The Decreation of Hazel Motes:
Simone Weil and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood
by Robert Russell
The ideas of French philosopher Simone Weil, whose contributions to 20th-century Western philosophy span science, politics, and religion, were considered by many Christians as “eclectic, aberrant, and quite possibly heretical” (Hellman 78). Drawn to religion from an early age, though developing an interest in the Christian faith during her twenties, Weil’s relationship to Christianity was anything but orthodox: she never took the sacraments during her lifetime, even refusing baptism on her deathbed, and she criticized the Roman Catholic Church both “for its rejection of other religions [and] for its absorption of Jewish influences” (Gale). However, despite her controversial viewpoints, Weil’s theology, which draws upon religious doctrine, existentialism, and mysticism, nevertheless offers a useful entryway into literary studies and criticism. In particular, Weil’s ideas regarding attention and affliction, two prerequisites for the attainment of decreation, enable an acute exploration into the nature of religiosity, redemption, and the inevitability of belief–motifs all of which reside at the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood.
In the novel, protagonist Hazel Motes, after the devastation of his family’s house, struggles to find a new home, along with his place in a world teeming with “believers,” whose preachers pontificate from street corners, promising to bring truth to the lost and forlorn. His father having been a preacher, Hazel has an acrimonious relationship to religion and, though he dresses like a preacher, proclaims that he “don’t believe in anything” (O’Connor 28). After encountering street-preacher Asa Hawkes in the town of Taulkinham, Hazel vows to “preach a new church–the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” (O’Connor 51) and calls it the Church Without Christ. However, as the novel unfolds, and Hazel embarks on his mission to reveal the con game inherent within religion, he begins to fall deeper and deeper down a well of disillusion in the search for truth. Simone Weil’s theological examination of attention, affliction, and decreation lurks beneath the trajectory of Hazel’s devolution, an ever-present correlation residing in subtextual interstices; but it is not in Hazel’s fulfillment of Weil’s attention and affliction which entails decreation, but in the perversion of Weil’s attention and affliction. It is that Hazel, rather than affirming Weil’s concepts, instead distorts, corrupts, and pollutes their acts which, in turn, catalysts a decreation which deviates from the Weilian theological phenomenon.
Attention, for Weil, plays a formative role in the renouncement of one’s self to the whim and love of God. It is an act which, as scholar John Hellman summarizes, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (Hellman 86). Attention enables a person to realize, understand, and feel a connection to God, as Weil writes, “‘one must learn to feel in all things…the obedience of the universe to God [so that one] recognizes things and events, everywhere and always, as vibrations from the same divine and infinitely sweet word’” (Wood 191). Having attention demands that a person recognize and realize their surroundings–one must be literally attentive so as to be receptive to God’s invisible messages hidden in the external world, the details which, as scholar Stephen Plant asserts, reveal “the only beauty which is the real presence of God” (62). Hazel Motes fulfills only half of Weil’s concept of attention–he is attentive, quick to notice certain signs which cross his path: “When he got to Taulkinham, as soon as he stepped off the train, he began to see signs and lights” (O’Connor 25); however, it is not precisely “beauty” which he finds in their messages, but rather a certain decadence and dissolution.
The first significant sign which Hazel notices is Leora Watts’s address with “The friendliest bed in town!” scribbled onto the stall wall in a Taulkinham train station bathroom. His next course of action is determined by the inscription–he goes to Leora’s to both have a place to stay for the night and, though omitted in the text, presumably engage in sexual activities with her. Hazel’s attention to the bathroom sign inspires a reversal of the Weilian attention in his response: Hazel finds not a connection with the divine but instead the desires for attention from Leora. And Leora, by granting Hazel her attention, becomes the one fulfilling Weil’s theological doctrine. Scholar John Hellman recounts Weil’s exposition on the importance of one giving their attention to another:
Those who are unhappy have no need of anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsive-ness, pity are not enough. (88)
While it is ambiguous as to whether Leora attends to Hazel by “warmth of heart, impulsiveness, [and/or] pity,” Leora, simply by granting her attention to Hazel, exemplifies Weil’s concept, thus deflecting the application of Weil’s theology from Hazel and unto herself. However, it is not the only instance of such a deflection. After Hazel encounters Asa Hawkes, the blind preacher who draws a crowd on the streets of Taulkinham with his sermons, Hazel strives to deflect the attention Hawkes receives from the crowd unto himself through his own preaching: “‘Listenhere, I’m a preacher myself and I preach the truth…the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified’” (O’Connor 51). The attention which, according to Weil, must be turned outward from the self and towards “the beauty of the universe” (Plant 62), Hazel turns inward, towards himself, seeking the attention of others while pontificating that they themselves turn their attention to the truth that “Jesus don’t exist” (O’Connor 50). And yet, Hazel states, “I don’t need Jesus…What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts” (O’Connor 52), an admission in which Hazel inadvertently equates Leora to Jesus. Hazel, in alluding to Leora’s capability in providing him what God provides for believers, places them both on equal standing, in turn, diverting the direct Weilian concept of attention away from the divine and towards Leora.
However, attention is only half of Weil’s theological equation for the attainment of total self-renunciation to God: the other half is affliction, or malheur, which Weil defined in her 1950 book Waiting for God as the “uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain” (72). A combination of both physical and spiritual self-deracination, affliction, for Weil, enables an individual to surpass the barriers which divide the divine and the mortal, and in order to fully renounce oneself to the love of God, one must strive towards the embodiment of Christ’s suffering:
Weil did not see the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice that relieved mankind of its burden of sin, but rather as an inspirational model which the believer ought to strive to follow…The experiences of abandonment and self-sacrifice–of the ache of the absence of God–were, for Weil, necessary preludes to redemption by God's love. (Gale)
Hazel Motes, from an early age, appears innately drawn to such a notion–that he must undertake extreme pain in order to repent for an overwhelming guilt even though it may be a “nameless unplaced guilt” (O’Connor 59). He recounts a memory about how “when he was small, his father took him to a carnival” (O’Connor 56) where he saw something which he should not have: a sideshow wherein a woman “was lying, squirming a little, in a box line with black cloth” and men standing above, all of them looking down and yelling at her. At home, young Hazel, apparently struck by what he had seen, evades his mother’s repeated questions of “what you seen?” and she beats him, saying, “Jesus died to redeem you” (O’Connor 59). To repent for his sin, “the next day, he took his shoes…and filled the bottoms of them with stones and small rocks…and walked in them through the woods for what he knew to be a mile” (O’Connor 59). Hazel effectively “apprehends physical pain,” exemplifying Weil’s affliction, in an attempt to attain absolution, as he thinks, “that ought to ossify Him” (O’Connor 59-60).
However, in adulthood, Hazel’s embodiment of Weilian affliction undergoes a corruption of sorts as he grows more and more disillusioned in his vain search for both truth and a place in the world. The self-directed, guilt-induced affliction of Hazel’s carnival memory morphs into an outward-directed, disdain-induced affliction which has deadly consequences. Hoover Shoats, to both vindictively combat Hazel’s attempts to draw a crowd with his Church Without Christ and to commodify the act of street-preaching, hires Solace Layfield to play “the Prophet” and be the face of Shoats’s “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” Solace, a man just trying “to look out for hisself,” is run off the road by Hazel who then terrorizes him, ordering him to “take off that hat and that suit” (O’Connor 205). As Solace acquiesces to his requests, Hazel, in his Essex, “knocks him flat and runs over him…a lot of blood was coming out of him and forming a puddle around his head” (O’Connor 206). Hazel tells the dying man, “Two things I can’t stand…a man that ain’t true and one that mocks what is” (O’Connor 206). In murdering Solace, Hazel commits the ultimate perversion of Weilian affliction–the “uprooting” of one’s life becomes the “uprooting” of another’s life, which is not an “attenuated equivalent of death” but the fulfillment of actual death. Affliction, for Weil, is a self-imposed act whose aim is to bring one closer to the renunciation of the self to God. In directing affliction outward to the extreme, murdering another person, Hazel inverts the divine connection which should arise from Weilian affliction, in turn, transforming affliction into infliction and the divine into the blasphemous. In his crime, Hazel usurps the governing power of God, becoming the commander of both Solace’s life and death; and that Hazel murders Solace by the reasoning that Solace was both impersonating and mocking the truth, emphasizes the unholy reversal of Weilian affliction, as it is Hazel who impersonates God, mocking His truth which is at the heart of Weil’s theology.
But Weil’s affliction contains more than just self-imposed pain and anguish; the term malheur also connotes “a sense of inevitability and “doom” (Weil 88) which, though auxiliary nuances in the English translation, are nevertheless important regarding Hazel Motes’s devolution. Because Hazel, in murdering Solace, departs from Weilian affliction by transfiguring the inward “apprehension of physical pain” into outward violence against another, it follows that Hazel’s actions should also depart from the secondary connotations of the term malheur, that a “sense of inevitability and doom” must also be subverted in correlation to Hazel’s descent. But such is not the case: a Weilian interpretation entailing the recognition that presaging Hazel’s doomful descent is the sense that all his actions, his motivations, and decisions, are inevitable since malheur “is the encounter with all those inexorable forces, both without and within, that make for oppression and evil” (Wood 186) yields an accurate explication to the culmination of Hazel’s narrative trajectory. Hazel’s perversion of Weilian attention and affliction foments the denouement of the novel: Hazel’s embodiment of Weil’s concept of decreation.
Decreation, as Weil defined, is “to make something created pass into the uncreated” (“Decreation” 350), a process which calls forth both a complete abdication of the self as well as the imitation of Christ’s crucifixion which serves as an “inspirational model” towards which one should aspire. However, decreation is not to be conflated with destruction, as it is not an act that forces something existing to thus cease to exist. It is rather a certain process of transformation; as Stephen Plant describes,
Decreating the self…meant transforming it from something that belonged to the natural world, into something that belong to God. Decreation was a continuation of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that asks that ‘Thy will be done.’ [Weil] hoped that by means of decreation, her own needs would cease to get in the way of God’s love for the world. (42)
Hazel Motes, by the end of the novel having failed to find a place and ultimately succumbing to the brutal indifference of Taulkinham, strives to remove himself from the natural world, an endeavor which entails a process of decreation. The catalyst for Hazel’s ultimate act is the patrolman destroying his car, an event that forces Hazel to see “that he has placed his belief in a material vessel that cannot hold it” (Giannone 15). The destruction of Hazel’s vehicle recalls the destruction of Hazel’s home, which he had discovered that there was “nothing here but the skeleton of a house” (O’Connor 20). Since his car had doubled as a home for Hazel, as he says, “‘I wanted this car mostly to be a house for me’” (O’Connor 69), the patrolman “push[ing] it over the embankment” (O’Connor 211) effectively destroys Hazel’s last semblance of a home, displacing him further from the world in which he lives. However, such a final displacement enables Hazel to move closer to the process of decreation. As Weil writes, “It is necessary to uproot oneself…We must take the feeling of being at home into exile. We must be rooted in the absence of a place” (“Decreation” 356). Hazel, now absent of a home, is forced to reckon with the indifference of the world and the unattainability of the truth. And his reconciliation comes in the form of blinding himself.
The destruction of Hazel’s car allows him to “uproot” himself from the presence of place; however, blinding himself enables him to uproot himself from the realm of appearances, which is the final necessary component in achieving decreation. As Weil writes,
Appearance clings to being, and pain alone can tear them from each other. For whoever is in possession of being there can be no appearance. Appearance chains being down. Time in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance, by violence. (“Decreation 356)
By depriving himself of sight, Hazel untethers himself from the appearances which obscure the truth that he seeks to find. As he tells Mrs. Flood, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more” (O’Connor 226). Hazel’s new “blind-sight” pushes him closer to the attainment of the truth, which, as Weil writes, comes only with an acceptance of the void: “To love truth means to endure the void and, as a result, to accept death. Truth is on the side of death” (Gravity and Grace 11). Hazel, by the end of the novel, has accepted death, as he says to the policemen as he is lying the ditch, “I want to go on where I’m going” (O’Connor 234). His cryptic message implies an understanding that he will die, and that he welcomes his death as he knows that truth is on the other side.
Underlying O’Connor’s novel is an exploration into the inevitability of belief and the violent search for redemption. In Hazel Motes’s devolution, ushered by the futile search for truth, O’Connor paints a painful portrait of the consequences of reckoning with an indifferent world. Simone Weil’s philosophy of decreation lends an interpretative corollary to Hazel’s descent, one which offers insight into the justification of pain and anguish. Hazel’s perversion of Weil’s concepts of attention and affliction foments a final decreation which ends in Hazel’s death, and the process of his deadly descent illuminates the utility in Weil’s philosophy as an important approach to O’Connor’s work.
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