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O’Connor: The Freak

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological” [note]O’Connor, Flannery, et al. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969[/note].

Having been raised in the Catholic tradition, much of O’Connor’s writings have religious elements – many focusing on the struggle between what is good and what is evil. When O’Connor says that Southerners can recognize “freaks”, I believe she is referring to those who have not had a conversion experience, the unsaved. While there are many examples of the unsaved in O’Connor’s book, Wise Blood, it is my opinion that the one person that has actually had a conversion experience is the very one who is consistently baulking at the idea – Hazel Motes.

While Hazel Motes spends most of his time denouncing Christianity and running from God, everyone around him (even the fake blind preacher – Asa Hawks) recognizes the truth in him. Asa tells him, “Listen boy”, he said, “you can’t run away from Jesus. Jesus is a fact”[note]O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962[/note]. We see further evidence of God’s pull on Hazel’s life from the words of the waitress who refers to him as “clean”. She can see what he is trying to hide. She can see that he is a whole man, fully redeemed, yet backslidden to the point of becoming filthy as Sabbath notes that she knew he was flawed from the minute they met. She says, “that innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me”1. So, Hazel, like all others who have been converted, is still fallen flesh capable of both good and evil.

So, what is a freak and what is a whole man? In “The Teaching of Literature”, we read, “A sense of loss is natural to us, and it is only in these centuries when we are afflicted with the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts that the vision of the freak in fiction is so disturbing. The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state. The only time he should be disturbing to us is when he is held up as a whole man”2. While we might be hesitant these days to refer to anyone as a freak, I think this quote gives us a better idea of the meaning of the term. O’Connor uses this word in the framework of her Christian upbringing. So, for her, there are the saved and the unsaved, the repentant and the unrepentant, the whole man and the freak.

While O’Connor says that Southerners are still able to recognize a freak, she begins to lament what she sees as a creeping threat to our understanding of the whole man, the ever increasing influence of the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature. This ideology began during the Enlightenment with such thinkers as Kant, Voltaire and Hume; it took root and began to grow, threatening the authority of the Church. In “What Is Enlightenment”, Kant says, “If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me”[note]“Kant. What Is Enlightenment.” Kant. What Is Enlightenment, Columbia University, www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html[/note]. This goes in opposition to the Church and to scripture. In Proverbs 3:5-6, we read, “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” [note]The Old Scofield Study Bible: Authorized King James Version. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999[/note].

Hazel is on the cusp of two worlds, the world of the Church and the world of the Enlightenment, and trying to find where he truly belongs and what he believes. We can see evidence of this when Hazel insists that he does not need God (Jesus). “I AM clean,” Haze said.… “If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean,” he said 2. In fact, Hazel spends most of his time preaching against the Church and trying to convince people that they do not need Jesus, yet we see that he is not convinced of this himself. In the end, Hazel turns back to tradition and what he has been taught in church.

The idea of the perfectibility of human nature goes in direct opposition to the teaching of the Church, which views man as incomplete without God. In Genesis 2:7, we learn that “the Lord God formed the man from dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” 4. This creation was a whole man – fully created in God’s image and in accordance to his will. We were, however, also given free will. This means that we are allowed to make choices about our lives that may not be in accordance with God’s plan. This free will has gotten us in trouble since the beginning, with the fall in the garden of Eden. Through God’s grace, we are offered redemption and forgiveness that will make us whole again.

Even within this concept of wholeness, we know that no man can achieve this without a daily commitment. This commitment involves a dying to self. This concept is especially important in the Catholic tradition, since their focus is more on the idea of doing good works or being a good person in order to gain salvation. This is in contrast to many Protestant traditions that teach the idea of once saved, always saved – meaning that Christ is always in your heart regardless of what you may do. In both traditions, however, man can be saved if he repents and turns to God. We see this concept exhibited with Hazel Motes who, after an extended period of running from God and participating in horribly sinful behavior, at the end, is forced to face God. He finds his redemption in his own unique way, through various acts of penance including blinding himself, walking with rocks in his shoes, and binding himself with wire. Though, in the end, Hazel dies, we get the sense that he has made amends with his God and is, in fact, a whole man.

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