What Gordon Solie could teach Major Scobie

the-heart-of-the-matterReading Graham Greene, I get the feeling of watching someone trying to wrestle with God. His main characters bring the admirable intensity of a Dan Gable to the match, but lack the perspective of a Gordon Solie. I am an agnostic when it comes to characterizing the Soliesque perspective as either appreciating the absurd or just a professional weariness, but I know a healthy balance when I see it.

In Greene’s perfectly titled novel, The Heart of The Matter – characters seem to do nothing but get to the heart of matters [the third of his four major Catholic novels] – his introspective thoughts are given voice mainly through his protagonist, Chief of Police Major Henry Scobie. Late in the novel, Greene gives us a clue as to why he wrote those type of novels.

She sat there, reading poetry, and she was a thousand miles away from the torment that shook his hand and dried his mouth. She would understand, he thought, if I were in a book, but would I understand her if she were just a character? I don’t read that sort of book.

You get the idea that Greene wrote books that he wished others would write, thereby sparing himself the work. Characters who gave voice to moral concerns and reflections. After reading Greene, it’s easy to see why he ‘didn’t read those sort of books.’ How could they compare to the thoughts running through his fascinatingly descriptive, rational and decidedly unhappy mind? Just a few of the many interesting thoughts from the novel:

Why … do I love this place so much? It is because here human nature hasn’t had to time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you don’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.

It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man be carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed out first major sin a at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old death-bed?

He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded their allegiance. The word ‘pity’ is used loosely as the word ‘love': the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

While rarely does Greene share happy thoughts, they do bring pleasure. The type of pleasure that survives beyond the moment of exposure. So while few if any of Greene’s thoughts run the risk of being uttered by anyone looking to sell you something or entertain you beyond the written word, they rang true to this reader.

As a way of savoring the book, I’ve gathered my favorite Greene thoughts into three categories at the end of the post.

  • Killer Sentences
  • Masters of the Universe, Beware
  • Wrestling with God

The excerpts may not mean as much to those who have yet to read the book, but are still worth reading. You understand? It’s what Major Scobie could not, sah.

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The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene – excerpts

Killer Sentences

He lifted the moist hand and kissed the palm: he was bound by the pathos of her unattractiveness.

There was something defenseless, it seemed to Scobie, in his whole attitude: he stood there waiting for people to be friendly or unfriendly – he didn’t seem to expect one reaction more than another. He was like a dog.

He listened with the intense interest one feels in a stranger’s life, the interest the young mistake for love.

He had the sense of an animal which had been chased to its hole.

‘Oh, is that all?’ she asked with immense relief, and irritation at her ignorance moved like hatred unfairly in his brain.

He read somewhere that love had been invented in the eleventh century by troubadors. Why had they not left us with lust?

But if romance is what one lives by, one must never be cured of it. The world has too many spoilt priests of this faith or that: better surely to pretend a belief than wander in that vicious vacuum of cruelty and despair.

Sometimes his eyes strayed to the walls seeking a cockroach, but you couldn’t have everything.

Honesty was a double-edged weapon, but intelligence looked after number one.

It was like having a box of chocolates in a bedroom drawer. Until the box was empty it occupied the mind too much.

‘Your work is more important to you than I am,’ Helen said, and the banality of the phrase, read in how many bad novels, wrung his heart.

He felt as though he had exiled himself so deeply in the desert that his skin had taken on the colour of the sand.

The soda hissed in the glasses and Yousef drank greedily.

Masters of the Universe, Beware

Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful, one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast.

They had been corrupted by money, he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.

He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded their allegiance. The word ‘pity’ is used loosely as the word ‘love': the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery. … Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else absolute ignorance.

Wrestling with God

Why … do I love this place so much? It is because here human nature hasn’t had to time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you don’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.

She was crying. He felt an enormous tiredness, bracing himself to comfort her. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘I love you.’ It was how he always began. Comfort, like the act of sex, developed a routine.

It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man be carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed out first major sin a at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old death-bed?

The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

It was a formality, not because he felt himself free from serious sin but because it had never occurred to him that his life was important enough one way or another. He didn’t drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of sin as virtue. When he thought about it all, he regarded himself as a man in the ranks, the member of an awkward squad, who had no opportunity to break more serious military rules.

It seemed to him for a moment that God was too accessible. There was no difficulty in approaching Him. Like a popular demagogue He was open to the least of His followers at any hour. Looking up at the cross he thought, He even suffers in public.

She said furiously, ‘I don’t want your pity.’ But it was not a question of whether she wanted it – she had it. Pity smouldered like decay at his heart. He would never rid himself of it. He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.

O God, give me death before I give them unhappiness.

The priests told one that it was the unforgivable sin, the final expression of an unrepentant despair, and of course one accepted the Church’s teaching. But they taught also that God had sometimes broken his own laws, and was it less possible for him to put out a hand of forgiveness into the suicidal darkness than to have woken himself in the tomb, behind the stone? Christ had not been murdered – you couldn’t murder God. Christ had killed himself: he had hung himself on the Cross …

How often, he thought, lack of faith helps one to see more clearly than faith.

He thought: pious people, I suppose, would call this the devil speaking, but he knew that evil never spoke in these crude answerable terms: this was innocence.

The words of the Mass were like an indictment.

Innocence must die young if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.

When he was young, he had thought that love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty and pity.

She sat there, reading poetry, and she was a thousand miles away from the torment that shook his hand and dried his mouth. She would understand, he thought, if I were in a book, but would I understand her if she were just a character? I don’t read that sort of book.

This was what human love had done to him – it had robbed him of love for eternity. It was no use pretending, as a young man might, that the price was worth while.

All you have to do now is ring a bell, go into a box, confess … the repentance is already there, straining at your heart. it’s not repentance you lack, just a few simple actions …

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
This entry was posted in 2TG Favorites, Books & Reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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