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Cultural cohesion, p.53
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.53

           Clive James
 

  In a 1952 letter to Nancy Mitford, Waugh is to be heard complaining about the unsmart company he had been forced to keep at dinner the previous evening. The guests had included Sir Laurence Olivier (as he then was) and Sir Frederick Ashton (as he later became). Apparently Waugh had complained to his hostess that “the upper classes had all left London.” Ashton was referred to as “a most unarmigerous dancer called Ashton.” Waugh had started off being pretty unarmigerous himself, but by dint of genealogical research had managed to come up with a few quarterings—a feat which he was untypically bashful enough to dismiss as having been performed “for the children.” Unlike Ashton’s, Waugh’s own knighthood was destined never to come through, probably because he turned down the CBE. In Britain, if you want high honours, it is wise to accept the low ones when they are offered.

  Such a blunder helps to demonstrate that Waugh, if he calculated, did not calculate very well. In this he differed from the true climber, whose whole ability is never to put a foot wrong. Waugh put a foot wrong every day of the week. Quite often he put the foot in his mouth. He was always offending his high-class acquaintances by being more royalist than the King. The best of them forgave him because they thought he was an important artist and because they liked him better than he liked himself. Most of them belonged to that looser aristocracy which Waugh mistakenly believed Proust had been confined to. In Britain, those aristocrats with genuine artistic interests form a very particular stratum. Waugh idealized the philistine landed gentry but his friends, many of whom came from just such a background, did not make the same mistake. In a 1945 letter quoted here in a footnote, Lady Pansy Lamb told Waugh that Brideshead Revisited was a fantasy. “You see English Society of the 20s as something baroque and magnificent on its last legs . . . I fled from it because it seemed prosperous, bourgeois and practical and I believe it still is. . . .”

  But for Waugh it was a necessary fantasy. He thought that with no social order there could be no moral order. People had to know their place before they could see their duty. In both life and art he needed a coherent social system. His version of noblesse oblige was positively chivalric. Because Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon escaped from the Titanic in an underloaded boat, Waugh was still jeering at them a quarter of a century later. In Sword of Honour the fact that Ivor has behaved badly on Crete is one of the longest and strongest moral threads in the story. Mrs. Stitch is brought back from the early novels for the specific purpose of taking pity on him in his shame.

  Waugh himself had a disappointing time in the army. The head of the special force in which he hoped to distinguish himself in battle regarded him as unemployable and left him behind. In Sword of Honour Waugh presents himself, through Guy Crouchback, as a man misunderstood. Ford Madox Ford performed the same service for himself through Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End. In fact Waugh, like Ford, had probably been understood. He was simply too fantastic to have around. But the code of conduct which he so intractably expressed in real life lives on in his books as a permanently illuminating ethical vision. There is something to it, after all.

  Snobbery was also Waugh’s way of being humble about his art. His paragons were Mrs. Stitch and Lady Circumference, both of whom could do the right thing through sheer breeding. Lady Circumference’s unswerving philistinism he explicitly regarded as a virtue rather than a vice. He thought more of aristocrats than of artists. This viewpoint had its limitations but at least it saved him from the folly of imagining that behaviour could be much influenced by intellectual fashions and left him free to spot the inevitable gap between people’s characters and their political beliefs.

  His Catholicism was another thing that kept him humble: saints, he pointed out, attach no importance to art. Not that he ever took a utilitarian view of his faith. Waugh believed that Sir John Betjeman’s Anglicanism was essentially self-serving and took frequent opportunities to tell him so, with the result that their friendship was almost ruined. For Waugh, Catholicism’s uncompromising theology was an enticement. Just as he was more royalist than the King, he was more Catholic than the Pope. He was a convert who berated born Catholics for their moral lapses. When Clarissa Churchill married Sir Anthony Eden, Waugh abused her for her apostasy—Eden was a divorced man. The Church’s eternal strictness was Waugh’s comfort. On the Church’s behalf he welcomed new converts among his friends with the promise of a bed turned down and a place at the eternal table. Even more than the English social hierarchy, which in his heart of hearts he knew was a shifting structure, the Church was his bulwark against the modern world. Hence his unfeigned despair at the introduction of a vernacular liturgy. “The Vatican Council,” he wrote to Lady Mosley in 1966, a month before his death, “has knocked the guts out of me.”

  In real life Waugh’s fight to hold back the present had the same chance as Canute’s to hold back the sea. In his books his lone last stand seems more inspired than absurd. The progressive voices are mainly forgotten. Waugh, the arch reactionary, still sounds contemporary. As an artist he was not moulded by his times and hence neither failed to see them clearly nor vanished with them when they were over. As an ordinary man he was no doubt impossibly rude but there were a lot of intelligent people who forgave him for it, as this book proves.

  Mark Amory has edited these letters with a fine touch, occasionally calling in an independent witness when Waugh’s delightful capacity for wild exaggeration threatens to distort the historical record. It is hard on the late S. J. Simon that the books he wrote in collaboration with Caryl Brahms, which Waugh enjoyed, should be ascribed only to Caryl Brahms, but apart from that I can’t see many important slips, although John Kenneth Galbraith, giving this book an appropriately laudatory review in the Washington Post, has pointed out that Father Feeny was an unfrocked priest, not “the Chaplain at Harvard.” What counts is Mr. Amory’s sensitivity to the nuances of the English class system. For finding his way around in that self-renewing maze he has the same kind of antennae as Waugh had, with the difference that they are attached to a cooler head. The result is an unobtrusively knowledgeable job of editing.

  High-handedly rebuking his wife for writing dull letters, Waugh told her that a good correspondence should be like a conversation. He most easily met his own standard when writing to Nancy Mitford but really there was nobody he short-changed. Even the shortest note to the most obscure correspondent is vibrant with both his irascible temperament and his penetrating stare. Above all he was funny—the first thing to say about him. Writing to his wife in May 1942, he described what happened when a company of commandos set out to blow up a tree stump on the estate of Lord Glasgow. The account can be found on page 161 of this book. Anyone who has never read Evelyn Waugh could begin with that page and become immediately enthralled.

  But by this time there is no argument about his stature. While academic studies have gone on being preoccupied with the relative and absolute merits of Joyce and Lawrence, Waugh’s characters have inexorably established themselves among the enduring fictions to which his countrymen traditionally refer as if they were living beings. In this respect Waugh is in a direct line with Shakespeare and Dickens. Since he was public property from the beginning, a critical consensus, when it arrives, can only endorse popular opinion. The consensus has been delayed because many critics were rightly proud of the Welfare State and regarded Waugh’s hatred of it as mean-minded. He was paid out for his rancour by his own unhappiness. For the happiness he can still give us it is difficult to know how to reward him, beyond saying that he has helped make tolerable the modern age he so abominated.

  New York Review of Books, 1980; later included in

  From the Land of Shadows, 1982

  POSTSCRIPT

  Merely to enjoy the novels of Evelyn Waugh, let alone to praise him as a great writer, it helps to have been born and raised in Australia. As a student at Sydney University in the late 1950s I employed his early novels as one of my most effective displacement activities to console me for my neurotic neglect of the set book
s. I read Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies over and over, as if they were poems. The class-conscious background of the books was no mystery to me, or to any other Australian of my generation: most of us had been brought up on Tip-Top, Wizard, Rover or their girlish equivalents. We knew what a public school was, even though we had never been to one, except in the sense that our public schools really were public. The only misapprehension I laboured under was that Waugh, because he satirized the English social structure to such effect, must have stood outside it. Later on, in England, I read everything else he had written, plus a lot that had been written about him, and realized that he had stood right in it. He turned out to have been more snobbish than any snob in his books, but it was no skin off my nose. It was clear to me that Brideshead, like King’s Thursday before it, was a house built in the imagination. In real life he might have dreamed of being the master of Castle Howard, but in his creative life he had better ambitions.

  For a visitor like myself it was easy to separate the petty, spiteful and intermittently demented would-be gentleman from the majestically generous artist who had given us his fantastic England. But for the reader born and raised in the actual England this necessary distinction was not so easy to make. Orwell could do it, despite the deep repugnance he felt for everything Waugh stood for both socially and politically. But Orwell had been a long time dead and his indigenous successors in the critical tradition showed few signs of having grasped his point. Forced to explain Orwell’s enthusiasm for Waugh, they might well have said that it was no surprise, because both men had the same background. Even today, and to an alarming degree, background remains a factor in any Englishman’s perception of the arts, because it is such a factor in his perception of society—to the extent that even the most aesthetically sensitive critic finds it hard to purge himself of the supposition that the arts serve social ends.

  Cleverness is no safeguard against this peculiar obtuseness, of which F. R. Leavis, still volcanically active during my time at Cambridge, was merely the most flagrant example. There is no cleverer critic working in Britain today than Professor Carey. (The consideration that I might think this because he gave me the best review I ever got can perhaps be offset by the fact that he also gave me the worst.) Professor Carey is an adventurous reader who makes his judgements according to his enjoyment. He enjoyed Decline and Fall enough to hail it as a comic triumph, but judging from the general trend of his social commentary he would have liked the book even better if it had come out of nowhere. He avowedly loathes the whole ambience of the landed gentry and reserves a special hatred for the arty social climbers who danced attendance. To find, decades after the whole galère paddled itself out of sight, a sophisticated intelligence wasting its fine anger in this way would be comic if it were not so unsettling. What is it with the Poms? one asks one’s shaving mirror helplessly. Evelyn Waugh was a snorting prig. He was also a great writer. Perhaps the ability to hold two such contrary facts in the mind without their clouding each other and the mind as well is the bonus for having been born elsewhere and having arrived in England just in time to see its social coherence fall apart—which no doubt it deserved to do, but to deny the fruitfulness of its last gasp looks like perversity. Although here again, where did the perversity come from, except as a lingering, recriminatory and very understandable reaction to the old iniquities?

  After forty years in residence, I think I know something of the country’s social tensions, but it’s still a relief to be able to say that it’s not my fight. We who are exempt from the local vendettas should be slow, however, to erect a relative advantage into an absolute virtue. It’s always possible that we have missed the nub of the matter, and that an artist like Waugh committed, as a man, sins we have no right to gloss over. There are bright, well-read people in Argentina who will tell you that the capacity of Borges to say so little about life under the military dictatorship irredeemably weakens everything he had to say about life in general. There are veterans of the old Czechoslovakia who can’t hear the name of Milan Kundera without remarking bitterly on the unbearable lightness of his not being there when it counted. I still think it a privilege of the Weltbürger, the man without a country, to be genuinely above such battles. But he should make it his business to know what the battle is about, because some of the people he meets might have been wounded in it, even if they look well.

  Reliable Essays, 2001

  36

  AS A MATTER OF TACT

  Responses: Prose Pieces 1953–1976 by Richard Wilbur

  There is nothing surprising in the fact that the most intelligent, fastidious and refined of contemporary American poets should produce intelligent, fastidious and refined prose, but it does no harm to have the likelihood confirmed. This collection of Richard Wilbur’s critical writings is an immediate pleasure to read. Beyond that, the book provides an absorbing tour of Wilbur’s preoccupations, which admirers of his poetry had already guessed to be of high interest. Beyond that again, there is the harsh matter, steadily becoming more urgent, of whether or not the study of literature is killing literature.

  In America, the place where crises burst first, it has long been apparent that the output of critical works from the universities, most of them uttered by intellectually mediocre student teachers, has reached the proportions of an ecological disaster. Yet here is one book, written by a Professor of English at Wesleyan University, which would have to be saved from the holocaust if President Carter were to take the sensible step of rationalizing his energy programme by ordering all academic writings on the subject of English literature to be fed directly to the flames, thereby ensuring that useless books, inflated from only slightly less useless doctoral theses, would find at least a semblance of creative life by providing enough electric power to light a pigsty, if only for a few seconds.

  But then Wilbur is no ordinary professor. His university career has really been a kind of monastic hideaway, where he has been able to hole up and contemplate his principal early experience, which was the Second World War in Europe. Military service was Wilbur’s first university. If for ever afterwards he was a writer in residence, at least he was writing about something that he had seen in the outside world. In the deceptively elegant symmetries of Wilbur’s early poetry could be detected a pressure of awareness which amply warranted his retreat to the cloisters.

  While his contemporaries held the mirror up to chaos, Wilbur took the opposite line: the more extreme the thing contained, the more finely wrought the container had to be. Berryman and Lowell went in for stringy hair, open-necked shirts, non-rhyming sonnets that multiplied like bacilli, and nervous breakdowns. Wilbur, on the other hand, looked like an advertisement for Ivy League tailoring and turned out poems built like Fabergé toy trains. I think there is a case for arguing that by the time the 1960s rolled around Wilbur had cherished his early experience too long for the good of his work, which in his later volumes is simply indecisive. But earlier on he was not indecisive at all—just indirect, which is a different thing. The poems in The Beautiful Changes, Ceremony and Things of This World sound better and better as time goes on. Where his coevals once looked fecund, they now look slovenly; where he once seemed merely exquisite, he now seems a model of judicious strength; as was bound to happen, it was the artful contrivance which retained its spontaneity and the avowedly spontaneous which ended up looking contrived. There is no reason to be ashamed at feeling charmed by Wilbur’s poetry. The sanity of his level voice is a hard-won triumph of the contemplative intelligence.

  Selected from twenty years of occasional prose, the essays and addresses collected in Responses combine conciseness with resonance, each of them wrapping up its nominal subject while simultaneously raising all the relevant general issues—the best kind of criticism for a student to read. A lecture like “Round about a Poem of Housman’s” could be put into a beginner’s hands with some confidence that it would leave him wiser than before, instead of merely cockier. Previously available only in that useful anthology The Moment
of Poetry, the piece gains from being set among others from the same pen. It is an excellent instance of close reading wedded to hard thinking. The general statements are as tightly focussed as the specific observations, which from so sensitive a reader are very specific indeed. By attending patiently to Housman’s delicately judged tones of voice in “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” Wilbur is able to show that the contempt superficially evinced for the hired soldiers is meant to imply an underlying respect. The casual reader might miss this not just through being deaf to poetry, but through being deaf to meaning in general. “A tactful person is one who understands not merely what is said, but also what is meant.” But meaning is not confined to statements: in fact the sure way to miss the point of Housman’s poem is to do a practical criticism that confines itself to paraphrase. A song like “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and a poem like “Dover Beach” can be paraphrased in exactly the same way. (This seemingly offhand illustration is typical of Wilbur’s knack for the perfect example.) It follows that meaning embraces not just statement but sound, pacing, diction. Thus the subject expands to include questions of why poetry is written the way it is. How much can the poet legitimately expect the reader to take in?

  Yeats, for example, overdoes his allusions in “King and No King.” It is one thing for Milton to expect you to spot the reference to the Aeneid when Satan wakes in Hell, but another for Yeats to expect you to know a bad play by Beaumont and Fletcher. For one thing, you can see what Milton means even if you have never read Virgil, whereas Yeats’s point seems not to be particularly well made even when you have Beaumont and Fletcher at your fingertips—in fact pride at being in possession of such information is likely to colour your judgement. (Says Wilbur, who did possess such information, and whose judgement was coloured.)

 
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