The Common Good
July 2005

Instruments of Grace

by Deryl Davis | July 2005

For novelist Graham Greene and his characters, corruption could be a path to salvation.

Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation.

Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation. His contemporary George Orwell joked that, in Greene’s view, hell was little more than a "high-class nightclub" for distinguished sinners. Throughout the late English writer’s long career (Greene’s centennial was celebrated last year), he depicted many characters who viewed, and perhaps justified, their own sin as a vehicle for connecting to others. It was corruption that seemed to give the world a kind of identity, even a uniting principle. His characters lived and understood themselves in a fallen world where martyrdom was often the cost of salvation. No wonder Greene took French writer (and fellow Catholic) Charles Peguy’s famous observation to heart that it is sinners and saints who best understand Christianity. In the existential landscape known as "Greeneland," the two are inverses of each other, both attesting to the stricken state of creation itself.

The sinners far outnumber the saints in Greene’s work, however, and even those sometimes perceived to be saints, such as the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, are in reality very fallible creatures. (Greene himself said that Scobie had been "corrupted by pity," a kind of misplaced compassion, that eventually led to his suicide.) Sin, for the novelist, was compelling because it was insidious and universal and had a kind of artistic appeal. If the lower depths of Dante’s hell were frozen, Greene’s were often damp, subtropical, and inflamed with the heat of human desire. His characters live out their purgatory in places like West Africa, Indochina, or Central America, exotic locales that offer both distraction from the pursuits of the soul and also enforced isolation with it.

Like the author himself, the characters often look to make deals with God that will leave them free to pursue their own passion. (A notable exception is Catherine in The End of the Affair, whose deal with God - to save her lover Bendrix’s life - entails the breaking off of that same affair.) The distance between the author and his characters and the theology embodied in their stories has been hotly debated. Some critics, including contemporary English novelist David Lodge, see Greene appropriating the symbols and imagery of Catholicism largely for artistic ends. Others, including official biographer Norman Sherry, believe Greene wrestled with church doctrine all his life, but in the end remained, at least nominally, a Catholic.

THERE’S NO DOUBT that Greene’s relation to his faith began and ended in a kind of paradox. The young writer converted to Catholicism in 1926 largely to please his future wife, but quickly began to absorb its doctrines, and by 1938 was clearly employing religious ideas in the first of his so-called "Catholic novels," Brighton Rock. In the decade and more that followed, Greene continued to explore themes of sin, guilt, and redemption in a series of important and successful novels including The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951).

In each, corruption is a path to salvation, or at least to recovery of the soul. Characters become involved with the dirt and sweat of existence and in doing so find that it can be made holy. The hard-drinking, adulterous priest in The Power and the Glory is a prime example of this sinner-who-might-be-a-saint: He is neither noble nor particularly faithful, but in administering the sacraments at the risk of his own life he becomes a flawed instrument of divine grace.

Greene rarely returned to such obviously religious themes or characters in his later novels. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on political intrigue and social or revolutionary movements, such as the period prior to American involvement in Vietnam depicted in The Quiet American. The thematic change is reflected in Greene’s own relationship to his faith. After years of adulterous affairs (some hardly secret, like that loosely depicted in The End of the Affair), the writer seems to have come to an impasse in his ability to reconcile his faith with his own personal failings.

He apparently chose appetite over devotion, and stopped going to confession altogether in the 1950s as his affair with Catherine Walston, herself a Catholic convert, intensified. (Greene once told her that he was able to love God more because she loved God so much.) Later in life, Greene related an incident in which the two attended an early morning mass in Italy presided over by Padre Pio, the Capuchin monk who bore the signs of the stigmata. Greene described the power of that visit, but also his reluctance to meet personally with Pio. "I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint," Greene said. "I felt there was a good chance that he was one."

LIKE MANY OF his characters, Greene lived in a state of psychological and emotional extremity. (He was forever marked by an experience of psychoanalysis as a teenager and contemplated suicide as a young man.) Haunted by a sense of sin and a constant anxiety, Greene’s nearly incessant world travel and murky espionage activities - he worked at various times for British secret intelligence - could, perhaps, be read as attempts to escape the pursuit of grace. Biographer Sherry, in his third and final volume of The Life of Graham Greene, published last year, likens Greene’s paradoxical relationship to Catholicism to that of "a fox to a furrier": always quizzical, even adversarial, and yet inextricably linked.

In his review of that same biography, David Lodge called into question aspects of Greene’s Catholicism near the end of his life, a time when the older writer identified himself as "a Catholic agnostic." (Greene had always disliked being called a Catholic writer, even in the early years.) Of particular interest is whether Greene requested and received the final sacrament of his own accord. Sherry contends he did, as does Jesuit scholar Mark Bosco in his new book, Graham Greene’s Catholic Imagination.

More important for Bosco, however, is recognizing the thread of Catholicism that runs throughout the extent of Greene’s work. Rather than dividing his novels into Catholic and post-Catholic groupings, Bosco argues that Greene’s entire work should be viewed through the lens of his changing, though never concluded, relationship to his faith. Thus as Vatican II gave way to liberation theology and a new pluralism, it should come as no surprise that Greene was writing about dictatorships and banana republics and reading Hans Küng. For Greene, as for many Vatican II Catholics, theology, politics, and economics were tightly bound together.

In the later years, there were also things to be regretted. Although Greene finally found a measure of peace, settling down with one mistress in Antibes, on the French Riviera, he was never reconciled to his wife and they never obtained a divorce. His late ventures into international politics were often ill-advised, such as the speech he gave before a cultural congress in Moscow in 1987, likening Catholicism to communism. Less than four years later, Soviet communism would crumble - its demise hastened, in part, by a pope (John Paul II) whom Greene castigated for his conservatism. What, one wonders, would the writer say about Benedict XVI? And then there was Greene’s brief flirtation with Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, an outgrowth of his interest in and perhaps naive understanding of Latin American affairs. These are things that, like Greene’s illicit liaisons, remain to be forgiven. If his life and novels teach us anything, it is that the need for grace is abundant.

As Bosco notes, Greene strongly felt the loss of what he called a religious sensibility in the modern novel, the notion that powers of good and evil do exist and are at war in the world and in the human soul. While he was in many ways a deeply flawed individual, Greene did leave us this particular gift: He restored a measure of that lost sensibility through characters whose struggle between flesh and spirit is, in the end, so much like our own.

Deryl Davis is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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