Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Graham Greene’s The Comedians (book review)

Graham Greene’s The Comedians was published in 1966. Greene was important for many reasons, one of them being that he was one of the last novelists to bridge the gap between serious literature and popular entertainment. In the early part of his career he divided his books into “novels” (dealing with serious themes) and “entertainments” (which were not only entertainments but also genre fiction). He eventually realised that, as far as his own work was concerned, the distinction was an artificial one and he abandoned it.

The Comedians is set in Haiti during the rule of the infamous dictator Fran├žois Duvalier, known popularly as Papa Doc. Greene had spent some time in Haiti.

But in fact The Comedians, like most of Greene’s books, takes place in Greeneland. Greeneland is a land of defeat and pessimism.

The narrator, Mr Brown, is returning to Haiti on the S.S. Medea. Mr Brown, a man in his late fifties, does not think Haiti is a very good place to be but he has his reasons for returning. He owns a hotel in Haiti. It is the only thing he has ever owned. And there is a woman in Haiti, Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American Ambassador. Brown has been having an adulterous affair with Martha for several years. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with her but he has realised he cannot live without her.

Brown is amused that the very small group of passengers on the Medea includes a Mr Smith and a Mr Jones. They all sound like aliases and since his own claim to the name Brown is doubtful he can’t help suspecting that Mr Smith and Mr Jones might have equally dubious claims to their names. Mr Jones in fact claims to be Major Jones, with a distinguished war record in Burma. Brown is very sceptical.

Major Jones, like Brown, is a typical inhabitant of Greeneland. They both have murky pasts which include unfortunate misunderstandings with the police. They are both expatriates. Neither believes in anything very much. Both men have about them an air of defeat. Both have a certain disreputable charm. They are not bad men, but they’re not especially good either. Greene famously said that human nature is not black and white, but black and grey. Brown and Jones both fall into the grey category.

When the Medea arrives in the capital, Port-au-Prince, it soon becomes obvious to Brown that things are just as bad as they were when he had left a few months earlier. Duvalier is crazy and paranoid and never leaves the Presidential Palace. The economy is in ruins. The people are close to starvation. The tourists have long gone. The secret police, the Tontons Macoute, are continuing their reign of terror.

Graham Greene had been a real-life spy, working for MI6 where his supervisor was a chap named Kim Philby (Greene later wrote a foreword to Philby’s excellent autobiography My Silent War, a book I thoroughly recommend). The world of espionage and counter-espionage fascinated Greene and it plays a part in many of his novels. Spies live in a world of deception and, often, self-deception. Just like many of the inhabitants of Greeneland. The Comedians is not a spy novel as such (although the Tontons Macoute are a counter-espionage outfit) but it is concerned (among other things) with the shadowy worlds of international intrigue, diplomacy, gun-running and revolution.

Mr Smith is another very Greene character. He is an American and he is introduced as the Presidential Candidate. It turns out that he really had been a presidential candidate in 1948 but since he only gained 10,000 votes nation-wide he did not provide much competition for Harry Truman. Mr Smith and his wife are idealists. They believe that most of the world’s problems are caused by excessive acidity and that once people are converted to vegetarianism most of those problems will disappear. Mr and Mrs Smith are also liberals, and like so many American liberals they are entirely disconnected from reality. Like Alden Pyle in The Quiet American Mr and Mrs Smith are sincere idealists of the type that actually causes most of the world’s problems. And like Alden Pyle they do have the courage of their convictions.

The Comedians is partly of course a political novel although Greene’s political beliefs tended to be, like his religious beliefs, complex and contradictory. As in The Quiet American the U.S. does not appear in a favourable light in this novel. They know the horrifically brutal nature of Papa Doc’s regime but they’re prepared to prop him up as a “bulwark against communism” - as was the case with Vietnam their foreign policy was simplistic and deluded.

Mr and Mrs Smith intend to establish a vegetarian centre in Haiti. Brown tries to persuade them that their plan is going to land them in trouble. Major Jones has his own plans which Brown suspects (correctly) are not strictly legal and which he also suspects (correctly) are going to get him in a lot of trouble. Brown does not want trouble. He just wants his hotel and he wants Martha. He’s going to find trouble anyway. He knows that when he finds the body of the Secretary of Social Welfare in his hotel’s swimming pool.

Brown envies Mr Smith because Smith believes in something, even if it’s crazy and futile. He also envies Jones because Jones has a dream, even if the dream is a delusion and even if Jones himself knows it’s a delusion. Believing in something is good but in Greeneland things are not so simple. Believing in things can also destroy a person, and destroy other people as well.

Faith can be destructive, especially when it’s combined with innocence (and innocence terrified Greene). Brown’s friend Dr Magiot and Henri Phillipot, son of the deceased Secretary of Social Welfare, are inclined to put their faith in revolution. Which can be just as dangerous and futile as Mr Smith’s faith in vegetarianism.

The Comedians is not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books. Perhaps it’s not quite top-tier Greene but even second-tier Greene is better than almost everything published in the past fifty years. Highly recommended.

Greene wrote the screenplay for the 1967 movie adaptation.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Social and cultural changes - inevitable or engineered?

Enormous social and cultural changes have swept the western world since 1945. The roots of some of these changes go back much further, in some cases to the 19th century. Feminism, the Sexual Revolution, the rise of antiracist ideologies, the LGBT movement, changes in how marriage is viewed, Political Correctness and more recently Wokeism. Social conservatives and many on the Right deplore most of these changes (in some cases they deplore all of these changes). Which is understandable. The western world today differs radically from the western world of 1945.

There’s nothing startling or controversial about this. It’s merely stating the obvious.

We need to ask two questions. Firstly, were these changes inevitable? And secondly, can anything be done about it?

Social conservatives and dissident rightists seem to favour the view that these changes were deliberately engineered, or were even the result of a conspiracy (or conspiracies).

I suspect that it’s possible that many (possibly most, possibly even all) of these social and cultural changes were to a large extent the inevitable result of the rise of mass media, mass education, democracy and capitalism plus various technological advances. They were the end result of processes that began in the 19th century.

Those social and cultural changes may have been, to a large degree, unstoppable.

What can be done about it? I think that the desire of many social conservatives and dissident rightists to completely undo all those changes is hopelessly unrealistic. It would be a bit like trying to undo the Industrial Revolution. It would require a complete social and cultural revolution and (barring some extraordinary apocalyptic event that brings present-day western civilisation to its knees) it seems unlikely that the conditions necessary for such a social and cultural revolution are going to arise.

Maybe the best that we can hope for is to ameliorate the worst features of these changes in the way that the worst features of the Industrial Revolution were eventually ameliorated. Maybe.

Maybe we can learn to live with most of the social/cultural changes if some of those worst features can be ameliorated. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how much amelioration of the more extreme changes would create a world that we could live with.

I know, it’s not a very optimistic viewpoint from the point of view of social conservatives. It’s not even a very optimistic viewpoint from the point of view of more moderate social liberals.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

health nazis, food nazis and puritanism

Further to my recent post on libertinism versus puritanism, another example of the increasing puritanism of modern western society has been the rise of the health nazis, and more recently the food nazis.

When you have a widespread belief that the government should have the power to exercise a high degree of coercion in regards to what people do with their own bodies that doesn’t sound to me like a libertine society. It sounds like a puritan society. A society that considers unhealthy lifestyle choices to be evidence of wickedness that sounds like a puritan society.

It’s difficult to see the modern Nanny State as anything other than puritanism. Puritanism mixed with totalitarianism, but then puritans have always had a totalitarian outlook.

Australia has been in some ways Ground Zero for this. Australia is now the Nanny State on steroids. Innocuous medications which used to be available over the counter are now available only on prescription, and if you have a chronic pain problem it is immensely difficult to get the medications needed to control that pain. Now the Australian Government wants to stop people from vaping. Vaping is a whole lot better than smoking so you’d think that a sane government would want to encourage the practice. But the puritan impulse is too strong.

The food nazis are the latest manifestation of puritanism. They want to shame us for eating meat, or liking sugar.

What it comes down to is that people with a puritan mindset are horrified that there are people out there doing things that they enjoy. There are people who like eating steaks and they are still eating steaks. They must be stopped.

Any kind of freedom is now regarded as problematic. Whether it’s freedom of speech, freedom of thought or even the freedom to eat what you want to eat. Doing anything solely for pleasure is now regarded as problematic. People used to enjoy food. That’s so wrong.

The main impulse behind our increasing drift towards totalitarianism and complete social control has nothing to do with leftist politics as such. Right-wing governments (such as the Morrison Government in Australia) are just as committed to social control as parties of the left. The Tories in Britain are as committed to totalitarianism as Labour. We’re drifting towards totalitarianism because of an increasingly puritan outlook. It’s an outlook that demands that people should be forced to be virtuous. We must be forced to be virtuous in our speech, in our thoughts and in our private lives and personal habits.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

is our modern society actually libertine?

There’s a widespread assumption that western society has become increasingly libertine about sexuality over time and that we now live in an age of sexual degeneracy and sexual libertinism. But is that really true?

In some ways we're more puritanical about sex than ever before. Engaging in mild flirtation can now lead to the loss of your job and your career.

The libertinism of today may be more apparent than real. Society is more tolerant of homosexual libertinism than ever before, but arguably it's less tolerant of heterosexual libertinism. A man who has consensual sex with a woman can have his life destroyed if the woman changes her mind after the act. If it wasn't as magical and meaningful as the woman expected it's rape. The #metoo hysteria is a prime example of the New Puritanism.

Surveys suggest that young people are having less sex than previous generations. Which would not be surprising. Engaging in entirely consensual heterosexual sex is now a high-risk activity. Engaging in the normal human activities that have always been part and parcel of courtship is now like wandering through a minefield.

Read Steve Sailer's recent post on the professor accused of sexual misbehaviour. The behaviours in which he engaged were so innocuous that twenty years the women involved would simply have laughed the whole thing off.

I'm not even convinced that monogamy has gone out of fashion. It still seems to be the norm, even among young people. In fact, especially among young people. Not necessarily marriage but monogamy in some form. It’s easy to see internet hookup culture as proof that young people are highly promiscuous but I suspect that promiscuity is less common today compared to fifty years ago. The high tide of modern sexual libertinism was the 1970s. The tide of libertinism has been receding ever since.

Our real problem is that so many people are getting married and are remaining monogamous, but they're not having children. That's a problem with multiple causes but I don't think it has anything at all to do with a rising tide of libertinism.

I don't think there is a rising tide of libertinism. Quite the reverse.

The trans thing is interesting. As Steve Sailer has pointed out, much of the trans mania actually seems to be driven by avoidance of sex. If people are having their genitals surgically destroyed or pumping themselves full of the hormones of the opposite sex and thereby destroying any possibility of an actual functional sex life that doesn't sound like libertinism. That sounds like a twisted form of puritanism. It sounds like a phobia of sex. Especially in the case of young girls deciding that they’re really young boys what really seems to be happening is a flight from adulthood and from normal sexuality, or from any sexuality at all.

I want to emphasise that I'm not arguing that everything is hunky-dory and that our modern society is healthy and there's nothing to worry about. Our modern society is very very unhealthy.

But the real problem is that completely normal heterosexual desires and completely normal heterosexual behaviours are now seen as problematic. Completely normal heterosexual behaviours have been pathologised. Such normal behaviours are now seen as wrong and oppressive.

A big part of the problem is of course feminism. Back in the 90s when the anti-sex feminists lost the Feminist Sex Wars we thought we wouldn't have to worry about those crazies any more. But we were wrong. The anti-sex feminists have made a major comeback. They're as crazy as ever and they're as aggressive as ever.

I’m not advocating for sexual libertinism. I’m merely arguing that the dysfunction in our society is not actually sexual libertinism, but increasing anxiety about sex and fear of sex. We’re obsessed with the subject, but then puritanism is also driven to a large extent by an obsession with sex.

I don’t think the current situation is as straightforward as it seems to be.

I'm more worried about the de-normalisation of healthy heterosexuality than about a largely imaginary libertinism. The de-normalisation of healthy heterosexuality is a fundamental attack on the foundation of any sane healthy society.