This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Eric Weinberger

25 October 2004 — When the vice–president can twist Senator John Kerry's words so that we start snickering at the idea of waging a "sensitive war," we have left the morally ambiguous territory of Graham Greene, for whom such oppositions or seeming paradoxes were paramount. It was Greene, after all, who said of Browning's poem "Bishop Blougram's apology" that it could be the epigraph for his life's work, referring to the passage "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things/ The honest thief, the tender murderer, The superstitious atheist . . . We watch while these in equilibrium keep/ The giddy line midway."

It is not known what John Kerry, sensitive warrior, appreciator of nuance, thinks of Graham Greene, but it is unlikely he has not read him. The novel The Quiet American is in the air these days, now that American idealism is again tested in distant chaotic lands of which we know little and understand even less, and it seems impossible to think that the precursor to the American involvement in Vietnam—namely the French rule of the 1950s, and the first infiltration of American agents seeking to stop communism in its tracks—could have escaped this veteran's attention in the form of the finest novel to come from that conflict. Whether he would identify with Greene's description of the eponymous Pyle, a Boston man (Harvard, but it could have been Yale), as an innocent who "never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture hall" is less likely, perhaps.

Greene has always been a difficult writer for Americans to deal with, so frank was his contempt for American materialism and, especially, he noted, 'American liberalism.' Were Greene alive and writing today, it would be this liberal—not reactionary—spirit he would identify in the Bush administration's crusading zeal, the endless terrifying unrealizable bromides on freedom, democracy, etc., that animated poor Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. Paul Wolfowitz would be the Pyle who survived, and made it to the top.

"The terrifying weight of this consumer society oppresses me," Greene said. He made friends with American enemies and rivals like Torrijos and Castro, and enjoyed toying with American officialdom, even when it risked keeping him out of the country, which was bound to happen once he confessed to having been a member of the Communist Party, at Oxford, for four weeks as a student lark. His Americans are frequently caricatures—there is more than one in The Quiet American. More than once is Coca–Cola thrown around as a sneer, or insult. One of the comedians in the novel of that name, set in Haiti under the regime of 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, is a ridiculous figure named Smith, known as the Presidential Candidate for the one time he ran, against Truman, on the vegetarian platform and polled 10,000 votes. "I never anticipated so much support," he says.

Yet Smith turns out to be an interesting case: the sort of American idealist, like Pyle, that Greene feared if not hated, but admirable for his grave impassive dignity, and his courage. American readers who would like a favorite author better disposed toward their country learn to downplay the mockery and the condescension next to that awesome empathy for weak and flawed human beings, the furtive, the afraid and the fleeing, who dominate every novel. With Greene, the questioning did not end even as the honors and attention grew, and for him everything came down to man's private quest for redemption, and the consolations of faith, if one could find it.

"If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith": These are among the last lines in The Comedians, from the hand of the Communist Doctor Magiot whose death is imminent. But they continue to form a final question, as often happens in a Greene novel: "There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?" In the late novel Monsignor Quixote the Communist mayor pondering the death of his beloved friend the Catholic priest asks a similar question: "For how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for this love of his to continue? And to what end?"

Being compelled by the dangerous edge of things, that 'giddy line midway,' makes Greene a perfect author of our times, 13 years after his death, 100 years after his birth. The writer "speaks up for the victims," he wrote, "and the victims change." Even the murderer, the zealot and the self–righteous fool attract, as recognizable human types, a kindly curiosity from the wise, sad, amused pen of the author who constantly measured the need for involvement, engagement, against our mortal detachment or neglect. This is an author for whom absolutes like my way or the highway, or "You're either with us or against us," run up against their human limits. The gift of Graham Greene that endures is when one can read lines like (Magiot's again) "Catholics and Communists have been guilty of great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside . . . and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate"—and be not only horrified, but inexpressibly moved.

Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University. His criticism appears in The New York Times, The Nation, and elsewhere.

©2004 Eric Weinberger

Previous column; THE OTHER FACE OF TARIQ RAMADAN ... While Islamic writer and scholar Tariq Ramadan becomes a cause celebre with his blocked attempt to enter the U.S., Bernard–Henri Lé provides a stinging indictment that Ramadan is an anti–Semite.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.