My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Graham Greene, author of novels and stories in multiple genres, is perhaps best known for his writing concerning the “Bad Catholic.” “The Heart of the Matter” is one of his four so called Catholic novels. (Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The End of an Affair, and The Heart of the Matter) These four explore themes of sin and morality often in the context of Catholicism. Along with Greene’s other protagonists, the policeman Scobie in “The Heart of the Matter” is a deeply flawed human being who struggles–in Scobie’s case in vain– to understand a loving God, their own desires and sin, and a chaotic even evil world. On the last page of “The Heart of the Matter” the tired and cynical priest calls the phrase bad Catholic, “the silliest phrase,” implying that all catholics are bad. Greene then goes on to suggest the folly of assuming we humans can known the mind of God when it comes to deciding the morality of an individual. “For goodness sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you–or I–know a thing about God’s mercy. . . .The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.” (p. 306)
Greene is a superb writer and master of the character sketch. He “puts you in the picture” with few words and remarkable deftness. But as fluid as the reading of this 1948 classic was, I could not help but feel like I was reading a cliche’. All of Greene’s novels have had multiple stage and screen adaptations and while the themes are eternal and important, Greene’s novels have suffered from over exposure. I knew early on how the novel would end and the theologic issues that would precipitate the internal crisis. This did not stop me from appreciating the expert writer’s style and skill at bringing the novel to completion. Rather, for me “The Heart of the Matter”–my last volume in the Catholic quartet–was well written but sadly, formulaic.
As a matter of taste, if forced to choose a Graham Greene novel from this “catholic” grouping, I’d select “The End of an Affair” or “The Power and the Glory” rather than this novel.
NOTE: Most of my recent writing has concerned the thoughtful issues of creativity, writing craft, and the general angst of living as a foreigner in a foreign land. Today I return to the earthier subjects that concerned essayists like Montaigne and William Hazlett. That is, the little things that irritate, frustrate, and anger. So rather than spending time creating beautiful art, I have been cleaning up my “hood.”
There are times I don’t much like my neighbors. There is nothing that so confirms the near infinite ability of human beings to fabricate reality as attending a Neighborhood homeowners’ meeting. Last winter, in a fit of temporary insanity that followed a virtuoso guilt-inducing pitch by the homeowner’s association current officers, I accepted a seat on that thankless board of directors.
Last night, in a steamy room crammed too full of bodies I, as “board secretary,” was privileged to record without comment a special meeting of homeowners, a group outraged at the Association’s grievous offenses against humanity, property values, and most especially their trucks. It seems after years of ineffective education efforts, efforts aimed at persuading homeowners that 20 mph speed signs were more than simply advisory, the previous Board of Directors became card carrying Calvinists—believing mankind had evil or at a minimum the unstoppable urge to drive 15 over the speed limit in their hearts—and installed speed dips.
Suffice it to say, like the Israeli Parliament, 47 homeowners had 47 different individual opinions why these speed dips were a horrible wrong. But I—unlike these complainers—already knew precisely the problem and best solution. After all, I had studied the problem in detail and surely knew all the facts. But, in the interest of even-handed fair play, I muddled on.
There were a variety of Libertarian type views, a group of folks who bemoaned the “unintended consequences” of our government intervention. From their perspective the unintended consequences of these “traffic calming devices” altered previously beneficial traffic patterns. This minority of homeowners were lucky stiffs who, until the dips were installed, weren’t forced to deal with the bulk of their neighbor’s ignoring speed rules. I could get my arms around not wanting speeding traffic.
A second Libertarian contingent suggested that they definitely wanted someone to enforce certain neighborhood rules—those rules specifically that they liked—but being able to drive as fast as they desired, when they desired, and where they desired didn’t fall in that category. I thought these folks selfish until one of them had the brass to mention that my visiting friends had a habit of parking on the street after sundown—can you imagine?
Of course, we had neighbors who were occult politicians. This group didn’t use the speed dip issue to discuss speed control solutions but rather as an obfuscating occasion to compare apples with say, oil prices or currency fluctuations. I carefully noted a wonderful nonsensical—as in “true-true but unrelated”– discussion that attempted to balance potential damage to car undercarriages with the rights of children to play in the street.
There were progressives who believed they saw the problem more clearly than others as well as the solution. Because they lived at the front of the neighborhood all they saw was speed—all the cars and trucks passed their homes with the least amount of slowing. “Bring on the dips” they cried. “The more the better.” Speed dips, like taxes, are easier to swallow when you don’t have to pay the tab—in this case 5 speed dips to get to your garage. This view was, of course, much closer to the truth because it was my view despite my being a tax conservative.
There were the few owners that lived at far end of the “hood”—at the farthest reach of a dead end. These hardy survivalists, like the blind man holding only the last wisp of the elephant’s tail, saw only the traffic of their two neighbors or a rare Fed Ex truck but paid the maximal price—five dips into the sub-division and five dips out for what they really can’t see as a problem on their street. Truth is, I walk down where they live cause I can walk in the street with my wife instead of on the too narrow sidewalk without threat of speeding cars.
And then, of course, we had the Putin politicians who thought we simply needed to root out the miscreants and punish them with public exposure or fines or perhaps a scarlet S worn around their necks for thirty days. (Never mind the Association rules fail to provide any such provision for action) This pogrom, like Soviet ideas of equality, should be enforced only so long as mercy is accorded to the Putin-ites for their occasional and totally understandable forgetting of the rules.
Last but not least there were the traditionalists, “If we didn’t have’em before, we don’t need them now. Hell, I’m a Christian, white male, and lover of Edmund Burke. How traditional can you get?
After the first energetic statements, the discussion quickly wound down. It was clear that a fundamental disagreement existed, a disagreement that would force choices that would not please everyone, and a disagreement causing inevitable inequities. But instead of the group further defining sub-issues and key decision points or identifying needed data or even noting the points of common agreement, the comments moved to suggesting ours was a neighborhood where we all “got along,” a “friendly place,” and where we were all, “good neighbors.” It was a hopeful optimism that posited the hope that as neighbors we would work together for the greater good, that we would as the late Rodney King suggested, “just all get along.” All this ignoring, of course, the painful reality that many long-time residents only first met each other at this meeting, that most voicing opinions rarely attended annual meetings or social events or answered board queries for input, and that the issue at hand started with a plethora of angry if not ugly words—not so subtly couched implications of incompetence or intemperance or both.
So, I listened and recorded my neighbor’s words, words from a group of smart successful people. A group that owned vastly different views on specific issues yet despite their differences in age, stage, and politics shared a common myth. Last night I heard that we all wanted to live peacefully with our neighbors but that the parameters of this peace must be individually defined. I heard that each of us knows what are the facts and what are not, what’s right and what’s wrong; and, we don’t need and most definitely don’t want other people telling us that, “it ain’t so.”
What we do want is someone else to get the “less well informed” or “less principled” or “less responsible” other people in line. But what was most evident was the almost erotic need by individuals to have the group believe in or at least repeat the mantra that we live in a kind of Lake Wobegon where all the neighbors get along, all behaviors are above average, and everyone can still do just as they please.
Speed dips are real; and, at times, I don’t agree with or even like my neighbors. Both neighbors and dips jolt and disrupt. However, what I am coming to believe is most distressing about these communal irritations is not that they bounce me or my car about, but that they disturb my well built and defended myth about myself and my life. That is, if I am smart enough and successful enough I can exist in a Camelot where I can do as I please, my neighbors will do as I wish, and everyone will agree– my vision for the right and true gives perfect happiness. Are the dips necessary enough for me to give up a measure of autonomy, even for a good cause? Ah, now there’s the question. I do hate those jolts.
A friend sits at Starbucks and scripts his novel across the lines of a notebook. Another, before she finds her stories, spreads wet pulp across a screened frame to make paper from scratch. I open my laptop at night and key green letters across the black sky.
Writing has always unfolded this way. Each story starts with a single word. Perhaps it is not the best word, or the only word, but it is the right word because it begins the story.
A second word follows, then a seventh and a seven thousandth. No matter the number, no matter the speed, the writer moves step by step. The first word is the first step, and the rest is finding a way into the forest in order to find a way out. David Jacobson (Read more here )
Over at Ross Gale’s blog in his ongoing series of guest creatives writing about “The First Word,” editor, poet, writer, and beer brewing aficionado David Jacobson delivers a stunning 432 word summary statement. In a literary world sprinting breathlessly on a treadmill pursuing the proper nosology for a poetry that looks like prose, a fiction that reads like poetry, and most especially the proper blog note I am reminded of Supreme Court Justice William O, Douglas’s solution to the conundrum of pornography definition. The crusty jurist supposedly waved his hand and said, “To hell with definitions, I know it when I see it.”
So it was that I arrived at a certain knowing when I read David Jacobson’s prose poem-essay-blog note. Here were true words; beautiful words; enticing words pointing to truths bigger than they could ever hold.
I have spent the last month enthusiastically flooding and then laboriously draining a word swamp. In the last 72 hours I have performed a kind of literary armageddon, a final judgment on thousands of my innocent and unsuspecting words, sending them to that place where, “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” So I gaze at David’s words with a certain awe and envy.
I wonder, if in the DNA of poets there is an enzyme that switches off the need for all buts and excepts, or unique nucleic acid sequences that code for essence rather than completeness, or a receptor for the most important that once tripped, switches all others off.
I never minded when my poet friends talked shop, though I confess I rarely understood much of their critique. All was well, even enjoyable, so long as they kept to meter and concentrated on fragments. But these days more of them, as this essay is ample proof, have co-opted sentences and paragraphs and, if you can believe it, essays. And, these poets persist in infusing sterile syllogisms with a lyric song.
So I must return to my muck. Unlike David, when my cursor blinks in the black it is not the starry sky but more mud that must be drained. But I return to the work because I don’t believe we are defined completely by our genes, we can learn. Perhaps, if I read enough words that sing, I too can learn to hum. I shall copy these words of David Jacobson and leave them close so when I lose hope I might hear again the song.
“I’ve heard them whisper back, my words. Now you see a poor reflection, but one day we’ll be waiting, and you’ll see face to face. I don’t always believe them, but if these words are right, then one day I will discover in the pages of that greater story the denouement of every damned tangle and knot that has ever compelled me to put pen to paper.”