Between Worlds

With Graham Greene.

You wanted only something hard and certain to hold against the flux when the dark sky of your childhood pressed its wet lips against the windowpane. The heart of the matter, you suspected, was conflict: between this world and the next, sanctity and goodness, but the connection between these defied reasoning. Wanting nothing of the graceless chromium world, only sainthood or damnation interested you, with their questions about unknown and unobtainable Heavens on the other side of death. Yours was a world in slant, angled like the posture of  a desperate man with courage to frighten the flock, in clumsy prayer. 

***

Today is the birthday of English writer Graham Greene (1904-1991), best known for his novels, which often feature characters in states of existential and moral crisis. In honor of this day, I spent time this morning with these two articles: Graham Greene’s Dark Heart (by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, March 2021) and The Two Worlds of Graham Greene (by Herbert R. Haber in Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1957).

The In-Between

In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed.

In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed. This is called the threshold, or liminal state.

​The first version of this word I ever heard was called limbo, and according to the nuns this was where you got stuck if you skipped confession. Apparently, doing this was about as damning as failing to wear clean underwear, because you could get in a terrible accident at any time.

What’s it like? We all wanted to know. They said it wasn’t exactly eternal fire but it wasn’t clouds and angels, either. It was just forever. And who wants that when you are so close to a final release? They were not forthcoming with other details, so the rest was left to the imagination.

I turned the word over. Limbo. It called to mind the image of a doll version of a person floating in a watercolor atmosphere with limbs outstretched.

I thought about people running and then swimming toward higher ground when the floods came. And about the dream monsters chasing, the jolt in the stomach, shouting So close! I thought about my grandparents, how they would stand behind me in church before I was even old enough for Communion, the pillars of their bodies like trees, and me in the shade. I wanted to stay in that place forever, but I felt it coming, the shadowy force coming closer with every passing year — so close! –– and I dreaded arriving in the space of being severed from their shade and the quiet of being nowhere and no one, with no one asking, What now? 

Then, years passed, and I felt far removed from this moment, but close enough that when I thought of it again, something flickered at the corners of my lips, in recognition of how there had been a time when it was possible to think of such an endless in-between as a threat for something that might happen, and not as what already was.