ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 4 - Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (cont.)
Chapter 1. On the Depiction of Women: Fragmented Bodies and Southern Society [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: I started last time, and actually my whole lecture existed under the rubric of, this quotation from Sabbath Lily Hawks, and I’m just going to read it to you again. “I like his eyes. They don’t look like they see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.” So, last time I suggested that what O’Connor asks us to see in her fiction is a theological structure and a religious message. What I started to suggest at the end of class–as I gave you the catalog of body parts lying around the text–what I began to suggest is, that if we actually see what we’re looking at rather than, like Haze, not seeing what we’re looking at, we begin to see something that’s harder to assimilate to that neat theology that O’Connor’s letters and essays point us towards. One kind of question, then, I was raising is: what context do you use to read any novel? And today I’m going to suggest two–actually, well, yes–two additional contexts that we can look to, to read the novel. And I will let you know what those are when they come, but be looking for that.
So, two hundred people show up to see Asa Hawks blind himself. That’s what we’re told. That’s what the newspaper clipping tells us. We show up to see O’Connor take her characters apart. I began that catalog of body parts. Today I’m going to extend and embellish the catalog of suffering and distortion that we see in this novel. And, just to remind you of that catalog, I just want to look at page 43 in your edition, 47 in mine. I noted that a lot of the body parts that we see in her prose are parts of women’s bodies. Well, the sense of the body as grotesque goes beyond just dismemberment. There’s a general ugliness of women that pertains in the novel. And if you look on that page, about in the middle, this is Enoch describing his foster mother: “‘This woman was hard to get along with. She wasn’t old. I reckon she was 40 year old, but she sho was ugly. She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull.’” Okay. It’s funny a little bit. It’s a picturesque comparison, hair and gravy, but it emphasizes that ugliness. Now, if you look on page 80 (84 in my edition), this is a woman climbing out of the swimming pool. Remember when Haze and Enoch are in the middle of the park at the swimming pool. Enoch’s hiding in the bushes, spying on the women. Here’s one climbing out of the pool:
She comports herself like a dog in this scene. Okay. So she shakes– as if she had fur to shake–but register the weirdness of this sentence: “Then she rose on her hands, until a large foot and leg came up from behind her.” It’s as if they’re sneaking up behind her. It’s as if they’re separate from her, not part of her body at all. So, even when you see O’Connor describing these emergence of a body from the water–a moment when you’d think the whole body would be most on view, or most pertinent to describe– what you have is almost a distortion of our senses, a distortion of vision, so that we see–even in a woman climbing out of the water–her legs, her feet, as dismembered from the rest of her body.
There is a critic at the University of Michigan. Her name is Patricia Yaeger. She wrote a very compelling argument about O’Connor’s fiction–not about Wise Blood in particular, but about her stories. And in that essay she argues that O’Connor’s grotesqueness, especially the grotesqueness of the women figures in her novels, is all wrapped up with the culture of southern womanhood. It’s a culture of beauty that requires all kinds of grooming practices to form and shape the body in such a way that it can appear socially in a decorous way. So, Yaeger argues that what we see in scenes like this is the registration of the violence of those practices of beauty. So she does not let these things sit in the text to be assimilated to a theological structure, but she brings them out. And by reading things like contemporaneous autobiographies from southern women that she’s chosen from the canon, and just accounts of what was required of women (etiquette and so on), she weaves a reading of passages like this into that kind of context to suggest that O’Connor’s vision of violence has more to do with being a woman in the South than it does with the stated religious concerns that O’Connor talks about in her letters.
Now, remember, as I mentioned, O’Connor suffered from lupus, and she was disfigured by this disease. Especially, she was on crutches for a long time, and for periods of time could not walk at all. Her legs would swell up. There’s a lot of imagery of swelling, of distortion and distention of the body that some critics point to her biography to explain. They look at her experience of her own body and, when you think about Yaeger’s argument–that kind of distortion of the body in the context of a social culture that really emphasizes the control of a woman’s body–then you begin to see the power of the tension that we can read into moments like this. But I would suggest, and actually Yaeger suggests this too, that the violence of southern culture goes way beyond just the violence of the culture of femininity, the culture of the southern woman. And so, let’s look a little bit and extend the catalog.
Chapter 2. Modes of Violence: Abused Children, Police Brutality, and Racism [00:07:35]
Another category of violence we have is murdered children, murdered and also just generally neglected or abandoned children. Enoch, if you’ll recall, was traded by his father off to the Bible woman with the gravy hair; so that bespeaks the pain. And last time I read you a passage where Enoch begins to tell that story in this very pitiful way, getting no sympathy from Haze. So, clearly he feels the abandonment from his father. If you look at page 120 in your edition (122 if anyone has mine), this is a little story that Sabbath Lily tells to Haze while they are supposedly seducing each other. (Don’t try this on your next date; I don’t think it works very well.) So this was her story:
Okay. Yes, very romantic story Sabbath tells to our friend Haze. These images of babies abandoned: here it’s called an “it.” Children are often called “it” in O’Connor’s fiction. Especially, I would note, if they are female children, they’re normally called “it.” Lily herself is a child who is completely unloved by her father. Her father just wants to get rid of her and is willing to collude with her to try to make Haze take her off his hands. And remember the story of her naming. Her mother gave birth to her on a Sunday and right after she was born gave her the name Sabbath, then turned on her side and died. So poor Lily is also an orphan, at least in the emotional sense, if not in actual reality. Her father, of course, had run off from her mother right after she had gotten pregnant, and then I suppose he came back. So, children are deeply abused and neglected.
What else do we have? On 231, just to add to this catalog–we have murdered, abandoned, neglected children–we also have police brutality. (231. Now, let me see. I may not have gotten the right page number for you guys for this one.) This is right when Haze has been found in the ditch by the two policemen, and maybe you recall it. Haze asks whether it’s day or night. This is the bottom of 230:
Here this image of a man–obviously an indigent found on the road and then gratuitously abused by the police–echoes the earlier moment when the policeman pushes his car off the road and down the hill. These are instances where police are using their power utterly on their own authority, with seemingly no checks, with excess force. Remember again: this is the South. We all know that these kinds of violence, official violence, were part and parcel of southern culture toward African Americans. What I think O’Connor is doing here is taking some of that reality and injecting it into Haze’s narrative. So, these are the kinds of images that the Civil Rights movement really brought to light. Here we see them in relation to Haze.
But overt racism is there, too, and if you look on page 67 in your book–and this is on 71 in mine–you will see that O’Connor does not hesitate to use the word “nigger” in the dialog of her characters. Now, the narrative voice does not use that word, but here it is on the bottom of 71. Her characters are perhaps typical poor southerners:
She’s invoking, in a very casual way, the southern racism of the poorer white working class. This is just part of her representation of the place, part of her representation of these characters. It’s a kind of realism, of course. Nevertheless, there it is in front of us, and again I call you back to that quotation. What are we going to see when we look at the fiction? Do we see what’s in front of us? So, this is one of the things that O’Connor puts in front of us. On page 174–Again, check and see if this is the same in your edition. Generally, annoyingly, it’s sometimes four pages’ difference earlier; sometimes it’s two. So I tried to get them all, but I think I didn’t look this one up; this is Enoch stealing the new Jesus:
Okay. So, there’s a certain sense of humor here. So, Enoch goes in black face to commit the crime, so that if he’s seen he won’t be taken for white, but then he realizes a black person–just by definition–is suspicious. So he has to now disguise himself from being a black person. This is partly Enoch’s sort of craziness, but the joke relies on the fact of racial profiling. It relies on the fact that it’s very plausible to think that at this moment in the South to walk down the street as a black person, to drive a car as a black person, would be a risky endeavor in some places in the city. So, it’s a joke, but it’s a joke that rests on a very dark reality.
Chapter 3. Exploring the Narrative Purpose of Violent Imagery: The Question of Sympathy [00:16:51]
So, what you have, then, is a set of things that are put before us, that we are asked, in a way, not to respond to. Let’s look at one more example. This is on page 159. This is a silly example. This is when Hoover Shoates–and note in connection with my lecture last time; I talked to you about pigs, and why there are pigs all over a landscape–well, Hoover Shoates: a shoat is a little pig, so she’s continuing that metaphor with his name, or that trope with his name. This is Haze being approached by Hoover Shoates:
“A howl arose that would rend almost any heart.” What you want to ask about all these things that I’m putting in front of you is, “Are these supposed to rend our hearts?” I don’t think we’re meant to feel much for Hoover Shoates here. He is a figure of critique. He’s a figure of satire. He’s the charlatan preacher. We’re certainly not meant to identify with him or to sympathize with him, but here you can’t help but thinking about someone getting their thumb smashed in a door. And then it gets more intense of course on page 206(and that’s 204 in this edition), when Haze commits murder. So here we have the murder scene:
How many of you when you read that felt like a character who mattered to you had died? Just a few; you guys are exceptionally, exceptionally sympathetic. I commend you. It’s hard to feel too much for this prophet, and I would argue that his confession at the end is part of what makes it quite difficult. It’s such a, kind of, trivial set of things that he begins to recite, or, at least, he recites them in such a cliched way: “I gave my mother trouble. I was a bad boy. I took some money to tell where the still was.” These are such, sort of, clichéd southernisms that you start to see this character as a caricature. He is very hard to see as a human being. And yet, I would contend that the part about the Essex actually running over him is quite compelling. At least I feel it when I read it. In a more abstract sense, I feel the violence of it when I read those passages.
So, there is a sense in which you have to ask: Is this meant to rend our hearts? If Hoover Shoates’s thumb in the door doesn’t quite do it, does this do it? Does southern racism do it? Does the dismemberment of women do it? What is the point of putting these on the page? And, if you think about the way some bodies literally explode, think of the new Jesus–remember when Haze takes that little, shriveled body from Lily and throws it against the wall, the head pops, and out comes dust and trash. If bodies are exploding here, why are we not asked to care? And, if we aren’t asked to care, what is it that we’re asked to do, or to think, in response to these things? Now, Patricia Yaeger, in her argument, rejects what has typically been offered up as a way to account for these things, and that’s the religious reading. She says, to dismiss that violence into an old and comfortable theology is simply not to see it, not really to see it, not to notice that O’Connor put it there in such a sharp and compelling form.
Chapter 4. Returning to a Theological Structure: A Close Reading of Chapter Seven [00:24:13]
I want to change tack for a minute, and now I’m going to veer into that second kind of context that I said I was going to talk about today. There is something else I think we’re meant to see that is neither theology nor southern context, and I want to show you that now by looking at chapter 7; it starts on 115 in your book (117 in this edition). I just want to read the opening. I’m going to treat this chapter as a sort of microcosm of the book, with respect to its craft. Let’s look at how this opens: “The next afternoon when he got his car back, he drove it out into the country to see how well it worked on the open road. The sky was just a little lighter blue than his suit, clear and even with only one cloud in it, a large, blinding white one with curls and a beard.” Notice that image of the cloud, the blinding white cloud. It’s very hard not to see it as a symbol. What kind of symbol is it? Well, it’s a God symbol. It’s even got that typical children’s book iconography of the curls and the white beard. Okay. So this is like your children’s book representation of the Christian God, and there it is as a blinding white cloud. You wouldn’t even need the curls and the beard if you just had the blinding and the white. And, of course, as we go on, as I’ll show you, the curls and the beard are pared away, and you’re left more with that blinding whiteness.
So, the blinding white cloud begins this chapter. And what happens of course thereafter, as you’ll remember, is that Lily pops up from the back seat: “Hi.” He didn’t know that she was there. And she’s got a handful of dandelions, and she’s painted her mouth red with lipstick, and she’s trying to seduce him. And he had, in fact, given her this little sort of seductive note earlier suggesting that he wanted to seduce her, too. And he still has in his mind that he should do this, and his point is to do it so that he will prove that he needs no redemption and that there is no sin. The problem here is that Lily is interested in the seduction precisely because she sees it as a kind of sin. So, if the two enter into this seduction, they do so agreeing on the same act, but completely diametrically opposed on its theological meaning or its metaphysical meaning.
And so, what you’ll notice in this chapter is an extended example–in one of the only extended conversations of the book–of that phenomenon I talked about last time, where the characters just don’t seem to register the existence of the other person at all. So Haze, as I argued last time, is kind of insulated. Even his senses are insulated. He can’t hear things. He doesn’t see what’s in front of him. He doesn’t seem to be in his context physically at all. He doesn’t seem to register the pain of other persons. Sometimes, he doesn’t even seem to register the existence of other persons. Well, this is an example–this conversation–of completely missed signals between the two of them. Sabbath Lily tells the story of wrestling with her identity as a bastard, and on 119 you get her account of her writing to the advice columnist Mary Brittle about the problem of being a bastard and what kind of sexual play is appropriate for a bastard, given the fact that the Bible says a bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. So she’s trying to figure out, really, whether she should sleep with someone, because what does she have to lose? She can’t get in to heaven anyway. So she says:
And then she writes back, Mary Brittle:
Clearly, O’Connor is offering us Mary Brittle as the butt of her critique, the shallow modern thinking of the “enlightened”–psychologically and ethically–modern person. Sabbath in this chapter is an odd Christ figure. She is a Christ figure. Remember how she hides and skips from tree to tree in this scene, when she’s teasing Haze, towards the end of it. Well, that tree is also the image of the cross that is part of Christian tradition. There are lots of hymns that talk about the tree as the cross, or the cross as the tree, for example. But it’s the figure, the ragged figure that moves from tree to tree in the back of Haze’s mind, that’s the Christ that won’t let him get away. So Lily actually embodies that Christ-like figure.
So, for all her impurity, O’Connor presents her in contrast to Mary Brittle as understanding something fundamental about the world, and what’s important in the world that much more plausible people don’t understand. So, this is a moment when Sabbath tempts Haze back to belief, and Haze’s meditation on, or his wrestling with, the question in this chapter of whether a bastard can be in the Church without Christ. And he comes to that point where he says, “No. A bastard can’t be part of the Church without Christ because the word ’bastard’ would just simply not mean anything, so you can’t say that.” And it takes him a long time to wrestle with this, as Sabbath Lily talks to him, and he comes to this moment. And so, when he comes to that conclusion, he also rejects her advances. It’s coming to that conclusion that so preoccupies him that he rejects her advances. Sabbath, if she had been able to seduce him–I want to suggest; O’Connor, I think, is suggesting–would have drawn him back into the realm of belief.
What leads Haze on through this scene is that blinding white cloud. Here it is as they decide whether to turn off the road and enter the field where Sabbath will try to complete this seduction:
So, here the city is at a distance. We’re in a pastoral space, a beautiful space, and this is all sort of under the guidance of this white cloud, this blinding white cloud. And of course, I don’t have to say to you, I’m sure, “Blinding white cloud? Why is this the blinding white cloud?” Well, this is all about blinding, this book. It’s about Asa’s failed blinding of himself for Christ, and it’s about, in the end, finally, Haze’s successful blinding: a kind of blinding that, I would argue, we’re meant to understand as a final clarity of vision, that to be blind is to see properly.
So, the blinding white cloud has this clichéd God imagery–the curls and beard–in the beginning. It takes on this leading aspect in the middle of the chapter, and then, if you look at the end, this is at the very end of the chapter, a few pages on. This is after the man from the filling station has given Haze some gas and not charged him for it, a very unusual act of kindness in this novel. Haze drove on, leaving the man who has helped him: “The blinding white cloud had turned into a bird with long, thin wings and was disappearing in the opposite direction.” There’s a perfect circularity to this symbolism. It’s at the beginning; it changes in the middle, and arrives at the end. By the end it has changed from the clichéd image of the Christian God to a less farcically clichéd image of the Holy Spirit: the bird ascending, the white bird. It’s moving in the opposite direction, suggesting that Haze in this scene has missed his chance. It was presiding over Sabbath Lily’s attempts to seduce, and he was so absorbed in the question of whether a bastard could be in the Church without Christ that he doesn’t follow her into the sin that would, in fact, be the catalyst for his redemption. And so, the cloud departs at the end.
Chapter 5. New Criticism and the Institutionalization of Modernism [00:35:35]
I have to say: this is incredibly heavy handed. If we think about the religious reading, and think about religious symbolism, this is hardly innovative. And I would suggest to you that O’Connor…well, I don’t know. Did O’Connor know that it was heavy handed? It don’t know. What is true about O’Connor is that she was trained to write stories like this. Flannery O’Connor–and this is, again, that context coming in–Flannery O’Connor was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, a very prestigious writing program. Even then, it was a very prestigious writing program. There is a peculiarity for writing in the second half of the twentieth century, and here I’m drawing on another critic, from UCLA; his name is Mark McGurl. He has argued that what is historically novel about this period is that writers have consistently been located in universities. They have been trained at universities; they have taught at universities; they have gone to creative writing programs embedded within universities; they have held visiting positions; they’ve done readings; and they have written books whose primary readership is around a seminar table or in a lecture hall like this.
His argument is that a kind of formal structure, characterized by the principle of unity, a formal structure that was (in that simplified version) at the very heart of the most powerful critical movement of the early twentieth century, and that is the New Criticism. The New Criticism is a way of reading that has its roots in high modernism, and it emphasizes the writer’s–usually the poet’s–ability to create a beautiful, whole, consistent, internally structured literary object that stands outside of history in a certain way, that is autonomous. And so, this view of the artwork–probably you have experienced it if you’ve taken other English classes, and in fact I’ve been producing it for you in my readings–this mode of reading looks for those tropes that unify a work. It looks for that circularity that I’ve described in this little chapter, tracks the symbols. There’s more to it than that. It also looks for ambiguity. O’Connor says about her symbols that they should “keep on deepening,” that they should never be reduced to a simple equation, X equals Y, cloud equals God, that they should have a sense of mystery about them. Well, this was part and parcel of what a New Critical reading practice would look like, and it’s still extremely powerful in our classrooms. We do a lot of close readings. Now, we put our close readings to different kinds of uses, and Mark McGurl has done readings of lots of different novelists that reveal (or, his argument is that they reveal) how the writing program and its tenets have shaped contemporary fiction in a profound way. The implications of this are large and important for how we understand the period.
So what you see in O’Connor is, to borrow a phrase from McGurl’s title of his essay on this, “Flannery O’Connor, B.A., M.F.A.,” the product of a mid-century American institution, the writing program. I would suggest – and this is the third kind of context I want to give you today – that the three I’ve given you–O’Connor’s letters, her theological commitments, southern context, southern social context, the New Critical writing program, the institutionalization of modernism–these things are not in fact separable from one another. Because in my own work, I’m writing a book on religion and fiction since 1960; now, this is a little bit before this period. But what I have discovered–what has really been known for a long time, but nobody’s really made much of it–is that the New Criticism is deeply religious in and of itself. New Critical writers of theory: many of them were, in fact, Catholic, and many of them were southern. There are social and religious elements that infuse their literary theory, so that to argue that the poem is this unified whole, and that what you should do with the poem is show its wholeness– read it in order to see its wholeness, see how it embodies a formal beauty, a formal order–this looks very much like the kind of metaphysical order that I was drawing out of the Catholic version of what O’Connor’s doing in her novels, her version of what she’s doing in the novels, where you have that transcendent sky, and there is this sense of an ordering that seeps down in to the material world, that moment when Haze thinks that he’s somehow seeing broken-off pieces of something that once happened to him. There is this latent order everywhere. And, for O’Connor, it’s part of this moral religious order, this redemptive order, that Catholicism is for her.
The New Criticism sits in a kind of deep analogy to that way of thinking about religion. That’s why, I think, O’Connor found it so comfortable to learn and practice the New Critical tenets of formal construction of the literary. That’s why she produced story after story after story that can be read in these formal ways with these symbols that accrue meaning and deepen and change over the course of the novel or the story. So her commitment to the New Criticism: McGurl argues that O’Connor found the New Criticism comfortable because Catholicism had taught her to be obedient, that it was a matter of obedience to a formula that allowed her to produce what she produced on the page. I would argue it differently: that there is something, in fact, religious about the New Criticism that made it particularly comfortable for O’Connor to inhabit.
Now, I want to conclude by pointing you towards Lolita. Today the question of torturing your own characters has come up. Yaeger calls it, with respect to O’Connor, an “aesthetics of torture.” I want you to think hard about whether this is a way of understanding Lolita when we read it. So, have that in your mind, and think about the ways that violence is or is not presented to us in Lolita, the way that we’re asked either to attend to language or to see through it. Ask those questions about whether we’re being asked to identify with certain characters or not. How is the distance between reader and character, between reader and what’s on the page, how is that mediated? How is that policed? How is that structured? So, think about that as you start to read Lolita. I’m going to stop there.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|