Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Graham Greene & The Heart of the Matter

Three conversations (one in person and two via e-mail) in the last month have convinced me to search the old hard drive and some thoughts from days gone by. I’m here repurposing something sent to a discussion list back before the millenial shift. Actually, it was originally two somethings and has here been slapped together as if it were originally a single thing. I hope it’s still useful.


...with regard to Greene’s faith. I know he was a Catholic (obviously), but not having read a great deal of his work (only P&G and ”Heart of the Matter”), his seems a rather dark, bleak outlook. Any comments?
Jim B

and the B doesn’t stand for Beam....

P&G was, according to Greene, the only one of his novels written to a thesis; he set out to demonstrate that the sacrament is valid despite the state of the one administering that sacrament. My own take was that it was much more a demonstration of just how worthy one could be despite all one’s flaws and self-doubt; the overwhelming impression the novel left me was just how heroic this degraded little whiskey priest really was when it came down to it. Beyond doubt one of Greene’s best. And as a polemic, it covers the same ground as the Donatist controversy. Which makes Greene seem rather more orthodox than I think he actually was.

For instance, the other book you mention is my personal favorite (primarily because I recognize Scobie’s besetting sin as a variant of my own and I read the thing just after I had given up on suicide (because I could think of no way to do it that would be fairly considerate and wouldn’t just seem ridiculous to the uninvolved observer)). I have a couple of times posted to this list sections from the dialog between Scobie’s priest and his widow at the end of the book (I’ll quote it again at the end of this post). In this dialog, Greene’s take on God’s mercy, while attractive, is clearly heterodox.

And in some of the interviews collected in Conversations with Graham Greene, Greene speaks quite frankly about his continued and illegal use of opium. E.g., this from V.S. Naipaul, originally The Daily Telegraph Magazine, 8 March 1968, 28-32:
….I [Naipaul] said I enjoyed tobacco less and less but didn’t know what to replace it with. Mr. Greene said, “I think you are ready for opium.” He added: “The fuss about opium and marijuana is absurd. The Battle of Britain was won on benzedrine.” He goes on to talk about how restful an opium nap is and to recommend that opium be made “available to everyone over fifty; there need be no bureaucratic complications; there can be properly supervised fumeries.”

You’re more or less right about Greene’s bleak outlook. I think it comes from doing so much political work in the times and places he did. On the other hand, he developed a fine sense of the absurd, on display in his comic novels like Travels With My Aunt and Our Man in Havana (Once while in a motel I saw the end of a movie version of the latter; B&W with Alec Guinness; I easily recognized the plot within two minutes and enjoyed watching it while we packed up).

His pessimism is usually directed at bureaucracies and the overly innocent (check out The Quiet American for a prophetic look at how American can-do optimism would go seriously awry Vietnam). The Comedians is as good a look into the black heart of Haiti as ever you’ll want to see, and was on my mind a few years back as I watched news footage of people normally shown happily beaming in friendly fashion butcher each other in the same carefree, offhand manner. If you want to see just how far his pessimism would go on an individual level, in the very short novel Brighton Rock, Greene tried to create a character absolutely beyond the reach of redemption. The denouement of this novel also includes an interview with a priest. It is interesting to note that his pessimism is not quite complete.

And while I’m at it, The End of the Affair is told from the point of view of a man whose lover has left him. He never really understands what she tells him plainly, that she has broken off their relationship because it was sinful and she has found God. It’s an interesting study in religion, superstition, and what might count as real faith.

Well, I don’t think I’ve answered your questions, but I’ve enjoyed rambling on here. Greene is one of my favorites, and I intend to read HotM again before too much more time goes by. Here are some quotations to show you why. I’ve tried to cull from my marked passages only the ones that will make a bit of sense without their larger contexts. If it doesn’t give a fair representation of the thought of the book, it will probably reveal more than I would like about my own reactions to the book.


Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of good will carries always within his heart this capacity for damnation.

“We’d forgive most things if we knew the facts.... A policeman should be the most forgiving person in the world if he gets his facts right.”
--Asst. Police Commissioner Scobie

...for the first time he realized the pain inevitable in any human relationship--pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness.

...in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him--that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.

He said the Our father, the Hail Mary, and then, as sleep began to clog his lids, he added an act of contrition. It was a formality, not because he felt himself free from serious sin but because it had never occurred to him that his life was important enough one way or another. He didn’t drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of sin as virtue.

What an absurd it was thing to expect happiness in a world so full of misery. ... Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil--or else an absolute ignorance.
Outside the rest-house he stopped again. The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known [of the shipwreck victims who lay dying inside], just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?
--the musings of Major Scobie

It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with rain falling, without love or pity.

[The young widow] thought that she wanted to be alone, but what she was afraid of was the awful responsibility of receiving sympathy.

“I’ve always envied people who were happy [at school].... To start off happy,” Harris said, “It must make an awful difference afterwards. Why, it might become a habit, mightn’t it?”

It seemed to him for a moment that God was too accessible. There was no difficulty in approaching Him. Like a popular demagogue He was open to the least of His followers at any hour. Looking up at the cross he thought, He even suffers in public.
--Scobie, musing after confession

The word “pity” is used as loosely as the word “love”: the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

...it wasn’t madness: he had long since become incapable of anything so honest as madness: he was one of those condemned in childhood to complexity.
--a description of Wilson

He thought: I’ll go back and go to bed. In the morning I’ll write to Louise and in the evening go to confession: the day after that God will return to me in a priest’s hands: life will be simple again. Virtue, the good life, tempted him in the dark like a sin. The rain blurred his eyes, the ground sucked at his feet as they trod reluctantly towards the Nissen hut.
--Scobie, on his way to see his mistress

Leaning back against the dressing-table, he tried to pray. The Lord’s Prayer lay as dead on his tongue as a legal document: it wasn’t his daily bread that he wanted but so much more. He wanted happiness for others and solitude and peace for himself. “I don’t want to plan anymore,” he said suddenly aloud. “They wouldn’t need me if I were dead. The dead can be forgotten. Oh God, give me death before I give them unhappiness.” But the words sounded melodramatically in his own ears. He told himself he mustn’t get hysterical: there was far too much planning to do for an hysterical man, and going downstairs again he thought three aspirins or perhaps four were what he required in this situation--this banal situation. He took a bottle of filtered water out of the ice-box and dissolved the aspirin. He wondered how it would feel to drain death as simply as these aspirins which now stuck sourly in his throat. The priests told one it was the unforgivable sin, the final expression of an unrepentant despair, and of course one accepted the Church’s teaching. But they also taught that God had sometimes broken his own laws, and was it less possible for him to put out hand of forgiveness into the suicidal darkness than to have woken himself in the tomb, behind the stone? Christ had not been murdered--you couldn’t murder God. Christ had killed himself: he had hung himself on the cross as surely as Pemberton from the picture-rail.

“Why do we go on like this--being unhappy?”
“It’s a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love,” Scobie said with desperate pedantry....
--Scobie and his mistress making chitchat

Wilson felt sick; he wanted to sit down. Why, he wondered, does one ever begin this humiliating process: why does one imagine that one is in love? He had read somewhere that love had been invented in the eleventh century by the troubadours. Why had they not left us with lust?

“...you must have a real purpose of amendment. We are told to forgive our brother seventy times seven and we needn’t fear that God will be any less forgiving than we are, but nobody can begin to forgive the uncontrite. It’s better to sin seventy times and repent each time than sin once and never repent.”
--Father Rank

She said drearily, “Father, haven’t you any comfort to give me?”
Oh, the conversations, he thought, that go on in a house after a death, the turnings over, the discussions, the questions, the demands--so much noise round the edge of silence.
“You’ve been given an awful lot of comfort in your life, Mrs. Scobie. If what Wilson thinks is true, it’s he who needs our comfort.”
“Do you know all that I know about him?”
“Of course I don’t, Mrs. Scobie. You’ve been his wife, haven’t you, for fifteen years. A priest only knows the unimportant things.”
“Oh, I mean the sins,” he said impatiently. “A man doesn’t come to us and confess his virtues.”
“I expect you know about [his affair with] Mrs. Rolt. Most people did.”
“Poor woman.”
“I don’t see why.”
“I’m sorry for anyone happy and ignorant who gets mixed up in that way with one of us.”
“He was a bad Catholic.”
“That’s the silliest phrase in common use,” Father Rank said.
“And at the end this--horror. He must have known he was damning himself.”
“Yes, he knew that alright. He never had any trust in mercy--except for other people.”
“It’s no good even praying...”
Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, “For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you--or I--know a thing about God’s mercy.”
“The Church says...”
“I know what the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.”
“You think there’s some hope then?” she asked wearily.
“Are you so bitter against him?”
“I haven’t any bitterness left.”
“And do you think God’s likely to be more bitter than a woman?” he asked with harsh insistence, but she winced away from the arguments of hope.

Mercy is not consistent; it’s like the wind; it blows where it will.
Mercy is comic, and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
T-Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth”

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