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Critical Essay by Doreen D'Cruz
SOURCE: "Comedy and Moral Stasis in Greene's The Comedians," in Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 53-63.
In the following essay, D'Cruz identifies the "comedian" as a chameleon-like figure whose emotional disengagement represents an adaptive behavior to cope with reality in a tragic modern world.
One of the major imperatives in the fiction of Graham Greene is the need to divulge the nightmarish and horrifying quality of reality. Greene depends on sensational and melodramatic detail to authenticate the terrifying excesses of the real world. In his subsequent fiction, having established his universe, Greene studies the screens men create to shelter themselves from reality. The abstract mind proved to be the greatest betrayer of reality. Those with a penchant for abstraction wear the guise of naive idealism, childishness, or an unthinking dogmatism. In The Comedians, as in the earlier novel Our Man in Havana, Greene finds a new disguise for the character so woefully disjoined from his world. He is the comedian, caught in a facile role, a mere cardboard figure on the world's stage. As melodramatic material defined reality for Greene, so comedy indicates the separation from that reality and the consequent emotional sterility.
In Greene's didactic framework the comedian stands in antithesis to the tragic figure. Greene identifies tragedy with reality, not simply because the world wears tragedy's dark colours, but also because the genuine extremities of nightmare, terror, grief, and pity, tragedy's emotions, disallow the masks the comedian can so easily assume. The force of extreme feelings does not allow the comedian's vacillation from one superficial role to another. Rather, such emotional depth demands and exacts unambiguous commitment, as with Fowler in The Quiet American. The comedian's trademark is an absence of dedication, a dislike for involvement.
In The Comedians Greene gives immediate focus to his comic theme, finding in the comedian an explicit exemplar of the disengaged man. The chameleon serves as an appropriate symbol for the comedian who, like the chameleon, demonstrates an astounding adaptability to his immediate environment. He is perennially Protean and flexible because of his limited capacity for emotional involvement. In a horrifying and calamitous universe he reveals a consistent equanimity. His disjunction from horror reflects an emotional blindness and in his equanimity we see an insuperable egoism. His misguided imagination conjures up a convenient world, obviating the need for commitment. Since flux depends on one's emotional vitality the comedian is always in stasis. The improbable names in the novel—Brown, Jones and Smith—suggest the assumption of the chameleon's camouflage; the man seeking anonymity would find in such common names convenient disguises. They are, therefore, not unexpectedly the appellations proliferating on life's stage.
Greene identifies in his comedians a tendency towards a Berkeleyan mode of idealism which emerges in the insistence upon a congruence between the self's vision and the world. The comedian as a result denies the validity of other vision and other realities. For instance, in the imagined world that Brown constructs out of his jealousy. Jones is assumed to have seduced Brown's complaint mistress. Martha, Brown assigns Martha a wanton temperament and an unquenchable libido, needing outlet in the arms of Jones, her husband Luis, and Brown himself. Each plays the part Brown's jealousy assigns; like a novelist, he creates a dependent and private world, refusing to acknowledge a reality beyond his private vision to Jones, Martha, or Luis. Thus he epitomizes in life an insuperable idealism, worthy of Berkeley, inviting Martha's vehement but astute comment:
You're Berkeleyan. My God, what a Berkeleyan. You've turned poor Jones into a seducer and me into a wanton mistress. You can't even believe in your mother's medal, can you? You've written her a different part. My dear, try to believe we exist when you aren't there. We're independent of you. None of us is like you fancy we are.
Obviously Green, like Martha, seems to abjure the Berkeleyan assumptions of "eese est percipii" and other attendant forms of idealism. In this respect, Green's moral vision may be seen to have a profound impact on his fictional mode. His career as a novelist spans some fifty odd years. He is partly contemporary with such innovators of literary form as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. But Greene is curiously traditional in form and makes no bones about his antipathy for Woolf's mode of fiction, which dispenses with the social fabric of the world for the tortuous and winding reaches of consciousness. Greene shows scarcely concealed aversion for the Berkeleyan bent in Woolf. In his Collected Essays, Greene asserts with some vehemence:
The visible world for him [the novelist] ceased to exist as completely as the spiritual. Mrs. Dalloway walking down Regent Street was aware of the glitter of shop windows, the smooth passage of cars, the conversation of shoppers, but it was only a Regent Street seen by Mrs. Dalloway that was conveyed to the reader: a charming whimsical rather sentimental prose poem was what Regent Street had become: a current of air, a touch of scent, a sparkle of glass. But, we protest, Regent Street too has a right to exist: it is more real than Mrs. Dalloway, and we look back with nostalgia towards the chop houses, the mean courts, the still Sunday streets of Dickens.
Greene saw the characters of Woolf and Forster as wandering "Like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin."
Notwithstanding his admiration for Henry James, in another essay in the same volume, Greene acknowledges Woolf as an heir of the Jamesian reach for the "pure" novel. But while James strove towards capturing the dizzying and tortuous patterns of the mind he did not totally lose sight of an objective visible world in his fiction. For instance, one could read the growth of Strether in The Ambassadors as an attempt by the subjective mind to understand and assimilate objective reality. Greene ascribes a visible world to James's fiction:
This, then was his visible universe: visible indeed if it faced him daily in his glass: the treachery of friends, the meanest kind of lies, 'the black and merciless things,' as he wrote in the scenario of The Ivory Tower, that are behind great possessions.
What Greene sees as James's visible world is akin to the objective reality of Greene's own fiction. Greene paints an undeviatingly gray world, replete with betrayal, treachery, moral commitment shorn of moral satisfaction, and unbounded egoism. In his later fiction, through his use of comedy and his distaste of Berkeley, we realize the philosophical basis for Greene's unremitting insistence on the authenticity of the physical world. The ability to grasp concrete physical reality serves as the best palliative to subjectivism and its attendant egoism.
Greene's distrust of comedy replete with its private vision may indeed be a conscious, not an accidental, rebuttal to Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Woolf in her famous essay conjures up three fictional characters, who rise up to entice the intending novelist: Brown, Smith, and Jones. These are the very names of Greene's comic characters in The Comedians. By eschewing the egoistic, subjective vision, with its capacity for denying an objective world whose horrors reach melodramatic proportions, Greene affirms the seriousness of life. Indeed, to his mind, life is death's anteroom, and there one cannot allow banalities. The comedian's role is grimly inappropriate.
The narrator of The Comedians, Brown, manages to justify his comic role by positing a divine comedian at the helm of the universe, who plays fast and loose with his creation. Once Brown had believed in the Christian God and life, he thought, was a serious affair. The divine tragedian dominated a world of genuine tears. In time, Brown lost faith and God became a comedian. The comic world had forfeited the intensity of tragedy. Even its tears were not genuine, but rather the result of laughter: "I laughed till the tears came." Comedy can never guarantee reality, as tragedy and nightmare can; the light-hearted mask can conceal horror and unabated violence. Given Greene's "seedy" universe, the insulation from tragedy and its accompanying emotions of terror and pity create a falsely gay picture of reality.
The three comedians on a Dutch ship, with its incongruous Greek name, Medea, steer towards reality as they approach Haiti. The real approximates melodrama and finds its clearest crystallization in Haiti's institutionalized violence. Greene's view of the universe has not deviated since the entertainments, when he enshrined its horror in melodrama. Haiti is not an exception to the human condition, but rather reveals in stark detail its calamitous flaw. Brown compares cruelty to a searchlight: "It sweeps from one spot to another. We only escape it for a time." The searchlight is on Haiti at the moment, but Greene's searing vision had already visited in succession the nightmares and tawdry realities of Mexico, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam.
Brown best exemplifies the comedian's invulnerability to the real world. Even when the rest drop their comic masks, Brown keeps his to the end. It almost seems as if destiny had intended him for the comedian's part. His birth in Monaco renders him "a citizen of nowhere." Fate had pre-disposed him to be totally uncommitted. Despite opposing influences and the combined lure of faith and vocation. Brown opts for the gambler's life. He would pick a living here and there, change his chameleon's color with the wind, and be ruled by roulette. Brown, unable to sink roots anywhere, accurately diagnoses that "transience [is] my pigmentation; my roots would never go deep enough anywhere to make me a home or make me secure with love."
Brown, endowed with the gambler's instinct and blessed with few scruples, is not above underhanded necessities. He graduates from a waiter in a Soho restaurant to the Trocadero, using forged references. Then he assumes an entirely new camouflage as an adviser to a firm dealing in educational publications. An accomplished comedian, he occupies a desk in the Intelligence Department during the war, supervising propaganda to Vichy territory. Finally, he pushes the comedian's luck to the extreme, peddling the works of an art student as the productions of imagined masters, as the gambler finds his victims among his kind. Brown's trick reflects a Berkeleyan mind in action. He foists on others an insubstantial world, located only in his imagination.
Brown, by some less than fortunate meshing of circumstances, assumes his mother's comic legacy. Genetic inheritance, or pure coincidence, contrives a repetition of the comic role into the second generation despite the contrary influence of the Jesuits. Brown sees in his mother a veteran of the comic craft. As if roulette were the secret symbol of comedians, in his mother's China pig-bank Brown finds a five franc roulette token, similar to the one which led to his expulsion from the Jesuits when he dropped it in a chapel collection. Her extravagant title, "Comtesse de Lascot-Villiers," and her shocking red hair seem to be the accoutrements of a consummate actress. She manifests the "tart's" facility for picking a living. Taking the short-cut to wealth she inherits the Hotel Trianon under dubious, though strictly legal, circumstances. Finally, this irrepressible woman makes even love comedy's prey. She implores her black lover, Marcel, "Pretend that I love you like a mistress. Pretend that you love me like a lover. Pretend that I would die for you and that you would die for me." Love is a game of pretence. But Marcel refuses to play the game when he kills himself for love. As Brown points out, "Death is a proof of sincerity."
The deepest and holiest connections disintegrate before the comedian's levity. Even between the mother and son only a chimera of what should be exists. At her death. Brown hopes that her likability had been passed to him, calculatingly observing its advantage to business. As for his father, Brown has no knowledge of him, not even whether his name be "Brown." Worse, he possesses no curiosity about his father: only a hollow resides in place of the curiosity. His parentage had thus equipped Brown for the comedian's part.
Nevertheless, commitment and the attraction of a vocation emerge on the horizon as dim temptations. Here, as in Brighton Rock, a struggle at the very periphery of consciousness receives focus and portrayal through symbols. Music is the dominant motif of conflict in Brighton Rock. In The Comedians the inaccessibility of water implies the comedian's distance from commitment. Water is an ambiguous symbol. It is at once Pilate's means of relinquishing responsibility and a symbol of faith through the drops of baptism. To Dr. Magiot, water represents the divesting of oneself from all commitment. He associates it with that long-ago act of the Roman Governor of Judea, carved into Christianity's memory. But the novel predominantly identifies water with belief and involvement. In The Comedians water commands the intensity, fervor, depth, and insight associated with the sea in Brighton Rock, where the sea serves as a portent of eternity.
The first of the water symbols in The Comedians is the seagull, which ushered in Brown's happy loss of virginity. Before the roulette had enchanted Brown's life along its uneven, unpredictable, and dissembling course, before he had donned the comedian's garb, in that vulnerable moment of first sex a seagull flew in. He found himself "as firm as a man" and he took the woman "with such ease and confidence." It was a triumphant moment. The affair lasted only a few minutes, but they crystallized a perfection he never reached afterwards. Before the jealous lover, the comedian's offspring, had overtaken him, this was the only affair he ever had containing no pain or regret.
Just before his mother dies, a death hastened by her unquenchable sexual appetite, Brown dreams of water. He awakens from the dream to the commotion of his mother's death. Madame la Comtesse had been a comedian to the end. She had taken her pretense of passion for Marcel to death's door, unashamed and unaware of the incongruity of mixing comedy with the tragic seriousness of death. As this consummate comedian plays her final role the dream reinforces her son's comic legacy. In the dream he is an altar-boy on the side of a lake, drawn by the water's magnetic force. But a wind rises above the lake and draws the water away from him until it becomes a thin line on the horizon's edge. In its wake only a desert of pebbles remains. The altar-boy's vestments symbolize vocation, faith, commitment. In the withdrawing water one sees the retreat of faith. The spoilt priest must now put on a comedian's costume.
In yet another dream Brown's spoilt priesthood takes the form of explicit liturgical symbols. His dream shows him as a boy at the communion rail in the chapel at Monte Carlo. The priest passes Brown by, refusing him the bourbon biscuits he places in the mouths of the other communicants. Brown stubbornly retains his place, but is refused a second time. He then leaves the rail walking down the aisle, which had become an aviary of parrots chained to their crosses. The exclusion from communion obviously ranks Brown among the undedicated and uncommitted. The transformation of the congregation into parrots perhaps serves as Brown's comment on the religious. He probably equates religiosity with ritualistic repetition. Being a comedian he is not privy to more than a superficial observation.
The comedian's sterile, desert existence invades his actual relationships too. For a short span of time in the Trianon, Martha and Brown find peace and the rare intimacy of conversation, which exceeds even the intimacy of caresses. The promised land of milk and honey seems to lie before Brown. He could imagine "the taste of milk on her breasts and the taste of honey between her thighs…." But the momentary hope evaporates. The promised land always stands at a tantalizing distance, leaving Brown in the barren desert where love cannot bloom.
Brown's affair with Martha is a banal indulgence in levity when juxtaposed against the seriousness life demands. Indeed Brown refers to his nightly rendezvous with Martha, by the statue of Columbus, as an act belonging to "the theatre of farce." An hotelier cuckolding a diplomat, in a cramped Peugeot amidst the tangle of limbs, is hardly a matter touching the sublime. Indeed, the overtones of immature, adolescent passion invite ridicule.
The tiresome relationship appears to function as a comic relief from the ongoing tragedy. The deaths of the minister, Dr. Philipot and Marcel interrupt the love affair and truncate the banality, lest the farcical obscure the weighty and serious. During their final meeting the gravity of Dr. Magiot's death casts ridicule on their frivolous affair. By careful juxtapositions, and through intimations of the dignity, intensity, and solemnity invested on our lives through death, Greene discredits the comedian's role. In death's anteroom, decorum not flippancy, intensity not frivolity should supervene.
Greene emphatically denies that jealousy enjoys any validity in love's domain. Rather, the comedian's egoism produces the jealous lover. He is intent not so much on loving, as on counting the ways in which he is loved. The true lover, on the other hand, squanders his love in abandonment. The comedian is incapable of reckless love inasmuch as he is incapable of commitment. He merely plays the lover's role. But he applies the wrong test of love, seeking proof in jealousy rather than in an abandoned generosity. Jealousy is the only intensity in Brown's world. A true son of his mother, he can only flit from role to role. He demonstrates his mother's frivolity in the face of death by keeping a paper weight bearing R.I.P. for non-urgent mail. Death invites neither seriousness nor urgency.
Jones, too, is a comedian. According to his own estimation, he is a "tart," having forfeited the "toff's" respectability and choosing instead to live by his wits. He acquires all the appurtenances of one on stage; his unmitigated role-playing does not reveal the man behind the performer, although it is evident that the performer is not the man. He speaks an out-of-date slang, as though he "had studied it in a dictionary of popular usage, but not in the latest edition." He introduces himself as Major Jones, but the military title sits uneasily on him, lacking authenticity. Even Brown, born in Monaco, citizen of nowhere, invites the black steward's conspiratorial whisper "I'm a British subject, sah." The steward makes no such claims to Jones. The comedian's alienation from country, belief, and principle is visible in Jones.
He regales Brown, and whoever else he has for audience, with his soldierly exploits, seeking to validate his role in their eyes. He talks of having fought in Burma during the war, carries a cocktail case from Asprey's which, he claims, dates from his Burmese days, and boasts of what he could do with an army of fifty Haitians. A gambler, Jones, too, in a symbolic sense, belongs to the clan whose sign is the roulette token. He plays for big stakes in Haiti, but loses eventually. He had at least once before gambled heavily in Stanleyville. Like Brown, he changes colour with the ease of a chameleon.
Jones, unlike Brown who had not learned "the trick of laughter," is an entertainer. He fits one's conventional notions of a stage comedian. Jones has enough tricks up his sleeve to make Tin-Tin, the prostitute he had slept with, laugh. She liked him for the hilarity he provided. His metaphorical identity as a comedian is brought to literal realization when he disguises himself as a woman to escape from the Medea. This is not the first time he had had to disguise himself. But now, the comedian manages to find an appreciative audience in Martha Pineda. She laughs delightedly and uncontrollably at Jones in his elaborate female attire. Despite his ambiguous background, and despite the fact that nobody trusts him. Jones has the gift of winning friends. Curiously, Jones the "tart" and habitué of saloon bars, brings into Martha's home an air of domesticity.
The novel seems to suggest that Jones, despite his considerable talents, is a reluctant comedian. He speaks enviously of the "toffs" who have "reason, intelligence, character" on their side. A flat foot had prevented Jones from pursuing his vocation as a soldier. He asks Brown, "You can feel a vocation, can't you, even if you can't practice it?" Brown has had his chance at vocation, faith and commitment, but he has turned his back on such a life. Jones never had the chance. He sees in the committed vegetarian, Mr. Smith, a father he would have liked to have.
Jones's dim yearning for commitment is subtly symbolized by water. He boasts of being able to sniff water a long way off. He seeks the baptismal waters, not Pilate's symbol. The comedian's domain appears inimical to the smell of water. Jones claims that grease paint drowns the smell of water. Under pouring rain, Jones is driven to his last assignment to join the rebels. In this final adventure he divests himself of the comedian's attire. His death as a soldier and leader attests to his sincerity. Among the surviving rebels, he was remembered as someone who could smell water a long way off. Indeed, Jones had followed his smell to the utmost limits, finding there both death and his vocation.
Jones does not attempt, like Brown or his mother, the incongruous mixing of death's seriousness with the comedian's levity. Hiding in the cemetery, with death as an imminent threat, Jones reveals to Brown the truth about himself. The game had turned serious. Obviously, comedy cannot prevail in the gray universe.
The last of the improbably named three, Smith, happens to be a "toff." He has faith and commitment, even though only in vegetarianism. The sincerity of his ambitions and motives precludes role playing. Smith is not an actor; but by virtue of an idealism little influenced by concrete reality he falls heir to the comedian's Berkeleyan vision. Smith had been a Presidential Candidate in 1948. His name had appeared on the ballot in Wisconsin where he ran on the vegetarian ticket. This gentle, simple idealist, however, uneasily plays the politician's role. Brown observes, "I could imagine him a homespun poet or perhaps the dean of an obscure college, but never a politician."
Smith's idealism bears an incongruous relationship to the nightmare of Haiti. He brings his gentle, peace-loving vegetarian philosophy to that spot where cruelty's searchlight is especially brilliant. What is damnable, however, is that he fails to discern Haiti's horror and the absurdity, perhaps even frivolity, of his ambitions there: he wants to build a vegetarian center with a restaurant, theatre, and cinema. Perhaps the center might eventually produce a school of vegetarian dramatists. Obviously, his subjective vision bears no relation to the objective reality.
Smith had been a freedom rider in the cause of black rights. His embracing of the black cause and his sincere love for blacks prevent him from accepting their necessary human flaws and proneness to evil. Confronted with Haiti's excesses, he feels it necessary to explain that colour is not accountable for the cruelty. After all, white-skinned Hitler had done worse. In Smith's need to absolve the blacks we see that he has not transcended his white world. Despite his best intentions the blacks are still a cause to be championed by the idealist, not individuals whose colour is immaterial and who demonstrate, like everyone else, the entire spectrum of moral obliquity. His extreme idealism recalls Greene's best known fictional American, Alden Pyle. Both are deeply immersed in their subjective world. Both think in large abstract categories. Smith's ideals speak of "Mankind, Justice, the Pursuit of Happiness." But Greene had stacked all his cards against Pyle. It seemed an accomplished fact that Pyle would never touch reality or feel compassion. Idealism had seduced and neutralized his sensitivities. Smith, however, still retains his sympathy and kindness. Perhaps foolishly, he intervenes in the senseless and cruel world of Haiti, imagining he can right its wrongs and grossly underestimating the relentless nightmare "Papa Doc" had inflicted on his domain.
Finally, in Duvalierville, Smith's eyes open. The death of Dr. Philipot, the obstruction of his funeral, and the blatant cruelty of the Tonton Macoutes had not penetrated Smith as the hopeless aspect of Duvalierville, Haiti's answer to Brazilia. Only then does he relinquish the comedian's role (since Greene evidently intends comedy of a kind in Smith's gross, incongruous disjunction from reality) to reach heroic proportions in his sincere, and now realistic, commitment. Brown attests to Smith's heroism.
The comedian's resilience and fidelity to his role meets its greatest threat from horror and nightmare. Haiti divests not a few of its comedians of their costumes. Dr. Philipot's nephew, the young Henri Philipot, gives up his decadent imitations of Baudelaire and his efforts at parading as a poet for the serious and sincere attempt at revolution. Martha disassociates herself from comedy. Her love for her child Angel is sincere and represents her best part. Even in the area of sexual love she writes like one who has known a generous abandoned love, not its chimera, crystallized in jealousy. In a letter to Brown, Martha says.
Perhaps the sexual life is the great test. If we can survive it with charity to those we love and with affection to those we have betrayed, we needn't worry so much about the good and the bad in us. But jealousy, distrust, cruelty, revenge, recrimination … then we fail. The wrong is in the failure even if we are the victims and not the executioners.
But Dr. Magiot best exemplifies the committed individual, the comedian's diametric opposite. He is the adherent of a faith, Communism, claiming for it a mystique and a politique as in Catholicism. He implores Brown not to lose all faith even if he has lost faith in Catholicism. The novel ends with an urgent emphasis on the need for faith. In the memorial service for the rebels the priest insists that even violence supersedes indifference. Violence, at least, can be an expression of love; indifference expresses nothing. The rebels, as Philipot assures Brown, never lacked water, the symbol of faith and commitment.
Eventually, Haiti enforces commitment. In the discovery of a vocation Jones and Philipot discover themselves, though Brown remains the notable exception. At the end, he musters a weak apologia for the uncommitted, claiming that the rootless and faithless in their inaction demonstrate the greatest commitment—a commitment to "the whole world of evil and of good, to the wise and to the foolish, to the indifferent and to the mistaken." They are "rolled round on Earth's diurnal course, with rocks and stones and trees." Brown's deep stasis is manifested in claiming oneness with the passive; he has in effect exchanged his humanity for the deathlike immobility of a rock, stone, or tree. His death-in-life finds expression in his new career as a mortician. The novel ends with Mr. Fernandez, his partner, summoning him to his first assignment.
The Comedians reiterates under the symbol of comedy Greene's concern with the rootless, faithless individual. In his late phase, after having written his Catholic novels, Greene defines rootlessness in religious language, that is, the spoilt priest, the failed vocation, the eroded faith. They are all ingredients of one who dons the comedian's attire in a tragic universe.
This section contains 4,517 words
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