Is the central theme of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood Platonic?

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Is Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood “Platonic”?  The answer to this question depends on how one defines “Platonic.” Few commentators on O’Connor have discussed at any length any supposed Platonism in the novel, although the matter has been discussed by Christina Bieber Lake (see links below), who suggests that the novel questions Plato’s rigid distinction between body and soul. Lake suggests that O’Connor, following St. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic philosophers, preferred an understanding of relations between body and soul that was influenced by Aristotle.

On the other hand, Anthony Di Rienzo, in his book on O’Connor titled American Gargoyles, argues that O’Connor came to realize that Christian religious faith

cannot be portrayed as it is in Wise Blood — a grim yearning for the unattainable, for a Platonic ideal so perfect that it is otherworldly. And that means O’Connor must bring Christ down to earth, so to speak . . . . (p. 29)

Two intelligent critics, then, have seen Wise Blood as Platonic in one sense but as non-Platonic in another. Everything depends on how one defines “Platonic.”

In the broadest sense, O’Connor (and Wise Blood) might be called Platonic if one associates Platonism with a concern with ideals that transcend the merely material, the merely worldly.  O’Connor, of course, would have been first and foremost a Christian Platonist: Christianity was far more important to her than Plato was. To the extent that Wise Blood implies that we should look beyond the world and the flesh to something higher and more transcendent, the book might be called “Platonist” in a very general sense.

Interestingly, in her published letters (The Habit of Being), O’Connor mentions Plato just once and in passing, whereas in other letters she explicitly identifies her thinking as Aristotelian and defends Aristotle from criticism (p. 104). In a particularly relevant passage, she jokingly says,

Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression over the television [in an interview] that I’m a hillbilly Thomist, but I will probably not be able to think of anything to say to Mr. Harvey Breit [the interviewer] but “Huh?” and “Ah dunno.” (p. 81).

Perhaps the most sensible thing to say, in response to this question, is that O’Connor, in Wise Blood and elsewhere, was an extremely committed Roman Catholic Christian.


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