Graham Greene paper by William Boyd

William Boyd
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The God Confusion: an atheist reads Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter


I want to begin with two quotations that will go some way to revealing my own position on matters of faith.

'The Andaman islanders believe in a class of supernatural beings which are denoted by the term 'spirits'… The spirits of the forest and the sea are believed to be generally invisible… [and] are believed to be the cause of all sickness and all deaths resulting from sickness.  As a man wanders in the jungle or by the sea the spirits come invisibly and strike him, whereupon he falls ill and may die. They are more dangerous at night than during the day so the Andamanese will never whistle at night as they believe the noise of whistling would attract the spirits.'

This comes from The Andaman Islanders by AR Brown.

The second quotatiom was written by a friend of mine, Father Roderick Strange, in his book The Catholic Faith:

'Before the Second Vatican Council Catholic teaching on morality was very preoccupied with sin, these were clearly categorised. Some were mortal [sins]: for example, to miss mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation, to murder, to steal, to commit adultery or eat meat on a day of abstinence.  These sins cut you off from God and, if you died without being sorry for them, you went to hell.'

I understand both these passages but I remain utterly baffled by them. I am in both cases wholly incredulous.  There is no variation in the level of my incredulity: it’s a dead heat. This state of mind – baffled incredulity – was one I often underwent as I re-read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter in preparation for this talk – a perplexing attitude, to say the least. Re-reading the book has been a strange experience – and it is worth remembering that it was written well before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

So, perhaps we should start with a summary of the novel – for those of you who perhaps have forgotten it, or perhaps for those of you who have not even read it – and no-one better to provide such a redaction than Evelyn Waugh (of whom more later). Waugh reviewed his old friend’s novel at considerable and favourable length shortly after it was published in 1948. Here is how he summed up the plot:

'The scene is a West African port in war-time. It has affinities with the Brighton of Brighton rock, parasitic, cosmopolitan, corrupt.  The population are all strangers, British officials, detribalized natives, immigrant West Indian Negroes, Asiatics, Syrians. There are poisonous gossips at the club and voodoo bottles on the wharf, intrigues for administrative posts, intrigues to monopolize the illicit diamond trade. The hero, Scobie, is deputy- commissioner of police, one of the oldest inhabitants among the white officials; he has a compassionate liking for the place and the people.  He is honest and unpopular and, when the story begins, has been passed over for promotion.  His wife Louise is also unpopular, for other reasons. She is neurotic and pretentious.  Their only child died at school in England.  Both are Catholic. She whines and nags to escape to South Africa. Two hundred pounds are needed to send her.  Husband and wife are found together in the depths of distress.

The illegal export of diamonds is prevalent, both as industrial stones for the benefit of the enemy and gems for private investment.  Scobie’s police are entire ineffective in stopping it, although it is notorious that two Syrians. Tallit and Yusef, are competitors for the monopoly.  A police spy [called Wilson] is sent from England to investigate. He falls in love with Louise.  Scobie, in order to fulfil his promise to get Louise out of the country, borrows money from Yusef.  As a result of this association he is involved in an attempt to ‘frame’ Tallit.  The police spy, animated by hate and jealousy is on his heels.  Meanwhile survivors from a torpedoes ship are brought across from French territory, among them an English bride [called Helen Rolt] widowed in the sinking.  She and Scobie fall in love and she becomes his mistress.  Yusuf secures eviodence of the intrigue and blackmails Scobie into definitely criminal participation in his trade.  His association with Yusuf culminates in the murder of Ali, Scobie’s supposedly devoted native servant, whom he now suspects of giving information to the police spy. Louise returns. Unable to abandon either woman, inextricably involved in crime, hunted by his enemy, Scobie takes poison; his women become listlessly acquiescent to other suitors.

These are the bare bones of the story…” 

Waugh was the perfect reader for The Heart of the Matter, I now realise, because – and this is my lurking contention behind this talk – The Heart of the Matter is a novel that only fully, truly resonates for a devout Catholic. For any one else, let alone a devout atheist, the novel’s dramatic resolution seems to me ungraspable – not to say preposterous. If you don’t believe in, let alone understand, the concepts of sacrilegious communion, damnation, mortal sin and the existence of hell then Scobie’s choice at the end of the novel – his decision to damn himself for all eternity by committing suicide – appears absurd, implausible and utterly out of character. If Greene had given Scobie magical powers that allowed himself to be transformed into a bird that could fly away across the seas or turn himself into a star that would sparkle for ever in the night sky the novel’s conclusion would not seem any more unlikely – or at least to this reader.

Greene himself seemed unhappy with the novel when he looked back on it in Ways of Escape, published in 1980.

'It was to prove a book more popular with the public, even with the critics, than with the author.  The scales to me seem too heavily weighted, the plot overloaded, the religious scruples of Scobie too extreme.  I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion.  I had written in The Ministry of Fear: 'Pity is cruel. Pity destroys.  Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.'  The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of almost monstrous pride.  But I found the effect on readers was quite different.  To them Scobie was exonerated, Scobie was 'a good man', he was hunted to his death by the harshness of his wife'.

This seems to me to be disingenuous but perhaps excusable. The elderly novelist looking back at a book he had written over thirty years previously has every right to criticise and even downgrade. Perhaps too, in 1980, Greene’s faith in the Catholic Church was not quite so steadfast. The verities of Scobie’s mortal sin and what he believed to be his fate maybe seemed a little overwrought, striven for and unnatural.  It is true, though, that 'pity' is a word often used in The Heart of the Matter but there’s another word employed almost as frequently– 'Despair' – and it’s in this notion of despair, I would contend, that Greene set the seeds of the novel’s own self-destruction. Everything that the agnostic or the atheistic reader today might object to in the novel’s rather high-cheekboned zeal is present in the novel itself. Greene, I feel, capably and covertly articulated the case against himself in his own novel. We don’t really need to cite modern times, modern secularity or a distrust of fundamentalism in religious belief -- from whatever quarter -- as reasons for being suspicious of The Heart of the Matter’s sincerity. The author had already played Devil’s Advocate against his own high-minded, pious conclusion. The time bomb ticking at the heart of The Heart of the Matter was placed there by the author himself.

The sin of despair in the Catholic taxonomy of sins ranks very high. To despair of life is virtually to deny the existence of god.  The logical conclusion of a despairing mind is suicide – a mortal sin conferring eternal damnation on the suicidee.  Scobie and the word 'despair' are often associated. I counted nine times when the word is consciously presented to us as a description of Scobie’s state of mind – enough to alert the laziest literary critic.  In other words Scobie is depicted throughout the first five-sixths of the novel as a man who is the opposite of devout, a man who despairs of god’s mercy, god’s beneficence.  Remember that Scobie’s daughter died, aged nine – a tragic event enough to challenge anyone’s faith, I would have imagined.  Greene, curiously, makes nothing of this in the novel. Scobie barely reflects on this awful personal tragedy – it’s as if an aged aunt has passed away not his little girl. If anything was going to shape his attitude towards his god one would imagine it would be the death of his child – but no, not at all. Scobie – and indeed his wife Louise -- do not rage against this shocking example of life’s brutal cruelty and random injustice – they are untypically quiescent.

That is a side issue, a psychological implausibility that chafes and nags. More to the point, Scobie’s religious scepticism is frequently adduced:

'It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen year old death-bed?'

The description of a man who could think these thoughts is not devout or pious but cynical. Again and again Scobie gives vent to similar speculations. Here is Scobie on prayer:

'When he thought about it at all [my emphasis] he regarded himself as a member of the awkward squad who had no opportunity to break the more serious military rules. 'I missed my mass yesterday.. I neglected my evening prayers.' This was no more than admitting what every soldier did – that he had avoided a fatigue when the occasion offered. 'O God, bless – 'but before he could mention names he was asleep.'

This is a portrait of a man for whom his religion is a bore, an itch he has dutifully to scratch from time to time. Prayer is a 'fatigue' to be skipped whenever possible. This is hardly a picture of a man in fear for his mortal soul.

Scobie goes to confession. His penance is to recite five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.

'[The priest] began to speak the words of absolution, but the trouble is, Scobie thought, there’s nothing to absolve. The words brought no sense of relief… They were a formula: the Latin words hustled together – a hocus pocus.'

Hocus-pocus. Mumbo-jumbo. I could cite more examples but time and again Greene undermines the nature of Scobie’s faith.  Even Wilson adds to the general tone of scepticism that pervades the novel. Wilson has his fortune read by an Indian fortune-teller.  Wilson reflects:

'Of course the whole thing was Couéism: if one believed in it enough, it would come true.'

Couéism was a form of crude psychotherapy invented by the French physician Emile Coué in the 1920s – all you had to do was chant: 'Every day in every way I am becoming better and better'.  The implicit connection with the dogmas of religious faith in the context of the novel is hard to dispute. Counter-religious arguments are everywhere: many of them articulated by Scobie but also by other characters; Wilson, Yusef and, most tellingly, by Helen Rolt, Scobie’s mistress.

Helen is, in many ways, the voice of rational atheism in the novel. She mercilessly points out Scobie’s hypocrisy, his moral backsliding, the way he can switch his faith on and off as the occasion requires.

Scobie has begun his affair with Helen (she is 20, he is 50 – worth bearing the age difference in mind. To Scobie Helen is little more than a child – a child with whom he can enjoy carnal relations.)  Helen says:

'You’ll never marry me’
'I can’t, you know that.'
'It’s a wonderful excuse being a Catholic,' she said, 'It doesn’t stop you sleeping with me – it only stops you marrying me.'
'Yes'
'Go on, justify yourself.
    'It would take too long,” he said. ‘One would have to begin with the arguments for a God.'
    'What a twister you are.'

Helen has hit the nail on the head. Scobie is a 'twister' – he squirms and ducks and dives when it comes to his faith. He is a hypocrite, in the pure sense. And yet at the end of the novel we are asked to believe in sentiments like this as Scobie commits suicide – here is the twister untwisted:

'Oh God, I am the only guilty one because I have known the answers all the time.  I’ve preferred to give you pain rather than give pain to Helen or my wife because I can’t observe your suffering. I can only imagine it… They are ill with me and I can cure them. And you too God are ill with me. I can’t go on… insulting you. I can’t face coming to the altar at Christmas, your birthday feast, and taking your body and blood for the sake of a lie.  You’ll be better off if you lose me once and for all… I’m going to damn myself… You’ll be able to forget me God, for eternity.'

What is the rational sober reader meant to do confronted with this burbling apologia, this monstrous egotism? Scobie is a policeman, remember: his professional life deals with corruption and evildoing on a daily basis – petty and significant. Murder, rape, armed robbery, bribery, prostitution -- venality of every hue. My response and, I would argue, the response of every reader who is not a devout Roman Catholic, is to describe it as 'bogus' – a word Helen Rolt employs herself when confronted with Scobie’s purported faith.

'If there’s one thing I hate it’s your Catholicism.  I suppose it comes of having a pious wife. It’s so bogus. If you really believed you wouldn’t be here.’
'But I do believe and I am here,' he said with bewilderment. 'I can’t explain it but there it is.'

Is this the moment to remind ourselves of the biographical situation?  Greene himself, before he left for Sierra Leone at the end of 1941, was as committed an adulterer as Scobie. Did he suffer the same bewilderment as Scobie? His wife Vivien and their two children were safe from the blitz in Oxford while Greene carried on a passionate affair in London with Dorothy Glover. Scobie’s dilemma, the crown of thorns he bore, was Greene’s. I believe that The Heart of the Matter was, in its own way, a working out of Greene’s own stricken conscience (but just how stricken is a matter for debate: when he wrote the novel he had moved on from Dorothy Glover to Catherine Walston: mistress and wife were now betrayed for a new mistress). In the same way as, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is fundamentally an act of revenge on his unfaithful wife, Evelyn Gardner, so The Heart of the Matter is Greene’s semi-anguished confrontation with his own double standards and hypocrisy.  I say 'semi-anguished' because I don’t really believe he was actually that tormented. The theodicy of The Heart of the Matter is so creaking, so bolted on to the novel, that its sincerity and veracity are easily called in to question on all manner of grounds: psychological plausibility, internal evidence, and Greene’s own undermining doubts which he so assiduously plants before Scobie’s great religious revelation.  It just doesn’t ring true and the novel suffers irrevocably as a result.

This may seem something of a denigration of a novel that many regard as being among Greene’s finest.  That would be unfair. The strengths of the novel rely on its telling portrait of a small colonial society – its tensions, its divisions, its petty snobberies and vices and its masterly recreation of the African atmosphere.  My first reading of the book, however unsophisticated, was motivated by the urge to find the world I knew – the colonial or lately colonial life of Ghana and Nigeria – replicated in literature. Greene’s rare flashes of lyricism in the novel – his fleeting love for the Coast – will be shared with anyone who has lived in West Africa for any length of time. As will its irritations and inconveniences – the stifling humidity, the rampantly invasive insect life, the smells and the squalor.  There used to be an acronym that white people chanted soto voce to each other in the face of all manner of frustrations – from double-booked seats on a plane to malfunctioning electricity and water supplies – WAWA. 'West Africa Wins Again'.  Green gets that fatalism, -- that torpor, that sense that nothing is really going to change -- very well indeed.

But a novel doesn’t succeed alone on its ambience, however powerfully rendered, and as the narrative unfolds in The Heart of the Matter one realises that in many ways it tells the story of a kind of descent into the underworld. Scobie is presented to us at the beginning of the novel as a fundamentally decent and honest man. Middle-aged, 'squat', grey haired, a solid and stolid professional doing his job with as much sense of fair play and even-handedness as he can muster.  His life begins to unravel as his urge to do the right thing starts to lead to compromises in his morality.  He chooses to sup with the devil when he borrows money from Yusuf and from that moment on the downward spiral commences.  Scobie’s crimes, the calibre of his sins, steadily increase: he lies, he commits adultery, he succumbs to Yusuf’s blackmail and smuggles diamonds on board a ship and is ultimately inadvertently responsible for a murder when Yusuf orders the killing of Scobie’s faithful 'boy', Ali.  Greene would have us believe that the further and blackest sign of Scobie’s moral descent is his sacrilegious communion and eventual damnation – but here, as I’ve said already, the atheistic or agnostic reader parts company from the devout Catholic.  But I wonder if, listing the compromises Scobie makes, charting his increments of his corruption, there is perhaps another reading of the novel that would allow it to work for us -- embracing the full panoply of Greene’s Catholic theology in a way that does not alienate the unbeliever.

The worst thing that Scobie does – the crime that we cannot really forgive him for -- is the way in which he connives in the death of Ali.  True, Scobie wasn’t to know that Yusuf had violent death on his mind: Scobie probably thought Ali would be warned in no uncertain manner, threatened or bribed or perhaps, at the worst, receive a severe beating – so when, towards the novel’s end, the awful thought strikes Scobie that Yusuf’s reassurances presage a terminal fate for Ali his shock is as strong as the reader’s.

'The body lay coiled and unimportant like a broken watchspring under a pile of empty petrol drums: it looked as if it had been shovelled there to wait for morning and the scavenger birds.  Scobie had a moment of hope before he turned the shoulder over, for after all two boys had been together on the road.  The seal grey neck had been slashed again and again.  Yes, he thought, I can trust him now..  the yellow eyeballs stared up at him like a stranger’s, flecked with red.  It was as if this body had cast him off, disowned him – 'I know you not.'  He swore aloud, hysterically.  'By God, I’ll get the man who did this,' but under that anonymous stare insincerity withered. He thought: I am the man.  Didn’t I know all the time in Yusuf’s room that something was planned?  Couldn’t I have pressed for an answer?'…

Scobie thought; if only I could weep, if only I could feel pain; have I really become so evil?  Unwillingly he looked down at the body.  The fumes of petrol lay all around in the heavy night and for a moment he saw the body as something very small and dark and a long way away – like a broken piece of the rosary he looked for: a couple of black beads and the image of God coiled at the end of it. Oh God, he thought, I’ve killed you: you’ve served me all these years and I’ve killed you at the end of them.  God lay there under the petrol drums and Scobie felt the tears in his mouth, salt in the cracks of his lips.  You saved me and I did this to you.  You were faithful to me, and I wouldn’t trust you.

'What is it, sah?' the corporal whispered, kneeling by the body.
    'I loved him,' Scobie said.'

''I loved him', Scobie said.'  Is Ali the one person in his life that Scobie truly loved?  Not his wife, not Helen Rolt, not even Catherine, his nine year-old daughter (whose distant death so unmoved him). And in killing the person he most loved Scobie has committed the most heinous of crimes.  Is it not a plausible reading of everything that follows to see Scobie’s mounting religious obsessions as a sign of his ensuing grief, guilt and dementia? Scobie has been driven mad by Ali’s death – this is in fact what has damned him and his conviction that his damnation has come about by an act of sacrilegious communion is nothing more than the confused railings of a man who has lost his mind.  His monologue with God turns into a form of demonic possession. God/Christ begins to speak through him: 'You say you love me [God says to Scobie] and yet you’ll do this to me – rob me of you for ever. I made you with love. I’ve wept your tears. I’ve saved you from more than you will ever know…' and so on and so forth.  Scobie is hearing God’s voice. Is he insane?  Can we not see these desperate ramblings as the sign of a mind at the end of its tether rather than a Catholic convert debating theological matters with his creator?

I take this line of argument not from a wish to be perverse but from something Evelyn Waugh himself commented on.  After The Heart of the Matter was published there was a considerable amount of controversy stirred up in the Catholic Church by the book – not surprisingly.  Even Evelyn Waugh’s review expressed a few reservations, one of which was about Scobie’s suicide and his conviction that he would be damned for all eternity but that, in this case, Scobie’s damnation was different in that it was a form of loving sacrifice for others – for Louise and Helen, his wife and his mistress.  Waugh writes:  'The idea of willing my own damnation for the love of God is either a loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy.'  Mad blasphemy. Mad…  Perhaps, I thought, Scobie has lost his reason and is indeed mad.  For example, look at the carelessness with which he doctors his diary to make his angina-induced sleeplessness seem more plausible – a clumsy ploy instantly spotted by Wilson. Scobie is a policeman long schooled in the procedures of evidence. But this Scobie is not the diligent cop – he’s a man insane with grief over the death of Ali. Furthermore his wife and his mistress live a few hundred yards from each other and he cannot give either one up; furthermore he’s about to be promoted to Commissioner and the colony’s biggest criminal, Yusuf, has him in his pocket. The pressures are intolerable. Scobie cracks – and the sign of his crack-up is that he thinks he’s damned and is going to hell. He talks with god. His mad blasphemy takes him over…  I believe this interpretation hangs together -- I for one find it a convincing argument: it allows me to read the novel again without scepticism and incredulity.

But the final evidence for this reading comes from the author himself. After Waugh’s review appeared and the various controversies around the book ignited, Greene wrote to Waugh in July 1948:

'My dear Evelyn… You’ve made me very conceited.  Thank you very much.  There’s no other living writer whom I would rather receive praise (and criticism) from.  A small point – I did not regard Scobie as a saint and his offering his damnation up was intended to show how muddled a mind full of good will could become when “off the rails'.

A muddled mind that is 'off the rails’ – Greene puts the phrase in quotation marks. It is eloquent – Scobie has jumped the tracks, he cannot guide himself: his life is a train wreck.  Hence his 'Mad blasphemy', as Waugh would have it: a man who has gone 'off the rails' commits a 'mad blasphemy'. We need go no further: Scobie has lost his reason: the warped theology of the novel’s final pages is a symptom and a symbol of the madness into which he has descended.

On a final note I’m reminded of something Anthony Burgess once told me – I came to know Burgess a little in the last ten years of his life.  Burgess was a cradle Catholic and he had something of the cradle Catholic’s scorn for the piety and zealotry of the convert. Plus royaliste que le roi, as he put it.  He was particularly dubious about Greene’s purported faith, seeing it as a kind of window dressing for his novels. And it is interesting to look at the three significant Catholic converts in post-war English literature – all great writers, all who converted to the Catholic faith in their twenties. Muriel Spark, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.  I too find their faith difficult to square with what I know of these writers as people and their work. Waugh, however, is somewhat set apart from the other two. He was a drowning man out at sea clutching on to a spar of driftwood – his conversion saved him in all senses of the word, and I believe utterly in his sincerity. But then I can conceive of an Evelyn Waugh believing with total sincerity in Zoroastrianism, Russian Orthodoxy or Scientology, if need be. A faith was what was important: Waugh required something outside of his personality to cling on to in order to give his live meaning and structure. But Muriel Spark – in flight from her Jewishness and Scottish/Jewish heritage?  And what of Graham Greene, that most worldly of men, that most dutiful and punctilious of pleasure seekers, whose so-called faith seemed to have dictated his personal life, habits and morality not one jot?… I remain – and I confess this is a foible of mine, an interpretation of a psychology – highly dubious about Spark and Greene’s sincerity. Hence my proposed re-reading of The Heart of the Matter and this prosletysing attempt to reclaim it for the faithless canon.

I leave you with two quotations which sum up the spirit in which I have read The Heart of the Matter.  One is from Richard Dawkins – we couldn’t leave him out of this debate -- and one is from Anton Chekhov.  Dawkins wrote this – in a letter to the Guardian in 2005 – in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami, as it happens -- and not in The God Delusion:

'It is true – [Dawkins writes] -- that science cannot offer the consolations [that some people] attribute to prayer… It is psychologically possible to derive comfort from sincere belief in a non-existent illusion… [But] you don’t have to be a believer… Maybe we are on our own, in a world where plate tectonics and other natural forces occasionally cause appalling catastrophes… Science cannot -- (yet) -- prevent earthquakes, but science could have provided just enough warning of the Boxing Day tsunami to save most of the victims and the bereaved… And if the comforts afforded by outstretched human arms, warm human words and heartbroken human generosity seem puny against the agony, they at least have the advantage of existing in the real world.'


The second quote comes from Anton Chekhov – another writer brought up as a child in an atmosphere of intense religiosity, not to say bigotry.  He wrote to a friend in 1892:  'I have no religion now,' he says. 'I squandered away my faith long ago and I never fail to be puzzled by an intellectual who is also a believer.'  'An intellectual who is also a believer'… It’s exactly what I feel about Graham Greene – 'puzzled'. Greene’s faith puzzles me, I’m suspicious of it, I don’t really believe in it -- but, it strikes me now, perhaps that’s precisely the response he wanted to stimulate in us.




This paper was read at the Graham Greene Festival, Berkhamsted in 29th September 2007.

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