Wise Blood, Hell Songs and Conflicts of Negation

“You then,” he said impatiently, pointing at the next one. “What church you belong to?”
“Church of Christ,” the boy said in a falsetto to hide the truth.
“Church of Christ!” Haze repeated. “Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

“He’s a preacher,” one of the women said. Let’s go.”

In her 1952 novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor tells the story of Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran who, upon returning from war to find his Tennessee home abandoned, travels to the fictional city of Taulkinham to preach and recruit believers in his new religion, the Church Without Christ.

At its core, Wise Blood is typical of many novels written in the aftermath of World War II. V.S. Pritchett says of Motes, ‘Haze has been torn from his valley, turned into a soldier in the World War, and he returns wounded, stunned by its nihilism.’ Having confronted the deepest horrors of humanity head on, Motes returns to the relative comfort and safety of his hometown alienated from the Christian dogma of piety, sin, penance and repentance, and seeks to destroy it with a new church built on the wholesale negation of those same ideas.

However, as the book progresses, Motes becomes repeatedly caught in the fatal flaw of his mission. In focusing on the negation of Christ, he is incapable of becoming truly free from Christ. His creation of an anti-church that smashes the dogma of Christianity entangles him within a dogmatic mirror image of his own creation. And his encounter with Enoch Emery, a naive young boy who wants desperately to believe, even if he doesn’t know what he wants to believe in, as well as Asa Hawks, a Christian preacher who falsely claims to have blinded himself to prove his faith, despite having been too scared to do so, raises the question of who is more trapped; he who devotes his life to negation of faith, he who throws himself wholeheartedly into faith, or he who commits to it insincerely for his own personal gain? Ultimately, Wise Blood is a story about the pitfalls of negation; how without that which it is negating, the act of negation loses all meaning.

He drove very fast out onto the highway, but once he had gone a few miles, he had the sense he was not gaining ground. Shacks and filling stations and road camps and 666 signs passed him, and deserted barns with CCC snuff ads peeling across them, even a sign that said, “Jesus Died for YOU,” which he saw and deliberately did not read.

Throughout Wise Blood, O’Connor describes objects through a process of negation; not in what they are, but in what they aren’t, or fail to be. Empty jelly glasses; night skies that nobody was looking at; signs that Motes refuses to read; dirty aprons that used to be another colour; shops that stayed opened late so shoppers could “see what was for sale”, though not to actually buy anything. At one point, when Motes visits an apartment he hopes to rent, he opens a door expecting to find a closet, but instead finds a thirty foot drop into an empty yard. The landlady explains, “It used to be a fire-escape there […] but I don’t know what happened to it.”

These moments reveal something about the nature of negation. When a fire exit no longer has a stairwell, instead opening into nothing, what is it? It’s not what it used to be, but does the absence of function make it anything else? If a “jelly glass” is empty, what confines its function to that purpose? If you see a sign, but refuse to read it, how do you deny the fact that your refusal to read it came from seeing what it said? O’Connor underscores the paradoxical nature of negation and its unbreakable oppositional state, reinforcing precisely what it is that is being rejected.

I don’t want to do it, he was saying to himself. Whatever it is, I don’t want to do it. I’m going home. It’ll be something I don’t want to do. It’ll be something I ain’t got no business doing. […]
I ain’t going in no picture show like that, he said, giving it a nervous look. I’m going home. I ain’t going to wait around in no picture show. I ain’t got the money to buy a ticket, he said, taking out his purse again. I ain’t even going to count thisyer change.
It ain’t but forty-three cent here, he said, that ain’t enough. A sign said the price of a ticket for adults was forty-five cents, balcony, thirty-five. I ain’t going to sit in no balcony, he said, buying a thirty-five cent ticket.
I ain’t going in, he said.

In contrast with Hazel Motes, Enoch Emery’s desperate faith has rendered him unable to reject even the flimsiest aspects of his existence. His sparsely decorated room contains few pieces of furniture save for a washstand, the lowest segment of which is a cabinet for a slop-jar. Because he does not own a slop-jar, however, he leaves the cabinet empty.  There’s nothing stopping him from using it for something else, but he’s paralyzed from taking control.

Later on, he travels into town and buys curtains, gold paint and a paintbrush with his savings, and impulsively redecorates his room. Despite being the one who carried out these actions, he is disappointed, “because he had hoped that the money would be for some new clothes for him”. Similarly, he is employed at the local park as a guard, and ends each shift with the same ritual, walking through the zoo, walking past and insulting each of the animals in their cages, and spying on sunbathing women at the swimming pool.

As the passage above demonstrates, Enoch Emery is a character whose investment in the notion of a grand prophecy robs him of agency. He appears to interpret his encounter with Hazel Motes similarly, noting how “the thing that was going to happen to him had started to happen. He had always known something was going to happen but he hadn’t known what.” Between Motes and Emery, O’Connor creates a conflict between nihilism and fatalism. Though she seems wary of an ideology that rejects morality, meaning or spirituality outright, she seems equally unsure of the denial of human agency entirely.

Perhaps the most telling example of this comes from another incident involving Enoch who, following an argument with Motes, wanders out into town on his own. He walks past a group of children lined up outside a movie theatre, and notices a sign advertising that Gonga, a gorilla and star of numerous popular children’s films, would be appearing outside the theatre that afternoon. Enoch joins the line, and a few minutes later, a van pulls up. The van’s back doors open, and a gorilla is pulled out of the back by a handler, a chain around his neck. Gonga stands up on a platform, and the children are invited to shake Gonga’s hand.

Despite his love of insulting animals in their cages at the zoo, Emery is terrified by this encounter. When he eventually builds up the courage to approach Gonga, grasping his hand, the reality of the situation immediately collapses:

For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. “My name is Enoch Emery,” he mumbled. “I attend the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I’m only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com…” and his voice cracked.
The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. “You go to hell,” a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.

Humiliated, Emery takes a program of Gonga’s future appearances, following him to another theatre, stabbing him, and stealing his gorilla costume. He runs out into the woods, digging a hole in which he buries all of his clothes, and then dresses up in the gorilla costume. Seeking the adulation that Gonga had received, he stands in the woods, “[extending his] hand, [clutching] nothing, and [shaking his] arm vigorously”. After a few rehearsals, clutching nothing and shaking, he travels into town, and attempts to shake hands with a young couple sat on a bench. Seeing a gorilla, they flee in terror.

Something interesting seems to happen here also; in meeting Gonga, Emery encounters an exalted figure in a form that he could perhaps inhabit. But without the social structure of the movie theatre meet-and-greets, Gonga is just a terrifying gorilla. And without the physical response of a hand gripping back, Emery’s attempts to feel love and affection are just grasps at nothingness. The same desire to create pure negation that defines Hazel Motes’ Church Without Christ manifests in Emery’s desire to feel affirmation by assuming a position without the attendant circumstances. In Emery, O’Connor seems to suggest that an aimless desire to find meaning and faith in anything is just as dangerous as negation.

That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.

Flannery O’Connor, “Author’s Note to the Second Edition (1962)”, Wise Blood

Having grown up in Georgia in a Roman Catholic family, Flannery O’Connor was no stranger to the dogma of organised religion. She would have encountered churches and ministries of many denominations in the early twentieth century south, and it’s tempting to interpret Wise Blood as a refutation of Christ not dissimilar to Motes’.

Far from being disillusioned with Christianity, however, O’Connor was a devout Catholic throughout her life, and the few works she completed during her short life (she died of Lupus in 1964, aged 39) encapsulate the unsettling mixture of religious imagery, alienation, decay and the grotesque that characterise the Southern Gothic genre. Wise Blood is not a book about the rejection of faith; it’s about how faith, in one way or another, is inevitable, and more broadly, how often our attempts to negate something become dependent upon that same thing’s continued existence.

“You look like a preacher,” the driver said. “That hat looks like a preacher’s hat.”
“It ain’t,” Haze said, and leaned forward and gripped the back of the front seat. “It’s just a hat.”
They stopped in front of a small one-story house between a filling station and a vacant lot. Haze got out and paid his fare through the window.
“It ain’t only the hat,” the driver said. “It’s a look in your face somewheres.”
“Listen,” Haze said, tilting the hat over one eye, “I’m not a preacher.”

When they first formed in 2002, the Rhode Island-based band Daughters were unquestionably a grindcore band. Their self-titled debut EP, comprising 4 tracks, clocks in at just 4 minutes and 19 seconds in length. Each track is violent, frantic, and loaded with elements typical of the genre; blast beats, detuned guitars, screams, pummelling kick drums.

But over their next 3 albums, the band would go through a series of transformations that signalled a transition away from grindcore and metal more broadly. Though the music on their debut album Canada Songs remains distinctively frantic, the first EP’s guttural guitar riffs are replaced almost entirely with high-pitched, wailing riffs in the upper registers. Elsewhere, distortion is rejected in favour of clean guitar tones, most notably on the closing track, “The Ghost With the Most”, where a series of frantic segments suddenly give way to a bouncing guitar melody reminiscent of circus clown music.

On their next album, Hell Songs, Daughters carry this process further forward as lead singer Alexis Marshall replaces his screaming vocals with an unsettling southern drawl, while both the rhythms and melodies used, even when informed by typical metal styles, do more to deconstruct the genre than make earnest use of its tropes. The 10-track, 24-minute journey that Hell Songs takes the listener on is, in many ways, a violent negation of the tired tropes of metal genres and heavy music in general.

Lyrically, this can be noticed in the album’s opening and closing tracks. On “Daughters Spelled Wrong” over an instrumental of discordant guitar riffs and stumbling drums, Alexis Marshall recounts his negative traits, explaining, “I’ve been called a sinner, wrongdoer, evildoer, worker of iniquity […]”, and so on. As the album progresses, subject matter turns to Marshall’s desire for self-flagellation and self-destruction, such as on the track “Cheers Pricks”:

Put me down like a horse with a broken leg,
An old dog foaming at the mouth.
Tie a chain around my ankle and take me out to the blackest deepest sea.
Carry me out to the town square,
Put me on the guillotine.

On the album’s closer, “The Fuck Whisperer”, this surrender gives way to a different spirit, complementing the indifferent tone of the opening track. As the song deteriorates against a backdrop of clicks and echoing guitar fuzz, Marshall declares, if not victory against his opponents, certainly their defeat:

Don’t waste your time running
I’m taking over the controls of your vessel
There will be no leap into hyperspace and… It’s already too late.
Your fleet is lost, you are floating alone and… It’s already too late.
I’ve studied the weaknesses in your defences and… It’s already too late.
I’ve penetrated the hull and… It’s already too late.

With these sentiments positioned at either end of the record, Hell Songs could be interpreted as a pure negation of the metal genre that Daughters are most commonly associated with. There are few elements of the album that would locate Hell Songs in the metal category, but in the absence of a more appropriate umbrella term, that’s typically where it ends up on streaming services and web pages, sat among more typical grind and death metal groups like a pus-leaking sore on a well-manicured finger.

A white man, in a white suit and a white horse
Rides into town off that dusty ol’ trail.
He rides into town, not just any town.
I’m talking d-e-a-d-e-n-d.
With integrity and his heart on his sleeve,
He hopes they’re going to buy what he believes.

Daughters, “The Hit

When Daughters released their third album, Daughters, in 2010, that violent negation of metal dogma feels almost as if it has gone full circle. The same shrieking guitars and “tranquilized Elvis” slurs that made the previous album so unique are there, but the band’s sound is buried in a thick, oozing lower register that makes everything sound much more… doomed. As any fan of the band would expect, the record is abrasive enough to deter most listeners, but most metal fans would nonetheless find something to enjoy on the record. There’s even a track titled “The Hit” which features a catchy hook and discernible musical segments such as verses and choruses.

On Daughters, it’s as if that effort to negate everything Daughters was born from had led them right back where they started. The album’s title is the same as their first EP, and in interviews around the album’s release, the band’s members acknowledged their technical and musical proficiency. Using your musical talent to dismantle and deconstruct musical dogma is one thing, but once you’ve done something as punk as that, the next most punk thing is arguably to build it back up again.

When I first read Wise Blood a few years ago, I immediately thought of Daughters. Just as Hazel Motes seems to be on a circular mission to destroy the dogma that has defined his environment, but ultimately ends up creating a dogma even more constricting, there’s a spirit that runs through Daughters’ music that is caught between the creation of a sound so discordant and unique that it defies genre-fication as simple as “metal”, but whose sound of pure confrontation, disruption and crushing volume encapsulates the tone of metal music better than most bands.

During one of his walks through Taulkinham, Motes comes across Asa Hawks, a Christian preacher who blinded himself with lime to prove his devotion to God, left with violent scars running down each of his cheeks. After following him back to his apartment, Motes discovers that Hawks is not actually blind; he had been too scared to complete his act, instead rubbing the lime down his cheeks, taking care not to place any in his eyes.

After this encounter, Motes seems unable to reconcile his dream for negation with the existence of a supposedly pious man who would deceive and violate his own morals. Disillusioned by his inability to recruit non-believers into his church of non-faith, by his gradual transformation from anti-preacher to a preacher like any other, and from an ever-widening schism between the monolithic structure of faith and piety he is battling against and the individual, subjective manifestations of faith he encounters in people around Taulkinham, Motes retreats into his apartment and, taking a bucket of lime, blinds himself. He lives out the rest of his days in solitude, rarely venturing further than the few blocks from his apartment that he had memorized, and talking to nobody. In his desire to negate the oppressive dogma of Christ, Motes replicates it in its entirety, taking its same diktats to represent its opposite.

There always seemed, to me, to be a connection between Hazel Motes’ quest for negation, Enoch Emery’s desperate search for deeper meaning or human connection, and the spirit of pure negation that runs through Daughters’ music.

Because Motes’ quest for destruction is so firmly built around the thing he is trying to destroy, he is incapable of destroying Christian dogma in its entirety. A Church Without Christ is doomed to need the continuation of the Church of Christ so that it can have something to stand in opposition to. To reach out and feel “nothing”, we need the idea of the “something” that we expect not to feel. The mere act of reaching out and grabbing is founded upon the notion that there will be something to be grabbed. We see this demonstrated when Enoch Emery gets dressed in the gorilla costume and practices shaking hands, clutching nothing. Without a reciprocal hand to complete the handshake, Emery is merely reaching out for thin air. His desire for meaning in its totality leads him to meaningless gestures, while Motes’ attempts to destroy lead to the creation of something new entirely, though not entirely different.

In the first chapter of Wise Blood, while riding a night train into Taulkinham, Motes lies down to sleep in his cabin, turning off a light switch. But rather than the light fading as he switches off the light, “the darkness [sinks] down on him, and then [fades] a little with light from the aisle”. It’s a passage that indicates the mood that defines the rest of the novel; a constant push and pull. The events in Wise Blood take place as they would in any other town, but always in a futile act of negation. The light doesn’t fade as Motes turns off the light; the darkness fades when the light seeps back in under the door. How much difference the positioning of those two states makes seems negligible.

During his last days alive, Motes lives with his landlady Mrs. Flood, who is constantly suspicious that he is not really blind, and is actually trying to con her. As she stares at him, trying to work him out, she becomes lost; ‘She could not make up her mind what would be inside his head and what out. […] with him, she could only imagine the outside in, the whole black world inside his head and his head bigger than the world […] She imagined it was like you were walking in a tunnel and all you could see was a pin point of light.’

A few days later, Motes’ body is found in a ditch by two policemen, who take him back to Mrs. Flood’s house. Refusing to believe he is dead, she talks to him as if he is still alive, and the darkness in his eyes comes to represent the glistening of something new:

She leaned closer and closer to his face, looking deep into them, trying to see how she had been cheated or what had cheated her, but she couldn’t see anything. 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 gotten to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.

I want you to listen to the sound of my voice
and know I was created by chance, not by choice.
Some may call that the death of the light,
but I like to call it “embracing the night”.
I want to cast off the wings of desire.
I want to be buried in a field of fire.
I want to stand up and be twenty feet tall.
I want to reach out and feel nothing at all.

Daughters, “The Unattractive Portable Head


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