Power and Decline - The Literary and Political Catholicism of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh

Whenever there was a chance to have a shot at Catholicism in his writing, George Orwell could always be relied on to take aim and discharge both barrels. With the grim vision of Vatican support for Franco fresh in his mind, he was hardly without justification. Polemical righteousness brimming over, he rashly wrote in the 30s that the English novel was "practically a Protestant art form", and that Catholic practitioners were thin on the ground both numerically and qualitatively. Practically as he put pen to paper however, two of the greatest English authors of the mid century - Henry Graham Greene and Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh - were surfacing to take the literary world by ferocious storm. And it's fair to say the pair weren't exactly short on Catholic sensitivities. A bad call from Mr Orwell on this one at least.

In many respects the authors could scarcely be more different. Greene's milieu was the forgotten corners and back alleys of life. The jittery street gang, the persecuted runaway, the jaded official in a fading Imperial outpost. Boozy landladies, failed accountants. Greene's every fibre was tuned with sympathy for the underdog, siding with the rebellious and the forgotten, his narrative home the sleazy underbelly of life. Not so Waugh. His territory was the landed estates of the southern counties and their intersection with the cold elites of London high society. While his misanthropic satire found endless and endlessly amusing reasons for his narrative contempt towards the dramatis personae of lower gentry and upper bourgeois who populated his books, there was no denying that, at heart, he identified with them. Indeed, his lampooning of the upper and upper middle classes hinged largely round the fact that they failed to live up to his reactionary ideal. Moving outside this caste, his attitude shifts from mere contempt to outright hatred.

While both transcended both, Greene's style skirted round the genre of the thriller, Waugh around that of the comedic farce. Greene's narratives are littered with gangland intrigue, colonial corruption, the grimy and sweaty fear of pursuit. Action, in the purest sense, is central, as is plot. The characters are conveyed via a direct mental inner voice toward the reader, their dialogue, and interaction with each other being secondary to this. Again, the contrast with Waugh could hardly be greater. His narratives are comedies of manners, black comedy but comedy nonetheless. His genius stems from the ironic nuance of the reciprocal voices on display, the interaction of their dialogue being vital. Unlike Greene, the plots of his novels are essentially secondary, framing devices against which the characters can "flourish", were that not so inappropriate a word for the languishing on display. These are characters whose inner lives are implied rather than explored, conveyed in shadow.

What they did have in common was an intense sense of inner desolation, an acidic looking within, and it was their Catholicism that both mirrored and embodied this. Read any novel by either author, and whichever of the myriad delights you may obtain from the experience, the lasting impression, the "aftertaste", is a subtle yet distinct despair, an existential dislocation obtained via osmosis from the central characters. "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil - or else an absolute ignorance," declares Greene, with Waugh in full agreement.

In the past a Catholic in Britain was, by definition, an outsider. Even today, Britain is officially a Protestant nation with a Protestant monarch, an identity forged in the fire of adversity to the Romanist other. These atavistic rivalries may have dwindled and mean little to the majority of people in the UK today, but in the 30s the rifts were still raw. It wasn't too long before then that suspicion toward Catholics was much like that shown towards Muslims today. Worse in fact, with official sanctions barring the "other" from office, and from voting. Most Catholics in the country are there by the apparent virtue of the Faith being handed down. In the main they come from immigrant backgrounds, chiefly from the Irish diaspora of the past two centuries. A disenfranchised, working class tribe, greatly over-represented in the industrial north of England, and in Scotland (this before we even begin to touch on Northern Ireland.) None of this, however, applied to either Greene and Waugh, bourgeois, upper middle purebred English southerners both. They were Catholics by choice, by their own conversion. Outsiders by choice too.

Both seemed to want a Faith which underlined and justified the constant sense of separation they had always felt towards their peers. They also seemed to want to find as stark and unforgiving a theology to identify themselves with as possible. Greene converted to the Faith in 1926 at the age of 22, following a lonely and troubled youth savagely punctuated by suicide attempts. Suffering what is now termed bipolar disorder, Greene spent his whole life engaged in extremes of behaviour, not least in his prodigious sexual incontinence and proclivities. Greene stated he became a Catholic as something to "measure his evil against". In later years he adulterously fucked behind Italian altars for the thrill. There must be a suspicion Greene was playing with the Faith for his own sense of internal drama, much like Dali, whose use of the religion was a prop to adorn his art with ever more outlandishly theological accoutrements. Catholicism is after all, a religion of the picturesquely ornate, of the dramatic. The stained glass and incense filled churches, the arcane blood and flesh fuelled doctrines of transubstantiation, the unflinchingly Manichean morality, the sheer ancient grim majesty of it all. This is truly the religion of the drama queen. You don't get that with Methodism. For all this though, Greene was not merely playing with some theological dressing up box. There can be no doubting the sincerity of his conversion. His private letters show his Faith was central to his life.

In both life and literature however, Greene was a poor advertisement for the familiar argument of religion being a solace in life, the "heart in a heartless world". Two of his most celebrated central characters, the colonial administrator Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, and the nameless whiskey priest of The Power and the Glory, are hopeless, tired and desperate shadows of men, whose Faith only serves to make them spiritual as well as emotional wrecks. Both live daily with the knowledge their actions, be they treacherous or adulterous, are condemning them, with absolute certainty, to eternal damnation. These are not truly bad men, but by the standards of their own Faith they are beyond redemption, sealing their own personal tragedies. Then on the other hand, we have Pinkie, the psychopathic young gangster of Brighton Rock. Here is a truly bad man, and one whose certainty of his own damnation only serves to spur him on to ever greater evil. "He was damned already and there was nothing more to fear ever again." In each case, the religion makes for a wonderfully powerful and evocative component of the novels, a character in itself, more than that even. Wonderful for the reader. But wonderful for Greene himself? Noel Coward met Greene when they both prowled in the same Hollywood circles, touting their works for adaptation on the silver screen. He came to remark on Greene's "strange, tortured mind". Whether his Faith served to salve or further inflame the wounds of this torture his open to conjecture.

Waugh's conversion was more clearly that of a man desperate to retreat into a mythical past. This was after all the man who proclaimed "the trouble with the Conservative Party is it has not turned back the clock one second." There was a spate of conversions to the Faith in the 30s of men from the upper-middle-class, men trying to find a mooring, a sense of backward-looking solidity in a traumatic age. Once more however, there is something far deeper, and steeped in an ambivalence.

Waugh came to prominence as a novelist in 1928 with Decline and Fall, two years before his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Famous and feted at the age of 25, Waugh continued with the drunken hedonism he had begun in his Oxford years. He was indeed one of the feckless "bright young things" he wrote about. His growing horror at the spiritual emptiness he saw in this gadddabout life was what spurred him into the arms of the Church, which he saw as the most Eternal of institutions, a haven amongst the creeping chaos.

In the views of Waugh, we see in sharp relief the antagonism between the heart of Conservatism, and the capitalism that it defends. Margaret Thatcher herself for instance, would have been personally shocked and repulsed if she spent any great time in the company of her shock troops, the coked up young yuppies of the 80s, as they lined it up on the toilet tops. Waugh's contempt for the fly by night shallowness of the young rich sat ill at ease with his support for of the Tory Party without which their lives of philistine luxury would be unsustainable. Hence his impotent railing against clocks going forward. The real establishment of England was once Catholic of course, back in the 15th century, an age so long ago as to have lost all contemporary meaning. His Catholicism therefore was a very real sense of clinging to a past so elusive as to be non-existent, grasping at a phantasm.

In his novels, the Faith emerges as the still at the centre, the calm amongst the inferno. This can be seen most clearly in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder's agnosticism is set against the Faith of the Marchmain family, or in The Sword of Honour triliogy, wherein the aristocratic Crouchback's represent even more clearly the valiant rearguard action of the Church, and indeed old England itself, against all the forces of modernity. In other novels the Faith's talismanic status is subtler. Tony Last, the cuckolded husband in A Handful of Dust, is presented as belonging to the past, underlined by his church attendance, however vague minded that may be. His humiliation by non churchgoing wife Brenda and the vulgar ( key word ) social climber John Beaver shows once more the clash between the (virtuous) old and the (degenerate) new. It is a mythological battle between Old England, the rural, certainty, tradition and social cohesion, against the New World, the urban, capitalism, dynamism, change, hedonism, class conflict and progress. In Sword of Honour, Waugh sees Guy Crouchback, when he still thinks he is fighting against Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both, claims "The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms."

It's an internal battle the Right will never resolve. That Catholicism is no longer the religion of the "establishment" serves Waugh well. As he sees the massed ranks of modernity triumph, as he surely knows they will, he can psychologically cast himself in the role of the king over the water, exiled valiant victim and patrician overseer simultaneously. Such was the source of both his art, and the bilious, bitter anger that never left him.

In Britain we have the paradox that Catholicism - in the wider world so very often the creed of the oppressor over the centuries - is the religion of the persecuted underdog. This has led to the most bizarre and schizophrenic political allegiances and alliances. In 30s Lancashire, unemployed Communist marchers would doff their caps when passing Catholic churches, at the same time as senior clerics were backing Franco. Orwell wrote of visiting workers' houses with "the crucifix on the wall, and the Daily Worker on the table". There has never been a shortage of left-wing British writers of Catholic background, but seems fair to say this has usually stemmed from their "outsider" nature, their working class and/or Irish background, rather than the religion itself. With Anthony Burgess - in later life a bitter rival of Greene's - we have a descendant of the Irish diaspora, his childhood in Manchester's Moss Side influenced the Left perspective of his early writing, his Catholicism informing his later conservative slant.

The upper and middle-class converts to the Faith of the 30s however, were far more often doing so for reasons which became reactionary by default, even if that was not the initial intention. In this sense Waugh was the more typical figure. In 1937, when Nancy Cunard sent a survey to leading novelists of the UK asking which side they took in the Spanish Civil war, Waugh was one of the tiny minority who declared their support for the Falange. A minority view among authors, but not among the kind of dyspeptic saloon bar Tory he came more and more to exemplify and signify as both his age and drinking increased. The Blimpish caricature he succumbed to by the end was probably an extreme rather than a typical example however, and by a sublime irony was mirrored in the similar decline into self-parody of Kingsley Amis a generation later, a writer Waugh lambasted as "lower-middle-class scum" at the beginning of the latter's career.

Amongst the 30s converts, the Left-radicalism of Greene therefore must be seen as a great exception. Once again though, the tale is more complicated. Greene started out on the Right. Along with many youths of his class, he acted as a strike-breaker during the 1926 General Strike. After his conversion, he wrote for the right-wing Spectator magazine and took the side of the put-upon Mexican clergy following the revolution in that country. His earlier novels contained numerous mildly anti-Semitic asides (excised on republishing at his behest.) In many ways therefore, he seemed destined to trudge down a classic Conservative path.

But Greene was one of those converts, a minority amongst the Blimps of his class, who heard the message of social justice ring louder than that of defence of hierarchical tradition in the call of the Faith. Greene's vision of Catholicism stirred him to side with the downtrodden in the world, and for him that meant the Left. He became an intractable and articulate foe of US imperialism, especially of its machinations in Southern and Central America. In 1955 he wrote The Quiet American, a novel which was to become a classic anti-imperialist parable. In later years he was to meet and correspond with Fidel Castro, and while still critical of the curtailing of religious and intellectual freedom in the country, strongly supported Cuba's struggle against US hegemony.

In Latin America of course, the populace shared his Faith, yet he was conscious that the dominant reactionary elements within Catholicism had no interest at all in his anti-imperialist vision. When therefore, in the 80s a new strain of Faith within the region came to prominence which shared his vision, he could scarcely contain his intellectual glee. Liberation Theology combined the apparently antagonistic Catholicism and socialism which had both so inspired Greene, uniting against the US backed juntas of the subcontinent. Oscar Romero in Salvador and Evaristo Arns in Brazil were just two of many to speak out the US sponsored repression and poverty which racked their nations. Greene came to personally befriend another such Liberation priest, Leopoldo Duran.

That such movements were to fail, crushed by the Washington backed strong-men, Oscar Romero assassinated - Greene, eternal pessimist as he was, no doubt anticipated. That they failed to receive the backing of the Vatican, that indeed that they were explicitly denounced by them, he may have found harder to reconcile. Perhaps this contributed to the weary irony of his statement to interviewer John Cornwell in 1989, that he was now a "Catholic agnostic" .

Had he lived to see it however, he may well have been heartened to see the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, a new generation of leaders combining socialism with their Catholicism. The latest success of the left-leaning bishop Fernando Lugo becoming president in Paraguay would no doubt of gladdened him most of all. Who could doubt he would have seen some vindication here, and an answer both to the Catholic hierarchy who saw in the Left its great nemesis, and those on the Left who argued that believers could only ever be reactionary. Waugh, meanwhile, would have spun once more in his grave, a tomb already doubtless given to much rapid rotation.

Greene and Waugh may have had diametrically opposed positions in their politics from their own interpretations of the Faith. But, transcending politics, what both seemed to take from the Faith in their writing was a sense of the complete fragility and frailty of the human condition, the essential unworthiness of people gained from Original Sin. In Greene this seemed to inspire a sense of poetic heroism amidst inevitable failure and desperation, in Waugh a very real contempt not just for humanity as a whole in the abstract, but for all human beings individually. That sense of the tragic which under-writes and illuminates the drama in the one, the sharp satire in the other, a sense of the comedic and the sublime in both. It also served to solidify the bond which grew between the two. Melancholic heavy drinkers, red eyes unsatisfied, tilting at the cold Protestant world from different angles. For all their myriad differences, the two became firm friends, and remained so until Waugh's death in 1966.

Larkin claimed "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth".With Greene and Waugh, the inspiration, the framework, the habitat, spark and realm of their work was neither harsh mental state nor delicate flower. Catholicism was the muse for them both. As a very lapsed member of the Faith myself, and distinctly sceptical as to any positive influence it may lend to the modern age, I can at least offer it gratitude for giving the work of both to the world.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2008]