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Dharma Literature: Flannery O’Conner

As a devotee of religious literature, I recently read Flannery O’Conner’s novel Wise Blood, and I realized that I increasingly read everything though a kind of dharmic lens.  Meaning, even if a book isn’t particularly dharmic, I find a way to read a touch of dharma into its story or characters.  I wondered why I do this.  Then I realized that I probably do this because I write this blog.  Big mystery, solved.

Of course, Flannery O’Conner probably isn’t the first writer you think of when you think dharma–she was after all a devout Catholic and much of her work is haunted by Southern fundamentalist Protestants.  Grotesque ones, often with distorted, distended or dismembered body parts.  The gory stuff makes for good reading.  But I want to discuss here is Hazel Motes, the mesmerizing protagonist of Wise Blood, and the realization slash disillusionment that serves as the crux of his character’s backstory.


Brief aside: I’m hooked on these Academic Earth lectures.  Professor Amy Hungerford gives a fine lecture on Wise Blood here. 

O’Conner introduces Hazel Motes by telling of his years in the service of the United States Army:

“The army sent him halfway around the world and forgot him.  He was wounded and they remembered him long enough to take the shrapnel out of his chest–they said they took it out but they never showed it to him and he felt it still in there, rusted, and poisoning him–and then they sent him to another desert and forgot him again.  He had all the time he could want to study his soul in and assure that it was not there.  When he was thoroughly convinced, he saw that this was something that he had always known.  The misery he had was a longing for home; it had nothing to do with Jesus.” 


The passage in which Hazel realizes he has no soul, or no self, constitutes Hazel’s great disillusionment with the Church of Christ and its incessant talk of redemption.  He goes on to establishes the Church Without Christ and passionately declare that “Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.”  His sermons, given on top of the roof of his car to people exiting movie theaters, are brilliant comic rambles blending a kind of nihilistic fervor with a rousing live-here-now ethos.  I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, but Hazel’s ensuing path is treacherous and tortured.  After his original realization that his soul does not exist, without a framework within which to conceive of such a fact, he finds an awfully rough road ahead.


This is where my dharmic thought comes in.  What I love about the dharma is that it is really the only worldview that makes room for the realization of no-self.  When we catch a glimpse of the non-existence of our self, the dharma has an explanation–the skandhas and shunyata.  When we struggle with the shattering sense of meaningless and emptiness around and inside us, the dharma has a path, a way of working with these difficult realizations.  Hazel, without the dharma, essentially goes off his rocker.  Though he preaches, in the midst of his emptiness craze, that “There was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two,” Hazel is haunted by the Christian idea of the soul’s need for redemption until the bitter end.


I don’t claim to have Hazel Motes figured out.  He is a tricky figure.  O’Conner claimed that the novel was about Hazel’s integrity, meaning, that despite intense his efforts to lose Jesus, he fails to do so.  And therein, in his not being able to shake his religion, lies his intergrity.  But what I read in the text was what I have seen so many times in our culture: a person not being able to see the wisdom of no-self, a character failing to assimilate this difficult realization into a workable worldview.  Generally, in our culture, the sensation or realization of no-self is accompanied by confusion or sadness, even by depression or nihilism.  But in the dharma, this realization of the non-existence of the self is only the beginning, and a beautiful beginning at that.


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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 7, 2009 at 11:51 am

One of my favorite things of all time is Flannery O’Connor’s lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, available here online:
which I highly recommend reading in full, whether you’re a writer or not. I believe in this lecture she touches on a point which is important not only for writing but for life: the basic idea is she thinks many beginning writers tend to write “essays with a plot”, which is to say, people become too abstract, intellectual, conceptual when they attempt to write fiction. Instead, she recommends the concrete, not only because it is more tactile, but because through the concrete one can evoke vast worlds which are impossible to paint with abstractions, which I believe has a metaphorical resonance with the Dharma: in *being* as-it-is there’s vastness which goes far beyond the small conceptual worlds we tend to paint ourselves into.

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posted August 7, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Christian theology, especially that of the East, has a type of ‘no-self’ teaching, but it’s not something shouted from roofs of cars.

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Julia May

posted August 7, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Hi Paul,
Thanks for the article. I love FC and have recently been absorbed in her letters which are collected in The Habit of Being. I don’t understand much about Catholic mysticism, but I find all of her discussions and letters on religion very interesting.
Julia May.

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posted August 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Flannery didn’t write just for Catholics… and her depictions of human nature are deep and profound, never preachy. And often hilarious. My favorite is “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.

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John Jurjevich

posted August 10, 2009 at 11:12 am

Yes, avoiding nihilism is a great achievement of Buddhism. I don’t doubt that Flannery O’Connor would make a good, present day Buddhist. After all, her critique of “How the Writer Writes” ends by her pointing out that, “What is needed is the vision to go with it[competence to write], and you do not get this from a writing class”.

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posted August 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

Hi Paul, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece about O’Connor and I agree with Colin, she didn’t just write for Catholics or Protestants; it’s clear from your great discussion that her insights about humanity raise fascinating questions for us all. I feel much the same way about James Baldwin and Toni Morrison! Thanks for this post.

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posted August 11, 2009 at 10:13 am

Thanks for this post; it resonated with me especially because I felt similarly while reading “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather, a couple of weeks ago.
Now, Cather is a very different writer from O’Connor, and her archbishop is about as different a character from Hazel Motes as you could ever find … and yet, I often felt like I was reading a Buddhist story. This was very disconcerting, as the archbishop’s faith in Roman Catholic doctrine is deep and unwavering!
But his kindness and compassion make a stark contrast between him and some unscrupulous priests who have been doing as they please out in the U.S. New Mexico territory in the early 1800s before the archbishop’s arrival. The French archbishop’s way of being with the land, his patience and acceptance of Native American ways, are all great examples for a student of Buddhism.

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