The Greene-ing of America
The following essay, about Graham Greene's complicated attitude toward America, appeared in the October 15, 1971, issue of Commonweal.
One never knows when the blow may fall. I noticed it first in The Third Man, a glancing, seemingly innocuous reference to the ice cream parlors in the American sector of occupied Vienna. But those ice cream parlors came in more than once and they seemed to assert themselves, against the background of a grey and ruined and hungry city, as symbols of self-indulgence and immaturity. Still, it would have required an exceptionally sensitive, even paranoid, cis-Atlantic reader to descry there the first lineaments of a heresy, of an Americanism quite unlike that whose existence Archbishop Ireland denied. (That saintly pioneer, as Moynihan’s biography reveals, may have had a smidgen of the ism Graham Greene would combat.) Later books, and notably The Quiet American, have filled in the sketch, but for real vitriol one must go to such interviews as those which appeared last year in The Observer and Le Monde.
If education is the choice of our ancestors, to like a novelist is to grant him liberties with our imagination but I, who had used a copy of The End of the Affair to woo a girl—unsuccessfully: of Bendrix I got only the bitterness and she, alas, gave out no Sarah-like cries while, in another room, the analogue of Henry dried his sleeve at the fire—was puzzled by this assault on my own, my native land. Clearly something had happened since “Movie Lunch” in the Thirties where one Hollywood mogul described another as a real Jesus Christ. Easy thrusts at a vulgar target with maybe a little grudging envy of the broads and booze and money. What had happened was the development of Greene’s franglaise theology, deriving from the darker sides of Mauriac and Bernanos. (The Fugitive is a French novel in somewhat the same way Death Kit is.)
The Catholic church Greene entered was not the rollicking one of Chesterton nor the Establishment before the Establishment of Waugh—what Greene thinks of the second is revealed in his review of Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox. What Greene had been convened to was a Communion of Sinners, an alliance of earthly losers whose wisdom was Socratic. The elect, if you can call them that, know that they are sinners; the others are merely sinners. And an important thing about sin is that it is tawdry and a cheat. When as a boy I read Chesterton's remark that the young man who knocks on the brothel door is searching for God I found it only a well-turned phrase; the glimpse of the prostitute’s crib in The Heart of the Matter enabled one to sense the odor of damnation. Loss and treachery and purchased sex were the landmarks on this journey with a Jansenist map. But if Greene needed an antithesis to his Catholicism, if he needed to repudiate the claim of happiness now, why didn’t he take the fashionable route and see Communism as Antichrist? Why did he pick on us?
You know which newsmagazine suggested that the genesis of Greene’s then peculiar tirades was the trouble the State Department had given him after the war because of his Oxford flirtation with the Communist Party. His was the pique of one detained on Ellis Island and shipped back, so to speak, to Egypt. A comfortable interpretation: Graham Greene was jealous. Time heals all wounds.
One of the many merits of Anthony Burgess is to have pointed out, in “The Greene and the Red,” reprinted in Urgent Copy, that Greene’s anti-Americanism is essentially theological. It is not a casualty of our immigration laws, a failed wetback, who in The Fugitive comes to the border and does not cross. What he turns his back on is a Nietzschean place, beyond good and evil, and what he goes back to is the land where their war is eternal. The geography of the theological thriller is emphatically south of our border: we represent the denial of the great contradiction.
It is difficult but important to think of Greene as a spy, working with Kim Philby and Malcolm Muggeridge. A book on Philby ascribes that double agent’s incredibly long and successful career to the Estabishment’s unwillingness to believe that one of their own could actually be a traitor. Nothing would come easier to Greene than that belief and his own gentle treatment of his former boss finds its explanation, as Muggeridge suggests, in charity. No doubt there is also a tendency to admire the sinister, the diabolical, the classically crafty man, his sustained commitment and the awful loneliness it involved. And part of the reason may be that the Welfare State, socialist Britain, is beneath loyalty. Greene takes swipes at contemporary England but it seems to be for him merely a source of comedy; these swipes multiply as Britain moves away from its unattractive postwar drabness, but swinging England is no adequate target of satire let alone of the bitterness Greene feels toward America. Soft on Communism? I suspect that it would not be Philby’s but something very like Malcolm Muggeridge’s voice we would hear if Greene spoke otherwise than in parables.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from Greene’s anti-Americanism in the current climate of autocriticism. It is not enough to notice that we made of free enterprise and democracy articles of a creed we felt called upon to preach to the globe and that now, like other empires before us, we are encountering vigorous opposition on the borders while sagging in the center. Some proposed cures look a lot like the disease; however diminished its scope we could be left with the Pox Americana rampant at home. In order to see why Greene attacks America and not Russia or China or something in between, we might consider the contrast Newman drew in “A Form of Infidelity of the Day.” Unlike the Middle Ages, when infidelity masked itself in the language of faith, the 19th Century confronts the Catholic with an undisguised atheism and this, Newman felt, is easier to combat. On this basis, Communism would be a 19th Century form of infidelity whereas Americanism is a medieval evil: a progressivism and secularism disguised in the remnants of faith, a confusion of categories.
The Presidential Candidate in The Comedians comes to Haiti with a vegetarian remedy for its evils and, while he is a sympathetic character, not only because he has hair in his ears but also because he is devoted to his wife, he stands for the absurdity of Americanism. Diet cults are funny but what is not is the suggestion that a change of cuisine, some set of actions we can perform, individually or collectively, will make it all right. If only people would see, if only they would understand and act on their knowledge, why, Utopia could be had. All problems are soluble. Evil is a want of education.
So too the CIA man in Travels with My Aunt may seem merely funny, recording in his notebook the time it takes him to urinate, but he is the likable instrument of something ominous, a cog in a huge Pelagian machine. No more is Pyle, the quiet American, a ghoul; he is merely a dry-eyed innocent in the vale of tears who thinks that we embody the essential truths of Christianity, that the foreign service is a missionary society, that salvation is the vote. If for Greene’s characters America is worse than Communism, the judgment resides on the form infidelity takes with us.
In Greeneland satisfaction may be felt at our current national dilemma but I doubt that the mood is spiteful. It is salutary to learn that some problems are insoluble and that evil may not be elsewhere and external but a quality of our deeds. A sinner can repent, and then go on sinning, of course, but Christ is the savior of sinners, the model of losers, not winners. More evil than war itself is the view of it as an aberration, an incredible interruption of the good life, a drain on the budget, a misallocation of funds, a distraction from all those soluble problems. Is it the fact of the war, or its length, with the attendant hint of insolubility, which has swelled the chorus of protest? In our efforts to chip away at injustice, to feed our hungry and hear Christ in the claim, Nigra sum sed formosa, our peculiar temptation to infidelity remains. Meanwhile there is a baleful eye turned on the New World. Its not malevolent glint reflects the truth that Original Sin is here to stay. Poor Greene. Poor all of us when you come to think of it.
Related: Paul Baumann, "Remembering Graham Greene"
About the Author
Ralph McInerny, who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a prolific journalist and novelist, died on January 29, 2010, at the age of eighty. McInerny, who with Michael Novak founded Crisis magazine in 1982, contributed to many scholarly and popular publications over the course of his career, including Commonweal.