In his introduction to Our Man in Havana, Christopher Hitchens draws a distinction between Graham Greene’s whisky and non-whisky novels. He quotes the verse from the 1963 poem, ‘On the Circuit’, in which W. A. Auden is tempted by the novelist’s sweet healing drug:
Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?
I, for one, took Greene’s impenitent reliance on the drinks driving his narrative – no scene ever far from a daiquiri or Wormold’s miniature whisky collection – to be a rather satisfying combination. The Cold War comes to be defined by an alcoholic anachronism, as though hungover before the drinking has started. In the climax of the novel, it would be a game of chess – with all the pieces replaced for miniature whisky bottles – that would finally free Wormold from the rather awkward implications of espionage and provide him with the courage to commit the killing.
The very same substance that would guard him from the terrors of his Catholic-come-narcissist of a daughter, Milly, and his material poverty for which she is mostly responsible would, in a beautiful irony, also liberate him from the mightiest cliff-hanger of all – that of a pre-nuclear conflict.
I have a feeling that Our Man in Havana is likely to stick with me.
The undying conundrum for the utopian is to explain why it is that happiness can thrive in the face of oblivion. He can’t do it, not without conceding his idealism, his belief that without the perfect society we are both caged and lost; and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a fantastic rebuttal to such brainless thinking.
The BBC recently ran the film adaptation. It wasn’t, on the face of it, a good choice for viewing in the early hours. The world is grey, going greyer; and even the image of the man and boy huddled before a burning forest mercilessly scoffs at the prospect of comfort in a world of destruction.
This was my second viewing. The grey was to be expected; and before long it was normalised, a glimpse into the minds of our two central characters tip-toeing across the American shadow. Every now again, I looked outside. At those moments nothing seemed more depressing than the thought of my lovely college burning, or the streets of Oxford abandoned to timeless silence (apart from the buskers – they can shut up).
But within the setting McCarthy builds for us, there are much subtler fires. He’s too clever to make that glib dismissal of colour that so many modernists do – everything being uncertain and miserable and desolate like T. S. Eliot and his “handful of dust”. Instead the man remembers the quest he has set himself, “carrying the fire” from the old world to the new. Promethean fire is stolen from the gods; it burns so that men never forget the dangers present in that which lies beyond their understanding. And yet when the man crosses that boundary of civilisation, from a world of Greeks and Darwins to that of cannibals and stoics, the old myths shed their meaning, their mythical gods. Just as his name is forgone, so the “fire” is humanised.
That’s the key; because it’s more than a gentle abstraction. If they guard the ideas of a civilisation now burning in the books of skeletons then it’s entirely accidental. The fire that makes the man and the boy the “good guys” could not exist without the glow of their own relationship, the stubborn persistence of the nuclear family in an otherwise barren winter. When they meet an elderly man later in their story, his accent is rough, his emotions evidently dormant if not dead. Alluding to his lost son, he says, “Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.” But all the while the man nurtures the boy like hands clasped around sticks, shielding the spark from the wind; even as life drifts out of him he hopes to protect the playful innocence of the boy who insists they do not harm the very thief who left them naked.
“If he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke.” The boy is a test and the world is his laboratory; if humanity exists, it is inside us, and it is much more than survival. Humanity is not just to exist; if that were so then even cannibalism, that perversion of the natural violent course of Darwinian evolution, would be legitimised. The man and the boy carry two bullets and a pistol with them to prevent that from ever happening to them. If humanity means anything, it is warmth and glowing with a flame. It exists within us. This is not some obscure, faint idealism; it’s biological certainty. The boy was born when the mysterious fires that licked civilisation still raged, and yet he is still sad to see the elderly man pass by without a single can of food to eat. We all share something good and common within us no matter the world around us. With the right nurturing, it can burn bright; and it’s in the last few moments of the film that this becomes so wonderfully clear. We all carry the fire, provided we do not let it go out.
And this brings me back to the starting point of this post – McCarthy is not swallowed by the view that we can change society to achieve the happiness we crave. Meaning is not lethargy in paradise, boredom on the beach – it’s continuous, dialectical. It doesn’t seek an end but a situation. The Road does not need to be read – or seen – as depressing; triumph amid tragedy proves that happiness, if it can ever exist, arises from within us. It is not granted from external powers in this world or the next; there’s something innate, something conflicting with the survival of the fittest, that makes us seek company and goodwill naturally.
And that’s a bloody encouraging thought.
The last series of Game of Thrones was dark and full of terrors, but nevertheless ended with a pleasant glimmer: the freedmen of Yunkai receiving Daenarys Targaryen as their “mhysa” – mother.
Studying the ancients, Niccolò Machiavelli concluded that the most effective guarantor of civic glory is the love of liberty. He denounces mercenaries in The Prince:
The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.
Later, he writes:
I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength. And one’s own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependants; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries. And the way to take ready one’s own forces will be easily found if the rules suggested by me shall be reflected upon, and if one will consider how Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, and many republics and princes have armed and organized themselves, to which rules I entirely commit myself.
Only those with the steadfast love of their country will fight for it with true conviction. Consider, several centuries later (or before) how the best pretender in Game of Thrones has travelled from lonely sell-out wife to Daenarys the benevolent ruler of Yunkai. By freeing slaves. Turning her soldiers into citizens.
Machiavelli might be excused for having neglected the power of dragons and a pretty face but the point does, I think, stand.
As the world gets more complicated, I’d have thought the need for longer works of fiction to describe it would become ever more important; but Philip Roth argues that it’s doomed. No one will read that one solid vessel for personal autonomy in so technological an age as ours.
Worryingly Weberian. I hope he’s wrong, but my lazy experience can hardly counteract it!
For all of Edward Said’s complacent dismissals of Eastern backwardness as imperialist-driven, novelist Ayfer Tunç argues that Turkish writers are perfectly capable of rising above the interminable clash of Occident with Orient:
… we’ve come to find it hard to believe in our own quality. This is because the history of our republic is the history of our complex about the West. We imported from the West, but we couldn’t believe we could send anything back in the other direction. This is the issue at the heart of our literature. But I’m keen to believe that young writers from this country can overcome this complex.
I don’t doubt it. Western values don’t need to be isolated to the West; literature can rise about the local and explore the universal.
If, of course, there’s the market to buy it.
I love Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s simplicity is incredibly complex. Or is it?
Watch on YouTube:
I love the Bronte poem! A great insight into Whitman’s personality (as though his poems weren’t enough).
“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)
I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book, filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.
Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:
I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.
If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps…
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