Warring with Waugh

Busy reading about Modernism and following Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, reading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (the Irish schoolboy at Clongowes and Belvedere College, the intense piety and cultural claustrophobia of Catholic Ireland  at the turn of the last century). And  the young Joyce, like his character Stephen Dedalus, chose to exile himself from Ireland in 1904, going abroad to write. And what he would write about would be  Dublin before 1904, the unforgettable Catholic strife-torn Ireland of his  childhood and youth. The irony of that.


And now I am turning to an author not known for Modernism but who understood it and employed Modernist devices — Evelyn Waugh with whom I have had a love-hate relationship for  so many years now. A convert who took the  Catholic Church of the 1930s on trust and was  shaken by changes in the  1960s. Fr Martin D’Arcy received Waugh into the Church and later wrote:

Few [converts] can have been so matter of fact as Evelyn Waugh. As he said himself, “On firm intellectual conviction but with little emotion I was admitted to the Church.” All converts have to listen while the teaching of the Church is explained to them—first to make sure that they do in fact know the essentials of the faith and secondly to save future misunderstandings. . . . Another writer came to me at the same time . . . and tested what was being told him by how far it corresponded with his experience. With such a criterion, it was no wonder that he did not persevere. Evelyn, on the other hand, never spoke of experience or feelings. He had come to learn and understand what he believed to be God’s revelation, and this made talking with him an interesting discussion based primarily on reason.

And Waugh’s Catholicism would increasingly shape his  fiction, for better or for worse: sometimes for worse — even when moved by the famous conversion of  Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, it is a scene that also sets my teeth on edge. It is too stagey, too laden  with snobbish overtones, too contrived. I’d rather begin my reading with that post-modernist allegory Helena, a book Waugh  thought of  as his best for reasons George  Weigel uncovers:

What counted was sanctity. Moreover, what counted was to discover the vocation by which God had determined how the individual was to be sanctified. That sense of vocation, and the Christian scandal of particularity to which Helena’s vocation bore existential witness, was what attracted the novelist to the Empress: a choice Waugh later explained in a letter to John Betjeman, who had professed himself puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena “doesn’t seem to be like a saint.”

Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying: “I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.” I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh—after God knows what experiences in purgatory.

I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.


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