This is a research paper I wrote earlier in the year. I’m not planning to publish it elsewhere, so I thought I would share it here. It’s theme is on the appropriation and repurposing of conventions, a subject that has been of much interest to me lately.
I. Southern Catholics and the Aesthetics of Revelation
In 1930, a group of Nashville intellectuals known as the “Twelve Southerners” composed a treatise to defend what they called “Agrarian” values in opposition to urban industrialism, which they saw as morally irresponsible. They informed a generation of Southern writers whose work became known collectively as the Southern renaissance in letters. These Agrarian values, they said, had been part of the culture of the South since the days of Thomas Jefferson and were still dominant. They valued things like hard work, community, home, and family more than commerce and industry. After World War II, a new generation of Southern writers emerged whose ties to Agrarianism were not as overt; by and large they denied any affiliation with the Agrarian movement. Still, their work was heavily influenced by the previous generation of Southern writers. Two of the most prominent of those new writers were Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor.
With these post-war Southern writers, settings in Southern literature shifted from small towns and rural communities to cities and suburbs. From the perspective of the Agrarians, the city represents the failures of urban industrialism both moral and financial. Life in the city means life among dirt, depravity, and poverty. In the debut novels of both Percy and O’Connor, we see this motif continue with a new spin; the fervent Catholicism of both writers, and all the inherent symbolic trappings, lend a particular spiritual significance to the urban and suburban settings in Percy’s The Moviegoer and in O’Connor’s Wise Blood. From this post-modern Catholic perspective, the city and its environs now become the equivalent of Dante’s woods, a moral desert designed to lead the protagonist toward a specific kind of salvation via a classical descent into the underworld. By analyzing descriptions of setting in both novels alongside biographical and critical information about the authors, I will demonstrate that in these books, both Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy appropriate the traditional Agrarian tropes about urban life and then repurpose those tropes to resonate with Catholic symbolism.
The contrast of city and country in these two novels is somewhat more complicated than a strict Jeffersonian “country/good, city/bad” characterization. The complications come about, in part, because in the latter half of the twentieth century, values associated with “city” and “country” were collapsing. With the increasing popularity of automobiles and other fast and reliable forms of transportation, suburbs arose as a kind of compromise, which further degrades the appropriateness of the dichotomy. Cities became cleaner and safer. Farms began to industrialize. All of this conflation serves to magnify mid-century cultural and existential crises that stem from identity, place, and faith. Amid this morass of confusion, it is all the more remarkable that traces of the Jeffersonian dichotomy come through at all. In the two novels I will discuss, “country” represents an Eden to which there is no return. In Wise Blood, “country” is something recently abandoned, though its former inhabitants still lay claim to it (c.f. Hazel Motes leaving a note with his name on his mother’s chiffarobe, even though he will never go back to get it). By Percy’s time, the romanticized idea of “country” is so far in the past that we can’t be sure it really existed. It is a ghost lingering in the background, showing through in the “aristocratic” values of Aunt Emily with which Binx Bolling fails to identify.
Scholars agree that a fervent and particularly existentialism-influenced Catholicism is central to the novels of both authors. Their own letters and other non-fiction writings confirm this fact. Both writers also were especially conscious of their Southern heritage and of comparisons to earlier Southern writers, especially Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Though in his early career, Percy denied being strongly influenced by any American writers, he later admitted that Binx Bolling, the protagonist of The Moviegoer, was essentially Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, if Quentin hadn’t committed suicide at the end of The Sound and the Fury (Allen 19). O’Connor never made such a stark admission of influence, although she did admire Faulkner. In her essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor famously writes, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie limited is roaring down” (Mystery and Manners 45).
The urban settings in both books are also entrenched in a literal commodification of religion, which is the inevitable result of Capitalism and industrialism. Pinkerton says, “Wise Blood develops that subversive potential by construing consumer capitalism as the preeminent American religion, then proceeding with great deliberateness to defile it along with the subsidiary religious structures that the marketplace both reflects and creates” (Pinkerton 451). The sentiment is extremely similar to the ideas expressed by the “Twelve Southerners” in I’ll Take My Stand, the 1930 manifesto of Agrarian principles. They write in their introduction, “The younger Southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition. They must be persuaded to look very critically at the advantages of becoming a “new South” which will be only an undistinguished replica of the usual industrial community” (ii-iii). Though O’Connor would not lay claim to agrarian principles directly, the resemblance between their values and those that come through in Wise Blood is quite clear. The Moviegoer approaches the commodification of religion from a more intellectual angle with characters who find themselves trapped between their lapsed Catholicism and existential malaise. Religion is connected with class and upward mobility, and it is made base in the form of Mardi Gras floats where “scaffoldings creak” and “paper and canvas tremble” on floats inhabited by “shepherdesses dressed in short pleated skirts and mercury sandals with thongs criss-crossed up bare calves” (17). It is no accident, by the way, that The Moviegoer takes place during a week of Mardi Gras festivities, in anticipation of Lent, the season of purification in preparation for Easter. The decadent carnival atmosphere of Mardi Gras enhances the symbolism of degradation associated with the city. By the time Ash Wednesday comes, Binx will be on his way to being converted, given new birth, resurrected. Furthermore, Binx Bolling’s obsession with making money and seducing a series of secretaries is also representative of the decline in values the Agrarians would recognize as the result of industrial capitalism.
John Sykes has chronicled how these two writers represent a shift in Southern literature from an “aesthetic of memory” to an “aesthetic of revelation,” a characterization Sykes borrows from Lewis Simpson. He says “While the aesthetic of memory can serve the vital moral purpose of breaking through sentimental myth and the false values it engenders (including racist ones), its resources for supplying a positive alternative to the tragically flawed cultural edifice of the past are severely limited” (Sykes 1-2). O’Connor and Percy, he says, found transcendence, via Roman Catholicism, to be the redemptive answer to an otherwise irredeemable history. In pointing to the ways in which O’Connor and Percy diverged from previous writers, Sykes also recognizes what they appropriated from that older generation. He says, “Neither O’Connor nor Percy could be counted as Agrarians, and indeed they distanced themselves from the movement. Yet they could hardly fail to feel the Nashville influence, and the literary milieu in which they found themselves was already shaped by its agenda” (8-9). This generalization can be applied to specific iconic symbols in the works of these two authors; if earlier Southern Renaissance writers had not first demonized the values of urban industrialism, urban/suburban landscape as a symbol of spiritual decay would not have the same strength in the work of O’Connor and Percy.
Similarly, Srigley says O’Connor’s use of Biblical imagery “is a recognition of the inherent value of stories for illuminating the nature of moral choices” (Srigley 55). Such illumination is rooted in “our need for a common mythic culture, or mythos, where new stories continue to resonate with the stories of old that are already shared” (55). In the case of both authors discussed here, Biblical imagery is one source of such illumination, but the Biblical imagery is filtered through its more recent resonations in the generation of Southern writers that preceded them.
II. City, Country, and a Proliferation of Abandoned Edens
Written in 1952, Wise Blood is a somewhat more traditional Southern novel than The Moviegoer, which made its appearance eight years later. The main characters in Wise Blood are country people, new to the city, and the city is unfriendly. The sky is always black and threatening. As Enoch Emery tells Haze at their first meeting, there are “too many people on the streets” and they “look like all they want to do is knock you down” (Wise Blood 42). As if to illustrate his point, Enoch and Haze nearly collide with a man on the sidewalk who tells them to look where they are going (43). Enoch makes similar comments about the city a few times throughout the novel.
In contrast to the darkness and roughness of Taukingham, Haze’s hometown of Eastrod, Tennessee can be seen as something of an Eden from which he and all others have been ejected. He taunts the porter with this fact because he believes the porter is also from Eastrod. “’You can’t go back there neither, nor anybody else, not if they wanted to’” he says (Wise Blood 12). Unlike Eden, Eastrod wasn’t taken away in one fell swoop but instead began to disappear gradually. When Haze was a child, he says, there were twenty five people there. When he was eighteen and left for the army, there were ten. Now there were none. He describes coming back to see “the store boarded and the barn leaning and the smaller house half carted away, the porch gone and no floor in the hall” (15). All that is left is his mother’s chiffarobe, to which Haze lays claim by leaving a note, though he ultimately abandons even that.
According to Srigley, the black sky at the beginning of chapter three represents an understood order to the universe to which the people of Taulkinham are blind (Srigley 65). Indeed, O’Connor’s description of the sky here goes on to compare the slow movement of the stars to “a vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky” (33). This description tacitly accuses the people of Taulkinham, and perhaps the city itself, of spiritual blindness—one of the most obvious and most-discussed major themes of the novel. However, the sky also is a connection between the urban and rural settings, in other words, between Eden and exile. Later, when Haze is driving along the highway, he gets outside of town where there are “patches of field buttoned together with 666 posts. The sky leaked over all of it and then it began to leak into the car” (70). By way of the sky, the abandoned Eden and the grace associated with it are “leaking” into Haze’s reluctant soul. In the end, after the police officer disposes of Haze’s car, he sees “a blank grey sky that went on, depth after depth, into space” (211). The sky is still the only connection Haze has to Eden, but now it is grey instead of black. The path back to paradise is now obscured by clouds.
There are similar images and themes in the first chapters of Percy’s novel. The opening pages of The Moviegoer involve a scene at a suburban movie theater outside New Orleans. Percy writes, “It was evident someone had miscalculated, for the suburb had quit growing and here was this theater, a pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself” (4). This all but deserted suburb sets the scene for Binx to begin his “search,” an existential quest for meaning. Just like in early scenes of Taukingham, there is a black sky. Outside the theater is “the blackest sky I ever saw” (5). A seawall can barely hold back water from Lake Pontchartrain. William Rodney Allen says all of Percy’s protagonists “are intelligent, handsome men who search for some pattern of meaning amid the detritus of the postmodern world of golf courses, shopping malls, x-rated movie theaters” (3-4). Binx, of course, is no exception. It is natural then that we first find him at a suburban movie theater, under a threatening, black sky and on the edge of a potential flood.
Unlike O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, Binx comes from a self-described aristocratic family. Though the source of the family wealth does not come up in the novel itself, it is probably fair to assume that they owned a large plantation at some point, similar to Percy’s own background. Given other autobiographical details Percy incorporated into the book—comparisons of Binx’s Aunt Emily to Percy’s famous uncle William Alexander Percy come to mind—it is not an outrageous conjecture to infer. Having been ejected from that “Eden” by Reconstruction, the family now lives in the Garden District of New Orleans—a reconstituted and imperfect Eden. Whenever Binx lives in the Garden District, he says, “I find myself first in a rage during which I develop strong opinions on a number of subjects and write letters to editors, then in a depression during which I lie rigid as a stick for hours” (Percy 6). In the suburb of Gentilly, his home during most of the novel, he likes to sit in the playground of a newly built school. He admires how the brick, glass, and aluminum have been “extracted from common dirt” (10). Such suburbs—Gentilly or Paradise Estates—are rank imitations of paradise. Even Binx describes his life in Gentilly as one of “exile” (18). It is an exile in several layers, from the real, Biblical Eden, the equally mythic “historical” Eden of the antebellum South, and the reconstructed Eden of the Garden District. Its primary appeal is that it is not (yet) as degraded as the French Quarter, with its “Birmingham businessmen smirking around Bourbon Street and the homosexuals and patio connoisseurs on Royal Street” (6).
Other than the city of New Orleans and its suburbs, two settings in The Moviegoer play a significant role in the symbolism of city and country. They are the fish camp belonging to Binx’s mother and the duck club bequeathed to him by his father. Binx visits the duck club because he is going to sell it, having been there only once before, as a boy. Significantly, this trip is the first part of his plan to seduce his secretary, Sharon, perhaps by impressing her with his wealth. In a “reversal,” the buyer, Mr. Sartalamaccia, shows Binx around the property. William Rodney Allen points out the significance of this sale in the context of Southern literature: “Because the family property is the symbol of continuity between father and son, its possible sale is always a serious matter” (31). Far from being the bucolic camp Binx envisioned, he finds it “hemmed in on one side by a housing development and on the other by a police pistol range” (Percy 90). The rustic lodge that had been there when Binx was young is no longer there, another lost paradise, another destroyed Eden. Part and parcel of Binx’s equation of the “country” with a certain set of values is his memory of his father’s insomnia and long walks, attempts to get back to nature, as his mother later jokes. The missing father, vis a vis the abandoned duck club, is symbolic of values he ultimately rejects. As it turns out, Binx’s father did not build the lodge, but Mr. Sartalamaccia did. Sartalamaccia now owns the housing development next door and wants to expand it onto this property, a plan that demonstrates the city and suburbs encroaching further. By the end of the scene, Binx has become a willing partner in the encroachment—a gesture that at least temporarily puts an end to his quest to understand his father from a spiritual perspective.
The fishing camp scene comes soon after the duck club scene, and Binx’s going there is also part of his plan to seduce Sharon. It is interesting that these “country” settings are intended as temptations, rather than the lusty temptations offered by the city of New Orleans itself. When Binx and Sharon arrive there, the first image is of “carcasses” of crabs piled up on the screen porch “toward a naked lightbulb” (136). Binx says it is “good” to see the his mother’s family at the fishing camp, and he contrasts this with the “dreariness” of seeing them at their house in Biloxi where “gas logs strike against the eyeballs, the smell of two thousand Sunday dinners clings to the curtains, voices echo round and round the bare stairwell, a dismal Sacred Heart forever points to itself above the chipped enamel mantelpiece” (139). Whereas at the fishing camp, “the splintered boards have secret dreams of winter, the long dreaming nights and days when no one came and the fish jumped out of the black water and not a soul in sight in the whole savannah” (139). The rural setting is clearly set up here as preferable to the urban household too much infected by the presence of human everydayness. This is yet another example of Percy taking the traditional city/country dichotomy and twisting his own ideologically-driven metaphors into the mix.
Quinlan points out that, when this fishing camp occurs, Binx is “opposed to his mother’s Catholicism” (94). However, Binx recognizes the good intentions of his mother and her family being concerned about him and praying for him, especially his handicapped stepbrother Lonnie. However, it is significant that this family’s form of Catholicism, to which we presume Binx eventually comes around, first comes up in this country setting. The dichotomy of the relationship with the mother and the relationship with the father are also at play in these two “country” scenes. In the end, he blatantly rejects the stoic values of the father, via his argument with Aunt Emily, and accepts the more spiritual maternal values.
III. Train Ride to the Underworld
Wise Blood begins with a train ride. Hazel Motes is on his way to Taulkinham to “do some things I have never done before.” Images of death permeate the scene. The berths remind Haze of a coffin, which in turn reminds him of his grandfather’s coffin and then the coffins in which his brothers and father were buried (O’Connor 14). The black porter is clearly symbolic of the devil. For no reason that we can ascertain, the porter lies about being from Eastrod and claims to be from Chicago. The porter’s role as devil is confirmed when he denies the eternal existence of Christ at the end of the chapter. Feeling claustrophobic in his coffin-like berth, Haze says “Jesus,” a blasphemous curse. In response, the porter says, “Jesus been a long time gone” (21). Like the Satan of Genesis, the porter is also an exile from the Eden of Eastrod (if we assume Haze isn’t mistaken about the porter’s origins). Because of the death imagery and the presence of a Satan-like figure, this scene comes to represent the beginning of a journey to the underworld. Such a journey can be seen in the classical epics and is a hallmark of hero myths throughout Western literature and culture. It is also part of the story of Christ, of course, as Dante reminds us when he makes his own journey to the underworld in The Inferno.
A similar journey occurs in The Moviegoer. The dramatic climax of the novel is the train ride Binx takes with Kate to Chicago after her suicide attempt. William Rodney Allen has discussed the proliferation of death imagery throughout this scene, and he also has characterized it as a “paradigmatic descent into Hell” (39). Allen also recognizes echoes of Motes’ train ride in the opening scene of Wise Blood, particularly in the comparison of berths to coffins. As they pass a cemetery, Binx observes that the “in the gathering dusk the cemeteries look at first like cities…they set themselves off into the distance like a city seen from far away” (Percy 185). Therefore, cities in general are equated with the land of the dead, and Chicago—at the end of the line—is as close to an actual Hell as Binx can imagine. Tellingly, he says, “Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching rinsing sadness of the cities of the north” (202). His distemper with Chicago has much to do with paternal associations; the relationship between Binx and his dead father is key to the “search.” Because the trip causes Binx to remember trips to Chicago with his father, Chicago becomes even more a symbolic city of the dead. Upon returning, Binx faces judgment from Aunt Emily, and in his way, repents by agreeing to marry Kate and go to medical school.
Haze never gets to leave the underworld. In the penultimate scene of Wise Blood, Haze brutally murders his doppelganger, Solace Layfield, and then plans to go to another city and continue preaching for the Church Without Christ. As he says in the first chapter, “’You might as well go one place as another’” (8). However, Haze learns that there is no other city. “He had known all along there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city,” O’Connor writes (209). That sentence is key; no more country means no Eden, no more paradise, but no more city means the end of everything. This sentence takes Haze from Genesis to Revelation in an instant. Just to be sure he gets the divine message, a police officer that doesn’t like his face destroys Haze’s car. On the side of the road, overlooking the cliff where the car will end up, he sees a vision of another displaced and destroyed Eden. “The embankment dropped down for thirty feet, sheer washed-out red clay, into a partly burnt pasture where there was one scrub cow lying near a puddle. Over in the middle distance there was a one-room shack with a buzzard standing hunch-shouldered on the roof” (211). Among these images of death and destruction, there is nothing for Haze to do but repent.
At the end of The Moviegoer, Binx is once again in the deserted playground of the school near his apartment in Gentilly. The school is closed and people keep going in and out of the church next door. He thinks it is either a wedding or a funeral until he notices the ash on peoples’ foreheads and remembers it is Ash Wednesday. He sits in Kate’s care discussing marriage and medical school, and his redeeming moment arrives, more a suggestion than an epiphany. When he sees a distinguished, middle-class African American leave the church with ash on his forehead, Binx wonders if the man is really there for religious reasons or if it is “part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world” (235). As many critics have noted, it is in this moment that Binx receives the suggestion of grace and allows God into his life. However, the setting of the deserted playground next to the church is important and not often discussed. The playground is, like Gentilly as a whole, an abandoned Garden of Eden. In this way, it is like Hazel Motes’ Eastrod. And like Hazel Motes, Binx will never go back to it after this moment. In the epilogue we find that Binx and Kate really do get married, and he enters medical school the following fall. Moreover, he has been convinced to move into a house in the Garden District, not a real paradise or a real Eden, but perhaps one step closer to it than Gentilly was.
It is interesting, even if only coincidental, that Walker Percy spent his earliest years in Birmingham, a city that did not exist until a decade after the Civil War. Therefore, Birmingham is not closely associated with the myth of the antebellum “Old South.” Rather it represents the encroachment of urban industrialism that the Agrarians warned against. O’Connor’s Taulkinham could be a similar sort of city, though there is not much evidence that Taulkinham was based on Birmingham in any significant way. The overt similarities seem to end with the Anglo-Saxon “ham” at the end of the cities’ names. There are no references to steel mills in Taulkinham, and Birmingham at that time had no zoo similar to the one in which Enoch Emery works. Still, they might been seen as similar cities, large enough to intimidate country boys like Enoch and Haze but small enough that the cabbie who takes Haze from the train station to the prostitute Leora Watts knows precisely what business Haze intends there. Larger cities like New Orleans and Chicago magnify the degraded values of urban industrialism to an even higher degree. Furthermore, all of these are cities of exile in their own ways, antitheses of agrarian Edens and outliers from the tradition of post-Civil War mythologies about the pre-war South. Chicago, for example, was a primary refuge for freed slaves. By contrast, Birmingham and New Orleans are cities of refuge for northern and foreign interlopers who hoped to cash in on the unique business opportunities presented by Reconstruction. To Southerners, all of these cities have specific mythic meanings, and without the symbolism that comes with that Southern sense of place, the further metaphor of the underworld would not be possible.
As we have seen, both Wise Blood and The Moviegoer take tropes borrowed from previous Southern writers and transform them into symbols that are at the same time uniquely American, Southern, and Catholic. It is hard to imagine any writer that does not share those three qualities pulling off a similar sort of descent into the underworld, whether we take our examples from British urban writer like Martin Amis, a Catholic like Graham Greene, or an American non-Catholic like Saul Bellow. In their work, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy effectively transform symbols appropriated from earlier Southern writers into emblems that suit their own aesthetic and spiritual agendas.
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