August 23, 2007

Grahame Greene's Work-Life Balance in "Special Duties"

Special Duties is a very complete short story- stretching over only four pages in my edition. It deals though with subjects of a cosmic importance- Greene as was typical of his fiction fills the story with his Catholicism. Here though he ridicules a conception of Catholicism as the faith of exchange, the faith of bartering indulgences for time in purgatory. A businessman, successful in his art business, Mr Ferraro, attempts to employ a secretary to fulfill special duties. This woman, a Miss Saunders is treated in exactly the same way as his other secretaries, questioned as to why she has achieved only limited indulgences for June. Ferraro attempts to quantify and heap up these indulgences so as to preserve his soul in the same way that he seeks to save his estate from death duties. Catholicism for him has become a business proposition!

Ferraro is interesting in this regard because of his obvious lack of compassion towards those who work for him. When he discovers that Saunders has instead of finding indulgences been out finding love for herself with a young man- an exceptionally normal and healthy thing for a young and pretty woman to be doing, Ferraro decides to sack her. In many ways he ressembles in this failure to understand the whole of humanity, the character Professor Openshaw that Chesterton gently mocks in the Father Brown story, The Blast of the Book. Like Openshaw Ferraro practises a craft- in Openshaw's case the investigation of spiritualistic events, in Ferraro's business. But in both cases their craft has driven out all that is not concerned with it. Openshaw can't see because of his fixation that his secretary might be playing a practical joke upon him: Ferraro can't see that he cannot pay someone else to be virtuous for him, the business transaction will not work.

It will not work because ultimately as Greene is at care to illustrate to us the reader the craft of making money conflicts in his view with the ultimate spiritual reality of human existence. To see the world through the nexus of profit is for the Catholic Greene to miss the entire nature of human beings not as movers of commodities but as eternal souls. Miss Saunders is someone with a life and a world outside her essence as Ferraro's secretary. The greater blindness though is Ferraro's about himself- after-all it is the more damaging. Ferraro Greene leaves us in no doubt is a deeply damaged person- his marriage is basically defunct, he keeps to one side of the house with his coin and his wife keeps to the other side with a full range of spiritual confessors and never the twain shall meet. Ferraro is suspicious of every single person he meets- he even has a doctor to check up on the treatments prescribed by his doctor! Further than that of course Ferraro's soul for Greene is in mortal danger. Greene allows him to see this briefly- but in a moment the blindness returns.

Greene allows Ferraro to see this by presenting him with a crisis. Ferraro believes that Saunders has been out getting indulgences for him, whereas actually she has been involved in a romantic situation all of her own. The point is that Ferraro's limited analysis has led to a crisis- as he perceives this crisis suddenly he calculates that all his efforts have been in vain. Greene allows him this moment of distress because in it Ferraro sees his condition clearly, he is teetering on the edge of a moral abyss. His craft has overcome his conscience. The reader of course can see the abyss is an actual abyss, but Ferraro ultimately sees it as a problem capable of solution. Greene presents Ferraro's attitude to this situation which violates his method as a problem to be solved by that same method.

As a critique of experience providing the matter of life, the matter of growth therefore what Greene is saying is that once a craft, a techne, a sense of how problems are solved is created the human mind, like a dog returning to its vomit, returns straight back to that method. So Ferraro faces a real crisis- Saunders has betrayed him and not secured the indulgence he craves- and he solves it by the only method he knows to be possible. Instead of abasing himself before the living God and seeking mercy, he we are told seeks another secretary to solve the problem- a better tool to perform the same function. But we know through Greene's insistant tone of mockery and through the moment of reality that Greene has allowed Ferraro that such consolations will prove illusory, ultimately Ferraro is working against the grain of humanity and will fail again and again.

Catholicism and Christianity are interesting subjects- but I think Greene's analysis has a wider lesson and even makes sense when Catholicism is not taken as the ideal way of interpreting the story. Of course the story is profoundly Catholic- it wouldn't make sense outside of a Catholic set of references- but the point that a craft or a way of doing things can consume the individual who practices it is not particularly Catholic. Its the root for instance of Kant's discussion about enlightenment, that the truly enlightened are those who divest themselves of their proffessions and take on the habit of an educated savant outside of their habitual realm. Similarly here with Greene, salvation flows for Greene out of a whole view of human life reliant not upon the subtleties of one craft or another but upon a view of human complexity that factors in them all. One thinks of Father Brown in Chesterton again, the man of the cloth who yet understands all types of men from all walks of life.

So Greene in this short story has a real point- its a point that in a world filled with work, with more and more people working more and more hours deserves to be made again and again. Those who sacrifice themselves to their craft ultimately understand less of the totality of human experience and leave themselves open to either in Greene's case losing their souls or in Kant's joining the barbarians. Virtue lies for Greene in a rounded comprehension of human kind. Ferraro's gradgrindism leads him to mistake salvation for something dealt with in coin and copper. Ultimately following his craft in all aspects of his life destroys him, just as it in Kant's case destroys the capacity to become enlightened.

It seems that virtue lies in intellectually moving outside the orbit of one's craft for both Catholics and Kantians. Perhaps the most important argument for giving people more leisure therefore is not that it will necessarily make them happier but it will make them better people, better able to judge the world and morally more virtuous.

Crossposted at Bits of News