Everything Goes Sour in its Own Way

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. I may be entitled to boast of re-reading, since I had the copy on my shelf and was once a big Greene buff; but since the story sparked no smiles of recollection, I’m inclined to think that I am not.

As many of you know, it’s the story of Munoz, a “whiskey priest” on the run from the anti-clerical police in revolutionary Mexico. It is set in the far south of that country, in the sweltering rain forests of Tehuantepec, and does not disappoint those with a taste for Greene’s signature salad of squalor, desolation, and moral writhing.

I seem to recall someone—perhaps Anthony Burgess—calling this confected world Greeneland.

Greene himself described the quality as “seediness.” I think this was in Journey Without Maps, although seediness is not one the items that I years ago penciled on the flyleaf of my now very dusty copy of that book. (All of which is itself rather seedy: to have covered the flyleaves of one’s books with unread notes of all the wrong things!). I find much the same quality in Raymond Chandler, who was sixteen years older than Greene, and in his contemporary Malcolm Lowry (whose Under the Volcano is The Power and the Glory with more whiskey [actually mescal] and less priest).

It’s not surprising that Englishmen who came of age between the wars should be preoccupied with seediness—with the sense that the world was running down, the party was winding up, and everything was turning brown at the edges. When they saw a bounding puppy, they thought of the day when it would be a lame and mangy cur. When they saw a child’s smile, they thought of the day when those teeth would yellow, rot, and fall out. When they heard a hopeful aspiration, they thought of the day when it would sour into bitter disappointment.

Munoz is a “seedy” priest, given, as I said, to drink, as well as to lust, and fear. He is, in his own words, “a bad priest” sadly fallen from the probity and idealism of his youth. In those days, before the church was outlawed and persecuted, he had been sober and chaste and petted by the people of his parish. He had been, indeed, “ambitious” and hopeful of promotion to higher posts in the diocese. This had been the flower of his youth. By the time in which the book is set, Munoz has gone to seed.

Greene’s aim is, of course, to redeem Munoz through his seediness, and in so doing to redeem seediness itself (including, no doubt, Greene’s own personal seediness and the seediness of the creaking British empire). It is through the degradation of his own seediness, Greene tells us, that Munoz learns to have pity for miserable sinners. It is through the degradation of his own seediness that Munoz breaks free of the false Christianity of “piety” and pharisaical moralism and discovers the true Christianity of infinite charity.

There is, of course, a certain degree of truth in all of this. Humbling sin can serve as the antidote to pharisaical moralism; pity and charity can grow from personal degradation. But, we should not forget that humbling sin can also, and perhaps more readily, serve as an appetizer in the banquet of sin, and that pity and charity are not the only things that can sprout in the compost of personal degradation.

Greene published The Power and the Glory in 1940. It was part of the great mid-century flowering of literary Catholicism that also gave us Brideshead Revisited (1945), and that finally went to seed in the later writing of Thomas Merton.* At a more practical level, the existential Catholicism of the 1940s went to seed in the sodomitic acts that came to light in the clerical sex abuse scandals. Most of these acts took place between 1960 and 1984, and not a few of the perpetrators seem to have inhabited the mental and moral world of Greeneland

To explain the meaning I see in all of this, I must change my metaphor from “going to seed” to “going sour.” Just as every flower goes to seed, so all fresh milk will sour. Just as seediness can be redeemed through new (and sometimes higher) life, so souring can be redeemed in yogurt. But in neither case is the redemptive outcome assured. Sometimes seediness is simply the prelude to death. Sometimes souring is simply the first stage of putrefaction. And if sin is sometimes the road to heaven, it is also and more often the road to hell.

Everything goes sour in its own way. The “piety” that Greene scorns in The Power and the Glory was an older Catholicism gone sour (or gone to seed, if you like). The existential Catholicism with which he proposed to replace it was sweet for a day, and then went sour (or to seed) in its own uniquely gruesome way. We are today living in the rancid remains of this existential Catholicism.

 

*Indeed there was at this time a flowering of literary Christianity generally. Lewis’s Problem of Pain was published in the same year as The Power and the Glory.

6 thoughts on “Everything Goes Sour in its Own Way

  1. Pingback: Everything Goes Sour in its Own Way | @the_arv

  2. Colin Hardie and his wife Christian were friends of C. S. Lewis. She loaned Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Greene’s The Power and the Glory to Lewis to read.
    Lewis read the two novels and responded at length in letters of 22 March and 27 March 1951 and Palm Sunday 1952. He much preferred the Greene.
    He confessed that he “nearly gave up” on the Waugh. None of the characters seemed “round and live” to him; “They’re more like people out of an Oscar Wilde melodrama, only without the epigrams.” That’s from his first letter on the book. In his second he acknowledged that Julia seemed “live” to him and “worth reading about,” but Sebastian seemed “dull.”
    But he “romped through” the Greene. “It is a most moving and (in its proper mode) enjoyable book. As far as I am concerned, there is no common measure between it and Waugh. In Waugh’s book, the supposedly good end of the old rake [Lord Marchmain] had simply to be taken on trust: but one lives through the whole experience of Greene’s hunted priest, filled from the first with interest, soon with compassion, and finally with love. Also Greene seems to –know- things. All that about the ‘pious woman’ in the cell (few laymen perhaps get letters from her so often as I) is excellent … Greene loves and understands his most repulsive characters – the lieutenant and the half-caste – better than Waugh does his favourites.”
    Lewis did think The Power and the Glory had a fault. “The central tragic theme is not made –more- effective by filling up all the chinks with other, irrelevant miseries, like those of the Fellows family. The great tragic artists didn’t do that. –Macbeth- would not have been improved by making the drunken porter get cancer: nor the –Iliad- by making the domestic life of Hector and Andromache squalid and miserable. That is the modern nimiety. But it is a very good book all the same.”

    Dale Nelson

    • I have a soft spot for Waugh because he as given me so many good laughs. I like him less as a moralist and find his longer books something of a jumble. Both he and Greene (and Lewis, in his way) were trying to overcome the association between Christianity and joyless Puritanism, and this was an association that needed to be overcome. But we’re eighty years down the road from them and many of our problems are the result of their corrections. There was a time when Catholics could actually learn something from Greene, but having learned his lesson (and that lesson having gone sour), I don’t think we will benefit from an even more Greene-like understanding of faith.

  3. Pingback: Everything Goes Sour in its Own Way | Reaction Times

  4. If true of Waugh this is something of a disappointment to me. I didn’t figure him for one to throw out moral rigor as something not worth the attempt – just that he found it extremely difficult personally, and that that fact in itself did not exclude him or others like him from redemption.

    I’ve always read BR in light of that understanding and found it refreshing. But maybe this just shows my own existential baggage.

    • My impression from Waugh’s letters and diaries is that he was personally strict later in life (apart from the drink). The religious characters of his later novels are not really in Greeneland. Some of this may have been because Waugh seriously repented of his youthful antics among the “bright young things” and Greene (to my knowledge) didn’t. Auberon Waugh wasn’t impressed by his father’s morality, and accused him of gross selfishness in his autobiography.

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