Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weights and Glasses: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I have read some of Flannery O'Connor's short stories before and was anxious to read her first novel, Wise Blood, originally published in 1949.  It is a story of spiritual searching without lyricism.  Her style feels sparse, dark, sometimes comedic and deeply symbolic.  It follows Hazel Motes, who felt he was destined to be a preacher his entire life.   He returns from World War Two disillusioned and haunted by his faith, ultimately preaching on the street and founding The Church of God Without Christ.  Each of the characters he encounters are wrestling with their own demons, either pressing in to find answers like Enoch Emery who claims claims to have innate wise blood to lead him toward his destiny or a father/daughter pair of religious con artists, where the father pretends to be blind.  

O'Connor' s story left me reading an incredible amount of commentary and  I was amazed that every possible religious world view could have a different interpretation on the religious imagery and symbolism and the characters' fates.  This made it difficult to process through in a coherent manner, which I think is part of the point.   In her author's note, published with the second edition, she writes,  "Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen."  I tried to read this story through this lens, as freedom can be an incredibly nuanced word, especially when applied to one's personal journey.  

What has stuck with me the most in this vein of thought is the fact that ever since Hazel Motes left for the war, and even upon his return, he carried around an old bible and his deceased mother's old glasses.   Part of the beauty of these two objects is the wealth of things they can symbolize, and in turn how those symbols can cause a reader to think about his or her own life.  Does the bible represent a burden that he is carrying or where he can find freedom? Can it be both? How is that played out in one's life? Are the glasses representative of him looking at life through his family's past? Or just the fact that he is seeking something? Or is he blind to certain parts of life?   He returned from the war a different person--and it is interesting to think about how facing that particular reality colored his worldview and his ultimate fate.

Through the lens of seeking freedom, these objects magnify the complexity of it and whether it is possible to completely be free from one's past and the questions haunting one's mind and whether it is possible to rest and simply be when there are so many things  to process through around us.  What I'm appreciating more and more about this book is life's complexity that O'Connor, who was a practicing Catholic, didn't shy away from.  The pat answers I've encountered along the way feel weightless and empty--and perhaps it is the carrying of the weight while intentionally looking and seeking that brings answers and eventual peace. 

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