Monday, August 2, 2010

Review :: The Power and the Glory :: Graham Greene

In the last few weeks Cindy has read two novels about what happens when the world falls apart: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. She enjoyed both, I think. At the very least she's inspired me to give each book a read.

Her reading has also made me reappraise the book I've been reading, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Like a good novel should, The Power and the Glory tells a good story--the story of the last priest in a province of revolutionary Mexico in where all the church have been forcibly shut down. The priest is all too human, crippled by alcohol and by fear, both yearning for and cowering from his inevitable capture by the red-shirt authorities. Greene writes beautifully. And, as one might expect of a Graham Greene novel, the hard question of faith--why believe?--emerges subtly in the texture of characters and events. The story is worth reading as a story.

As much as it is a philosophical novel working out the motivations and consequences of a journey toward faith, The Power and the Glory also offers us an apocalyptic glimpse. Here I want apocalyptic to mean much more than just the Atwood-McCarthian dystopian landscapes. An apocalypse is an unveiling, the dis-covering (apo + kalypsis) of the world. Something old is pulled out from underfoot, and something new descends out of heaven.

Listen to this passage from Greene:

They had travelled by the sun until the black wooded bar of mountain told them where to go. They might have been the only survivors of a world which was dying out; they carried the visible marks of the dying with them.
Sometimes he wondered whether he was safe, but when there are no visible boundaries between one state and another--no passport examination or customs house--danger just seems to go on, travelling with you, lifting its heavy feet in the same way as you do. . . .
At sunset on the second day they came out on to a wide plateau covered with short grass. A grove of crosses stood up blackly against the sky, leaning at different angles--some as high as twenty feet, some not much more than eight. They were like trees that had been left to seed. The priest stopped and stared at them. They were the first Christian symbols he had seen for more than five years publicly exposed--if you could call this empty plateau in the mountains a public place. No priest could have been concerned in the strange rough group; it was the work of Indians and had nothing in common with the tidy vestments of the Mass and the elaborately worked out symbols of the liturgy. It was like a short cut to the dark and magical heart of the faith--to the night when the graves opened and the dead walked.

I read the first fifty pages or so of this novel in Detroit at the 2010 US Social Forum. The USSF website descries the event as a "movement building process"; the best summary I've been able to muster is a gargantuan brainstorming session by hundreds (thousands?) of organization pursuing social justice, gender justice, ecological justice, labor justice. Or, we might say, a lot of people working against the Atwood-McCarthian apocalypse.

Greene doesn't deal with justice. He depicts poverty, he depicts corruption, he depicts the complex ethnically-based classism, unplanned child of colonization. But Greene doesn't comment on these. He is not Las Casas. Injustice seems, at best, to be incidental to Greene's apocalypse--one of those things that simply happens while the world is being shaken apart.

I think Greene offers us a richer, more life-giving way of understanding apocalypse. The Atwood-McCarthian model, our gaze focuses on what we are losing, the missing pieces of a world destined for fire or ice. And, while we know this world wobbles under its own weight of injustice and suffering, we get strangely sentimental about the way things have changed. To translate this into the political terms of the USSF, we begin to worry that the corrupt system will implode before we get our chance to benefit from it.

In The Power and the Glory, Greene pictures something more hopeful. No perceptive reader can sympathize with what the whiskey priest was before the Revolution: a self-satisfied cleric surrounded by assiduously pious aristocratic women, a clergyman consumed by reputation, status, and winning a promotion to a better positioned parish. And what the priest is now--coward, craven, lecher--no one admires. But the horror of apocalypse is a shriving, a stripping away of sin (and we might imagine injustice) for the sake of a better religion, a truer faith, a more faithful imitatio Christi. And in the jail cell, in the home of the Lehrs, in the hut where James Culver lies dying, before the executioners' rifles, we begin to see something new, something that can be admired.

This is the true apocalypse: the overturning of the old order to give way to something new.

1 comment:

  1. These are deep, perceptive comments! I'm really with you on your insights into the real, Biblical sense of apocalypse instead of all this end of the world stuff. I'm excited now to take some time to read these books which have been on my "to read" shelf for a while.


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