Sunday, August 30, 2009

Graham Greene's Catholicism.

I've been reading The End of the Affair the past few days so when the opportunity came up to catch a Graham Greene double feature at Film Forum last night with two of my favorite religion scholars, I jumped.

Elizabeth Castelli, Chair of the Department of Religion at Barnard College, is author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. Angela Zito is professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University and author of, Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in 18th century China. Time with them is like a seminar in how to read, that most basic human task of observing and interpreting experience, be it a film, a social situation, family relations, a book, or a favorite TV show. I'm always richer for their company and conversation.

It was Elizabeth who remarked, prior to the films, on Graham Greene's astute writing on Catholicism. Greene wrote 26 novels, many of which address religion, and a handful of which were made into movies. In The End of the Affair Sarah promises God, when a bomb falls on her lover's flat, that she will believe in God should he survive. He does and it is this promise, in the midst of her avoided, latent faith, that cuts short their affair. Years later, as they try to reconcile, she decides to become Catholic but is struck down by a sudden illness.

From the book:

...Suddenly I saw her for what she was - a piece of refuse waiting to be cleared away: if you needed a bit of hair you could take it, or trim her nails if nail trimmings had value to you. Like a saint's her bones could be divided up - if anybody required them. She was going to be burnt soon so why shouldn't everybody have what he wanted first? What a fool I had been during three years to imagine that in any way I had possessed her. We are possesed by nobody, not even ourselves.


(From a letter from Sarah to her lover, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, received after her death.) I love you but I can't see you again. I don't know how I'm going to live in this pain and longing and I'm praying to God all the time that he won't be hard on me, that he won't keep me alive. Dear Maurice, I want to have my cake and eat it like everybody else. I went to a priest two days ago before you rang me up and told him I wanted to be a Catholic. I told him about my promise and about you. I said, I'm not really maried to Henry any more. We don't sleep together - not since the first year with you. And it wasn't really a marriage, I said, you couldn't call a registry office a wedding. I asked him couldn't I be a Catholic and marry you? I knew you wouldn't mind going through a service. Every time I asked him a question I had such hope; it was like opening the shutters of a new house and looking for the view, and every window just faced a blank wall. No, no, no, he said, I couldn't marry you, I couldn't go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic. I thought, to hell with the whole lot of them and I walked out of the room where I was seeing him, and I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he's got mercy, only it's such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.

In both the films we watched last night, it is knowledge or truth - or the resolution of plot - that hinge on relics: in The Fallen Idol, it is Mrs. Baines' footprint in spilled dirt; in Brighton Rock, it is a phonograph record made by Pinky for his new bride, Rose. Both "villains," tortured by their inability to love or be loved, experience "an odd sort of mercy" that "looks like punishment."

The Fallen Idol and Brighton Rock are showing as a double feature at Film Forum through Tuesday, September 1.

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Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dear Ann,

Thank you for the shout-out! Just a few random observations about Greene and Catholicism:

* Greene's next novel after the 1938 Brighton Rock, on which last night's film was based, was his 1941 The Power and the Glory, a beautiful and tragic anti-martyrological martyr story. Worth a read in these days of triumphalist persecution stories as a reminder that martyrdom does not always serve the project of triumph.

* In a much-quoted 1941 interview, Greene observed, "Conservatism and Catholicism should be...impossible bedfellows." In the wake of Ted Kennedy's passing, an apt sentiment.

* One of the things I appreciate about Greene's Catholicism is its grown-up-ness and lack of sentimentality, his recognition of the capacity of Christianity to rationalize violence. It's an unflinching vision. One passage from the 1955 The Quiet American--read the novel, skip the movie!--makes the point:

"I hit out at a mosquito which came droning at my ear and saw Dominguez wince instinctively at my blow. 'It's all right, Dominguez, I missed it.' He grinned miserably. He could not justify this reluctance to take life: after all he was a Christian - one of those who had learnt from Nero how to make human beings into candles." (Penguin edition, 1974; p. 175)

So, just some random thoughts.

Thanks again for the kind words and your own scintillating company!

August 30, 2009 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger L A Neumann said...

Yes! EC, you nail it. "...his recognition of the capacity of Christianity to rationalize violence." Brilliant. And this: "...a Christian - one of those who had learnt from Nero how to make human beings into candles." I would have called this address of Christian violence bravery but you are right, it is maturity. Greene's stance flouts our post-modern sentimentality - re: violence and death.

With yesterday's death of Terri Schiavo's father, I have been thinking much about her martyrdom. This is so helpful.

Now I'll be on to The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory. Thank you!

August 30, 2009 at 9:28 AM  

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