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Beyond Belief: Faith and Escape in Literature of Mobility
© 2003, Timothy McGrath

In A Walker in the City and Wise Blood, Alfred Kazin and Flannery O'Connor present two strikingly different American landscapes -- the culturally saturated urban village of Brownsville and the increasingly desolate South of the migratory 1950s. Like the "choked streets" of his dense neighborhood, Kazin finds himself suffocated by the richness of the immigrant culture and the role forced on him by a religiously faithless Jewish tradition. Similarly, O'Connor's Taulkinham appears so devoid of culture and faith that religious movements reject faith and belief in favor of the culture of consumerism. Despite the superficial dissimilitude between the two landscapes, both create an environment of oppressive religious confinement from which the protagonists struggle to escape. The idea of escape in 1950s literature of mobility relies on the existence of what Kazin terms the "beyond" -- a promising world outside the boundaries of the present landscape. In response, both narratives employ images of movie houses as possible evidence of this theoretical "beyond" in the face of faithless religious-based communities. Whereas Kazin affirms his belief in the "beyond" by contrasting the personal imagination of the movie house with the stagnancy of the synagogue -- O'Connor dissents by representing movie houses and religious movements as mutually responsible for the propagation of a hollow and individualistic consumer culture.

In his description of the synagogue, Kazin represents the house of worship as noxiously reflective of the social and religious parochialism of the Brownsville community. He writes, "The little wooden synagogue was 'our' place" with "little twists and turns that were strictly 'ours'" (43). Kazin's complex relationship with Brownsville allows him to make this layered statement, which praises the intimacy of the synagogue while criticizing its exclusiveness. By linking, "There were scornful little references to the way outsiders did things" with a reference to the Jewish criticism of the outsiders' accents, Kazin argues that ethnic hostility within the urban village exacerbates the difficulty of acclimating to American life (43). Kazin proposes that this tenuous adjustment to American culture facilitates a desperate return to, or maintenance of, the culture of the old world -- in the case of Brownsville, the synagogue becomes a comforting community center posing as a religious house of worship. This thinning of faith, especially as it relates to the religious education of Jewish youth, troubles Kazin as much as the synagogue's social elitism. Continuing with this line of thought, Kazin writes, "Whether I agreed with its beliefs of not, I belonged…. This was understood in the very nature of things; I was a Jew" (45). Apparently, any emphasis on religious piety vanishes within the synagogue, as organized Jewish religion begins to represent an ethnicity rather than a belief system. By continuing, "no one around me seemed to take God very seriously. We neither believed nor disbelieved. He was our oldest habit," Kazin argues that his own faithlessness reflects an unacknowledged trend of the entire community (46). This critique of religious life in the urban village centers on the community's narrow scope of social and religious possibility. According to Kazin, adherence to something strictly and traditionally Jewish within this new immigrant culture strangles the potential of free conscious thought and imagination.

Kazin's direct contrast between the synagogue and the movie house highlights the boundlessness of film as an example of what exists "beyond" the scope of life in Brownsville. Kazin begins by describing the Stadium movie house as "the sanctuary every Saturday afternoon of my childhood, the great dark place of all my dream life" (39). The statement functions on two layers -- first by establishing the movie house as a type of refuge from daily life but also by using religious imagery to present the Stadium as a replacement for the synagogue. Through this image of a Sabbath day "sanctuary," the movie house acquires symbolic religious value. Although Kazin later uses images of darkness and dampness to describe the synagogue, here darkness refers to "dream life" -- the often subconscious "beyond" outside the reality of daily life in Brownsville. For Kazin, the dream-like movie house projects mysticism, uncertainty and endless personal possibility -- unlike the synagogue, which stifles free thought and expression in favor of faithless dogmatism by an entire community. By saying, "Right and left hand: two doorways to the East. But the first led to music I heard in the dark, to inwardness; the other to ambiguity," Kazin criticizes the confused belief of the synagogue, but paradoxically, hails the meaningful ambiguity of the movie house (40). "The East" refers literally to Israel, but also to the mythological East -- the land of the unknown, which holds seemingly endless possibility and meaning. In this regard, Kazin uses images of the far Eastern Orient, and describes extraordinarily fantastical films as evidence of the movie house's magical properties. Therefore, the sensational images and sounds within the movie house act as emissaries from the "beyond" that Kazin hopes to find. In a young, introspective Kazin, this imaginative spark feels unlike anything he has experienced through the community of the synagogue. Although the two houses of worship appear similar in physical structure, the intense disparity between the tradition-based ritual of the synagogue and the movie house's boundless landscape of uncertainty leads Kazin to believe that his "mind [has] at last been encouraged to seek its proper concerns" (41).

O'Connor's depiction of Onnie Jay Holy presents religion as similarly faithless and empty. While Brownsville relies heavily on Jewish tradition in the community synagogue, the people of Taulkinham seek meaning and personal salvation within the individual-based culture of consumerism. In a town where salesmen sell potato peelers while "[standing] in front of altar[s], pointing over at various people," the idea of religion as community quickly transforms into religion as the exploitation of individual redemption (38). In keeping with this consumer culture, religion mobilizes and preachers such as Holy actively market their religion. In saying to Haze, "I never heard an idear before that had more in it than that one. All it would need is a little promotion," Holy seems to value the Church Without Christ based on its marketability, rather than any religious truth (157). To characters like Haze and Enoch, the idea of "a little competition" within religious belief undermines two of the most important aspects of genuine faith -- for Haze, the personal understanding of faith, with or without Jesus; and for Enoch, the intimacy of community (159). Whereas Kazin's synagogue achieves the latter, religious movements in O'Connor lack both. In fact, by saying, "I'm going to run you out of business. I can get my own new jesus and I can get Prophets for peanuts," Holy suggests that even Christ symbolizes nothing but an appealing marketing strategy (159). The complete faithlessness of Taulkinham outweighs Brownsville's mere religious neglect. While Kazin's synagogue stalls his intellectual growth, it still provides security for a community of outsiders living in an urban village. Holy, and the other transient preachers of Taulkinham, abolish this sense of community in favor of advertised, individual grants of salvation.

Like Kazin's struggle against an oppressive community environment, Enoch's subconscious revolt against an equally disdainful individualist society drives him to the movie theater, however, the disappointing appearance of Gonga, along with the equally seedy consumer culture of the movie house, dismisses the possible existence of a tangible "beyond" within the world of Wise Blood. As in Brownsville, the movie house and the house of prayer reside within the same space , however, there no longer exists a decision between "right and left hand" and the crowd from the movie becomes the preacher's congregation. With religious meaning drained from the preachers' messages, the transition from film to sermon proceeds seamlessly as one show blends into the next. However, the movie house still holds a self-professed promise of "beyond" by proclaiming the arrival of "GONGA! Giant Jungle Monarch and a Great Star! Here in Person!!!" (177). Meeting Gonga provides Enoch with the opportunity to step outside the world of Taulkinham and into the glamorous Hollywood life -- a sentiment illustrated by a child's belief that "[Gonga's] director [is] taking a plane from Hollywood" (179). Both Gonga's "paddy wagon" and his manager -- whose "voice was barely a mumble in the rain" -- undermine the idealized preconceptions of the children, as well as the enthusiasm of the heralding advertisement (179). Like Holy and his false jesus, the manager and a rain-coated Gonga market products -- their film and the notion of an imaginative world outside Taulkinham. Enoch's abandonment of his plan to insult Gonga offers a last chance to redeem the "beyond" that Gonga potentially represents. The call to "step up and shake [Gonga's] hand" resonates subliminally with Enoch's desire to connect with a community and his attempt to do so suggests a certain redemptive opportunity (178). Although Gonga's was "the first hand to be extended to Enoch since he had come to the city," the gesture is a mirage -- as farcical as Holy's religion and the idea of intellectual or imaginative possibility within the movie house (181). Whereas Kazin discovers intellectual growth and creativity within the movie house, Enoch finds himself confronted with the same disappointment, false advertising and lonely culture of consumerism promulgated by false messiahs and prophets worth peanuts.

While Kazin entertains the nostalgic retrospection of reexamining his physical and spiritual escape to the "beyond," O'Connor maintains a more darkly cynical view of upward mobility in the 1950s. Unlike Kazin, O'Connor suggests that certain landscapes withhold, from their inhabitants, any potential for escape. While Kazin uses a movie theater and ultimately literature as his means to create an identity apart from the synagogue and its surrounding urban village, O'Connor posits that the confining landscape itself acts as the dominant factor in defining identity. In light of this, she considers and ultimately denies the existence of any such mystical portals within a community saturated by consumer culture. When reading O'Connor, Kazin's reflections function as spectacularly idealized escapism. Predictably, the sentimental idealism of Kazin fails comically in Wise Blood

1995: Brian Collier and Comforts of Home

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