Friday, April 15, 2011

Imagining Querry

Ate Father George's heron for dinner,
but I mistook it for a rabbit.

Graham Greene went to the Congo in 1959, and wrote this down in a journal he kept for possible use in developing his novel about a spiritually exhausted architect, A Burnt-Out Case. Greene had, however, looked on as the heron was shot in flight, from the fantail of a river boat that morning; and this had upset him. When the time came to make a note, did he decide to test his suggestibility, did he decide to revise his experience, did he genuinely attribute the heron's texture and flavour to that default guess of vaguely chick-enlike non-chicken; did he flatly refuse to see the breast as a breast, vastly beyond the scale of a rabbit; did he feel like noting a mistake, not a denial, for the purpose of touching upon exploitive disrespect - indifference? Or was it his taciturn code for accep-tance of harsh providence, and determination to go on?

The reader is interested in the uses one makes of one-self; this I know. I discov-ered Greene in my middle 20s - having seen one's herons shot - and set about reading all of his novels, short stories, and the play. What draws a reader to Greene's travel journals, in which he is far from simply noting things - apart from their acute detail, irony, and recounting of risk - is his recurring evaluation of what is notable by the standard of the question, of what use is it to be a man?

We love stories - almost every evening, I walk through my library, whispering the appeal to be told one - and nobody confesses to an indifference to style; that simply would be unnatural. Greene was the ultimate storyteller in his language in the latter half of the last Century. Even now, for a matured youth, I don't doubt that he still proves an invaluable watershed jolt into adulthood. Childlike as one remains - for lack of any choice - Greene is the fellow who explains to us the energy we identify with being busy, by prying the question: For what?

I know the answer, I've given it. As an infant (the story goes, I was 2), I knew what I was doing on the ground at the north rim of the Grand Canyon. My brother came to ask me what this occupation was, I was so absorbed. I am said to have told him, I'm making rocks. Astounded, he said to me, You cannot make rocks, but somehow, he believed me, and ran to our father to proclaim what I was doing. 

Guys busy themselves, thinking we're surely making things. The United States is living through an epoch out of Herbert Spencer, whose infantile builder is a character in Ayn Rand, an architect who built for himself. Graham Greene had his architect, too, and went to Africa to find him, Querry, at work in a leproserie. 

The question of our use stays close, it is too bracing. It is the extent of the only pleasure we were promised. It can fall into disuse. It doesn't end.

Graham Greene
In Search of a Character
The Bodley Head, 1961
Penguin Books, 1968, 1971©

ii, iii  Mathias Lauridsen

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