“Proof Positive” — Graham Greene

“Proof Positive”


Graham Greene

The tired voice went on. It seemed to surmount enormous obstacles to speech. The man’s sick, Colonel Crashaw thought, with pity and irritation. When a young man he had climbed in the Himalayas, and he remembered bow at great heights several breaths had to be taken for every step advanced. The five-foot-high platform in the Music Rooms of The Spa seemed to entail for the speaker some of the same effort, he should never have come out on such a raw afternoon, thought Colonel Crashaw, pouring out a glass of water and pushing it across the lecturer’s table. The rooms were badly heated, and yellow fingers of winter fog fell for cracks in the many windows. There was little doubt that the speaker had lost all touch with his audience. It was scattered in patches about the hall – elderly ladies who made no attempt to hide their cruel boredom, and a few men, with the appearance of retired officers, who put a show of attention.

Colonel Crashaw, as president of the local Psychical Society, had received a note from the speaker a little more than a week before. Written by a hand which trembled with sickness, age or drunkenness, it asked urgently for a special meeting of the society. An extraordinary, a really impressive, experience was to be described while still fresh in the mind, thought what the experience had been was left vague. Colonel Crashaw would have hesitated to comply if the note had not been signed by a Major Philip Weaver, Indian Army, retired. One had to do what one could for a brother officer; the trembling of the hand must be either age or sickness.

It proved principally to be the latter when the two men met for the first time on the platform. Major Weaver was not more than sixty, tall, thin, and dark, with an ugly obstinate nose and, satire in his eye, the most unlikely person to experience anything unexplainable. What antagonised Crashaw most was that Weaver used scent; a white handkerchief which drooped from his breast pocket exhaled as rich and sweet an odour as a whole altar of lilies. Several ladies prinked their noses, and General Leadbitter asked loudly whether lie might smoke.

It was quite obvious that Weaver understood. He smiled provocatively and asked very slowly, “Would you mind not smoking? My throat has been bad for some time.” Crashaw murmured that it was terrible weather; influenza throats were common. The satirical eye came round to him and considered him thoughtfully, while Weaver said in a voice which carried halfway across the hall, “It’s cancer in my case.”

In the shocked vexed silence that followed the unnecessary intimacy he began to speak without waiting for any introduction from Crashaw. He seemed at first to be in a hurry. It was only later that the terrible impediments were placed in the way of his speech. He had a high voice, which sometimes broke into a squeal, and must have been peculiarly disagreeable on the parade ground. He paid a few compliments to the local society; his remarks were just sufficiently exaggerated to be irritating. He was glad, lie said, to give them the chance of hearing him; what he had to say might after their whole view of the relative values of matter and spirit.

Mystic stuff, thought Crashaw.

Weaver’s high voice began to shoot out hurried platitudes. The spirit, he said, was stronger than anyone realised; the physiological action of heart and brain and nerves were subordinate to the spirit. The spirit was everything. He said again, his voice squeaking up like bats into the ceiling, “The spirit is so much stronger than you think.” He put his hand across his throat and squinted sideways at the window-panes and the nuzzling fog, and upwards at the bare electric globe sizzling with heat and poor light in the dim afternoon. “It’s immortal,” he told them very seriously, and they shifted, restless, uncomfortable, and weary, in their chairs.

It was then that his voice grew tired and his speech impeded. The knowledge that he had entirely lost touch with his audience may have been the cause. An elderly lady at the back had taken her knitting from a bag, and her needles flashed along the walls when the light caught them, like a bright ironic spirit. Satire for a moment deserted Weaver’s eyes, and Crashaw saw the vacancy it left, as though the ball had turned to glass.

“This is important,” the lecturer cried to them. “I can tell you a story-” His audience’s attention was momentarily caught by this promise of something definite, but the stillness of the lady’s needles did not soothe him. He sneered at them all: “Signs and wonders,” he said.

Then he lost the thread of his speech altogether.

His hand passed to and fro across his throat and he quoted Shakespeare, and then St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. His speech, as it grew slower, seemed to lose all logical order, though now and then Crashaw was surprised by the shrewdness in the juxtaposition of two irrelevant ideas. It was like the conversation of an old man which flits from subject to subject, the thread a subconscious one. “When I was a Simla,” he said, bending his brows as though to avoid the sunflash on the barrack square, but perhaps the frost, the fog, the tarnished room broke his memories. He began to assure the wearied faces all over again that the spirit did not die when the body died, but that the body only moved at the spirit’s will. One had to be obstinate, to grapple…

Pathetic, Crashaw thought, the sick man’s clinging to his belief. It was as if life were an only son who was dying and with whom he wished to preserve some form of communication…

A note was passed to Crashaw from the audience. It came from a Dr. Brown, a small alert man in the third row; the society cherished him as a kind of pet sceptic. The note read: “Can’t you make him stop? The man’s obviously very ill. And what good is his talk, anyway?”

Crashaw turned his eyes sideways and upwards and felt his pity vanish al sight of the roving satirical eyes that gave the lie to the tongue, and al the smell, over-poweringly sweet, of the scent in which Weaver had steeped his handkerchief. The man was an “outsider”; he would look up his record in the old Army Lists when he got home.

“Proof positive,” Weaver was saying, sighing a shrill breath of exhaustion between the words. Crashaw laid his watch upon the table, but Weaver paid him no attention. He was supporting himself on the rim of the table with one hand. “I’ll give you,” he said, speaking with increasing difficulty, “proof pos….” His voice scraped into stillness, like a needle at a record’s end, but the quiet did not last. From an expressionless face, a sound which was more like a high mew than anything else, jerked the audience into attention. He followed it up, still without a trace of any emotion or understanding, with a succession of incomprehensible sounds, a low labial whispering, an odd jangling note, while his fingers lapped on the table. The sounds brought to mind innumerable seances, the bound medium, the tambourine shaken in mid-air, the whispered trivialities of loved ghosts in the darkness, the dinginess, the airless rooms.

Weaver sat down slowly in his chair and let his head fall backwards. An old lady began to cry nervously, and Dr. Brown scrambled on to the platform and bent over him. Colonel Crashaw saw the doctor’s hand tremble as he picked the handkerchief from the pocket and flung it away from him. Crashaw, aware of another and more unpleasant smell, heard Dr. Brown whisper: “Send them all away. He’s dead.”

He spoke with a distress unusual in a doctor accustomed to every kind of death. Crashaw, before he complied, glanced over Dr. Brown’s shoulder at the dead man. Major Weaver’s appearance disquieted him. In a long life he had seen many forms of death, men shot by their own hand, and men killed in the field, but never such a suggestion of mortality. The body might have been one fished from the sea a long while after death; the flesh of the face seemed as ready to fall as an over ripe fruit. So it was with no great shock of surprise that he heard Dr. Brown’s whispered statement: “The man must have been dead a week.”

What The Colonel thought of most was Weaver’s claim – “Proof positive” – proof, he had probably meant, that the spirit outlived the body, that it lasted eternity. But all he had certainly revealed was how, without the body’s aid, the spirit in seven days decayed into whispered nonsense.

“The Priest Is Us”: The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene’s Adventure of Religion and Faith

The Gospels are powerful not simply because Christ performed miracles and taught kindness, strength, and humility. Humanity has long attributed to certain individuals impossible deeds, tremendous suffering, and inordinate wisdom. We survey the collective memory and search for meaning in the lives of renowned teachers so that they might serve as an example during our own unpredictable, harrowing journey. What separates the story of Jesus from the stories of other merely great people in history is the idea that God manifested itself to humans as a human: wracked with doubt, vulnerable to temptation, victim of unimaginable pain.  Although he taught that love is the first commandment, Christ was flailed, tortured, left to die on a cross between two thieves, all ostensibly for no benefit but our own.  Wasn’t it Borges who said that every story is either the Odyssey or the Crucifixion?  The stories we tell each other, in their reflection, become the same nothing cycle of words, told again and again, a record of our inadequacy and cowardice.

Graham Greene, in his short and powerful novel The Power and the Glory, considers the life and death of Jesus as he narrates the life of a man brought low by pride and circumstances. The last priest someplace in southwestern Mexico flees from the authorities.  His hunters seek to free the peasant farmers who populate the land from exploitation and superstition with their own imperfect liberation theologies: the abolition of superstition and private property; the self-sufficiency that follows honest labor.  The men in red shirts ride horses and believe in the impending, always near, revolution.  On the back of a mule, the father sneaks from town to town, trying to fulfill his duty, but without understanding the significance of the words that tumble clumsily from his mouth in Latin. He performs sacred rites in exchange for sanctuary until even a hiding spot is denied to him. The police have started to execute men and boys in villages who they believe have colluded to shelter this wayward man of God.

As the priest travels, he finds himself stripped not only of the vestments of his profession: his chalice, his incense, his robes, and his bible, but his own air of invincibility, privilege and comfort. Exposed, fearful, living in a state of mortal sin and unable to confess, this fallen man of God, like Christ himself, is destroyed.  The priest is, by his own admission, a bad one. He drinks heavily and thinks too much of his own comfort. Led to his profession not so much by attention to the divine will but by a desire for status and privilege, during his exile he recalls fondly dinners lavish dinners with wealthy members of his assembly and the gifts they gave him. While he may have seen that the most of his flock made a meager living on small farms after taxes and fees paid to local bosses, he never stopped to consider the meaning of his own observations, busying himself instead with ambitions for his own greater glory. He is, for the first half of the book, greedy, proud, and self-concerned.

But, as he eludes the authorities and traverses the country, he becomes, in Greene’s capable hands, a symbol of redemption and an affirmation of a full but unrealized life.  Words that lacked meaning help to ameliorate the strongest pain he has ever felt. He is jailed, extorted, and rejected by the people who love him the most, but in humiliation finds real faith.  Performing the sacred rites of his profession, he confronts the banality of evil and comes to finally realize the true power of the promise he brought to those who came to him:

He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world in which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had did; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

This is a book about religion and faith, but The Power and the Glory doesn’t require its reader to have an inclination towards either.  It is an adventure story, recounted in bold, confident sentences, about a normal man who fears that incorrect choices will cause him to suffer. This fear is real and it manifests itself in the priest’s moral and ethical dilemmas.  We are asked to ponder those things that lead from sadness to strength.  The priest is us: we see ourselves completely in him and give him our sympathy.

Jonathan Franzen on Overrated Books

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