Friday, November 18, 2011
The Power and the Glory (1940)
Back in the mid-1990s I had the good fortune to have a professor who took the GenEd literature course we students took during a summer session – some because it would transfer to real schools, some because they needed credits to get back into real schools, and some because they had no means of taking courses at a real school. He had us read the standards that the good students read in high school, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and The Great Gatsby (1925) and an insane amount of short stories (I want to say we read 50 for the eight week class). One of the short stories was "The Destructors" (1954) by Graham Greene. He strongly encouraged us the read The Power and the Glory (1940) – he couldn't get approval to add it to the approved curriculum. Strangely, I made no effort to read the novel for about 15 years.
I don't know that anything I have to say about The Power and the Glory will do it justice. It is surprisingly good and overcomes the disinterest Greene seems to have in his own characters for the first two chapters. Sure, I had to actually look up the word "quay" (a wharf or reinforced bank where ships are loaded or unloaded) and had to flashback to how june bugs popped off the kerosene lamps at Owasippe (a Boy Scout camp near Whitehall, MI) in order to understand all of the beetles "exploding" against the walls and lights. Once Greene seems willing to give some depth to his characters the story becomes alive and urgent.
Sadly, I am more than willing to admit my ignorance of the real world situation that lead to priests being outlawed in the state of Tabasco. Part of me wanted this entire story to be allegorical, but Greene makes (some of) the sins of man into a type of virtue and gives an eloquent voice as to what the sacraments provide. His Whisky Priest has plenty of time to reflect on the nature of the Church and what he has to offer to them. There is a role that God plays in their lives, but he doesn't pretend to know what it is. Those he tends to often have a type of weakness of character, where those who tend to him – non-Catholics all, and one atheist who may be the second most important character in the novel – display the strength of character the Church has not fostered. Greene both celebrates and condemns the Church at the same time, a remarkable feat.
There are a few lines/ideas that stuck out for me (and in a relatively short span of pages):
✝ On page 172, Greene's Whisky Priest muses on power and dangers of Love, thinking 'Love is not wrong, but love should be happy and open - it is only wrong when it is secret, unhappy... It can be more unhappy than anything but the loss of God. It is the loss of God. You don't need a penance, my child, you have suffered quite enough,' and to this other, 'Lust is not the worst thing. It is because any day, any time, lust may turn into love that we have to avoid it. And when we love our sin then we are damned indeed.' Later, the priest allows for Love to be the scariest thing God has to offer. He would run away from even a glimmer of that kind of force.
✝ On page 182, Greene has one of the best lines ever. 'All the same, it's good to see a priest with a conscience. It's a sign of evolution'. In the novel, a schoolteacher offers this biting critique of how the priests used to take what little money the peasants had and denied the children the things they needed to survive for the services of baptism and communion. The Whisky Priest had finally come to terms with what he needed to do as a man, but he is properly diagnosed as having evolved from a man fleeing the persecution to one who will take seriously his sacred duties (and is hoping for information about one of his benefactors).
✝ On Page 194, on the topic of what is allowable Greene offers, 'A man may want to rape a woman. Are we to allow it because he wants to? Suffering is wrong.' Now this seems pretty straightforward, but the Church – and the Whisky Priest – have argued that suffering in this world may make the blessings of Heavan that much more sweet. The Lieutenant – the man who has been charged with eliminating the last remaining priest – is presenting what he feels to be a reasonable vision of the future. There will be law and order, and thus justice. But there won't be any lies about how there is something to be gained – something noble – in being made to suffer. Suffering is something that should be abhorred and its causes challenged. That this type of world needs the priest to be executed is the contradiction that cannot be overcome.
How good is The Power and the Glory? I would easily put it in the top 20 books I've ever read (I didn't feel this way in the early chapters). While I abandoned Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) because I felt it was going nowhere – see what happens when books aren't part of a project – I have to imagine that it cannot put humanity, suffering, and the compassion in better light than Green did 66 years earlier. I cannot imagine this novel making much of an impression on an adolescent and how it may deeply offend Catholics, so it makes sense that it is not a staple of high school literature classes. But I would definitely recommend that everyone read it.