Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lessons from The Heart of the Matter

...perhaps after all something may yet happen before he reaches me: some incredible interposition...But with open mouth (the time had come) he made one last attempt at prayer.  "O God, I offer up my damnation to you.  Take it.  Use it for them," and was aware of the pale papery taste of his eternal sentence on the tongue.  

Graham Greene is famous for writing three novels that are specifically "Catholic": The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair.  He objected to this label, arguing that he was an author who happened to be Catholic...not a Catholic novelist.  Yet the label endured and his works are divided into the two categories of "entertainments" (thrillers) and Catholic novels.

In reading The Heart of the Matter, I found myself frequently troubled by the notion that the novel was Catholic.  What, exactly, gives a work of fiction this delineation?  Is it because the imagery, actions, language, customs are Catholic?  Think: feast days, saints, Our Lady, sacraments, fasting from meat on Friday, papacy & Church hierarchy.  Or is it that the theme and message resound with Catholic theology?  Is it Catholic because it has the trappings of Catholicism, or because the novel's theme is Catholic in its teaching?

I had picked up The Heart of the Matter with a sense of reassurance and security.  It is, after all, a Catholic novel!  What matter could I find objectionable?  I was taken by surprise, therefore, when I found many things objectionable...troubling...  At many points I had to ponder where Greene was going with his plot and had to hope the "Catholic" message would triumph in the end.  There was certainly the elements of Catholicism in the plot (the main character being a Catholic himself), but the ideology residing behind in the protagonist's actions--was it Catholic?

I find that when reading fiction, you enter into the head of the author.  That can sometimes be a dangerous thing, but it's always fascinating.  What life experiences, ghosts of the past, lessons learned do the author intertwine with the lives of his or her characters?  How much does Greene put of himself into the words he writes?  Is this a "Catholic" mind you are entering as you progress through the chapters?

But, I ask myself, what is a "Catholic mind?"  Greene was a convert to Catholicism, but he was not always practicing.  In fact, he was a committed adulterer with multiple women and left his family.  He self-identified as a "Catholic agnostic." 

Surely, few of us are saints.  When one reads a work of fiction, the author generally tends to be a sinner.  However, when one seeks out Catholic fiction, should the expectation be that the author is a faithful, practicing Catholic?  Or can the Catholic dimension still shine truthfully through a sinful--perhaps even lapsed--lens?

Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter in 1948.  It was based on his experiences in Sierra Leone during WWII, when he was stationed there as part of the British Secret Service.  And in many ways, it was based on his own life, specifically his faith life.

Sierra Leone
Henry Scobie, the main character, is a police officer stationed on the west coast of Africa during WWII.  As the novel opens, he is presented as a strikingly honest man--whereas most of the police officers will accept bribes or engage in under-the-table exchanges, Scobie is known for his truthfulness and forthrightness.  Except when it involves his wife, Louise, that is.

Scobie perceives his goal to be making Louise happy, a goal which sometimes means omitting or avoiding the truth.  He is drawn to her, not out of love necessarily, but pity: he feels bad for her, who is socially outcast and trapped in the rainy, humid, foreign climate of Africa.  Like an actor in a play, he says the rehearsed lines to console her and reassures her of his affection, though there is little depth to his words.

He gave her a bright fake smile; so much of life was a putting off of unhappiness for another time.  Nothing was ever lost by delay.  He had a dim idea that perhaps if one delayed long enough, things were taken out of one's hands altogether by death.

This concept of pity becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses.  It is, in fact, the cause of Scobie's ultimate downfall.  Louise deeply desires to leave and travel to South Africa for a little while.  Scobie can't pull together the funds for such an excursion and so--against better judgment--takes a loan from Yusef, a Syrian who works for the black market.

 Pity smouldered like decay at his heart.  He would never rid himself of it.  He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed.  Nothing ever diminished pity.  The conditions of life nurtured it.  

Scobie hangs a pair of rusty, old handcuffs on the wall in his office.  They symbolize the pity that keeps him chained--to Louise, and then to Helen.  Helen is a young widow (married only about a month), who is found with a few others in a boat that was in the open sea for 40 days.  She is alone, ugly, without future...she is to be pitied.  

...he watched her [Helen] with sadness and affection and enormous pity because a time would come when he couldn't show her around in a world where she was at sea.  When she turned and the light fell on her face she looked ugly, with the temporary ugliness of a child.  The ugliness was like handcuffs on his wrists.

Scobie and Helen have an affair and it seems as though she may be drawing out of him genuine love and affection.  But perhaps not as Louise's unexpected return adds a whole degree of complication to things.  His greatest desire is not to cause pain to either one of them, but that means never telling Louise what has occurred while simultaneously never abandoning Helen.  

It may appear to be a sort of love triangle, but Greene's plot is more involved than that, as the Catholic dimension brings another layer of confusion and conflict.  Scobie and his wife are both Catholic.  After Louise returns home, she tells Scobie they will go to Mass together the next day.  Scobie immediately finds himself in the greatest predicament yet: to not receive Holy Communion would be a great indictment, yet to receive while in a state of mortal sin would mean his damnation.

"Now I'm just putting our love above--well, my safety.  But the other--the other's really evil.  It's like the Black Mass, the man who steals the sacrament to desecrate it.  It's striking God when he's down--in my power."

She [Helen] turned her head wearily away and said, "I don't understand a thing you are saying.  It's all hooey to me."

"I wish it were to me.  But I believe it."

Scobie believes and therein is the source of the conflict.  He is a practicing Catholic who knows what is right and wrong, who is torn up on the inside when contemplating receiving Communion while in a state of sin--yet, who still willingly commits adultery.  

Perhaps this is one reason why the book is "Catholic."  The climax of the book, at least in my opinion, is not a scene involving either Helen or Louise, but rather God.  Scobie doesn't want to hurt either woman and he pities each.  He also pities God though: God who places Himself helplessly and at the mercy of man in Holy Communion.  And Scobie is equally wracked with guilt that he is wounding God by receiving Him in a state of grave sin.  He kneels at the altar rail, Louise at his side, hoping for some deliverance from the situation in which he has placed himself through his sin.

The words of the Mass were like an indictment.  "I will go in unto the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth."  But there was no joy anywhere.  He looked up from between his hands, and the plaster images of the Virgin and the Saints seemed to be holding out hands to everyone, on either side, beyond him...the fear and the shame of the act he was going to commit chilled his brain...he had no love or evil or hate of God: how was he to hate this God who of His own accord was surrendering Himself into his power?  He was desecrating God because he loved a woman--was it even love, or was it just a feeling of pity and responsibility?  

Loneliness overpowers him and courts him like a demonic companion.  Scobie can see no escape from his trap.

He said, O God, I am the only guilty one because I've 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.  But there are limits to what I can do to you--or them.  I can't desert either of them while I'm alive, but I can die and remove myself from their blood-stream.  They are ill with me and I can cure them.  And you too, God--you are ill with me.  I can't go on, month after month, insulting you.  I can't face coming up to tha altar at Christmas--your birthday feast--and taking your body and blood for the sake of a lie.  I can't do that.  You'll be better off if you lose me once and for all.  I know what I'm doing.  I'm not pleading for mercy.  I am going to damn myself, whatever that means.

The heart becomes the central matter: Scobie feigns angina and commits suicide by overdosing on medication.  

What is the "heart of the matter?"  What is the message Greene, lapsed Catholic, trying to give in this Catholic novel?

In many ways, Scobie is Greene.  They share the same first name (Henry) and are stationed in the same location during the war.  They both converted to Catholicism to marry and then, once married, committed adultery.  And both grappled with a guilty conscience.

George Orwell, in a review of the novel after it was first published, said that Scobie was incredible because "the two halves of him do not fit together."  In many ways, I agree.  He obviously has deep faith: his incredible guilt and grief over receiving Holy Communion comes from his conviction that Christ is present in the Eucharist.  He believes in God.  Yet, he kills spare God pain?  They are two extremes that can't seem to be reconciled--extremes that, perhaps, speak to Greene's bipolar disorder.

“To me the idea of willing my own damnation for the love of God is either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy, for the God that accepted that sacrifice could be neither just nor lovable.” ~ Evelyn Waugh in a review of The Heart of the Matter

If The Heart of the Matter is a Catholic novel, I find it a dangerous one, simply because I think you need to be Catholic to understand it.  If you do not understand or believe in transubstantiation, how can you commiserate with Scobie's grief concerning Holy Communion?  His desperation over offending God in this way leads him to suicide, but if you believe Communion to be "all hooey," as Helen did, then Scobie comes across as someone in a fit of insanity.  It also becomes easy to interpret Greene's writing as a condemnation of the Church's supposedly harsh and unmerciful teaching regarding sin and punishment.

Is there a Catholic message in this Catholic novel?  Yes, I think so, but it's only gleaned through Scobie's errors.  There is no example to emulate here.  As Greene wrote to fellow author and friend, Evelyn Waugh:

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."

Scobie's fault was pity, which was in fact a masked pride.  To pity one, you must feel yourself somehow or someway above him or her.  It's different from compassion, which literally means "to suffer with."  Pity puts one above, not beside, the sufferer.  For Scobie to willfully end his own life is seizing a power that belongs only to God.  As Robert Coles writes in the New Oxford Review, "...Suicide is a kind of ultimate willfulness...Those who believe God has given us life know full well that it is for Him for end it."

Pity is a very different matter from love; as Greene himself described, "...Pity can be the expression of almost a monstrous pride."

As Scobie finds himself deeper and deeper in lies, he loses his ability to trust.  If he himself, once so upright and guileless, could deceive, who could be trusted?  Scobie couldn't bear to cause either Louise or Helen suffering--he felt too responsible for both of them.  He couldn't trust that God would take care of them.  He, Scobie, had to ensure everyone's happiness--even God's.  And in this Scobie committed the greatest sin that is pride.  

The Heart of the Matter takes the reader into the confusing, conflicted, and complicated place that is the internal, eternal soul.  In the end, Greene reminds us that--as wrong as Scobie's action was--it is God's place to judge him.  In one of the last lines of the book, Greene has Father Rank remind Louise, "The Church knows all the rules.  But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart."  

Scobie is a sinner in the same manner that Greene was a sinner.  The following quote is from Greene, though it could easily be placed on the lips of his protagonist.

We…become hardened to the formulas of confession and skeptical about ourselves: we…only half intend to keep the promises we make, until continual failure or the circumstances of our private life, finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon Confession and Communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens.

But this same man also wrote:

I can tell myself now that my lack of belief is a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true. I had cut myself off for twenty years from grace and my belief withered as the priests said it would. I don’t believe in God and His Son and His angels and His saints, but I know the reason why I don’t believe and the reason is—the Church is true and what she taught me is true. For twenty years I have been without the sacraments and 1 can see the effect. The wafer must be more than wafer.

Maybe that is what makes Greene a "Catholic author."  He may not have been faithful, but he knew the faith and knew that it was true.  For most of us, sin makes the path of faith very messy at some points.  Maybe it's in that struggle that Greene is Catholic at his best.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lessons from Anna Karenina

For us, for you and me, there is only one thing that matters, whether we love one another. Other people we need not consider.

Some claim it's the greatest novel ever written.  Dostoyevsky called it "flawless as a work of art."  

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is an incredible novel--a rich, complex, poignant, and introspective work that touches on the myriad of life's experiences, emotions, and questions.  The writing is superb: I even found the chapter on scything a field positively moving!

The Russian author wrote Anna Karenina in serial installments from 1873-1877.  As he started the novel, Tolstoy was occupied with understanding the idea of family.  Throughout the work, Tolstoy touchingly portrays some of the most powerful and influential moments of family life with vivid detail.  

There is a number of ideas and themes running throughout the work, which is focused on two protagonists: Anna and Levin, who actually meet only once, but whose lives run parallel to each other, though in ever sharper contrast.  

So much could be written about Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy himself said of his work, "If I were to try to say what it is that I meant by Anna Karenina, I would have to write the entire novel all over again."

However, as I progressed through the stories of Anna and Levin, one particular theme stood out to me: truth.  Truth and genuineness.  

Consider the first protagonist, Anna.  Anna is a stunning, kind, confident, and intelligent woman, who was married at a young age to Alexei Alexandrovich, an older, seemingly-emotionless bureaucrat.  While visiting her brother and sister-in-law in hopes of repairing their marriage, wounded by her brother's infidelity, Anna meets the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky.  The attraction is immediate, the desire powerful.

At first Anna sincerely believed that she was displeased with him for allowing himself to pursue her; but soon after her return from Moscow, having gone to a soiree where she thought she would meet him, and finding that he was not there, she clearly understood from the sadness which came over her that she was deceiving herself, that his pursuit not only was not unpleasant for her but constituted the entire interest of her life. 

As the light of Vronsky's allure and appeal grows in Anna's eyes, her husband and their marriage seem dark, fake, and dull.  Though Anna initially resists Vronsky's advances--at least in word--she quickly succumbs to her desire for him, first in her thoughts, then in her actions.  

He [Alexei Alexandrovich] saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.  Moreover, by her tone he could tell that she was not embarrassed by it, but was as if saying directly to him: yes, it's closed, and so it ought to be and will be in the future.  He now felt the way a man would feel coming home and finding his house locked up.

When Alexei Alexandrovich hears of Anna's liaison with Vronsky, he gives her one stipulation: do as you will, but maintain appearances.  Anna abhors living such a lie: how could she continue at Alexei Alexandrovich's side, playing the charade of happy, content wife, when there is another Alexei with whom she is passionately in love?

Don't you know that you are my whole life?  But I know no peace and cannot give you any.  All of myself, my love...yes.  I cannot think of you and myself separately.  You and I are one for me.  And I do not see any possibility of peace ahead either for me or for you.  I see the possibility of despair, of unhappiness...or I see the possibility of happiness, such happiness!...Isn't is possible? (Vronsky to Anna)

So Anna eventually leaves her husband and their son, escaping with Vronsky for Italy.  At first it seems that she has everything she desired.  But, for all the apparent freedom she has gained, she lacks a unity of life.  Ironically, the very thing Anna flees from--lies--becomes the life that she lives.  

Vronsky and Anna seem joined as one, but the truth of their situation speaks quite the opposite.  There is no marriage between them.  They are not one.  The precariousness of the relationship soon manifests itself more and more glaringly, like little cracks that grow deeper and wider.  

Anna is shunned by society for her choice to leave her husband and live as Vronsky's mistress.  She is a social outcast.  Their relationship has cost Vronsky a promising career in the military; he ultimately leaves his calvary post and pursues other interests--painting, building a hospital--all in the elusive search for something to desire.  Having his prior ambitions fulfilled in his relationship with Anna, Vronsky finds himself wrestling with the emptiness of discontent.  

Vronsky meanwhile, despite the full realization of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy.  He soon felt the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected.  It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.

Believing her physical attributes keep Vronsky at her side, Anna desires no other children, knowing a pregnancy and subsequent postpartum period would alter her appearance.  Clearly, this relationship does not rest on a strong foundation.  Anna becomes increasingly jealous, suspicious, and possessive of the love she has sacrificed everything for...a love that is not based in truth.

These fits of jealousy, which had come over her more and more often lately, horrified him and, no matter how he tried to conceal it, made him cooler towards her, though he knew that the cause of her jealousy was her love for him...She was not at all as he had seen her in the beginning.  Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse...He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it.

As the novel opens, it is the Anna/Vronsky relationship that seems most intriguing, passionate, and powerful.  Yet, love that has at its root sin, is not authentic love.  Vice has a way of stripping the subject of his or her beauty--it makes one less of a person.  So it happens with Anna and Vronsky.  By the end of the novel, their story has gone flat.  The passion is gone; the romance is replaced with jealousy and insecurity.  Anna, originally so captivating and stunning in her persona, has become monotonous in her vice and misery.  In one of their final conversations, Anna cries desperately to Vronsky:

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.  But if you don't love me, it would be better and more honest to say so.

The reader cannot help but sympathize with her, but one cannot condone her actions: Anna's pursuit of love did not lead to her liberation, but to her downfall.  Instead of looking outward toward her husband, to whom she had given her vows, or to her son, Anna looked at Vronsky as the fulfillment of her desires.  As Vronsky states, "Other people we need not consider."  

This selfish insistence on Vronsky at all costs, despite the pain it inflicted upon others (including the lovers themselves) eventually meant that Vronsky and his love was all she had.  And when she thought his love gone, Anna saw nothing left for her.  As an article in The American Catholic explains, Anna had lost her identity through her sin.  Vice is self-destructive.

The other major romantic union in Anna Karenina is that between Levin and Kitty.  It exists as a foil for Anna and Vronsky's relationship and whereas the latter union was actually a disunion based on untruth, Levin and Kitty's relationship is genuine.  There is a unity of life between their desires and actions.  

Anna is intent on pursuing her desire for union with Vronsky, despite the enormous moral and societal cost of such an action.  Levin, in contrast, does not live for pleasure.  As he says to his friend (and Anna's brother), Stepan:

"Well, of course," Stepan Arkadyich picked up.  "But that's the aim of civilization: to make everything an enjoyment."

"Well, if that's its aim, I'd rather be wild." [Levin]

Levin's relationship with Kitty doesn't begin very smoothly.  He proposes to her, but she turns him down because she believes that she favors another man: ironically, Vronsky.  Levin's pride is hurt and he returns to his country home.  But unlike Anna, who cannot find any peace or contentment when she is apart from Vronsky, Levin takes his passion and energy and directs it to something fulfilling, as he works the land and applies himself to advancing his farming methods.

"'re a lucky man.  You have everything you love.  You love horses--you have them; dogs--you have them; hunting--you have it; farming--you have it." [Stepan]

"Maybe it's because I rejoice over what I have and don't grieve over what I don't have," said Levin, remembering Kitty." 

Though they parted ways for a time, in his heart, Levin has always loved Kitty and, when he meets her once again at a dinner party, he puts aside his wounded pride and is truthful with his feelings, as is she.  They are subsequently engaged and prepare for their wedding day.  Levin realizes that their marriage must be based on truth: they must be genuine with each other.  And so, before their wedding, Levin fully disclosed to Kitty his past transgressions.

It was not without inner struggle that Levin gave her his diary.  He knew that there could not and should not be any secrets between them and therefore he decided that it had to be so: but he did not realize how it might affect her, he did not put himself in her place.  Only when he came to them that evening before the theatre, went to her room and saw her tear-stained, pathetic and dear face, miserable from the irremediable grief he had caused her, did he understand the abyss that separated his shameful past from her dove-like purity... 

Vronsky and Anna seek to be one, but it is only in marriage that full unity of man and woman is achieved.  This is what Levin and Kitty experience.

Levin carefully kissed her smiling lips, offered her arm and, feeling a new, strange closeness, started out of the church.  He did not believe, he could not believe, that it was true.  Only when their surprised and timid eyes met did he believe it, because he felt that they were already one.

This oneness doesn't preclude quarrels or animosity.  In a remarkable parallel, Tolstoy provides the reader a view into the three months Anna and Vronsky spent traveling together and living in Italy, followed by the first three months of Kitty and Levin's marriage.  Both relationships experience difficulty during this time of adjustment.  After Vronsky grows discontent with his newly-acquired hobby (painting) and Anna secretly yearns to see her son, they abandon their temporary home abroad to return to Russia...almost, one could say, in defeat. 

Yet, the arguments Kitty and Levin have as they acclimate to married life serve to remind them how they are one--something quite absent from Anna and Vronsky's experience.

In perhaps my favorite passage from Anna Karenina, Levin reflects on his feelings after he and Kitty quarrel for the first time as husband and wife, a passage that strongly highlights the intimate union of matrimony.  There is no longer a "he" and "she," but a "we."

...he understand clearly for the first time what he had not understood when he had led her out of the church after the wedding.  He understood not only that she was close to him, but that the no longer knew where she ended and he began.  He understood it by the painful feeling of being split which he experienced at that moment.  He was offended at first, but in that same instant he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was him.  In the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realizes that he has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with and he must endure and ease the pain.

By the end of the novel, it is the Kitty and Levin relationship that is more compelling, rich, and fulfilling.  Virtue makes one more of a person.  

Anna's focus became more and more inward: was she the recipient of Vronsky's full, undivided love?  Levin, however, by the end of the novel can cast his gaze up toward the heavens and recognize the source of Love.  Anna leaves this world, taking her life, convinced there is no more love to receive; Levin embraces his life, determined to put the goodness of love into the world.

What would I be and how would I live my life, if I did not have those beliefs, did not know that one should live for God and not for one's needs? life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!