Sunday, May 14, 2017

Blundering into Dishonour


There is a great strain of self-awareness in national literature which unfortunately poses little danger of penetrating the national psyche. Evelyn Waugh's writing is a prime example.


The English (and some Americans) have a very poor understanding of the second world war, most likely due to the fact that they believe they won it. Not even this much is true. The war was won for them at the battle of Kursk and all along the Eastern front, where the Soviet Union broke the wehrmacht. Yet Anglo-American thinking on the subject (when they care to even think about it) somehow has it that the Western allies defeated Hitler and then consolidated themselves in defense of democracy against the menace of Soviet Communism.

It is not simply the honest historian who should cringe at such thinking, it is the Christian above all who worries that the souls of an entire people are going to burn forever in Hell za grzech zaniechania. Thankfully for the English, they have Evelyn Waugh, whose writing on the subject no doubt saved the honor of the nation even if Her Majesty's subjects persist in their ignorance to consider the British effort as their "finest hour."

Waugh's legendary hostility towards people was no doubt a function of his acute awareness of how utterly depraved they tend to be. To be a Christian is a great solace because while we are indeed commanded to undertake the distasteful task of loving our fellow man, we are consoled in the knowledge that if we fail to do so for every single day of our lives, Our Lord Jesus Christ has carried that burden farther than any of us ever could. Waugh then was free to be very rude to people and love them in his prose. Ironically, none of the legendary stories of Waugh's rudeness towards his fellow men hints at the level of severity reserved for the love shown in his literature. To be on the recieving end of Waugh's snide attitude was nowhere near as thoroughly cathartic and painful for the souls of Englishmen as to experience the love of his prose.

The Sword of Honor is forgotten amongst the English, a victim in part of the times in which nowadays most things English are forgotten amongst the English and in part because it is more soothing to remember Churchill than Waugh. War is always well remembered so long as morality is not introduced into the picture, and with Churchill the English run little risk of moral reflection.

Waugh's writing has the opposite effect. The juxtaposition of two sentiments from his trilogy, found in the Synopsis of Preceeding Volumes at the beginning of Unconditional Surrender is the best consolidation Waugh gives us of the entire war effort:

"The enemy at last was in plain view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms....this was the belief of Guy Crouchback in 1939 when he heard the news of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty...As Guy, in late autumn of 1941, rejoins his regiment he believes that the just cause of going to war has been forfeited in the Russian alliance. Personal honour alone remains...The hallucination was dissolved...he was back after less than two years' pilgrimage in a Holy Land of Illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour."

It is a strange thing indeed to find honour a category of English moral imagination. To what extent was it English, to what extent Catholic? Could it have not been also an idiosyncratic predisposition on the part of Waugh the man? In any case there it was, plain as day, staring the Englishman in the face for all time. Perhaps in the centuries to come, when the British are spoken of as the Romans of the modern age, Waugh will be their Cato?

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