Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

I've been catching up on my reading of "Catholic novels" lately. This afternoon I finished Graham Greene's famous 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter. Honestly, I don't know what I think of it. Like everything I have ever read by Greene so far, the book is well written and engaging. The characters are well drawn and the reader comes to care about what happens to them.

However, The Heart of the Matter is a strange novel. I can't do any better than George Orwell's review for the July 17, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Orwell's review is literature in in its own right:

Here is the outline of the story: A certain Major Scobie, Deputy Commissioner of Police and a Catholic convert, finds a letter bearing a German address hidden in the cabin of the captain of a Portuguese ship. The letter turns out to be a private one and completely harmless, but it is, of course, Scobie's duty to hand it over to higher authority. However, the pity he feels for the Portuguese captain is too much for him, and he destroys the letter and says nothing about it. Scobie, it is explained to us, is a man of almost excessive conscientiousness. He does not drink, take bribes, keep Negro mistresses, or indulge in bureaucratic intrigue, and he is, in fact, disliked on all sides because of his uprightness, like Aristides the Just. His leniency toward the Portuguese captain is his first lapse. After it, his life becomes a sort of fable on the theme of 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave', and in every single instance it is the goodness of his heart that leads him astray. Actuated at the start by pity, he has a love affair with a girl who has been rescued from a torpedoed ship. He continues with the affair largely out of a sense of duty, since the girl will go to pieces morally if abandoned; he also lies about her to his wife, so as to spare her the pangs of jealousy. Since he intends to persist in adultery, he does not go to confession, and in order to lull his wife's suspicions he tells her that he has gone. This involves him in the truly fearful act of taking the Sacrament while in a state of mortal sin. By this time, there are other complications, all caused in the same manner, and Scobie finally decides that the only way out is through the unforgivable sin of suicide. Nobody else must be allowed to suffer through his death; it will be arranged as to look like an accident. As it happens, he bungles one detail, and the fact he has committed suicide becomes known. The book ends with a Catholic priest hinting, with doubtful orthodoxy, that Scobie is perhaps not damned. Scobie, however, had not entertained any such hope. White all through, with a stiff upper lip, he had gone to what he believed to be certain damnation out of pure gentlemanliness.

I have not parodied the plot of the book. Even when dressed up in realistic details, it is just as ridiculous as I have indicated. . . .

The Bad Catholic has to agree with Orwell. The book is well written, engaging, interesting, but . . . Orwell is right, the plot is ridiculous. Orwell is absolutely spot on, in my opinion, when he says that "If he (Scobie) were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women."

At one point in the novel, when Scobie is taking communion in a state of mortal sin, and has decided to kill himself to spare the feelings of his wife and his mistress, he prays that God accept his damnation on their behalf. Greene is here almost parodying the Catholic theology of offering up one's suffering on behalf of others as a form of prayer. We can offer up suffering because Christ suffered. How can one offer up a sin as prayer? It is certainly interesting fiction but it's very, very bad theology.

Orwell's classic review of The Heart of the Matter has some other great quotes:

"In addition, it is impossible not to feel a sort of snobbishness in Mr. Greene's attitude, both here and in his other books written from an explicitly Catholic standpoint. He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingue in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish."

Or this quote, which I absolutely love:

"Every novelist has his own conventions, and, just as in an E.M. Forster novel there is a strong tendency for the characters to die suddenly without sufficient cause, so in a Graham Greene novel there is a tendency for people to go to bed together almost at sight and with no apparent pleasure to either party."

The Heart of the Matter is acknowledged to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It's fun to think about the issues raised in the book and its fun to sit around and feel sorry for poor Scobie, but its terrible theology. And in fact, the ending of the novel shows that Scobie accomplished nothing by his suicide. His wife Louise knew he was having an affair all along and figures out that he committed suicide. Scobie's girlfriend, Helen, can't live with Scobie's death and sinks into moral depravity by being willing to sleep with any man who wants her. When asked what he thought happened to Scobie, Evelyn Waugh famously said "Scobie is in Hell." The Bad Catholic has to agree.

Graham Greene

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