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Reclaiming the Self: Chapter 5

Transcendence Through Transgression and Kenosis: Sin as Salvation and Self-Emptying in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom-William Blake

To this point we have seen transcendence as a voluntary joining with divinity; an attempt by a man and a woman to leave behind their own insecurities and join each with the other in a "love's hete celestial" which puts the self in service of the beloved; and as an attempt by an individual to first control, then finally unite with, life and its source.

Arjuna is perhaps the easiest-if least familiar-example of transcendence in this essay. His revelation is one which can be-if not completely understood in its nuance and richness of detail-at least recognized by the Western reader of the world's literature. The story of Troilus and Crysede, while more familiar to most Western readers than the Bhagavad Gita, may be less easily seen as a tale of transcendence: Troilus appears to be concerned with little more than satisfying his immediate urges, and Crysede has long been interpreted as a tragically unfaithful woman whose weakness led to the downfall of a noble warrior. Ultimately, the story of Troilus and Crysede is one of transcendence: the focus, however, is on the failure of Troilus and the success of Crysede. The story of Faust is even more problematic than that of Troilus and Crysede: here is a man responsible for deaths, destructions, and demonic use of magical powers, yet his transcendence in Goethe's poem is as undeniable as it is, at least initially, inexplicable.

After leaving Faust in heaven with the Eternal Feminine, we come now to an even more problematic tale of transcendence: the darkly comic story of Hazel Motes, a fornicating, blaspheming, murdering aetheist who dedicates himself to preaching the impossibility of transcendence.

In Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, transcendence is achieved through transgression and kenosis, or self-emptying.(see note #1) Hazel Motes loses himself, empties himself in his struggle with, and search for, transcendence. His salvation-if it is to be achieved at all-is to be achieved through sin, through a transgressing of ordinary boundaries which serve to separate humans from divinity. This is an idea with a long, distinguished history. Before covering some of that history, however, it is necessary to be clear about what is meant here by transcendence and transgression.

Transcendence-in the context of O'Connor's novel-is a reaching for the divine, that which is wholly Other. This is, by now, familiar territory. What is different here, in O'Connor's novel, as opposed to the works which have already been considered, is the almost total absence of love as a factor in the impulse to transcendence.

Flannery O'Connor is not writing in "maternal language." Hers is not a "feminine discourse." Her novels-Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away-are hard-edged, brutal, and unflinchingly, remorselessly centered on the painful necessity of achieving transcendence. The human relation to the divine in O'Connor's novels finds no analogy in Christmas-card tableaus of the baby Jesus scripted with rhymed messages of unconditional spiritual love. In O'Connor, even God's mercy burns. The path along which those called must travel is one of violent action, self-mortification, and self-renunciation. Those who would truly see must be blinded. Those who would save their souls must lose them. Hazel Motes travels a violent road; he is called-impelled-by an aspect of the transcendent too awful and too demanding to be answered-"Here I am; send me"-by those of us who prefer our lives safe, sane, and small.

Transgression can perhaps be best understood as a going beyond, or shattering of, moral boundaries in pursuit of a greater experience of truth, wholeness, or divinity. At its root, transgression is a stepping across (transgredi: trans-across + gradi-to step); what are stepped across are the boundaries, the behavioral and attitudinal limits, of a culture. In Foucaultian terms, transgression is the process by which we create knowledge, in a process of wresting new knowledge from the determinative conditions of power. "History, unmistakably, is a critical exposition of the constitution of knowledge through the techniques of power" (Lemert and Gillan 64). The uncovering of the discursive practices through which power has constituted knowledge is a transgressive act; it is the breaking of a taboo and a paradoxical reinforcement of that taboo. In Foucault's transgression, what is transgressed is the notion that knowledge can exist in a pure state apart from, or unconstituted by, power. Acquiring knowledge always involves a power struggle: "Foucault holds that knowledge is gained only by the criticism of knowledge. Thinking, therefore, is a continual transgression of established norms of truth. Thinking is a political act because these norms are socially constructed and maintained" (Lemert and Gillan 137).

The idea of transgression as crossing boundaries, as violating taboos, as a struggle with power, is only part of what transgression appears to mean in Flannery O'Connor's work. The world created in Wise Blood can hardly be contained within the wan poststructuralist notion of discourse. The student of literature at the end of the twentieth century can only imagine how O'Connor-who rejected sociology and existentialism as bunk-would have reacted to the Parisian invasion of the 60s and 70s had she lived long enough to see it and have her work picked apart by it. To get a clear idea of the interplay and interdependence of transcendence and transgression in O'Connor's novel, it is necessary to go beyond notions of socially constructed power relations, to retreat from the realm of "discursive practices," and enter the realm of an author "congenitally innocent of theory" by acknowledging the role of the sacred in her work.

That which is sacred (from Latin sacer-blessed and/or accursed) is beyond all taboo; it is beyond all "socially constructed and maintained" norms and knowledges. That which is sacred is beyond notions of finitude, of limits. Those limits, those socially constructed norms, are precisely what stand between us and the sacred. Here we get closer to the picture O'Connor paints, and some of the details begin to come into clearer focus. Hazel Motes goes out of his way to transgress, to step beyond, the limits imposed by socially constructed norms-even those norms constructed and maintained by traditional religious belief.

The idea that such humanly imposed norms must be violated in order to reach for something more does not originate with Foucault, nor does it originate with anything which can honestly and constructively be identified as "postmodern." This was, in fact, precisely the soteriological strategy of certain Gnostic groups. Treated in somewhat simplistic terms, the Gnostic worldview held that divinity is absolutely transcendent to the physical cosmos. The cosmos is "like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man's life" (Jonas 43). This visible creation is the work of a demiurge who has trapped portions of the divine substance from beyond which have fallen into the world, enclosing that substance (pneuma or spirit) in human bodies. This creation, this incarnation, keeps us separated from our true source. The function of gnosis is much like that of the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, a remembering of our true source, our proper condition. Socially constructed norms-human laws, human taboos-are "part of the great design upon our freedom . . . . Both emanate from the lord of the world as agencies of his power . . . mak[ing souls] subservient to the demiurgical scheme" (Jonas 272). Transgressing these norms is a way of breaking away from the demiurgical authority and returning to the transcendent source of being. Thus sin, normally thought of as disobedience to proper authority, is a salvific path by which one can transcend the separation of Man from God. Jonas speaks of "sinning [as] something like a program [which] has to be completed, a due rendered as the price of ultimate freedom" (274). In this vision, the sin is not a failure, but a refusal to put oneself in accord with the social-but not the truly divine-order.

Manicheanism-the Persian dualist system which Augustine was associated with before his conversion to the Roman Church-advocated a kind of sin-as-salvation strategy. Mani saw the world as a duel of two opposed forces: light and dark, good and evil. The phenomenal world around us springs from the force of darkness and evil; our bodies are the "fallen" part of us, constantly staining the spiritual, light, good side of us through association. The way to minimize-or even escape-the degrading influence of the body upon the spirit was to follow three taboos: "signaculum oris, the taboo on meat and wine, signaculum manus, the taboo on labour, and signaculum sinus, the taboo on sex" (Goldberg 255). However, these taboos were given an interesting twist; in order to escape the power of the taboo items, the proscribed items must be partaken of to excess:

Since the body and its passions belong to an entirely different world from that of the spirit or light spark dwelling in man, the less contact there is between the two, the better it will be for the soul, the purer it may hop to remain. The more the body is degraded, the deeper it wallows in the mire, the further it sinks into the abyss of darkness, the stronger and purer is the light of the spirit within it. Consequently, indulgence in sex is a way of purifying the soul by soiling the body. (Goldberg 255, emphasis added)

Transgression need not be quite as conscious a strategy for achieving transcendence as it was in what Jonas refers to as "gnostic libertinism" (273). Often the "sin" only appears to be such with hindsight. In the case of Saul of Tarsus, his "transgression"-the hunting down and executing of Christians-was approved by the dominant social order. He was upholding the socially constructed norms of Roman-occupied Judea. Yet it was through this activity, this hunting and executing of Christians, that he meet his transcendent moment. Struck down off his mount, blinded, helpless in the dust he heard the call: Why do you persecute me? The greatest persecutor of Christianity was then on the road to being its greatest apostle and central-apart from Christ-doctrinal figure. Saul was dead, and Paul was born.

This is the role of transgression in Flannery O'Connor. Transgression is the door to transcendence. Sin is the gateway to salvation. Transgressing human social norms is necessary in order to overcome separation from the divine.

Kenosis, or self-emptying, the process by which Hazel Motes makes room for the transcendent divinity he initially struggles against, is intimately connected in O'Connor's novel to transgression, to sin. It is through sin that Hazel struggles against making that room, but it is also through sin, through transgression, that Hazel comes to the realization that he cannot escape that divinity; the self-emptying is a giving up of the struggle and an active seeking of the figure that lives in the back of his mind. Hazel is a strongly self-willed character, prone to a fundamentalist dualism in outlook similar to that of the Misfit in O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find:

'Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,' the Misfit continued, 'and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then its nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can-by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.' (142)

Hazel Motes struggles mightily with the dualism of a God-versus-Satan, for-Christ-or-against-Christ worldview. He fears surrendering to the "wild ragged figure," and struggles to adopt the nihilistically self-indulgent position of the Misfit before ultimately not only failing to escape, but actively seeking, the Christ-figures of his nightmarish dreams.

Hazel Motes and Transgression

Hazel Motes is on the transgressive path from the first page of Wise Blood. His words to Mrs. Hitchcock, "I reckon you think you been redeemed" (12), and his response to his smoke-blowing companion in the dining car, "If you've been redeemed . . . I wouldn't want to be" (14), announce to all within hearing-and reading-distance that Hazel Motes will have no part of organized, and socially approved, religion. Yet his obsession with religion and religious ideas have a "methinks the lady protests too much" character which those around him-probably of more conventional religious persuasions-find annoying:

"Do you think I believe in Jesus?" he said. leaning toward her and speaking almost as 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 [his smoke-blowing companion] asked in a poisonous Eastern voice. (13)

Two incidents in Hazel's childhood illustrate his later orientation toward sin and salvation, transgression and transcendence. When Hazel's preacher grandfather uses him as an example in a car-top sermon, calling him "that mean sinful unthinking boy," saying that "Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let him lose his soul . . . [and] chase him over the waters of sin" (16), Hazel decided, with "a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin" (16). There is no expression of joy in the necessity of redemption-felix culpa (happy fault)-in Hazel's attitude; he wants to avoid salvation by avoiding sin. He is frightened by the Jesus who moves "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 the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown" (16).

In a later incident, Hazel's father brings him to a carnival where Hazel sees "sin" for the first time. The father enters a tent where the display "was so SINsational that it would cost any man who wanted to see it thirty-five cents" (37). Hazel-in a brilliant parody of the twelve-year-old Christ in the Temple at the Passover festival ("How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"-Luke 2:49)-gets about his father's business by lying to the carnival barker about his age-saying he is twelve-and entering the SINsational tent. When he entered he saw "a woman . . . She was fat and she had a face like an ordinary woman except there was a mole on the corner of her lip, that moved when she grinned, and one on her side" (38). This incident leaves its mark on Hazel, a mark visible to his mother who asks him "What you seen?" and then hits him on the legs with a stick, saying "Jesus died to redeem you" (39). Hazel's response "I never ast him" (39) is followed by his first incidence of self-mortification:

The next day he took his shoes is secret into the woods . . . . He took them out of the box and filled the bottoms of them with stones and small rocks and then he put them on. He laced them up tight and walked in them through the woods for what he knew to be a mile . . . . He thought, that ought to satisfy Him. (39)

Hazel is now on the transgressive, and self-emptying, path to transcendence: sinning against the Jesus he wanted to avoid has brought the "wild ragged figure" closer rather than put him farther away: "that ought to satisfy Him."

The adult Hazel pursues three kinds of transgression: fornication, blasphemy, and violence. His liaisons with Mrs. Leora Watts of 60 Buckley Road, possessor of the "friendliest bed in town" (21), end ignominiously, as Leora gets up one evening while Hazel is still asleep and "cut[s] the top of his hat out in an obscene shape" (63). He pursued her-whose name he got from a bathroom stall-only to "prove that he didn't believe in sin since he practiced what was called it" (63), saying at one point "I don't need Jesus . . . What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts" (34). His attitude is not quite that expressed by Augustine: Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo-"Make me chaste and continent, but not yet" (Confessions bk viii, ch 7, p, 174); however, his "sin," his transgression, keeps him in a state of awareness similar to that of the Saint. Despite his denials, Hazel is binding himself more and more tightly to that "wild ragged figure" with each defilement.

This defilement, this transgression, is what makes Hazel attractive to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the daughter of the pseudo-blind street preacher:

'Listen,' she said, with a quick change of tone, 'from the moment I set eyes on you I said to myself, that's what I got to have, just get me some of him! I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don't hide a thing, he's just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don't. (92)

Sabbath then asks Hazel if he wants "to learn how to like it" (92), and he answers "Yeah," and slips into bed with her. Hazel never learns how "to like it," however.

As we have already seen, Hazel "blasphemes" from the moment we meet him on the train to Taulkinham: "Do you think I believe in Jesus? . . . Well I wouldn't even if He existed. Even if He was on this train." For Hazel, these statements have power; they have the thrill inherent in acts of open rebellion. The trouble is, no one else is impressed by the power he feels in these words. To rebel against something requires an admission that that something has power and authority that can be rebelled against. His fellow passengers on the train dismiss him as a crank: "Who said you had to?" Hazel gets no response from the passers-by on the streets as he preaches his Church Without Christ less because of the blasphemy of saying that "Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar" (60), than because for those passers-by, religion and spirituality are simply not the pressing issues they are for Hazel. They feel no need to deny a Christ that is not for them a "wild ragged figure . . . [moving] from tree to tree in the back[s] of [their] mind[s]." The inherent blasphemy of the name, Church Without Christ, is lost on Mrs. Flood, the woman from whom he rents a room after his second night of preaching:

'What church?' she asked. He said the Church Without Christ. "Protestant?' she asked suspiciously, 'or something foreign?' (61)

Hazel comes right out and tells the people in front of the "picture show" that "The only way to the truth is though blasphemy" (81). He tells the scam-artist, Onnie Jay Holy, that "Blasphemy is the only way to the truth . . .and there's no other way whether you understand it or not!" (84).

Although Hazel's words reach the ears of those passing by on the streets, his preaching is primarily to himself. He blasphemes for an audience of one, binding himself ever closer to the "wild ragged figure" in the back of his mind:

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 . . . . Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place . . . You can't go neither forwards nor backwards into your daddy's time nor your children's if you have them. In yourself right now is all the place you've got . . . . Where in your time and your body has Jesus redeemed you? . . . Show me where because I don't see the place. If there was a place where Jesus had redeemed you that would be the place for you to be, but which of you can find it? . . . . Your conscience is a trick . . . it don't exist though you may think it does, and if you think it does, you had best get it out in the open and hunt it down and kill it, because it's no more than your face in the mirror is or your shadow behind you." (90,91)

This sermon preaches a kind of individualism which deliberately leaves no room for the "wild ragged" figure of Jesus. There is no Jesus-"Nothing matters but that Jesus don't exist" (33). There is no redemption. "In yourself right now is all the place you've got." There is no transcendent reality because that which is wholly Other does not exist; God, and the conscience, "is a trick . . . no more than your face in the mirror is or your shadow behind you." Despite this individualist, radically atheist pose, Hazel fools no one. His mind is always on God. He is always struggling with that transcendence he is simultaneously trying to avoid and secure. Asa Hawkes sees that in Hazel: "I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice" (31). Leora Watts sees this as well, mockingly describing Hazel's hat as "That Jesus-seeing hat!" (37). Even the taxi driver who takes Hazel to his first meeting with Leora Watts in the "friendliest bed in town," takes Hazel for a preacher:

'I ain't any preacher,' Hazel said, frowning. 'I only seen her name in the toilet.' 'You look like a preacher,' the driver said. 'That hat looks like a preacher's hat." . . . . 'It ain't only the hat,' the driver said. 'It's a look in your face somewheres.' (21)

Hazel's struggle with the "wild ragged" figure at the back of his mind turns violent. Violence serves to bind him to that ragged figure. We see his violent side initially when he stones Enoch, shouting "give me that address" (the address of Asa Hawkes, the pseudo-blind street preacher) like an outraged Saul of Tarsus towering over Stephen (57,58). Hazel destroys the "new Jesus"-the "shrunken man" (itself a "ragged figure") in the museum display (57), stolen and brought by Enoch and kept by Sabbath-interestingly, the action is presented as if it were more of his hand than his head: "it reached again, slowly, and plucked at nothing and then it lunged and snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall. The head popped and the trash inside sprayed out in a little cloud of dust" (102). Sabbath screams at him: "I knew when I first saw you you were mean and evil . . . . I seen you wouldn't never have no fun or let anybody else because you didn't want nothing but Jesus!" (102). His final transgressing of ordinary cultural boundaries, however, comes with his murder of the "false" prophet (and physical twin for Hazel), Solace Layfield. His killing of Layfield, because Layfield "ain't true" (110), is analogous to the killing and/or imprisoning of Stephen and other Christians by, or at the behest of, Saul of Tarsus:

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul . . . . And Saul approved of their killing of him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem . . . . Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. (Acts 7:58, 8:1, 3)

Strangely enough, despite the obvious differences in their situations (sincere belief in Christ accompanied by preaching in his name on one hand, and belief in Christ accompanied by preaching Onnie Jay Holy's "Church of Christ Without Christ" on the other) both the first-century Christians and Solace Layfield are killed because, from the point of view of their pursuers, they "ain't true . . . [they] believe in Jesus" (110).

This killing is also, for Hazel, a killing of self. Solace Layfield is a double for Hazel, both in his physical appearance and in his outward role of a preacher:

When Hazel murders Solace Layfield he kills a disturbing double of himself, a man who physically resembles Hazel in body and dress and one who preaches the same message. [Not quite the same; Hazel preaches The Church without Christ, while Solace Layfield and Onnie Jay Holy preach The Church of Christ Without Christ. Despite Onnie Jay's insistence that "It don't make any difference how many Christs you add to the name if you don't add none to the meaning" (86,87) the difference is important.(see note #2) ] In seeing himself in Layfield, Hazel undergoes a profound experience of otherness: He views himself from outside himself, seeing himself as others see him. (Brinkmeyer 107)

It is his own "falseness" that Hazel ultimately kills when he kills Solace Layfield. Here begins, at least symbolically, Hazel's kenosis, or self-emptying. What Hazel says to Solace, "Take off that hat" (110), before he kills him could easily have been said by Hazel to Hazel. The hat has been tied throughout the novel to the role of the preacher. Asa Hawkes wears a "black hat" (25); Hazel wears a "dark hat" ((18); Solace Layfield wears a "white hat" (91). Hazel's accusation "You ain't true . . . You believe in Jesus" (110) might just as well be made against himself as against Solace Layfield. Hazel's repetition of "You shut up . . . You shut up now . . . Shut up like I told you to now" (111), might also be just as well directed at himself. It is after this killing that Hazel gives up the idea of preaching the Church Without Christ in Taulkinham.

Hazel also gives up his belief in blasphemy as the way to the truth after killing Layfield. On his way out of town he stops at a gas station where he tells the attendant that "he had only a few days ago believed in blasphemy as the way to salvation, but that you couldn't even believe in that because then you were believing in something to blaspheme (112 emphasis added). Having given up the path of blasphemy and embarked upon the path of violence, Hazel's last option, his last desperate attempt to avoid the "wild ragged figure" in the back of his mind, is to try and leave Taulkinham. It isn't to be. After being stopped by a patrolman who "just don't like [Hazel's] face" (113), and watching as his car is pushed over the embankment by the patrolman, Hazel stands "for a few minutes, looking over the entire scene. His face seemed to reflect the entire distance across the clearing and on beyond, the entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space" (113,114). This Pisgah-sight of the clearing, like Moses' dying look at the Promised Land, is the last significant external sight of Hazel's life. Like Saul of Tarsus, Hazel is blinded; unlike Saul, Hazel blinds himself and his blinding is permanent.

Hazel Motes and Kenosis

Hazel continues down the violent path, the difference being that now he turns his violence inward, directing it against himself rather than others. Here begins kenosis, self-emptying at the most literal level, in earnest. His behavior-seen from the perspective of his landlady-becomes odder than usual after the self-inflicted blinding. When Mrs. Flood, his landlady, asks him why he doesn't start preaching again, he responds "I can't preach any more"; when she asks why, he says "I don't have time" (120). "He kept getting thinner and his cough deepened and he developed a limp. During the first cold months, he took the virus, but he walked out every day in spite of that. He walked about half of each day" (118). "He walked as if his feet hurt him but he had to go on" (120). Finally, his landlady accidentally discovers his shoes while cleaning his room: "The bottoms of them were lined with gravel and broken glass and pieces of small stone" (121). When she asks Hazel why he walks with rocks and glass in his shoes, he answers "To pay" (121). Later the landlady finds Hazel asleep: "The old shirt he wore to sleep in was open down the front and showed three strands of barbed wire, wrapped around his chest." When she asks him why he does it, he responds "I'm not clean" (122). This is a complete reversal of his stance of not long before, when he faced down the counter-woman at the FROSTY BOTTLE hot dog stand, insisting "I AM clean . . . . If Jesus existed, I wouldn't be clean" (53). Is Hazel's insistence that he is now not clean to be read as an indication that he now believes what he has long struggled not to believe? Or is his uncleanness, his debt-once a common way of looking at the notion of sin-not tied to a realization that he believes specifically in Jesus so much as it is to a realization that he believes?

Hazel's blindness suggests an internal vision, deeper than ever his external sight may have been. The blind prophet/hero is a well-known archetype in literature and mythology. From the figure of Tiresias to that of Saul/Paul (whose temporary blindness accompanied his moment of greatest spiritual-internal-vision), blindness has been associated with temporary or permanent enhancements of spiritual vision. Hazel follows Asa Hawkes at least in part because he wants to see the-so he assumes-blind preacher's eyes. What does the preacher "see" with those eyes? Hazel's discovery that Hawkes is a fake immediately precedes the sermon in which Hazel declares that "there's only one truth and that is that there's no truth" (90 emphasis added). Hazel blinds himself-committing the act that Asa Hawkes once advertised, but failed to accomplish-after killing the "false" prophet Layfield, and after having his option for external escape taken away by the patrolman who pushes Hazel's old car off an embankment. His blinding of himself is an attempt to see, to cut himself off from the distractions of external vision: "If there's no bottom in your eyes, they hold more" (121).

What he sees with his bottomless eyes is that "There's no other house nor no other city" (124). His goal, to find the truth-"I don't want nothing but the truth!" (103)-cannot be pursued externally; it must be pursued internally. Hazel's truth is esoteric rather than exoteric, and perhaps that is the most helpful way to understand his Church Without Christ and his insistence that "In yourself right now is all the place you've got" (90 emphasis added). Hazel's uncleanness, for which he is paying with the gravel-and-glass-filled shoes and the barbed wire around his chest, is the uncleanness of idolatry: in preaching blasphemy (against a publicly held and accepted image of the divine) as the way to salvation, in killing the "false" prophet Layfield for not being "true," and in berating passers-by for their attachment to a symbol-the Christ-image of "everyday" Christianity-Hazel has himself unwittingly valued the symbol over the referent, the image over that which is imaged. It is also the uncleanness of having valued self above that "wild ragged figure" which is wholly other. In turning his violence inward, Hazel forcibly turns his focus inward, removing himself as far as possible from the realm of images and icons, idols and exoteric religion. In removing himself from these things, Hazel takes his first steps-in shoes lined with gravel and glass-toward removing his very self, that obstacle which has, in its determined "cleanness" held that figure (who comes, at Luke 5:31,32, as a physician only to the sick, and calls not the righteous, but sinners to repentance) at bay. Hazel looks inside with his bottomless eyes, searching for the "wild ragged figure" at the back of his mind, the "God" of Bonaventure, "a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere," the "God" about whom Meister Eckhart said "Man's last and highest parting is when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God." This "God" cannot be contained in any image, thus it cannot be seen exoterically, with the eyes of everyday vision; if it can be seen at all, it is esoterically, with the "blind" bottomless eyes of inner vision, eyes that "hold more."

Hazel Motes-the significance of his name should not be overlooked; he spends nearly the whole of the novel berating others for the motes in their eyes, while not noticing until near the end the beam in his own-reaches this inner vision only after he has transgressed, sinned against, the "normal" conventions of a nominally "Christian" town, and mortified his flesh, emptying himself through the complete abandonment of his former role and a complete severing of his relationship to the world. Through a prostitute and a young girl, he breaks sexual taboos; through blasphemy he breaks religious taboos; and through violence-both outward and inward-he breaks social taboos. Through these "sins" he comes to a place where "There's no other house nor no other city," where "In [himself] right now is all the place [he's] got." Reaching that place in himself, he then turns his fury upon that self through the infliction of blindness, and self-mortifying physical pain. Does Hazel follow the "wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark"? Has he left Hazel and become the "pin point of light" (126) seen by Mrs. Flood? The reader of Wise Blood never knows for certain what-if anything-Hazel Motes reaches, where-if anywhere-Hazel arrives; Flannery O'Connor offers us no such simple answers, and any answers we may construct from her text are necessarily provisional and tentative, but perhaps such answers are only to be found after taboos are broken and "God" is "sinned" against, after eyes are "blinded" and inner vision is found:

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 . . . Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place . . . You can't go neither forwards nor backwards into your daddy's time nor your children's if you have them. In yourself right now is all the place you've got . . .

There is, on first glance, no role here for the kind of convergence spoken of by Teilhard de Chardin. The Jungian concept of individuation also, on first glance, seems out of place in Wise Blood. Individuation, in the sense of "becoming one's own self" (Jung, vol 7, 173), seems to be a phenomenon quite the opposite of the kenosis through which Hazel finally seeks the "wild ragged figure" at the back of his mind. However, on a closer look, the self-emptying that Hazel engages in can be seen to be more akin to convergence and individuation than it did initially. De Chardin calls convergence "a sort of inward turn towards the Other" (The Future of Man 58). Hazel Motes, since childhood, has seen "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 the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown" (Wise Blood 16). Hazel's life, Hazel's preaching, and Hazel's transgressions have been attempts to avoid an inward turn to precisely that Other which has been beckoning him, from "the back of his mind . . . to come off into the dark." It is that Other to which Hazel turns, and it is the dark to which Hazel eventually delivers himself, by blinding himself, making his eyes bottomless so they would "hold more."

Hazel's individuation can be seen as a coming to terms with the deeply religious self that he in fact is, and has been since the beginning. "Individuation . . . can only mean a process of psychological development that fulfills the individual qualities given; in other words, it is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is" (Jung, vol 7, 174). Hazel's dropping of the role of anti-preacher, and his killing of the "false" Solace Layfield, are both in line with what Jung defines as one of the aims of individuation: "to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona" (Jung, vol 7, 174). It is through this persona that "a man tries to appear as this or that, or he hides behind a mask, or he may even build up a definite persona as a barricade" (Jung, vol 7, 174). Hazel shatters his own "false" self, his persona of the preacher of the Church of Christ Without Christ, the man who has spent his life running from the Jesus "in the back of his mind" all the while saying "I don't have to run from anything because I don't believe in anything" (Wise Blood 45), through violence. By killing Layfield, Hazel kills his own persona; by blinding himself, Hazel turns toward that "wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark."

The kenosis at work in the character of Hazel Motes is thus not merely a self-emptying; it is, in fact, an emptying of a "false" self, a distillation of elements, a peeling of layers, a successive removal of masks. The goal is to find a core to which one can hold, a unity which grounds and underlies the fragmented nature of the everyday self. It is:

an act of self-recollection, a gathering together of what is scattered, of all the things in us that have never been properly related, and a coming to terms with oneself with a view to achieving full consciousness. (Jung, vol 11, 263)

The transcendence which Hazel reaches-or strains for, O'Connor allows us no easy answers in Wise Blood-is ultimately a turning towards that which is Other, a turning which is done with the deepest and most elemental "self" Hazel has to offer. As a Christian malgré lui-in O'Connor's description-Hazel, by affirming his belief in the very Other to which he turns, affirms his own self.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Works Cited List


1) Kenosis is not used here in the specialized sense of the kenotic exegesis of Phillipians 2: 6-8, the self-emptying of the Logos who lays aside the divine fullness of his nature by descending to the level of a human individual. My use of the term is a reversal of its more familiar theological sense; where the "Self" which the Logos "empties" is a divine fullness, the "self" which Hazel Motes "empties" is a sham, a carefully arranged set of layers which conceal him from himself.Back to main text

2) Hazel Motes' Church Without Christ seems like an honest—if self-deluded—attempt to "for God's sake, take leave of God." The atheism that Hazel insists on is none too convincing, and his attempt to escape from the "wild ragged figure" in the back of his mind could easily be seen as an attempt to escape from an image or conception of divinity which holds all too much power for him. Onnie Jay Holy's Church of Christ Without Christ is an imitation, a manipulative imitation which explicitly relies on the very symbol it claims to be abandoning. In Hazel's words, it "ain't true." It "believes in Jesus," when it claims to be dispensing with Jesus. One could argue that Hazel is doing the same thing, believing in the very symbol he claims to be abandoning, but both his abandonment of and his belief (malgré lui) in that symbol are more painfully sincere than those of Onnie Jay Holy.Back to main text

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Works Cited List