Posts Tagged ‘Alden Pyle’

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

September 2, 2012

wwCrucifix

About twenty years ago I entered a Catholic church for the first time.  It was a funeral mass for the father of a colleague delivered at Our Lady of the Assumption, a small church in Claremont, California.  I felt almost suffocated by the large, bleeding Christ hanging from a cross by the altar with its dreary promise of agony.

My first thought was: “Someone should really cover that thing up.”

My second thought was: “How many times do they kneel during a service?”  Herb (an Evangelical from work) and I kept looking over at each other as we struggled to figure out when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel.  (I had not been expecting an aerobic workout.)  Afterwords Herb said, “Damn, I’ve never been in a church with so much kneeling.”

My third thought was: “These people are incredibly masochistic.”

Over the years I’ve attended masses in other Catholic churches for various reasons.  There is usually less kneeling than there was that day at OLA and crucifixes are generally less prominently displayed, but pain is always the dominant motif.  This has long perplexed me.

With the help of Graham Greene, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the allure of a pain-stricken God.  Perhaps the agony of Christ is the mechanism by which Catholics negotiate the incomprehensible chasm between the finite and the infinite.  (As the saying goes, a God who does not suffer is insufferable.)

Sarah Miles, the self-loathing, self–described “bitch and a fake” from The End of the Affair, Greene’s marvelously–constructed novel of wartime infidelity, is drawn to Roman Catholicism despite her strong misgivings (76).  Similar to my own revulsion for the celebration of physical pain in the figure of a massive, bleeding Christ right next to the alter, Sarah “hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body.” Sarah was “trying to escape from the human body and all it needed” (87).

Sarah Miles’ lover, the God-hating utterly recalcitrant atheist Maurice Bendrix who narrates The End of the Affair, provides some cogent elucidations of Greene’s idiosyncratic variety of Catholicism.  Bendrix explains why agony is a much more substantial emotion than joy:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness.  In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other.  But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity (36).

Along with fear, pain is the overriding, omnipresent truth of existence for all sentient beings.  Pain, as Emily Dickinson noted, has “infinite realms,” and “new periods of pain” are always foreseeable.  Pain has no ending, and its existence predates human consciousness on Earth by millions of years:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

Nobody really knew how long a second of pain could be.  It might last a whole purgatory–or for ever(133).  Thus laments the Whiskey Priest, the forlorn and touchingly human hero from Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory.  The Whiskey Priest is the last practicing Padre in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the rabidly anticlerical governor Tomás Garrido Canabal’s reign of terror when Catholicism was banned and every church in the state was shuttered.

From Greene’s perspective, a hapless drunkard who impregnates a parishioner is the ideal hero in this fallen world because:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death.  It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization—it needed a God to die for the half–hearted and the corrupt (97).

There is much paradox here:  We need a perfect God who is also human to deliver us from our imperfection.  And we also require our sin-hungry flesh in order to fully appreciate God’s perfection.  As the Whiskey Priest is “praying against [the] pain” of his own corruption, he comes to the realization that through death and resurrection, “[t]his is what we escape at no cost at all, sacrificing an unimportant motion of the body (66).

Alden Pyle is Graham Greene’s repugnant eponymous Quiet American CIA officer who callously perpetuates human suffering in the name of something he calls Democracy.  When explosives supplied by Pyle kill several civilians, he dismissively notes that “[i]t was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target.  Anyway, they died in the right cause (171).”  Pyle is truly monstrous because “he was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others” (53).

Suffering is the cornerstone of Graham Green’s unique strain of Catholicism.  I am a devout deist who will never share Greene’s faith.  But, paradoxically, his novels inform my existential humanist perspective in ways that no atheist author ever could.  And all humanists would do well to remain cognizant of Thomas Fowler’s important observation: “Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel” (TQA 175).

by Richard W. Bray

Famed American Virtue

August 19, 2011

Graham Greene

Famed American Virtue

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (29)

The Muslims just need to be shown that it is possible to set themselves free.

President George W. Bush Max Boot

Recently there has been a discussion on Andrew Sullivan’s blog about how Americans should go about thanking our combat veterans. Such spasms of guilt from a populace who mindlessly sent so many off to kill and die for no good reason are not surprising. But I think it would be a lot healthier for everyone involved to say this to our combat veterans: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we made you experience horrific things for no good reason. I’m sorry that I only went to two anti-war rallies. I sorry that, lacking the courage of Henry David Thoreau, I continued to pay taxes in support of the bloodthirsty madness which consumed our nation after 9-11. I’m sorry that almost our entire leadership class chose to plunge its head up its collective keyster instead of exploring reasonable alternatives to war. I’m sorry that George W. Bush had Daddy Issues. I’m sorry that Thomas Friedman wanted to feel fellated.

But Americans, particularly our pundit class, aren’t about to start apologizing for our unjustified invasion of Iraq. Really, how hard would it be to say, “Oops. We accidentally conducted a war in Iraq which led to the death of over a hundred thousand people and the displacement of a few million more. Our bad. Can we get a mulligan on that?”

Our leaders, our institutions, our media, all of us—we failed miserably. And the people of Iraq were forced to pay for it. Yet we rarely even speak these days of the true ramifications of this monumental dereliction of duty. We prefer to exalt and fetishize our troops instead of facing up to ourselves and what we’ve done. If we just keep telling ourselves that the men and women who signed on to defend America did so with courage and purity in their hearts, and if we keep focusing on their sacrifice, we can magically shield ourselves from a horrible truth and regain that “famed American virtue“—our innocence.

This is certainly nothing new. Our Beloved Founders lectured the world on the Rights of Man while enslaving one group of humans and nearly exterminating another.

Lofty words about freedom and democracy notwithstanding, enabling repressive regimes in the Gulf Region has been the unofficial American policy for decades. That’s why we have propped up repressive regimes from Iran to Algeria. That’s why President Obama was so timid and vacillating in response to the recent popular uprising in Egypt.

Brent Scowcroft, a prudent paleoconservative from the Henry Kissinger School of International Realism and a trusted adviser to George H.W. Bush, bragged that American support for tyrannical dictatorships in the Middle East helped ensure “fifty years of peace” in the region and kept the precious oil flowing at reasonable prices. Notable examples this policy include the 1953 CIA–sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran and our longstanding support of the Saudi Royal Family.

In light of this history, it was almost surrealistic to hear George W. Bush declare in 2002 with neo-Wilsonian zeal that it was now America’s duty to usher in a new age of Democracy across the Middle East by unleashing our cluster bombs upon Iraqi conscripts. There wasn’t “much regard for truth in our papers” in the wake of 9-11, as mass amnesia about the true history of America’s relationship with the region miraculously took root among our pundit class (88).

Graham Greene refers to the remarkable American ability to maintain our sense of innocence no matter what we do as “a kind of insanity” in The Quiet American, his 1955 novel about early American involvement in Indochina (155). This brilliant and prophetic book is the story of a world-weary English reporter named Thomas Fowler who is befriended by an idealistic young CIA operative with “pronounced and aggravating views on what the United states was doing for the world” named Alden Pyle (4).

Pyle is a dreamy youth “absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West” (10). Tumescent with high-minded ideas about bettering the lot of the world’s downtrodden, Pyle is haughty with book-learning. He brushes off Fowler’s hard-won wisdom with the brash certainty of true ignorance. If Pyle had been capable of listening, he might have heeded Fowler’s simple truth: “They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want” (86). The United States might have spared itself the loss over sixty thousand lives and billions of dollars in Southeast Asia if our leaders had been willing to listen to such talk.

Instead, Pyle dismisses Fowler’s wisdom as the voice of a wicked and defeated continent: “You talk like a European, Thomas. These people aren’t complicated” (168). If only Pyle had paid more attention when Fowler wryly noted that the Vietnamese “know enough to turn your exhaust pipe into a mortar” (79).

Deaf to Fowler’s multiple warnings, Pyle is determined to heed Kipling’s call and Pick up the White Man’s Burden in Vietnam. Searching for a pro-American “third force” to shake things up in the region, Pyle ultimately mistakes renegade General Thé, “a bandit with a few thousand men,” for “a national democracy” (149). When Thé uses explosives provided by Pyle to murder several civilians, Folwer confronts Pyle and asks him how he can possibly “justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death”(155).

Undaunted, Pyle replies, “In a way you could say they died for democracy” (171).

It was easy for Alden Pyle to drift into support of Thé’s terrorism because Pyle “was determined…to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world” (10).

America’s perpetual longing for a world that never was, that City on a Hill of our most perfervid imaginings, often has drastic consequences in the real world. When will we ever learn that it is impossible to absolve our own sins with the blood of others?

by Richard W. Bray