Classic Essays

Evelyn Waugh’s Hard Line

evelyn_waugh_foto_modernista_0There is much to be learned from Waugh’s (pictured) view of our civilization’s decline, even if we do not share his profound pessimism.

by Cholly Bilderberger

GIVEN THE BARRENNESS of our spiritual and psychological lives, it is startling how little resistance we offer. One would expect to find men in large numbers resisting the oppressions and the oppressors, but there have been pathetically few, especially in England and America. And even those few have been mostly writers who were really formed before the War and happened to live long enough to die after it: Waugh and Eliot, for example, and Pound and, to a lesser degree, Huxley and Cozzens and a few more. Today, there is a dearth of such men born between the two World Wars, and evidently a complete absence of those born since then. (Of course, in all fairness, we must concede that a T. S. Eliot born in the interwar years would have had difficult if not impossible sledding. He might well have been unable to get any sort of public attention and have had to live in a sort of illuminated anonymity, but it’s remarkable all the same how few such unknowns we meet. The tendency to genuine resistance seems to have died out completely.)

Of the handful who refused the modern world publicly and became famous doing so, none seems more compelling than Waugh. He did not have, perhaps, Eliot’s austere genius, but he didn’t have Eliot’s woolliness, either. From 1930 until his death in 1966, Waugh saw the world clearly and blew taps over it wittily, completely and profoundly. At the heart of his work was that rarest of all combinations: the power of seeing with a child’s directness, the intelligence and sophistication to transform the child’s direct vision into a mature illustration, the art to make the illustration irresistible and, perhaps most important, the casual courage to be unafraid of fashion in any form.

For example, on the question of race, Waugh saw immediately that the black inability to compete with the white man on a technological basis was not comic or even terribly interesting in and of itself. What gave it body was the emerging (1930s) black insistence on so competing, and the white insistence on weighing the scales in the black balance, In Black Mischief and Scoop, this nonsense was speared and fixed for all time.

He saw early on that the basic problem was not — and could never be — black inabilities, Jewish dreams of conquest or other minority deliriums — but white collapse. In the first books — Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies — the point is made through inspired slapstick. In A Handful Of Dust (1937), perhaps his finest book technically, the same point is given depth, and he creates what is to be the mood of his writing from then on: an autumnal, elegiac farewell to what was, goodnatured but total contempt for what is, and unblinking acceptance of what will be. (Or, more accurately, what will not be.) None of this is done didactically; Waugh was far too great a novelist for that. Those feelings filled him and informed all his writing, but they were acted out in wonderfully realized works of art.

Unlike so many modern writers (Hemingway et al.) Waugh wrote of what he knew. When his books first burst on the world, his English men and women seemed fantastic exaggerations; we now know from his diaries that, in his set at least, they were just as drawn. It has always been fashionable in England to call Waugh a snob, but that is only English inversion. If he had really been a snob, he would never have exposed so mercilessly the class to which he was supposed to be trying to gain admittance. One might say that he was not altogether dignified in his boozing and racketing about with his charming but pathetic aristocrats. (It’s impossible to imagine Eliot carrying on in such style, for instance.) But on acquaintance with both, I found Eliot the true snob, with all the snob’s apparent or feigned ignorance of the caste system and his own place in it.

Waugh was much more the ordinary man who has wandered into a lunatic circus and can’t believe it. His strength, the quality which gave all his extraordinary gifts such a base and such staying power, was just that ordinariness. The ordinary man, given the opportunity to have a worldly good time, does so. His very intimacy with the world gives his ultimate judgment on its defects a special authority.

Quite simply, Waugh saw from the start that England was cooked. She was cooked because Englishmen no longer had a common belief for which they would work and fight; they hadn’t been unified in that way since the Reformation. She was rotted through at the top, and it was silly to expect liberalism and socialism, the middle- and lower-class answers, to save the day. (As shall be noted, it was equally silly to expect the middle- and lower-class right-wing reaction to work.) The question was not what to do about it because there was nothing to do — the momentum of the collapse was irresistible. The poser was how to conduct oneself on the way out; how, as a dinosaur squeezed in among all the other dinosaurs on the way to the tar pits, to act on that last stroll, assuming that one was one of the few dinosaurs aware of what was happening.

That was the real question and he answered it with rare imagination, intelligence and courage. If England was cooked, he was cooked to the extent that he was English, and as he was quite English, he was quite cooked. He made fun of Auden and Isherwood for fleeing to America in wartime; in a deeper sense he knew that they had been spiritually impractical. One couldn’t run away from what one was.

Being cooked did not, according to the ethic of thought and action he pieced out, preclude good spirits and an active life. But he never stopped writing and publishing and his books never stopped selling. He was almost alone in being able to say everything and still be read. Nor did he give up his pleasures or his other duties. He played the hand out to the very end, without retreating, in public or private, a jot from his position. In this, he is exceedingly pertinent for us today because we are certainly no less cooked, and our real problem is how to conduct ourselves on the way to that tar pit, bubbling now even more avidly.

That pertinence is enhanced by Waugh’s intense understanding and appreciation of civilization. Socrates said the capacity for civilization was man’s most precious quality, the one he should defend first, and Waugh concurred. It is to his everlasting credit that he insisted, artistically speaking, on emphasizing precisely what it is that we have lost. Writers like Solzhenitsyn and others from the Iron Curtain countries can inveigh against “tyranny,” but they have no conception of the refinements of understanding which constitute true civilization. In modern England and America there is a great deal of fashionable dissociation from the contemporary world, but the writers who celebrate it — Updike, Cheever, Vonnegut, etc. are part of the collapse rather than analysts of it.

Their sense of civilization is not strong enough to make a clear distinction between civilized and uncivilized. They know that something is wrong, and they can see the holes in television advertising and taco joints and all the rest of the disfigurations of the landscape. But they can’t see beyond the limits of liberal dogma: they can’t see the madness of minority domination, of modern art, of, finally, themselves. They think Jerry Lewis is a human being; they extend the same naive assumption to Ronald Reagan, to Don Rickles, certainly to Bob Dylan and Averell Harriman, above all to themselves. They can’t see as Waugh could see because their sense of civilization is atrophied or vestigial or both.

Waugh’s stunning accuracy and power came from his instinctive empathy with civilization, whether in the turn of wrist of a certain woman or the passionate commitment of an entire people. (The piling up of Rembrandts in a Fifth Avenue apartment, assiduous attendance at the opera, town houses in Paris and Rome — in short, the Jewish-plutocratic dream — is not civilization. Nor is the simpering modesty of the hippie with his dream of “goodness.” Civilization is controlled passion, a reaction to all that which is inspired and from all that which is ordinary. It does not deal in artifacts but in attitudes, in understandings, in subtleties. At least that’s how Waugh saw it.) He knew that it had once existed in some measure on the earth, that it existed in small, diminishing measure in his early manhood and middle age (he had been privileged to experience it), and that it had died in World War II. He always responded to the real thing, and he could not be fooled by the false, nor frightened by the degree of the collapse.

Nor was he frightened, as so many almost-independent men have been in our time, by inescapable conclusions. If, for example, we say about our age that it is beyond understanding how people can put up with what they put up with, we have to wonder, sooner or later, if they actually are people. The rationalist always flunks this question because he considers people to be people so long as they are alive. But the non-rationalist, operating from instinct, defines people as human creatures in the divine mold, beset with sin and weakness, but still lit from within by some spark, however faint. Using this definition, is the average American a person? All passionate instinct says he is not, and that answer certainly explains the country and its inhabitants in one embracing general theory. It was Waugh’s answer to Los Angeles, and he was not afraid to make it plain in the high art of The Loved One.

Nor was he afraid, in private conversation, to apply that answer to such pretentious Americans as Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Dick and Pat Nixon, all Rockefellers, the entire staffs of the New Yorker and the New York Times — the whole cast, in fact. Nor did he spare his own countrymen — the Churchills, Duff Coopers, Nicolsons, Edens, Bevans and Bevins — and the rest of that troupe. His rationale was simple: if one could believe, or even pretend to believe, that the postwar world was acceptable, then one wasn’t human. It was agonizing to him that the world had become barbarous, but he wasn’t going to alleviate the agony by denying it. Nor was he going to give in to the agony. He took Nietzsche’s advice about believing in one’s instincts and following them.

The acerbic side of Waugh — the contempt, the uncharitable remark, the general waspishness — has been criticized. I myself find it refreshing. In a world given over to mush, even among those who murmur about protecting themselves against barbarism, it always seemed to me that Waugh provided a healthful example in not suffering non-people lightly. When he told cored bipeds who thought they were people that they weren’t — he did it not to cause trouble or to shock, but to protect himself. (Actually, given the accuracy of his estimate, he could not have shocked or hurt anyone, especially Americans who invariably verified his assessment by being both un-shockable and un-hurtable.) He wrote to keep faith with his abilities and his God, and he spoke in private for the same reason.

If non-people came to him — as they had in Los Angeles or elsewhere in America, figuratively if not literally — and said, in that peculiarly American style of statement disguised as question, “Aren’t we wonderful people?”, he replied, again figuratively, if not literally, “You’re not only not wonderful, you’re not even people.” He believed that people led by civilized leaders could never have fallen into the condition they are now in. So there are no civilized leaders. This was a point the barbarians — general populace and leaders together — could hardly be expected to understand or sympathize with, so why try?

This attitude may be unpalatable, but in Waugh’s case it was consistent with his deepest beliefs and instincts, and to have waffled on it would have ruined his self-respect. “The modern world doesn’t believe in ‘miracles,'” he said to me once, “but it is proof positive of miracles because it itself is a miracle, however topsy-turvy a one. What else but a miracle can explain the sudden, universal possession by madness?” The inability of rationalists to explain the triumph of irrationality in mankind was amusing to him, but he had no sympathy for them, regarding their dilemmas as the logical consequence of their own untenable positions. He stayed true to himself to the end, turning down each new false pretention to humanity and civilization with characteristic contempt and mockery.

In his old age, however, like Guy Crouchback, the central figure of his war trilogy, he seemed to have come to acceptance without rancor as the final answer, at least theoretically. If he himself admired anyone, it was always a man like Gervase Crouchback, the real hero of that trilogy, a relatively minor character who is pure acceptance.

Waugh’s current value is at several levels. For anyone (especially any young person with human stirrings) who wishes to know how it all happened from 1930 on and what it looked like while it was happening, the books when read chronologically are an education in themselves, far more valuable (and accurate!) than four years at Harvard, Oxford or anywhere else. In addition, they are so well written that they stand as models of literature and thus of life.

On a deeper level, they show what a commitment to civilization actually means. And, by contrast, what it doesn’t mean, and how difficult it is, and what psychological pitfalls are involved. Lastly, they show, as does Waugh’s life, what can and cannot be done. Waugh believed that civilized man is born, not made. He also believed that without civilization — or civilized men — we are doomed, and there is no way out through uncivilized channels, no matter how logically attractive they may seem.

Civilized men may be born anywhere under any circumstances — as Abraham Lincoln, quintessentially civilized, was born in a log cabin on a rude frontier — and the claim of any aristocracy to be civilized a priori by gentle birth is usually the confounding of manner and style with the true instinct for civilization. What is indispensable is the existence of an organization dedicated to the perpetuation of civilization — Waugh believed this to have been the Catholic Church prior to 1939 — and men willing to fight and die for that civilization and that organization.

As a civilized person, Waugh never watched television, never looked at modern art except to scoff at it, never paid any attention to postwar English or American leaders in any field (by definition they had to be non-people), considered the English and Americans, with rare exceptions, to be garbage individually and collectively for putting up with what they did, and avoided them while going his own way and preparing for his own end. On the surface, one might assume that this was (and is) a model for anyone’s behavior, but Waugh would say that it is only a model for the person who is civilized to begin with. It is pointless for the barbarian who “wishes” to be civilized to assume such airs.

Also, in Waugh’s belief, it is useless to listen to a barbarian even when the barbarian is half-right about some facet of the disintegrating situation because any barbarian solution is doomed to failure. This eliminates the right-wingers, of course, because they are superficial and barbaric (and proud of it) rather than profound and civilized. They have the cart before the horse in trying to clean up the mess before they clean up themselves. They prattle of courage, but don’t have the guts to see themselves. Waugh was as hard on this group as on any other and considered them merely another manifestation of pathetic barbaric inadequacy. Put another way, Mosley was as ludicrous as Churchill, and any American right-winger as preposterous as Truman Capote (cut from the same cloth, in fact.)

Right-wing, left-wing, or middle-of-the-road, they are all offensive to civilized people, not only because they are barbaric, but, far more importantly, because they are impractical bores and born losers. They don’t see deeply enough, and always come a cropper because of that. As Waugh said, “Men have to be led by dogma in which they believe, but which they may never understand. They can never be led by logic or by being preached at ‘reasonably.’ They want to surrender to their true leaders, not to be treated like equals.” His insight on this point was shared by Henry Adams, Henry James and Eliot, among other men of genius. It wasn’t that Waugh and the rest didn’t share the right-wing’s perfectly legitimate despair and reasons for it; it was that the despair and the reasons didn’t cut deep enough, and the solutions weren’t workable. It wasn’t that the civilized man didn’t go as far in his mind as the right-wing did; he went further. Nor was it that the civilized man wasn’t a fighter; he was, but he wanted to fight and win. In the end, the civilized man had to dismiss the barbarians as essentially trivial.

Unlike most of his civilized peers, Waugh, entirely lacking in Christian charity, found any barbarian plight comic and/or meaningless rather than tragic and significant. (For instance, in conversation with some right-wing leaders in 1962 — two British and one American — he said to them, “You complain about the Jews running everything, which they do, but you don’t seem to realize that the real danger is not the mechanical control and general looting, but the fact that the general populace has a way of becoming like their overlords. The British and Americans — especially you Americans because there are more Jews in America and they’re more in charge — are becoming more Jewish every day. In a few years you’ll be indistinguishable from the real thing. In fact, you’re almost there now.” Several drinks later, he said, “You people don’t understand that you’re not really destined to give the orders. In a properly run society the current right-wingers would be found, openmouthed and utterly credulous, in the churches, wearing their knees out and saying their beads quite docilely.” But, except for that uncharitableness, he was in the impeccable company of those who assumed the world had gone to pieces in the sixteenth century and wasn’t coming back through any barbaric agency or effort.

He felt that the only means to a change would be a shift from barbarism to civilization among a sufficient number of people, enough to reestablish civilization by leadership and example, after which all other changes would follow. But that shift could not come by desire, or by “working” at it, in the American betterment sense. Civilization is not rational, but instinctive. It could only happen by … a miracle, according to Waugh. The odds against the miraculous may be enormous, but the odds against a rational, barbaric solution working are beyond enormity. They don’t exist.

I don’t mean to imply that Waugh awaited the miraculous hopefully, only that he saw it as the only possible exception to the grave humanity has dug for itself. As a species, to put it in rational terms, humanity has proved inadequate, as had the dinosaur and so many others now extinct, so only divine intercession could avert the tar pits. It wasn’t a question of believing in divine intercession, but of allowing for all possibilities in the best scientific tradition, even the most farfetched. No one would have been more surprised at such a miracle than Waugh, of course, because he couldn’t imagine any divinity finding humanity worth saving.

His was a hard line, but it was a complete line and, if ever a hard but complete line was indicated, it would seem to be now. And even if very few of us can emulate Waugh, we can at least acknowledge him. He saw it clear and never quit on the reality of that clarity.

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, April 1979

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Joey Virgo
Joey Virgo
31 July, 2016 3:52 pm

Thank you for reprinting this intensely intelligent and amazingly generous article about Evelyn Waugh, his novels, and his philosophy of life.