Saturday, August 25, 2012

On the Border of Love

C. S. Lewis says (in Mere Christianity, I think) that loving the lovable actually just means responding naturally to something pleasant, and that true love kicks in only when it is directed to the unlovable. Many quotation lists on the internet claim that in Heretics Chesterton said, “Love means loving the unlovable – or it is no virtue at all.” But a quick search of that book on the Gutenberg Project proves that the sentence isn’t there. It sounds like the kind of paradoxical expression Chesterton would have loved, though, so, to paraphrase the old woman in The Ladykillers (1955), it’s such a lovely sentiment, let’s hope he expressed it.

Wherever Lewis said it, and whether or not Chesterton said it, in The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene’s Major Scobie comes to the same conclusion. He likes the dreary, economically depressed town he works in on the western coast of Africa, with its culture of perpetual lies and under-the-table deals. Only here, he reasons, can one truly love his neighbor, because it exposes all the true ugliness of human nature. In England, by comparison, Scobie sees people only able to love the customs and affectations in others that culture has taught them to cover up with.

Scobie seems to have discovered a grand secret to life in learning that love means loving the unlovable. His problem, though, is that he can’t see through to attributing the same viewpoint to God. Scobie can’t believe that God would love him. What kind of God was God anyway, putting himself on a cross like that and offering his flesh to just anyone?

What an interesting conflict to put at the heart of a novel! I loved this book! I first became excited about Greene a few years ago when I read a collection of his short stories. After that, I read The Power and the Glory, just because that seems to be the one to read. But it disappointed me, as interesting as it was. Heart of the Matter brought back the Greene I first encountered, an author whose images and words all have layers of meaning, an author who places his characters on the borders between starkly contrasting worlds and then explores whether they will or even can cross those borders.

Most reviews I had read (including the ones on the cover) said the book is about an affair. Yes, Scobie’s affair with a young shipwreck survivor plays a key part in his spiritual slide, but it does not constitute the story. Scobie’s descent begins with a flick of a report into the trashcan. The affair only shows him that he has committed himself perversely to the descent, which he contemplates bringing to a logical conclusion by killing himself. For Greene, the question of suicide is the all-important crux of the problem, but of course our sex-crazed culture has trouble seeing suicide as more important or interesting than adultery.

One night near the beginning of the book, Scobie thinks about the cozy appearance of the town’s homes, warm light streaming out of their windows, and realizes that the pleasant exteriors, like those affectations at home, cover up little communities of conflict and hatred. If we could always see through to the heart of the matter, he thinks, we might even learn to pity the stars. But he can’t see  (even though his job is to search for smuggled diamonds on ships!) that he might pull back one more curtain and find something precious under the lies and conflicts and hatred. If he can see that he hasn’t yet reached the heart of the heart of the matter, he might learn that God has no trouble piercing both cultural mask and human depravity in order to find the lost soul over which angels will rejoice.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like an excellent book, and that last sentence made my eyes water. You write really well yourself!