Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The End of the Affair

Pope John Paul II said “Art has a unique capacity to take on or other facet of the [Christian] message, and translate it into colours, shapes, and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen.” In The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, the concept of Hell is fully presented to me as a reality of the human condition, not far and removed from us, but here explicitly in our day to day lives. Man lives out Hell as we are, here on earth, though it be a petty imitation of the total deprivation, just as our loves here are petty imitations of the ultimate love caught up in the Beatific Vision. Bendrix's life is a perfect prequel to hell, and the story of a dark and grievous division, man against God. Sheed tells us to approach the mystery of Hell “as a profound mystery- not of God's cruelty but from man's power to hate God.”1 In this, Bendrix and Sarah give us deep insight to the dregs of evil which they embrace, at least for a time, in hatred of God.

The theme of hate is present from the first page of the book, with Bendrix's assertion that “this is a record of hate far more than of love”2, a record of the denial of love. For that is what Bendrix offers God, his hatred, same as Sarah had. Both Sarah and Bendrix try so hard to chase God a away from them, they try to run in the opposite direction, but find themselves haunted by Him at every corner. Bendrix hates God for taking away what he wants most in the world, Sarah, who he is unconsciously substituting in his life for God, the answer to every longing and every thirst he has ever had. Sarah hates God for taking away Bendrix, once she has promised their affair away, howling in misery in many of her diary how much so. What she says in September is amusing to say the least, in its irony. “While I loved Maurice I loved Henry, and now that I'm what they call good I don't love anyone. Least of all you”3 Both Sarah and Bendrix are caught in their self-needs, their self wants, believing themselves sufficient in their corrupt human love, and caught up in a hatred of the one who denies them their fake drug in order for them to realize their need for him. The whole difference, then, between Sarah and Bendrix, is that while Sarah must finally give in to God, and stop running from the ultimate lover, who has her trapped. Sarah is chased away from herself by her vow. She learned what it meant to love when she met Bendrix, and then she was empty, left with nothing but Him. As she says in her diary, “You'd taken my hate like You'd taken my disbelief into Your love, keeping them to sow me later, so that we could both laugh.”4 Sarah deplores her empty self and her falseness with such fervor that she finds herself almost in the opposite of hell. Her life is a living example of purgatory: the experience of pain purging of all that was eroding at her heart. Bendrix is left still defiant and hateful at the end. As he declares at the very end; “O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough. I'm too tired and too old to learn to love, leave me alone forever”5. Why does he condemn himself to misery? Can he not see that his hatred of God is his source of misery? His hatred of God lends itself to hatred of Sarah too, the one he wished to possess, for that is what love is removed from Christ, usage and possession, just as the Wine of the Last Supper, fermented again, becomes the bitter vinegar on Calvary. Bendrix is denied Sarah, and so he hates the God who took her from him. This hatred of God, being as it is a misconception of his own self-sufficiency, reveals the true pettiness and selfishness of his love in how he tries to ruin Sarah after her death. He has to deny her saintliness, believe that “any man could have her”6, to deny his insufficiency, his defeat at the hands of a god whom he has denied. Hatred for God is everywhere in his heart at this point, and where does it lead? Misery, and were he to perish now, ultimate misery.

The doctrine of Hell, presented as it is through Kreeft and Sheed, while insightful and full of Truth, can not compare to the bleakness with which Greene confronts us. No matter how we look at it, if one really reads Greene's words, they must take part in the emptiness of Sarah's desert, the ultimate futility of her flight from God, and the vanity of Bendrix's hatred. There is an aspect, however, which may seem troubling and counter to this thesis. In Sheed, Hell is described as the choice of self-love over God's love, and thus the eternity of separation from love. But Bendrix has God's love, does he not? Bendrix has Sarah's love, and thus he is not cut off from love entirely, and he gives love, even though he tries to hate. But even in this, Bendrix is empty, for he falls into the trap of self-sufficiency. He thinks he has enough love for both their life times, when in truth, he is so pitifully empty. Sarah knew this, and knew that anything in her which was truly beautiful was thanks only to God. Bendrix must be denied everything, all of his self-sufficiency, before he can realize the hell he truly walks and lives and breathes every moment of his life. Such emotion, such passionate anger and hatred confronts the reader in a more manifest way then any intellectual recount or argument for the existence of Hell. Just as sin, when discussed intellectually, removes us from the reality of evil in man's nature, but place a person in Auschwitz, and his objections to man's degradation must fall flat in the wake of lofty and unsubstantial idealism. Truth does not assault us in the sterilized world of logic, though this is a completely valid and helpful method to approach the particulars of the doctrine. To grasp the implications of our human nature, we must see them as they are, face to face.

The reality of hell has always been very far off for me, this naive child, who does not know despair with any sense of eternity. I have never had to confront evil in any gravity beyond personal grudges and petty differences between people, children's quarrels. I never understood how one might actually be in a disposition to deny God, knowing who He is. But this book has brought to my full and complete attention the emptiness of a life lived in an apathetic hatred and denial of God and his love. When I first completed my read through of the book, I curled up on my dorm-room floor, the emptiness of the desert swelling within me, setting a taste of bile in my mouth and unspent tears on my tongue. Hell is an utter emptiness of love, and once the reality is present in the heart, we can not help but be reduced to tears, for man was not made for such, not for himself, which can not satisfy, but for God. Hell is the ultimate sadness, and the living of it here on earth is a deep sorrow, but no reason for despair. Bendrix still has hope, as do all who are still alive, and even more so, as witnessed in his last confession of exhaustion. God will chase us to the ends of the earth to save us from the fate of hell, from apathy as much as from a passionate hatred. Bendrix has hope even now, even now as the arms of God are wrapped so tightly around him he can not breath. Sarah said “I am going to rob you, God, of what you love most in me”7, but she had to concede in the end, too tired to run away at last. Bendrix's desire will not be heeded, for God never leaves us be, till we finally breath our last he will be suffocating us, so that we realize our absolute need for him. Bendrix can not see that even now, God has him. He can not run, only beg to be left alone, like Sarah begged in that church pew, chased down at last.

“Oh no, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good.”
-Cage the Elephant “Ain't no rest for the Wicked”

1.Fulton J. Sheed Theology for Beginners p.171
2.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p.7
3.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p.104
4.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p.113
5.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p.192
6.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p.180
7.Graham Greene, The End of the Affair p. 101

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