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Critical Essay by Alain Blayac
SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh and Humour," in Evelyn Waugh: New Directions, London: Macmillan, 1992, pp. 112-32.
In the following essay, Blayac explains the classical meaning of "humor," rooted in the theory of the four humors of the human body, and applies it to Waugh's novels.
Humour, English humour, has always been a subject of interest (and puzzlement) for the French who have always had the utmost difficulties in understanding their neighbours, hence the number of French essays devoted to the analysis and explanation of the concept. Across the Channel, the notion strikes deep roots in the British collective unconscious. Born of the medical 'theory of humours', it still prevailed during the Renaissance. Initiated by Hippocrates, theorised by Galien, it referred to the four fluids of the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Physical diseases, as well as mental and moral temperaments, were the result of the relationship of one humour to another. When the humours were in balance, an ideal temperament prevailed, genial or melancholy according to the circumstances. This explains how the word 'humour' came to mean disposition, then mood or characterized peculiarity, like folly or affectation.
In literature, even though Chaucer and Shakespeare had amply drawn upon the subject, it was Ben Jonson who created the 'Comedy of Humours', depicting characters whose behaviour was determined by a single trait or humour. The Prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour gives the first definition of both 'humour' and 'humorist'.
Asper: Why humour, as 'tis ens, we thus define it
To be a quality of air, or water,
And in itself holds these two properties,
Moisture and fluxure: as, for demonstration,
Pour water on this floor, 'twill wet and run:
Likewise the air, forced through a horn or trumpet,
Flows instantly away, and leaves behind
A Kind of dew; and hence we do conclude,
That whatsoe'er hath fluxure and humidity,
As wanting power to contain itself,
Is humour, So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm and blood,
By reason that they flow continually,
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a humour.
Cordatus: […] now if an idiot
Have but an apish or fantastic strain,
It is his humour,
Asper: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time's deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt or fear […]
Now gentlemen, I go
To turn an actor, and a humorist,
Where, ere I do resume my present person,
We hope to make the circles of your eyes
Flow with distilled laughter…
The comedy of humours has its characters, eccentrics, maniacs, lunatics, swindlers, victims, and its themes of eccentricity, whims and fancies, madness. It creates 'humour', what is laughable, whose creator is the 'humorist'. Since then, and up till today, humour has developed and endured in Britain and its arts. In the last thirty years, considerable progress has been made towards the definition of humour. An article dating back to the eighteenth century suggests that the English are animated by a natural, original vein called 'humour'. According to it, everyone in England offers some bizarre slant of mind, some original humour. In the course of time, the term became the expression of a collective mood which the English relish and cultivate. Unlike the Cartesian French, who turned their backs on sentiment and the concrete to move towards concept and the abstract, the English leaned towards humour, which they linked with the particular and the ephemeral; in the process they initiated a literary climate which could only flourish in a people born of the union of the Anglo-Saxon heart and the Anglo-Norman mind.
Michel Serres's latest book, Le Contrat naturel, opens on a description of a painting by Goya: two men brandishing cudgels are fighting on quicksands. Intent on their duel, they forget that they have already sunk knee-deep in the mud. Each motion, each gesture they make contribute to their being gradually buried together. Their aggressivity determines the rhythm of their sinking and the time of their interment. Such blindness to the surrounding world is by no means new or incredible; the trouble is that it is pregnant with catastrophic consequences. As such, the painting could perfectly illustrate the lesson of Evelyn Waugh's fiction, if, that is, a dash of humour were added to the Spanish artist's tragic manner.
Indeed Waugh may be considered as a typical representative of the British dual nature, even in the very reductive clichés about his life which see him first as a young scapegrace iconoclast, later as a bitter ageing hypochondriac. In this essay, we shall take as a starting point the (today widely-held) hypothesis that Waugh is a genuine moralist and satirist, who draws on all the forms of humour to propound in an oblique manner the moral, religious and philosophical principles which he advocates for the saving of the individual and society.
What is humour? Before attempting to answer the question, let us suggest that it is high time the reading public, and indeed the critics, realised that humour and humorists must not be made light of, Evelyn Waugh no less than others. To be humorous about humour amounts to confusing the object and the instrument of the study. Let us also remember that the notion is increasingly arduous to grasp; everybody discusses and defines it in more or less overlapping or contradictory ways, when it should be strictly circumscribed so as to avoid commonplaces or overgeneralisations.
Historically, French, unlike most other languages, split its vocabulary into 'humeur' and 'humour', hinting at a new awareness of the phenomenon seen as a rational reaction and, for such as knew a little philology, suggesting its emotional and affective roots. Seen from a different perspective, an essay on Evelyn Waugh, whose Britishness is both ingrained and peerless, cannot but make the distinction between English and American humours. L. W. Kline believed the latter resulted from the conflict between a sense of inner freedom and external societal pressures: thus American humour acts as a safety-valve. Today in the USA one encounters a growing temptation to reduce 'humor' to an aesthetic of the absurd and the nonsensical which is by no means the case in Britain. In his own study, Escarpit presents the 'British sense of humour as an aesthetic form of the self-consciousness', in other words as a national reflex of discretion and decency, concurrently individual and collective (transposed in Waugh's writings to the point of becoming the mask behind which the satirist lurks and chastises through laughter), whereas in the USA, he regards the word as indicating a national reflex of indiscretion or indecency. Two last capital distinctions must be made, the first for the French, the second for the English. Humour should never be confused with what initiates laughter, nor mistaken for irony or wit. Humour and laughter are two different phenomena; Bergson's demonstrations only tangentially concern humour. On the other hand, wit and irony are far too intellectual to be identified with it, for humour demands the sympathy of a witness or accomplice. To the pleasure solitarily enjoyed by the 'wit', self-satisfied, convinced of his intellectual superiority, the humorist prefers the sympathetic wink, the sentimental connivance. He appears humble, only too willing to hand the fruits of his labours over to the invisible inter-locutor who he himself has conjured up beforehand for his own purpose and pleasure. In this respect, humour (which has been described as a current passing between two poles) diverges aesthetically, because of its deep affective roots, from wit and irony (which cut the current between two people).
When successively reading Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, one cannot but be struck by the drastic evolution of Waugh's tone and humour induced by the trauma of his divorce and the revelation of the Roman Catholic faith. After the callous, careless impertinence of the first novel and the first half of the second, humour suddenly becomes the touchstone and the instrument of the writer's wounded affectivity, directly debouching on to bitterly heartfelt satire. This affectivity provides the next novels with their peculiar atmosphere, a sui generis flavour whose infinite nuances range from rosy to grey and black. When the tender element dominates, rosy humour prevails, as in the following passage in which the writer himself admits his sympathy for the tourists he describes.
The word 'tourist' seems naturally to suggest haste and compulsion. One thinks of those pitiable droves of Middle West school teachers whom one encounters suddenly at street corners and in public buildings, baffled, breathless, their heads singing with unfamiliar names, their bodies strained and bruised from scrambling in and out of motor charabancs, up and down staircases, and from trailing disconsolately through miles of gallery and museum at the heels of a contemptuous and facetious guide. How their eyes haunt us long after they have passed on to the next stage of their itinerary—haggard and uncomprehending eyes, mildly resentful, like those of animals in pain, eloquent of that world-weariness we all feel as the dead weight of European culture … And as one sits at one's café table playing listlessly with sketch book and apéritif, and sees them stumble by, one sheds not wholly derisive tears for these poor scraps of humanity thus trapped and mangled in the machinery of uplift.
In many cases, one observes that affectivity is neither openly didactic nor sentimental, it thus steers clear of the potential dangers of cheap, impersonal moralism or mawkishness which Evelyn Waugh deeply mistrusts. Father Rothschild's famous speech on the Bright Young Things' being possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence is at worst a minor flaw, but, seen in a more positive perspective, it provides a moral standard by which to judge their behaviour.
Waugh's art may also serve, by dint of his humour, to numb his reader's sensibility. Then, in the case of such exemplary occurrences as Little Lord Tangent's or Simon Balcairn's deaths, humour turns grey. It is born not so much of the narrator's dehumanising detachment as of the fact that the reader, not allowed to feel that those are real people's deaths, smiles at happenings which, in other contexts, would be deemed tragic but here become essentially fantastic. The second epigraph of Vile Bodies gives the key to this type of humour. The writer quells moralism by resorting to modern techniques—montage, collage, intertextuality—which generate humour in as much as they allow the reader to distance himself from his reading. In the epigraph, the moral slant is concealed by an apparently casual, or jocular, attitude. But, in most cases, the technical skill hides a hopeless or desperate brand of immorality. It is prominent in the pranks and hoaxes of the Bright Young Things and particularly in Agatha Runcible's adventures culminating in her untimely, but inescapable, and ultimately tragic, demise.
When the realistic element supersedes the 'Alice-in-Wonderland' atmosphere, merrymaking turns sour, bitterness sets in, and grey humour is strengthened. The older generation, a constant butt of Waugh's humour, illustrate this aspect; the description of their gathering at Anchorage House belongs in such a category.
She [Lady Circumference] saw … a great concourse of pious and honourable people …, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities,… that fine phalanx of the passing order …
Here the profusion of mostly negative adjectives turns them less into laughing stocks than creatures of a bygone age, grotesque characters in a sad fairy tale. The humour has turned dark grey in the melancholy realisation that the former rulers are both out of touch with the modern world and unconscious of it—in a word, decadent. Darker—for symbolic of the hero's misconceptions—is the reality of the pseudo-refuges, the 'Lush Places', which the Younger Generation and their like wrongly consider as genuine shelters immune from the aggressions of the outside world.
The immense trees which encircled Boot Magna Hall, shaded its drives and rides, and stood tastefully disposed at the whim of some forgotten, provincial predecessor of Repton, single and in groups about the park, had suffered, some from ivy, some from lightning, some from the various malignant disorders that vegetation is heir to, but all, principally, from old age. Some were supported with trusses and crutches of iron, some were filled with cement….
The lake was moved by strange tides …
Boot Magna Hall fares no better than the members of the Older Generation, is no better fortress than Oxford, Mataudi or Hetton Abbey ever were. The humour, in its grey, dull melancholy, springs from the personification of a place victimised by the passing of time; more essentially and obliquely, it mocks the delusions of the protagonists and the responsibility they bear for their own misadventures.
When directed at the characters, humour varies with the degree of naivety or cynicism, innocence or perversion which they display. It may range from the tender to the sarcastic and the downright cynical, from rosy to grey or black again. Tenderness is the keynote to Nina Blount's shyly admitting to her lack of experience in amorous matters.
Adam undressed quickly and got into bed; Nina more slowly arranging her clothes on the chair … with less than her usual self-possession. At last she put out the light.
'Do you know', she said, trembling slightly as she got into bed, 'this is the first time this has happened to me?'
'It's great fun', said Adam, 'I promise you.'
'I'm sure it is', said Nina seriously, 'I wasn't saying anything against it. I was only saying that it hadn't happened before … Oh, Adam'.
It is remarkable that, after this scene, Waugh will never again present a perfectly innocent character, but here the gap existing between the bold situation and the reserve, coyness or self-consciousness which characterise the two lovers at this turning point of their lives is both touching and amusing. On the contrary, with Colonel Blount, Nina's father, the humour becomes jarring as one realises the nefarious treatment to which he submits historical truth. When his film, ambiguously entitled A Brand from the Burning, is presented on a Christmas Day desecrated by Adam and Nina's adultery and the declaration of war, it appears exactly to reflect the downright cynical mood and utterly deleterious atmosphere prevailing in England. The darkening humour of the novel evidently coincides with the breakdown of the author's marriage and personal values. In the 'Happy Ending', Waugh, who has hit the bottom of despair, resorts to the blackest kind of humour he has used so far.
When all references to sentiment are erased, when the writer wavers on the brink of despair or sadism, when his comedy opens on to the absurd, then black, kafkaesque humour crops up. The most numerous instances are to be found, not innocently so, in The Loved One. There the decadence of the British exiles in Los Angeles can be classified as grey humour. It merely concerns the uprooted, self-deluding British colony. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, its leader, paints it in a ludicrous, but not wholly humourless, profession of faith.
We limeys have a particular position to keep up … It's a responsibility, I can tell you, and in various degrees every Englishman shares it. We can't be all at the top of the tree but we are all men of responsibility. You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course.
This debased 'White Man's Burden' type of speech, the deluded (and deluding) assertions, the self-imposed blindness of Sir Ambrose associated with his use of American slang ('limeys'), contrasted with the typically English metaphorical understatement that they are not at the top of the tree bring out the reader's compassion for, and amusement at, the plight of the Britisher in Hollywood. Black humour develops when more serious subjects are concerned-religion and interment rites in particular-in the juxtaposition of Whispering Glades, the Hollywood cemetery, and the Happier Hunting Grounds, its counterpart for pets, and its sombre implications of a society forsaking its most sacred values. The Biblical parody and the reversal of Christian values are central to a novel in which the notion of human death is sacrificed to that of efficacy, pleasure substituted for pain, merrymaking for mourning, all religious references banned from the Service of 'the Loved Ones' but reinstated for defunct animals.
Dog that is born of bitch hatch but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay …
The parody of Job (14, 1-2), under the imperturbable mask of ignorance, obliquely conveys the indignation of the author at what appears to him as an evil perversion of the sacred texts in the same way as the Entrance Poster to Whispering Glades exudes humour in its lyrico-biblico-prophetic style, its caricature of the Creation and the Revelation wryly denouncing the debasement of the most sacred Christian values. Different, but as subtle and efficient, is the type of humour presiding over Tony Last's punishment. Condemned to read Dickens for ever, to live vicariously in the petit-bourgeois Victorian universe he abhorred, imprisoned in a jungle which negates the City he envisioned, Tony Last finds Hell because he had rejected the realities of the world, refused the primordial necessity of religion. In both A Handful of Dust and The Loved One, black humour (obtained through intertextuality) is resorted to to create a hellish universe which a contrario imposes the absolute necessity of religion in human existence.
The Conditions of Humour
Humour, whatever its coloration, requires a proper soil, special conditions to strike root in the substance of the literary work ('substance' is the proper word as a concrete basis is necessary to its growing, blooming and bearing fruit). Oxford, Mayfair, Abyssinia, Fleet Street, California, the Army provide the soils in which Waugh plants it. Unlike wit, humour thrives on the immediate observation of, and response to, the surrounding universe. It never focuses on a single word, phrase, paragraph, but suffuses the deep layers of the work of art. Waugh, a genuine humorist, patiently conjures, and bolsters, up an 'atmosphere', a 'climate' through his technique of writing and composition. He relies on a gradual refining of the raw, immediate impressions. The very genesis of the novels shows how he uses them as foundations for his fiction. His literary creation develops in three successive stages, the initial and personal experience, later transcribed into a diary or travelogue, and finally refined into an imaginative fiction which creates a new reality coloured by the writer's humour. The situations lived at the first degree are revived and transposed at the second. In order to preserve the appearance of realism, a number of 'serious' passages are inserted within the plot and serve as touchstones, foils or guide marks to the invented stories. The 'Guidebook' style for the introduction of Hetton Abbey, or the 'History' style for the Ishmaelia of Scoop play this role.
Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. It lies in the North-Easterly quarter of Africa, giving colour by its position and shape to the metaphor often used of it-'the Heart of the Dark Continent'. Desert, forest, swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protect its approaches….
Various courageous Europeans in the seventies of the last century came to Ishmaelia, 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 of them returned …
These passages are characterized by a meticulous presentation of apparently historical or technical details, by the dignified, unruffled attitude of a narrator intent on brushing up the setting of the plot in as rigorous and scientific manner as possible. For a brief moment, the moralist dons the garb of the scientist. Devoid of indifference, close to the passion of the scholar, Waugh's humorous fictions are always founded on realistic observation either personally acquired or invented for the sake of the cause, more frequently halfway between the two. In all cases, his realism is suddenly and brutally, but cleverly and consciously, destroyed. It hardly needs the next few words 'They were eaten, everyone of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned …' for the truth to jump to the reader's eyes and mind, and the writer's position to be clearly defined.
In this respect, one can say that affectivity is a second necessary ingredient of Waugh's humour. Although it primarily rests on the concrete, the affective quality is essential to its development. Again it adheres to a precise pattern. Waugh's humour—humour in general perhaps—develops in three successive stages. First the reality of a social group is subverted, which provokes the reader's confusion or distress; then, a few hints dropped by the writer relieve the reader who, confronted with the mind-boggling absurdity of the proposed scheme, bursts out laughing and thus comes to share the author's humorous criticism. The way in which Lord Copper selects his journalists, Seth his personal advisers, the workings of all institutions in Britain and abroad—staff and students at Oxford, the diplomatic corps in Azania, the Press' gossip-writers and foreign correspondents, the Army—all partake of the utmost absurdity.
A third condition, the most specific, must be added: two persons—actor and witness, author and reader—must be involved for humour to appear. Actor and witness may coincide, in which case first-degree humour is achieved. Oxford students, Fleet Street journalists, Army officers are so many alter-egos of a self-mocking Waugh who, having at one time of his life lived his characters' experiences, laughs no less at himself than at those he caricatures—Paul Pennyfeather at Llanabba, Gilbert Pinfold on a cruise among others re-enact the author's past experiences. But Waugh can also create a kind of 'foil', when second degree humour is conjured up. The foil may be totally irresponsible, dull-witted and passive (Paul, Seth, William) or, on the contrary, clever, cunning and prepared to go all lengths to accomplish his aims (Basil, Julia Stitch etc …). Waugh plays freely on both alternatives, but the important fact remains that, owing to his personal commitment in his novels, a close relationship is set up between the work of art and the intellectual or sentimental response it rouses in the reader, hence, between the writer and his public. Obviously such a relationship is not easy to establish. Being linked with an 'aesthetic response', it can only be appreciated by those who are willing to collaborate. The hostility which some people have to the so-called defects of Waugh (a cad, a Papist, a conservative, a fascist!), a hostility which feeds on the multifarious provocations of a man who relished aggravating people, nips in the bud not the writer's humour but the very sense of humour of a reader overwhelmed by a devastating phobia for the writer or his writings. Naturally the phobia often derives either from personal prejudices or from a first degree analysis of oblique writings (is it not both easy and tempting to mistake Waugh for a racist?), or from the utter refusal to have anything to do with a man one abhors. Humour, let us repeat it, presupposes the reader's collaboration; it rests on his capacity to understand obliquely presented truths through an intimate knowledge of their contextual frames and/or his thorough adherence to the writer's angst. To read, for example, the conclusion of Remote People is enough to wash Waugh of the accusation of racialism so often directed at him.
On the night of my return I dined in London … I was back in the centre of the Empire, and in the spot where, at the moment, 'everyone' was going. Next day the gossip writers would chronicle the young MPs, peers, and financial magnates who were assembled in that rowdy cellar, hotter than Zanzibar, noisier than the market at Harrar, more reckless of the decencies of hospitality than the taverns of Kabalo or Tabora …Why go abroad?
See England first.
Just watch London knock spots off the
For humour to operate we must then agree that some modus vivendi has to be worked out between the artist and the more perspicacious reader, better still, connivance will add spice to the scandalous impact of pages that may be shocking or meaningless to the unsophisticated or unprepared public. Hence the fact that Waugh, like all satirists, has either bitter enemies on whom his humour is lost or unconditional defenders who feel his humour is supreme. Either one fights him to the bitter end or one accepts and is carried away, surrendering unconditionally to his humour.
Humour, Wit, Irony
The notion of complicity opposes humour and wit. Wit strives towards dazzling phrases, mesmerising formulas. It is not so much linked with a context as with the genius, the essence of the language. As such, instead of establishing a current between two poles, it provokes a short circuit. A fire is suddenly set ablaze, and quickly put out. Wit obviously exists in Waugh's writings, but it never informs them (as it does, say, Aldous Huxley's earlier novels). Waugh prefers to set up links, to switch on the current so to speak. In this respect the irony he directs at characters whose innocence, ignorance, nay imbecility, are palpable, is not far removed from humour. It stimulates the reader's response, obliges him to pass a personal judgment on the actors of the novels and their actions. All satirists—Montesquieu in Lettres persanes, Voltaire in Candide, not to mention Pope or Swift—have drawn on this technique propitious to the flowering of humour. Paul Penny-feather, Adam Fenwick-Symes, William Boot, Dennis Barlow, Guy Crouchback here replace Usbek, Rica or Candide.
The 'suspension of evidence', a subtle derangement of the natural order, which turns the world upside down and eradicates reason from the human organisation, is another source of humour pervading Waugh's novels. The Loved One provides the perfect illustration of a religion absurdly turned awry, in which the instant is made more important than eternity, sensual gratification more central than the soul's salvation. As a corollary to this topsy-turvy world, demanding the reader's 'suspension of evidence', Waugh's humour assumes a new acumen when it allows reality, which the fantastic adventures and preposterous fancies of the characters had blotted out, to reassert itself dramatically in the nightmares of protagonists whose minds have been deranged (Agatha, Tony and Brenda, Gilbert Pinfold). The world then is felt to be truly out of joint, only the most severe shocks may set it right, but without the protagonists ever realising it, and consequently ever becoming conscious of their own errors and responsibilities for the misfortunes which befell them. The humour springs from the unreal atmosphere surrounding events which the reader alone can appreciate at its face value once the suspension of evidence has been annihilated by the drama.
D'you know, all that time when I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop,… and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving—and then I used to crash and wake up.
Let us note at this point that, Waugh's humour transcending the comic and arising from almost any situation and technique, from language to structure, Bergson's comic hierarchy, which ranges from the mechanic to verbal and psychological devices, is of little avail to analyse it.
Humour indeed can occur when the writer uses his style pleasantly enough to convince the reader of his good sense. It is universally acknowledged that Waugh ranks among the best stylists of modern British literature. He himself claimed that, for the novelist he was, style was primordial
Properly understood style is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is of the essence of the work of art. ['Literary Style in England and America', in Books on Trial, October 1955]
One thing I hold as certain, that a writer, if he is to develop, must concern himself more and more with Style … a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. ['Literary Style in England and America']
Countless examples of humorous style can illustrate our purpose. Tony Last's Sunday ritual
Tony invariably wore a dark suit on Sundays and a stiff white collar. He went to church, where he sat in a large pitch-pine pew, put in by his great-grandfather at the time of rebuilding the house, furnished with very high crimson hassocks and a fireplace, complete with iron grate and a little poker which his father used to rattle when any point in the sermon excited his disapproval …
is a pastiche of Addison's well-known portrait of Sir Roger de Coverley at church. The squire, vested with the remnants of feudal power, suffers no inattention from the parishioners for whose moral health he feels responsible … but he allows himself occasionally to doze off during the sermon. Humour then proceeds from the identification of Tony with Sir Roger, from the stereotyped, unconscious archaism of an attitude out of keeping with modern times and revealed through style. At bottom it opens onto Waugh's critical awareness of his hero and of his times. At this level the writer's specific humour may rightly be said to depend on his perception of an historical and political background, the past historical grandeur, the decadence of the ruling classes, the degenerescence of the religious and political leaders. Style has transformed Waugh into a prophetic artist. At the level of the overall structure, the final retribution of the herovictims (Adam, Tony, Ambrose, Guy) introduces a tragic element in which pathos and eiron are associated, whereas the apparently successful characters only duplicate their preceding errors and are taken back to their starting points. The more you run, the more you stay in the same place.
At the elementary level, the most innocuous puns or euphemisms become significant. In Vile Bodies, for instance, the vocabulary often opens up ironic vistas. Divine, just too divine the characters exclaim at the very moment they enter Hell. Toponymy (Sink Street) and onomastics (the angels' names) partake of the same epiphanies. Occasionally the play-on-words is merely an affair of humorous backchat. The play on the different meanings of the French verb baiser (to kiss, but also 'to screw') in Scoop is immediately perceptible to French readers as a simple joke. Superficially amusing, it is nevertheless connected with the desecration of Christmas, eight years earlier, by the adulterous protagonists of Vile Bodies. The central, most serious reflexion of Black Mischief, [Prudence] 'I'd like to eat you', takes a threefold meaning. It suggests Basil Seal's physical attraction to Prudence, foreshadows the nature of their amorous activities, and eventually, with the heroine's tragic demise, illustrates the deep nature of Azania. The humorous play-on-words all function as the euphemisms of human manners. The germ of the humour basically lies in the distanciation created by the style between the reader and the text. Whether spatial or temporal, it is primarily created by a clever handling of language, style, structure, and their hidden potentialities.
In some cases, when exceptionally tender feelings are involved (Paul for Margot, William for Kätchen), a dash of pseudo-lyricism allows the reader to escape from the bleak reality. Descriptions break the dramatic rhythm, the action stops in a stasis which is a mere structural lull, a dreamlike interval in a world whose harsh nature cannot but reassert itself in a brutal way. In such cases the humorous effect resides in the momentary (but deceptive) dissipation of the prevalent dullness into a fireworks of shimmering images, in the gap between reality and dream.
A week of blue water that grew clearer and more tranquil daily, of sun that grew warmer, radiating the ship and her passengers, filling them with good humour and ease; blue water that caught the sun in a thousand brilliant points, dazzling the eyes as they searched for porpoises and flying fish; clear blue water in the shallows revealing its bed of silver and smooth pebble, fathoms down; soft warm shade on deck under the awnings; the ship moved amid unbroken horizons on a vast blue disc of blue, sparkling with sunlight.
Obviously such an escapist passage is not humorous per se, but it is based on a pathetic fallacy soon to be dispelled, when the drab aspects of the world will predominate again … i.e. very soon
Muddy sea between Trinidad and Georgetown; and the ship lightened of cargo rolled heavily on the swell.
This type of humour is basically structural and essential to the emergence of the message. It springs from the confrontation of the passages, from the illusions harboured by the characters (and presumably the reader) that all may be well, that the interlude may last for ever. But a close attention to style and context reveals the vanity of the dreams, and the writer's intentions are clarified by his structural humour.
It has often been noticed that polarisation and counterpoints are constant features in Waugh's fiction. According to G. McCartney they are 'the structural analogues of the divisive tensions he sensed both within and outside himself', but they go beyond the personal idiosyncrasy and concur in the structural development of humour. By juxtaposing scenes, applying in the process the discoveries of modern art (collage, montage etc….), Waugh may exert his humour at the generational division, the faults of the couple, the city and the jungle (the banquet and the cannibal feast, war and racket, phony war and phony games etc….). Amusing as they are the counterpoints or montage effects confront the reader with unmistakable, but hitherto unrealised, discoveries.
Another source of humour lies in the apparent indifference of the narrator to his story which he interrupts with great disdain for his plot. The humour lies in the fact that in their own bizarre way the apparent digressions turn out to be absolutely pertinent to the novel. In Vile Bodies, the disquisition on 'Being and Becoming' parodies the argument about the ontological primacy of essence on existence. In Decline and Fall, the Big Wheel at Luna Park stands for Silenus's metaphor of life. In the process, the reader is led to realise the insignificance of modern man caught in the infernal machinery of a world running loose or mad. Metaphors of this plight abound in all the novels (the film and the car race in Vile Bodies, the funeral parlour in The Loved One). Humour conceals Waugh's didactic stance; the mask it provides does not need to be elaborately contrived, but it is essential to the writer's strategy. The humorous (apparent) detachment of the narrator strengthens the situation of the writer as producer. Detached, unmoved by his characters' misfortunes, reluctant to get the readers involved, he all the same suggests a moral. He draws on the strategies of modern art to ridicule the 'modern' way of life. The humour lies in the ridiculing through which he demonstrates the failure of a feckless and faithless world, the futility of a society which has lost its fundamental values. Later, Waugh will switch from humour to realism, from detachment to commitment in an attempt to offer positive solutions to his drifting contemporaries. The humour will die in the process, to the regret of the readers who had not grasped the didactic nature of the early novels or enjoyed its discretion.
The didactic nature of the novels, essential as it is, does not suffice to make of Waugh a major novelist. Waugh's originality does not lie so much in the denunciation of an insane society as in a new form of humour; or rather the emergence of a demented or corrupt language initiates another species of humour designed to set off the degraded nature of contemporary society. Language becomes the mirror of society, the demented language rubs out reality and substitutes the Verb to it, becomes a possible key to the nature of Seth and his like whose estrangement from reason it symbolises. Seth's humorously unreasonable decrees fail because of the perversion the king imposes on language, in the same way as the utopian dreams can be said to represent another perversion of language.
Such phenomena culminate in what may be called corrupt language, which, once a meaning and desire to communicate have been eradicated, ultimately boils down to mere gibberish and jargon. The characters then forget reality, take refuge in an imaginary universe of their own and avoid contact with others. Humour, at this level, emerges in the superabundance of tags: 'so', 'then', 'now', 'presently' establish links whose logic is merely apparent. The language, severed from reality, functions as a humorous code devoid of any significance. Dialogues disappear, there only remain incoherent phrases muttered by characters wrapped in their own obsessions. The humour of it all carries the message that the Babel cacophony is the objective correlative of a society disintegrating in insanity. It allows both reader and writer to smile at the simultaneous discovery of the mad ways of the world, and, in the eloquent silences between the corrupt dialogues, it carries the message that societal energies must be mustered to fight the spreading anarchism and dementia, to set up a wall against the proliferating jungle.
Ironically enough, one should keep in mind Waugh's own experience: there was a Waugh idiom made fashionable by the 'Hypocrites' Club'. As W. Bogaards shows in her 'Waugh and the BBC', only a few intimates understood it and it did imply scorn or pretended scorn for anything or any person outside the circle. Another miracle of humour is that it urged Waugh to transpose a negative personal habit into a positive element of his fiction. The humorist runs with the hare, and never hesitates to castigate the pack of hounds in which he once belonged.
To round up this essay, three things must be said. Firstly, if humour can proceed from the complete identification of the writer with his subject, this is not always the case with Evelyn Waugh whose brand of humour is often marked with ambiguity. He asserts what he apparently denies in his novels (that 'Lush Places' are no real shelters) and constructs what he pretends to destroy (religion, essential for man's salvation, never directly appears as a recourse in most of the novels). A new outlook on life resulting from this ambiguity pushes his comedy to open on to the tragic as apparently comic actions entail disastrous consequences. For Waugh, the prime function of humour consists less in propagating ideas than in setting off their relativity (Rosa, the Macushi woman, is more dependable than all the Mayfair 'ladies'), in showing that the ambiguity of things often debauches on a form of nonsense illustrating the absurdity of contemporary mores. But, more important, the relativity it introduces improves the lesson, makes it more efficacious. "'Oh! please God, make them attack the Chapel," said Mr Sniggs' (the Junior Dean of Scone College). The message is coded (as satire demands) but the important point is that the satirical lesson is always tinged or suffused with humour.
Secondly, the concrete and affective elements humour contains also make it reversible so that the heroes can be mocked without weakening the message. Surely to don a mask of innocence, or to have an incompetent fool (Paul), a blissful imbecile (William) or an archaic moron (Tony) playing the role of hero, are brilliant ways of ridiculing social mores. Through the outsider—who never suspects the schemes wielded behind his back—the reader may form the weirdest impressions of the characters and social sets he meets (Margot and Chokey, the Bright Young Things, Lord Copper and Fleet Street, British exiles in Hollywood etc …). A subtle power of correction goes hand in had with the reversibility of humour. It steers clear of the pitfalls of puritanical morality. The seduction of Prudence by Basil might have inspired a sermon, Waugh succeeds in making it authentic satire, matching in excellence T. S. Eliot's 'Seduction of the Typist' scene. The bitterly humorous clash between the 'love scene' (as seen by Prudence) and reality, i.e. 'The Burma cheroot … slowly unfurling in the soapy water …, the soggy stub of tobacco emanat[ing] a brown blot of juice', allows the writer to avoid moral indignation and to find an objective correlative to his disgust and reprobation. Thus the blackest humour arises of a situation which encompasses in a nutshell (or more precisely here in a bathtub) the faults, vices and blemishes of modern and western life, whose horrifying reality is never directly attacked but always, indirectly, denounced.
Thirdly, humour acts as an authorial catharsis. It does not only purge the writer of the moral or sentimental temptations, it also refines the whole gamut of his emotions. Waugh's sadistic tendencies, destructive leanings, suicidal attraction are refined into positive creations. The catharsis operated by humour helped Waugh to forget, if not to heal, the wounds of his divorce, and, in the fifties, those of his physical decrepitude. It freed him from himself, as it were. It somewhat smothered nostalgia and sentiment and invited him to assert his liberty to the face of the world. Thus it eventually achieves a twofold effect, heal the writer, touch or teach the reader.
As a conclusion, we can say that humour, within its possible combinations, remains relatively stable in its matter, although the manner in which Waugh shapes it remains specific of his creative imagination. Waughian humour, although it may verge on the most scathing irony, also includes affective elements which illustrate an extreme sensitivity and shed light on the innermost recesses of the writer's personality.
We must also add that ironically, in the course of his career, Waugh ceased to be the youthful humorist of the twenties to become a genuine 'humour' in the medical sense. In the fifties an unfortunate identification of the ageing man with the artist reinforced the clichés, stereotypes, and blatant untruths which are occasionally retailed in the general public and against which critics have fought in order to restore Evelyn Waugh to his true status as one of the greatest of English humorous writers. In this sense, the lines he wrote in his private diaries pathetically demonstrate his thirst for the absolute and the constant fight he had to wage to be of use in this trite age of ours.
To make an interior act of renunciation and become a stranger in the world, to watch one's fellow countrymen as we used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities—that is the secret of happiness in the century of the common man.
Fortunately Waugh's incapacity to resign himself to indifference, to watch his fellow countrymen as foreigners, is a blessing which begot his humour for our pleasure and moral edification. But for his humour (and his religious faith), his would have been held a pessimistic, almost nihilistic vision of man. One can at times see him as a desperate man, but his good sense allied to his sensibility made him favor the smiles and benevolence of ravaging humour and reject the wailing and gnashing of teeth of black melancholy. To this humour Evelyn Waugh owes his status as a major novelist and satirist of our times.
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