Album primo-avrilesque, meaning April-Foolish Album, is a collection of visual jokes published by the French humourist Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) on 1st April 1897. Note that some of the captions can’t be translated fully into English, because they use French idioms that refer to color.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings (1954-5) into English. By that I mean (of course) that I wish someone would translate LOTR into good English. I’ve looked at Tolkien’s bad English in “Noise Annoys” and “Science and Sorcery”. Here’s another example:
Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.
“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”
“Do not speak of such things!” said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness. – The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”
Strider should have added: “Or in such a way!” In the second paragraph, Frodo suddenly talks like a Guardian-reader. Why on earth did Tolkien use “thinning process”, “indefinitely” and “actually” amid otherwise good, simple English? Thinning is obviously a “process”, so there’s no need to say it is, and “indefinitely” and “actually” are badly out of a place in a fantasy novel, let alone in dialogue there. “Considering” is less bad, but it should go too. I would improve the paragraph like this:
“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “seeing that there is now a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning will not go on much longer, or I shall become a wraith.”
Now there’s nothing incongruous: the only un-English word is “very”, but that doesn’t seem un-English on the tongue or to the eye. The Guardianese is gone, but it should never have been there in the first place. Tolkien should not have written like that in Lord of the Rings. And not just as a professional scholar of language: simply as a literate Englishman. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) had been in print for twenty-eight years when The Fellowship of the Ring was first published. It’s hard to believe that Tolkien wasn’t familiar with it.
If he wasn’t, that’s a great pity. If he was, the bad prose in LOTR becomes even more inexplicable and unforgiveable. Alas for what might have been! Imagine if, per impossibile, Tolkien’s masterwork had been edited by the second-greatest Catholic writer of the twentieth-century, namely, Evelyn Waugh.
When bad prose appears in something by Waugh, it’s deliberate:
I had a fine haul – eleven paintings and fifty odd drawings – and when eventually I exhibited them in London, the art critics, many of whom hitherto had been patronizing in tone as my success invited, acclaimed a new and richer note in my work.
Mr. Ryder [the most respected of them wrote] rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities … By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself. – Brideshead Revisited (1945), Book II, “A Twitch Upon the Thread”, ch. 1
Waugh was deliberately mocking the mixed-metaphor-strewn prose and pretensions of modern critics. Waugh paid great attention to language and compared writing to carpentry. It was a craft and good craftsmen do not work carelessly or use bad materials. Nothing in Brideshead is careless or casual, as we can see when the narrator, Charles Ryder, first meets the “devilish” æsthete Anthony Blanche, who has “studied Black Art at Cefalù” with Aleister Crowley and is “a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville”. Blanche has a stutter and Waugh uses the stutter to underline his iniquity. Or so I would claim. Here is Blanche engaging in some papyrocentric performativity:
After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-à-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.
“’I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all,’” he sobbed to them from the Venetian arches –
“Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead….”
And then, stepping lightly into the room, “How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me.” Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1
Talking about the Greek sage Tiresias, who experienced life as both a man and a woman, Anthony Blanche, a man whose surname is the feminine form of the French adjective blanc, meaning “white”, stumbles over the initial consonants of three words: “divan”, “bed” and “lowest”. Is it a coincidence that the same consonants, in the same order, appear in the Greek diabolos, meaning “devil”?
I don’t think so. If Blanche had stuttered on “surprised” too, I would be even more certain. But the –s isn’t essential. After all, it was lost as diabolos journeyed from Greek to Latin, from Latin to French, and from French to English, where it appears as “Devil”. And what does Charles Ryder later call Anthony Blanche after Blanche has spent an evening tête-à-tête trying to turn Ryder against Ryder’s great friend Sebastian Flyte? You can find out here, as Ryder discusses the evening with Sebastian:
“I just wanted to find out how much truth there was in what Anthony said last night.”
“I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.”
“You may think it charming. I think it’s devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?”
“Did he? How silly. Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?” – Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2
Blanche is “devilish” and his reputation for “iniquity” is well-deserved. That’s why I think the three words over which Blanche stutters were carefully chosen by Waugh from The Waste Land. Waugh was a logophile and that is exactly the kind of linguistic game that logophiles like to play.
DIVERSIONS OF THE RE-ECHO CLUB
It is with pleasure that we announce our ability to offer to the public the papers of the Re-Echo Club. This club, somewhat after the order of the Echo Club, late of Boston, takes pleasure in trying to better what is done. On the occasion of the meeting of which the following gems of poesy are the result, the several members of the club engaged to write up the well-known tradition of the Purple Cow in more elaborate form than the quatrain made famous by Mr. Gelett Burgess:
“I NEVER saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.”
MR. A. SWINBURNE:
Oh, Cow of rare rapturous vision,
Oh, purple, impalpable Cow,
Do you browse in a Dream Field Elysian,
Are you purpling pleasantly now?
By the side of wan waves do you languish?
Or in the lithe lush of the grove?
While vainly I search in my anguish,
Bovine of mauve!
Despair in my bosom is sighing,
Hope’s star has sunk sadly to rest;
Though cows of rare sorts I am buying,
Not one breathes a balm to my breast.
Oh, rapturous rose-crowned occasion
When I such a glory might see!
But a cow of a purple persuasion
I never would be.
Ὁ γαρ ἡδονής και ἀλγηδόνος ἧλος, ὃς πρὸς το σώμα τήν ψυχην προσηλοῖ, μέγιστον κακὸν ἔχειν ἔοικε, τὸ τα αἰσθητά ποιεῖν ἐναργέστερα τῶν νοητῶν, καὶ καταβιάζεσθαι καὶ πάθει μᾶλλον ἢ λόγῳ κρίνειν τήν διάνοιαν.
• ΠΡΟΒΛΗΜΑ Β’. Πώς Πλάτων ἔλεγε τον θεὸν άεὶ γεωμετρεῖν.
Nam voluptatis et doloris ille clavus, quo animus corpori affigitur, id videtur maximum habere malum, quod sensilia facit intelligibilibus evidentiora, vimque facit intellectui, ut affectionem magis quam rationem in judicando sequatur.
• QUÆSTIO II: Qua ratione Plato dixerit, Deum semper geometriam tractare.
For the nail of pain and pleasure, which fastens the soul to the body, seems to do us the greatest mischief, by making sensible things more powerful over us than intelligible, and by forcing the understanding to determine them rather by passion than by reason.
• Plutarch’s Symposiacs, QUESTION II: What is Plato’s Meaning, When He Says that God Always Plays the Geometer?
Here’s an old essay of mine from the 1990s. It was deliberately written in a pompous and convoluted academic style, but I decided it was a bit too pompous and convoluted, and have toned it down accordingly. The subtitle is a reference to both Athanasius contra Mundum, “Athanasius against the world”, and “Sebastian contra mundum”, a section of Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.
Total Waugh: Contra Immundum
Quoniam dicebant: Spiritum immundum habet.
Evangelium secundum Marcum, III, xxx.
Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.
Gospel According to Mark, 3:30.
A little over three decades ago Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) died on the lavatory from the cumulative effects of excessive drinking and drug-taking. If he is at this moment peering exophthalmicly down on the earth from the traditional Roman Catholic heaven he espoused in his lifetime, he would not be pleased by any comparison with the death of a rather more famous American: and yes, such a comparison would be most unjust. Waugh’s excesses were in “bromide and chloral and crème de menthe”;1 he did not eat hamburgers, nor did he wear satin jump-suits, nor was he a cretin who happened to have a pleasant negro-effect singing voice; and his point of departure for the hereafter was a country house in Somerset called Combe Florey. But his death was, like Elvis Presley’s, an undignified and more than faintly ludicrous one.
Death and the Mortician
And perhaps also a just one. Death in Evelyn Waugh’s novels very often takes undignified and ludicrous forms: in Decline and Fall, a prison chaplain is butchered with woodworking tools; in Black Mischief, the daughter of an English diplomat is served up to an ex-lover at a cannibal feast; in A Handful of Dust, an English lord of the manor finds a living death imprisoned by a jungle patriarch with a taste for readings from Dickens; in The Loved One, a semi-literate American mortuary cosmetician commits suicide by injecting herself with poison, and is disposed of in an animal crematorium. Waugh was a cruel man, a bully and a snob, and what happens to his characters very often reflects his character. Just as the works of the Marquis de Sade are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross sexual power, so the works of Evelyn Waugh are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross social power.
They are, for example, full of ironies and barbs and sniggers at social upstarts or outsiders. Trimmer, Beaver, and Atwater, the great triumvirate of Waughian Untermenschen,2 are detestable because they are not gentlemen and do not know how to behave when they try to be. Nor, of course, would the working classes: they however are not detestable, merely ludicrous, because they at least know their place.
Given that Waugh was a snob and a bully, that he was also a reactionary Roman Catholic is perhaps not surprising. Given that he was a very intelligent man, with an acute sense of the ridiculous, perhaps this is surprising. Waugh took very little seriously. He disliked and distrusted (temporal) authority and those who exercised it:
[M]any of the motives which make us sacrifice to toil the innocent enjoyment of leisure … are amongst the most ignoble — pride, avarice, emulation, vainglory and the appetite for power over others.3
and satirized it and them (he was certainly a conservative, but more in an aesthetic and economic sense than in a political). He disliked and distrusted modernism and modernists:
His strongest tastes were negative. He disliked plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.4
and satirized it and them with gusto. Perhaps he also disliked and distrusted himself, for he took himself as little seriously as he took almost everything else, and satirized himself mercilessly in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. He seemed to take only two things seriously: the English language, and the Roman Catholic Church.
I can understand, and am very grateful for, his attitude to the former; his attitude to the latter once puzzled me. The Roman Catholic Church is not now, and never has been, a humane or intellectually respectable institution. I would call it and many of the things it teaches at best grotesque and at worst evil. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, one of its chief propaganda weapons, was perhaps in herself a worthy, even a saintly person. She believed, however, that it is infinitely preferable for human beings to be born and starve to death than for them to be aborted or prevented by contraception.
Perhaps this sort of thinking came easily to a mind trained, as young Roman Catholic minds were before the Second Vatican Council, in the doctrine that eternal damnation can be yours for the price of a small mortal sin. The death-camps of the Nazis, overseen by a hierarchy of which a startlingly high proportion were brought up as Roman Catholics,5 endured some dozen years; Hell, the death-camp of the Roman Catholic God, endures for ever. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches this doctrine of infinite punishment for finite transgression with other uncouth absurdities; many, in some countries most, of its professed adherents no longer apply its teachings in everyday life; in time it will succumb to the decadence that is already rooted in it (and that is now in full, glorious flower in the Church of England).
But it was not decadent for most of Waugh’s life, and Waugh seemed to accept all of its traditional doctrines fully. He converted in 1930; in 1935, he wrote a biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion6 in which one learns a great deal about the cruelties practised by the youthful Church of England on those who refused to renounce Roman Catholicism, the age-old faith of these islands. During the period covered by the book, the St. Bartholomew’s massacre took place in Paris.7 This is noted in passing
He [William Cecil, chief adviser to Elizabeth I] had not foreseen the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had broken the supremacy of the Huguenots …8
The supremacy of the Huguenots was “broken” by the murder, with great savagery, of thousands of men, women, and children. On hearing the news, the deeply pious King of Spain, Philip II, was seen to smile for the first time in years, and the Pope, Pius V, ordered a medal struck in celebratory commemoration.9 Waugh mentions none of this, and none of the semi-genocidal activities of the Spanish army in the Netherlands over the period.
The concept of double-think is perhaps useful in explaining these omissions. In 1984, Orwell wrote
“It [the Newspeak word “blackwhite”] means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white … This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought … known in Newspeak as doublethink“.10
A further example of doublethink would perhaps be to believe that the persecution of Roman Catholics by Protestants proves that Protestantism is wrong, while the persecution of Protestants by Roman Catholics proves that Roman Catholicism is right. Orwell, who recognized the Roman Catholic Church for what it was, almost certainly drew on the psychology of the religious as well as the political believer in formulating the concept. It is not, however, the only or even a necessary means of explaining Waugh’s apparently irrational religious beliefs. It may not be, as I shall try to demonstrate, the true means.
The first step I made towards discovering what possibly were Waugh’s true motives for becoming a Roman Catholic was not a literal one. On holiday in the Seychelles last year, I was re-reading his collected journalism and came upon a passage, a notice from the Oxford university paper Isis, that had not caught my attention before:
LOST, LOST, O LOST: Mr Evelyn Waugh regrets to announce he has lost a walking-stick made of oak, preposterously short with a metal band around it. It is a thing of no possible value to anyone but himself; for him it is an incalculable loss. If it should fall into the hands of any kindly or honest man or woman, will he or she bring it to the Isis office, and what so poor man as Mr Waugh is can do, shall not be lacking.11
For some reason, on this occasion, my attention was caught — and held. I read the passage through several times, not quite sure why I did so. I was conscious of only one strong impression, which was that in spite of its jocular air the notice seemed to indicate a very strong desire on Waugh’s part to be re-united with his stick. The stick is mentioned again in Anthony Powell’s Oxford memoirs, The Infants of Spring:
Evelyn Waugh … was excluded from [the Hypocrites’ Club12 at this period for having smashed up a good deal of the Club’s furniture with the heavy stick he always carried [London, 1976, pg. 154; my emphasis]
Why was a stick heavy enough to smash pre-war furniture “always carried” by its owner? Unless he was joking about his own lack of height, why should Waugh describe a stick that was “preposterously short” as a walking-stick? And what was the significance of the metal band?
One possible, absurd answer is that the stick was a magic wand or talisman. The term immediately conjures up laughable Tinkerbellesque or Enid-Blytonian associations. If one tries to purge one’s mind of these and take the term in an austere, occultic sense, it has to be admitted that the equation “stick = magic wand” answers all the questions raised by the Isis notice and extract from Anthony Powell’s autobiography. Nonetheless, it remains absurd. What possible connexion could there have been between Evelyn Waugh and the Black (or even the White) Arts? None, surely? A passage from his part-autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), proves that this is not so. Waugh is describing his life immediately after Oxford:
I also wrote some pages of a novel I had begun … it was named The Temple At Thatch and concerned an undergraduate who inherited a property of which nothing was left except an eighteenth-century classical folly where he set up house and, I think, practised black magic.13
This slight doubt about the plot is not found in a letter he wrote in 1925, shortly before beginning the novel:
I am going to write a little novel … “The Temple At Thatch” … about madness and magic.14
Waugh did what he had written he would. He sent the manuscript for comment to Harold Acton (1904-94), a friend whose aesthetic judgment he trusted. Acton was not enthusiastic and Waugh “took the exercise book in which the chapters were written and consigned it to the furnace of the school boiler.”15 The school was in north Wales, at Llanddulas, where Waugh was working as an assistant master and where, from his own words, his first attempt at a novel seems to have been drawing on the experience of his days at Oxford. A great deal has been written, by Waugh himself, by his contemporaries, by his later commentators, about those days, but some important evidence is gone for ever. Waugh kept a diary during his time at Oxford, but part of it is no longer available to us:
I have been living very intensely the last three weeks. For the past fortnight I have been nearly insane … My diary for the period is destroyed … I may perhaps one day … tell you of some of the things that have happened. It will make strange reading in the biography.16
Christopher Sykes’s biography of Waugh describes his going through an “extreme homosexual phase [at Oxford] … unrestrained, emotionally and physically”.17 Were entries pertaining to this period what prompted Waugh to destroy the diary? Quite probably yes — in part. But there may have been something more, something that would later provide material for his first novel: some kind of involvement in the occult.
Wild honey in the wilderness
That the extremity of this period may have taken in more than homosexuality is suggested by another letter Waugh wrote at the time to Dudley Carew, an old friend from Lancing, in which he said
St. John has been eating wild honey in the wilderness. I do not yet know how things are going to end. They are nearing some sort of finality. One day I will tell you things to surprise you and sell an edition of the biography if faithfully recorded.
St. John’s “eating wild honey” is a playful reference to Waugh’s less well-known second Christian name and to John the Baptist, of whom the New Testament says this: “John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4; see also Mark 1:6). It is also, very likely, a reference to homosexual activity. However, the remaining lines are not so easy to interpret as references to this. How can sexual indulgence be regarded as “nearing some kind of finality”? On the assumption that St. John’s “wild honey” refers to the pleasures of non-penetrative activities like fellatio and mutual masturbation, these words may refer to an impending decision as to whether or not to indulge in full homosexual intercourse, and yet they seem rather hyperbolic to bear this interpretation — particularly in the light of what follows. Why should Dudley Carew, a contemporary and great admirer of Waugh at Lancing, be surprised by Waugh’s participation in homosexual activity? Because Waugh had not, like so many others, indulged in it at Lancing?
If so, why should the circumstances of Waugh’s participation at Oxford help to sell the biography Carew had long intended to write? That many young men were homosexually active for a period was taken for granted by those of Waugh’s or Carew’s public-school background; that those same young men should make public admission of this fact in later life was certainly not. Homosexual practice was illegal at the time, and would remain so for decades; by the vast majority of those forming the market for Waugh’s putative biography, it would have been regarded as sordid and shameful, as Waugh himself must surely have recognized.
Mass appeal madness
Yet the strains evident in the interpretation of these words as references to homosexuality disappear when one assumes that they refer instead to participation in the occult. Among the book-reading public of the day, and of many days to come, the occult was very popular: the novelist Dennis Wheatley enjoyed enormous success with books like The Devil Rides Out (1934), in which a black mass is celebrated near Stonehenge and there is a euphemistic but unambiguous description of black magicians pissing into a chalice containing pieces of holy wafer.
Such things were sordid, certainly, but also fascinating, and one could easily imagine a biography containing details of Waugh’s undergraduate dabbling in the occult provoking great interest. The dabbling need not be taken seriously, nor would it be an admission of participation in anything illegal: it would seem perversely sophisticated, rather than simply perverse. Given the hedonistic cynicism he was cultivating, if Waugh was aware of and being invited to join in occult practice at Oxford, he might very well have expressed himself in the words given above.
The assumption that he did see some participation in the occult bears exegetic fruit not only here, then, but also in the plot of The Temple At Thatch, in his destruction of his diary, and even in his concern at the loss of a heavy stick. It may also be usefully applied to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which can now be seen as a reaction to, or even a flight from, memories of his involvement, which may have been a far more frightening or intense experience than he had anticipated. That he chose to enter the Roman Catholic church rather than resume the practice of Anglicanism, in which he was born and brought up, adds weight to this reading. A reaction against a mildly affecting involvement in the occult might send one into a mild faith but defecting Satanists, like defecting communists, seem more naturally to become Roman Catholics than to become Anglicans. It must be remembered, of course, particularly in the case of an imaginative and aesthetically sensitive person like Waugh, that to be affected by an experience is not necessarily to have been a direct participant in it.
Straight to Thel’
Evidence for Waugh’s involvement in the occult nonetheless remains. More can be added to what has already been presented: the most direct (and least known) available to date is perhaps best approached through a more famous work. In Brideshead Revisited, the flamboyant, stuttering, homosexual aesthete Anthony Blanche is described as having “practised black art in Cefalù”.18 Cefalù, a small town in Sicily, is a shorthand for Aleister Crowley’s infamous Abbey of Thelema, which was based nearby. Later in the novel, the narrator’s lover Sebastian Flyte signs off a letter with the phrase “Love or what you will”, which is a hidden reference to two famous dicta of Crowley’s — as we shall shortly see.
Elsewhere, Waugh referred to Crowley directly. In A Little Learning he speaks of his election as secretary to the Hypocrites’ Club12 and continues:
My predecessor in the office, Loveday, had left the university suddenly to study black magic. He died in mysterious circumstances in Alistair [sic] Crowley’s community and his widow, naming herself “Tiger Woman”, figured for some time in the popular press, where she made “disclosures” of the goings-on at Cefalu [sic].”19
Later he speaks of the hostess of many of the parties he attended in London after leaving Oxford:
There was Mary Butts, a genial, voluptuous lady of the avant-garde who wrote short stories and at the time consorted with a man who had been in Alistair Crowley’s black-magical circle at Cefalu.19
It is possible that his acquaintance with Crowley was not entirely third-hand, as we can see from examination of a short story called “A Step Off The Map” that he wrote in 1933. Waugh’s short stories are not particularly good, for the most part, and “Out of Depth”, as “A Step Off…” was later renamed, does not stand out even amongst them for its literary merit. It is however of extraordinary interest from the point of view of this article, for it describes a dinner party encounter had by a lapsed American Catholic with a man called Jagger (later renamed Kakophilos, Greek for “lover of evil”)20 who is unmistakably based on Crowley: “an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits … a little crimson smirking mouth”. The American, who is named Rip after Rip van Winkle, is introduced to the bald man, who quotes the two most famous dicta of Crowley’s new religion of Thelema (Greek θέλημα, meaning “will”):
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.
“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say, Love is the Law, Love under will.'”
Rip does not take Kakophilos or his dicta seriously, but finds himself unable to resist the force of his personality and becomes involved in an occult experiment that projects him five hundred years into the future, to a London in which “[g]reat flats of mud, submerged at high water, stretched to his feet over the Strand”. Europe has reverted to barbarism; Rip is treated almost as a pet by the savages inhabiting the ruins of London, and is eventually presented to a party of black African anthropologists for study at a coastal military base. He finds only one sane and familiar thing in this new world: a Roman Catholic mass conducted in Latin by a black priest at the base. Somehow he returns to the Twentieth Century. The story ends with him speaking with another Roman Catholic priest in most curious fashion, considering that his involvement in the time-hop had been quite involuntary:
“Father,” said Rip, “I want to make a confession… I have experimented in black art…”21
The story is not well-known. According to Martin Stannard’s study of Waugh’s life to 1939,22 it is now out of print. It was substantially revised for inclusion in Waugh’s short story collection Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (Chapman and Hall, 1936) and “Waugh did not include it in Penguin Books’ Work Suspended and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 1947)”.23 Did its autobiographical elements become embarrassing to him as time passed? Margot Metroland and Alastair Trumpington, characters from his early romans à clef, appear in the story, and though Rip is named from the time-travelling Rip Van Winkle, is it entirely fanciful to see a resemblance between this harsh and somewhat violent monosyllable and that of Waugh’s own surname?
Missing from the collection
Perhaps not. But on more prosaic grounds his neglect of the story is not inexplicable: it is not very good, and seems to have been written partly as emotional catharsis following the break-up of his first marriage — “a period of considerable anxiety”.23 However, this latter fact may point again towards autobiography. Perhaps Waugh found this period of anxiety bringing to mind a similar one at Oxford, and perhaps the story drew on relevant memories.
The link between Oxford and Crowley has already been presented in the extract from Brideshead Revisited. The exegesis of this extract is, however, incomplete. Anthony Blanche was based, by Waugh’s own admission, on Harold Acton,24 to whom, as has already been described, Waugh sent his first novel for comment. We are now in a position to see rather more in this fact. Was Waugh interested merely in Acton’s aesthetic judgment, or also, and perhaps more importantly, in Acton’s occult expertise? Was Waugh’s introduction to the “black art” made through Acton? Was Acton’s unenthusiastic response to The Temple At Thatch based less on the book’s artistic demerits than on the fact that it revealed too much, was too indiscreet?
An obvious way of trying to answer such a question would be to consult the letter in which Acton passed judgment on The Temple at Thatch. Part of this read: “Too English for my exotic taste. Too much nid-nodding over port. It should be printed in a few elegant copies for the friends who love you.” Or so Waugh gave the world to believe. The letter itself cannot contradict him, for it seems to be no longer extant. Christopher Sykes, discussing it in his biography of Waugh, suggests that Acton’s judgment was “a hard blow and it may be significant that, though Evelyn kept all his letters from Harold Acton, this particular letter is missing from the collection.”25 Significant certainly, but precisely how? Is it likely that Acton had participated with Waugh in occultic practice, and so should be consulted by Waugh on a literary fruit of this? Evidence that strengthens the case for the participation of them both is found in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation, a polybiography that presents a far more detailed picture of the Oxford of Waugh’s day than any book devoted specifically to Waugh:
Emlyn Williams [an Oxford contemporary of Waugh’s] … records that lurid gossip was circulating about the Hypocrites, such as ‘they’re supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.’26
Acton was the leading light of the Hypocrites, Waugh a prominent acolyte. Yet there is, I feel, no need to assume that this gossip is literally true, for it is typical of the hyperbole associated with such aspects of the occult as worship of the devil, whether serious or pretended. It is in fact reminiscent of the gossip that circulated two hundred years before about Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club, another group of hedonistic, dissolute, and aristocratic young men.
Imputing the occult
In those days, however, when non-attendance at church, let alone religious heterodoxy, was regarded as shocking and devilish, the gossip was likely to be have been excited by rather less than its equivalent in Waugh’s day. The Hypocrites would have had to do rather more to excite the gossip of their day, and so it was likely to contain more truth, without, of course, necessarily being entirely true. One may dabble in the occult without worshipping the devil, and one may worship the devil without eating new-born babies cooked in wine. But if one is rumoured to have done the last in a period in which the occult was attracting increasing participation, the likelihood of one’s having done the first is not negligible.
I believe that I have by now established that the imputation of some involvement in the occult to the reactionary Roman Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh is not so ludicrous as it might at first have appeared. This involvement nonetheless remains speculatory, and that it may have extended to the point of participation in satanic ritual or devil-worship can only be more so. And yet if it is, for the sake of argument, taken as a donnée of Waugh’s experience, much light is cast on aspects of his adult character, and certain remarks made both by him and by his acquaintances assume new significance.
As his brother-in-law Auberon Herbert recognised and said, Evelyn Waugh could be “an awful shit”. Waugh recognised this himself, and would claim, on being taxed with the gulf between his behaviour and the demands of his religion, that if he had not been a Roman Catholic he would have been far worse. The phrase he chose was “scarcely human”. Roman Catholicism was for him a defence against the malevolence he knew to be within himself. Cyril Connolly had made a similar observation. In an article he prepared on Waugh but never published, he said that
Waugh’s Catholicism was a force that saved him from … this “demon of destructiveness” … “which might otherwise have destroyed him”.27
The metaphor chosen here need not be seen as of particular significance, and yet it occurs elsewhere in reaction to Waugh’s behaviour. At one period, Waugh made strenuous efforts to persuade John Betjeman to become a Catholic, warning him again and again of the literal damnation that awaited him if he remained extra Ecclesiam, or “outside” the One True Church. Betjeman’s wife Penelope told Waugh that his propagandizing had affected her husband badly: “[he] thinks you are the devil and wakes up in the middle of the night and raves”.28 Again a jocular comment, but again it uses a diabolic metaphor. Such metaphors are not exhausted. There is a curious passage in Christopher Sykes’ biography describing how
Evelyn had long been an admirer of Hilaire Belloc [and] asked Duff [Cooper, husband of Diana] if he would introduce him to the great man … When the appointed day came around, Evelyn arrived neatly dressed, in a state of perfect sobriety, and on his best behaviour … [After the lunch was over and Waugh had left for an urgent appointment,] Duff asked Belloc what he thought of his brilliant young friend.
‘He is possessed,’ replied Belloc.
How, Duff often asked, how, except by supernatural means, did Belloc know?29
On its own, any of these references might be unimportant: together I believe they offer good support for the claims of this article, not least for what some will call the most extravagant of these. Involvement in certain forms of the occult is known to be dangerous, and whether one accepts a literal or a psychological interpretation of them, the realities of demonic possession cannot be dismissed. Evelyn Waugh may have participated in satanic ritual at Oxford and been possessed by a “demon” in one or another sense for the rest of his life. The supernaturalism he espoused as a Roman Catholic may have pre-dated his conversion and been based on terrifyingly personal experience.
He described possession once in his novels, in Helena (1950), a literary treatment of the story of St Helena, the discoverer of the true cross. The novel is set between the third and fourth centuries A.D. and makes use of “certain wilful, obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device”.30 They do not, it has to be said, meet this end very successfully, either in such passages as
“What a spread!” said Princess Helena, when she had guzzled. “What a blow-out!”31
or in an extremely interesting scene in which Waugh describes the Emperor Constantine and his wife Fausta witnessing a prophecy made by a young African witch who has been possessed by a devil:
Music, unheard to the watchers, was sounding in the girl’s heart, drumming from beyond the pyramids, wailing in the bistro where the jazz disc spun. She had stepped off the causeway of time and place into trackless swamp. [She begins to speak:] “Zivio! Viva! Arriba! Heil!” … 32
Writing in 1950 of a ceremony taking place in the Fourth Century AD, Waugh draws on imagery from the 1920s and ’30s. He re-uses themes — blacks, travel in time, swamp — that, as we have seen, he had first used in 1933 in “Out of Depth”. Is the link between such incongruencies, the ultra-modern and the ultra-primitive, to be found in the occult, encountered by Waugh both in England and in Africa during his extensive travels there in the early 1930s?
Darkness and the macabre
Anyone answering this question in the negative must still, surely, see the need for an explanation of the way such things occurred not once in Waugh’s work but twice, separated by more than a decade and a World War, and of the way they find echoes not only in the remainder of his fiction but also in his correspondence, his life, and the reaction of his friends and acquaintances to his personality. Waugh has long been recognised as a complex and tormented man whose work is full of darkness and the macabre. I would suggest that the true extent of his complexity and torment and the true roots of his obsessions have never been recognised. Does Waugh deserve a place among the greatest writers in English in this or any other century? Undoubtedly. What were the obsessions and influences that prompted him to that place? This is a question that I have tried to answer fully for the first time here. Time may never tell, but I believe that at the very least I have shown that the full truth about Waugh’s life and religious beliefs may still wait to be confirmed. Waugh as occult practitioner. Waugh as worshipper of the devil. Waugh possessed. Implausible things? Impossible things? Or, as Waugh himself may have predicted, no more than “things to surprise”?
2. In Men at Arms, A Handful of Dust, and Work Suspended respectively. If Hooper and Mulcaster from Brideshead Revisited and Corker from Scoop are added to the list, the ergative suffix “-er” can be seen to be of great importance in Waugh’s nomenclature of contempt. The first person narrator of Brideshead, Charles Ryder, is perhaps shielded by his patrician “y”, perhaps reflects Waugh’s anxieties about his own social status: he was once described to his face by Duff Cooper, the husband of Waugh’s longest-lasting and most aristocratic correspondent Diana Cooper, as a “common little man … who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels” (Philip Zeigler, Diana Cooper, Hamish Hamilton, 1980, pg. 266).
5. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler (who based the organization of the S.S. on that of the Jesuits), Heydrich and Eichmann, inter alios. This over-representation of Catholics was found also among the smaller cogs of the Nazi machine. It is true that Catholics tended not to vote for the Nazis in elections but then communists tended not to vote for the Nazis either: I don’t think anyone could regard this latter fact as rehabilitating Stalinism.
9. Pius V was canonized in 1712. Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, himself a Catholic, commented of one passage in Waugh’s treatment of Pius: “This is to evade by rhetoric the fact that Pius V was a persecutor who went to extremes considered shocking even by the standards of his time, and that he never seems to have scrupled to support his principles by the use of atrocity.” (Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Penguin, London, 1977, pg. 208.)
10. Taken from the appendix to 1984. In formulating the concept of doublethink, Orwell was perhaps thinking of precept 13 in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1548): “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” Loyola founded the Jesuits, the “intellectual shock-troops” of the Roman Catholic church.
12. The Hypocrites’ Club was “notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual”. Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning, W.J. Mackay & Co., Chatham, Kent, 1964, pg. 179.
13. ibid., pg. 223. Waugh’s eldest son Auberon Augustus would later write in his memoirs (Will This Do?, Century, London, 1991) of a schoolfellow called “Brenninkmeyer who shopped me for trying to hold a Black Mass in the chemistry laboratory” (ch. 4, pg. 69).
18. Brideshead Revisited, ch. 2, pg. 47 of the 1984 Penguin paperback. The extract is taken from a description of Anthony Blanche’s travels and experiences that falls in a section called ET IN ARCADIA EGO. The occult associations of this Latin tag are well-documented: see, for example, Baignet, Leigh and Lincoln, The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail, Jonathon Cape, 1982.
24. “There is an aesthetic bugger [= homosexual] who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names… 2/3 Brian [Howard] 1/3 Harold Acton”, Waugh wrote in a letter of 14 March, 1958 to the Earl Baldwin (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, pg. 506). In his discussion of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Christopher Sykes argues convincingly that the proportions are reversed in this particular character. Brian Howard (1905-58) was a flamboyantly homosexual Old Etonian poet whom Waugh had first known at Oxford.
Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:
• Early Riser — Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)
• The Future is Fascist — Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)
• Mystery and Meaning — Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)
• Noshing on Noxiousness — Nekro-Noxious: Toxic Tales of True Transgression in Miami Municipal Mortuary, Norberto Fetidescu (TransVisceral Books 2018)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
Illustrations from Teach Yourself Greek by F. Kinchin Smith and T.W. Melluish (1947), with accents added by another (and presumably Hispanophone) hand. (Is a “Hispanophone hand” like a “pivotal voice”?)
• « S’il est un homme tourmenté par la maudite ambition de mettre tout un livre dans une page, toute une page dans une phrase, et tout une phrase dans un mot, c’est moi. » — Joseph Jourbet (1754-1824)
• “If there is a man tormented by the cursed ambition to compress an entire book into a page, an entire page into a phrase, and that phrase into a word, it is I.” — Joseph Jourbet
Some good quotes by Salvador Dalí (1904-89), who will need no introduction to keyly committed core components of the quixotically contrarian community. The Spanish should be reliable, but the English translations may not be (coz i dun em).
• A los seis años quería ser cocinero. A los siete quería ser Napoleón. Mi ambición no ha hecho más que crecer; ahora sólo quiero ser Salvador Dalí y nada más. Por otra parte, esto es muy difícil, ya que, a medida que me acerco a Salvador Dalí, él se aleja de mí.
— At six years of age I wanted to be a chef. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambition has only grown since then, but now I only want to be Salvador Dalí and nothing more. Still, it’s very difficult, because the closer I get to Salvador Dalí, the further he gets from me.
• El canibalismo es una de las manifestaciones más evidentes de la ternura.
— Cannibalism is a sure sign of affection.
• El que quiere interesar a los demás tiene que provocarlos.
— He who wishes to interest other people needs to provoke them.
• …Es curioso, a mi me interesa mucho mas hablar, o estar en contacto con la gente que piensa lo contrario de lo que yo pienso, que de los que piensan lo mismo que pienso yo.
— …It’s strange, but I’d much rather talk with or be in touch with people who think the opposite of what I think than with those who think the same as I do.
• Es fácil reconocer si el hombre tiene gusto: la alfombra debe combinar con las cejas.
— It’s easy to tell if a man has good taste: his carpet should harmonize with his eyebrows.
• De ninguna manera volveré a México. No soporto estar en un país más surrealista que mis pinturas.
— Under no circumstances will I return to Mexico. I cannot bear to be in a country more surreal than my own paintings.
• Hoy, el gusto por el defecto es tal que sólo parecen geniales las imperfecciones y sobre todo la fealdad. Cuando una Venus se parece a un sapo, los seudoestetas contemporáneos exclaman: ¡Es fuerte, es humano!
— Today, a taste for the defective is so strong that the only things that seem attractive are imperfections and, above all, ugliness. When a Venus looks like a toad, the pseudo-aesthetes of today shout: “That’s great, that’s human!”
• Los errores tienen casi siempre un carácter sagrado. Nunca intentéis corregirlos. Al contrario: lo que procede es racionalizarlos, compenetrarse con aquellos integralmente. Después, os será posible subliminarlos.
— Mistakes almost always have a sacred character. Never try to correct them. On the contrary, you need to ponder them, to examine them from every angle. Afterwards, you will be able to absorb them.
• La Revolución Rusa es la Revolución Francesa que llega tarde, por culpa del frío.
— The Russian Revolution is the French Revolution arriving late due to the cold.
• La única diferencia entre un loco y Dalí, es que Dalí no está loco.
— The only difference between a madman and Dalí is that Dalí is not mad.
• La vida es aspirar, respirar y expirar.
— Life is aspiring, respiring and expiring.
• Lo importante es que hablen de ti, aunque sea bien.
— What’s important is that people talk about you, even if they only say good things.
• Lo único de lo que el mundo no se cansará nunca es de la exageración.
— The only thing the world never tires of is exaggeration.
• ¡No podéis expulsarme porque Yo soy el Surrealismo!
— You cannot expel me: I am Surrealism! (After being expelled from the surrealist movement in Paris.)
• Picasso es pintor. Yo también. Picasso es español. Yo también. Picasso es comunista. Yo tampoco.
— Picasso is a painter. So am I. Picasso is a Spaniard. So am I. Picasso is a communist. Nor am I.
• Sin una audiencia, sin la presencia de espectadores, estas joyas no alcanzarían la función para la cual fueron creadas. El espectador, por tanto, es el artista final. Su vista, corazón, mente — con una mayor o menor capacidad para entender la intención del creador — da vida a las joyas.
— Without an audience, without a circle of spectators, these jewels would never realize the purpose for which they were created. The spectator is therefore the final artist. His eyes, his heart, his mind — whether better or worse equipped to understand the purpose of the creator — give life to the jewels.
• Llamo a mi esposa: Gala, Galuska, Gradiva; Oliva por lo oval de su rostro y el color de su piel; Oliveta, diminutivo de la oliva; y sus delirantes derivados: Oliueta, Oriueta, Buribeta, Buriueteta, Siliueta, Solibubuleta, Oliburibuleta, Ciueta, Liueta. También la llamo Lionette, porque cuando se enfada ruge como el león de la Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
— I call my wife Gala, Galuska, Gradiva; Oliva for her oval face and the colour of her skin; Oliveta, diminutive of Oliva; and its delirious derivations: Oliueta, Oriueta, Buribeta, Buriueteta, Siliueta, Solibubuleta, Oliburibuleta, Ciueta, Liueta. I also call her Lionette, because when she’s angry she roars like the MGM lion.
• Sólo hay dos cosas malas que pueden pasarte en la vida, ser Pablo Picasso o no ser Salvador Dalí.
— There are only two things that can go wrong for you in life: being Pablo Picasso or not being Salvador Dalí.
• Si muero, no moriré del todo.
— If I die, I will not die completely. (Compare Horace’s Non omnis moriar, I will not wholly die.)
• La inteligencia sin ambición es un pájaro sin alas.
— Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.
• No tengas miedo de la perfección, nunca la alcanzarás.
— Don’t be afraid of perfection, because you’ll never achieve it.
• Para comprar mis cuadros hay que ser criminalmente rico como los norteamericanos.
— To buy my paintings you have to be criminally rich like the Americans.
• Hay días en que pienso que voy a morir de una sobredosis de satisfacción.
— There are days when I think that I will die of an overdose of satisfaction.
• El termómetro del éxito no es más que la envidia de los descontentos.
— The thermometer of success is nothing more than the envy of the discontent.
• Lo menos que puede pedirse a una escultura es que no se mueva.
— The least that one can ask of a sculpture is that it stays still.
• Mientras estamos dormidos en este mundo, estamos despiertos en el otro.
— When we are asleep in this world, we are awake in another.
• Yo no tomo drogas. Yo soy una droga.
— I do not take drugs. I am a drug.
• Los que no quieren imitar nada, no producen nada.
— Those who refuse to imitate will never create.
• Las guerras nunca han hecho daño a nadie, excepto a la gente que muere.
— Wars have never done harm to anyone, except to those who die.
• Gustar el dinero como me gusta, es nada menos que misticismo. El dinero es una gloria.
— To relish money as I do is nothing short of mysticism. Money is a glory.
• La existencia de la realidad es la cosa más misteriosa, más sublime y más surrealista que se dé.
— The existence of reality is the most mysterious, most sublime and most surrealist thing of all.
« Quelle chimère est-ce donc que l’homme, quelle nouveauté, quel monstre, quel chaos, quel sujet de contradiction, quel prodige, juge de toutes choses, imbécile ver de terre, dépositaire du vrai, cloaque d’incertitude et d’erreur, gloire et rebut de l’univers ! » — Pascal
“What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.”