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.