Saturday 8 April 2006

Graham Greene

[From my review, awaiting publication, of Fr Ian Ker's 'The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961.]

Fr Ker devotes the first three pages on Greene to the question of whether or not Greene "ever believed in hell and mortal sin", rather than in, as Greene himself put it, "a sort of purgatory." This is because "the two themes, together with the possibility of forgiveness in Confession and the unlimited mercy of God, are integral to his finest writing, which is what makes his denial so paradoxical." In order to explore Greene’s use of these themes, it is necessary to "see how he blends these most traditional Catholic motifs with two very contemporary influences on the novel to create an altogether new kind of fiction in the English language. These two related influences, of which Greene was very conscious, are the cinema and the thriller."
Cinematic technique is more conducive to Catholicism, which engages all the senses and is particularly concerned with visual culture, than to classical Protestantism, which emphasises, practically to the exclusion of all else, the written and preached Word, so that it could not have spread as it did but for the invention of the printing press. In the new, visual age of the late twentieth century, even Evangelical churches moved in a Pentecostal and Charismatic direction, the more to encourage "physical body movements rather than cerebral preaching and reading".
But in that century’s middle years, there was simply no doubt that Catholicism, with its "stained-glass windows, pictures, and statues" appealed to the camera in a way that the reading out of long Biblical or Prayer Book passages, incorporating extended preaching on the former, simply did not. In the post-Conciliar age, there is a lesson here, for all the importance now attached, perfectly correctly and fully within Sacred Tradition, to Scripture and to Holy Preaching. This reviewer recalls here Jean Baudrillard, who sees in the dispute over the Postmodern celebration of the image the conflict between the French Jesuits and Huguenot iconoclasm.
The thriller, in turn, lends itself especially well to the cinema, and vice versa, as Greene illustrated so powerfully in The Third Man, actually written with a view to the screen adaptation that it did indeed so famously receive. Greene’s use of cinema and of the thriller genre is very Chestertonian, and Chesterton enables us to see it as fundamentally Thomist: great art, communicating great ideas, is made possible, even most possible, by adapting the medium and the genre that speaks most powerfully to Toots, to Miss Podsnap, to the Misses Pecksniff, to Sam Weller and the rest (in a word, to rusticus), because it speaks most powerfully of them and for them.
And what could be more powerful than treatments of sin and damnation, and of the possibility of redemption therefrom with the sacramental system provided by a Church which, in Britain at that time, still found Her following overwhelmingly from among the people who most frequented the cinema and most read thrillers, whom Dickens might have created, whose wisdom was recognised and articulated by Chesterton and by Saint Thomas? And is not evil the stuff of which thrillers are made?
Greene saw the connection between this and Catholicism when he witnessed the latter’s persecution in Mexico and during the Spanish Civil War: "the four key ingredients of Greene’s most creative period could now gel together – evil, Catholicism, the cinema, and the thriller." While this remained most vital to him, he produced his best novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. It is those who believe in hell and the devil that are closest to them; and in Britain in the middle twentieth century, those were the Catholics.
Would that they still were, and that Catholics still recognised the reality of evil in the midst of what Chesterton, Dickens and Saint Thomas recognised as the flawed beauty of this world. In today’s Anglophonia, the reality of hell and the devil, and the consciousness of personal and societal sin, is most evident among those who do not share that Chestertonian, Dickensian, Thomist optimism, while that optimism has become perverted into Pelagianism, universalism, antinomianism and an essentially Whig or Marxist belief in the perfectability of this world by purely human efforts.
Alas, Greene was to head down that road, and even to lead others down it, in his later life. The Catholic who reads, admires, marvels at and even loves Greene’s Catholic quartet must constantly be asking "Why?", looking for the seeds of future degeneration from orthodoxy, and prayerfully taking care to avoid ingesting them.
A not conspicuously pro-Catholic cultural élite’s exaltation of Greene as post-War Britain’s pre-eminent and definitive Catholic writer has achieved its end, and made Greene’s later views de rigeur for the Catholic middle class that was only beginning to appear at the peak of Greene’s powers, but which has come to predominate among British Catholics. Greene is certainly the (not very funny) Joker in this book’s pack of six.

No comments:

Post a Comment