Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

Empathy

June 4, 2016

wwvaleriewolf

Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel
Thomas Fowler

You can take an anvil
And drop it on my face
Feed me to the rodents
Till I’m gone without a trace

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

I know I can contain
The borders of my pain
A million shocks and aches
Won’t make me complain

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

Love gives it meaning
The hurt that we all feel
The pain we have for others
Makes existence real

Tie me to an anthill
Drop me from the sky
Just don’t hurt the ones I love
Or make my baby cry

by Richard W. Bray

Writing: Sketch and Fill, Write, Write, Prune, Sitting, Standing, Morning, Afternoon or Night

May 30, 2016
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

 

I write in the afternoon, like everybody else” asserts Dylan Thomas in the in the Caedmon Collection, a fantastic set of recordings of the poet’s live readings which are introduced by Billy Collins.

This would be a curious comment coming from most writers, but Thomas was a notoriously late drinker. Actually, he was a round-the-clock drinker.  In one of his introductions, Collins laments the foibles of Thomas, who was often confused, lost, and inebriated across America during the early 1950s.  (My dad had tickets to a see Thomas at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA; sadly, as on many other occasions, Thomas was unable to make the show.)

I’m pretty sure most writers write in the morning when the mind is fresh. Many writers such as Kurt Vonnegut had to wake early to write before hitting the day job. Kafka would come home from his job at the insurance agency and nap so he could write when everyone else had gone to sleep and the house was quiet.

Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing is strongly influenced by Freud.  Hemingway sees creativity as a sort of gas tank that is constantly being refueled by the subconscious mind. Hemingway recommends against allowing the brain to run on empty.

Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. (Ernest Hemingway On Writing 42)

I don’t know if Graham Greene was familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s philosophy of writing, but he certainly practiced it. Greene had some sort of system that informed him exactly when he had written five hundred words. And that’s how much he wrote every morning, even if had to stop mid-sentence. Pretty soon after that he would start drinking, but this isn’t going to be another post about the inebriated scribbler, is it?

Writers write all sorts of ways: before breakfast, after dinner, dictating, typing, long-hand, short-hand, hunched over a keyboard, sitting up in bed, or standing up. Standing up is how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, on a desk that his descendants later sold (along with 130 slaves) to pay off the Great Man’s debts after he died. Jefferson heartily enjoyed the finer things in life, particularly French wine. (Spendthrift Jefferson provides a stark contrast to frugal George Washington who made provisions in his will to leave Martha with a healthy estate and to also grant* manumission to all of his slaves.)

I have a theory that there are basically two types of prose-writers: Sketch and Fill writers and Write, Write, Prune, writers.

I’m a Sketch and Fill writer. I prefer to write in the morning and revise later in the day or during the evening. As my writer’s gas tank nears empty, I often begin to make notes on what I’m going to write about when I return to the keyboard with a fresh brain.

* to boldly split your infinitive is often the more poetic thing to do

by Richard W. Bray

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

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard — I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read. And he was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

March 23, 2010

Franz De Waal

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

#1 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber

…so far as any record shows or any story relates, no member of the United States Army ever shot a single Yana Indian, whose multiple murder remained a home and civilian and strictly extralegal operation. (62) There’s a line in the song Sun City by Steven Van Zandt reminding us that Apartheid “ain’t that far away.” Episodes in Extermination, the fourth chapter of Ishi, written in a beautifully plain and sober tone, makes our own proximity to the horrors of genocide painfully clear.

#2 Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal

Chimpanzees think by feeling, just like we do:

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond mere fear, pain, and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible. (76)

#3 War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges

This indispensable book, which came out when our society was still very sick with war fever, tells us that war

Is peddled by mythmakers–historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state–all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it’s over (3)

 

#4 United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

This collection of essays proves that in addition to being a damn fine novelist, Vidal is simply our finest living essayist. From his essay Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy:

Give a sissy a gun and he will shoot everything in sight….There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born part of it. (733)

#5 Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

A much underappreciated masterpiece. An earlier post demonstrated that Erdrich is a master of the simile. Some more examples:

Then the vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. (5)

My mother held out a heavy tin one (spoon) from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. (12)

On the much traveled, evil Sister Leopolda: Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, like a spot checker in a factory.(45)

She thought of everything so hard that her mind felt warped and sodden as a door that swells up in spring. (107)

Dot was a diligent producer of milk, however. Her breasts, like overfilled inner tubes, strained at her nylon blouses. (210)

#6 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The greatest and most important American novel published during the second half of the twentieth century. So it goes.

#7 The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Here’s Greene on innocence, which, as Arnold Rampersad wryly noted, is a famed American virtue:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.(29)

#8 The Collected Poems of W. H Auden

The only artists who have made a comparable impression on my consciousness are Vonnegut, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. And I shall continue to revere Auden until the day when I surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund. (690) (btw, the collected poems are not the complete poems because Auden left out many with which he later became unsatisfied. A notable omission is September 1, 1939 which was excised because Auden eventually decided that the line We must love one another or die constitutes a false alternative.)

#9 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Perhaps foolishly, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s notoriously silly aspiration to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass, I would argue that Dickinson is the first, and quite possibly the only, American poet capable of going toe-to-toe with the Bard.

#10 The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

I recoil somewhat at the realization that there exists a profound kindred empathy in the deepest recesses of my psyche for this sad, sad, angry, witty woman.

 

by Richard W. Bray