“I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth,” he called. “No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place. (WB 165)Although O’Connor regards the proclamation of the Void as morally and intellectually superior to the advice of “positive thinking” in that it acknowledges and confronts the depravity of self-satisfaction, the stories ultimately reveal the Void to be as wrong-headed and destructive as complacency.
As The Misfit will not acknowledge, there is no Void behind the world, but, rather, the Presence of God. The Misfit hints at the truth he rejects, speaking of the “somebody [who is] always after you” (CS 129).
Hazel Motes, on the other hand, directly engages this Presence, after his vision of the treeline He undergoes a conversion into “monstrosity,” blinding himself with lye and undertaking a progression of disfigurement of the body through starvation and self-mutilation with rocks in his shoes and barbed-wire worn against his skin. These are not salvific acts in and of themselves, but, rather, a renunciation of his own claim to “clean-ness,” to moral self-sufficiency. The embrace of monstrosity and uncleanness, by contrast, is an acknowledgement of insufficiency and need for the external offering of salvation.
At the same time, by becoming monstrous, Hazel accesses the Presence behind constructed modernity and becomes a vehicle for others to encounter it.
Where Hazel earlier desired to “see, if he could, behind the dark glasses” into the unblinded eyes of the fraud Asa Hawks (WB 145), he, having genuinely acknowledged the gift of Christian salvation and taken on its signs, now becomes a source of fascination for his landlady. After his death she sits looking into his blind, dead eyes. They:
lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared […] She shut her eyes and saw the pin point of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light. (WB 231-2)The description harks back to Hazel’s own moment of vision at the treeline which likewise recedes into infinite Presence.
O’Connor is most explicit about this Presence behind the revelation in the stories “The Artificial Nigger” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”. In the latter story the carnival hermaphrodite, a literal example of the grotesque, with the fusion of opposites, is both a symbol of disruption and also its very voice.
The “freak” proclaims in “its” performance:
“God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit” (CS 245).The reaction from the carnival audience after it reveals itself to them is “a long silence”. They have come to consume otherness as a thrill or a joke, but the freak’s grave moral bearing subverts the act of consumption. They become silent recipients, witness to a sacramental act of revelation, the demonstration of a grace that enables the freak’s acceptance of that what the audience initially assume to be “unclean”.
The social authorities, the preachers and the police, focused on preservation of the normative, do consider the freak unclean and shut down the carnival (248). In this they reveal that they can only understand the freak as a commodity, for under the conditions of the consumerist exchange, the freak would be a source of puerile entertainment. The assumption of uncleanliness reveals the exchange mentality.
For the nameless child protagonist, by contrast, the action of the freak is reminiscent of the Eucharist. It opens her vision to an all-encompassing communion with divinity: “The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line like a red clay road hanging over the trees” (CS 248).
In “The Artificial Nigger, the narrator expressly reveals the process and the purpose behind this transformation of the familiar. Nelson and his grandfather, Mr. Head, leave their home in the backwoods for a trip to “the city,” a trip intended by Head as a “lesson that the boy would never forget […] that he had no cause for pride merely because he had been born in a city […] the city is not a great place (CS 251).” This is an exertion of the dominance of will by one human being over another. Head seeks to assert himself by undercutting his grandson.
He claims a superiority for his birthplace, the countryside, over Nelson’s in the city. This Rousseauian move, proclaiming the superiority of the countryside over a corrupting city, is also distinctly American, as it evokes the myth of agrarian virtue. Head essentially claims a native virtue for himself which he ostensibly attempts to cultivate in Nelson by showing him the corrupt city (Wood 146). In O’Connor’s cosmology, such a move exhibits a refusal to recognize personal fallen-ness. The “meanness” attendant with personal elevation differs from the acts of the Misfit only by degree. Nelson, though young and ignorant, shares this innate meanness that is the native American trait. He and Head trade verbally spar throughout their trip.
The original state of unacknowledged immorality leaves them both unprepared to exercise virtue when they need it most. They become lost in the massive unfamiliar city. In a state of mutual anger and frustration, Nelson refuses to follow his grandfather any further and briefly falls asleep on the sidewalk. For his part, Head pretends to abandon the boy “to teach [the] child a lesson he won’t soon forget” (CS 264). When the panicked boy runs into a woman who threatens them both with law, Head denies his grandson, who completely hurt, cannot imagine forgiving his grandfather: “So tightly have Nelson and Mr. Head entangled themselves in the knot of recrimination and justification that they seem beyond saving. The circle of self-perpetuating sin, O’Connor reveals, can be broken only by transcendent goodness” (Wood 147). This disruptive goodness appears suddenly, “like a cry out of the gathering dusk,” in the form of the “plaster figure of a Negro” (CS 268). The figure is utterly other: it is made in the image of the oppressed, designed to be degrading, a source of amusement for the owner of the wall to which it is, Christ-like, affixed, and also physically broken, deform with a “chipped eye” and a smile that has grotesquely become “a wild look of misery”. This symbol of suffering is also a “monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat” the vision of which touches them with:
The action of mercy. […Head] understood that it grew out of agony […] He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a greater sinner before but he saw now that he true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise. (CS 269)Nowhere else does O’Connor narrate so clearly the moment of revelation. Here, the surface details are laid bare and she reveals exactly what is exposed by the parting of the closed American mind.