunt.

There are a number of additional characters in the novel, the most important of whom is Enoch, who becomes Haze’s only disciple and who steals for him the mummified remains of an Aboriginal from a museum, believing it to be the personification of the ‘jesus’ of Haze’s Church Without Christ. Edmondson identifies Enoch as evoking:

nihilism’s most salient promise, the creation of a race of “overmen”, those individuals superior to the rest because of their rejection of bygone moral restraints, who by the courageous exercise of their will, lead everyone else into the promised land beyond good and evil. [3]

Thus, we are again being told that Nietzsche’s search for life beyond good and evil is doomed to failure. Edmondson notes that: ‘O’Connor believed that the Nietzschean pursuit of the Overman will not be an evolutionary leap forward, but a long disastrous step backwards.’ [4] O’Connor amplifies this graphically in Wise Blood with Enoch’s final scene, when he is dressed in a gorilla suit and creeps up on a young couple in the woods:

No gorilla in existence, whether in the jungles of Africa or California, or in New York City in the finest apartment in the world, was happier at that moment than this one, whose god had finally rewarded it.

As so often with O’Connor, her desire to deliver a message results in spectacularly unsubtle symbolism. Enoch, the supposed Overman, is here a symbol for mankind in his rejection of god, as a result of which he has become a mere animal. This, according to O’Connor is the Nietzschean future. Mankind, she is saying, in thrall as it is to nothingness and sensation and godlessness, is regressing into barbarity. No Rousseauian noble savage here, this is baseness personified.

So much for the message. Does it work? This is a fascinating novel, tussling with genuinely meaty issues, but in the end it is not satisfying. As with The Violent Bear It Away, the characters here are ciphers, objects to be played with by the author and manipulated to suit her ends. Haze is a nihilist, but he’s a very Christian sort of nihilist. True nihilism is not premised on a lifetime of denial of God: that is taken for granted. Only a Christian could draw a nihilist in such terms. And so we are told:

He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him.

This gets to the central weakness in the story – it shows precisely where and how O’Connor is manipulating her character. He is supposedly the nihilist who determinedly believes in nothing, yet O’Connor is planting the seed of something in him, so that it can later be exploited. She is trying to have it both ways – painting him as believing nothing, yet having him know, deep down, that there is a blankness that once was something. So he is not a true nihilist, but a Christian caricature of one. He is a straw man. For this reason his downfall, although interesting, is of no philosophical consequence. Rather than a critique of nihilism or a refutation of Nietzschean beliefs, the story is ultimately a representation of Christian insecurity.

And read in that light it delivers the exact opposite message from that which O’Connor intended. And that, to me, is a delightful irony.

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