The Secret Lives of Used Books (The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene)

Jon Zobenica
5 min readNov 16, 2022
The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (New York: The Viking Press, 1948)

The first line of Walter J. Johannsen’s obituary reads that he was “Born to Eternal Life on October 11, 2008, at the age of 78.” He did a lot better than the hero of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which Johannsen bought on August 30, 1948, the year the book came out. The final stretch of that novel finds the hero, Scobie (a suicidal Catholic adulterer and accessory to murder), pondering his eternal damnation as he arranges his gin and overdose. Scobie conceives of the act as one of selflessness, a way of relieving his wife, his mistress, and even God Himself of the burden of his sinful existence. “Then hell will begin, and they’ll be safe from me,” he thought, in a vague internal colloquy with God. “Helen, Louise . . . and you.” God’s redeeming clutch could not hold him, so “greased with falsehood, treachery” did he consider himself to be.

George Orwell didn’t think much of the book, sniffing in the pages of The New Yorker (July 17, 1948) that “it is impossible not to feel a sort of snobbishness in Mr. Greene’s attitude . . . He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish.”

Well, yes, but is it not possible that Greene was being mordant? Not possible that he was portraying — with the darkest humor — the close relationship that exists between a fierce sense of morality, on the one hand, and vanity and egotism, on the other? An anonymous reviewer for Time magazine (August 9, 1948) considered the possibility, noting (perhaps with Orwell in mind) that “Graham Greene writes with pity; is it possible that he also writes with irony? If so, his irony is so deep that it has escaped the notice of reviewers, and will probably escape most of his readers.” That same reviewer went on, with greater perspicacity than Orwell could muster, that “though Scobie thinks of himself as a sinner, he never realizes what his real sin is — purblind selfishness, appalling spiritual pride. His ‘pity’ carries him to such morally insane heights that he pities his fellow men — and women — instead of loving them; he ends by pitying God.” Greene almost certainly realized what Scobie (and Orwell) didn’t.

Orwell, his sense of humor (or of humor’s possibility) having failed him, went on to commit an even more elementary blunder. Scobie was conceptually ridiculous, Orwell asserted, “because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier [Can we be certain of that? If one is capable of something given particular circumstances, should one be capable of it in all circumstances, and must one therefore continually be exercising that capability? — Ed.]. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it [Are we sure? Do those with a strong sense of right and wrong never follow some idiosyncratic path into persistent, even extravagant wrongdoing? — Ed.]; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken [Really? Would it not just as likely strengthen? — Ed.]. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women.”

Again, Scobie’s suicide isn’t really about the women (who are not half as neurotic as Scobie himself). Rather, it’s about Scobie’s all-eclipsing ego and how he tries to pretty it up with notions of ultimate moral sacrifice. Orwell appears unreceptive to the idea, which has been floating around since the ancients, that there is something rather paradoxical and cussed in human nature. Montaigne had the likes of Orwell in mind when, at the beginning of an essay titled “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions,” he observed that, “Those who make a practice of comparing human actions are never so perplexed as when they try to see them as a whole and in the same light; for they commonly contradict each other so strangely that it seems impossible that they have come from the same shop.” Montaigne counseled seeing actions bit by bit, and judging those discretely, rather than trying to arrive at a sweeping assessment of the person who undertook those actions. “We are all patchwork,” he wrote, “and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.” Montaigne capped his observation by quoting Seneca: “Consider it a great thing to play the part of one single man.”

Walter J. Johannsen — a graduate of Marquette; seemingly a devout, lifelong Catholic — went on to get a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Wisconsin, presumably the better to understand the vagaries of human behavior. Some of the studies he authored or co-authored over the years include the following:

– “Effect of Reward and Punishment on Motor Learning by Chronic Schizophrenics and Normals,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, April 1962

– “A Re-examination of the Hippuric Acid–Anxiety Relationship,” Psychosomatic Medicine, November 1962

– “Visual Perception as a Function of Chronicity in Schizophrenia,” The British Journal of Psychiatry, July 1964

– “Attorney Attitudes on Medicolegal Criteria Proposed for Workmen’s Compensation Cardiac Claim Cases,” Journal of Occupational Medicine, September 1969

– “Gender, Role, and Power: A Content Analysis of Speech,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, December 1985

Johannsen bought his copy of Greene from the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, on 607 Wisconsin Avenue, in Milwaukee. (Note the “607” — in reverse — stenciled on the transom in the photo below, from the bookstore’s interior.) Schwartz got his start running a rental library called Casanova Booksellers and Importers, which operated out of one corner of a Milwaukee beauty parlor. Later, decades after setting up the shop that Johannsen knew, Schwartz passed the business on to his son, recently returned home from a commune in Maine. The hippie son eventually took on a partner who morphed the shop into a mail-order concern for business books, cultivating a mostly corporate clientele. Patchwork, diverse, and contradictory indeed.

Photo courtesy of Porchlight Books

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Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com