Unreal Nature

July 21, 2017

In the Lost Boyhood of Judas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:30 am

… Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there.

This is from the ‘The Lost Childhood’ by Graham Greene found in The Oxford Book of Essays edited by John Gross (1991):

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life, we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future.

… Yes, Gagool has remained a permanent part of the imagination, but Quatermain and Curtis [three characters from King Solomon’s Mines] — weren’t they, even when I was only ten years old, a little too good to be true? They were men of such unyielding integrity (they would only admit to a fault in order to show how it might be overcome) that the wavering personality of a child could not rest for long against those monumental shoulders.

[line break added] A child, after all, knows most of the game — it is only an attitude to it that he lacks. He is quite well aware of cowardice, shame, deception, disappointment. Sir Henry Curtis perched upon a rock bleeding from a dozen wounds but fighting on with the remnant of the Greys against the hordes of Twala was too heroic. These men were like Platonic ideas: they were not life as one had already begun to know it.

But when — perhaps I was fourteen by that time — I took Miss Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan from the library shelf, the future for better or worse really stuck. From that moment I began to write. All the other possible futures slid away: the potential civil servant, the don, the clerk had to look for other incarnations. Imitation after imitation of Miss Bowen’s magnificent novel went into exercise-books …

Greene was born in Berkhamsted School where his father taught

… Why? On the surface The Viper of Milan is only the story of a war between Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona, told with zest and cunning and an amazing pictorial sense. Why did it creep in and color and explain the terrible living world of the stone stairs and the never quiet dormitory?

[line break added] It was no good in that real world to dream that one would ever be a Sir Henry Curtis, but della Scala who at last turned from an honesty that never paid and betrayed his friends and died dishonored and a failure even at treachery — it was easier for a child to escape behind his mask. As for Visconti, with his beauty, his patience, and his genius for evil, I had watched him pass by many a time in his black Sunday suit smelling of mothballs.

[line break added] His name was Carter. He exercised terror from a distance like a snowcloud over the young fields. Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey. I read all that in The Viper of Milan and I looked round and I saw that it was so.

… I think it was Miss Bowen’s apparent zest that made me want to write. One could not read her without believing that to write was to live and to enjoy, and before one had discovered one’s mistake it was too late — the first book one does enjoy [writing]. Anyway she had given me my pattern — religion might later explain it to me in other terms, but the pattern was already there — perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.

[line break added] Man is never satisfied, and often I have wished that my hand had not moved further than King Solomon’s Mines, and that the future I had taken down from the nursery shelf had been a district office in Sierra Leone and twelve tours of malarial duty and a finishing dose of blackwater fever when the danger of retirement approached. What is the good of wishing? The books are always there, the moment of crisis waits, and now our children in their turn are taking down the future and opening the pages. In his poem ‘Germinal’ A.E. wrote:

In ancient shadows and twilights
Where childhood had strayed,
The world’s great sorrows were born
And its heroes were made.
In the lost boyhood of Judas
Christ was betrayed.




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