3.3421 A particular method of symbolizing may be unimportant, but it
is always important that this is a possible method of symbolizing.
And this happens as a rule in philosophy: The single thing
proves over and over again to be unimportant, but the possibility
of every single thing reveals something about the nature of
the world. – From the Tractatus
“It is awful how things go on when you are not there.”
Two sentences, several hundred words apart, on the last two pages of The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene I just finished The Lawless Roads. I read it for the first time 25 years ago. The second reading was a shock. What I’d read first as a very adventurous travel book became a stylistic leap into a more serious immersion in class cruelty and the despair-of-the-world hopelessness that later defined his best novels (it was published in 1938). Greene travels through Tabasco and Chiapas, two tropical, backwater Mexican states reeling from a purge of Catholic churches and priests, and he draws on a rich cast of characters that he crosses paths with, many who foreshadow the fictional characters in his best moralistic novels .
In those portraits he reveals himself in a way he mostly covers over in his later, more declarative autobiographical books such as A Sort of Life and Reflections. Greene was near the peak of his religious fervour following his conversion to the Catholic Church, and he seems to discover his future moral crossroads and his aesthetic voice in the book. You get Greene as a man in The Lawless Roads – his coldness, distance and cynicism (stoical realism?) encased in a deep religious longing to merge with something that offers salvation – an explanation, a reason – for the moral decay and horrors of humanity found throughout the world. It moves with great force and only in the final few pages did I feel I was, finally, coming up for air at the journey’s end. Greene was a needy young man (see Sherry’s biography), a weak reed who was barely connected to his sense of selfhood. He flirted with the moral and social structure within the Catholic Church, and it captured him in spite of doubts he had from his first encounters. He bought into it with the hope that it would offer him some solid support, but after experiencing the world more broadly and directly (Mexico, Africa) his belief dissolved from a structural/faith connection to a mystical, personal connection.
Unlike Greene, I couldn’t accept the story of Christianity as I read and heard it when young, but now, with much deeper reading, I understand the story was crudely simplified to appeal to the broadest numbers of people. The “elect,” as defined by the gnostics, never accepted the New Testament version of Christianity as literal and reinterpreted its dominate themes and symbols. Before and after the New Testament writers, gnostics had their own version of transformative spirituality which followed many Eastern spiritual ideas and techniques. Gnosticism could not survive the rise of the Catholic Church, but many of its texts can be found here.
The attraction of Roads is the sustained, long, detailed account of how Greene went through those days that made up the chronology of the trip. It’s a rare, full account of the physicality of travel that couples with a ghastly account of repression and morality turned upside down, a very complicated story when looked at in detail, but one that mirrors the same issues that attracted people to religion and spirituality 2,000 years ago: where is some salvation in this hell on Earth of repression and lack of compassion for the poorest of the poor. Greene found his perfect religon-based story in real life before his eyes, one that might have ensured his own loss of faith eventually. He saw, in real terms, that it is most often the ones with the least who hold most fiercely to faith as a last hope. The whisky priest in his subsequent novel, The Power and The Glory, is about a person much like Greene himself, someone in extremity of belief and faith who wants to be at the center of the religious quest even if he himself doesn’t understand the why or how of it. He was moved by the plight of people who have nothing and yet go on without the benefit of a saving grace. He saw the pattern in many people’s lives everywhere, and he made it one of his great themes. Roads is special because so much converges at this crucial point in Greene’s life.
4.002 Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognised – Ludwig Wittgenstein from the Tractatus
This essay looks at comedians in China and how the US nurtured Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian who is a big star now in his native land.
Here’s the illustration by artist Hannah K. Lee for The New York Times‘ book review of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows (a link can be found below this…). The book and the illustration are infused with capital A art. Read Lee’s illustration with the writers and poets in mind, and you will see what I mean.
Thomas Merton, during his Asian pilgrimage, waited for days to see and photograph Mount Kanchenjunga, but it was covered by clouds. His visual sense was acute. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote: “Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow [words, drawings…]. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” I discuss his pilgrimage and his photography in an essay under “On the Record,” which is listed in the column on the right. Merton died in Bangkok in December 1968.
Amy Bloom writes: “I scan the latest tower of books in front of me on the dining-room table, not even bothering with the stacks listing toward the far end, where Jeanne’s laptop sits, ready for her correspondence and Harold’s dictation.
“Some of today’s stack: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (“Very important to me”); Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (“That very well-done novel on Henry James, very good”); The Poetry of Kabbalah, by Peter Cole; Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity, by Agata Bielik-Robson (“Splendid lady”); Nothing to Declare, by Henri Cole (“Very good. The best poet of his generation”); Shakespeare’s Horses, by Joseph Harrison (“My pupil. Next to Henri Cole.”), and multiple books by authors I expect to see: Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Friedrich Hölderlin.
“Then there is a pile of stuffed animals on the living-room couch that belong not to their grown sons but to Jeanne and Harold. I ask, and he tells me, happily. “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth; she presides…” For the article, click here.