Saturday, October 9, 2004

The Disturbing Light of Reality: Sin and Redemption in the Writing of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh

Every fall since 2002, the Center has sponsored a week of evening lectures for undergraduates by experts on various aspects of the lives and works of particular Catholic writers. In the past two years, this series has spotlighted G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. This fall, the Center’s undergraduate assistants, Kate Wilson and Chas Tyler, put together a set of lectures entitled “The Disturbing Light of Reality: Sin and Redemption in the Writing of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.” These lectures, which took place from October 4-8 in DeBartolo Hall, examined the frailty of the human condition and the depths of God’s mercy in relieving us from that condition, as portrayed in the works of British Catholic authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

In planning the conference it seemed natural to pair Greene and Waugh, since both are British Catholic writers of the same era who were friends as well as admirers of each other’s work. In fact, the title of the series is taken from Greene’s remark in a 1978 interview with Th e New York Times Magazine that he wanted to make his prose as clear and plain as Waugh’s, in order better to let the “disturbing light of reality” shine through. The series opened with a lecture by Fr. Ian Ker, a member of the theology faculty at Oxford University. Fr. Ker’s most recent book, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, was published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2003 to great critical acclaim. He offered the audience an introduction to Evelyn Waugh entitled “Evelyn Waugh: The Priest as Craftsman.” His lecture highlighted the role of professional work, particularly craftsmanship, in Waugh’s novels, noting that Waugh believed that “where there is a craft well done, there is order and serenity, which were very important in Waugh’s world.” Waugh saw the work of the priest as a craft, in which the ritual of the sacraments is of central importance, regardless of who the priest is or who is present to witness it. Consequently, the priests in Waugh’s novels tend to be unintrusive, simple men who arrive on the scene to perform the rituals of the sacraments and then leave, having done their job.

The following evening, Ralph McInerny of the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame gave a lecture entitled, “It Should Rhyme with ‘Laugh’: Humor in Waugh.” Prof. McInerny remarked that “humor, one sometimes thinks, is the best medium for seriousness. [In reading Waugh], the reader finds, as the laughter dies, a residue of usually unstated or understated gravitas.” Thus, Waugh’s humor does not merely entertain, but in fact changes the reader’s perspective on reality. Prof. McInerny also remarked on Greene’s dark sense of humor, recalling that Greene once said, “Whenever I hear people speak of the brotherhood of
man, I think of Cain and Abel.”

On Wednesday evening, the Center arranged a screening of the film The Third Man, a dramatization of the novel by Graham Greene. Th is classic film noir, directed by Carol Reed, stars Orson Welles in one of his most memorable roles as Harry Lime, whose mysterious death prompts his friend Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, to begin an investigation of Lime’s sordid life that takes viewers on wild chases through the dark streets of Vienna. The next night, Thomas Hibbs, dean of the Honors Program at Baylor University, lectured on “Graham Greene and Film Noir,” discussing some of the themes of Th e Third Man and other
films written by Greene. Hibbs observed that Greene’s literary work and his fi lm scripts are well-suited to the genre of film noir, as they tend to be dark, featuring unsavory characters in sleazy settings. Th is darkness, Hibbs argued, is not amoral, but rather requires that the audience distinguish good and evil in order to appreciate the gray areas explored in the film.

The series was again well-attended this year. The Center is grateful to Clarence and Frieda Bayer for their generous support of the Catholic Culture Series.