"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Pinkie Brown–Graham Greene’s Creation Of An Amoral, Brutal, But Profoundly Religious Character

Pinkie Brown, one of the most unusual and unique characters in the Catholic fiction of Graham Greene is in many ways more complex and more interesting than Querry, Scobie, or Bendrix. He is an unremorseful killer, indifferent to murder, at home with violence, manipulative, and cruel; but at the same time he is a practicing Catholic. Religion is no solace or comfort nor no haven from a difficult world; but a standard against which all secular actions must be judged. There is no legal right and wrong, nor even a moral right and wrong, only obedience to the rules of the Church or disobedience. The penalty for crime is incarceration or perhaps even death. Disobeying the most sacred trust of the Church is to condemn your soul to eternal damnation.

Image result for images brighton rock book cover

This paradox and this theological conundrum is at the heart of Brighton Rock. Pinkie feels that his civil marriage to Rose and the consummation of it is an unforgiveable mortal sin and that he will indeed by condemned for eternity. Confession and absolution is not possible because he is not sorry for what he has done – married a vulnerable, innocent, ignorant girl to protect him from legal prosecution. True forgiveness requires remorse, acceptance of guilt, and a promise before God to never sin again. Pinkie cannot do this.

At the same time, his mortal sin is liberating. Since his soul is damned for eternity, then nothing can compound his damnation. There are no levels of Hell through which the soul can descend. Hell is simply for sinners and once there, there is no way out.

Pinkie is a punk and a lowlife but with a metaphysical conscience that belies his class, his education, and his age. We forget that Pinkie is only seventeen. He has understood the essential dilemma of faith, perceived the wisdom and the fallacy of the Church, and has chosen his own unique way of living, surviving, and dying.

He is at once a Nietzschean hero and a Christian martyr. He revels in the power of undetected and unrepentant murder. He killed Hale and Spicer and fooled the law. He has assumed the leadership of Kite’s gang and dominated and intimidated those under him. He has confidently challenged Colleoni, the leader of a rival gang; and he acts with impunity. His plan to murder, to deceive, and to rule is a validation of his power – an amoral sense of survival and supremacy.

He is intelligent, savvy, cunning, and without principle. He is selective about his mortal sins and chooses which have consequence. He repeatedly repeats the refrain ‘between the stirrup and the ground’; the brief, momentary chance to repent before death; but such chance is no different than bets at the racecourse; and when he has committed the mortal sin which will damn him forever, and the gaming chance of quick, savvy repentance has eluded him, he chooses Evil over Good.

He is more Miltonian than Nietzschean; but adds a twist to the poet’s Satan. He has not been banished from heaven, but is always in mortal danger of being to. He is as defiant as the Satan of Paradise Lost, but his motives are different. Milton’s Satan is a creature of vengeance, resentful for having been banned from the sight of God and determined not to regain his place but to create his own, equally powerful and independent world.

See the source image

Pinkie’s relationship with God is more interesting and less predictable. It is ‘a game’, a term he uses to describe sex, the traditional mores of sexual concourse, and life itself. He accepts God’s conditions but only on his terms – murder, deceit, manipulation, and cruelty are necessary for survival in a hostile and definitely un-Christian world – but unquestioningly acknowledges the primacy of the Church in ontological terms.

Greene complicates the equation by introducing conditioning. Why and how is Pinkie who he is; and can his past justify or at least explain his actions? Here Greene describes the place of Pinkie’s birth and upbringing.
The Boy (Pinkie) crossed over towards Old Steyne walking slowly. The streets narrowed uphill above the Steyne: the shabby secret behind the bright corsage, the deformed breast. Every step was a retreat. He thought he had escaped forever by the whole length of the parade, and now extreme poverty took him back: a shop where a shingle could be had for two shillings in the same building as a coffin makers who worked in oak, elm, or lead; no window dressing but one child’s coffin dusty with disuse and the list of hairdressing prices. The Salvation Army Citadel marked with its battlements the very border of his home. He began to fear recognition and feel and obscure shame as if it were his native streets which had the right to forgive and not he to reproach them with the dreary and dingy past.
Past the Albert Hostel (‘Good accommodation for Travelers’) and there he was on the top of the hill in the thick of the bombardment a flapping gutter, cracked windows, an iron bedstead in a front garden the size of a table top. Half Paradise Piece had been torn up as if by bomb bursts; the children played about the steep slope of rubble; a piece of fireplace showed houses that had once been there, and a municipal notice announced new flats on a post stuck in the torn gravel and asphalt facing the little dingy damaged, row all that was left of Paradise Place. His home was gone; a flat place among the rubble may have marked its hearth; the room at the bend of the stairs where the Saturday night exercise had taken place was now just air. He wondered with horror whether it all had to be built again for him; it looked better as air…
Can Pinkie be forgiven because he has become an orphan, an unwilling wanderer, a lost child?
Greene in many instances writes of Pinkie’s ‘game’. If we are to extrapolate from Pinkie’s past, the game must be of the essence because that’s what life in lower class Brighton had to be. There was no way other than gaming to account for the disabilities of life on the bottom and explain the way to the top.

Gaming for Pinkie, however, is not so neat and categorized. Yes, he was a child of gaming parlors, racetracks, and lowlife deals; but cannot ‘gaming’ be something more – an expression of an existential sense of purposelessness? Why not live life as a game when it is clearly amoral and meaningless?

Greene is never indifferent to questions of class. The Cosmopolitan, the hotel where his adversary Colleoni resides, is a step up from Paradise Place. Pinkie’s conflict with Colleoni is as much a matter of society as it is with turf and territory.

The world of the Cosmopolitan and Colleoni, however, is but a few steps up from Pinkie’s world. He wants it and yet resents it and is critical of it.
So later he was quite at ease waiting in the great lounge under the domed lights for Colleoni: young men kept on arriving in huge motoring coats accompanied by small tinted creatures that range like expensive glass when they were touched but who conveyed an impression of being as sharp and tough as tin. They looked at nobody, sweeping through the lounge as they had swept in racing models down the Brighton Road, ending on high stools in the American bar. A stout woman in a white fox fur came out of a lift and stared at the Boy then she got back into the lift again and moved weightily upwards. A little bitch sniffed at him and then talked him over with another little bitch on a settee. Mr. Colleoni came across an acre of deep carpet from the Louis Seize writing room, walking on tiptoe in glacee shoes…

Image result for images glacee shoes

Pinkie is ‘at ease’ with the glitzy world of the hotel because he sees it as only a richer expression of his own life. There is nothing upper class, refined, or aristocratic about the Cosmopolitan or the people who frequent it. It has allure because of money and what money can buy. The Cosmopolitan is Paradise Place gussied and pimped, but was only a few steps removed from the tarts, hustlers, and con men of his world.

Pinkie’s attitudes, beliefs, and convictions can neither be explained by his tacky environment nor his Catechism. In the real world, Catholics either become moral citizens or fall off the wagon. They either accept the Gospel as a defining text or reject the authoritarian, impossibly correct order of the Church.

Pinkie, however, is neither. He not only has never disavowed the Church, but avowed it as his mentor and pastor. He may have been the product of ‘a bad environment’ and a dysfunctional family, but has never been a total product of it.

He is unique – a product of the English, class-dominated, post-war slums but a heroic individualist. Sophocles could easily have written about Pinkie Brown – a tragic character who resented and hated his parents’ ‘Saturday nights’ and their loud, once-a-week marital intercourse – but who found his own way of existential survival.

We can hate Pinkie for his deliberate and hateful use of Rose, for his murders and for his unrepentant antisocial behavior. He may have been the product of a cheap fish-and-chips Brighton upbringing, but one cannot excuse his criminality, cruelty, and indifference; but on the other can we can love Pinkie, a man who has a profound, although ill-expressed, understanding of humanity. We are all still animals, primitive in our upbringing, social groupings, and aspirations. We may be guided by faith, morality, and religion, but we are still as primitive as the day we descended from the trees.

Pinkie understood religion and secular, historical society, but was unable to square the two. His tragedy was in this inability.

Neither Scobie nor Querry nor Bendrix had the existential understanding of Pinkie. Scobie, like Pinkie, struggled with religious fundamentals. When Scobie received communion to appease his wife and to respect the sacrament of marriage, he knew he would be damned. To seal the covenant with God for his derelictions, he commits suicide, the ultimate, unforgiveable sin. He is heroic, sad, and pitiable.

Image result for book cover the heart of the matter

Bendrix is a man of tenuous faith – cynical, resentful, but adherent. He cannot reconcile his lack of faith with Sarah’s apparent embrace of it. He knows that her covenant with God during the blitz must be respected as any contract; yet he cannot help feeling deceived, abandoned, and lost. Her reconciliation with faith is a challenge to his own vicissitude.

Querry is man of ascribed faith. He either was a believer or was not. The popular press was enamored of his churches and assumed that the sophistication of their design was inspired by belief; but Querry demurred. It was a matter of personal expression and creative insight, nothing more. ‘Do not pursue me’, he said. “I have nothing to offer’.

Pinkie’s character is more complex. His conflict – the story’s drama – is not so much reconciliation with faith or its rejection, but something far more insidious. His traditional obedient relationship to the Church while flaunting its laws and in fact going over to the other evil side is far more compelling than the Whisky Priest’s struggle with Catholic obedience, pride, and righteousness. Both Scobie and the Whisky Priest fall because o Pride – they overstepped their anointed Catholic mandate. However morally just their secular actions might have been, they were sinful. The Church supersedes secular morality and secular law.

How to judge Pinkie? A boy of the English slums, humiliated by his parents’ gross sexuality, conditioned by poverty, class discrimination, and brutality deserving of a break or at least compassionate understanding? A thug, an amoral killer who deserves no justice let alone sympathy or compassion? A street philosopher who intuitively understands Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Sartre? A young Catholic who gets the Church’s doctrinaire approaches to salvation and its authoritarian discipline?

The fascination of Brighton Rock comes from its philosophical conundrums. Can a boy like Pinkie Brown ever be saved? Do his murders, his violence, and his misanthropy forever condemn him? Does his defiance and his sense of freedom and liberty thanks to sin disqualify him from holy consideration?

Does his religious fundamentalism – his consistent return to Church teaching – exonerate him for his secular crimes? Was Jesus as absolute as Ida – what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong – or is there room for Pinkie, a child disfavored by circumstances but good and obedient at heart? Can his suicide ever be forgiven?

It is hard to commiserate with Pinkie despite his moral reflections. There is nothing appealing, charming, or welcoming about him. He is product of the slums without upbringing, culture, or sophistication. He is violent, without compassion or any sense of moral responsibility. Yet….and yet…he is not ignorant; and in his own way understands the perennial conflict between human nature, faith,  and human ideals.

We dislike Pinkie.  He is too uncultured and rough, with tacky tastes and a rat’s sense of survival; but we cannot ignore him for his will, his defiance, his faith, and his  heroism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.