What happens when something that you don’t understand and want to escape ends up pulling you in and throws your whole world off balance? That’s the question at the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic novel Wise Blood. We meet Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran. He’s pursued by Christ, and he is desperate to evade him. Then there’s Enoch Emery: an 18 year old driven by a keen sense of intuition that he believes is the “wise blood” he inherited. This blood bubbles up within him and compels him to do things. Both men endured harsh childhoods in Fundamentalist Christian settings and no longer have any family left. They are traumatized. And both now find themselves strangers on the margins of an uncaring, meaningless world that they seek to overcome or to at least survive.
O’Connor does a remarkable job of sketching characters that in all likelihood suffered from ailments widely known today, but ones that wouldn’t have been understood when she published this novel on 1952. Hazel Motes, released from the army after suffering an injury, bears the hallmark traits of PTSD. Enoch Emery, on the other hand, suffers from something that resembles obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Motes is mostly referred to in the novel as “Haze,” a name that isn’t accidental. He becomes so engrossed in denying Christ and in convincing others by establishing his Church Without Christ that he’s all but paralysed. Enoch, by contrast, manages to build a modest life, despite his compulsions. He rents a room in a rooming house that he keeps clean and takes care to furnish and decorate. He holds down a job as a gatekeeper at the local zoo. But he’s desperately lonely and hopes to find a friend in Haze, who is new in town.
Enoch is eager to please, quick to forgive and honest in sharing with anyone who might listen just how lonely he really is. While he makes some keen observations and has a heightened sense of intuition, he’s also exceptionally naive and innocent.
Haze arrives in the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee dressed in a suit and hat that makes him look like a preacher. Everyone assumes, much to his annoyance, that he is in the “Jesus business.” He finds the name of a prostitute scribbled on the wall of the men’s washroom at the local train station. Mrs. Watts has the “friendliest bed” in town, the message reads. Haze pays her a visit and hands her four dollars for her services.
Near the beginning of the novel, we’re given snippets of Haze’s childhood. His grandfather was a travelling Fundamentalist preacher. As a child, Haze’s face resembled that of his grandfather. The old preacher would drive into the towns of the deep South, climb the hood of his Ford, arriving “just in time to save them all from Hell…and he was shouting before he had the car door open.”
As a boy, Haze came to believe that Jesus was pursuing him with the persistence of a mad man. We read:
There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
In Taulkinham, Haze meets the fraudulent street preacher Asa Hawks and his teenage daughter Sabbath Lily. Hawks claims to have blinded himself for Jesus at a church service, and that his act of self-mutilation led to the conversion of hundreds. He’s a fraud and his ministry is about little more than collecting change while preaching in the streets. He and his daughter live in a rooming house and are on the margins of society in the small town. The first time Haze meets Hawks and Sabbath, they are in the process of interrupting a salesman who is trying to hawk a potato peeler in the streets of Taulkinham. Hawks usurps the small crowd gathered around the salesman and exclaims:
“Help a blind preacher. If you won’t repent, give up a nickel. I can use it as good as you. Help a blind unemployed preacher. Wouldn’t you rather have me beg than preach? Come on and give a nickel if you won’t repent.
The salesman is livid, and screams: “These damn Jesus fanatics! These goddam Communist foreigners! I got this crowd together!”
Haze is much more mesmerized by the preacher than the potato peeler salesman. While everyone else’s eyes are fixed on the mundane realities of the temporal world, he’s focused on the transcendent that he so persistently denies exists. He decides to follow the preacher and his daughter down the streets of Taulkinham, but Enoch — who had just met him in the crowd — tags along. As naive and as vulnerable as Enoch is, his instincts are spot on when it comes to the preacher. He tries to convince Haze not to get mixed up with them.
Haze is surly as he trudges down the streets in pursuit of the preacher. He’s so singularly focused on Hawks that Enoch’s presence next to him is a nuisance. Enoch can barely keep up with Haze’s mad pace. It’s along this walk that he discloses just how lonely he is and how unfriendly he finds the city to which he moved two months prior. His monologue is endearing in its innocent sincerity:
“I been here two months,” he said, “and I don’t know nobody. People ain’t friendly here. I got me a room and there ain’t never nobody in it but me. My daddy said I had to come. I wouldn’t never have come but he made me…” He strode along at Haze’s elbow, talking in a half mumble, half whine. Once he caught at his sleeve to slow him down and Haze jerked it away. “My daddy made me come,” he said in a cracked voice. Haze looked at him and saw he was crying, his face seamed and wet and a purple-pink color. “I ain’t but eighteen years old,” he cried, “an’ he made me come and I don’t know nobody, nobody here’ll have nothing to do with nobody else…People ain’t friendly here. You ain’t from here but you ain’t friendly either.”
The world that O’Connor paints in Wise Blood is cold and devoid of meaningful human interaction. The human relationships in it are all conditional and transactional. There’s certainly nothing even approximating unconditional love. At age 18, Enoch has a job, he has a modest income and a place to stay. For someone so abandoned by his family and by everyone, he’s managed things quite well. But he’s acutely aware that the world is devoid of unconditional friendship. He knows that the way people go about their lives is no way to live at all.
After their initial interaction, Haze is the one to track down Enoch at his place of work: the city zoo. Enoch knows where the preacher and his daughter live, and Haze is increasingly obsessed by the prospect of confronting them. He’s bothered that the preacher didn’t seem at all interested in proselytising him. At the zoo, Haze finds Enoch provoking caged monkeys. Before he agrees to bring Haze to the preacher, he insists on showing him a grotesque artefact: the mummified corpse of a dwarf encased in glass, preserved in a museum located on the zoo’s grounds. Yet even this bizarre and gruesome sight isn’t enough to get Haze to change focus and stop obsessing about his Church Without Christ.
Haze ends up moving into the same rooming house where Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily live. While he considers getting Hawks’ attention and sparking his moral outrage by “defiling” his teenage daughter, it’s Sabbath who proactively tries to seduce the mostly repulsed Haze. On the one hand, she’s genuinely attracted to him. On the other hand, she sees him as her ticket out of her father’s horrible world. And her father is supportive of parting ways with his daughter as well.
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Haze starts preaching – standing on his car and in front of cinemas. While he preaches the Church Without Christ, a confidence trickster latches onto him, tries to stoke his ego by referring to him as “the prophet,” but in fact intends to start his own church — the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ — for his own personal financial benefit. Unlike those in the “Jesus business” all around him, Haze is guided at least in part by a form of altruism and he’s genuinely haunted by the transcendent. He’s not preaching for money and he’s upset by those who are. His is a different perspective from those in his midst seeking only temporal benefits — people who have no convictions at all.
Haze’s preaching isn’t successful. It elicits mostly disinterest and some disdain. O’Connor’s portrayal of the Bible Belt isn’t a place where people are inclined to discuss, debate or defend their faith at the drop of a hat. Most people don’t care and are wrapped up in the passing daily realities of life. Haze’s outward atheism is mostly moral outrage at the fact that people around him claim to believe in Christ, yet don’t act any better as a consequence. One evening in front of the cinema, Haze rages:
“The truth don’t matter to you. If Jesus had redeemed you, what difference would it make to you? You wouldn’t do nothing about it. Your faces wouldn’t move, neither this way nor that, and if it was three crosses there and Him hung on the middle one, that one wouldn’t mean more to you and me than the other two. Listen here, what you need is something to take the place of Jesus, something that would speak plain. The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus! It needs one that’s all man, without blood to waste, and it needs one that don’t look like any other man so you’ll look at him.”
This monologue is masterful in that it encapsulates in a few short lines the major arguments against religious faith, and particularly against the Christian faith. First, people of faith claim to know and believe in the truth, yet they are not transformed for the better by it. Second, Jesus failed – at least by the standards of earthly existence. He was weak, he spilled his blood in vain for indifferent people, and what he preached was strange, disturbing, difficult, absurd and incomprehensible. Third, Jesus looked too much like us. He may have been a wandering teacher sharing with anyone who might listen his message about the Golden Rule. But ultimately, he was just a man in the haze of distant history. He lived and died and didn’t make that much of a difference. Haze’s idea of a new jesus is one who would succeed in transforming those who came into contact with him, one who would be easy to understand and who would be strong and successful.
Enoch, who happens to be coming out of the cinema, is swept up in a wave of hope as he hears this. He’ll find Haze a new jesus. He’s eager to impress and he knows how to get Haze’s attention and, by extension, earn his friendship. In Enoch’s mind, the new jesus is the mummified corpse of the dwarf displayed at the museum. Now his job is to steal it and deliver it to Haze.
The scenes of Enoch and the stolen corpse are chilling and eyebrow-raising. When Enoch takes it home, he puts it into a cabinet adorned with gold leaf: a tabernacle, of sorts. He crouches down staring at it, waiting for something earth shattering to happen – for his life to be totally transformed. We read: “He knew something was going to happen and his entire system was waiting on it. He thought it was going to be one of the supreme moments of his life but apart from that, he didn’t have the vaguest notion what it might be. He pictured himself, after it was over, an entirely new man, with an even better personality than he had now.”
Both Enoch and Haze are waiting for something to transform themselves and the world around them in which they are lost and adrift. They are searching for meaning in often misguided and troubled ways. Haze tortures himself by wrapping barbed wire around his chest until he bleeds and by filling his shoes with pebbles, causing him to limp. He’s painstakingly trying to work out his redemption. His landlady is horrified to see the blood, barbed wires and the stones in his shoes. This is where we come across a wonderfully revealing passage in the novel:
“It’s not normal. It’s like one of them gory stories, it’s something that people have quit doing — like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats,” she said. “There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it.”
“They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it,” he said.
“You must believe in Jesus or you wouldn’t do these foolish things. You must have been lying to me when you named your fine church. I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t some kind of an agent for the pope or got some connection with something funny.”
Haze and his landlady have completely different ways of seeing the world. The landlady, named Mrs. Flood, sees only what’s in front of her eyes in the most literal, basic sense. Haze, however, is looking at something beyond that. The landlady’s mundane life is thrown off balance when she comes face-to-face with brutally honest manifestations of a faith in something that she simply cannot see nor comprehend. Her answer is to seek solace in the belief that the world has “moved on” and evolved from such incomprehensible things. Yet Haze is the living and perhaps disturbing proof that it hasn’t.
While Haze tortures himself along his interior journey, Enoch is trying to change the world to make it a better, more compassionate place. Like Haze, his methods are questionable. He displays childlike excitement when he shakes hands with a man dressed up like a gorilla whose job it is to promote the cinema business. But the man in the gorilla outfit is a drunken grouch, so Enoch once again finds his naive attempt at building a friendship rejected. What if he were to dress up as a gorilla? He would be a friendly ape who would shake hands with anyone. That’s his endearing line of thinking.
Both Haze and Enoch are likeable characters. Haze’s driven severity is tempered by the honesty and depth of his search for truth and meaning. Enoch is ridiculous and sometimes even cartoonish, but he shows care and concern for others and he isn’t afraid to share his vulnerability in a world where everyone is in it for themselves. Both of these men act in outlandish ways. But are they more outlandish than the nameless crowds who go through life mesmerised by commercialism — silly commercialism that comes in the form of a potato peeler or some other gadget du jour, by cheap movies playing at the local cinema or by dumb stunts?
It seems to me that Flannery O’Connor, this southern woman who raised peacocks on her family farm, struggled with debilitating terminal illness and delved deep into her Catholic faith, was holding up the mirror to several things in the world she knew. She removed the veil from fledgling Protestant and Fundamentalist churches that were nothing more than ego projects and business ventures of self-proclaimed pastors and prophets. She questioned the value of modernity and technological advances if all they did was distract us from struggling with the meaninglessness of a temporal existence without the transcendent. And she presented the image of comfortable, self-satisfied and delusional people in the modern world as little more than caged primates in a zoo.
*The image at the top is from the 1979 movie Wise Blood, based on O’Connor’s novel.