The Satirist of the Fall

My youth was a golden time, filled with hampers of Chateau d’Yquem, Morgan Plus-Fours, and— best of all—what seemed like an unlimited num­ber of Evelyn Waugh novels yet to read. While everyone about me was arguing over Herbert Marcuse, I idled my time away with Paul Pennyfeather. Political philosophy I yielded without regret to my left-wing friends, for I had satire.

With Quintillian, the conservative might almost say, Saturn tota nostra est: Satire is all our own. The most acidic satires have come from the pens of conservative writers: Juvenal, Butler, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Chesterton, Belloc, Mordecai Richler, Florence King, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O’Rourke, and Mark Steyn. A Walter Olson or Dave Barry simply reports on a piece of fatuous liberalism and exclaims, “I’m not making this up!”

Best of all, there is Waugh (1903-1966), whose centenary we celebrate this year. The greatest satirist since Swift and the best stylist of his generation, Waugh was a deeply conservative convert to Catholicism who saw in it the only bulwark against a corrosive modernism. Waugh’s satire is so mordant and politically incorrect that one is almost surprised to see it displayed openly on booksellers’ shelves.

Waugh was born into a minor literary family. His father, Arthur Waugh, had won the Newdigate prize and published in the Yellow Book; his brother, Alec, was a popular novelist. Edmund Gosse was a near relation. After Lancing College, Waugh went up to Oxford in 1922, where he fell in with a brilliant set of undergraduates. His friends included Harold Acton, Robert Byron, Anthony Powell, and John Betjeman. Like Waugh, many of them converted to Catholicism: Gra­ham Greene, Christopher Hollis, and Frank Pakenham. And some of them became models for the absurd characters in his novels: Brian Howard (“Anthony Blanche”), Peter Rodd (“Basil Seal”), and Diana Cooper (“Julia Stitch”).

Sometimes the portraits were affectionate, sometimes not. People who had crossed Waugh in one way or another found themselves unmercifully satirized. The dean of Waugh’s Oxford College appears in Decline and Fall as a brutal burglar who castrates an abortionist. Cyril Connolly was the inspiration in Basil Seal Rides Again for the loathsome Connolly children, who as war refugees are foisted on unwilling families unless they pay the bribe Seal extracts to take them away. Connolly was a friend, but Waugh’s friend­ships were often tinged with an element of malice. Unlike Waugh, Connolly sat out World War II, and Waugh sent one of his war novels to Connolly with the inscription “To Cyril—who kept the home fires burning.”

A chasm separated Waugh’s contemporaries at Oxford from the previous generation’s hearty Georgians. Waugh’s fellow students were a jaded and often riotous set, in which grand young men mixed with high bohemians, and where everyone assumed the pose of the pleasure-loving dilettante in a Kingdom of Cokayne. It was a time Waugh recalled 20 years later in Brideshead Revisited: “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey—which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”

Later, after graduation, Waugh set himself up as the voice of the younger generation, of Mayfair’s Bright Young Things. “How too, too shaming, Agatha darling,” they said. “How sick-making.” Waugh himself was up on every new fad—jazz, auto racing, films, and cocktails, telephoning—and his voice still seems modern to our ears. By contrast, the Chestertons and Bellocs of an earlier generation seem quite as dated as their obscure quarrels. Who now remembers the Marconi scandal? Unlike Chesterton and Belloc, Waugh also possessed the abil­ity to identify writers of enduring interest, like Greene and Powell. Belloc was a determined controversialist and an amus­ing writer of comic verse, but the fact remains that he took H.G. Wells seriously—which is rather like paying attention to Norman Mailer today.

Waugh abruptly abandoned his pose of modernity in 1929 when his empty-headed first wife left him for another man. “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live,” he wrote Harold Acton, “but I am told that it is a com­mon experience.” Of a sudden, Waugh rediscovered a serious side which is never wholly absent from the satirist. “I know very few young people,” said Vile Bodies’s Father Rothschild (Father Martin D’Arcy, S.J.), “but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence.” In Waugh’s case, this took him to Father D’Arcy in Mayfair and to the Catholic Church.

Waugh’s conversion was an affair of the head, not the heart. He said that reading St. John of the Cross was like reading “about the habits of some strange tribe.” Father D’Arcy himself said, “I have never myself met a convert who so strongly based his assents on truth…. He had convinced himself very unsentimentally—with only an intellectual passion—of the truth of the Catholic faith.” In the same pro­saic way, Helena prefers simple truth to the poetic paganism she finds “bosh”:

“Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?”

“I should say that as a man he died two hun­dred and seventy-eight years ago in the town that is now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.”

“Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?”

“We have the accounts written by witnesses. Besides that there is the living memory of the Church….”

“Well, that’s all most interesting.”

So far as sentiment was concerned, Waugh thought it cut in favor of the Anglicanism in which he had been raised. In England, the medieval churches, the rich ceremony, the tra­ditional culture, “all these are the property of the Church of England, while Catholics meet in modern buildings, often of deplorable design, and are usually served by simple Irish missionaries.” This might seem a little cold-blooded, but it is really not so very different from the conversions of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning and Rev. Ronald Knox—and even John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Waugh’s intellectual assent rested on his belief in Chris­tianity and Father D’Arcy’s apologetics. More than this, Waugh had retreated in horror from the destruction of values that the collapse of his marriage had symbolized. Graham Greene said that Waugh “needed to cling to something solid and strong and unchanging.” Like Burke, Waugh recognized that “the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Chris­tianity and Chaos.”

The standard line on Waugh is that the satirist was I spoiled by his religion. The madcap author of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies turned glum on his conversion, abandoning the icy brilliance of his earlier novels. The truth is just the opposite. Vile Bodies was one of Waugh’s least suc­cessful novels, and there is something a little wrong with the middle-aged reader who still enjoys it. Waugh’s most amus­ing novels, Black Mischief and Scoop, were written after his conversion, while his most “Catholic” novels—Helena, Brideshead Revisited, and the Crouchback trilogy—are rip­ping good reads. Sword of Honor is almost certainly the best fiction to come out of World War II.

As the examples of Dryden, Pope, and Swift show, there is no conflict between satire and orthodox belief. In truth, satire needs religion, not disbelief; it needs order, not chaos. Satire needs a moral code against which the satirized can be mocked for his lapses. “Satire is a matter of period,” Waugh wrote. “It flourishes in stable society and presupposes homogenous moral standards—the early Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Europe. It is aimed at inconstancy and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exagger­ating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue.” And yet, as if to disprove this, Waugh wrote some of the most amusing satires ever written, appealing to a timeless moral code.

Laughter assumes a normative order from which the butt of the joke has deviated. In laughing we identify a comic vice, and since this entails a comparison with a superior life, comic vices assume comic virtues. He who laughs must be a moralist, and this is particularly true of the satirist. In the preface to Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden announced that “the true end of Satyre is the amendment of Vices by correc­tion.” This explains the link between satire and conser­vatism: The conservative accepts the norms of comedy, while the lifestyle liberal rejects them and the laughter that goes with them. “That’s not funny,” he says. And from his perspective he is right. The ACLU machine lawyer, the dour feminist, and the modern artist all know that whenever they hear laughter, their most cherished ideas are under attack.

Waugh himself was one of the most profound conserva­tives of his day. “I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth,” he wrote in Robbery Under Law (1939):

I believe in government; that men cannot live together without rules but that these should be kept to a bare minimum of safety…. I believe that inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advan­tages of their elimination…. I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or divine commissions for world conquest, but sim­ply this: mankind inevitably organizes itself into communities… [and] these communi­ties…inspire a local loyalty; the individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits.

Waugh’s conservatism was thorough going. Of democracy he said that he thought his sovereign had adopted a very unwise method of choosing her advisers, by the political party that had won the greatest number of seats in Parliament.

Waugh was never more effective than as a satirist of fatu­ous liberalism. Here he is on the history of Ismaelia (Ethiopia), which he visited for the coronation of Haile Selassie:

Various courageous Europeans, in the sev­enties of the last century, came to Ismaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equip­ment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambas­sadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists. None returned. They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned—according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christians for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop). [Scoop]

In the fatal encounter between modern man and savage, Waugh’s target is always the naive Westerner who believes, against all evidence, that everyone is like him. Black Mischief’s Basil Seal, with his Azanian “Ministry of Modernization,” is an example of the type, though Seal has the saving grace of cynicism:

“You know,” he added reflec­tively, “we’ve got a much easier job than we should have had fifty years ago. If we’d had to modernize a coun­try then it would have meant consti­tutional monarchy, bicameral legislature, proportional representa­tion, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, refer­endums…”

“What is all that?” asked the Emperor.

“Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.”

Azania is once again Ethiopia. Waugh attended Haile Selassie’s 1930 coronation with an interna­tionally recognized expert in local customs who interpreted the interminable ceremony for Waugh. “They are beginning the Mass now…. That was the Offertory…. No, I was wrong; it was the consecra­tion…. No, I was wrong; I think it is the secret Gospel…. No, I think it must be the Epistle…. How very curious; I don’t believe it was a Mass at all…. Now they are beginning the Mass.” Several hours later, when it seemed over, the expert remarked, “I have noticed some very curious variations in the Canon of the Mass, particularly with regard to the Kiss of Peace.” Then the Mass began.

To the learned it is given to be learnedly foolish, Hobbes noted. The pedant is reliably ridiculous, partic­ularly when he overreaches. At the other extreme are the deeply ignorant who pretend to a learning they do not possess—people like Scoop’s Lord Copper (Lord Beaverbrook), the owner of the Daily Beast. Copper calls in his obsequious foreign editor to explain his newspaper’s foreign policy—strong, mutually antagonistic govern­ments everywhere:

Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was lim­ited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper”; when he was wrong, “Up to a point.”

“Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?”

“Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

“And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?”

“Definitely, Lord Copper.”

The satirist’s gift is a special sensitivity to vice. When it comes to other people’s vices, most of us are thick-skinned; but the satirist is a man without a skin. Most of us encounter grossness, cowardice, and obsequiousness two or three times a day and never give it a second thought. These are the obscene graffiti of life, seen so often that we have become accustomed to them. The satirist does not discover new vices but uncovers old ones to which we have become inured. He provides no new information, only reminding us that we already know enough to be shocked, but we have resigned ourselves to a contented indifference.

When it is bitter, however, a satire cannot raise a laugh. The paradox of satire is that it asks the reader to share its rancor; and if it succeeds the satire fails. Waugh’s darkest books, notably A Handful of Dust, are almost excruciating to read. Like the satires of Juvenal they are shot through with hideous truth, and however much they might succeed as tragedies, they fail as entertainments. They tell the story of Waugh’s failed marriage and show us the most terrifying thing in the world, a cold heart. In Put Out More Flags, Cedric Lyne visits the wife who left him and whom he still loves, just before leaving for Norway and his death:

“I’m afraid I’m tiring you.”

“Well, I’m not feeling terribly well today. Did you want to see me about anything special?”

“No, I don’t think so. Just to say good-bye.”

“Daddy,” came a voice from the next room.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“Oh dear, I wish I could do something about it. I feel there’s something I ought to do. It’s quite an occasion really, isn’t it? I’m not being beastly, Cedric, I really mean it. I think it’s sweet of you to come. I only wish I felt up to doing something about it.”

More than any other English writer, Waugh saw past our self-delusions to the inner core of selfishness, spite, and indifference. There is no one more amusing, but there is always a tension in his satires. We sit in the dark at the back of the theater as folly and sin are revealed, secretly fearing that we too will be called forward and our vices exposed. The greater the tension, the greater the laughter when we dodge the bullet. That is why Waugh’s satires are so much more hilarious than the gentle comedy of Wodehouse. “For Mr. Wodehouse,” Waugh noted, “there has been no Fall of Man; no ‘aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden.”

The Fall is central to an understanding of Waugh. “Man is by nature an exile, haunted, even at the height of his pros­perity, by nostalgia for Eden.” Waugh’s conversion began with the intellectual realization that only the bulwark of a universal, institutional Christian religion could beat back the disintegrating chaos he saw about him. Yet Waugh’s reli­gion was also a heartfelt yearning for peace and forgiveness, which he believed could be administered efficaciously only through the sacraments of the Church.

Sophisticated readers were greatly offended by Lord Marchmain’s death in Brideshead Revisited, in which a lapsed Catholic is reconciled to the Church through extreme unction. For those who dislike religion, deathbed conver­sions are completely over-the-top. But Catholics find the passage profoundly moving, and it had the deepest personal significance for Waugh himself. The death of Lord March- main is a thinly fictionalized account of the deathbed con­version of Waugh’s old friend, Hubert Duggan, in which Waugh brought in a priest over the family’s objections.

Waugh was always more deeply interested in religious than political matters. He found politics boring and did not vote (he was afraid it might encourage them). In one of the best-known passages, Guy Crouchback’s father gently rebukes him for his mundane concerns. “The Mystical Body doesn’t strike attitude and stand on its dignity…. Quantita­tive judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of ‘face:” In the end, Waugh’s conservatism was primarily a rejection of a political creed that thought it might dispense with religion and which did not believe in original sin. The greatest prose stylist of his generation was the satirist of the Fall.


  • F. H. Buckley

    F. H. Buckley is the Foundation Professor of law at George Mason School of Law and the author of "The Morality of Laughter" (University of Michigan, 2003).

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