Sunday 10 September 2023

Noel Annan on Evelyn Waugh

 Almost 40 years ago, Noel Annan wrote in the LRB 

What is it... that makes Waugh a deviant in the history of our culture?

Nothing. Waugh has solid roots in the Nineteenth Century when Britain was a cultural hegemon.  

Not, surely, that he was a man of the Right...

Thatcher had shown that women of the Right were more effective 

 Nor even that he despised parliamentary politics.

Everybody was aware of its shortcomings 

Nor was Catholicism the mark of a deviant at a time

at no time has Catholicism been 'the mark of a deviant' though it may have been dangerous to sport that mark on English shores at certain periods.  

What made Waugh a deviant was not that he became a Catholic but that he became an Augustinian Catholic.

There is no other kind. Faith is a mystery. Still, a broad minded confessor won't get too worked up if it turns out you believe in fairies or that you are certain your pussy cat is up in Heaven sitting in the lap of the Archangel Gabriel. On the other hand, he might suggest you might go easy on the Gin and get out of the house more.  

Orthodox Catholics by definition receive all the tenets of their faith, but even the saints betray their predilection for some part of it which each according to his temperament emphasises as supremely important. The clue to Waugh’s predilection is to be found in Decline and Fall, written before his conversion, where Mr Prendergast confesses to a very special doubt: ‘You see it wasn’t the ordinary sort of doubt about Cain’s wife, or the Old Testament miracles or the Consecration of Archbishop Parker ... No, it was something deeper than that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.’

No such understanding is required. Faith is a mystery as is why of two babies, in all respects alike, God predestines one to Hell Fire.  

Catholicism explained to Waugh why the world was as evil and horrible as it was.

One could as easily say it explains why most of us find the 'mysterious economy' of the Katechon pretty damn wonderful which is why we are in no hurry to experience the Eschaton or Day of Wrath.  

Catholicism explained the vile bodies in it. It also explained to him why he was evil and so often cruel and odious.

This is mad. Catholicism helps people live better lives. That's why they pay good money for the benefit of its services.  

Such questions still trouble us today.

No they don't. Waugh drank way too much. He was a great artist but he had to dip his quill in his own bile to achieve excellence in the genre he had chosen. Writing satire is corrosive of the spirit of the satirist. He must increasingly make himself his own subject for almost everybody else is decent enough most of the time.  

  ‘It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves,’ runs part of a verse of the Old Hundredth 

Which, Waugh knew, meant that the people of Israel had been constituted by God for a purpose of His own.  What was the purpose of the Englishman? Running a ramshackle Empire by doing boring bureaucratic shite? Fuck that. 

Edward FitzGerald chose that verse for his tombstone, well-remembering the 12th-century verse he had translated from the Persian: ‘We are helpless: thou hast made us what we are.’

That is 'Malamati'. It means the opposite of what it says. Prophet Muhammad says that God does not assist a Nation till it is ready to itself make the necessary effort.  

Henry VI wrote a prayer: Domine Jesu, qui me creasti, redimsti et preordinaste ad hoc quod sum: fac de me secundam voluntatem tuam ...

God, you created me to do your will. May it be so. Amen.  

Why, if God creates us and does with us what he wills – that is to say, predestines us to be what we are – why are we so evil?

To fulfil God's plan- d'uh! 

No doctor of the Church gave a more authoritative and exhaustive answer to that question than St Augustine. In his great dispute with Pelagius he argued that the Pelagian doctrine of free will was just such as might be expected to have come from a monk ill-acquainted with the world. Pelagius put forward a liberal, common-sense view of free will. To Pelagius the world of nature was good because God had created it. Children were born good but generations of sinful parents made it very difficult for them not to sin. Yet anyone could, if only he made use of the free will God had given him, do good rather than evil.

One could equally say that free will consists in acting in accordance with 'natural' synderesis. But that is still from God. This is a mere semantic difference.  

Augustine, perfectly sensibly, points out that we don't know what Justice or Piety or Charity actually requires. We do our best till better informed or instructed. Annan thinks this very strange

Waugh dismissed politics no less equivocally:

The fact that Waugh didn't satirize politics in the ChesterBolloc's manner suggests that he understood the thing was utilitarian au fond. 

I believe that man is, by nature, an exile

This type of ontological dysphoria is perfectly compatible with Economic Science. The fact is 'Knightian Uncertainty' militates for a regret minimizing strategy which features ontologically dysphoric 'positional' goods not at home in this world. 

... that his chances of happiness and virtue ... generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives.

Provided he can run away from them if they get too shitty. But Englishmen have had that privilege for many Centuries. 

I believe ... that there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other;

Alexander Pope would agree. Indeed, this is the folk theorem of repeated games. 

that the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.

For police-men and judges- sure. That's what they get paid to do.  

I believe the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of their elimination; that men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; that such a system is necessary for any form of co-operative work ...

separating equilibria based on costly to disguise signals related to opportunity cost ratios. This is pure Economics. It isn't Theology.  

I believe that Art is a natural function of man; it so happens that most of the greatest art has appeared under systems of tyranny, but I do not think it has a connection with any particular system, least of all with representative government, as nowadays in England, America and France it seems popular to believe.

This is perfectly reasonable and empirically sound.  

On such grounds Waugh accounted for the decline of Britain and the decay of her empire in Augustinian terms.

No he doesn't. Waugh understood what HG Wells understood in 1908. The Empire was boring and stupid and represented a declining fraction of British trade or f.d.i. Get shot of it before it requires any great sacrifice of blood and treasure.  

The whole world was so sunk in original sin that by no act of their own will could men change things for the better.

Waugh knew he could either write well or else get paid for writing modish shite.  One may as well join Chapman & Hall or MacMillans or some other such racket. 

Progressives, reformers, liberals and socialists were particularly impious because they were attempting to realise the city of God on earth.

Lots of such people were Catholic priests. Waugh wasn't picking a fight with the Monsignor who founded Mondragon.  

Even righteous wars were futile:

only if their foregone conclusion was defeat and annihilation- unless, you like fighting and consider it a glorious thing to die with your boots on and a bayonet in your hand.  

Augustine said that victories bring death with them or are doomed to death. That is why Waugh’s trilogy, ‘Sword of Honour’, proclaims the triumph of dishonour and the betrayal of such ideals as its hero had when he joined the Army.

It does no such thing. Waugh documented dismal episodes which many were aware of. What is important is that a lecturer at the War College can draw upon Waugh's work to elucidate questions of morale maintenance or styles of leadership.  

When Waugh in his novels creates heroes, they are virtuous simple men like Tony Last and Guy Crouchback, doomed to be victims.

They aren't virtuous. They are prigs deficient in savoir faire. 

When he creates rogues and scoundrels, they hit the jackpot.

What jackpot did Basil Seal hit? He could always have been what he became.  

No wonder: for Satan is a Prince in this world

Nope. He presides over a world under our own. 

and Augustine taught us that man should not put his faith in governments, soldiers or judges.

Nothing wrong in expecting to continue to do what they have previously done.  

He should welcome calamity as a reminder to keep his eyes fixed on the Eternal City of God. ‘Opt out’ is the moral.

If you are going to be an Augustinian Monk- sure. But you are 'opting in' to a more strenuous discipline. 

‘These characters,’ wrote Waugh in the dedication of Put out more flags, ‘lived delightfully in holes and corners and have been disturbed in their habits by the rough intrusion of history.’ The quietist and cynic will make more of life and do less harm than the progressive who fabricates futile plans for international peace and the elimination of poverty. Of course there must be no truck with pagan religions such as Communism, but Catholics should not delude themselves that the spread of Communism is worth a crusade. In the eyes of God it was a temporary aberration, like Nazism, or the Reformation – another instance of man’s perennial iniquity and God’s amazing grace.

The Pope was aiming at 'peaceful coexistence' after Stalin died. 

As an Augustinian. Waugh was a contrast to the previous generation of Catholic apologists. The neo-Thomists had wanted to show how rational Catholicism was. The modernists such as Von Hügel or Loisy wanted to show how humane and in tune with historical scholarship it was. Per contra, Waugh thought how sensible St Bernard had been in dealing with presumptuous intellectuals such as Abelard. In the last sentences of Decline and Fall there is a reference to the Ebionites – a sect of poor Jewish-Christians who rejected the Pauline Epistles and thought that Jesus was the human son of Joseph and Mary until his baptism, when the Holy Spirit lighted on him. The passage reads: ‘So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them.’

Praying 'ad orientem' was normative in Catholicism till the Sixties. It is still prescribed for the Tridentine Mass. Anglicans have no problem with this. Paul was going to be an Anglican Vicar.  

There is one paragraph in Annan's essay which stands out for me. Previously, I had accepted Alec Waugh's judgment on his younger brother- viz. that he was close to this mother and deeply religious as a small boy. I imagine that what he found difficult to digest in Christian theology was the notion of hypostasis- a substance underlying what appears- such that God the Father is one substance, God the Son is another and the Holy Spirit, not God the Mummy, is the third- though it turns out they are consubstantial or something of that sort.

The plain fact is that for Waugh's generation, it was bleeding obvious that there was no hypokeimenon or hypostasis such that some deeper substance- as opposed to structure- existed. Einstein had kicked Newton's absolute Time and Space in the goolies. Then Bohr kicked Einstein in the goolies at the Fifth Solvay Conference. The Church is the bride of Christ and a good enough Mummy- provided you listen to your confessor and give up Gin and take up a hobby which gets you out of doors. 

Annan mentions the

 ... delectable day in 1950 when Pius XII issued an encyclical declaring that the assumption of the BVM was now an article of faith. That act had delighted Waugh. His only regret was that the Pope had not gone further and elevated the BVM to the position of co-redemptress with Christ of the human race.

Franco had appointed the BVM Captain General of his Army. The Romanians made do with the Archangel Michael. Clearly, that was a mistake.  

He needed his life sunk in despair, a deviant – though not an apostate – from the way his Church was developing.

No. He needed to stop drinking and taking sleeping potions which sent him round the twist. His problem was that Churchill had returned to power. Then there was Eden- a disaster- and then 'Super-Mac' Macmillan till finally, the fourteenth Earl of Home renounced his many peerages to become Prime Minister.  Sebastian Flyte, it seems, was not ineligible to head the Government. The problem with Waugh's politics was that it was only funny if an Atlee or a Bevan or even a Harold Wilson was running things. He looked a fool for idolizing a class which effortlessly held power while the cloth capped workers 'never had it so good'. Indeed, it was a sex-scandal, featuring KGB recruited prostitutes, which put an end to Home's premiership. 

And yet he had one incomparable advantage as a writer.

He, like PG Woodhouse (who only started writing about aristocrats during the Great War when it had become obvious that that race of lemmings were hurtling over a cliff of stupidity) had been funny when the tide appeared to be turning in favour of the Welsh solicitor and the Quaker Press Baron or people ghastlier yet. Woodhouse, of course, was not greatly concerned with whom he wrote about. The intricacies of the plot were a species of higher mathematics in which his virtuosity never failed him. But Waugh was not W.S Gilbert. He was- I shudder to say this- an intellectual with an instinctive grasp of the chrematistic aspect of Political Economy.  

He operated from an impregnable base.

He would have done if Sebastian Flyte hadn't gone and went and become the fucking Prime Minister. David Frost's style of satire was the need of the hour. Once the Beatles were richer than Dukes and Earls, we forgave the chinless wonders. Still, it was Thatcher who hand-bagged the 'wet' toffs of the Tory party into submission.  

You may find it repulsive, but it is self-consistent. You may find it implausible, but so was Tolstoy’s conception of war.

Tolstoy's Kutuzov isn't just plausible. It's what victorious generals really are like.  

He is not only a better writer than Graham Greene:

Greene is sentimental. Waugh is analytical. But there was something daemonic about Greene. Any place he wrote about fell apart catastrophically within a few years. He was a Literary Typhoid Mary.  

his vision of life is more consistent. Greene is always trying to explain how his religion may not be so inflexible and severe as it at first appears.

Everybody already knew it was pretty damn flexible. Choose your confessor wisely and you can get absolved of anything.  

The adulterer, the suicide, the whisky priest, and finally – which so pained Waugh – ‘the settled and easy atheism’ of Querry,

or is the silly man going through a 'dark night of the soul'? Still, Querry is an unusual denizen of Greeneland because he doesn't commit adultery- though he gets shot for it all the same. I think the moral of the story is that God alleviates the misery of African lepers by giving them crazy White peeps to laugh at.  

are all to be understood as in some way susceptible to, and even visited by, God’s grace.

Why not? Nothing wrong with that at all. The point about Augustinianism is you never know which horrible sinner gets a nice mansion in Heaven.  

We do not ourselves have to be Augustinians to acknowledge that the vision of the world which Waugh preferred was far more powerful, convincing and intense.

Unless your Doctor gives you some nice pills- though they might make you impotent or cause anal seepage, both of which are hilarious.  

His novels therefore possess a devastating consistency.

They are consistently good. Literary talent does seem to run in certain families.  

There he stands mocking everything his contemporaries believed in.

Some of his contemporaries- sure.  

The mockery hits the mark.

Not if your guys are winning. The fact is the genuine aristocrats had no objection to making England nicer for its proles- even those of the coloured persuasion. 

His gift for mockery saved him from total hatred of the world.

I have a gift for mockery. I often stick my naked bum out of the window and shout 'I'm Rishi Sunak! I have a billion in the Bank! Kiss my black arse!' Sadly, this gets me arrested. It does not save me from total hatred of the world. Things might be different if I had Waugh's talent or could write a single decent sentence in any language.  

So did his belief in the value of beauty. (The word ‘beauty’ is appropriate: Waugh was an aesthete in art.) They were also symbols of man’s need to have roots in the past.

Coz having roots in the future would be silly.  

Like Lawrence, he wrote unforgettable passages protesting against the transformation of rural England into ribbon development, arterial roads, factories, disused canals and bungalows. But he had nothing in common with many of those today who protest at the evils of society.

On two counts Waugh did not deviate from his generation. He shared the assumption common to many of them that public life, business, money-making, are despicable occupations.

He has a story about an aristocratic family which gains the money needed to keep up its ancestral estate by forcing upper middle class folk occupying desirable villas to spend a lot of money preventing 'development'. This wasn't despicable at all. It was shrewd.  I suppose Waugh himself was shrewd enough financially. However, it is important to remember, he was generous to Catholic causes. I don't know whether he believed God's 'mysterious economy' is itself good or beautiful or 'optimal' a la Liebniz. What I do know is that he captures the underlying karmic mathematics of the Katechon in the manner of the Jain novelists without however committing to reincarnation. It is enough that the books balance. Irony is Theodicy because- why not?- everything else is as well. In this sense, Waugh is a balanced writer. True, to write satire in England- which, after all, is a green and pleasant place- is to either be very unbalanced indeed or, as with Waugh, to dip your quill in the vitriol of what is but self-laceration. 

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