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Presented to Dr. Ralph C. Wood

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
REL 5357
The 20th Century Catholic Renascence

Baylor University

Daniel J. Marrs
April 28, 2010

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1 OConnor and Danilou as Interlocutors? . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1 The Nouvelle Thologie Connection . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2 Analogous Assessments of the Plight of Modernism . . .
2 Danilou on Paganism and Idolatry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.1 The Validity of the Pagan Impulse . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.2 The Descent into Idolatry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.3 Regarding Mystery and its Mis-Location . . . . . . . . . .
3 OConnors Sacramental Vision in Wise Blood . . . . . . . . .
3.1 Questioning Wise Bloods Sacramental Vision . . . . . . .
3.1.1 Asals Manichean Reading . . . . . . . . . . .
3.1.2 Desmonds Desacralized Interpretation . . . . .
3.1.3 Critical Responses to Asals and Desmond . . . .
3.2 Locating Wise Bloods Sacramentalism . . . . . . . . . . .
3.2.1 Ineluctable Mystery and Enochs Pagan Impulse
3.2.2 Idolatry and the Rejection of Christ . . . . . . .
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .












Tout est sacr; les arbres sont chargs de mystres sacramentels.1 Jean Danilou

In a letter to fellow novelist and literary critic John Hawkes, Flannery OConnor remarked, In
the Protestant view, I think Grace and nature dont have much to do with each other. . . . In the
sense that I see things the other way, Im a Catholic writer.2 OConnors religious vision of
the worldin which lifes mundanities and horrors never exclude (and are in fact imbued with)
mystery and divine graceis famously manifest in her writing; she demonstrates a rare ability
to concretize spiritual realities in everyday occurrences without damaging or undermining the
integrity of the latter.3 OConnor called this sensibility an anagogical vision, a vision that is
able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation especially at the level of the
mystery of the Divine life and our participation in it.4
It seems impossible to doubt that OConnor as an author was concerned with ultimate
mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience, and that her work
should be read with that idea firmly in mind.5 Indeed, OConnor was explicit about the centrality

Jean Danilou, Le Signe du Temple: ou, de la Prsence de Dieu (Paris: Gallimard, 1942), 11.

Flannery OConnor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979),

John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery OConnors Vision of History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press,
1987), 2223. Desmond perceptively notes, OConnor preserves the mystery of the scene by leaving it to the reader
to envision the connection between the literal details and the hierophany, and she thereby respects both the created
fictional world and the reader. She refuses to assign meaning arbitrarily and explicitly, as Faulkner does in A Fable.
In short, OConnor creates Voegelins mystery of history, suggesting extensions of meaning through the literal by
carefully adhering to the analogical principle in the act of writing.

Flannery OConnor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1969), 72.
OConnor goes on to equate her views with the medieval understanding of the multiple senses of Scripture; though
this method is primarily applied to biblical exegesis, OConnor argues that it represents the correct attitude toward
all of creation, nature, and the human scene; it is this vision that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever
going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.

ibid., 125. It should be noted that there are indeed critics who deny this approach any sort of ascendancy;
at least since Josephine Hendins book-length study published in 1970, there has been a current in OConnor

of sacramental (or prophetic) vision for the Catholic novelist: a prophetic vision brings together
two sets of eyesthe eyes of the Church and the eyes of the novelistinto a single glance,
perceiving mystery in the commonplace.6 However, any responsible reader of OConnor should
also remember her warning that those attempting to interpret her books must realize that her
stories say what cant be said otherwise than with your whole book, that you cant substitute
an abstraction and have the same thing.7 Additionally, OConnor reminds curious readers that
the meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation and that too much interpretation is
certainly worse than too little.8 With these warnings in mind, it seems prudent to follow John
F. Desmonds circumspect example:
My own view is that [OConnors] relationship to religious ideas was a dynamic agon and
that this struggle marked her fiction every step of the way. To view her fiction in such a way
is to see how it embodied those ideas and how the fiction itself came to be shaped by those
ideas. Of course OConnor was cognizant of the cost (one of her favorite terms) of her
religious beliefs, but cognizance does not mean denial. The struggle over the cost is what we
see in the fiction, and the final judgment about the value of my critical perspective must lie
in how well such ideas illuminate the fiction.9

The purpose of this paper, therefore, is not to reduce OConnors writing to a mere cipher

criticism that finds her theological imagination unpalatable and pits OConnors religious persona against her literary
imagination in such a way that the latter covertly subverts the former. Answering this interpretive question falls
beyond the purview of this paper. Suffice to say that I see good reason for perceiving mystery within the mundane
in OConnors work. For helpful treatments of this issue, see Desmond, Risen Sons, 6ff; and the Introduction to
Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark, eds., Critical Essays on Flannery OConnor (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall &
Co., 1985). Cf. Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery OConnor (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,
1972); Ralph C. Wood, Flannery OConnor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2004), 6ff.

OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 179ff: The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that
goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden

OConnor, Habit of Being, 400.

ibid., 437. Cf. OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 73: Some people have the notion that you read the story and
then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is
an experience, not an abstraction.

Desmond, Risen Sons, 7. Additional support for this kind of approach to OConnors fiction can be found in
great abundance in her own essays and letters. For example, see OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 32.

for Christian dogma, at the expense of any other pertinent insight,10 but rather to shed some
illumination on the character and actions of a particular personality in OConnors fiction,
Enoch Emery in Wise Blood. Specifically, I wish to demonstrate, using theological insights about
paganism articulated in the writings of Jean Danilou, that Enochs obsession with mystery, his
ritual-infused idolatry, and his regression to the bestial can be seen as evidence for the presence in
OConnors earliest novel of a robustly sacramental (or prophetic) vision of the world, contrary
to the assertions of some literary critics.
Much of the debate about Wise Bloods sacramentality centers on interpretations of Hazel
Motes actions at the end of the novel, and rightly so.11 However, aside from the questions
surrounding Hazel Motes character, it may be possible to interpret the character and actions
of secondary player Enoch Emery in a way that reveals the world of Wise Blood to be deeply
sacramental. Enochs story illustrates the ineluctable pull of mystery, speaking powerfully
to the sacramental character of the novels world; early in the narrative Enoch clearly senses
pervasive mystery, but because of his rejection of Jesus, his envy-ridden and lust-driven pursuit
of the mystery leads not to salvation, but toward progressively more foolish displays of idolatry,
culminating with a regression into animalism.
The paper is divided into three major sections: 1) a justification for the validity of using
Danilous theology as an illuminating lens for OConnors fiction; 2) an overview of Danilous
insights regarding paganism in connection with his sacramental understanding of nature; and 3)
an examination of sacramentality in Wise Blood with a special focus on Enoch Emerys strange
story. Enochs story, in spite of its ultimately tragic (though darkly humorous) ending, can only
work in a world that is imbued with OConnors sacramental vision of reality.


Robert Jackson, Region, Idolatry, and Catholic Irony: Flannery OConnors Modest Literary Vision, Logos 5,
no. 1 (2002): 1340, 1920.

For a recent discussion regarding whether Hazel Motes was a saint (and if so, what kind), see Ralph C. Wood,
Hazel Motes as a Flesh-Mortifying Saint in Flannery OConnors Wise Blood, Flannery OConnor Review 7 (2009):

1 OConnor and Danilou as Interlocutors?

It seems prudent to begin this paper by showing that bringing together OConnors fiction and
Danilous theology is more than the reckless association of vaguely homologous ideas from
otherwise disparate sources. Several connections between OConnor and Danilou are evident,
both historical and conceptual.

1.1 The Nouvelle Thologie Connection

OConnor herself states that she was familiar with Danilou and had read some of his work.
Aside from the fact that she possessed at least one of his volumes,12 she mentions him with
approbation in a letter to Betty Hester: I like this Danielou [sic] very much. There are a lot of
people I can think of that Id like to see read it.13 Additionally, Danilou was at the very center
of the movement in twentieth-century Catholicism known as la nouvelle thologie;14 OConnors
affinity with and respect for the theology represented by this movement is well documented.15
Her essays and letters are replete with favorable references to several prominent representatives of
or peripheral personalities associated with the movement, especially Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,


Lorine M. Getz, Flannery OConnor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews, vol. 5, Studies in Women and Religion
(New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1980), 92.

OConnor, Habit of Being, 298. I have been unable to ascertain which work OConnor is referring to in this

Those within the movement saw themselves as ressourcement theologians, which is to say they saw themselves
as returning to the patristic sources of Christian theology; Dominican theologian Garrigou-Lagrange famously
argued that the movement was actually a new (and therefore illegitimate) theology. The derogatory appellation
stuck. For a helpful overview of Danilous prominent, and even catalytic place within la nouvelle thologie, see
Brian Daley, The Nouvelle Thologie and the Patristic Revival: Sources, Symbols and the Science of Theology,
International Journal of Systematic Theology 7, no. 4 (2005): 362382. See also Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, La
Nouvelle Thologie o va-t-elle? Angelicum, no. 23 (1946): 126145.

That OConnors Catholicism (or her Thomism) was broadly in line with la nouvelle thologie is evident in the
scholars OConnor herself read and cited most often, as well is in the analyses of her theology in the secondary
literature. See Douglas Robillard, Jr., Revisiting the Catholic Literary Imagination, Modern Fiction Studies 53, no. 1
(2007): 174182; Getz, Life, Library and Book Reviews, 72ff; Desmond, Risen Sons, 16; Ralph C. Wood, Benedict
XVI, Flannery OConnor and the Divine Eros, in Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery OConnor
Conference (Rome, Italy: Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, April 21, 2009).

Etienne Gilson, and Jacques Maritain, and her personal library included a plethora of works by
various ressourcement theologians.16
Although la nouvelle thologie as a movement did not really begin to flourish until around the
time of OConnors death in 1964, OConnor was clearly familiar with ressourcement theologians
and her writings contain (implicitly in her fiction and explicitly in her non-fiction) a clear affinity
for their theological sensibility. Ralph C. Wood notes that the core claim of la nouvelle thologie
lies in its contention that nature and grace must be distinguished but not separated.17 This
refusal to legitimize the stratification of nature and grace into strictly discrete realms is strikingly
evident throughout OConnors uvre. In addition to the broad nouvelle thologie connection,
Danilou and OConnor both read and were influenced by some of the same theologians; for
example, Romano Guardini figures prominently in OConnors correspondence and in several of
Danilous books, especially in Dieu et Nous.18

1.2 Analogous Assessments of the Plight of Modernism

Danilou was particularly concerned about the modern tendency to compartmentalize, marginalize, and even deny the spiritual realm in favor of the material. In Scandaleuse Vrit he writes,
[P]our la plupart des hommes ce qui est le plus rel est le monde de leur vie matrielle et ce
qui est le plus irrel le monde de Dieu. Cest l un fait si massif, une subversion si radicale et
dans laquelle lhumanit est si incruste que nous nous en apercevons peine et que ce qui
est pch nous apparat nature. Cest en particulier le caractre foncier dun humanisme qui
prtend avoir en lui-mme sa consistance et pour qui la dimension religieuse serait une sorte
de sucrot arbitraire, de matire option.19


Included in her collection were works by (in addition to the writers listed above) Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer,
Claude Tresmontant, Jean Mouroux, and Yves Congar. See Getz, Life, Library and Book Reviews, 85ff.

Wood, Benedict XVI, Flannery OConnor and the Divine Eros, 2.


See Jean Danilou, Dieu et Nous (Paris: Bernard Grasset Editeur, 1956), 14, 23; OConnor, Habit of Being, 99,
131, 191, 242, 296. The observation of common influence could be made just as easily with regard to Pascal, Chardin,
Jung, and a multitude of others.

Jean Danilou, Scandaleuse Vrit (Paris: Librairie Arthme Fayard, 1961), 16.

Danilou goes on to juxtapose this modern view of things with the scriptural truth that la
dimension religieuse est constitutive de lhomme comme tel. This mirrors exactly OConnors
central concerns about the modern world. Arguing that an artist should penetrate the concrete
world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimately reality,
OConnor proceeds to lament the loss over the last few centuries of the understanding that
there is something more (and more real) beyond the visible.20 Against the modern feeling that
the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, OConnor consistently sought to reveal
anagogically the mystery that permeates the mundane.21 Additionally, her affirmation that for
her being a Catholic was not merely an optional accessory but the totality of her identity flies in
the face of modernitys tendency to compartmentalize the religious, and meshes very well with
Danilous vision.22
Similarly, both OConnor and Danilou maintained (against modern conceptions of human
autonomous freedom and agnostic skepticism) that religious dogma, far from obscuring reality
and restricting freedom of the soul, is a vehicle of freedom. OConnor wrote that dogma is an
instrument for penetrating reality, and is about the only thing left in the world that surely
guards and respects mystery.23 Danilou, in Scandaleuse et Vrit, argued vigorously that liberty
itself depends on and is inextricably bound up with transcendent, mysterious truths and the
dogmas that surround them.24
All of this indicates a substantial similarity between Danilou and OConnor, and supports
the legitimacy of drawing conceptual connections between Danilous theology and OConnors
fiction. Though direct evidence of OConnors engagement with Danilous thought is limited,


OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 157.


ibid., 157.


Flannery OConnor, Flannery OConnor: Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: The Library of
America, 1988), 930.

OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 178.


Danilou, Scandaleuse Vrit, 42f, 71ff.

they both operated within the same theological milieu and shared similar concerns regarding
twentieth-century physicalism and the subsequent marginalization of mystery.

2 Danilou on Paganism and Idolatry

In order to aid this understanding of the significance of Enoch Emerys story, I will draw
upon theological concepts found in the work of Jean Danilou. The remainder of this section
will delineate Danilous understanding of paganism and idolatry; in the section that follows,
Danilous insights will be used to shed light on Enoch Emerys instinctive gravitation toward the
mysterious, his strange obsession with the new jesus, and his final descent into pure animality.

2.1 The Validity of the Pagan Impulse

For Jean Danilou, the presence of the pagan impulse is itself evidence for the reality of sacramental mysteries. He describes this pagan impulse in its purest form as an elemental religion, the
legitimate and supremely human sensitivity to the theophanic character of creation. Taking a
broadly affirmative attitude toward the original pagan impulse, coupled with ultimate rejection,
he notes that paganism starts with a trs vrai insight that les sources, les fontaines, les chnes
sont remplix de substance sacre, mais il linterprte mal.25 Elsewhere he expands on what he
sees as the validity and the weakness of paganism: he affirms that the pagan religions can (at least
potentially) point toward the one true God; however, they suffer from a fundamental vagueness
and ambiguity and are ultimately insufficient to bring humans into contact with God.26
Positively, the pagan impulse is grounded in the truth that Paul expresses in Romans that the


Jean Danilou, Mythes Paens, Mystre Chrtien, vol. 8, Je Sais, Je Crois (Paris: Librairie Arthme Fayard, 1966),


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 23.

invisible God is known through visible creation.27 According to Danilou, Paul argues that
le cosmos tout entier prend une dimesnion symbolique. Les ralits qui le constituent, toiles
et la rgularit de leur cours, le soleil et son clat, lorage et la terreur quil inspire, le rocher
et son immuabilit la rose et sa bndiction sont autant de hirophanies, de manifestations
visibles travers chacune desquelles un aspect de Dieu se manifeste.28

Furthermore, Danilou notes that this understanding of a theophanous creation has a metaphysical basis in the analogy of being, which is the doctrine that all being is a participation in God, and
therefore bears vestiges of the divine in some sense. Echoing the traditional notion that nature
is (along with Scripture) a sort of book in which God speaks of himself, Danilou asserts that
nature is the only book available to the pagan world, and that it is possible to have an appropriate
response to this revelation in the form of a pagan sense of mystery.29 There is nothing more
natural, or more human, than this sensitivity to mystery; even children are naturally petits
paens, and restricting this natural impulse will make for very unhappy children.30

2.2 The Descent into Idolatry

However, Danilou is quick to follow this rather positive assessment of paganism with a careful
look at its fundamental weaknesses. Cosmic revelation, as appropriated in pagan religion, is
always deformed (though to varying degrees). He identifies three malformations of the pagan
impulse: polytheism, pantheism, and dualism.31 Idolatry is closely associated with the first
malformation; it is a short step from the legitimate and entirely natural recognition of the
hierophanous aspect of nature to the identification of hierophany with divinitythe exchange of


See Romans 1:1920.


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 24.


ibid., 24.


Danilou, Mythes Paens, Mystre Chrtien, 23.


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 41f

the Creator for the created.32 This leads to an understanding of the world that on the one hand
retains and even augments a largely appropriate sense of mystery in nature, but on the other hand
misperceives at a basal level the true significance of creation, thereby opening the door to every
kind of error. Pagan religion is at best a search for God, a groping in the darkness; only Christian
revelation, specifically the revelation of God in Christ, removes humans from this darkness.33
Danilou manages to affirm the pagan impulse while rejecting any expression of this impulse
that results in idolatry, polytheism, or any other religious system outside of Christianity. He
is careful to deny that pagan religions in any way lead to God apart from Christ. Rather, they
contain and assume (albeit in a limited and more or less warped manner) the legitimate sensitivity
to divine manifestations in creation. Without positive revelation, the pagan will always fail
to achieve his or her divine goal.34 Following Pius XIIs statements in his encyclical Evangelii
pracecones, Danilou asserts that in the revelation of Christ, natural truths contained in paganism
find their fulfillment: Christs revelation, rather than destroying the pagan impulse, purifies and
transfigures it.35 Based on Danilous thought, one could also arrive at the converse conclusion:
that a rejection of Christ guarantees a descent into the very worst malformations of the pagan

2.3 Regarding Mystery and its Mis-Location

A brief clarification of Danilous concept of mystery is in order. Mystery must never be seen
as a way of expressing a lack of understanding about the natural world; true mystery does not
reside in vague, primitive misunderstandings of nature. And although Danilou readily admits
that the premodern world was in some ways more susceptible to a sense of mystery and that the


Danilou, Mythes Paens, Mystre Chrtien, 34. Cf. Romans 1:20ff.


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 5253.


ibid., 53.


Danilou, Mythes Paens, Mystre Chrtien, 39f.

effects of modern science and technology can sometimes include an apparent loss of mystery,
reason actually serves (in ancient times as much as in the modern era) to purify and locate more
accurately the truly mysterious.36 Herein lies the primary temptation in paganism and the source
of its downfall: to see the natural world not merely as pervasively permeated by mystery, but as
the location and substance of the mystery. This mis-locating of mystery is the very definition
of idolatry. Such paganistic mysticism cannot be sustainedscience and experience can always
demystify that which is not truly mysterious.37
Significantly for our purposes, Danilou explicitly states that the very presence of the pagan
impulse (that is, the sense of mystery in nature) and the proliferation of pagan idolatry speak
powerfully to the sacramentality of nature; God reveals himself through the cosmos to every
human soul.
Ainsi avons-nous suivi les dmarches de lme religieuse paenne, cherchant ttons dans
ses tnbres le Dieu vivant si proche et si inaccessible. Elles portent un tmoignage massif
et valable de la vrit de Dieu. Et nous devons reconnatre dans leurs dmarches cultuelles,


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 66: Ce mystre, la raison ne peut le sonder. Mais elle peut du moins y conduire. Et l
apparat sa fonction. Elle conduit lesprit jusqu ses frontires. Elle cerne le domaine du mystre. En lucidant tout
ce qui est de son domaine, elle empche de situer ce mystre l o il nest pas. Elle dmystifie les ralits naturelles
dont on voudrait faire des mystres. Et cest sa fonction critique et purifcatrice. Mais par ailleurs elle dsigne les
vrais mystres.

In a sense, Danilou anticipates Denys Turners approach to reason and mystery. Turner sees reason as a
natural human power which, when used properly, leads us to the edge of nature and points toward (without
comprehending) the pseudo-Dionysian darkness of God. In a complex dialectic of apophatic and cataphatic
movements, reason both leads toward and presupposes a transcendent mystery. For Turner, honest reasoners
come to see reason itself as having a certain apophatic character, based on some degree of apprehension of an
underlying and all-pervading mystery. Turner locates this mystery in an apprehension of the radical contingency of
the universe, embodied in the question of Why anything?a question which he sees as unavoidable and as leading
ultimately toward proof for the existence of a transcendent creator. Cutting off the possibility of this question
(along with all other metaphysically-oriented questions) in an early-Wittgensteinian manner undermines reason,
and leads to what Turner calls an agnostic curtailment of reason rather than an apophatic extension of it. This
idea of apophatic extension is just what underlies Danilous understanding of mystery and OConnors prophetic
vision; it allows and even celebrates the vital importance of presupposing and reaching for mystery embodied in
the mundane objects and events of this life. See Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge
University Press, 2004, rep. 2005), 48ff, 119, 233236, 242. For a fascinating recent assessment of why metaphysical
suspicion undermines the exercise of reason, see Stanley Fish, Are There Secular Reasons? The New York Times
(February 22, 2010):\bibrangedashthere\


doctrinales, mystiques, lexpression dune rvlation de Dieu qui parle toute me humaine
travers le cosmos, la conscience et lesprit.38

In summary, Danilou sees a sensitivity to mystery and the abundance of pagan mythology,
rituals, and idolatry as possible only in a world that is sacramental in character. Apart from the
analogy of being and the consequently theophanous aspect of the created universe, the pagan
impulse makes no sense, and indeed, would not exist. However, he is quick to point out that the
pagan impulse without positive revelation is never adequate. Christ fulfills and transfigures that
which is valid in paganism; apart from the revelation of Christ, paganism all too often degrades
into increasingly foolish instantiations of idolatry, directed either toward various created objects
or toward the self. With this brief overview of Danilous thoughts on paganism, we are prepared
to examine Enoch Emerys story in Wise Blood.

3 OConnors Sacramental Vision in Wise Blood

As noted above, certain OConnor critics find reason to doubt the presence of OConnors
trademark sacramental vision in Wise Blood. This section is therefore divided into two parts: first,
an analysis of the best arguments against Wise Bloods sacramental vision and various critical
responses to those arguments (in order to situate this paper within the ongoing debate); second,
an examination of pertinent sections in Wise Blood, with continual reference to Danilous ideas
to elaborate and support the idea that Enoch Emerys story can only work in a world that is
fundamentally shaped by OConnors uniquely sacramental vision.


Danilou, Dieu et Nous, 52.


3.1 Questioning Wise Bloods Sacramental Vision

The most fascinating arguments for a supposedly desacralized world in Wise Blood come from
critics who for the most part are happy to admit (and indeed see as central) the fact that a strongly
sacramental vision undergirds OConnors fiction in general. Due to space constraints, I will
focus on what I take to be the two most compelling cases of critics who, in spite of taking a
religious approach to interpreting OConnor and recognizing the centrality of her sacramental
vision, find the world of Wise Blood somewhat lacking, sacramentally speaking.
3.1.1 Asals Manichean Reading
In his brilliant book Flannery OConnor: The Imagination of Extremity, Frederick Asals contends
that the sacramental vision so prominent in OConnors later work is nowhere visible in
Wise Blood.39 Based on an understanding of sacramentality drawn from OConnors own
writings, Asals finds that the sensible, physical world of Wise Blood, far from being portrayed
as fundamentally good or viewed as an image of its source (i.e., theophanic), overwhelms the
characters with its ugliness and brutality to such an extent that the only possible reaction is either
a descent into utter animality or an escape through blindness, asceticism, and the pursuit of
death.40 Furthermore, Asals sees Wise Bloods portrayal of the human body as unrelentingly
negative: No orthodox religious theme, after all, will account . . . for the thoroughgoing
revulsion at the human body that is everywhere present in Wise Blood. The physical grotesqueries
related to the human body throughout the novelskin and dental blemishes figure prominently
in the storycan hardly be attributed to godlessness.41
Additionally, usually reliable signals of sacramentality, such as the sky, appear in Wise Blood


Frederick Asals, Flannery OConnor: The Imagination of Extremity (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia
Press, 1982), 58.

ibid., 58.


ibid., 58.


to carry no significant connotations or sacramental overtones in Asals estimation.42 He

hypothesizes that examination of the imagery of Wise Blood leads to one inescapable conclusion
. . . the novel can hardly be said to be deeply informed by the Catholic sacramental view of life.43
Asals also envisions a connection between Hazel Motes apparent escape into otherworldliness at
the end of the novel and the dilemma faced by OConnor herself (or at least, by the narrator):
the narrative eye of the novel . . . can discover no spirit in the earthly matter at which it stares.44
Wise Bloods radical naturalistic symbolism, according to Asals, epitomizes without transcending: it defines a world wholly given over to mechanistic laws and a primitive evolutionary
ethic; the Christian motifs, though present, are only elaborate parodies.45 Asals concludes by
applying OConnors own words as a sort of criticism: Wise Blood at best has only reflected our
broken condition instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things.46 Asals final assessment
is that Wise Blood is in its deepest implications a Manichean book.47
3.1.2 Desmonds Desacralized Interpretation
John F. Desmonds reading of Wise Blood closely mirrors aspects of Asals work. Like Asals, he
finds the naturalistic imagery too negative and dehumanizing to function in any meaningfully
sacramental way.48 He notes that the sun, frequently a signal image of the divine throughout
OConnors fiction, is conspicuously absent in Wise Blood, replaced instead by the dominant


Asals, The Imagination of Extremity, 59.


ibid., 5960.


ibid., 60.


ibid., 60.


ibid., 60. Cf. OConnor, Mystery and Manners, 168.


Asals, The Imagination of Extremity, 58. It should be observed that Asals qualifies this judgment in a footnote:
he recognizes that his use of Manichean is not strictly accurate, historically speaking. He writes, The problem is
that no traditional category conveys exactly the radical dualism of Wise Blood, yet Manichean perhaps comes closer
than any other recognizable term to expressing the vision at work here. (A possible alternative is Gnostic).

Desmond, Risen Sons, 59.


symbol of rain which functions as an oblique symbol of divine presence at three crucial turning
points for Haze: it leaks into Hazes car (a primary symbol of Hazes pursuit of autonomy and
escape), damages the new jesus mummy, and is present when Haze goes out for his last walk,
which culminates in his death.49 Unlike the sun, which usually coincides in OConnors fiction
with blinding revelation and conversion, the rain is a haunting and destructive presence.
These kinds of observations lead Desmond to contend that Wise Bloods imagery indicates a
desacralized world; the images never undergo the kind of profound symbolic transformation
that would help imagistically dramatize a redemptive process at work. Rather than a redemptive
vision or a gracious action of transformation, Wise Bloods images speak only of negative action
and destruction, and therefore do not function in a Christian analogical sense.50
It seems that Desmond connects sacramentality with redemption. He sees grotesque or
horrific images as non-sacramental apart from actual transformation. Though Desmond does not
go so far as to accuse Wise Blood of Manichean tendencies, he clearly sees the sensible world of
Wise Blood as thoroughly desacralized, and he follows Asals in seeing Hazes actions in the final
chapters as indicative of a withdrawal from the world, a retreat to inwardness: lacking these
external means of spiritual transformation, Haze necessarily turns inward to act out his belief
through his own body.51
Furthermore, Desmond, like Asals, sees reflected in Motes final days OConnors quandary
as an author, i.e., the specific problems of transmitting vision in this novel.52 In Desmonds
articulation of this perceived predicament, OConnor deliberately employs from the beginning
of the novel an imagistic strategy of flattening and dehumanizing (either with animal or machine
imagery) in an effort to develop the theme of a world that has largely abandoned any interest in


Desmond, Risen Sons, 59.


ibid., 59.


ibid., 61.


ibid., 57.


the divine and lacks any religious self-image.53 This strategy, though effective, leaves little room
for prophetic vision:
Since [this world] has largely closed itself to a vision of the transforming power of the
numinous, its dominant images reflect that reduction to the natural order which is a logical
result of its view of reality. . . . Lacking a vision of the numinous, Hazes world suffers from
the kind of metaphysical misplacement that results in idol-making, the worship of an object
or image to which a confusion of vision has erroneously imputed transcendent significance.54

In Desmonds analysis, the imagery of extreme degradation in Wise Blood fails to undergo
the process of imaginative transformation in order to unite analogically the mundane and the
grotesque with the workings of grace.55 Therefore, the world of Wise Blood remains (almost)
entirely desacralized, with only the briefest glimmers of the numinous at the peripheries of the
3.1.3 Critical Responses to Asals and Desmond
One of the more direct critical responses to both Asals and Desmonds claims comes from
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., who argues that Asals incorrectly pits OConnors ideas of asceticism
and sacramentality against one another.57 By associating asceticism with a Manichean impulse
to see matter as evil, and sacramentalism with the tendency to see the world as theophanic and
redemptive, Asals shortchanges the complexity of Wise Blood and the richness of OConnors
imagination. Brinkmeyer goes on to point out that asceticism and sacramentalism have historically been seen as interwoven. Following the work of Geoffrey Galt Harpham and Elaine Scarry,


Desmond, Risen Sons, 57.


ibid., 5758.


ibid., 63.


Even these brief glimmers of potentially sacramental imagery are marred for Desmond by the fact that they are
usually associated with the sky, and hence, are beyond this-worldly existence.

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., Jesus, Stab Me in the Heart!: Wise Blood, Wounding, and Sacramental Aesthetics,
in New Essays on Wise Blood, ed. Michael Kreyling (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 7879.


Brinkmeyer contends that asceticism both denigrates and dignifies the body by disciplining
it in such a way that it becomes a sort of tool for relating directly with the sacred (without
By in effect canceling the world, asceticism thus highlights the direct relationship between
the body and the sacred. This world-destroying motion is not that of . . . nihilism, because it
is not the disembodied consciousness that reigns supreme, but the sentient body penetrated
by the divine.58

Therefore, on Brinkmeyers reading, Wise Blood has a sacramental vision, but it is of a worldcanceling and body-celebrating variety. Realizing that the body and spirit cannot be sundered,
Haze uses his body to relate spiritually with the divine through extreme asceticism.59 Using this
understanding of asceticism, Brinkmeyer interprets Haze Motes actions as being in line with
a redemptive, sacramentally grounded vision.60 Contrary to the common interpretation that
Enoch and Haze represent Manichean movements toward the dual poles of matter and spirit,
Brinkmeyer sees Motes as a kind of saint. Pointing out that violence often announces the entrance
of divine grace in OConnor (bodily injury or death almost always signal the penetration of the
divine), Brinkmeyer locates the apparent peculiarity of Wise Blood in the fact that the violence
in Hazes case is self-inflicted.61
Strangely, after declaring several times that Wise Blood is sacramental rather than Manichean,
Brinkmeyer asserts that OConnors ascetic vision is both sacramental and Manichean.62 Citing
OConnors affinity for certain tendencies found in Hebraic Yahwism and Southern Fundamentalism, Brinkmeyer sees OConnors depictions of violent grace as so devaluing and destructive
of nature and culture before the looming, otherworldly presence of Yahweh that in a sense the


Brinkmeyer, Jr., Jesus, Stab Me in the Heart! 8081.


ibid., 81.


ibid., 81ff.


ibid., 8384.


ibid., 84.


world, the middle-ground between the individual and Yahweh, all but disappears.63 He concludes
by asserting that the middle-ground (i.e., the world outside the body) is finally worthless for
OConnor, and that it must often be negated for the sake of the individual relationship with
Ralph C. Wood offers an alternative argument for Wise Bloods sacramental vision based on a
more circumspect understanding of Hazel Motes asceticism. Contrary to the claims of Susan
Srigley, who (somewhat like Brinkmeyer) seems to see Hazes self-abnegation as a demonstration
of an individualistic pursuit of salvation, Wood sees the possibility that Hazes asceticism should
be understood as gargantuan penitence [i.e., repenting from specific sins performed in and with
his body] in gargantuan gratitude for the salvation that has already overcome his Sin [original sin],
and that Haze is sacramentally participating in the atoning death of his Savior.65 Furthermore,
Hazes broken body becomes a kind of witness to a small cloud of witnesses; Wise Blood need
not be interpreted as a celebration of solitary salvation at the expense of the external world, as
Brinkmeyer seems to suggest.


Brinkmeyer, Jr., Jesus, Stab Me in the Heart! 84. Brinkmeyer supports this conclusion using statements
OConnor made about her work sounding like the Old Testament and the fact that her characters relate directly to
God. Cf. OConnor, Habit of Being, 111.

Although this is not primarily a paper about asceticism, I feel compelled at this point to offer a correction
to what I see as a serious misunderstanding of asceticism in Brinkmeyers article. Asceticism is most properly
understood as a realignment of the bodily senses according to sacramental realities. Although the ascetics harsh
treatment of the body may seem contrary to sacramentalisms dignifying effects, the true goal of asceticism is
not the destruction of the body or the negation of the world, but rather an effort to train the body out of sinful
pleasure-seeking and idolatrous tendencies in relation to the created order. In this sense, asceticism is profoundly
sacramentalit seeks to re-value the body and the world for their sacramental significance and for the sake of the
God whose image they are. There is no hint of Manichean ideas underlying true asceticism; it is best understood not
as a denial or withdrawal from the world, but as a transforming, re-visioning of it, the ability to comprehend in a
single glance the whole world as a unified theophany. Extremely helpful in this regard is the work of St Maximus
the Confessor; see especially Ambiguum 10.

Wood, Hazel Motes as a Flesh-Mortifying Saint in Flannery OConnors Wise Blood, 90.


3.2 Locating Wise Bloods Sacramentalism

As should now be obvious, the main thrust of the arguments that Wise Blood lacks OConnors
characteristic sacramental vision centers upon the degraded imagery and the interpretive dilemmas
surrounding the fate of Hazel Motes. The apparent gap between the degraded world of Wise
Blood and OConnors professed sacramentalism leads certain critics to see in Motes actions
an uncharacteristically (for OConnor) Manichean renunciation of the world, in contrast to her
later sacramentalism. I believe that in some ways the objections of Asals and Desmond have
been answered effectively by Wood and Brinkmeyer. Woods analysis is especially valuable for its
suggestions regarding the possibility and nature of Motes final redemption, and demonstrates
compellingly that Motes asceticism need be seen neither as a half-Manichean, half-sacramental
work of individual salvation (contra Brinkmeyer) nor as a purely spiritual (and therefore nonsacramental) religiosity based on withdrawal from the world (contra Asals and Desmond).
Brinkmeyers response, though useful for accentuating inconsistencies in Asals and Desmonds
arguments, is somewhat less helpful than Woods; Brinkmeyer remains mired in the notion that
Wise Blood is somehow tainted by Manichean leanings, and that these tendencies are legitimately
connected with OConnors notions of sacramentalism and asceticism!
In the following paragraphs I hope to contribute to the discussion surrounding Wise Bloods
sacramentalism. Even apart from the questions of Hazes redemption and the nature of his
extreme asceticism,66 the presence of mystery, paganism, and idolatry in the story of Enoch
Emery provides more than enough evidence to demand that we as readers recognize a profoundly
sacramental vision at work in the narrative.


These are questions which I believe have been handled well by others, and like Wood, I believe that the issue of
Motes final destination is not for the novel to answer. OConnor seems more interested in getting her readers to
wonder deeply about Motes grotesque performance of sacrificial suffering than in providing easily accessible and
neatly squared-off answers or interpretations.


3.2.1 Ineluctable Mystery and Enochs Pagan Impulse

Asals repeatedly refers to Enoch Emery and his actions as moronic.67 Specifically, he sees
Enochs susceptibility to mystery and his consequent engagement in primitive idolatry as nothing
more than gullible simplicity and animalistic instinctivism. However, according to Danilous
notion of the pagan impulse, Enoch Emerys actions contain to some extent a very natural,
appropriate, and eminently human impulse.
Enochs existence is defined by his overwhelming sense of pervasive mystery. In a manner
that matches almost uncannily Danilous description of the development of pagan rites as
slow and circular approaches toward the central locus of the mystery (as perceived by the rites
practitioner), Enochs days are structured around a series of rituals that culminate in his approach
to the central mystery: a shrunken mummy residing in the depths of the Muvseevum, in what
Enoch feels to be the mysterious center of the city.68
Danilou argues that the illegitimate location of mystery within the created order arises
from the legitimate sensitivity to the theophanic aspect of creation. Enochs attitude toward the
shrunken mummy bears all of the signs of this natural (and in some ways legitimate) sensitivity
to mystery.69 He finds himself so stunned and awed and overwhelmed that just to think about it
made him sweat.70 He is driven to speechlessness: he knows that the words on the card outside
the case couldnt say the mystery, that no words could capture the mysterious reality hidden in


Asals, The Imagination of Extremity, 44, 45.


Flannery OConnor, Wise Blood, in Flannery OConnor: Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York:
The Library of America, [1952] 1988), 46, 55. Note that all page references for Wise Blood throughout this paper
correspond to the text as found in the Collected Works.

It should be noted that Enochs willingness to see mysterious significance is not limited to the shrunken mummy
or things directly related to it. For example, while preparing his rooms to receive the new jesus, he reads bizarre
meanings into the inanimate pictures on the wall and the furniture. For Enoch, the whole world is filled with
mystery, but his mis-identification of the mystery leads him into terror and competition rather than love and

ibid., 45.


plain sight, right there in a glass case for everybody to see.71

After sharing this mystery with Haze Motes, Enochs wise blood begins to move him
in new ways; whereas previously it had led him into a ritualized obsession with a mis-located
mystery, now his blood, more sensitive than any other part of him, is pushing him toward some
ineffable but strongly felt destiny.72 Enochs sense that he had always known that something was
going to happen to him, coupled with the fact that he instinctively links it to the mystery located
in the shrunken mummy, suggests Enoch is displaying a malformed version of the understanding
that he is meant for union with God. The human tendency to see mystery as centrally relevant
to human life and destiny is an expression of Augustines claim that the human soul is restless
until it rests in God.
That Enoch exemplifies a sort of warped desire for deification becomes more evident as his
obsession develops and takes shape. His wise blood leads him to prepare a perverse tabernacle in
his rooms; mirroring his original system of rituals in which he gradually approached the museum
and the ineffably meaningful mystery it contained, he began with the least important thing and
worked around and in toward the center where the meaning was.73 As his work progresses he
gradually comes to realize what it all means: the cabinet was to be used FOR something, and
that something turns out to be a perverse Holy of Holies, a dwelling place for the shrunken
mummy, or the new jesus as Enoch comes to think of it after hearing Hazel Motes impassioned
preaching of the Church without Christ.74 After stealing the mummy and installing the new
jesus in his homemade tabernacle, Enochs desire for communion with the mystery seems on
the verge of fulfillment; however, he meets only with bitter disappointment. His vague notion


OConnor, Wise Blood, 45. Again, there is something right about Enochs recognition that hidden mysteries
imbue plainly visible reality.

ibid., 73.


ibid., 75.


ibid., 76, 8081.


that his mystical encounter with the new jesus will transform him ends with nothing more
than a sneeze, leading Enoch to the conclusion that so far as he was now concerned, one jesus
was as bad as another.75
Thus far, Enoch Emerys actions and attitudes clearly arise from a world that can only
be described as sacramental. His misidentification of the mystery and his foolish ritualism
notwithstanding, Enoch represents the following natural human responses to a theophanic world:
a sensitivity and susceptibility to the pull of mystery and the desire for union with this mystery
(i.e., deification), expressed in a series of rituals culminating in an ultimately disappointing
attempt at transformative communion with the new jesus. For Danilou, the presence of even
such warped versions of the pagan impulse constitute powerful evidence for the sacramentality
of nature.
3.2.2 Idolatry and the Rejection of Christ
Obviously, Enochs paganism takes a particularly misshapen form. However, this does not undermine Wise Bloods sacramentalism. Following Danilous notion that Christ is the fulfillment
of the pagan impulse, and that in him the natural human sensitivity to mystery and the desire
for union with that mystery are purified and transfigured, we also find that the converse is true:
a rejection of Christ guarantees a descent into the very worst sorts of malformations of the
pagan impulse. The human sensitivity to and attraction toward mystery, vague and unfruitful
apart from the revelation of Christ, take a particularly vicious turn when coupled with a blatant
rejection of Christs revelation. In Enochs story, we see this tragedy played out to its full extent.
Almost the first thing we learn about Enoch is the fact that he doesnt go in for a lot of Jesus
business.76 This special aversion to Jesus becomes progressively clearer throughout the story.


OConnor, Wise Blood, 9899.


ibid., 23.


Enoch ascribes his wise blood, his susceptibility to mystery, not to God but to his father, who
looks just like Jesus. It is almost as if, even in his rejection of Jesus, Enoch wants to transfer
Jesus significance to someone or something else. Perhaps this explains his immediate association
of Hazes new jesus with the shrunken mummy.77
Significantly, Enochs sense of mystery has already become so warped that even in his simpleminded idolization of the shrunken mummy, his focus is subtly bent inward. The pagan impulse,
originally a sense of awe that ideally leads one out of oneself and into worship of the mystery, has
already become for Enoch a kind of self-focused awe. Enoch thinks of the unspeakable mystery
of the shrunken mummy as being inside him [Enoch], a terrible knowledge without any words
to it, a terrible knowledge like a big nerve growing inside him.78
Further evidence that Enochs natural pagan impulse has devolved into unnatural channels
comes from the psychological features of his rituals, which are characterized by envy, lust, and
fear. His daily visits to the pool and the hotdog stand are geared toward the satisfaction of his
desire to see a certain woman in her bathing suit or to make some suggestive remarks to the
waitress.79 His routine observations of the animals in the zoo are marked by a mixture of awe
and hate;80 when he attempts to prepare his room as a tabernacle for the new jesus, Enoch
feels threatened by the picture of the moose; he wonders whether the furniture is against him,
and has to fight the nasty impulse to kick it to pieces.81
Having rejected Jesus and turned the world into a source of personal, illegitimate pleasure,
Enochs sense of mystery has become entirely unanchored from the theophanic aspect of creation;
the mystery is now a source of fear and bondage. In an increasingly comical fashion, Enoch


It may also be significant that throughout the novel, Enoch blasphemously mutters Jesus name in connection
with his various lusts or misperceptions of mystery.

OConnor, Wise Blood, 45.


ibid., 4546.


ibid., 46.


ibid., 74.


becomes utterly controlled by his blood, compelled unwillingly to undertake courses of action in
spite of his dread-saturated sense of impending doom.
Enochs warped pagan impulse and misidentification of mystery culminates in his descent into
pure animality. In spite of his disappointing experiences with the new jesus, Enoch couldnt
get over the expectation that the new jesus was going to do something for him in return for
his services.82 The virtue of hope takes on an utterly vitiated aspect in Enoch: it is made up
of two parts suspicion and one part lust.83 The true character of Enochs restless search now
becomes clearit has devolved into nothing more than a desire for personal glory, what Danilou
identifies as the final malformation of the pagan impulse. In Enochs desire for significance apart
from Christ, he paradoxically becomes less than human. By donning the gorilla suit, Enoch
carries out what Danilou refers to as the modern attempt to rsorber lhomme dans la nature,
exemplifying the inevitable and tragic end of the pagan impulse that excludes Christ.84

Enochs ascription of significance to mundane rituals and objects is misguided and warped at
many levels; but it contains a seed of truth and, according Danilou, it is only possible in a
world that is thoroughly sacramental in character. In spite of its malformation, Enochs sense of
mystery and desire for union with it (as well as his desire for personal transformation through
this union) reveals a natural human impulse that only makes sense in a world in which God
speaks to humans through nature, i.e., a theophanic, sacramentally shaped world.
Asals seems to make several mistakes along the way to his Manichean interpretation of Wise
Blood. First, he assumes that physical grotesqueries must equal a revulsion at the human body


OConnor, Wise Blood, 108.


ibid., 108.


Danilou, Mythes Paens, Mystre Chrtien, 17.


and that the unrelenting ugliness and brutality of the world can only drive the storys characters
out of the world in their quest for redemption. What he fails to recognize is that, while these
grotesque aspects serve to illustrate the effects of human sin on their perception and use of the
world, the sacramental character of the world is not thereby lost, as if the worlds sacramentality
is somehow dependent on the perspectives of the people within it. His conclusion that Wise
Blood only manages to reflect our broken condition, even if true, in no way damages the integrity
of OConnors sacramental vision as an author. Enochs descent merely illustrates the fact that,
as Danilou maintains, the pagan impulse must find its fulfillment in the transfiguring revelation
of Christ; rejecting Christ, as Enoch so vehemently does, can only lead to degradation.
Second, Asals use of the term Manichean, even in the qualified sense he concedes in his
footnote, is radically misleading and fails to illuminate the substance of the story. Certainly, the
characters in Wise Blood take Manichean stances at various points throughout the novel, but
the thrust of the narrative is not finally Manichean. Aside from the sacramental structure of
the world assumed throughout the story of Enochs strange pagan journey, Wood has argued
convincingly that Hazes asceticism is in no way a concession that matter is evil, or that salvation
can only happen through negating the world and torturing the body. Rather, Haze recognizes
that his body has been the location of deep spiritual sinblasphemy and rebellionand his fleshly
mortification, though grotesque, can be seen as a valid expression of penitence and a participation
in Christs suffering. A body that has for so long been misused as a tool for sinful pursuits
does not easily make the transition to its proper usage as a servant of the spirit and a willing
participant in the quest to see aright the mystery which permeates creation. Asceticism, used
correctly, is the attempt to retrain the body and re-vision the world. Although Hazes asceticism
was particularly harsh and horrific, it seems more than likely that it grew from fundamentally
correct motivations.
Desmonds main interpretive shortcoming seems to lie in his belief that divine grace must
be redemptive rather than destructive in order for the story to attain a truly sacramental vision.

In a sense I suppose this is truesacraments are supposed to convey divine grace effectively.
However, the worlds sacramental character is not negated by human rebellion or blindness.
Although Enochs story does not end with redemption, everything about his storyespecially his
pagan impulse and desire for deificationrequires a world that is deeply sacramental.85 Whereas
Desmond sees the prominence of idolatry in Wise Blood as indicative of a lack of OConnors
prophetic vision, I believe it should be read rather as proof of OConnors prophetic vision, in
accord with Danilous insights about the pagan impulse and its various degradations, including
idolatry. Desmond fails to recognize that the brief glimmers of the numinous (combined
with an abundance of misunderstandings of the numinous in the form of pagan pursuits) do
not indicate a lack of sacramentalism; rather, these glimmers simply are a form of OConnors
sacramental vision.
In conclusion, Danilous articulation of the relationship between a theophanic creation, the
pagan impulse, and the revelation of Christ sheds light on OConnors Wise Blood, revealing its
deeply sacramental character in spite of its degraded imagery and interpretively difficult ending.
Enoch Emerys bizzare journeyfrom mystery-obsessed paganism to thinly-veiled self-worship
to base animalismonly works when mapped onto a sacramental vision of the world such as that
described by Danilou and articulated so beautifully and consistently by OConnor herself.


I suppose it is possible to say that Enoch was just crazy; however, to do so would lead to the immeasurable
problematization of other aspects of the story.


Primary Sources
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