We stumble toward another election that can look, to the disenchanted, like a choice between one shade of grey and another. A liberation theologian is violently deposed in Haiti. Guerrillas, in Russia and everywhere, say that even the deaths of children are justified in the light of a larger cause. And a Tibetan monk flies around the world telling us that non-violent humanity is the one weapon politics defers to.
As the world wavers, more than ever, between irreconcilables–”Human nature is not black and white,” a distinguished English novelist said, “but black and gray”–it becomes tempting to ask not what Jesus would do, in all his wisdom, but what a mortal, conflicted, and deeply human soul, like that distinguished novelist, would do, faced in the modern moment. Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Graham Greene, who made of doubt his eternal creed and tried always to find the human, ambiguous truth that lay beyond all slogans or ideologies. And Greene’s characteristic blend of realism and conscience–his determination to see the world in all its fallenness and detail, and yet never to give up on it entirely–seems closer to what many are hungering for these days than the bromides of politician or pundit.
Greene’s contention, always, was that a human complication must take precedence over all the noble solace of talk about God and country. Certainty is the luxury of the unthinking; it’s the things that don’t make sense we live with. Thus his novels end, often, with a winner half-wishing he’d lost the struggle, or a kindly man who swears he’s honest turning out to be a Judas. It is the very contrairiness of things that leads to possibility: there’s always the hope that even a whisky priest who’s done everything wrong in his life may suddenly, almost in spite of himself, do right.
Were he to watch Fahrenheit 9/11, therefore, Greene might note that Michael Moore, as a spokesman for the dispossessed, with a grasp on the human cost of war–the grieving mother left behind, the bewildered kids at sea in the desert–is offering us an essential, and forgotten truth; but he would also surely remark that, as an idelogue himself, Moore squanders all the trust he’s won with ad-hominem attacks and a distrust of every nuance. Were he to survey the situation in Iraq, Greene might cite the precedent of Quixote, who, declaring that his “occupation and profession” is “to wander the world righting wrongs and rectifying injustices,” blithely breaks a young man’s leg. All talk of left and right glosses over the fact that right and wrong are often inseparable.
One reason Greene’s novels have lasted into a second century is that he saw that to report on the present was, if you did it right, to document the future. If you look deeply enough at any society, you see not just its systems and circumstances, but a character that is enduring. Thus visitors to Haiti today are best advised to consult Greene’s Comedians, from 38 years ago. His portrait of Batista’s Cuba, all nonchalance, corruption and sudden brutality, is startlingly close to the Cuba of his friend Fidel Castro. I thought I saw his Vietnamese heroine Phuong as I was sitting in an Internet cafe last month in Saigon, and then the young woman at the terminal next to me clicked onto her e-mail and I read, “Dear Phuong…” and a long letter from a foreign admirer.
Greene’s hope, ultimately, was that our predicament could be our redemption: the very fact that we are confused or suffering or scared is what allows us to feel for someone else, even an apparent enemy, and so act better than we should. Our opponent, too, has children at home, and hopes for them. One can imagine him smiling in approval at the documentary movie Control Room, where Arab journalists chronicling American attacks say frankly that they dream of sending their children to America for school,. while the U.S. military spokesman whose job is to rebut them acknowledges, winningly, that they may have a point.
For some, Greene is too much a product of his old-school imperial background to be of value today, too far from post-modern confusions on the one hand, and too ready to defend the English traitor Kim Philby on the other. The cult of political correctiness has little time for his kind of trans-political incorrectness. But as we look at religions claiming political ground, and politicians speaking on behalf of religion, and as we see people everywhere wishing that both America and its enemies were not so sure of their God-given rightness, some of us find solace in the wisdom of the hero of watchful agnosticism. A hundred years after his birth, he’s still telling us that if God exists, and gives us anything, it’s a sense that we are all as wrong, and fallible, as the people we curse at..