Updated: Jul 11, 2021
There are two plots to every Graham Greene novel: a person is a Catholic and either; (a) decides to have an affair, or (b) wants to support Soviet Communism, usually to back some uprising in a former colonial country—sometimes the protagonist is a Catholic who wants to undertake another activity, probably criminal, that constitutes a mortal sin. On occasion, Greene would combine the themes, so that the protagonist would feel sympathy for Communism and commit adultery. As with most writers, Greene used his own life for his novels: he was a convert to Catholicism who had, briefly, as a student, been in the Communist Party of Great Britain; and he retained a residual sympathy for Soviet Communism, especially in the Third World, for his entire life. So Greene’s life basically hung on this tortured paradox: I am a Catholic, a writer with enough imagination to think that Hell is real, and yet I really enjoy adultery and my politics incline to Soviet Communism—both flatly against Catholic doctrine.
The world in which Greene lived has vanished. It was very marginal, even in the 1950s, to imagine that Hell was a literal place—Greene could probably only do so because he was an imaginative artist. Today, in a world where screens enjoy comprehensive coverage, few have the imagination to picture Hell as a real place; and most subscribe to a bland atheism and worship of “the science”. So it is difficult for a contemporary reader to enter into sympathy with Greeneland, a world where sleeping with the wrong person or subscribing to the wrong political cause is a mortal sin that consigns your soul to Hell in perpetuity.
Similarly, adultery is no big deal; indeed, the term is barely used: in our world people “cheat”, just like in a family game of Monopoly when a mischievous aunt steals money from the banker’s draw at the moment everyone leaves to make a cup of tea. In other words, we are a long way from a mortal sin; adultery suggests adulteration, namely of another man’s property—but nobody owns women anymore; they are all strong independent women, so there is nothing to adulterate. For our times, a more pressing question is whether it is embarrassing to text the person you had a threesome with last week because you left your pullover in their apartment. “No biggy.” “Phew…that could have been total awks. lol.” Just chill out, as my boomer parents would say.
Further, we are so far distant from the Cold War that Greene’s drama over Communism also seems unreal; yet for many people in Greene’s social stratum, mainly intellectuals, the question of whether Communism was “the future”—possibly the “historically inevitable” future—was very real and palpable. The conclusion only looks foregone from 2021, it looked very different in 1956 or even 1978. So when Greene, via his characters, mulls over whether this or that Third World revolutionary is really a “good man”, perhaps even a Christ-like man, we struggle to understand the existential nature of the dilemma—tied up to nuclear war and, to use a dusty phrase circa 1958, “the fate of the human race itself”.
And yet, Greene does speak to us and he speaks to us because there are men and women like Greene about even now; namely, people who join the Catholic Church not because their heart is in the enterprise but because it gives them a narcissistic thrill to join the organisation and then break its rules and then agonise about whether the Church should change to suit them—or whether, in fact, they are in the wrong. I speak, of course, of Elizabeth Bruenig—among others, though Bruenig is the best and most influential example.
As with most—if not all—writers Greene was a narcissistic neurotic suicide case. This tendency manifested in his teenage years when he acquired a revolver and played Russian roulette with it; in reaction, his father, a headmaster at a public school, packed him off to a Jungian psychoanalyst, then a brand new treatment regimen—and this seems to have staved off Greene’s suicidal tendencies, for a time. At Oxford in the 1920s, Greene joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, but he left after a short while in disillusionment. We begin to see a pattern from his character: an intelligent, neurotic, sensitive man with high openness to experience. The type of person, really, who joins cults—or becomes an artist, or maybe both. In other words, Greene liked novelty and, due to his intelligence, became bored easily; and this led him to pursue courses—Communism and Catholicism—that were novel and at variance with normal British society.
You must remember that Britain was built on anti-Catholicism, and even today Catholicism is a very low status religion—even Tony Blair, Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, waited until after his term of office to convert to Catholicism. The faith is for Irish (now Polish) immigrants and recusant aristocrats whose families have held out since the 1500s; and both are viewed as backward, weird, and unBritish. It is only with Boris Johnson that Britain has gained a Catholic Prime Minister, and yet this is very marginal; it is obvious from Johnson’s conduct that he does not take his Catholicism very seriously; although it is debatable that he takes anything seriously, for he is the great joker—and I say that as a compliment. The entire event, though we are dealing with residual cultural sensibilities and not holy war, has been muted and somewhat hush-hush.
With this context in mind, it becomes clear that for Greene to join the CPGB and then to join the Catholic Church were, for an upper-middle-class Protestant Englishman, highly anomalous moves—despite Catholicism’s reputation for conservatism. In short, both moves smacked of “fuck you, dad!”—although, this being the 1930s, the sentiment was more understated than that. More particularly, the moves smack of someone who likes novelty and likes to play imaginary roles—to create drama based on those imaginary roles—in search of an identity. Of course, people who are this way inclined, narcissists, never find a satisfactory identity; they are too in love with the act and the drama of the act. This is what Greene turned into an art: his characters agonise over their affairs (perhaps if it is really, really for love God will forgive me); and their Communism (perhaps if it is really and truly for the poor, as Jesus commanded, support for pro-Soviet guerrillas is actually Christian).
At a certain point you want to shake people like Greene and say: “Why the fuck have you joined an organisation that really clearly defines itself—has done for thousands of years—by its absolute opposition to adultery, Communism, atheistic materialism, and so on? Why? You know what this organisations says, it cannot be more clear on these matters. If you think it is wrong, why not leave? More to the point, since you converted as an adult, why did you join in the first place? If you think the Church is right, then just stop committing adultery and supporting Soviet Marxism—or try to do it less, anyhow. Spare us this phoney agony.”
In our day, the equivalent to Greene is found in people like Bruenig who convert to Catholicism and then begin to write articles along the lines: “I became a Catholic, but found the Church less than welcoming to my gay childhood friend.” There then follows, in true Greene style, albeit with less agony about Hell, since almost nobody thinks that Hell is real today, a great ado over why, oh so “mysteriously”, the Catholic Church does not accept the mores found in contemporary liberalism. The situation is worthy of an Onion headline: “Area man joins Catholic Church, voices surprise at Pope’s anti-LGBT stand. ‘I thought it would just be nice singing and talks about Jesus, now I think my priest might have some bigoted views about gays!’” Yet people like Greene and Bruenig do this for real; and this is because they are narcissists: they never really felt their conversion in their hearts—so now they expect a 2,000-year-old institution to change its basic claims for them.
Catholicism is not in a great state itself: in a more vital time, the Church would have just told people like Greene and Bruenig to fuck off—i.e. excommunicated them. It is not hard after all, the Church says no sodomy, adultery, or support for atheistic revolutionary terror groups (the Marxists and socialists); so either stop doing and supporting these things and repent, or we we will show you the door. However, since Catholics have become somewhat delicate over the centuries, they put up with people like Greene and Bruenig maundering on in public as to why, perhaps, deep down, their personal idiosyncrasies are more true than those of the notoriously hierarchical, traditional, and inflexible organisation they have joined.
Narcissists have little insight into their own behaviour. A more healthy person says: “If you don’t think any of this stuff is real; if you think people who love each other should be together no matter what or that Communism is social justice, why not accept that you are obviously not a Catholic?” Instead, people like Greene go through a great performance—their “struggle”—to come to terms with the Church and reconcile their personal paradoxes; and, of course, they involve everyone else in their “struggle” as a burning issue in the media, when most healthy people just get on with it. Really, Greene’s sins, such as they were, did not consist in adultery and support for Marxism; his real sin was the way he made these actions into a narcissistic public drama from which he derived enjoyment and financial gain, and in turn weakened the Church to which he belonged by making it appear that its most obvious and clear teachings were somehow ambiguous and up for debate.
Greene’s affection for the Soviet world should not be understood as a simple sympathy for Marxism. We forget now, but for a while there was a hot discussion about how Catholicism and Communism could be reconciled; particularly in countries like Italy and France where mass Communist parties rubbed shoulders with very Catholic populations. The Soviets, for their part, sponsored Liberation Theology, a Marxist spin on Catholicism that still has some influence in South America. For several decades there were a great many bullshit conferences and intellectual debates about how Catholicism and Communism could be reconciled, basically because the intelligentsia in the West expected Communism to be a permanent facet of life for centuries and so some modus vivendi with the Church had to be reached—never trust an intellectual.
It is in this context that Greene made some dubious statements; statements that reveal he often thought from a position of ressentiment: “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.” A statement like this is sure to provoke smiles from pagans such as Nietzsche and Evola who maintain that Christianity is simply proto-Communism. Nietzsche, notably, admired Pilate; he was the aristocrat, the man who was above the mob and its fanatical obsession with “truth”—unlike Socrates and Jesus, Pilate just got on with reality. He had no need for truth; he just wanted to do what was effective.
Notice that the implications in Greene’s views, as ventriloquised through a noble character in his Haitian novel The Comedians, are pretty sinister: “I would rather have blood on my hands…” Aside from the fact that Jesus did not get blood on his hands, this amounts to a fanatical view where it is better to “try to make things better” even if, as with Stalin and Mao, you kill hundreds of millions and collapse entire societies in the process. Greene here approaches the view of the worst wet liberal who loathes Hitler yet forgives Stalin because, “At least he was trying to help the poor oppressed unlike you indifferent cynics and fascists. At least he was trying to be kind to the oppressed.” The Nietzschean aristocratic attitude is indifferent, as indifferent as a cat, and scorns this fanatical approach which, of course, ended up in centuries of blood; for the Christian view that there must be one truth helped popularise religious war and total extirpation of the enemy. Nonetheless, Greene is in the wrong even in his take on Christianity here: Jesus was not a revolutionary who set out to get “blood on his hands”, except his own blood—as for his followers, that is another matter.
A further aspect to Greene’s pro-Soviet attitude is straight out ressentiment towards America. Greene openly expressed the view that the he preferred, ultimately, Soviet rule—or even the drug dealer Noriega—to America rule; yet this was not rooted, despite his brief CPGB membership, in a deep loyalty to Marxism as an idea. As with many in the British upper classes, Greene disliked America quite intensely on patriotic and cultural grounds—and this was especially so after the Americans humiliated the British during the Suez Canal crisis. This view has almost vanished now, the British ruling strata features men like Tony Blair and David Cameron who grew up fully Americanised; just like the leaders of dozens of other Americans satrapies, they repeat the bland formula that they represent America’s “greatest ally”. How many “greatest allies” can one hyperpower have? Answer: loads. Contemporary British politicians and technocrats are strudeled through the same government schools and institutions as every other functionary in the American empire—they go on exchange visits to the Harvard Department of Government and watch Sex and the City reruns on Netflix and so on.
Yet until relatively late, even when I was a child in the 1990s, there was a self-conscious anti-American stream in British middle-class and conservative life that refused to watch American cartoons and ridiculed the way Americans messed up the former colonial countries. This view—related to European high culture—basically saw Americans as yahoos, in hock to a Jewish-dominated popular culture industry that was vulgar and pornographic; utterly mindless and stupid. The children’s author Enid Blyton would feature Americans flash with cash—a source of resentment post-war when Britain was impoverished and in debt to America—who thought they could buy up Britain’s heritage. Aristocrats and rooted people naturally say, “Sorry, there are some things that are not for sale.” “Gee, whatta you mean by that, buddy. You wanna $20,000. I made this grinding—gotta be grinding, buddy. Get that side hustle.” This resentment towards crass American commercialism was also found in Greene; and this is, in part, why he preferred the USSR: his rejection of America stemmed from an old patrician attitude, not a desire for global proletarian victory.
Ironically, this is a view was also voiced on the radical right: men like the neo-Nazi Yockey came to prefer the martial USSR, particularly after its anti-Zionist turn, to decadent America—and the French radical right intellectual Alain de Benoist expressed the view that he preferred the red star on a Red Army cap to occupation by Big Mac. As with many statements by French intellectuals, this was silly: there can be no doubt that a Soviet occupation of France would have seen de Benoist whisked off to a KGB processing centre to have his nails torn out until he gave up the names of his political associates—then he would receive a coup de grâce in the back of the head and summary burial in a shallow ditch.
Yet what these radical rightists share with Greene is the view that America—her commercial largess and wealth—made people decadent and corrupt, whereas Soviet socialism, though brutal, retained a Spartan virtue and deference for high culture. As the Croatian radical rightist Tomislav Sunić puts it: “Communism rots the body, liberalism rots the soul.” The Soviet-aligned regimes tended to preserve high bourgeois culture and attempt to force it through society, in doing so they preserved the cultural core of the West more effectively than many liberal regimes; hence in Cuba today severe ballet mistresses armed with wooden canes will beat prospective ballerinas until they execute Swan Lake flawlessly, whereas in the West obese children, bereft of discipline, take their cultural cues from insipid comic book movies soaked in perverted liberal values and—being completely undisciplined—fail to appreciate, partly due to ideological distortion, the immense cultural patrimony at their disposal.
This phenomenon has given rise to the notion of “based Eastern Europe”; essentially, the Warsaw Pact nations retained old-fashioned bourgeois sensibilities on ice, circa 1938, whereas the West continued a slide into decadence. Until the 1980s, Soviet and Eastern Europe children were drilled the old-fashioned way as regards arithmetic and so on; the result was a cultural environment, steeped in material privation, that retained an austere virtue and appreciation for high culture that Disney and doughnuts eroded in the West. Of course, we are nearly two generations clear from the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the East’s relative stern virtue has probably already significantly declined.
Greene’s elitism-in-the-guise-of-Marxism is most in evidence in The Quiet American (1955). This book is famous for the way it exposes America naiveté versus European colonial experience in Vietnam. A part of the British conservative view I outlined above held that the Americans could never “get” the natives as the Europeans did, particularly the British. This view was residually in evidence as recently as the Iraq War, when the British confidently reassured themselves that their soldiers would have a better relation to the Arabs than the Americans would be able to achieve. This proved to be untrue, but the basic idea was sound.
The reason why men like Lawrence of Arabia could exist was that Britain was an aristocratic society; it felt no need to impose its values or ideals on the people it ruled, a bit like Pilate. If they wanted to emulate Britain that was fine, but it was not necessary. Aristocratic individuals from Britain with an interest in other cultures and societies emulated and entered native societies to uncover anthropology and history—and also to spy. Revolutionary societies—such as France, America, and the USSR—always seek to impose their ideologies on their conquests. The revolutionary model is based on the masses and ideology; consequently, to invade a foreign territory is also a “liberation”—an event followed by the revolutionary restructuring of that society to conform to the ideology.
To an extent, this happened to Europe in the 20th century from two directions: in the East, under the USSR; and in the West, under America. There no longer exists much in the way of anti-American elitist conservatism, in the the mould of Greene, in part because Britain has been fully ideological restructured, as East Germany was by the USSR, to function like America; hence we even have a Supreme Court, and our officials say that Britain has always been “a nation of immigrants”, an American formulation—just as East Germans lauded the “people’s democracies” that surrounded them. Anyone of a conservative bent in modern Britain, in the sense of someone who supports continuity and order, supports the American system—i.e. a system of radical democracy aimed to liquidate the old organic Britain.
Greene’s observations in The Quiet American are substantially correct. Countries like the USSR and America (even France, in fact) are naïve when it comes to conquered nations; and this is because, unlike aristocratic imperialists, they are ideologists. They have a genuine belief in democracy, the republic, or Marxism and this almost childish belief is imposed contrary to reality. Aristocrats are more cynical and flexible; and, of course, the Americans—the ideological fanatics—went down to defeat in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Canny observation notwithstanding, the weakness of The Quiet American, as with all Greene’s more political works, is that it comes from a place of resentment. It comes from a British man, resentful that America is now top dog, sniping at the American project in Vietnam; and this is unpleasant, as with Greene’s views on Communism, Pilate, and Christ there is an unhealthy wish to see the powerful laid low in his work; and I somewhat suspect, if he had been born a hundred years earlier, he would have been an enthusiast for the British Empire and not quite so socialistic in his outlook. He took the underdog’s part because he was born in a country that was on the way to being the underdog; and there is something unhealthy in that—he turned to the Soviets because they were on the up and he sensed in them, correctly, a residual cultural elitism not present in crass America.
In conclusion, Greene was a person who failed to follow his heart: his heart was never in Catholicism or Communism, yet he made great drama about his difficulties and struggles with both. As with contemporary American converts to Catholicism, Greene’s position—personal narcissism granted—came about from being born in a country that was decadent and in serious decline. Once Britain went down in 1945, Greene cast about for a cause—Soviet Communism or Catholicism—that was residually elitist, especially in culture; and yet what he yearned for, I think, was the vitality and dynamism of the old England. He sought that vitality abroad, for it was too great a task to build it at home again.