Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Profaning the American Religion: Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Profaning the American Religion: Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood

Article excerpt

Did you see the picture of Roy Roger's [sic] horse attending a church service in Pasadena'? I forget whether his name was Tex or Trigger but he was dressed fit to kill and looked like he was having a good time. He doubled the usual attendance.

--Flannery O'Connor, in a 1952 letter

"This is not an age of great Catholic theology," Flannery O'Connor wrote in 1958. "We have very few thinkers to equal Barth and Tillich, perhaps none" (Collected Works 1082). This is a notable admission, coming as it does from a devoutly Catholic novelist, and it suggests a great deal about her theological as well as her artistic values. For these Protestant theologians were relentless in their opposition to modern materialism and to the "almost unequivocally demonic" ideologies of capitalism (Barth, Church 531). O'Connor was no political radical, of course, but she had as little patience for her country's deifications of capital and consumption as for its essentially secular commodifications of Christianity. She must not, then, have had such Protestants as Barth and Tillich in mind when she spoke of directing the satire of her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), "against this Protestant world or against the society that reads the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalogue wrong" (Collected Works 921). At any rate, the stubbornly materialist world depicted in Wise Blood looks not a little like the bleak modern world-picture Barth was fond of invoking in his sermons, with at its center "modern capitalism, King Mammon, enveloping us in his claws and making us his sad and beleaguered servants" (Barth, Early 17). Wise Blood's world is replete with the icons, idols, and sacraments of Mammon, as well as with many examples of his "beleaguered servants" who revere, with a typically American piety, the dogmas of consumption and the profit motive. One character, however, the protagonist Hazel Motes--and with him, the novel as a whole--adopts a far less reverent stance, in fact profaning these dogmas and sacraments at every turn.

As Jon Lance Bacon rightly observes, in Wise Blood "American religion [has] been appropriated by the 'salesman's world.' In the world of the novel, faith itself becomes a commodity" (39). Bacon and other scholars have ably demonstrated Wise Blood's pointed satire of consumer culture. Our concern here will be with O'Connor's framing of that social indictment--indeed her very construction of that indictment--in the often explicit registers of profanation: in the language and thematics of blasphemy, and in the material desecrations of sacrilege. For her indictments of capitalism and modern materialism, in other words, O'Connor drew on the language and traditions of irreverence in which she was well versed as a pious Catholic, turning them against the false religion she discovered all around her. "Blasphemy is the only way to the truth," Hazel proclaims, and, far from the wholly unauthorized statement it may at first seem, in an oblique way it articulates the novel's own program of blaspheming modernity's capitalist gods (148). Even when Hazel and the novel both repudiate blasphemy (208), they emphatically do not reject profanation itself but rather turn away from blasphemy's inherently circumscribed discursive terrain as we shall see--to the more violent and vital recourses of material desecration. Having taken pains in Wise Blood to portray the sacral and even pseudo-Christian character of commodity capitalism, O'Connor proceeds to profane that capitalist faith at length, drawing on all the extreme and unsettling novelistic measures at her disposal.

To read Wise Blood as profanation affords a third way between the practically Manichean positions that have characterized much O'Connor criticism to date: on one hand an often overtly conservative criticism that attends piously to the author's own theological aims, and on the other a revisionist, steadfastly secular strain that in stressing the more mischievous aspects of her fiction tends to undervalue or elide its religious investments. …

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