A Literature of Angels and Demons
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it –Jeremiah 17:9, KJV
Tucked away as a footnote in Philip Eade’s recent biography of Evelyn Waugh lies an interesting observation comparing Waugh to another contemporary novelist, Graham Greene: Lady Diana Cooper, a friend of both the British authors, commented in a letter to her son that Greene was “a good man possessed of a devil,” and Waugh “a bad man for whom an angel is struggling.”
The truth of this anecdote insofar as it pertains to Waugh is unfortunately fleshed out in the course of Eade’s biography, a book that tells us everything we may have never wanted to know about the vices of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers—except for the fact that understanding these failings help us grasp his writing better.
As for Greene, this 1951 letter was written after a visit the novelist and his mistress made to the Coopers, at their home outside Paris. Lady Diana comments on his drinking, and describes him as appearing to be “seared,” with the italicizing her own emphasis. She continues: “I can’t make out about his faith. I think it’s guilty love has put him all out.” Apparently, Greene had recently been to Italy, where he attended one of Padre Pio’s Masses but did not stay to speak with the saintly stigmatic priest. Lady Diana’s perspective: “He was frightened to talk to him as he feared he might alter his life.”
Lady Diana’s comparison of Waugh and Greene strikes at the heart of good literature, and what makes all good literature fundamentally Christian, especially when one considers that these two observations are more closely aligned to each other than the polar opposites they may appear to be. One can easily analyze the major serious works of these two novelists to find countless examples of people struggling between their personal angels and demons.
Take, for example, Greene’s masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. The unnamed priest had a life riddled with vice, specifically drink and cowardice, for which an angel struggled, and won. Or was he a fundamentally good man who struggled with demons? Waugh’s fictional worlds likewise abounded in sinners. Brideshead Revisited offers several, both good people possessed and bad people whose guardian angels no doubt put in a lot of overtime. But is it clear who is which?
G.K. Chesterton’s analogy about conversion, that it is God giving a “twitch of the thread,” comes up often in Brideshead, calling sinners back home. As one character, Julia Flyte, puts it: “I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. … Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.”
Two current artistic efforts, one a television series and the other a movie, appear to walk the tightrope of the thread that needs twitching. I find myself fascinated by the debate surrounding the new Martin Scorsese film Silence, based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel, and the HBO series The Young Pope, because both works offer so much more than meets the eye.
Each of these projects has provided a forum for deep debate about some very serious religious questions in a culture that finds religious inquiry uncomfortable, and tries to edge around the eternal questions as if they are the boor at the cocktail party. As easy as it can be to simply attack one (based on a dislike of Scorsese) or the other (out of disdain for much of the tripe on HBO), we cannot disregard their impact on culture at large.
In the case of Silence, where a Jesuit missionary tramples on an image of Christ, it’s a debate over the nature of perceived apostasy, even to save others from suffering martyrdom. It’s actually an interesting counterpoint to Greene’s The Power and the Glory, because in Greene’s book there is a weak priest who wants to escape martyrdom, then embraces it; in Endo’s work, the priest is strong but gives in to the temptation to compromise.
The Young Pope fascinates because, while youth is supposed to be the time of liberal progressivism, this idiosyncratic young pope embraces tradition. The beauties of the Vatican are on full display, and many of the characters are not as stereotypically evil or fallen, as one would expect in the usual Hollywood attack on the Catholic Church.
Many Christians appreciate literature where the good always wins and evil is vanquished, something Greene pokes a little fun at in The Power and the Glory with the side-story of a Mexican mother who reads an overly devotional martyr’s story to her children. While Christians believe good will win in the end, our earthly life is not so simple.
It’s when we probe the recesses of our own complicated lives, with the light of what we’ve read, that we understand the cathartic nature of good storytelling. Are most people good enough, struggling with a devil, or are they just bad enough that they need an angel to fight for them? Surely, most of us have our good days and our bad days. On Tuesday, we may be Greene; on Thursdays, we may be more like Waugh.
The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn sums this idea up in The Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Good literature, whether it’s in a book or on a screen, will explore these dark corners and capture this shifting line. In Murder in the Cathedral, his own poem-play telling the story of martyrdom, T.S. Eliot does not shy away from reporting Becket’s questions and temptations as he ponders the coming denouement, and is visited by four tempters—the last one, tempting him to the glories of martyrdom, for his own personal glory. The bishop wonders: “Can sinful pride be driven out / Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer / Without perdition?”
In his foreword to Thomas Howard’s Dove Descending, described as a “journey” into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Fr. George W. Rutler talks about what Eliot and others (in this case, Chesterton and Frost) were trying to accomplish in their poetry. “We are dealing with good hearts trying to make sense of the existence of the human heart in a disheartened world.”
Good literature shows the depth and the vigor of this struggle between good and evil. It recognizes that we always have devils and angels on our shoulders whispering into our consciences. And in the case of Waugh, Greene, Eliot, and the others, whose best writing reflected their own personal battles, good may not always win. The tension, however—the Chestertonian twitch of the thread—must always be shown compellingly, and honestly, as a promise of the final victory of Good itself.
K.E. Colombini writes from St. Louis, Mo. He has been published in First Things, Crisis Magazine, and other publications.