July 8, 2016
A. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “It seems blindingly obvious to say, but the spirit of religion begins with a sense that God exists.” But Buddhism is often described as a godless religion. Only in the West is religion equated with monotheism, and even in the West, a new attitude toward religion is arising. What Brooks calls “blindingly obvious” isn’t obvious at all. Brooks’ remark shows how much confusion there is, and how much disagreement there is, about this fundamental subject.
B. An individual or a society that lacks a philosophy is like a patch of fertile ground that lacks vegetation — any radical faith, any crazy utopianism, can pop up, like weeds on bare ground. A healthy philosophy is a weed-inhibitor.
C. According to Stephen Hawking, philosophy is dead. Hawking says,
If Hawking thinks that what academia calls “philosophy” is useless, then I agree with him. And I think he’s partly right when he says that philosophers don’t keep up with developments in science. But it’s equally true that scientists don’t keep up with developments in philosophy, especially philosophy outside academia. I doubt whether Hawking understands Nietzsche and Jung, not to mention later thinkers. The very fact that he says philosophy is dead indicates that he knows little about it.
D. I recently saw The Godfather (1972), which is often called one of the best movies ever made. It’s engrossing, it creates a believable world and draws you in, I recommend it. But I wouldn’t call it one of my favorite movies; it consists largely of a series of murders. The Godfather Part II (1974) is widely considered to be as good as, if not better than the first movie, but I didn’t like it as much, I thought the plot was too complicated. Mario Puzo, who wrote the novel on which the movies are based, was inspired partly by Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, hence the Corleone family has three brothers and one adopted brother, similar to the Karamazov family.1
I stumbled across a fascinating article in The Atlantic; it’s called “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.” The article forced a Harvard Divinity professor, Karen King, to admit that the papyrus fragment she had been trumpeting for several years was probably a forgery. The fragment suggests that Jesus was married.
High-tech tools had been used to analyze the fragment, and these tools seemed to confirm the fragment’s authenticity, or at least they were unable to prove that it was a forgery. But the author of the Atlantic article, Ariel Sabar, researched the provenance of the fragment — who loaned it to Karen King, who sold it to that person, etc., etc. As one scholar (Christopher Jones) said, “Perhaps the hardest thing of all to forge is provenance.” “A manuscript is a physical object,” Sabar writes. “To convincingly fake one, all you need are the right tools and materials. Provenance, however, is historical fact: a trail of dates, places, buyers, sellers. To convincingly fake provenance, you need to rewrite history — often recent history.”
Sabar discovered that the fragment was loaned to King by a German, Walter Fritz, who had a shady past, and who had the scholarly training, and the drawing skill, to forge the papyrus. When Sabar told King that he had made some interesting discoveries about the fragment’s provenance, she didn’t want to hear about his discoveries. Since the papyrus provided evidence for her own view of early Christianity, she wanted it to be authentic, she wanted to draw conclusions from it, and she didn’t care if it actually was authentic. Walter Fritz chose King as the target of his ruse because the papyrus supported her beliefs, so he knew she’d be receptive to it.
This seems to be a case of life imitating art. Walter Fritz, the forger, was influenced by The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, and apparently Fritz set out to create a real-life Da Vinci Code. Like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Fritz’s features a Harvard professor. Like Dan Brown’s, Fritz’s suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene (Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code goes even further, and says that the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene produced children). Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code
The forgery doesn’t reflect well on academia. Many academics, such as King, were deceived by it; others were suspicious, but couldn’t break the case open. It took someone from outside academia, a journalist, to break the case open.
I recently became acquainted with the Alexander Technique, which might be described as a theory of posture and movement. As Zen makes you aware of your breathing, the Alexander Technique makes you aware of your posture.
It was developed in the 1890s by Frederick Alexander, a Shakespearean actor who was losing his voice during performances. After observing himself in mirrors, Alexander decided that he was tensing his muscles and holding himself incorrectly. When he relaxed his muscles and held himself erect, his symptoms went away. He realized that other people were making the same mistakes he had made, so he started teaching his technique, and he wrote several books about it. People who learn the Alexander Technique have a noticeably erect bearing.
Frederick Alexander (1869-1955)
Aldous Huxley learned the Alexander Technique from Alexander himself, and discusses it in his novel Eyeless in Gaza. “The American philosopher and educator John Dewey became impressed with the Alexander Technique after his headaches, neck pains, blurred vision, and stress symptoms largely improved during the time he used Alexander’s advice to change his posture.” Niko Tinbergen, a specialist in animal behavior who won the Nobel Prize, was so impressed with the Alexander Technique that he devoted much of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to praising it.
Though Alexander grew up in Australia, he spent most of his adult years in England and the U.S. Teachers of the Alexander Technique can now be found in England, the U.S., etc. Click here for a 2-minute video about the Alexander Technique.
In a recent issue, I mentioned Paul Cantor’s essay on The Simpsons (the American cartoon). In that essay, Cantor writes,
I thought of this recently when I heard about the new Democratic plan to expand Social Security — in other words, give away more money to more people. This plan seems to have originated with Bernie Sanders, but now it’s been embraced by Hillary Clinton, Obama, etc. A few years ago, Clinton and Obama might have been receptive to proposals for reducing entitlement-spending. Now, however, the Democratic Party has decided that the cure for what ails us is to give away more money — never mind the budget deficit and the national debt, let Republicans worry about those.
Sanders thinks that the government should tax the rich more, and give that money to the rest of us. But there’s a limit to how much you can increase taxes, people will move to avoid high taxes. If the U.S. has a high income tax, wealthy people will move to the Cayman Islands. If the U.S. has a high corporate tax, corporations will move to Ireland. If New York has a high inheritance tax, people will move to Florida in their old age. It’s difficult to achieve equality through taxation. The only sure way to achieve equality is to make everyone poor, as happened in China under Mao.
Sanders and Trump represent the two classic types of demagogue — the demagogue who wants to take from the rich and give to the poor, and the demagogue who divides society into “us” and “them,” who says that our problems are caused by immigrants and minorities. The popularity of Sanders is matched by the popularity of Trump; both demagogues have considerable appeal. The rise of such demagogues doesn’t bode well for the future of American democracy.
Demagogues are emerging in Europe as well as the U.S. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, wrote recently,
I wanted to read something light, something that wouldn’t stimulate me. I chose Our Man in Havana, a short novel by Graham Greene. But it stirred up more thoughts than I wanted to stir up; it prompted me to read some critical essays, to read about Castro and his rebels, to see the movie version of the novel, to watch the movie Casablanca (which influenced Greene’s novel), to read an essay on Casablanca, to see Woody Allen’s parody of Casablanca (Play it Again, Sam), and finally to read Our Man in Havana a second time — something I’ve almost never done. I can’t seem to find a book that’s enjoyable to read and also un-stimulating. I suppose I should give up reading altogether, at least while I’m engaged in writing projects, but I can’t seem to do that, either.
Our Man in Havana might be described as comic espionage. Greene classed it as one of his “entertainments,” not one of his ambitious literary novels. After writing it, though, Greene abandoned the distinction between entertainments and literary novels; apparently he decided that an entertainment can be real literature, and a literary novel can be entertaining.3
When Greene first visited Havana in the early 1950s, it seemed like a tourist playground of brothels and casinos, a suitable setting for a comic novel, an “entertainment.” But Greene’s “entertainment” became more serious as he was writing it, as he learned more about Cuba, as Castro’s rebellion gained strength. Finally, Our Man in Havana became a comedy mingled with darker colors. It was published in October, 1958. Castro and his rebels entered Havana in triumph on January 1, 1959.
It’s astonishing how well Greene grasped the political situation, and how accurately he foresaw future events. The British government thought that Cuban dictator Batista would hold onto power, but Greene writes that Batista’s government is “creaking dangerously towards its end.” Greene anticipated that, when Batista’s government fell, his notorious police chief would take refuge in Miami.4
Most impressive of all, Greene anticipated the Cuban Missile Crisis. “We are only a small country,” Greene’s police chief says, “but we lie very close to the American coast.... If a country is surrounded, as Russia is, it will try to punch a hole through from inside.”5 Greene’s protagonist draws a picture of a powerful weapon hidden in Cuba; speaking of this weapon, the British spy chief says, “We’ve always assumed that those constructions in Cuba had a communist origin.”6
Greene demonstrated a prophetic gift in other novels, too. His 1955 novel The Quiet American anticipated that the U.S. would become involved in a war in Vietnam, and anticipated that the U.S. would ultimately lose that war. Greene’s screenplay The Third Man, which he later turned into a novel, may have anticipated Kim Philby’s role as the Third Man in a spy ring. Greene also anticipated the fall of Allende, Chile’s leader in the early 1970s. Conservatives may disagree with Greene’s left-wing views, but it’s hard to deny that he could foresee future events.
During World War II, Greene worked under Philby in MI6. While stationed in Sierra Leone, Greene learned about a Spanish spy, Juan Pujol García, who pretended to work for the Germans, but was actually a British double-agent. García made up wild stories, which the Germans believed and paid for. This is the seed from which Our Man in Havana grew; the protagonist of Our Man, Jim Wormold, concocts wild stories, and gets paid for them.6B
Greene was completely lacking in patriotism, which may explain why he remained on friendly terms with Kim Philby even after Philby was exposed as a Soviet spy. Greene mocks the notion of “your country”: “What do you mean by his country? A flag someone invented two hundred years ago? The Bench of Bishops arguing about divorce and the House of Commons shouting Ya at each other across the floor?” He’s also scornful of multi-national organizations: “I forgot. There’s something greater than one’s country, isn’t there? You taught us that with your League of Nations and your Atlantic Pact, NATO and UNO and SEATO. But they don’t mean any more to most of us than all the other letters, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.”
Greene followed Our Man in Havana with more books about Latin America — The Comedians (set in Haiti), The Honorary Consul (set in Argentina), and Travels With My Aunt (set in Brazil). Greene said that Latin America was the region that interested him most; he was fascinated by its “violence and passion.” Greene saw two factors in Latin American politics: despotic regimes based on terror, and revolutionary movements. Greene met Castro, and even played a small role in Castro’s revolution, smuggling winter clothing to Castro’s soldiers. Greene was friends with the head of Panama, Omar Torrijos. On Greene’s many trips to Latin America, he wasn’t always wined and dined; once he landed in a police station in Haiti, where he received a prolonged stare from an officer in sunglasses. (Haiti was then ruled by “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his feared paramilitary force, the Tonton Macoutes.)
Greene was more than an observer of Latin America, he was involved, he was committed, he was a partisan. He lobbied the British Parliament not to sell planes to Batista. He wrote newspaper articles praising the Castro regime; he even compared Castro’s Cuba to ancient Athens. Greene criticized those who weren’t politically engaged; “I would rather have blood on my hands,” Greene wrote, “than water like Pilate.”7 Greene opposed despotic regimes, and frequently opposed the U.S.
Greene felt that his left-wing politics were compatible with his Catholic faith.
Greene admired a Colombian priest, Camillo Torres, who joined a guerrilla group and was shot. In his novel The Honorary Consul, Greene depicts a priest (Leon) who joins a guerrilla group. Greene also admired the nuns he met in Nicaragua who resided with the poor, shared their living conditions, and supported the Sandinista rebels.9
In an earlier issue, I said that Greene was apparently overlooked by his parents (he was the fourth of six children), and developed a weak ego, low self-esteem, etc. Is this why he was often tormented, during his early years, by his peers?
Perhaps all intellectuals, even those who aren’t overlooked by their parents, are “softies.” In general, intellectuals don’t fight back when attacked, they take legal action instead. Thus, we find Joyce, Kipling, and Wilde involved in lawsuits, lawsuits that began as personal confrontations. What was said of Joyce is probably true of Greene also: “Surely he cannot fight and does not want to. He is going through life hoping not to meet bad men.” Hoping not to meet bad men, and hoping to meet good lawyers.
One critic said that Jim Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man in Havana, represents Greene himself, more than any other character Greene ever created.10 Wormold has bad memories of childhood:
Later Greene speaks of, “the inefficient tortures of a school-dormitory. The small boy with the damp towel.”12 Still later he speaks of, “the cruel and inexplicable world of childhood13 .... There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim.”14 The boy who tormented the young Greene was Lionel Carter; Greene gets revenge by giving the name Carter to the “bad guy” in Our Man.
Greene may have chosen to write a novel set in Cuba because Cuba was in the news: a series of three articles had appeared in the New York Times in early 1957. The articles were written by Herbert Matthews, who had snuck into Castro’s mountain stronghold, then smuggled his notes out of Cuba in his wife’s clothing, despite Batista’s strict censorship. Castro had only 19 men when he started his rebellion, and Batista wanted the world to believe that Castro was weak — no threat to the government. It was even rumored that Castro was dead.
But the Matthews articles told the world that Castro was alive and well, had defeated Batista’s troops in numerous engagements, and had more popular support than Batista. Castro’s troops, established in the mountains, fought downhill, while Batista’s troops fought uphill. Castro’s troops could watch the government troops, but the government troops struggled to find Castro. Castro himself fought in the front line. With each victory, Castro attracted more men to his band.
Castro was as adept with propaganda as he was with guns. Castro reached out to the New York Times, and arranged the interview with Matthews. Through the Times, Castro received favorable publicity, and told the world, “Above all, we are fighting for a democratic Cuba.”
From the front page of the New York Times, February 24, 1957.
Like Hitler, Castro had once led a failed insurrection, which resulted in his imprisonment, but later he was released.
The Matthews articles probably inspired Greene’s own trip to southeastern Cuba, which is reflected in Wormold’s trip to southeastern Cuba. Wormold’s trip can be seen as a turning-point in the novel, a descent to the underworld, a katabasis. A katabasis can be a descent to Hades, an encounter with danger, or a journey to a dystopian world. One critic wrote, “Wormold’s experiences on his eastern journey shock him into action, precipitating the book’s major plot development.”15
Greene tells us that Wormold “believed in nothing.”16 This seems to be a theme in Greene’s work: the modern man who has lost faith, who believes in nothing.
During the 1950s, it was widely believed that nuclear war could break out at any minute, that the world would be destroyed soon. When Wormold describes a “long-term worry,” Dr. Hasselbacher says, “Then it’s not worth calling a worry. We live in an atomic age, Mr. Wormold. Push a button — piff bang — where are we?”17
Later Hasselbacher says, “You are interested in a person, not in life, and people die or leave us.... But if you are interested in life it never lets you down.”18 As I noted in an earlier issue, this is a theme in the work of Thomas Wolfe: “Friendships are important to Wolfe’s hero, but they don’t last forever. One by one, the protagonist’s relationships collapse, and his focus gradually shifts from individuals to mankind as a whole.”
During the course of the novel, Greene seems to drop hints about its conclusion. When Hasselbacher’s apartment is ransacked then repaired, Greene says, “The apartment had been reconstructed like a man for burial. Dr. Hasselbacher poured out the whisky.” Is this a hint of Hasselbacher’s death? When Hasselbacher plays the record Tristan, is this a hint of the romance between Wormold and Beatrice? As Wormold listens to Tristan, “he looked across the room at Beatrice Severn, and she seemed to him to belong to the same world.”
When Wormold says that society is no longer shocked when a chauffeur sleeps with a peeress, Captain Segura says, “It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.”19 In the Age of Trump, these are ominous words.
Soon after Castro took power, Greene went to Havana to work on the film version of Our Man in Havana (Greene wrote the screenplay for the film). Greene had a strong interest in film; he wrote both reviews and screenplays. One critic argues that Our Man in Havana was influenced by the movie Casablanca:
So my study of Our Man prompted me to watch Casablanca, and then to read Paul Cantor’s essay on Casablanca.21 Cantor argues that the hero of Casablanca (Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart) is a Byronic hero.
According to Cantor, many of these traits fit Rick Blaine. This doesn’t mean that the authors of Casablanca studied Byron; Cantor argues that Byron was so popular during the 19th century, and his work influenced so many novels and operas, that the authors of Casablanca could have been influenced by Byron without actually reading Byron.
Who were the authors of Casablanca? Cantor says that numerous people had a hand in the screenplay, and thus Casablanca proves that a great work of art can be created by a group, rather than a solitary genius. But I’m not persuaded that Casablanca is a great work of art, perhaps it’s only great compared to other movies.
A solitary creator often writes from his own experience, his own soul. The Byronic hero, for example, reflects Byron’s experience, Byron’s personality. Byron apparently had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta, and this became the “nameless crime” of Byron’s heroes. Byron’s work attains greatness because Byron lived it, suffered it, felt it. But how can Casablanca attain greatness if its creators didn’t live the character, didn’t experience it — if the Byronic hero doesn’t mean anything to them? Cantor seems to overlook the autobiographical element in literature, as many academic critics do.
We saw above how Greene’s sufferings as a youngster are reflected in Our Man in Havana, and how Greene’s political views found their way into that novel, too. But when an art work is created by a group, how can it reflect experience, how can it come out of the author’s soul? Literature must be an individual creation, not a group creation, because it reflects an individual’s experience, and an individual’s personality.
True, there are myths and legends that are created by a group, a people, and nonetheless rise to the level of great art. But it’s doubtful whether Casablanca should be classed with such myths and legends — with Gilgamesh, King Arthur, etc. Casablanca doesn’t express universal truths, mythical truths, but rather the anti-German feelings that were widespread at the time. Casablanca expresses sincere feelings, strong feelings, but not timeless truths.
|1.|| The Godfather Part III (1990) is considered inferior to the first two. back|
|2.|| Atlantic article back|
|3.|| Greene felt that The Ministry of Fear (1943) was the best of his entertainments. back|
|4.|| The police chief was Esteban Ventura Novo. When Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic, he tried to leave without Ventura Novo, but Ventura Novo forced his way onto the plane at gunpoint. Ventura Novo died in Miami in 2001, at age 87. back|
|5.|| Part V, Ch. 1 back|
|6.|| Part IV, “Interlude in London” back|
|6B.|| Perhaps Greene was also influenced by Maugham’s Ashenden, in which a spy makes up stories for profit.
The British spy chief believes Wormold’s stories. When he realizes his mistake, he doesn’t want to admit that Wormold has deceived him, so he pretends that Wormold was a good spy, and gives Wormold a medal and a teaching job. Something similar happened in Egypt: an official named Ashraf Marwan was passing secrets to the Israelis. The Egyptian government, embarrassed at having a spy in their midst, didn’t admit that Marwan was a spy. “Marwan’s treachery [was] well known inside Egypt’s government, but it was a source of such deep national embarrassment that he was buried a hero.” (New York Times) Marwan’s information was accurate, but the Israelis were skeptical of it, thinking that Marwan might be a double agent. In 2007, the Egyptian government apparently arranged Marwan’s murder in London. back
|7.|| “Taking Sides: Graham Greene and Latin America,” by Stephen Benz, Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 26, #2, Winter 2003, pp. 113-128. Later Greene became disillusioned with Castro, saying “I admire [Castro] for his courage and his efficiency, but I question his authoritarianism.... All successful revolutions, however idealistic, probably betray themselves in time.” Wikipedia back|
|8.|| “Taking Sides: Graham Greene and Latin America,” by Stephen Benz, Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 26, #2, Winter 2003, pp. 113-128 back|
|9.|| When Greene visited Mexico in the 1930s, he encountered a priest who was organizing a strike. He viewed this as “genuine Catholic Action on a social issue.” (Catholic Action was a movement that arose in Europe in the 1800s, while Liberation Theology developed in Latin America in the 1950s.) back|
|10.|| “Wormold is often read as something close to a self-portrait and his creation of an imaginary spy network and missile system is presented as the work of a would-be novelist of some considerable imagination. At one point Wormold tells Milly he is becoming “an imaginative writer.” His characters — the invented agents — “grew in the dark without his knowledge.” “You talk like a novelist,” Beatrice says to him. Norman Sherry reckons that Wormold’s inventiveness makes him “closer to Greene than any other created character in the author’s repertoire.” (“Graham Greene and Cuba: Our Man In Havana?” by Peter Hulme, New West Indian Guide, Vol. 82, No. 3/4 (2008), pp. 185-209) Hulme’s essay is interesting, it throws light on the Mafia’s role in Cuba, etc. back|
|11.|| Part I, Ch. 3, #3. Henry Donaghy spoke of the “‘lost childhood’ motif” in Greene’s work. (Graham Greene: An Introduction to his Writings, Ch. 10) back|
|12.|| Ibid back|
|13.|| Part I, Ch. 4, #2 back|
|14.|| Part II, Ch. 3. If you want help reading Greene’s fiction, consider Graham Greene: An Introduction to His Writings, by Henry J. Donaghy. Donaghy also edited a book called Conversations with Graham Greene (consider also The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, by Marie-Francoise Allain).
Donaghy tries to explain the puzzling epigraph of Our Man, a quote from George Herbert: “And the sad man is cock of all his jests.” Donaghy says that Wormold is “the sad man,” and he’s the “cock of all his jests,” that is, he ends up with the last laugh. back
|15.|| “Graham Greene and Cuba: Our Man In Havana?” by Peter Hulme, New West Indian Guide, Vol. 82, No. 3/4 (2008), pp. 185-209 back|
|16.|| Part I, Ch. 2 back|
|17.|| Part I, Ch. 1, #1 back|
|18.|| Part I, Ch. 1, #1 back|
|19.|| Part V, Ch. 1 back|
|20.|| “Graham Greene and Cuba: Our Man In Havana?” by Peter Hulme, New West Indian Guide, Vol. 82, No. 3/4 (2008), pp. 185-209. Greene says that “the usual rebels” are fighting in the southeast, perhaps echoing the famous Casablanca line about “the usual suspects.” (Part II, Ch. 2, #3) back|
|21.||Political Philosophy Comes to Rick’s: Casablanca and American Civic Culture, Ch. 1: “‘As Time Goes By’: Casablanca and the Evolution of a Pop-Culture Classic,” by Paul Cantor back|