Evelyn Waugh | Critical Essay by D. J. Dooley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Evelyn Waugh.
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Critical Essay by D. J. Dooley

SOURCE: "Waugh and Black Humor," in Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 2, Autumn 1968, pp. 1-3.

Dooley is a Canadian writer and educator. In the following essay, Dooley examines instances of black humor in Waugh's writing and suggests possible influences to Waugh's comic sensibility.

In an article in the Kenyon Review in 1961, C. P. Snow referred to the transmission of a particular vein of personal and capricious comedy from Russian to English fiction as one of the clearest examples of literary ancestry which he knew. He described the agent of transmission, William Gerhardi, as the chief progenitor of modern English prose comedy, and said that he had a very sharp effect on such talented young men of the Twenties as Waugh and Anthony Powell. But as the Waugh Newsletter pointed out, Saki and Firbank could not be overlooked as comic models. Similarly, when he ridiculed the whole notion of influences in a sentence quoted by Stopp, Waugh provided us with more names to conjure with: "A lecturer in English literature might discern two sources of Dr. Wodehouse's art—the light romance of Ian Hay and the social satire of 'Saki,' but the attribution is quite irrelevant in the world of the imagination." Still another influence on him, almost undoubtedly, is Maurice Baring—another interpreter of Russia to England and writer of comedies both English and Ruritanian. Another who ought not to be overlooked is E. M. Forster, author of some Alexandrian sketches which Waugh praised highly. In the "St. Athanasius" section of Pharos and Pharillon, for example, there is a characterization of Constantine which may have suggested Waugh's handling of him in Helena, and the scene in which that "charming and reasonable young man" Caligula runs through his new villa with a mob of carpenters and plumbers at his heels, as well as a deputation of Jews from Alexandria and a counter-deputation of anti-Semites from the same city, is close in spirit to Waugh's comedy. Forster writes:

He climbed up to look at a ceiling. They climbed too. He ran along a plan; so did the Jews. They did not speak, partly from lack of breath, partly because they were afraid of his reply. At last, turning in their faces, he asked: "Why don't you eat pork?" The counter-deputation shouted again. The Jews replied that different races ate different things, and one of them, to carry off the situation, said some people didn't eat lamb. "Of course they don't," said the Emperor, "lamb is beastly."

To mention other possible sources of Waugh's humor is not to deny the influence of Gerhardi; when the latter was awarded an Arts Council bursary towards the end of 1966, the Observer commented that the word "genius" had been applied to him by Waugh, so that presumably Waugh read and was influenced by him.

But should Gerhardi's type of humor be called black humor? The TLS review of André Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noir discovered beneath Breton's verbiage a fairly clear idea of what black humor involves: on a personal level it is a legitimate defence against the tragedy of la condition humaine, on a social level it is an essentially scandalous protest against the intolerable concept of an "ordered" world explained by science and activated by technology. Gerhardi's tone and attitude are very different; they are established by a performance of a Chekhov play early in Futility:

You know the manner of Chekhov's writing. You know the people in his plays. It seems as though they had all been born on the line of demarcation between comedy and tragedy … Fanny Ivanovna and the three sisters watched the play with intense interest, as if the Three Sisters were indeed their own particular tragedy. I sat behind Nina, and watched with that stupid scepticism that comes from too much happiness. To me, buoyant and impatient, the people in the play appeared preposterous. They distressed me intensely. Their black melancholy, their incredible inefficiency, their paralysing inertia, crept over me. How different, I thought, were those three lovable creatures who sat in our box. How careless and free they were in their own happy home. The people in the play were hopeless.

At the interval, he grasps his friend Nikolai by the arm in exasperation: "How can there be such people, Nikolai Vasilievich?… They can't get where they want. They don't even know what they want…. It is a hysterical cry for greater efforts, for higher aims … Why can't people know what they want in life and get it?…" Of course as its title suggests the novel shows the gradual disillusionment of the central character, his own failure to get what he wants. But though the book is on the borderline between comedy and tragedy, it is hardly a scandalous protest against the concept of an ordered world.

It does contain a protest against sacrificing the people of one generation to secure a better social order for the next, and in connection with this protest there are some episodes of macabre humor, especially connected with the battles of Whites versus Reds in Vladivostok. But macabre humor of this type is found in English literature well before Gerhardi; one need only think of Saki's short stories or of Norman Douglas's tale of the man who fell six hundred feet from a Capri cliff and was in no condition to swim to Philadelphia. In The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett writes of the vein of fanciful horror in Thomas Hood—in poems such as "The Careless Nurse Mayd" and "Sally Simpkin's Lament." He goes on,

Gilbert, Lear, Carroll, Thackeray, the authors of Struwelpeter and the cautionary tales continue this comic macabre tradition, which today appears to be exhausted. There is Mr. Belloc, who digressed intellectually, and there are the sardonic ballads of Mr. William Plomer.

The tradition was not exhausted; it had merely been diverted into the novel. Waugh and Huxley made use of it in the Twenties, Douglas and Beerbohm (with his Defenestration of Noaks, for example) in the previous decade.

But once again is macabre humor to be identified with black humor? In Simon Encelberg's essay on Joseph Heller (in Richard Kostelanetz's collection of essays On Contemporary Literature), the following adjectives are applied to Catch-22: sprawling, hilarious, irresponsible, compassionate, cynical, surrealistic, farcical, lacerating, readable. The terms suggest an attitude to humor and satire which is very different from the attitudes of Beerbohm, Douglas, Saki, and Waugh. It is the difference, in a way, between Waugh's Loved One and the film of the same name, bravely advertised as "The motion picture with something to offend everyone." Discussing the movie in Life, Shana Alexander wrote that "The true queasy-making vulgarity of The Loved One … lies in the fact that it mixes up jokes about our attitudes toward death, which are often absurd, with death itself, which never is." The essentially irresponsible attitude which Tony Richardson and Terry Southern took to their material was worlds removed from Waugh's concern with it; after all, in his Life article on Forest Lawn he suggested that the decline of Western civilization might have been observable first of all in the graveyard. Describing disorder, he implied rather than ridiculed order: like Pope and Swift, he tried to shock people into a realization of how far they had departed from a reasonable and humane standard of behaviour, whereas the black humorists seem to mock the very concept of such a standard.

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