The Heart of the Matter

I was reminded yesterday of this quote from Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, which we just read in our book group: “Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful, one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast.”

Pity is one of two topics I was left feeling like I wanted to discuss more. Greene speaks so often of pity in this book. Consider these two quotes:

“The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?”

“He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.”

I had an easy time relating to many of the emotional states of the book, but this one still evades me. Is there another word for pity that would help? Responsibility? Concern? Compassion? None of those are it, but I wonder how else to describe what he’s saying.

The other part of Graham Greene that I didn’t get to talk about enough was his masterful language. So many fantastic lines. Perhaps Scobie was not realistic. But this line from him is amazing: “I’ve lost the trick of trust.”

My favorite little part of a sentence was, “…happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness…”

And finally, the Writer’s Almanac two days ago featured the poem “The Heart of the Matter” by Dana Gioia. The heart of the matter seems to me to be poetry itself but I wonder if Graham Greene coined the term? I’m too lazy to look it up right now but maybe we can find that answer together.

So there you have it: pity, Graham Greene’s terrific lines, and the heart of the matter itself. Discuss!


3 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. First of all, I’m very glad to see this blog revived! And the question of pity in “The Heart of the Matter” is a very interesting one. I still go back to what Ed said in our meeting—that pity is not a nice emotion. I agree with that. It felt uncomfortable every time Scobie expressed his pity for another person because it couldn’t help but have the effect of elevating him above that person in his own mind, of making it seem like he felt superior. Pity contains some amount of disdain along with compassion, but it isn’t pure compassion. The person bestowing his pity upon another feels himself above that person, responsible for them in some way, beyond what they may have asked for or what the terms of their relationship require.

    We had talked a bit about how pity compares to compassion and if, perhaps, the two concepts were more conflated when the book was written in 1948 than they are today. So I did a quick Wikipedia search to find out more! Here is what Graham Greene had to say about the theme of pity in his book:

    Graham Greene saw The Heart of the Matter as dealing with the issue of pity. He illustrates this theme by describing Scobie, the main character of the book, as “a weak man with good intentions doomed by his big sense of pity”. He further says in the preface, “I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: ‘Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.’ The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.”

    I was also curious about the meaning of pity in perhaps a more religious sense, especially since Catholicism was such a strong force in the book. Nietzsche apparently called Christianity “the religion of pity.” And he didn’t mean that in a good way! Again from Wikipedia (article on Transvaluation of Values):

    Christianity elevates the weak over the strong, exalting that which is “ill-constituted and weak” at the expense of that which is full of life and vitality.

    In spite of his obvious sins, Scobie attempts to be a good Catholic and emulates Christ-like and God-like behavior. But it’s like he hears only half of the message or something. He feels pity without love. He takes things, people, who are or could be lovable and diminishes them until all he sees are their weaknesses. He imagines that they need him, that he alone can help them. He doesn’t, in the end, seem to have destroyed anyone else by doing so, but he has destroyed himself.

    I’d feel bad for him but, you know…

  2. Yes, pity would certainly been something we could have talked more about, a central theme of the book. It’s the emotion that dominates Scoby’s inner life, and is his final undoing.

    I think the word “pity” is confusing for us today because it has acquired a pejorative connotation of condescension which it didn’t have when Greene wrote this book. It has become one of those taboo words which are too discomfiting to be used at all, like “crippled” or “insane”. I’m not sure quite how the fine distinction between pity and compassion came about, but it seems to me a little overdrawn. Most people, I suspect, claim to feel compassion but actually feel pity most of the time. How many of us can say that when we are confronted by a suffering stranger that we experience no trace of relief at not undergoing that suffering ourselves? There is something repellant about overt suffering which makes us want to draw away as though it were inauspicious or contagious, and I imagine that response is deeply established among our common human psychic defenses. For a person who is very spiritually evolved perhaps compassion is possible, but for most of us the sight of suffering in others triggers fear, and from that, pity or something very like it.

    Scobie’s world is dominated by suffering: physical, emotional, social, spiritual. The poverty and desperation of the Africans, the sterile superficiality of the British community, the neurotic selfishness of the two women in his life. What response can he give to so much suffering which he can do almost nothing to relieve? Only overwhelming pity. The condition of humanity, of its reality and of its soul is simply more than he can bear. To alleviate a little of that suffering, the suffering of others and his own sympathetic response he will compromise everything: his integrity as a policeman, his marriage, his faith. Doesn’t work, of course. His weakness only makes things worse and his lies and deceptions spin out of control.

    Love Graham Greene. I read most of his books many decades ago, but since our last book group meeting I have (re)read The Power and the Glory and The Honorary Consul.

    A couple of bits from The Heart of the Matter I particularly liked:

    “Scobie said, ‘You needn’t feel that. It’s the same with everybody, I think. When we say to someone, “I can’t live without you,” what we really mean is, “I can’t live feeling you may be in pain, unhappy, in want.” That’s all it is. When they are dead our responsibility ends. There’s nothing more we can do about it. We can rest in peace.’ “

    “They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.”

    “Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.”

    And many more!

    One further cultural note, Michelle: a song by Don Henley called The Heart of the Matter. (THOTM according to Don, ins forgiveness.)

    Sarah: are you saying you pity Scobie?

  3. I’ve been thinking further about Sarah’s post, which I didn’t see until I had completed my previous comment.

    Nietzsche does indeed favor the strong (the Superman!) over the weak, and that is one of the things that made him the favorite philosopher of Adolf Hitler et al. Christianity exalts the meek and condemns violence, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as praising the “ill-constituted and weak”. Christianity calls for a moral rather than a physical strength. No doubt Nietzsche would have some scathing retort to that statement!

    I was very interested in what Greene says about pity becoming monstrous pride. And I wish he had said more about how he understands the difference between pity and compassion, and more about how pity destroys love. Perhaps what I said about the connotation of pity in the 1940‘s is incorrect. This would have been great stuff to discuss.

    It might be said that Scobie’s real problem from a religious standpoint is that he wants to take all the responsibility upon himself and become this Christ-like figure. If he could bring himself to be honest with Louise and Helen and trust that however painful that might be God would take care of them, things would work out. There’s the pride piece, I guess: usurping the Christ role, and lacking the faith to rely on God’s mercy not only for himself but for everyone. Scobie is full of contradictions, and although I know not everyone will agree, to me that is what makes him so real.

    I’d like to hear more of what Greene had to say about this book and about Catholicism in general. I’ve read scraps, and I know that his faith was a burden to him and full of struggle and doubt. For once I am tempted to read an author’s autobiography. Also sounds like I have to read The Ministry of Fear.

    Thanks to both Sarah and Michelle for posting.

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