Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 15

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Wk 8 - Mon (22/9), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Graham Greene: The Comedians -

That Voodoo You Do

There are a number of questions which any reading of the book has to try and answer:

  • What's the significance of the title and epigraph?
  • Why does the book begin on board ship, and continue there for so long?
  • Why does it end as it does, so anticlimactically?
  • Why does the film, scripted by Greene himself, end so differently?

My answers to these are mostly attempts to explore the ramifications of a single theme. Or, rather, the various intertwining ideas and associations which grow out of this one strand in the novel.

That theme is voodoo.


  • Belief & Unbelief
  • Saints & Sinners
  • Tarts & Toffs
  • Catholicism & Voodoo
  • Lovers & Zombies

In chapter 2 of part 2, Joseph, Brown and young Philipot attend a voodoo ceremony:

During the two years of prosperity, I had watched, as a matter of duty, the Voodoo dances performed for tourists. To me who had been born a Catholic they seemed as distasteful as the ceremony of the Eucharist would have seemed performed as a ballet on Broadway. ...

I remembered how young Philipot had said to me ... "The gods of Dahomey may be what we need." Governments had failed him, I had failed him, Jones had failed him - he had no Bren gun; he was here, listening to the drums, waiting, for strength, for courage, for a decision. On the earth-floor, around a small brazier, a design had been drawn in ashes, the summons to a god. Was it a summons to Legba, the gay seducer of women, to sweet Erzulie, the virgin of purity and love, to Ogoun Ferraille, the patron of warriors, or to Baron Samedi in his black clothes and his black Tonton glasses, hungry for the dead? (164)

That, of course, is the source of Papa Doc's power, his status as an incarnation of Baron Samedi, Lord of the cemetery. The Tonton Macoutes, his secret police, wear dark glasses "as a uniform, to terrify" [94] Why? Because the eyes really are the window to the soul. They're the only way of distinguishing the zombie from the living man. That's why they abduct the coffin of old Philipot, the minister - to threaten his relatives with the idea that his body will be enslaved by the black magician.

I remembered that one arm which had been held in the flames appeared as light as a mulatto's. I told myself it could not possibly have been Philipot's. Philipot's poems had been published in an elegant limited edition, bound in vellum. He had been educated like myself by the Jesuits; he had attended the Sorbonne; I remembered how he had quoted the lines of Baudelaire to me at the swimming-pool. If Philipot was one of the initiates, what a triumph that would present for Papa Doc as he dragged his country down. (165)

The reference to Baudelaire is to the conversation between Brown and Philipot on p.123:

I remember looking at [Jones] one night on the boat from America - it was after the ship's concert - and wondering, are you and I both comedians?"

"They can say that of most of us. Wasn't I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs du Mal, published on hand-made paper at my own expense? ... The same money would have brought me a Bren perhaps." (It was a magic word to him now - Bren.)

And what is a comedian? In French, it means an actor, not a humourist. Hence too, perhaps, the book's epigraph.

Do you see how the voodoo ceremony, the possession of the participants by various parts and roles, begins to fit the book?

Remember, too, Greene's statement from Ways of Escape:

How dangerous it is for a critic to have no technical awareness of the novel. Surely the great prefaces of Henry James have marked one novelist's route indelibly - the route of 'the point of view'. There was no ambiguity in my mind; the ambiguity was in the minds of [the characters] whom I had chosen for my 'points of view'. (32)

Brown's ideas about Baudelaire, the Sorbonne, the artefacts of high civilisation may not be - almost certainly are not - Greene's.

Let's go back to that concert aboard ship, in fact. What happens? Mr. Baxter recites a poem about the Blitz. And Mr Fernandez bursts into tears. (33-34)

Fernandez, it turns out, is an undertaker. Baxter is not long for this world (he dies when the ship reaches the Dominican Republic). What roles are they playing?

The parallels go on, if we wish to pursue them. What of Martha, Brown's mistress? "Was it a summons to Legba, the gay seducer of women, to sweet Erzulie, the virgin of purity and love?" Brown loses Martha because he can't persuade himself he really wants her, or deserves her

Indecision ... is part of the modern mind. We have lost the power of clear action because we have lost the ability to believe. (154)

He plants Jones in their household and then becomes jealous of him. His final stroke is to organise Jones's downfall - which turns out also to be his own.

The swimming-pool is another potent symbol for Brown - signalling the advent of "sweet Erzulie"?

Once I had looked out of my window at two in the morning. There was a great yellow moon and a girl was making love in the pool. She didn't notice me watching her; he didn't notice anything. that night I thought before I slept, "I have arrived." (46)

Now, of course, it's ruined by Philipot's suicide. That, and the presence of the Smiths:
... there in the pool avoiding the gardener's rake, swam Mr Smith, wearing a pair of dark grey nylon bathing-pants which billowed out behind him in the water, giving him the hind-quarters of some prehistoric beast. ... When he saw me he stood up in the water like a myth. His breasts were covered with long strands of white hair. (95-96)

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