Comment: Graham Greene & The Writer's Womb
The Birth of Pinkie and the Whiskey Priest
Words: Rachel Rigby
Graham Greene wrote in his 1980 autobiography; “The main characters of a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the author, they come out of his body as a child comes out of the womb”. All authors are faced with an intense attachment when they develop a character, they may not be similar in disposition or temperament, and sociopathic and psychopathic qualities of either are rarely mirrored in the other yet one human being has created another, regardless of their differences. Just as each parent can only produce a certain child, each writer can only a fathom a particular subject. The two most notorious infl uences perpetuated in Greenes work were his faith (something he wished to detach himself from, regularly professing his wish to be considered a writer who happens to be Catholic rather than a Catholic Writer), and his continual battle with Bipolar Disorder. Greene was also renowned for his poor treatment of lovers and wives, the most prominent example being first wife Vivien, who he left in 1948 to woo Catherine Walston, an attractive American who had asked him to become her Godfather once she had been received in to the Catholic church.
2011 not only saw the 20th anniversary of Greenes death, but also the release of Rowan Joffes adaptation of one of Greenes most famous literary works, Brighton Rock. The film, set in the kitsch and delusional modern perceptions of the 1960s, has been accused of placing emphasis on the most obvious and aesthetic values, all style, no substance, rather than slipping the audience into the harrowing mind of Pinkie; a sociopath, with no passion for life or existence, only possessing an eerie preoccupation with his Catholic faith, hell and damnation. For me, it was almost impossible for any remake to excel or live up to John Boultings 1947 adaptation. The ironic ending highlights the role of the passive female character, forever deluded that she is in love, and going to any extent to maintain the delusion.
Pinkies disregard for life prompts us to contemplate the relevance of the unsuccessful suicide of Greene himself; a game of Russian Roulette played at the school he was so contemptuous of, and of which is father was Headmaster; Berkhamsted. Greene once said in an interview he felt like “a hunted rabbit”.. giving his suicide an eerie irony.
As an atheist Greene’s Catholicism fascinates me, it has consistently provided his work with an additional layer, he often places emphasis on the resilience of the Church, giving each pious character an individual sense of ruthlessness in their pursuits. Greene does not dwell on the commandments or technicalities; once declaring- “A priest in giving a sacrament believes he is giving the body and blood of Christ and it doesnt matter whether he himself is a murderer, an adulterer, a drunkard. It doesnt affect the sacrament”. Therefore we begin to see the Greene who is disdainful of conventional piety and instead focuses on alternative approaches to religion, such as his Whisky Priest in The Power and the Glory. The priest declares at one point; “one day they’ll forget there was ever a church here.”
The Power and the Glory is a fictional account of the persecution of the Clergy under the rule of Mexican President Calles, who was notorious for ruling during the period of the Maximato. By 1935, 17 Mexican states had no priests at all, with the majority having been eradicated by expulsion, assassination and emigration. “One day they’ll forget there was never church here,” was not Greene expressing his nostalgia for a more religious, pious or moral era, instead it presents us with the poignancy and severity of a society that is entirely void of faith.
We may not want to believe in a God, follow a religious code, or support a pope that advocates homophobia and has a history of Nazi support, yet is it really possible to forget there was ever a church here? Is it really fair to take a priest from a confessional? Even the most resolute atheists would disagree with the virulent persecution of the clergy, and religion will always be an unavoidable symbol amongst society. Although it is diffi cult not to contemplate the increase of tolerance in a secular society, religion and piety is etched into the conventions and convictions of our society.
This is a flimsy and clichéd argument and religious principles are still integrated into the secular aspects of our society, but Greene was almost ahead of his time when professing that morals and principles do not affect the sacrament. Throughout history we have been bombarded with one religion persecuting another, instigating intolerance of communities and races. Upon contemplation, the concept of hell & damnation is virulent and threatening, the prospect itself reminds us of capital punishment; punishing evil with what was initially proposed to be evil in the first place. Greene himself has acknowledged this, through the priest of Brighton Rock, who tells Rose during her confession that a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone; epitomized in the character of Pinkie.
Pinkie and the Whisky Priest were the children of Greenes personal matters, his Bipolar Disorder and relationship with God. They left his womb as a child would its parent. But this does not suggest that the influences of Greene would cause his characters to be influenced by these in the same way, Pinkie is driven to suicide due to his belief in hell and the sins against God he has committed, whereas Greenes attempted suicide took place prior to his experience with God. Catholicism inspired Greene, his disdain for piety, yet passion for faith contributed to insightful and complex literary explorations of religion. And we begin to see the problem with secular societies; they’re simple. And when the inhabitants of these societies experience any distress, they wont know where to turn to, because they’ll have forgotten there was ever a church here.