Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Flannery Would Love It

My friend Susan and I thought we'd go down for a look-see last week.  We know Flannery would have loved the sign there on the highway to Milledgeville, GA, across from the Honda store.  It's the font they might have used to announce King Kong, not what we  literary groupies expected on our way to a shrine.

Flannery:  We're on a first-name basis, all who have read her stories.   We trade fond memories of her fiction, as if we were remembering a close friend.  Her voice is so clear in her fiction and assorted prose that we feel like we know her.  The immune disorder lupus killed her in 1965, but she's still a part of our lives.

The gravel drive lined with trees, a pond, fenced field, a barn -- all call to mind stories of a charging bull, boys dancing in a burning meadow, a hayloft where a Bible salesman lies with a woman who has a wooden leg.  We parked in grass, and meandered through the yard to the screened in front patio.  We heard chirping birds, whirring insects, and, from across the highway, amplified calls for "Honda agent so-and-so, pick up line 2."

The farm home was built before the War (in Georgia, they mean the Civil one), with major additions in 1959.  Flannery's mother ran a dairy farm here while her daughter, suffering with lupus, wrote and read in the downstairs area.  Our sweet teenaged guide emphasized that Flannery was no recluse, and we saw the cocktail shaker and ice crusher to prove it.

Out back are a young peacock and old peahen, behind chicken wire.  Thanks go to the Flannery O'Connor Society for providing this must-see nod to the days when the author's flock roamed her mother's farm.  Her essay about "The King of the Birds" in Mystery and Manners described what we saw last Friday:

The cock, his tail raised in a shimmering arch around him, will turn this way and that, and with his clay-colored wing feathers touching the ground, will dance forward and backward, his neck curved, his beak parted, his eyes glittering.  Meanwhile the hen goes about her business, diligently searching the ground as if any bug in the grass were of more importance than the unfurled map of the universe which floats nearby.  (MM 14)

As usual with Flannery, we laugh at the peafowls' manners even while we get a hint of  the mystery in the universe -- read, immanence of God in our world.

"Many people love Flannery for the wrong reasons," said novelist and critic Greg Johnson to me during a writing seminar he led several years ago.  He never elaborated, but I guessed he meant that she's good because her writing is good, not because it expressed her Christian faith.

I take his point, but Flannery herself affirms that "moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing" (31).  She writes what she sees, and her theology informs her vision.  Basic theological questions are, "What is the nature of Creation?  What is Sin?  What is Redemption?"  Peacocks are a sign of the goodness of God's Creation.  About Sin, Flannery doesn't hang up on "sins" in the fundamentalist sense of choices made in bars and beds, but writes of "distortions" in "modern life": the "problem" for her "will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural" (33). 

And Redemption?  Inspired by our trip to Andalusia Farm, Susan and I downloaded John Huston's film adaptation of Flannery's Wise Blood from 1979, whose protagonist (emphasis on agony) Hazel Motes focuses obsessively on the question of "redemption."  The role was a breakthrough for the young actor Brad Dourif whose thin frame and boyish face are rendered striking by his eyes: grey, narrow, expressive, unblinking for long stretches of film.  [Photo: Brad Dourif as "Hazel Motes," left; Dan Shor, as "Enoch," center; the hand of Harry Dean Stanton as false preacher "Asa Hawks."]

Flannery surely chose the character's name purposefully to emphasize vision.  What other use of "mote" is there in our language besides the familiar saying of Jesus, "Why do you concern yourself with a mote in your brother's eye when you have a beam in yours?"  "Hazel" associates naturally with "eyes."  Then, in the novel, Flannery consistently abbreviates his name to "Haze," suggesting unclear vision.  The through-line of the story is Hazel's fascination with a preacher in dark glasses who claims to have blinded himself in a demonstration of faith.  Flannery, who expected her readers to come to her work with "experience, literary and otherwise" (MM 138), borrows a trope from Sophocles and Shakespeare, whose characters Orestes and Gloucester lose their eyes at the moment when they recognize how they've been blind to the truth about themselves.

Now, exactly what Hazel has seen, I'm not sure.  I saw the film when it was new, and my date left shaking her head.  "How can you say that was written by a Christian?" she asked, near tears.  "All I saw was pain and suffering.  Where was the redemption in that?"  I had no clear answer, then.  Over the next couple of years, I read all of Flannery's work, and felt I had a pretty good grasp on most of it, but still not on Wise Blood.  37 years later, it was the same experience.

Here's what I know: Every frame of the film is part funny, part creepy, beginning with the shot in a Macon, GA cemetery of a granite-carved phone over the epitaph, "Jesus called."  I notice that every character encountering Hazel for the first time mistakes him for a preacher.  Sympathetic characters instantly see him as a personal savior:  the dim-witted eighteen-year old Enoch (cf., Genesis, son of Cain) somehow sees in the preoccupied young stranger a potential friend in the unfriendly city, the preacher's daughter "Sabbath Lily" sees him as a man to take her away from her mean father "Asa Hawk," and the widow who lets a room to Hazel finds purpose in life taking care of him. 

But Hazel rebuffs all of them, interested only in refuting his grandfather's sermons of sinfulness and hellfire, so terrifying that young Hazel in flashback, cringing under his grandfather's gaze, wets his pants.  Also in flashback, we see  young Hazel, having peeped at a naked woman in a side show tent, tearfully filling his shoes with rocks as penance.   Now, as an adult, Hazel fiercely preaches that we don't need salvation, and there is no resurrection:  "the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way." 

The film arouses strong feelings, mostly veering between pity and fascinated amusement.  So much of what the characters decide to do makes no sense, except in the characters' peculiar understanding.  For example, when Hazel preaches that we need a new Jesus "that's all man, without blood to waste," Enoch steals for him a desiccated shrunken corpse from a display in the local museum.

Near the end, Hazel hears a confession from a dying man.  Hazel himself ran the man over in his car, but all the victim wants to do is unload all his guilt going back to when he made life hard for his mama.  His last words are "Jesus hep me."  Against all his efforts to escape Jesus, Hazel seems to have become, in the end, an agent of Jesus.   Over the next few scenes, we see Hazel's attempts to atone: stones in his shoes, barbed wire under his shirt, and the self-blinding that Asa Hawk never had the courage to accomplish. 

What does it all add up to?  Remembering Greg Johnson's warning, I'll say that it doesn't have to "add up" to anything, only to carry us along in an experience of emotion and images, still fresh after 37 years.  But Flannery herself tells us that she's up to something else: "Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause" (MM 33).

An essay by Francine Prose tells us that the atheist John Huston thought he was filming a hilarious send-up of "religious mania" in the South.  When Brad Dourif asked Huston about nuances in his character, Huston said to forget nuances, "Hazel is a one-note character." But Dourif and Huston were both stumped by the last scenes.  Prose writes: 

According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at “the end of the film, Jesus wins.”...How Flannery O’Connor would have loved that. And though she was the most unsentimental Christian, you can’t help thinking that she would have seen it as a sign—a sign of the truth (or, in her view, the Truth) asserting itself and making itself known. Perhaps she would have thought that the progress of the production had, in some mysterious way, paralleled the plot of her novel. In spite of himself, the director had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption.

Yes, how Flannery would have loved that.  

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners.  Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Prose, Francine.  "Wise Blood: A Matter of Life and Death." Web site: The Criterion Collection. 

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