Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory

The Power And The Glory might be the quintessential Graham Greene novel, combining the pacing and plot of a thriller – in this case, a manhunt across Mexico – with weightier themes of faith, guilt and redemption. Our protagonist is a lapsed priest – a “whisky priest,” in Greene’s coinage – who is being hunted by government forces bent on wiping out the last vestiges of Catholicism in Mexico. His fellow priests have all either fled Mexico, publicly abjured the faith, or met with a firing squad, and one of the novel’s most interesting questions – indeed, the central question that makes it so compelling – is why this particular priest, who drinks himself sick and has fathered a child out of wedlock, should obstinately refuse to take the path of least resistance, risking death and enduring discomfort for the sake of a faith whose strictures he cannot follow.

Greene raises the philosophical stakes through the figure of the priest’s antagonist, a particularly devoted police lieutenant, an atheist who views religion as a pernicious lie, and who prosecutes his mission with fanatical zeal. Neither the priest nor the police lieutenant are given names – Greene, it seems, insists on our viewing these men as archetypes, or at least as avatars in a larger debate. “It infuriated him,” Greene tells us, “to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.” This, needless to say, is a bleak worldview, and he demonstrates his allegiance to it in the methods he uses to hunt the priest. In every village he enters, he takes a single hostage of his choosing, and puts out the word that the hostages will eventually be executed, one by one, until either the people give up the priest or the priest himself comes forward. He isn’t an evil man; on the contrary, Greene has him perform numerous small acts of kindness. And yet his philosophy permits him to commit acts of – for lack of a better word – evil. After he sees a group of children playing outside his police station, for example, he reflects on his own childhood under the lies of the Church and renews his commitment to stamp out Christianity for their sake:

He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth – a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes – first the Church and then the foreigner and then the politician – even his own chief would one day have to go. He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.

The imagery of the vacant universe and the cooling planet – favourites among atheists for centuries – position the lieutenant in a philosophical argument that suggests that, absent a creator and a purpose, objective meaning and objective morality are rendered moot. Very few atheists subscribe to such nihilism, but the necessity of finding a foundation upon which to build a common morality remains a serious one, and the possibility that an unscrupulous person, unchanged by moral relativism, will arrive seeking to remake society in his own image isn’t just a possibility; it’s a statistical certainty.

Greene was himself a Catholic, having converted to marry his first wife, and so naturally his sympathies are for the humble priest, a sinner nonetheless capable of exhibiting true heroism and self-sacrifice. On multiple occasions, he will knowingly put himself in greater danger to tend to the sick or lead a mass or bestow the last rights, and Greene insists that, if the lieutenant’s barbaric behaviours can be traced to his ideology, so too can the priest’s mercies be traced to his faith. In a pivotal scene, after the priest has been thrown in jail on suspicion of bootlegging liquor, he encounters a pious, self-righteous woman who judges him harshly for his past transgressions. “The sooner you are dead the better,” she tells him, out of disgust for his imperfections. But the priest, despite anger and annoyance, cannot bring himself to hate her.

He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he could remember from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination. He began to feel overwhelming responsibility for this pious woman.

There’s something noble about this position, centred as it is on the human individual, however petty or loathsome, and it lifts up the priest in our regard. Earlier in the novel, while taking confession, hearing the sins of Mexico’s poor, he remarks on the difficulty of loving humanity in all our imperfection, in terms that will be prophetic by the novel’s end:

How often the priest had heard the same confession – Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization – it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

I am reminded of some remarks Richard Ellmann made about James Joyce: that he is “the porcupine of authors” because he contrives ugly, broken characters – unloveable men and women – and then “summons us to sympathize.” Through the exact same above-mentioned particularity of description – through sheer force of imagination – Joyce wins his readers’ sympathy. Greene’s whisky priest accomplishes something similar, and his recognition of the intrinsic worth of the human individual also vindicates his faith, his worldview, even as it indicts the nihilism of his hunter.

If The Power And The Glory continues to astonish us, surely it’s because the battle between meaning and nihilism is ongoing, waged within every human heart, and because Greene has managed to evoke that conflict and make the case for meaning, elegantly and forcefully.