The Bastard Innocents // “The Power and the Glory”

On saving the children.


He stood with his hand on his holster and watched the brown intent patient eyes: it was for these he was fighting. …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.

            Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)

“. . . my dear, my dear, try to understand that you are – so important.” That was the difference, he had always known, between his faith and theirs, the political leaders of the people who cared only for things like the state, the republic: this child was more important than a whole continent.

            Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)

“Loving God isn’t any different from loving a man – or a child. It’s wanting to be with Him, to be near Him.” He made a hopeless gesture with his hands. “It’s wanting to protect Him from yourself.”

            Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)

A hope for the world and a despair of it: these make up the dancing pair which pulses in the blood of our salvific ideologies. How have we fallen? What can save us now? A question and a response, the head and the tail, the scar and the suture. And for whom? There is a third partner, the young beauty who will cut in next as the dance is to continue. The dance is for her, the child, who will receive the hand of whoever reaches nearest – whether the hope or the despair – and she will rise with the saved or the damned.

I am drawn in by religious works of all stripes. Whether novels that carry religious themes, works of scripture, mystic meditations, or philosophical theologies, I find in many of them an ardent quest to determine our place among the stars, to decipher this problem called Life or Humanity or Being. I want to chase after these things too. I also find in such works an unwillingness to take things at face value, the necessity to reach deeper. We have been given a broken and bleeding world, and how do we push it further without a utopian vision to realize?

The Power and the Glory draws much of its material from the conflicting visions of utopia presented by religious and political ideologies. When these views are thrust into the world – as structures of reform – the shape of each ends up looking pretty similar. They tell us what is wrong with the world; they give us, often implied in their characterization of the problem, what a better world would look like; and, if we’re fortunate, they give us a path from this world to the better one. The difference between them is not in form but in substance. Agents actively committed to one version of the substance find themselves everywhere impeded by differing visions.

In this novel, Greene sketches the moving portraits of two men both determined to do their duty in a broken world. The main character – a man known only as the “whisky priest” – is a man of the cloth, who at the start of the novel feebly wishes to flee his Mexican homeland in order to avoid the state’s anti-Catholic purge of the clergy. The other man is the conducting force behind the operation. He is called the Lieutenant and is the only member of the police, including the Jeffe himself, who seeks to uphold the law. Everywhere else the law has been turned into a charade of the powerful to perform their own wishes, an anemic fiction keeping the common people weak and securing the strength of the keepers of the law. The Lieutenant believes in the law, or at least, he believes that a good law can be realized in the world, a law which will save the bastard children of the present system.

Neither of these men hold onto a notion that they themselves can be saved. Both of them look out and see only damnation in their diagnosis of humanity. The Lieutenant finds this clearly in the failure of the religion:

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 had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.

The Lieutenant sees this as cause for destruction and starting over, beginning with the priests who tell the people that they can be saved beyond this world. There is no beyond. There is only this – a dying, cooling world.

The whisky priest, the last preserver of a dying faith in a dying world, also notes the failure of religion and from there the damnation of humanity. He looks into himself and he sees it, a two-part failure in his two-part life which tracks the double ways people have secured their own promise of hell. In a former life, before the purge, he was a pious man. He led church fundraisers for a new pipe organ, and he held every rite like automatic, lifeless script in his mind. This, he learns, is its own darkness: that piety without spirit, innocence without love, is as much a failure as mortal sin – perhaps worse.

What an unbearable creature he must have been in those days – and yet in those days he had been comparatively innocent. That was another mystery: it sometimes seemed to him that venial sins – impatience, an unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity – cut you off from grace more completely than the worst sins of all. Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone: now in his corruption he had learnt . . .

The corruption he refers to is an instance of mortal sin he has carried with him: he slept with a woman and fathered a child with her. The sin torments him throughout the novel, and yet it has also become something of the start of a new life – although a brief life. When he visits the child, who has suffered some deformity in her appearance from birth, he learns what it is to love one person truly. He loves his daughter more than anyone else in the world, and this he counts as his failure – this man whose sole occupation is to embody the saving love of God for humanity.

The whisky priest was damned in his piety and is damned in his corruption, yet he believes in the love of God – a terrifying love, a love which burns things whole. After the priest is at last caught by the Lieutenant and awaiting execution, the two of them talk about the love of God, among other things. The priest says,

God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.

These two sets of eyes look out on a world crumbling in on itself in the darkest ways. Whether God rules or not, humanity has opted instead for destruction. Their corruption requires nothing less. If some purity is to rise incorruptible from these ashes, it will be in a new generation – the next cycle of life in this cosmic wheel. For both of them, their love and their hope turn to the children. The Lieutenant’s love is for all children, the subsequent generation each child represents, saved from the misery to which he was subjected. The priest cannot but turn his love to just the one child, his own. For him there is no abstraction, only the real love for his only daughter.

How to say which man is correct? Both are given handfuls of bleeding debris and asked to make something of it, as we all are who hope for a better world. One seeks a new liberated humanity, alive in the dawn of a new sun. The other wishes to save his child from the flames of the Ancient of Days – that terrible love embodied inversely in the failure of us all, the opposite of all that we are, which must have nothing to do with mortal sinfulness but realize its mortality. What is there? We may look out ourselves on a cooling, dying world, and once we do, we may choose hope or despair. Yet despair is a necessary part of hope, and hope of despair. “That is why I tell you that heaven is here: this is a part of heaven just as pain is a part of pleasure.”

Our systems attempt to make form out of formless suffering and joy, all confused together. We pin our hope on God or on a new humanity arisen, but these things must turn into everything we already are. We make them in the likeness of our desire and our fear. The whisky priest has spent his troubled days attempting to reconcile humanity to God, to achieve for them all a preservation through judgment. “But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God’s image – God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge.” The innocents have been bastardized in a world left to its own devices, so what of our devices can make of us other than we are? What thought can we think, what deed can we achieve, which would resurrect this dying people whole and new? What gods might a bastard design which are able to stand up for bastards?

I do not yet know.

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