“God has placed two wolves in the heart of man. A good wolf and a bad one.
Which one does he feed?” – Chinese riddle.
In the entrails of English literary lore is an interpretation that a text contains its own meaning within itself, requiring no complicated process of placing it in a broader context. This is called the second tenet of Liberal Humanism. I reject this too-liberal priestly divination, believing that an understanding of the broader context of a text, novel or life, contributes to a richer reading experience. To illustrate my credo, I penned an essay on a novel new to me, Graham Greene’s disturbing ‘The Power and the Glory’.
THE second tenet of the Liberal Humanism catechism states that a ‘good’ text is intelligible to a reader without referring to its broader context.
Professor Peter Barry of Aberystwyth University describes this tenet of Liberal Humanism (LH) as an empirical study of a document’s text devoid of the social, political, historical or autobiographical context in which it was written (Barry 2009).
I believe that a reader’s experience is enriched by even a passing knowledge of a book’s setting and its author’s motivation. The popularity of book reviews and the placing of blurb and bio on the book’s back cover are sure indicators that readers want to know the broader context.
My one concession to the second tenet is that adverse knowledge of the writer, or statements in the text that contradict the author’s known opinions might colour a reader’s reception of the text, unless it were known that the leopard had changed its spots. However, another tenet of HL denies the possibility of such a transformation (Barry 2009). To test these tenets, both would require almost illiterate readers to be selected somewhat like a jury, except that critical appraisal by the author’s peers would surely find the tenets guilty of nonsense.
My non-sectarian English upbringing, in which every school day opened with the Lord’s Prayer and a Christian hymn, and each week closed with biblical scripture taught as secular history, certainly enhanced my appreciation of Graham Greene’s 1940 masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, written after his visit to Mexico in 1938. The title comes from a doxology in the early Catholic liturgy that was added to the four verses of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible. Written after 70 AD, it begins ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, though ‘kingdom’ was added after 250 AD.
‘Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done,’ we prayed to our Heavenly Father, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Luke 11:2)
The English sang ‘God Save the King’ while Mexican revolutionaries died crying ‘Long live Christ the King!’ For generations, Mexico has waged a war of wills between a succession of dictators and the Catholic Church (Goodrich 2010) to see which should have the kingdom.
I learned from Greene and Google that thousands of Catholic priests were executed in that Marx-inspired secularisation of Mexico (Ruiz 2008), and now I can place its historic depravity in the context of Mexico’s most recent martyrs – journalists, male and female, being murdered almost weekly for their defiance of the police-protected drug lords (Zable 2012). Little has changed; the fight goes on.
On the front cover of my copy of The Power and the Glory, reset and reprinted in 1971 by Penguin, is a review by Greene’s former employer, The Times (Updike 2009), aptly set in Times Roman italic:
‘Though the book is written in the deliberate avoidance of emotion,
it starts in the reader an irresistible emotion of pity and love’
Beneath the review is a Chinese-style black ink-brush painting by Paul Hogarth, of two cocks fighting over a spoon. A silver spoon is used in churches to offer the communion bread, but this spoon is empty, and the cock-fight, which we know will be cruel and bloody to the death, seems caught in a Mexican stand-off.
The Nazi-like treatment of the Mexican peasants turned Greene from his flirt with Communism to his new wife’s Catholicism (Yiu 2012). Ever the writer, he could recognise the mythic proportions of that relentless, godless persecution with its equally persistent antagonist, blind faith. Both were in thrall, one to the grasp of secular self-interest, the other to the grip of religious dogma and servitude.
In The Power and the Glory, Greene, as his reviewer asserts, illustrated skilfully one of the more reasonable tenets of HL: that emotion should flow from actions, not words (Barry 2009). Greene also strove for political impartiality, to the extent, he confessed, of inventing the police jefe (lieutenant) giving him more humanity than any he’d met (Yiu 2012). Updike (2009) observes that the novel oddly reverses the geographic north to south, which I suspect is code. It sites Mexico City in the east, perhaps symbolic of a hope for the dawn of a new regime.
In my opinion, HL’s exclusion of the context of a literary work, and a further tenet, to ignore authorial intention (Barry 2009), deprives both reader and writer. There is joy in the discovery of a writer not only of like mind but of like experience. To recognise in a text a mutually familiar time and place or to discover significant information to relate to one’s own writing is to partake of a literary communion. Despite LH, such an everyday exchange can transform our lives.
‘Give us this day our daily bread. . .’ (Luke 11:3).
Greene’s respectable elderly Lutheran, Miss Lehr, is irredeemably altered by her quickly curtailed reading of Mexico City’s Police News. ‘I never knew such dreadful things were printed,’ she confides to the priest with the whisky breath. ‘I think it was the most dreadful thing that’s ever happened to me.’
‘. . . and forgive us our trespasses . . .’ (Luke 11:4)
‘It opened my eyes,’ says Miss Lehr. (Lehrbuch is German for textbook.) She cannot confide in her brother, a Christian who doesn’t hold with Catholics. ‘He wouldn’t think the same of me, I do believe, if he knew.’
‘. . . but deliver us from evil.’ (Luke 11:4)
Greene has no need to spell out Miss Lehr’s torment, nor that of the hunted, guilt-haunted Padre Jose. Readers with a rosary will understand.
‘It’s knowing, isn’t it?’ Miss Lehr says.
If Greene’s intention in writing The Power and the Glory was to exhibit the harm done to the human psyche when ideologies collide, he did it well. Given the context of his work as an MI6 spy (Norton-Taylor 2010) the reader is assured that Greene knows more than the map: he knows the territory of collateral damage. ‘You are in the place,’ a Mexican fellow traveller told Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, after reading the book. (Updike 1990).
An area where disregard for the broader context is not an option is in Indigenous writing, warns the author of The Editor’s Companion, Janet Mackenzie (2012). Aboriginal cultural norms forbid the revealing of tribal secrets to the uninitiated, and the depiction or naming of recently deceased people. Our government, on behalf of the first people, has the power to insist on a needful cautionary note to Indigenous readers or viewers that they are about to read or witness something that will cause them distress. It has taken half a century of ideological struggle to reach this unsatisfactory compromise.
In the closing scenes of The Power and the Glory, the police jefe watches from the dentist’s window as his deputy fires a bullet through the head of the state’s last priest.
‘Oh, the pain, the pain. . . Hurry!’ the jefe moans to the despised English dentist. There is none other who can take away his toothache. The world is eternally willing to inflict or suffer any punishment in its attempt to conquer pain.
At the end of the book the children are asking the same questions of their mother as they did at the book’s beginning, about the priests they’d sheltered, and the boy martyr in their Revolutionary storybook, who at his execution cries ‘Vivo el Cristo Rey!’
Was the priest they shot today a hero? the son asks.
Is that priest with the funny smell a saint now? asks the girl. Shall we pray to him?
Yes, and maybe, their mother replies. ‘It would do no harm to pray.’ (Greene 1940).
‘. . . Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory . . .’ (Doxology).
That night the son, reared on his mother’s forbidden faith, grieves the future lack of blood-soaked martyr’s relics. He is wakened from a nightmare by a knocking at the door. Cautiously he opens it – then springs to kiss the hand of yet another fugitive priest (Greene 1940).
‘. . . for ever and ever . . .’ (Doxology 250 AD).
Good or bad, a text once read survives, though buried in our memory. As long as we can think and remember, this world provides the context for any text – except perhaps the first verse of St John’s Gospel (John 1:1): ‘In the beginning was the Word. . . ’
If only we could know the broader context of that Beginning, and the Author’s intention, our experience would be truly, uniquely enriched.
And there I rest my case against the second tenet of Liberal Humanism.
‘. . . Amen’. (Doxology 250 AD)
Barry, P 2009, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, 3rd edn, Manchester University Press, UK.
Doxology, 250–380 AD, The Apostolic Constitutions, Catholic Liturgy, accessed 19 April 2012, <http://ourladyofsorrows.us/QotF/Doxology.htm>
Gee, James, 10 tenets of liberal humanism, blog, accessed 15 April 2012, <http://jweducation.wikidot.com/liberal-humanism>
Goodrich, L 2010, ‘Mexico’s Separation of Church and State’, Wall Street Journal, 1 March. Accessed 17 April 2012, <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740704575095704065365166.html>
Greene, G 1971, The Power and the Glory, Penguin, London.
Mackenzie, B J 2011, The Editor’s Companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, NY.
Norton-Taylor, R 2010, ‘Graham Greene, Arthur Ransome and Somerset Maugham all spied for Britain, admits MI6’, The Guardian, 21 September, accessed 16 April 2010, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/21/mi6-first-authorised-history>
Ruiz, L 2008, ‘Where have all the Marxists gone? : Marxism and the historiography of the Mexican revolution’, A Contra Corriente, vol. 5, no. 2, Winter, pp. 196–219, NCSU, accessed 17 April 2012, <www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente>
St Luke, The Holy Bible, 1611, ‘Gospel according to St Luke’, Chapter 11:2, British and Foreign Bible Society, London. (Except the Doxology from The Apostolic Constitutions).
St John, The Holy Bible, 1611, ‘Gospel according to St John’, Chapter 1:1, British and Foreign Bible Society, London.
Updike, J 1990, ‘The Passion of Graham Greene’, The New York review of books, 16 August, accessed 16 April 2012, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1990/aug/16/the-passion-of-graham-greene/
Yiu, M 2012, Graham Greene biographical notes, blog, retrieved 17 April 2012, <http://greeneland.tripod.com/bio.htm>
Zable, A 2012, ‘President’s Report’, Melbourne PEN Quarterly, April, p.10.