The Quiet American

The Quiet American December 16, 2003

Revising and extending my remarks from an earlier comment —

Graham Green was a cynical old bastard, but he was not only a cynic. In order for him to describe cynicism so well, he must have had a place to stand outside of it from which to make his deft observations.

My favorite Green novel, I've said, is Monsignor Quixote, and I love the vision of grace and broken discipleship in The Power and the Glory.

But Greene's most important novel today has to be The Quiet American, in which he tells the tragic story of two unlikely friends: Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle.

Fowler is world-weary, disillusioned and, if not exactly corrupt, thoroughly compromised. Pyle is in many ways his opposite — young, naive, idealistic. Pyle, Fowler tells us, semi-reliably, was "determined … to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world." He was innocent, and therefore dangerous:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it; innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

The two men are presented as opposites — one disillusioned, the other illusioned. If you read the novel — and the world — convinced that Pyle and Fowler represent the only available options, then you are left with despair. Surely there is some option available to us other than inhuman detachment and the violent idealism of plastic explosives.

When one reads the audacious plans of the PNAC — the neoconservative Project for a New American Century — in the light of Greene's novel, what's striking is the way its authors seem to combine the worst elements of both Fowler and Pyle. It exhibits both Pyle's unbridled, hubristic idealism and Fowler's cynical regard for the naked power of imperial hegemony.

(Undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz seems an unquiet heir to Pyle's explosive illusionment. Wolfowitz, oddly, appears as a character in a novel by Saul Bellow — Ravelstein. He also appears in many of Greene's novels, if you know where to look.)

What's particularly annoying — and offensive — is the habit that the PNACes have of treating all of us who disagree with their destructive Pylesque idealism as though we are defenders of Fowler's cynical views (the old "you're objectively pro-Saddam" sophistry). This accusation reveals a despairing failure of imagination, as well as a refusal to listen to what is actually being said.

"Sooner or later one has to take sides if one is to remain human," Greene writes in TQA. I'd like to think that one can do so without the indiscriminate use of plastic explosives.

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4 responses to “The Quiet American”

  1. What struck me about the story (by way of the movie version, I haven’t read the book) is that Pyle and his ilk aren’t necessarily evil, but equally bad, idealogues.
    The Pyle character immediately brought PNAC to mind. Thanks for bringing that up.

  2. Good post. What’s ironic (tragic?) is that the easy application of phrases like “destructive Pylesque idealism” to discredit indivdiuals or organizations can readily serve as a means of “refusal to listen to what is actually being said.” Rich deposits of “hubristic idealism” can be found on both the left and right – and I suppose in most folks who would take the time to write or, like me, respond to a blog.

  3. But it’s hard to tell how much of the PNAC’s democratistic “idealism” is just a facade: an ideological marketing ploy to sell their real, corrupt agenda to the American public. I also wonder if it makes sense to distinguish the more-or-less idelogically motivated outsiders (like the Weekly Standard and NRO people) from the insiders who are just harnessing the neocon agenda to serve their mendacity. I mean, look at Perle’s extremely smelly business connections.
    It brings to mind the adage about the Puritans coming to America to do good, and doing well instead.

  4. Kevin,
    to take up your question: I actually don’t think it’s particularly useful to distinguish between the “outsiders” at AEI or NRO or wherever and supposedly more craven “insiders.” Or at least, the distinction is more functional than moral. There seems to be quite alot of cross-polination between the two, and I think it’s possible to find folks on either side of the true-believer/opportunist spectrum both in & out of gov’t–say, a Doug Feith on the one hand and a Bill Safire on the other. Also, the truly craven Perle himself moves comfortably in both spheres–penning philosophical tracts in between gov’t jobs. It’s probably possible to come up with better examples than these, but suffice to say the Neocon Taxonomy is too complicated, and too thoroughly corrupted, to make a dualistic opposition of Outsider-idea-guys and Insider-careerists particularly useful, to my thinking…