October 22, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

The Unquiet Graham Greene


President Bush’s invocation of Alden Pyle reveals his dangerous naïveté.

by Joseph Pearce

There was something bizarre, indeed something almost surreal, about George W. Bush’s recent reference to Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American in his speech to the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Attempting to draw a parallel between the conflict in Vietnam and the current conflagration in Iraq, Bush criticized Greene’s suggestion that the “quiet American’s” patriotism was dangerously naïve:

In 1955 … Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism—and dangerous naïveté.

Bush’s unexpected sortie into the fictional world of Greene was itself dangerously naïve, especially as several commentators had already suggested that Bush is little more than a real-life incarnation of Alden Pyle. It was also both bemusing and amusing to see Bush reference a work that almost everyone presumed he had never read. Certainly, if he had read The Quiet American, he would not have made the rudimentary error of referring to Pyle as the novel’s “main character,” a distinction that belongs to Thomas Fowler, a disillusioned and cynical English journalist. Such is the pitiable state of American politics in these sorry days that an uncultured president relies for his semblance of erudition on equally unlettered speechwriters.

Be that as it may, The Quiet American is a good place to look at the relative merits of Messieurs Bush and Greene and serves as a meditation on the relationship between New World naïveté and Old World cynicism. If, for example, there is a great deal of George W. Bush in the transparent (and dangerous) shallowness of Alden Pyle, there is more than a hint of Graham Greene in the world-weary depths of Thomas Fowler. Pyle is certain that “Democracy,” “Freedom,” and “America” are not only inseparable but synonymous. It is almost as though they form an indivisible trinity as holy as the Trinity of the Christians and as worthy of praise. This quasi-religious zeal turns every war for Democracy into a jihad, with Pyle emerging as a fanatic for the cause of “America” in much the same way that the new breed of Muslim terrorists emerge as fanatics for “Islam.” It must be said, however, that Pyle is much more likeable than any Islamic fanatic and is even disarmingly charming in his simple, unquestioning faith in the Motherland. Parallels with Bush are not only palpable, they positively palpitate from the pages of The Quiet American!

But what of Thomas Fowler, the wastrel whose jaded presence dominates the novel? Whereas Pyle is puritanical and abstemious, Fowler is an opium-addicted Baudelairean decadent. Whereas Pyle is an idealist—albeit an idealist enslaved by an ideology (ironically like his communist enemies)—Fowler is cynically indifferent to all ideals. Whereas Pyle is decorously prim in his dealings with women—and particularly in his chivalrous dealings with Phuong, the woman at the center of his and Fowler’s desires—Fowler is unremittingly self-serving in his carnal relations, deserting his wife and children and seeing in Phuong little more than a comfortable and convenient ménage, indulging her as an addictive habit that, like opium, allows him to escape temporarily from his responsibility to reality. Whereas Pyle is motivated by an illusory heaven on earth, a heaven of “Democracy” and “Freedom” (again, ironically, like his communist enemies), Fowler shuns heaven and purgatory and desires only the adulterous hell of Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Divine Comedy. (Referring to an unwanted promotion that would force him to return to England, Fowler muses, “Dante never thought up that turn of the screw for his condemned lovers. Paolo was never promoted to Purgatory.”) Pyle is willing to be a martyr for his false heaven; Fowler tells heaven (and Purgatory) to go to hell.

Who then is worse: the puritanically idealistic Pyle or the morally iconoclastic Fowler? What is worse: the messianic Americanism of George W. Bush or the jaded, ethno-masochistic death wish of most of the leaders of Europe? New World naïveté or Old World cynicism? That is the question. Should we choose one or the other, selecting the better of two evils; or are we at liberty, with Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to call down a plague on both their houses?

And what of Graham Greene himself? Is it fair to associate him too closely with his fictional anti-hero, Thomas Fowler? It is true that, like Fowler, he deserted his wife and children, and it is true that, like Fowler, he settled into a number of adulterous liaisons in the years after he left his wife. It is also true that, as with Fowler, his Catholic wife would not contemplate a divorce (though Fowler’s fictional wife eventually relented). Yet these similarities, though certainly not superficial, serve only to mask the very real differences that exist between the life and beliefs of the author and those of his fictional creation. Unlike the doggedly godless Fowler, Greene was, and remained for the most part, a believing Catholic, a fact that separates him not only from Fowler but from the dogmatically godless leadership of Europe. Greene is, therefore, an enigma that warrants further investigation.

Greene’s conversion to Catholicism in 1926 was influenced, in the first instance, by the fact that the woman whom he would later marry was herself a convert. It would, however, be a grave error to explain, or explain away, Greene’s Catholicism as little more than an effort to please the woman he loved. Other Catholic influences were also at work, such as his evident admiration for the works of Eliot and Chesterton. Greene’s early novels, such as Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock, were set in Eliotic wastelands, inhabited by hollow men, in which we nonetheless detect, as with Eliot’s poems, the hinted at, haunting presence of an (almost) invisible Christ. His second novel, The Name of Action, published in 1930, employed several lines from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” as its epigraph.

Greene’s admiration for Chesterton emerged in his review of Maisie Ward’s biography of the writer, in which Greene described Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, The Thing, and The Everlasting Man as “among the great books of the age” and similarly praised several of Chesterton’s other books, including The Ballad of the White Horse and the novels The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It is also significant that Greene would always consider Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, a classic of conversion literature, as one of his favorite books.

If, therefore, Greene’s Catholicism can be viewed as genuine, it doesn’t alter the fact that his practice of the faith, and his expression of it in his works, was, at best, enigmatic, and, at worst, downright disreputable and heretical. Greene knew as much, declaring to Malcolm Muggeridge, upon the latter’s reception into the Church in 1982, that he hoped “you will make a better Catholic than I have done.” And yet, beguilingly and paradoxically, Greene’s troubled faith, and his marital infidelity, provided the inherent tension in the labyrinthine morality plays that were his novels.

Greene deserted his family shortly after the end of World War II, leaving his wife for another woman. Vivien Greene remembered vividly the day that her husband left: “It was very difficult with the children. … We went upstairs into the drawing room and then he left. And I thought, well, I’ll probably never see him again and looked out of the window that was facing the street, and he looked back for a minute, didn’t wave, but looked back.” This dramatic moment clearly haunted Greene as well, for it emerges, ghost-like, in The Quiet American when Fowler turned random memories over in his mind: “a fox … seen by the light of an enemy flare … the body of a bayoneted Malay … my wife’s face at a window when I came home to say good-bye for the last time.”

Greene’s contorted conscience twisted itself agonizingly through the plot of The Heart of the Matter, the novel he wrote shortly after his desertion of his family, in which the moral convulsions of Scobie left many critics squirming. Whereas some writers, including Evelyn Waugh, Edward Sackville-West, and Raymond Mortimer, had suggested that Scobie was a sinful saint, others had seen only the sinner: “Scobie commits adultery, sacrilege, murder (indirectly), and suicide in quick succession,” one correspondent wrote. “In three of these cases he is well aware of what he is doing … he takes communion in mortal sin because he can’t bear to hurt his wife’s feelings. This isn’t the way a saint behaves.” These views were reiterated in another review by a Father John Murphy:

Scobie is a Catholic with a conscience of the highest sensitivity and insight whose weak will ultimately leads him to adultery, sacrilegious Holy Communions, responsibility for a murder … and for full measure, to a suicide. … How can you account for the fact that a man commits suicide in order, among other things, to avoid making any more bad Communions? But the answer is obvious: Because he despaired where he should have repented.

Another member of the Catholic clergy, in this case a bishop, reminded the author of The Heart of the Matter that “adultery is adultery whatever attempts may be made to disguise it by not using the hard word.” Equally ruthless in his criticism was George Orwell, who opined that if Scobie “really felt that adultery is mortal sin he would stop committing it. … If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women.”

At the other end of the critical spectrum, the Jesuit C.C. Martindale described The Heart of the Matter as “a magnificent book,” adding that its effect on one “hard-headed man to whom this book was given” had been to serve as “the last necessary stimulus” to his becoming a Catholic. Another correspondent wished it to be “put on record … that one great sinner was so moved by Mr Greene’s last book that he has completely changed his way of life and returned to the practice of the Faith.”

Greene’s own response to the critical reaction indicated that these repentant sinners, rather than the novel’s detractors, had the deepest affinity with his own understanding of the novel: “I did not regard Scobie as a saint,” he wrote to Waugh, “and his offering his damnation up was intended to show how muddled a mind of good will could become when once ‘off the rails.’” Ironically these words would become prophetically autobiographical. The longer Greene remained “off the rails,” the more muddled he became in his approach to Catholicism.

By the time that Greene wrote his play “The Potting Shed” in 1957, even old friends and allies, such as Evelyn Waugh, were losing patience with his heterodox dabblings. The play was “great nonsense theologically,” Waugh complained, “and will puzzle people needlessly.” Three years later, after Greene wrote to Waugh of how his latest novel, A Burnt Out Case, was intended “to give expression to various states or moods of belief or unbelief” and that the characterization of the doctor had represented “a settled and easy atheism,” Waugh replied impatiently that many would see the novel “as a recantation of faith”: “To my mind the expression ‘settled and easy atheism’ is meaningless, for an atheist denies his whole purpose as a man—to love and serve God. Only in the most superficial way can atheists appear ‘settled and easy.’”

As Waugh observed Greene’s descent from the realm of reason and creed to that of mere mood, one wonders whether he was reminded of the wit of his friend Ronald Knox who had written half a century earlier of the similar descent from faith to “feeling” of Anglican Modernists who “… temp’ring bigot Zeal, Corrected ‘I believe’ to ‘One does feel…’”

In his last years, Greene showed a few tentative signs of returning to a more orthodox practice of the faith, though it would be an exaggeration to describe his Catholicism as “settled and easy.” “I’ve betrayed a great number of things and people in the course of my life,” he stated in 1979, “which probably explains this uncomfortable feeling I have about myself, this sense of having been cruel, unjust. It still torments me often enough before I go to sleep.”

It is in this tormented light that we must view Graham Greene’s relationship with his faith, his life, and his work. He never felt comfortable with Catholicism, but then he never felt comfortable with anything else either. Like St. Thomas the Apostle, whom Greene chose as his confirmation saint, he was a doubter. He doubted others, he doubted himself, and he doubted God. And yet the profundity of his novels never resides in the doubt itself but in the ultimate doubt about the doubt. It was this doubt about doubt that kept him clinging desperately to the Catholic faith.

Greene was paradox personified. He was a pessimistic pessimist in the positive sense in which he was always pessimistic about his own pessimism and in the positive sense in which these two negatives made a contribution to the true moral depth of his work.

If, however, we can finish our investigation of Greene’s doubtful depths on a high note, acquitting him of being associated too closely with the cynicism of Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American, is he as relevant to the present situation as Bush, or his speechwriters, seem to think?

Yes, he is—but not perhaps in the way the president intended.

Back in 1987, Greene was one of the most vocal critics of the Israeli government following the abduction of Mordechai Vanunu from Italy by Israeli agents. Vanunu’s “crime,” in the eyes of the Israelis, was to have exposed the fact that Israel possessed nuclear weapons that, by any stretch of the imagination, can be described as “weapons of mass destruction.” Why is it, one wonders, that some countries in the Middle East can possess weapons of mass destruction, with Bush’s blessing, while others cannot? Why did previous American governments arm the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in the name of “Freedom” and “Democracy”? Why did Bush’s own government declare war on the only secular government in the Middle East capable of resisting Iran? These are questions that only George W. Bush or Alden Pyle could answer. The rest of us remain baffled.

Bush quoted a character in The Quiet American who said of Pyle that he had never known a man “who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” Like Pyle, Bush is well-intentioned. Like Pyle, he is dangerously naïve. Like Pyle, his noble motives have caused a lot of trouble. And, like Pyle, he needs reminding of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.   

Joseph Pearce is writer-in-residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida. He is the author of biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and is editor of the Saint Austin Review.