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Symposium Celebrates Continued Relevance of Wise Blood


A panel of scholars and writers convened March 24 at the Rose Hill campus for “Still Alive at 60: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, A Symposium & A Celebration.” The event marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of O’Connor’s first novel, which is considered a masterwork of modern American fiction.

Sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, the symposium examined the book’s enduring significance for 21st-century Catholic readers. (story continues below)

Paul Elie spoke on Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, and the Catholic writer. Photo by Michael Dames

Moderator Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, associate director of the Curran Center, welcomed a capacity audience at Tognino Hall, noting that Wise Blood was a “watershed” event, launching O’Connor’s career and charting “unprecedented territory in terms of what might be called the Catholic Imagination.”

Wise Blood traces the spiritual journey of Hazel Motes, who tries to establish a “Church without Christ” to protest the empty faith he sees around him in post-World War II America. By the novel’s end, however, Motes embraces acts of ascetic self-wounding, the meaning of which continues to fuel scholarly debate.

Paul Elie, senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, discussed Wise Blood as a launching point for examining the role of the Catholic writer today.

For Elie, the Catholic writer grapples with the question of whether—not how—God can be known to us, and must “turn to the imagination” to find ways to dramatize this question in a changing post-9/11 world.

Susan Srigley, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Religions and Cultures department at Nipissing University, said she had first seen Motes’ wounds as reflections of his “intellectual distortions.” Now, however, she sees them as an expression of Motes’ spiritual desire, “a longing to feel, in the body, here and now, the presence of God,” she said.

Richard Giannone, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English at Fordham, noted that O’Connor deeply respected Motes’ integrity in his progress to atonement through the path of blasphemy.

“He alone invests his soul in his raging search,” Giannone said.

Paul J. Contino, Ph.D., Blanche E. Seaver Professor in Humanities at Pepperdine University, explored the surprising connections between Wise Blood and the music of Bruce Springsteen. Contino traced Christian themes similar to those found in O’Connor’s work in such songs as “Thunder Road,” “The Darkness at the Edge of Town,” and “The Rising.”

A Southern Catholic novelist like O’Connor, Valerie Sayers traced her own shift from an initial resistance to what she saw as O’Connor’s rigidity to an understanding of her subtlety, and a respect for her judgment.

“Let us now praise prickly Wise Blood,” Sayers said. “Let us praise conceptual fiction, theological fiction . . . . what Susan Srigley so aptly called the sacramental O’Connor.”


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