The Disease of Humanity and of Lenses: A review of A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

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Graham Greene. Wikimedia Commons.

Film footage exists of Graham Greene when he visited what was then known as The Belgian Congo. He sits on a cheap deck chair, legs crossed, the lower ankle bent so the side of his foot rests on the ground. He reads. Greene visited in 1959, arriving at what is now Kinshasa, and heading to Iyonda, spending in total about three months in the country. This accounts for the exquisite details that Greene adds to A Burnt-Out Case (ABC). Iyonda, for the record was nearest to Bolenge, on the Congo River just south of Mbandaka. In the film, Greene waltzes with Rik Vanderslaghmolen and he enjoys the company of the Lechat family as they eat lunch before Greene leaves. (1)

True to the novel, the described leprosarium ( some might suggest it be revised to Hansensarium) was intended to be a state of the art institution for the care of patients with leprosy. Mission doctor Michel Lechat has written his view of Greene’s visit, “Nor am I looking for any dramatic material,” wrote Greene to Lechat before his visit. His predetermined subject “…is a theological and psychological argument” which he dared not talk about for fear of “…destroying this still nebulous idea….” (2) Greene is described as taking morning walks to the Congo River where he sat and read, and based on what we know of the author, he probably penned 500 words exactly and ending the days output with a little x. Apparently Lechat found it a difficult job to protect Greene from the numerous people who brought forth a manuscript they had written for which they wanted Greene’s opinion. Lechat calls Greene a “formidable observer…gleaning small bits of trifling information and storing them for further processing.” Greene was finishing ABC during this general time period.

Lechat’s article backs up what I find Greene’s strength of weaving description into momentum. The start of the book especially is a rocket blasting off, burning hot, and keeping us glued to the story. It later drifts, although there is a flashing little tale in the middle of the book about an old man who test drives a used car that is an entire lesson in writing (it is a bit like a mini Rabbit, Run, or Rabbit, Drive: A story of wrongs gone wronger, sorry J.U.) that almost makes the book worth every franc.

It’s New Year’s Day, so welcome 2021 and let’s hope that we can move beyond most of what happened in 2020, although I can’t find optimism. I foresee lots more of the same from media, politicians, and health authorities: the same partisanship, the same lying, they same greed, the same arrogance, the same vindictiveness, the same lack of foresight and endgame, and the same level of simply making crap up.

My new year’s resolution is altogether to stop listening to the news, or politicians, or health authorities since they all have outright admitted to lying, or have been caught lying, or have promoted lies to the public for their own interests and agendas. They do so feeling they are justified. They don’t care at all for people except themselves. The whole lot of them are nothing but a bunch of F’ers.

Thank god for small touches of sanity, as with people in Poland who know right from wrong and who have the smarts to put severe penalties on censoring lawful speech by social media companies.

But we, meaning those obedient good people in Canada, the UK, and the US (the countries I know best) don’t want that. We’re in love with being divided and politicized over everything. We love being told by the elites (who are getting exponentially richer) what to think and how to act, because, you know, the we’re polarized yet we’re all in this together garbage to the point where we’ve lost any ability to think beyond the propaganda. Someone said recently, at this time they have more freedoms in North Korea than we do over here.

Resultantly, the hoi poloi look through whatever lens they’re told to look through, never seeing the larger propagandic purpose behind their conformity or the contradictions likely inherent in the obedient dogma they’re supposed to repeat. The smartest among us are always pointing these things out, to no avail. The most common response aligns with a reply to an article by political philosopher Harvey Mansfield in the Wall Street Journal about which a commenter wrote, “If anyone knows what this guy is saying, I’d love to know. Pure gobbledegook from our tenured elite.” When people cannot understand the writing found in a normal newspaper, it’s no surprise they willingly latch onto whatever lens they’re instructed to employ.

There have been moments in the past in which art was used expressly as a touchstone for political agitation. We recall the crap thrown into the media over performance artist Tim Miller in the early 1990’s, one of the NEA Four, and the call to defund the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, a percentage of a penny compared to the $6.4 trillion spend on the Middle East wars at the time. We recall the stink raised by Rudy Giuliani’s designation of the show Sensation as containing “sick stuff” (The New York Times, September 23, 1999) and vowing to do everything possible to remove funding for the Brooklyn museum even though he had not seen the show except in the catalog. Art framed through political lenses for political purposes gets tiresome. I don’t expect change here either; so art was in 2020 so will it be in 2021. Sigh.

Here’s my unpopular opinion. If we are able see beyond the idiotic blind acceptance of current lenses bolstered by an onslaught of constructed media narrative, and I say again that very few people are able to do this, than we recognize our ability to challenge current lenses. We get to call out reality, that lenses are both valid and simultaneously engaging in brinksmanship, that lenses vie for cultural dominance, because to quote Saul Alinsky, “He who controls the language controls the power” (Rules for Radicals.) But one does not need to be a radical to see the operations in action, one only has to be able to get away from being a sucker sucking down every drop of propaganda tossed into their precious personal favorite mainstream media.

I can’t help here thinking of the Three Stooges line when Curly, sucking on an orange, says, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking ‘till you do succeed.” (Movie Maniacs, 1936)

From a more engaged view, we also can admit that lenses may become overused, may become mere gestures, by which straw men arguments are set up and poster children are designated. So to be clear about a stance I’m advocating as valid, if I’m tired of an overused lens, even one that has gained national or academic popularity, I retain the right to ignore the lens, so long as I’m within my legal rights for doing so, for no other reason except that I really don’t care.

One’s belief in a particular lens is wonderful and completely valid and anyone has the right to knock themselves out looking at the world through it. I may disagree with Giuliani wanting to defund the art museum but I will support his right to utilize his lens. However, just as I don’t demand anyone else views the world through my lens, I’m not willing to accept anyone’s demand that I view the world through their lens. The unfortunate situation here is that the media, politicians, and health authorities want it there way or boom, down comes censorship, vilification, and shaming. I suspect we’ll see in 2021 a legislative bill introduced in Canada, the US and in the UK that calls for labeling those who do not take the vaccine to be considered domestic terrorists.

All of this is my roundabout way to respond to an early critique about Greene’s novel. Lechat speaks of the vitriol over Greene’s having used the L-word no fewer than 50 times in ABC. The dignification of language is never one of my literary lenses. It’s not that I disagree with current politically correct terminology, it’s that I often simply don’t care if someone uses an outdated word or phrase in their fiction. I’m tired of hearing calls for banning or editing to censor, retrofit, or sanitize via current norms. And, I’m tired of the contradictions and hypocrisy that often arise in full-on attempts to apply necessary and sufficient conditions that are frequently presupposed by such views. For example, under this view, X can only write about X unless some special pleading is provided to allow X to write about anything so long as Y still can only write about Y.

I land on the deontological position that writers of fiction may write about anything and everything, without limits, in any way they want. Yes, it’s a moral position. Full stop. If writers were permitted to write only about themselves and their personal experiences, we’d have an awful lot of boring novels about writers sitting at a keyboard staring at a screen for months on end doing nothing but struggling to put into scenes their boring process of sitting at a keyboard staring at a screen for months.

To take a different view, let’s ask, as Álvaro Fernández Bravo has about the work of anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, is it possible to avoid epistemic violence that has characterized taxonomies and racialist hierarchies as we continue to think about “species”? (3). So we have Greene, a UK writer, taking on what had become a hot (in both senses of the word) tourist destination, a journey to the heart of the Congo, perhaps to stay at the leprosarium, an event that through a certain lens can be seen as his performing in his writing the expression of a particular knowledge.

It may be that epistemic violence is exerted against or through knowledge in relation to any process of domination, according to Enrique Galván-Álvarez, but I will pare down Álverez’s thoughts and say that epistemic violence not only can but always does occur through the conveyance of knowledge, in that any system of knowledge both constructs and legitimizes epistemic frameworks. In turn, these privilege specific ways of knowing that can be viewed through various lenses. A presupposition of a right side here is to fall into a trap that creates a separate hierarchy of epistemic legitimacy that one could argue is more a form of utopian remedy or pseudo-rectifying than realism.

Now, the phrase “epistemic violence” comes from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak? and in part based upon the work of Michel Foucault. A surface description of epistemic violence is that it silences the voices of marginalized groups, that I might suggest is a narrow, too easy and too easily consumed version of the knowledge-power dyad, presupposing in the definition a reliance upon categorization and essentialization, or as Castro might say, taxonomies. Castro embraces the term multinaturalism, in which as far as I can tell the goal is to move beyond the other as object. Bravo puts this nicely, playing on Thomas Hardy: “Not the return of the native, but the turn of the native.” According to Bravo, Castro is clear that this is not multiculturalism in which coexistence is assumed but that all “natures,” including the non-human, are seen as self-determining classifications, “producing images of nature according to their own perspectives.”

What in this scenario then is the production and conveyance of knowledge, and would it be relevant any longer for knowledge be compared? We need to be careful here too or we fall into the trap of essentializing aspects such as race, or gender, or even humanity. We recall PhD student Florentin Félix Morin’s identification as trans-species, namely trans-hippo whose work challenges the notion of trans as simply an emancipatory term by opening it up to reveal both obligations and “less realistic truths” within conceptions of identity.

Two points emerge: a) following relativists, there is no neutral (or even human) position with which to offer an outsider view and b) knowledge is a framework that can’t help but perform epistemic violence, just as any structure cuts across the tension between identity of self and other or self and the world.

Castro’s multinaturalism sounds a lot like a version of expanded relativism, to its credit, one is always in-relation-to, on equal ground with an intended flattening of difference. Following, and if so, there is a multiverse of perspectives in which any subject can be an object granted full-on fluidity. This is behind what Rachel Dolezal performed and Rebecca Tuvel clearly articulated in her fascinating article In Defense of Transracialism with respect to race, to the dismay of scholars who preferred clear racial categorizations determined by something or someone other than the individual.

Self is an operation of reflexivity within a closed circuit of identity elements continually deterritorializing and territorializing, and simultaneously self undertakes the same operations externally in relation to infinite worlds.

So to reiterate in my digression, any attempt to codify (frame, write fiction, study) will at some level enact epistemic violence. This is the feature of any theory, ideology, stance, and so on with respect to any identifiable outgroup. Nor should it be assumed to be fact that epistemic violence is uni-directional, those who prefer an unchanging object will most likely fail to see, blinded by whatever presupposition they hold, in the same way that a social science research question presupposes the conclusion.

So what is a writer to do? Graham Greene, for example, writes from all he is, embodied, in-relation-to, arising from whatever he momentarily was, through the medium, from conception to final draft. Any number of lenses may be applied for a critique of the work: passive resistance, feminism, class, political, subject/object, anthropomorphism, that form an endless list in which over time critique lenses wax and wane like fads, again not to diminish the validity of each interrogatory lens. Yet, we can reach a point where rather than engaging in genuine critique, an overused lens is once again used to shoot the same old fish in the same old barrel. The endeavor becomes common and somewhat asinine. I’ll leave it up to readers to locate contemporary cultural examples, if they can.

An equally valid route is to archive such critiques, nodding to them if one has the interest and if not recognizing the validity of selecting a lens from the multiplicities of Greene’s novel. I forget exactly who said it, but the gist was a good critic’s job is to first figure out what the author is trying to do. That’s one lens. But for most people the fallback lens is to “critique,” meaning spout and opinion. This is too easy. Let it be said there are too many opinion slingers and not enough writers. Write your own damn thing as best you can, and then we’ll talk because otherwise we probably share too little ground for discourse.

Greene pushes through with the tired idea of parallel characters who fight disease, possible cures, redemption, and vindictiveness. ABC has all the obvious juicy metaphoric tidbits that make high school analysis so fruitful and dull, i.e. Greene’s ideas about theology and redemption, either his cause célèbre or bête noir, but the novel could be analyzed equally well through a lens of freedom, pluribus unum.

Greene strives to make Querry the most interesting character. He’s an architect running away from his works, his legacy, and his notoriety. He spends the first part of the novel much as Melville’s Bartleby in that he would prefer not to reveal anything about his past. He wants nothing but be helpful in generally menial ways and through daily chores, ablutions in a sense, he begins to recognize himself and his worth in the community context. The thrust of the story is the revelation that people are by nature often generally high functioning self-preservationists who are willing to become disempathetic sociopaths when it serves them (the optimist’s view) or they have been sociopaths all along (the pessimist’s view). Mrs. Rycker is the exemplar here. She hates both Congo life and is sick of her husband. When she learns that Querry is driving to Luc she begs him for a ride, admitting she is pregnant and wanting see a doctor without her husband’s knowledge. Querry obliges and while at the Luc hotel he thinks he hears her crying. He enters and tells her a long story, something to hammer home the general theme of faith. Later she lies and blames Querry for getting her pregnant which results in Mr. Rycker shooting Querry.

For the most part it’s all too much a plot towed behind a car because it won’t quite run on its own. The twist with Mrs. Rycker is good as she’s the person who can “discern the mortal rules that regulate social interaction” (Zizek) and she uses them for her gain. She is round enough, as E.M. Forster would say, in that she surprises us but we then believe in her capacity to surprise us in that manner.

Upon Querry’s death The Superior remarks that everyone has obtained what they wanted, the lost objects of desire are realized. Mrs. Rycker gets to return Europe, Parkinson get a good story, Mr. Rycker is found innocent, and Querry’s goal to disappear into a place where he has no more anxiety is fulfilled albeit at a higher plane. We miss him but not particularly. None of the characters is fully fleshed out and we don’t quite know where to invest our emotions. When Parkinson, the writer shows up we think we may have found a character whose perception finally will center all this character distance, but no, it’s not found with him either.

Ultimately, ABC unconvincingly hovers in a third space between a moralizing novel, (nearly ripe for satire), a noir crime novel, and a psychological character study novel. I can see why it’s not ranked as one of Greene’s best but when it flies, the writing is right up there with the best of V.S. Pritchett.

References:

(1) The film and detailed analysis may be found here: http://rozenbergquarterly.com/tiny-bouts-of-contentment-rare-film-footage-of-graham-greene-in-the-belgian-congo-march-1959/

(2) https://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=ggs

(3) Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Some Reflections on the Notion of Species in History and Anthropology. Found online at Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Some Reflections on the Notion of Species in History and Anthropology

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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