One gets more cheerful with age, but there is a dangerous period in late middle life when a negative mood can descend upon one. Most curmudgeons of my experience are hale and hearty in their 50s, but the eye they turn on the world is cold and the words that issue from their scarcely parted lips are bitter. And funny.
Writing of books that changed the world, Belloc concludes, “Only this morning I came upon yet another book; this time upon the Great Pyramid and the end of the world. The world is to end next summer. I don’t believe it. It’s too good to be true.” In the same collection of essays, A Conversation with an Angel, writing of what we would call the image, or perhaps legacy, of public figures and its discrepancy with the flesh and blood individual, he concludes, “Like all our modern evils, this evil will not get better. It will get worse. The only remedy for our modern evils is catastrophe.”
Evelyn Waugh was born old and thus was an even more precocious curmudgeon than Belloc. In Scott-King’s Modern Europe, his titular character sums up the theme of the novella when he responds to his headmaster’s suggestion that he teach something besides the classics to prepare boys for the modern world. Scott-King’s response rises to the level of epigram: It would be immoral to prepare boys for the modern world.
And, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pin fold, this: “There was a phrase in the thirties: ‘It is later than you think,’ which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.” Pinfold looked at his watch to see with disappointment how little of his life was past.
One mark of both Belloc and Waugh’s prose is its pellucid clarity. They were both admirers of P.G. Wodehouse—no more accomplished writer of English ever existed. Of course, Wodehouse had nothing important to say, and Belloc and Waugh both did. But I mention their prose to draw attention to the seriousness with which they took the art they practiced. This distinguishes them from the ever-increasing tribe of scrawling scriveners. And it alerts us to the fact that condemnation of the modern world is a covert affirmation of what ought to be.
Readers of the New Testament are struck by the way in which “world” is used in the Gospels. Jesus came into the world, and the world received Him not. Yet it was to save the world that He came. On the one hand, the world is the antithesis of Christianity; on the other, it is what is to be altered and saved by the faith. Both of these are present perhaps in the promise that Christ will overcome the world. There is a similar, and necessary, ambiguity in the phrase “the modern world.”
The severest judgment on the modern world ever made was John Paul II’s description of ours as a culture of death. For verification, one with the stomach for it need only scan the media. (A medium is one who brings messages from another world, and there is little mystery as to which “other world” the media represent.) Pornography has invaded television; evil is celebrated (e.g., “a woman’s right to choose”); the saintly are pilloried (e.g., Pius XII); per-version is perversely presented as God’s gift (e.g., passim). Wise parents keep their children from the government schools and restrict the use of television to VCRs and videos of their choosing. Theirs is the culture of life.
The culture of death is a negation of what human culture ought to be. Evil is never a rival of the good. It necessarily passes when it has destroyed as much as it can. But the good prevails. This may seem a remark of chuckle-headed optimism, and so it would be if it were a prediction about some future point in history. But it is a conviction that comes with faith.
The wheat and chaff will coexist until the end of time. But this is a time of war, or at least nonviolent resistance, not peaceful coexistence. We are in the world but not of it. One cannot have one foot in the culture of death and the other in the culture of life. The Didache spoke of two paths, one of light and one of darkness. If he tries to walk both, man, Swift’s poor forked creature, will experience increasing pain. The paths diverge.
Humor is one of our weapons. The mordant remarks of the world-weary curmudgeon, particularly if expressed with the clarity of a Belloc or Waugh, can keep our minds clear on the war of the worlds.