Eros at the World's End: Apocalyptic Attention in the Love Stories of Graham Greene and P. D. James
Mattson, Craig E., LaGrand, Virginia, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
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. …