In the second extract from his new book on literary giants of the Catholic revival, Father Ian Ker considers how the dramatic tension between salvation and damnation fired Graham Greene's imagination and faith
Marie-Francoise Allain's The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene 1979), the novelist several times denied that hc believed in hell, as opposed to "a sort of purgatory". On one of these occasions, according to the record, he even said: "I have never believed in hell" — while admitting that "the evil which surrounded" him at boarding school "prepared" him "for the paradoxes of Christianity".
But what he described in his essay "The Lost Childhood" (1947) as the "perfect evil" which he had experienced at school suggests something more hellish than purgatorial. And this is confnmed in the prologue to The Lawless Roads (1939). where Greene stated explicitly: "I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy — the pitch-pine partitions of dormitories where everybody was never quiet at the same time; lavatories without locks ..."
In contrast to the hell of school life, the Church of England "could not supply the same intimate symbols for heaven; only a big brass eagle, an organ voluntary, 'Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing' ..." These symbols changed when Greene became a Roman Catholic in 1926: "The Mother of God took the place of the brass eagle: I began to have a dim conception of the appalling mysteries of love moving through a ravaged world — the Cure d'Ars admitting to his mind all the impurity of a province, Peguy challenging God in the cause of the damned."
If the conventional Anglicanism in which Greene had been brought up could not convey any real sense of heaven and God's love, neither did it believe in hell in the way the Roman Catholic Church did. One could only appreciate "the appalling mysteries" of divine love if one also had a lively faith in the possibility of damnation. For not only did the Catholicism to which Greene was introduced preach about the possibility of damnation, it also left the believer in no doubt about the kinds of action that sent one to hell — "mortal sins" or those sins which merited eternal damnation. A later kind of Catholicism. less anxious to apply the ultimate sanction to lapses such as missing Mass on Sunday, may have a more nuanced theology but it has undoubtedly reduced the dramatic tension that so fascinated Greene, between on the one hand the certainty of damnation and on the other hand the infinite mercy of God.
Greene's denial that he had ever believed in hell must have resulted from a lapse of memory or, alternatively, from a desire to distance himself from his earlier years when he became known as a Catholic novelist. In 1936 he wrote in Journey Without Maps (1936): "I am a Catholic with an intellectual if not an emotional belief in Catholic dogma; I find that intellectually I can accept the fact that to miss a Mass on Sunday is to be guilty of mortal sin." But, as Greene knew very well, the concept of mortal sin is meaningless if there is no hell. Certainly, his biographer Norman Sherry is in no doubt that Greene had once not only himself believed in hell but that "what attracted him as much as anything to Catholicism was the Church's belief in Hell"; and Sherry quotes a letter. written at the end of 1925, a few weeks before he was received into the Church, on the subject or hell: "It gives something hard, non-sentimental and exciting." In the same letter he reacts strongly against what he sees as the sentimentalism of Anglicanism. The word "exciting" is, I think. very significant, hut for the moment 1 want to stress the word "hard", because not only is there this strange denial in Greene's conversations with Marie-Francoise Attain, which conflicts with the known facts, but also because of a curious inconsistency between his vaunted liberal Catholicism and his contempt for the Church of England's fuzzy attitude to dogma.
In conversation with Allain, he insists on the necessity of dogma — "otherwise one becomes as foggy as the Anglicans" — and speaks of the "absurdity" of Anglican bishops who deny the fundamentals of Christian belief. And yet almost in the same breath he dismisses the Catholic concept of mortal sin, which follows from the doctrine of hell and which underpins one of the seven defined Catholic sacraments, that of penance, which origi
noted from and which depends on the fundamental Christian belief that human beings have been endowed with unconditional free will, that must consequently have the unrestrained capacity to commit such serious sin as ruptures communion with Christ and his Church and therefore demands sacramental reconciliation. "As for mortal sin, I find the idea difficult to accept because it must by definition be committed in defiance of God. I doubt whether a man making love to a woman ever does so with the intention of defying God ... The word `mortal' presupposes a fear of hell, which I find meaningless."
Now, not only was Greene instructed by an able and intelligent priest, Father Trollope, to whom he pays tribute in A Sort of Life (1971), but he was very literate theologically, with a great admiration, in particular, for Newman, "whose hooks influenced me a great deal after my conversion", and indeed with a lifelong interest in theology ("Theology is the only form of philosophy which I enjoy reading"). It seems, therefore, extraordinary that he should have thought that the Catholic Church teaches that a person who commits adultery or fornication commits mortal sin because their motive for doing so is to defy God. Such a case must be very rare indeed. The Catholic Church, as Greene must have known, is very well aware why people commit what it regards as mortal sins, not in order to defy God, but rather to seek their own pleasure, even though it involves seriously disobeying God. That Greene is obfuscating the issue is anyway clear from his Catholic novels, where the idea of mortal sin in a perfectly conventional sense is used to great dramatic effect.
The reason I have spent so much time on whether Greene ever believed in hell and mortal sin is because, as I have said, the two themes, together with the possibility of forgiveness in confession and the unlimited mercy of God, arc integral to his finest writing, which is what makes his denial so paradoxical. But before considering how Greene uses these themes, it is important to see how he blends these most traditional Catholic motifs with two very contemporary influences on the novel to produce an altogether new kind of fiction in the English language. These two related influences, of which Greene was very conscious, are the cinema and the thriller.
Te first offspring of this union was Greene's first major novel, Brighton Rock (1938) — "one of the best I ever wrote". For the Catholic gangster Pinkie, who is guilty of murder, as for the young Greene, the reality of hell is much clearer than that of heaven. When he tells his girlfriend Rose that he doesn't go to Mass, she asks anxiously:
"But you believe, don't you." Rose implored him, "you think it's true?"
"Of course in true," the Boy said. "What else could there be he went scornfully on, "Why" he said, "it :s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don't know nothing.
"Of course there's Hell. Flames and damnation ... torments."
"And Heaven too," Rose said with anxiety ...
"Oh, maybe." the Boy said, "maybe."
Rose seems tacitly to accept this pessimistic assumption about what Catholicism essentially consists of when later she remarks bitterly to Pinkie about Ida Arnold, who is in pursuit of Fred's murderer: "You believe in things. Like Hell. But you can sec she don't believe a thing." Pinkie refuses the description of religious believer, as facts don't require belief: "I don't take any stock in religion. Hell — it's just there." Pinkie himself "couldn't picture any eternity except in terms of pain" — "Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust."
The secular Ida's determination, by contrast, to find Fred's killer is based on her Lack of belief, that is, on her conviction that "death was the end of everything": "Death shocked her, life was so important. She wasn't religious. She didn't believe in heaven or hell ... Let Papists treat death with flippancy: life wasn't so important perhaps to them as what came after ... She took life with a deadly seriousness ... the only thing she believed in." As Rose puts it contemptuously to Pinkie: "She doesn't know what a mortal sin is ... Right and wrong. That's what she talks about ... Right and wrong ... Oh, she won't bum. She couldn't bum if she tried." When Rose asks Pinkie if Ida is "good", he laughs, since somebody who isn't capable of going to hell isn't capable of going to heaven either — "She's just nothing." Pinkie, though, has discovered that Rose is "good," while "he was damned: they were made for each other" Ida, on the other hand, "was as far from either of them as she was from Hell — or Heaven. Good or evil lived in the same country, came together like old friends ..." To Rose's whispered hope that Pinkie may repent and go to confession, Ida contemptuously replies: "That's just religion. Believe me, it's the world we got to deal with." But when Rose responds, "There's things you don't know", Ida retaliates with: "I know one thing you don't. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school." As for Rose, "the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods — Good and Evil ... she knew ... that Pinkie was evil what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong?"
The belief that there are sins called "mortal" which are punished by hell is central to the novel. Rose contemplated going to confession (so as to be "in a state of grace") before her civil marriage to Pinkie, but then realised that "It wasn't any good confessing" since they were going to get married outside the Catholic Church — "to do a modal sin". And Pinkie bitterly relishes the thought that as a result of their invalid marriage "It'll be no good going to confession ever again — as long as we're both alive". Pinkie personifies the Eliot dictum that only people who are properly alive are capable of real evil: "He had no doubt whatever that this was mortal sin, and he was filled with a kind of gloomy hilarity and pride. He saw himself now as a full grown man for whom the angels wept." In bed with Rose, he loses his fear of "damnation — of the sudden and unshriven death — for now he is in hell" and there "wasn't anything to worry
about: it was just his own familiar room". By losing his fear of hell Pinkie becomes fully alive as Ida, who is dead to the spiritual, can never even begin to he. Rose, who loves Pinkie, is happy to be with him "in the country of mortal sin if they damned him they'd got to damn her, too". It is enough for her to have "Pinkie and damnation". Her willingness to commit suicide with Pinkie ,(as she thinks) involves another mor
tal sin — the worst of all mortal sins: "It was said to be the worst act of all, the act of despair, the sin without forgiveness ..." But, not surprisingly, Rose is unable "to realise despair, the mortal sin ... it didn't feel like despair". Instead, it is her misguided love for Pinkie which makes her want to be damned with him — "She felt responsibility .. she wouldn't let him go into that darkness alone." She has to restrain herself from praying, remembering that "she was in mortal sin: it was no good praying". For Rose now to want a "happy death" or "bona mors" would be to be "tempted ... to virtue like a sin ... it would be an act of cowardice: it would mean that she chose never to see him again for ever". Rose's conviction that "The evil act was the honest act ... and the faithful".is the kind of moral or rather spiritual paradox that was to become the hallmark of Greene's Catholic novels. And at the end of the novel she receives unexpected support from the old priest in the confessional, who tells her the story of the French writer Charles Peguy, who, he tells her, "had the same idea as you. He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn't bear the idea that any soul could suffer damnation ... This man decided that if any soul was going to he damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. ... some people think he was — well, a saint". The priest confirms too that "a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone. I think perhaps —because we believe in Him — we are more in touch with the devil than other people".
One very effective device that Greene uses in several of his most vivid cinematic scenes, is to accompany the visual "shot" by, as it were, a subtitle on the screen. At the beginning of the book, for example, Pinkie pays a visit to a shooting-booth in "the Palace of Pleasure" on Brighton Pier: "The shelves of dolls stared down with glassy innocence, like Virgins in a church repository. The Boy looked up: chestnut ringlets, blue orbs and painted cheeks: he thought — Hail
Mary in the hour of our death. 'I'll have six shots,' he said."
These snatches of Catholic prayers that rise involuntarily
into Pinkie's stream of consciousness add an extra note of spiritual menace to what would otherwise just be typical scenes in a thriller film, as, for instance, when we watch Pinkie uneasily climbing the stairs to his bedroom after a telephone call to Mr C'olleoni ends chillingly with what sounds like the gangster laughing: "Agnus Del qui tollis pecrata mundi ...' He walked stiffly, the jacket sagging across his immature shoulders, but when he opened the door of his room — 'dona nobis pacem' — his pallid face peered dimly back at him full of pride from the mirror over the ewer, the soap dish, the basin of stale water."
Later, at the races where Pinkie has arranged for Spicer to be murdered by Colleoni's men, "the Boy sees other images apart from those of the race-course": "He had started something ... which had no end. Death wasn't an end; the censer swung and the priest raised the Host, and the loudspeaker intoned the winners: `Black Boy. Memento Mott General Burgoyne."
Spicer succeeds in escaping, so Pinkie returns to the
house where the gang live to
complete the job himself: "He could hear little creaking leathery movements as the door swung. The words 'Dona no/ifs pacem' came again to mind; for the second time he felt a faint nostalgia, as if for something he had lost or forgotten or rejected." On the final drive to the cliff, there is a wonderful shot of the car driving through the blinding rain, but there is another force that also seems to be beating on the windscreen trying to get in: nie car lurrhed back on to the main road; he turned the bonnet to Brighton. An enorM014S emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis paceni He withstood it with ... bitter force ... If the glass broke, if the beast — whatever it was — got in, God knows what it would do. He had a sense of huge havoc — the confession, the penance and the sacrament — and awful distraction, and he drove blind into the rain.
The Catholic Revival in English Literature by Father Ian Ker will be available from Gracewing (tel. 01568 616835) later this month, priced £14.99