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.

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