With the feast of Christ the King coming up, Graham Greene has been on my mind. His novel The Power and the Glory affected me deeply when I read it back in my late teens (I have an article coming out in Aleteia on Sunday about it). Greene is an interesting fella because he was a convert who never became a triumphalist. Instead, he went straight to “bad Catholic,” a title typically reserved for cradle Catholics. He was variously conflicted and doubtful, morally compromised and would swing wildly from manic bursts of energy into the darkest corners of the human psyche. Through it all, he was a great writer.
Many of his novels deal with Catholic themes – The Power and the Glory is about a priest – but he was by no means a Catholic novelist. This, to him, would have been absurd, making too small a thing of the divine, as if God is another character to be invented at the tip of his pen. Green writes, “There are leaders of the Church who regard literature as a means to one end, edification. That end may be of the highest value, of far higher value than literature, but it belongs to a different world. Literature has nothing to do with edification.” Edification, or the graces that propel us along the path of sainthood, cannot be the goal of literature, because sainthood is too great a reality to fit into the pages of a novel.
This, to someone like me who has a highly exalted view of the range and power of art to reach into eternity and mediate it, is a very challenging statement. When I read The Power and the Glory, it changed my life. Greene is saying, though, that sainthood, the true reality towards which his art gestures, will change my life in a far more thorough manner if I ever manage to grasp it.
Jessica Sequeira, in a really good piece titled, “Faith Noir: On Graham Greene and the Catholic Novel,” writes,
More than perhaps any other literary form, the novel depends on the prolonged contemplation—and often melancholy—of its author. But the Catholic novelist is more than unhappy: he writes as a way of knocking against the gates of heaven, to which he has been denied entrance. His writing is a transcription and translation of his despair. To make God a mere character is already a transgression, a source of guilt and shame; to write with sincerity about the evils in His world one must have struggled with His absence. “Being a member of the Catholic Church would present me with grave problems as a writer if I were not saved by my disloyalty,” Greene once wrote. “If my conscience were as acute as Francois Mauriac’s showed itself to be in his essay God and Mammon, I could not write a line.”
In other words, Greene not only doesn’t consider himself a Catholic novelist, but the simply thought that he might be one would paralyze his art. At most, he will write about the negative space, that which separates heaven from earth. He has a somewhat surprising ally in his quest to separate literature from edification and he quotes Cardinal Newman to make his case:
I say from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.
Maybe the most Catholic sensibility of all is to explore the dark corners as yet unlit by sanctifying grace? In writing about sin, doubt, agnosticism, and depression, Greene confronts the separation of man from his maker, that space defined by self-doubt in which a broken man can become a priest, a serial adulterer throw himself on the mercy of the Church, or an agnostic find an awful, unspeakable truth when he kneels down before the ancient and precious ritual sacrifice that throws a ladder up to heaven.