Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 211-222
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Criticism and the Terror of Nothingness
C. Jason Lee
DESTINY IS OFTEN ANOTHER NAME for narrative, it being the order we retrospectively find in scattered events. It is traditionally the role of the storyteller to create a believable narrative, with the reader investing attention into believing the story while the critic dissects the results to ascertain whether the magic works. As Wallace Stevens put it, "we orchestrate a whole history and then imprison ourselves in the score, as if someone else had written it." 1 In the author's note to the second edition (1962) of Wise Blood (1949) Flannery O'Connor makes the point that her novel is a comic novel, yet its comedy does not lessen the depth of understanding it offers concerning the complexity of freedom. 2 The obsession with fate and destiny that swamps her characters, leads the reader into a gothic nightmare where humans in their attempt to re-create themselves dig themselves further into the graves of their dead relatives. For O'Connor free will does not mean one will but many wills conflicting in one man, and she explains the integrity of the central character of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes, as stemming from his vigorous attempts to rid himself of the "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind."
This figure is the Jesus of his grandfather, and it is also the religious preoccupation of the Deep South. Destiny has shaped his features and his character in the mold of his grandfather, and whomever he meets believes he too is a preacher. After establishing the Church Without Christ, like many sons attempting to shake off their origin, Hazel Motes realizes that his new way of behaving is in some sense being controlled [End Page 211] by his past and that he must shake off all vestiges to possess freedom. One might argue that, by eventually blinding himself, Hazel Motes is behaving as a soul who has given into the temptation of purgation, as if this is destiny. But it can be argued that this act is going against destiny, as it is an act that is perhaps trying to persuade God of something, despite the Oedipal connotations.
Questioned by his landlady why he blinded himself he says to pay, and when asked to pay for what, he replies it does not matter what. Mrs. Flood is frightened of death, particularly death being one long blind existence, and Hazel Motes is a reminder to her of her destiny. This can be read as a judgment on life also. Yet she eventually decides to take care of him, for both altruistic and materialistic reasons, believing that his widow would inherit his war pension. Mrs. Flood, her name evocative of apocalyptic occurrences and Old Testament punishment, is a critic of the text; the text in this instance is nothing written but rather Motes himself. It seems that Hazel Motes, his name a reference to taking the mote out of one's own eye before you try and take the splinter out of another's, is punishing himself for his previous denial of Christ and for his sins, such as fornication, as with Mrs. Watts the prostitute and Sabbath Hawks, and murder, but also something more primal.
After trying desperately to break the curse of his biological inheritance, his wise blood, just like the character Enoch Emery, it forces him to once again take on roles that deny him freedom. Hazel Motes may seem to a contemporary reader as a caricature, the mad preacher/antipreacher of the American South, but as V. S. Pritchett puts it, Hazel Motes is "entirely real" (p. viii). His self-blinding is part of his further alienation from the world, the world he has come back to after the "Great War." O'Connor shows how this watershed in human history was so devastating, Motes's new theology entirely rational. After having an insight into the world in reality through war, Hazel Motes is now "going to do some things...