Graham Greene and the untameable waywardness of compassion

Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter is an uncomfortable, painful read. You squirm whilst reading it; you wince; you curse Greene under your breath for the mercilessness with which he builds his protagonist Scobie’s inner world; you feel, as the book progresses, the ever-tightening hold that a sort of irrelevant, after-the-event pity has over you; and at the close of the novel Greene thrusts you into a jarringly different perspective calculated to make you feel the ridiculous futility of everything written prior before he abandons you. The Heart of the Matter is not light-reading material, in spite of its unforbidding prose; it is a raw book and it has been written to leave one raw.

Greene’s great achievement is to make vivid the unanswerable moral predicament that every human being finds themselves in because of the conflicting demands of their relationship to other human beings and their relationship to God. Greeneland is a world of necessary contradiction in which it is not possible to live blamelessly and happily. These two incommensurable moral worlds will continue to exercise their distinct gravitational pulls on us, and the result is suffering and an inescapable sense of guilt.

Greene dramatises the paradoxes of the moral life through Scobie’s struggle not to hurt his wife Louise or his lover Helen Rolt, whilst satisfying his obligations to God and to his own sense of integrity. The key moral conflict in the novel is between the humanistic desire to prevent suffering (by devoting himself to both his wife and Helen) and the pietistic need to honour God and observe his rules.

The humanistic obligation to save others from suffering is presented in a remarkably clear-sighted and unsentimental way by Greene. For Greene this impulse is much more Rousseauian than it is Dostoyevskian. Pity is the great moral faculty with which we cannot argue, not love. Greene seems to suggest that love (the always thwarted ‘wish to understand’) draws us into other people’s lives, but that after its dissipation we are left with a burden of ‘responsibility.’ Lying underneath this is the inescapable pity that we feel for the suffering of others – combined with a knowledge of our own indispensability, the way that we have become implicated in their lives. This faculty of pity is most powerfully actuated by proximity and by extreme weakness, but it is general and acts to thwart the desire to withdraw from the world for the sake of ‘peace.’ Scobie reflects on excising things from his life, disentangling himself from the world:

‘But one still has one’s eyes, he thought, one’s ears. Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else an absolute ignorance.’

The pity that we feel is a sort of wound that we are born with, something implanted in us by God – and that thought, of God’s responsibility for this sort of untameable waywardness of compassion, is the very root of the moral paradox.

Scobie’s humanistic obligations are to protect Louise and Helen – the people whose lives he has become implicated in – from suffering. It enjoins him to leave neither of them, to hide his affair from Louise, and to continue to take communion in spite of his fall from grace. The root of his obligations to God are less clear; up to a point, though, they can be taken as self-evident – the obligations that we owe to a loving Creator God. But it seems that they revolve around two different causes. The first is God’s suffering in the Crucifixion – the loving suicide of God. The second is the remarkable love for us attested to by God’s openness. God makes himself so easily approachable even to the least attractive of us and, in the Catholic observances (confession, Mass, communion), expects very little of us in return. Perhaps understandably these obligations are more shrouded in mystery and reverence than the purely human ones, but they are just as alien to ratiocination and just as absolute in their claim on us.

The point of greatest moral stress is Scobie’s obligation to his Catholic wife to take communion with her, which is incompatible with the state of mortal sin that he cannot escape because of his adulterous affair with Helen. Either he must make one of Louise or Helen suffer, or he must insult God. This stark and irresolvable dilemma is distilled ironically in an exchange between Helen and Scobie when she tells him that she is going to resolve things by leaving Africa:

‘‘‘You are going to be all right. You’ll see. You’ll be able to clean up. You’ll be a Catholic again- that’s what you really want, isn’t it, not a pack of women?’

‘I want to stop giving pain,’ he said.’

The great irony here is that he wants both – or rather that both are necessary, both of them built into him – and yet he can relinquish neither. Scobie dissolves the dilemma in the end through a suicide disguised to look like a natural death. He chooses to damn himself, to do the worst thing that a Catholic can do, under the belief that the foreignness of the dead quickly and relatively painlessly dissolves our dependence on them. His decision to privilege the human over the religious partly reflects perceptual distance and partly his helplessness before weakness. Scobie cannot see God suffer the insults and indignities that he inflicts on him; his suffering is less important because it is less immediate. And he can better stand to inflict suffering on God – to be like the Roman with the spear – because God is stronger than we are. Nothing has greater power over us than the sight of human weakness and the distress that it is able to inflict on us.

Even after Scobie’s very touching death, Greene makes one last attempt to unsettle us by a perspective-shift that transfigures the tragic into the absurd. We learn that the imperative that drove Scobie to his death – that of protecting Louise and Helen from suffering – was based upon false beliefs. He believed that he had successfully hidden his affair from Louise and that he could successfully disguise his suicide; neither of which was true. Scobie’s efforts to protect the two women who depended on him rested on a fundamental exaggeration of his power; as it turns out, they were meaningless. All of his guilt, his whole struggle, and ultimately his death, was founded on misapprehension. Scobie’s narrative was gratuitous.

Encompassed in that is the final truth that Greene grasps. The same life viewed from within and from without is not the same. The perceptual abyss that separates an external account of Scobie’s life, which we get in the last pages of the novel, and the subjective account that we have followed throughout the rest of the novel is unbridgeable, and perhaps illuminates much human suffering as self-constituted and pointless. Looking inwards one sees an inadept adulterer, a corrupt policeman, a man morally responsible for murder, a squalid suicide; from within we see a noble man, deeply humanistic and self-sacrificing, full of religious feeling, a martyr to the contradictions of the human condition.

One comes to understand a lot of this in the final exchange between Louise Scobie and Father Rank, an exchange which dangles that same elusive consolatory hope before the reader that one gets at the end of Brighton Rock:

‘‘He was a bad Catholic.’

‘That’s the silliest phrase in common use,’ Father Rank said.

‘And at the end this- horror. He must have known that he was damning himself.’

‘Yes, he knew all right. He never had any trust in mercy – except for other people.’

‘It’s no good even praying…’

Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, ‘For goodness’ sake, Mrs Scobie, don’t imagine you – or I – know a thing about God’s mercy.’

‘The Church says…’

‘I know the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.’

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