I admire Flannery O’Connor because she’s one of only a few writers who use violence in a totally selfless, morally necessary way. Where a nihilist or a satirist might grandstand, the horror in O’Connor’s work is a needed illustration of Christian humanist principles, like love, faith and empathy.
Even the savage murder of a young girl, from a short story I shan’t name, reveals no cruelty or nihilism in the author, but is a means of bringing us to revelation: evil is real, and it destroys the soul. (Whether you think the soul is immortal or not.)
Oddly enough, most of her stories, including those where everyone dies (someone often dies in an O’Connor story), are uplifting and hopeful. They all take place in a universe which recognises good and evil and treats them as objective truths, the road to good being much longer than the path to evil.
Wise Blood, one of two novels she wrote, could be easily dismissed as a painful and bleak book, but for those willing to read it with eyes wide open, it’s about the force of good trying to envelop the lonely and misguided. Or, as O’Connor would have put it, “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it”.
That unwilling character is Hazel Motes, an ex-soldier returned from World War II, his home town abandoned. The grandson of a travelling preacher, his years away have rendered him a bitter atheist, and he shacks up with a prostitute in a new city, determined to blaspheme. Once an almost pedantically pious man, he’s now a committed heretic.
Motes is a cold and joyless soul. Despite his antireligious beliefs, he chooses a suit and hat which make him look like a preacher. He’s even mistaken for one by a taxi driver, infuriating this new heathen. Furious at his once beloved faith, he becomes a preacher for his own church, a Church Without Christ, proudly proclaiming, sometimes on street corners like a sandwich-board prophet, that Jesus was a liar.
His bleak mission leads him to Asa and Sabbath, a couple of Christian pamphleteers, Asa a hardened conman and Sabbath his unloved teenage daughter. Though their motives are secretly selfish and just as heretical as Motes’, he confuses them for genuine Christians and harrasses them.
Another bone of contention in his life is Enoch Emery, a lonely eighteen-year old zookeeper. Like Motes, he’s driven by blasphemy, though in an innocent and unknowing way.
Ignorant of doctrine and spiritual teachings, Emery believes he has “wise blood,” which pushes him towards revelation without intellectual guidance. His “blood” leads him to a mummified dwarf in a museum on the zoo’s grounds, and tells him that this ancient corpse is the “new jesus.”
O’Connor doesn’t capitalise “Jesus” when describing Emery’s dwarf, perhaps because this saviour isn’t real, and thus doesn’t deserve to share the prophet’s name. What Emery becomes is the true revelation: that his “wise blood” has led him to a false idol. His idolatory, far from fulfilling his spiritual needs, has brought him only madness and loneliness.
Wise Blood‘s second half is its most disturbing, because Motes’ and Emery’s respective obsessions finally consume them. Motes descends further than Emery, and turns into a gross, twisted monster. His pursuit of blasphemy and a godless universe brings him torture. He turns into a martyr almost against his will, which reminds me of a line from one of O’Connor’s short stories: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”
Wise Blood is beautiful and thought-provoking. Like the scriptures that inspired it, the novel requires close attention. O’Connor’s prose is elegantly crafted, and she never stoops to the level of mean-spiritedness even in her darkest scenes, which provoke empathy, not hopelessness, as a lazy reading of this complex book might.