Longing Is the Wisdom of Blood

In honor of the 59th anniversary of the death of Flannery O'Connor (08.03.2023).
Alessandro Matone

In the final chapter of Wise Blood, Mrs. Flood, the owner of the guesthouse where Hazel Motes is staying, begins to be progressively more interested in her client, until she asks him to marry her – a request whose refusal will cause, more or less directly, Hazel’s death. So far, the narrator has not told us much about Mrs. Flood: we only know that she is a middle-aged woman, quite stingy and atheist, whose habit of loneliness has been undermined by Hazel's self-blinding act (he blinds himself with quicklime), and by the fact that now he – alone in the world – is completely dependent on her for most of the daily operations. Hazel, however, does not see things this way. The former preacher doesn't seem to regard Mrs. Flood as indispensable – truth be told, not many things are essential to him. He does not seem to appreciate the care that the landlady puts into preparing food for him and keeping him company: he rarely answers her questions, and when he does he is laconic and enigmatic. In addition, Hazel's behavior turns out to be increasingly strange. He spends most of the day walking in circles around the block, with his shoes full of stones and sharp glass and his chest wrapped in barbed wire, under his shirt. Despite everything, Mrs. Flood is increasingly attracted to him. When she proposes to him – a solution that, in Mrs. Flood's view, would fix both their problems – he literally runs away. He will be found in a ditch, half dead, two days later, by a police car.

Mystery is at the heart of O'Connor's stories. Often, you literally don't understand what's going on. When Mrs. Flood spills dinner dishes on the floor in fright at Hazel's chest swollen from barbed wire, the reader realizes that the story he has read so far is not enough to explain what's going on. To those who claimed that this character of "mystery" represents a flaw in the story, O'Connor would have replied that her characters are like a modern Don Quixote, always tilting towards something that is not seen. Just as it is not clear why the grandmother of A Good Man Is Hard to Find recognizes The Misfit as her own son, just as it is not clear why Parker picks an enormous Byzantine Christ as a tattoo for his back in Parker's Back, so it is not entirely clear what Hazel means when he says that rocks in shoes and barbed wire and self blinding are used "to pay", to atone for. To atone for what?

The fascination that O'Connor's mystery began to arouse in the fifties has not yet ended in America nor in Italy, where I am from and where not long ago the first biography in Italian was published, pushing me to want to understand more. From Milan I went to study in Tennessee to study O’Connor and to finish writing my master’s thesis. I visited Andalusia farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where Flannery lived from the diagnosis of lupus onwards. I saw her room, with the absurd arrangement of furniture that allowed her to reach the desk from the bed with minimal effort. I read the typed pages of her stories, where she sometimes wrote down the results of blood tests in pencil, and the handwritten pages of Parker's Back, written in the clear handwriting of those who know that they will not have time to copy them in the final draft. I met Bruce Gentry, an experienced scholar with an inexhaustible vitality and passion. At his suggestion, I went to the Central State Hospital for Criminally Insane, the largest (abandoned) asylum of all time, often mentioned in O'Connor's stories, where mental illness is just one of the issues that can affect the characters (they are often lame, maimed, sick, or even just suffering from minor cosmetic defects). I went to Mass at Sacred Heart Church, where Flannery and her mother Regina went every morning: there I met the only Catholic priest in Baldwin County and some Focus missionaries from Georgia College.

When I approached O’Connor's fiction for the first time, I was already into literary theory enough to know that the value of a work of art is not measured within the artist's biography. The sense of mystery that I immediately noticed when reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find could not be reduced to a side effect of O'Connor's suffering, or of her Catholic faith. It seemed to be something she herself was looking for in her art. Looking with her for this something, I began reading her essays and letters in high school at the suggestion of an older friend, and in college I read her biographies. I read what critics said, and then a few months ago, in Georgia, I even read the discarded drafts of her stories themselves. But the question remained, and questioned both my need to fully understand her stories and my conscience as a Christian: What is Hazel Motes paying? Who does he see in the darkness to which he has condemned his eyes?

Thinking back to the question, recently, I was reminded of a very famous passage from the film Silence, by Martin Scorsese (2016). At the end of the film, fallen priest Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) reflects: "Lord, I fought against your silence. I suffered beside you, I was never silent, I know. But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I have done, speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard your voice." What Father Rodrigues expresses here seems to me to explain Hazel's parable quite well: his whole life — starting with the experience of his relatives’ death, the war, the active rejection of the Christian faith through the preaching of an absurdly atheistic faith grounded in the absence of the central point of the preaching itself (the Church of Christ without Christ), to the point of making himself a martyr of this same faith by blinding himself — reveals the most evident characteristic of his spirit: longing. Hazel feels throughout his life the call of something unknown but precise, which must not be confused with the idol (the mummy that Enoch suggests to Hazel to put as the pivot of their worship) nor with materialism (and in fact Hazel refuses to profit from his preaching, as the other false preachers do). For Hazel, the rejection of these reductions offered by the world must be radical. He is ready to kill for this.

And it is in the silence of blindness that Hazel sees the light of Christ. Or at least, that's how it seems to Mrs. Flood:

“He might as well be one of them monks, she thought, he might as well be in a monkery. She didn't understand it. […]. She liked the clear light of day. She liked to see things. She could not make up her mind what would be inside his head and what out. […] How would he know if time was going backwards or forwards or if he was going with it? She imagined it was like you were walking in a tunnel and all you could see was a pinpoint of light. She had to imagine the pinpoint of light; she couldn't think of it at all without that. She saw it as some kind of a star, like the star on Christmas cards. She saw him going backwards to Bethlehem and she had to laugh.”

Hazel’s radicalism, completely uninterested in money as well as food and anything else earthly – completely aimed at something that is not seen – is very fascinating to Mrs. Flood, who at first makes fun of him, and tries to take as much money from him as she can; but then she begins to give in to the charm of his independence (or rather, to his complete dependence on something she cannot see), and tries to make it her own, proposing marriage. When the policemen who have found Hazel dump him on the bed of the landlady’s house, no one notices that he is already dead: Ms. Flood, dismayed for having caused his escape, asks Hazel's corpse for forgiveness, and it is here, in my opinion, that O'Connor has left us one of her very few descriptions of that particular type of encounter that in the last two thousand years has generated the Church:

“The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared. She leaned closer and closer to his face, looking deep into them, trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn't see anything. She shut her eyes and saw the pinpoint of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pinpoint of light.”