Graham Greene and the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit and the ability to “speak in tongues”, recalls Greene’s Mon

This Sunday is Pentecost, a day on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles while they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the gift of tongues suddenly enabled them to speak in many different languages, malicious observers said it was just drunken babbling (a claim that St Peter answered, saying that in fact it was the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Joel).

This made me think of how Graham Greene dealt with the Holy Spirit, a rather tricky and elusive entity, and, indeed, the subject of wine, in his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote. Some readers may remember the charming Thames Television film adaptation, in which Alec Guinness played the innocent, other-worldly Monsignor Quixote and Leo McKern the communist ex-mayor of their little village who travels across Spain with him to buy the purple bib and socks that go with the rank to which the priest has just been elevated.

The pair stop for the evening at an abandoned farm, and sit by a wall eating sausage and drinking rather a lot of Manchegan wine. Sancho, the ex-mayor, asks his friend to explain the mystery of the Trinity to him. I'm going to quote the passage at length, as Greene is often thought of as being tormented by his Catholicism, but this shows his playful side.

"You see these bottles?" [says Monsignor Quixote.] "Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half-bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."

"I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost," [says Sancho.] "He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."

"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half-bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

"You are very ingenious, friend. I begin at least to understand what you mean by the Trinity. Not to believe in it, mind you. That will never do."

Father Quixote sat in silence looking at the bottles. When the Mayor struck a match to light a cigarette he saw the bowed head of his companion. It was as though he had been deserted by the Spirit he had praised. "What is the matter, father?" he asked.

"May God forgive me," Father Quixote said, "for I have sinned."

"It was only a joke, father. Surely your God can understand a joke."

"I have been guilty of heresy," Father Quixote replied. "I think -- perhaps -- I am unworthy to be a priest."

"What have you done?"

"I have given wrong instruction. The Holy Ghost is equal in all respects to the Father and the Son, and I have represented Him by this half-bottle."

"Is that a serious error, father?"

"It is anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early Council. Perhaps it was Nicaea."

"Don't worry, father. The matter is easily put right. We will throw away and forget this half-bottle and I will bring a whole bottle from the car."

"I have drunk more than I should. If I hadn't drunk so much I would never, never have made that mistake. There is no sin worse than the sin against the Holy Ghost."

"Forget it. We will put the matter right at once."

So it was they drank another bottle . . .

Perfect. And if you get the chance to see the film version you'll see both Guinness and McKern make the most of Greene's gentle meditation on bewilderment and faith. Not one of his most celebrated books, for sure, but still a latter-day reflection "of the master's long-standing preoccupation with doom, pity and the inscrutability of God's will", as the New York Times put it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Show Hide image

Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.