Book Review: Flannery O’ Connor’s Wiseblood, Nihilism in Southern Christianity

Nihilism is the bane of philosophy and the destroyer of civilizations. In Flannery O’ Connor’s novel Wise Blood it becomes the gospel of the main protagonist Hazel Motes. O’Connor portrays Mote’s Nihilism as the source of his undoing, where his rejection of Christ becomes his rejection of everything including reality. There have been two traditional readings of Wise blood. One reading is through O’Connor’s religious perspective that God is at work in the life of Hazel whether he sees it or not. The second is of an exposition of southern ills through background action in the plot that southern racism and segregation is a symptom of Southern Apathy. Though both true they are both are different emphasis that are incomplete without addressing the evangelistic Nihilism that Mote’s is espousing. The thrust of O’Connor’s point at why there are social ills and why God is at work trying to redeem the world is the accepted Nihilism of Southern Society and the problems it creates. I argue that O’Connor’s main point is that like Mote’s, who is a Christian by the form he uses to reject it, the South is a Christian region by form, but not sincerity of belief. Southern Christianity is the Christianity without Christ.

Wise Blood sets a contrast between two extremes. The first extreme is Christianity: that there is a God with Absolute truths, that he is a God of love shown in his son Jesus Christ, that we are to follow his commands to do the ethical good, which brings about human flourishing in the world. The Second Extreme is Nihilism: that there is no absolute truth, there is no God and ultimately the good becomes how you define it rendering it meaningless and all reality becomes unstable. This instability is evident in the Nihilism of Hazel Motes, Hazel’s character means much more than a man gone mad rejecting everything he once knew to be true. O’Connor uses Hazel as a Personification of the south which the spiraling Nihilism that Hazel experiences is the same descent that the south is going through.

O’Connor was afraid of what was happening in the south. As Robert Coles’ writes, “She Knew that the disbelief she referred to was no longer confined to certain sections of Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco.” (Coles, 59) She was afraid that the south is “being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues.” (Coles, 59) O’Connor portrays this departure of the South’s virtues in Hazel’s rejection of the virtues he grew up with. O’Connor here is not concerned with what time the south started departing from Christianity as a Christian region, but that its virtue came from it being a Christian region.  The most important thing to O’Connor is what she is seeing taking place now.

What you seen?’ she said. ‘What you seen,’ she said using the same tone of voice all the time. She hit him across the legs with the stick, but he was like part of the tree. “Jesus died to redeem you,’ she said. ‘I never ast him,’ he muttered. (O’Connor, 59)

Hazel’s relationship with his religious upbringing is in a wider scheme the relationship the South has with Christianity, it is beginning to depart from it. The fate of Hazel is O’Connor’s prediction of what will happen to the south.

Hazel Motes went from sincerity of belief in Christianity where “He knew at twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher.” (O’Connor, 16) Even at the army base he “meant to tell anyone in the army who invited him to sin….that he was going to be a preacher of the gospel.” (O’Connor, 17) The question is what happened to Hazel that he changed his mind? Somewhere in the base camp when hazel was telling his friends that “he was not going to have his soul damned by the government.” (O’Connor, 18) His army friends responded that “nobody was interested in his goddam soul unless it was the priest… They told him he didn’t have any soul and left for their brothel.” (O’Connor, 18)  This was the gestation point for Hazel where it took him a long time “to believe them because he wanted to believe them.” (O’Connor, 18) It was here where he saw “the opportunity here…. to be converted to nothing instead of evil.” (O’Connor, 18) O’Connor seems to make a point that Hazel’s wartime experiences played a pivotal role in his decision for Nihilism. Where the “army sent him halfway around the world and forgot him.” (O’Connor, 18) A very pivotal moment is when “he was wounded and they remembered him long enough to take the shrapnel out of his chest.” (O’Connor, 18) The surgery wasn’t as successful as he hoped, “they took it out but they never showed it to him and he felt it still in there, rusted, and poisoning him.” (O’Connor, 18) This symbol of a wound that never fully heals represents the wartime experience that never leaves those who have been in battle. It was here while recovering that he “had all the time he could want to study his soul in and assure himself it was not there.” (O’Connor, 18) The wound that never heals is the symbol that O’Connor uses to convey Hazel’s wartime experience leading him away from Christianity. The larger implication is of the South’s beginning in trying to deal with its post-war trauma.

Post-war trauma has led many to reevaluate their previously held values. A famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s questioning Catholicism after his world war one experiences. Hemingway’s relationship with Christianity is very complicated and numerous books have been written about it. Those who knew Hemingway during his childhood upbringing could not understand “how a boy brought up in Christian and Puritan nurture should know and write so well of the devil and the underworld.”(Carben, 19) It is commonly thought at one time he did believe. And a breaking away begins during his time in World War one. One account tells of a gruesome act done by Hemingway and his men that may conclude his lack of belief.

Hemingway’s men, on edge and half-savage from the strain and the drink, broke discipline and went to a village behind the lines and proceeded to attack all the women in it. Hemingway, although his own life until then had shown him many unpleasant things, was sickened; and when he was commended the next day instead of reprimanded by his superiors for allowing the men to find an outlet for their savagery, it is not unreasonable to believe that the boy thought there might be no God. (Carben, 21)

Though this account confirms a clear break with Hemingway’s childhood values there still remains a complicated relationship with religion. In Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises the main protagonist drinks, womanizes, fights and also goes to mass. “We started inside and there was a smell of incense and people filing back into the church….I put down money for the wine.” (Hemingway, 159) Hemingway may be functionally atheistic but not hostile towards religion. He seems to act as though it were a backdrop, a window dressing that doesn’t have to be taken seriously. This is a stark contrast between Hazel’s attitude towards Christianity.

O’Connor’s point seems to be that Southern Christianity seems to be more like Hemingway’s attitude toward Religion. The post-war south experiencing many upheavals is re-evaluating its own values, which didn’t result in outright rejection but a tepid acceptance. It isn’t an ardent dismissal, but an apathetic drift that accepts its place, but not its doctrines on how life must be lived. You see this contrast with people that Hazel meets in the South after his conversion to Nihilism.

Do you think I believe in Jesus? He said, leaning toward her and speaking almost if he were breathless. Well I wouldn’t even if he existed. Even if he was on this train. Who said you had to? She said in a poisonous Eastern voice. (O’Connor, 10)

Southern Nihilism is different from Hazel’s Nihilism. Hazel’s Nihilism passionately rejects Christianity, while Southern Nihilism just doesn’t seem to care.

This makes it even clearer when Hazel tries to evangelize his Church of Christ without Christ. People don’t get angry with him. They don’t get offended and try to convert him to Christianity. They listen for a while and walk off.

And I preach peace, I preach the Church of Christ without Christ, the church peaceful and satisfied! Two or three people who had stopped near the car started walking off the other way. Leave! Hazel Motes cried. Go ahead leave! The truth don’t matter to you. (O’Connor, 140)

These people seem to be the logical conclusion of Hazel’s preaching. “The truth is there is no truth” according to Hazel. (O’Connor, 165) If there is no truth then why care? The problem with Hazel is that these people are already part of his church, but he doesn’t realize it because he still operates under a Christian behavioral form that somebody needs to be converted in order to be a believer. The point O’Connor is trying to make is you simply have to do nothing to believe in nothing.

This sort of Nihilism is O’Connor’s major concern within the novel. The two main forms of reading Wise Blood see Nihilism as a problem, but yet don’t necessarily deal with it explicitly. Preston Browning puts the thematic organization of Wise Blood this way.

Wise Blood is organized around a nexus of opposites: sin/innocence; animality/spirituality; commitment to nothing/ commitment to evil; the deity of the coincidentia oppositorium/ the god of debased theism; spiritual sight/ spiritual blindness. (25, Browning)

Though the religious reading deals with these extremes, it loses the meaning for redemption or the reason for these dramatic contrasts in the first place; if does not deal with the problem that O’Connor is posing, the problem of growing southern nihilism.

The same reductionism holds true with the social ills reading. There are many indications of specific social problems occurring in the book on the periphery, whether it is Hazel’s racism, Enoch’s rejection in society, or the growing consumerism that is attached with religion. These social ills are considerable problems, but O’Connor’s concern goes deeper. These outside problems are reflective of an internal issue. Frederick Asals elaborates.

Wise Blood is centrally concerned with the psychological and religious conflict within Hazel Motes, but this internal drama is presented almost entirely from the outside, projected into various forms of action, image, and metaphor. (Asals, 20)

The social problems are used in Wise Blood as a device of inner conflict. This conflict is rooted in Nihilism.

Any interpretation that leaves out the problem that Nihilism poses to society, culture and religion is incomplete. Hazel’s journey of departure from Christianity is the story of the South’s departure from Christianity. The result is the ensuing social problems that the South faces. What looks like Christianity, and believes as passionately as Christianity is only a self-deceived Nihilism.

MLA

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962. Print.

Carben, Edward. The Question of Religion In the Life and Works of Ernest Hemingway. Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1962. Print.

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor, the Imagination of Extremity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1982. N. pag. Print.

Browning, Preston M. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1974. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.

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