NEITHER Maurice Bendrix, the narrator of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, nor Theodore Faron, the central character in E D. James's The Children of Men, is a romantic hero. Neither is a saintly man. Yet both of these characters are drawn into conversation with God and human community by their experiences of erotic love. Neither Greene, the dour creator of spy thrillers and edgy Catholic novels, nor James, the writer of lapidarian detective stories, is a likely candidate as a contributor to the realistic love story, a genre firmly rooted in the romances of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fiction. Yet both have created stories in which surprise and awe are evoked by the erotic. In contrast with the customary romance convention, the erotic does not serve in these stories as a telos for the characters. Instead eros functions as what Walker Percy would call a signpost in a strange land, summoning readers to a rich attentiveness ("Notes for a Novel" 102).
The land in these novels is very strange indeed. Both stories take place at the end of the world: Greene's story begins after the London Blitz is well underway, and James's tale opens after humans everywhere have lost their capacity to reproduce. And yet, these disasters are curiously unimportant to their narrators. The end of the world does not hold any great terror for Bendrix or Theo, nor does it beckon millenarian visions in which human life renews itself among the ruins. (1) Instead, for these characters, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Giddens, "Apocalypse has become banal" (183). Bendrix's story promises no heroic tale of overcoming end-of-the-world perils, but rather a self-preoccupied "record of hate" whose sole offering to the reader is a weary objectivity (3). Writing in a similarly detached register, Theo muses, "What possible interest can there be in the journal of Theodore Faron, Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of Merton College in the University of Oxford, historian of the Victorian age, divorced, childless, solitary ..." (4). These characters believe their stories are what Walker Percy calls "sequelae," or narratives of the peculiar persistence of ordinary life after crisis ("Notes for a Novel" 103). But Bendrix and Theo render apocalypse mundane not in order to honor ordinary experience, but in order to disregard it. They have no relish for the mundane; they long only for the manageable. They have, as it turns out, underestimated the strangeness of the land where they find themselves.
"We apparently have the word 'apocalypse' all wrong," writes David Dark of the strange land of Everyday Apocalypse. "In its root meaning, it's not about destruction or fortune-telling; it's about revealing" (10). What disorients Bendrix and Theo is not the cataclysm of bomb blast and epidemic infertility, but rather the unlooked-for revelation of eros. Bendrix had hoped that eros would be not an epiphany, but an escape from mundane existence, a "shattering annihilation," a "moment of absolute trust and absolute pleasure, the moment when it was impossible to quarrel because it was impossible to think" (83-84). Overwhelming as this conception of sexuality was for Bendrix, it conveniently left his instrumentalist views of people intact. But as The Children of Men shows, Theo discovers that underlying detachment with respect to others, not least to the beloved, is difficult to sustain. After confessing an "overwhelming need to hear her voice, to touch her" (132), he notes, in a vain effort at achieving scholarly distance, "[f]ifty is not an age to invite the turbulence of love, particularly not on this doomed and joyless planet when man goes to his last rest and all desire fades" (133). Like Bendrix, Theo conceives of eros not as a change in attention, but as a turbulent force, an upheaval that endangers rationality and agency. (2) Where Bendrix hopes eros will offer escape from a mundane life, Theo fears it as a threat to a manageable life. What neither character expects is an eros that thrusts them more deeply into ordinary experience, particularly by complicating their social judgment. Eros complicates the singlernindedness of their self-preoccupation, shunting their awareness between two bewilderingly related foci: the self and the other. (3) They experience love in Martha Nussbuam's terms as "a particular kind of awareness of an object, as tremendously wonderful and salient, and as deeply needed by the self" (477). This attention, oscillating between care for the self and love for the other, entails a radical alteration to "the nature of attention" that they are accustomed to pay to social experience (Burke 141).
The deepest apocalypse in these stories, then, is not a military or biological catastrophe, but an erotically wrought change in attention. Both characters begin their narration believing their lives to be over, much in the way that the broader public has come to believe in the end of the world. But for his part, Bendrix finds no rest in this apocalyptic conclusion, because eros compels him to attend not only to his own neediness, but also to the piteousness of others. Consequently, he is drawn into an ironic but genuine friendship with his lover's husband. For Theo, the experience of caring for a woman, Julian, even as she carries another man's child, compels him to see the plight and the beauty of the vulnerable other. This apocalypse, this unveiling and revelation, changes his attention to the broader social world's catastrophe as well. He comes to see the end of the world not as an inexorable disaster, but rather as a plot in which he plays a part.
A parallel action in the rhetoric of these novels is the way that their dramatization of eros alters the reader's awareness as well. "Apocalyptic changes everything," writes Dark, adding, "It creates an unrest within our minds, and it can only be overcome by imagining differently" (10). These apocalyptic stories create restive attention by compelling readers to dwell with their unreliable narrators. (4) The reliability of Bendrix's narration is increasingly subverted by the story he himself is trying to tell, not least when the journal of his lover, Sarah, takes over the narration in the novel's third book. Theo's reliability as a narrator is similarly put into question as his journal entries are interrupted by third-person chapters disclosing the shortsightedness of his journaling. In both novels, the reader is compelled to attend to two kinds of concerns at once: the questions that trouble the narrators as well as the less conspicuous questions that trouble the implied authors. Instead of focusing singly on inside-the-story questions about whose bed Bendrix's former lover now shares, the reader also attends to larger philosophical questions regarding the nature and purpose of eros. Such questions are not moral arguments tacked onto apocalyptic narratives; they are instead integral to what Richard Lanham might call the "attention structure" of these novels (2). (5)
By altering attention for what the stories unveil, Greene's and James's novels foster densely lived experience for readers who are open to the apocalyptic. We believe this experience bears close examination, not only of the rich moment of reading itself, but also of the philosophical conversations that the stories echo. Our critical inquiry follows Nussbaum's pattern in Upheavals of Thought, which puts philosophy and narrative in conversation about eros. Just as she traces the interplay of story and theory in (among many other texts) Plato's Phaedrus and Dante's Divine Comedy, we use Plato's Phaedrus to show how eros in The End of the Affair reengages its protagonists in society. Dante's poetry then helps us explain the role of eros in The Children of Men as a way of moving its protagonist towards involvement with others and with God. We argue that just as these novels' depictions of eros disrupt the complacencies of Bendrix and Theo by involving them in larger societal conversations, so these novels' examinations of eros complicate the readers' experience by involving them in longstanding philosophical conversations. In the attention-changing, interplay of subtly cohesive discourses, The End of the Affair and The Children of Men do not merely represent apocalypse; they perform it.
GRAHAM Greene's stories are characteristically divided into what he himself called …