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How Greene is our worldview? The fractured souls that inhabit Graham Greene's fiction offer timely lessons about the dangers of idealistic zealotry. (culture in context).

HOLLYWOOD HAS RESURRECTED GRAHAM Greene and perhaps not a moment too soon. A dozen years after his death the mid-20th century novelist who tracked the wanderings of the human heart through the borderlands of colonialism, communism, and Catholicism is Tinseltown's new wunderkind.

Greene's ghost, quartered in that realm of heaven reserved for agnostic Catholics, must be amused by this sudden turn, given that the author thought Hollywood misunderstood him even worse than Rome. Still, prophets are often honored posthumously, and a pair of modern filmmakers have doffed their caps to Greene with remakes of two of his best works.

First Neil Jordan brought Greene's The End of the Affair to the big screen in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, then Phillip Noyce offered a fresh translation of The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. And suddenly a new generation of moviegoers is being introduced to the magic of "Greeneland."

Despite his distaste for many of the movies fashioned from his stories, Greene enjoyed a great deal of success from Hollywood. A former film critic, he crafted novels with a cinematographer's eye, and more than 40 films were made of his stories, many of them popular and critical successes, including This Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear, Confidential Agent, Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, and The Comedians.

Still, it is hard to think of one now that matched the caliber of The Third Man, Greene's most outstanding film, and the only one he wrote as a screenplay. And it is harder still to find more than two or three of these movies at the neighborhood video store. Until very recently modern audiences had all but forgotten Greene's movies.

Greene's disappearance from the box office seems particularly ironic when one considers that the self-described author of "penny dreadful novels" and dark "entertainments" tended to write stories about espionage and illicit sex, ever popular staples of American cinema. Like Ian Fleming, Greene had worked for British military intelligence, and many of his stories centered on the intrigues and violence of espionage. And like Andrew Greeley, Greene regularly explored the terrain of sexual infidelity, among both couples and clerics. Throw in the troubles he had with the Vatican censors and one would expect Greene to be a perennial Hollywood darling.

But Greene's espionage tales have more in common with Eric Ambler and Joseph Conrad than Fleming or Tom Clancy. His stories have none of the pyrotechnics or gadgetry of the modern thriller, and his "agents" lack the moral certitude of cardboard cutouts played by Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis. The Quiet American or Our Man in Havana could never have been made into a Bond film directed by Jon Woo, nor was anyone going to peddle action figures from these movies at the local burger barn.

And Greene's tales of adultery and infidelity have little of Hollywood's prurient interest in sex or revenge. In Greeneland adulterers are often lonely, depressed souls groping for a bit of solace, company, or pity, and betrayed husbands or lovers rarely seek the vengeance that so excites Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder or Antonio Banderas in Original Sin.

The spies and spouses in Greene's fiction inhabit a grey world, where the boundary between innocence and guilt is moveable, where all the saints are more than a little sinful. His characters are haunted, introspective souls in search of redemption, not victory or vengeance.

Indeed, Greeneland is populated with the sorts of characters novelist John Gardner once called "freaks," ethically fractured souls lacking the discipline or virtue to be saints or heroes. Greene's protagonists are "whiskey priests," unfaithful wives, corrupted police officers, and philandering and opium-addicted journalists. Gardner argued that a steady diet of such freaks undermined the moral purpose of serious fiction. Like William Bennett, he thought readers should be uplifted and encouraged by examples of heroic virtue.

BUT GREENE'S STORIES DO NOT ENCOURAGE OR UPLIFT. They evoke pity, awaken our sense of compassion, and help us to recognize the humanity of such freaks as we might be ourselves. They keep us from whispering a prayer in thanks that we are not like these others. As Greene wrote in The Power and the Glory, "When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity--that was a quality God's image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was always a failure of the imagination."

Greene's freaks are not only fractured men and women. They are also outcasts living at the crumbling edges of institutions, agnostics occupying the margins of belief and unbelief. Greene's stories take place in the rundown outposts where police officers and priests are second-rate failures whose faith in Rome or the revolution has been tempered by a strong sense of their own sinfulness and the general frailty of the human heart.

The protagonist in a Greene novel is never a zealot or an idealist, he or she never possesses enough righteousness to be a true believer.

As a result, their loyalties are almost always personal, not institutional. In a Greene novel it is inevitably the villain who chooses his ideals over his friends, the zealous revolutionary or pompous bureaucrat who has more faith in the institution than the individual.

The freakish protagonist has his moral compass set to local, not national or ecclesiastical, concerns. He or she is moved by the sufferings of the concrete neighbor, is always trying to be faithful to the frail human being right next to him. Greene's heroes are always traitors to the big picture.

In this way they are not unlike Jesus, whose compassion for the freakish cripple, leper, adulterer, tax collector, or foreign widow always overrode his loyalty to the religious norms and purity codes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Levites. Over and over again in the gospels Jesus breaks institutional rules about fasting, honoring the Sabbath, or breaking bread with sinners and outcasts in order to offer pity and compassion to the unclean, unholy, and unworthy. Jesus is a lover of freaks and a traitor to causes.

HOLLYWOOD'S RESURRECTION OF Greeneland comes at a good time, a time when we need to be reminded of the dangers of institutional loyalty and idealistic zealots, and of the need for pity and compassion.

In The Quiet American Greene uncovers the violent underbelly of America's neo-imperialistic adventures in Southeast Asia (and Central America) and hints at the futility and madness of our longest war. The idealism of the young American operative in this tale cloaks a brutality mirroring the terror he abhors. To liberate Vietnam from the shackles of colonialism and communism, clean-cut young men sporting college ties are ready to blow up baby carriages and incinerate villages.

Half a century after Greene wrote this novel our White House is once again enchanted by dreams of an American empire. We see ourselves as a military superpower capable of bending all nations to our will, and we have undertaken yet another interminable war against the forces of evil. And because we are convinced of the rightness of our cause there is little need to attend to the constraints of international law or the criticisms of our allies. It is a time for patriotism and true believers.

Readers of Greene and the gospels have good reasons to be suspicious of this sort of blind faith in ourselves, this unsightly readiness to divide the world into the innocent and guilty, this unholy desire to cast stones. Greene was a good enough Catholic to know that no one was without sin, and to understand that we need to take the log out of our own eye before we start pointing fingers--or missiles. And he was a good enough student of the parables to know that Jesus always sided with the freaks, not with the self-righteous.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, a professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2003
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