Thursday, December 15, 2005

The virtue of Waugh's "snobbery"

One of the most frequent charges encountered against Evelyn Waugh is the accusation of rank snobbery, not least because of his vigorous defense of the traditional Latin Mass and criticisms of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, whose proceedings he regarded with great and often prescient gloom. In a recent post, "Waugh on Liturgical 'Participa-tion'" (December 6, 2005), I revisited an article by Adam A.J. DeVille, "In Defense of Christian 'Snobbery': The Case of Evelyn Waugh Recon-sidered," Latin Mass (Spring, 2004), pp. 72-77, which I called a "brilliant article." Indeed it is. I've been reading it again, and it's truly a masterfully written piece -- one that represents the best of the kind of writing that keeps me coming back to Latin Mass magazine for what it claims to be in its subtitle: A Journal of Catholic Culture.

As to Waugh, DeVille basically argues that his example shows us how to be properly contrarian, going against the tide safe in the knowledge, as Chesterton put it, that only a dead fish swims with it. He begins with Northwestern University professor of English Joseph Epstein's "working definition" of a "snob" in his book, Snobbery: The American Version , as "someone out to impress his betters or depress those he takes to be his inferiors ... with an exaggerated respect for social position, wealth, and all the accoutrements of status ... whose pride and accomplishment ... always await the approving judgment of others."

DeVille initially admits that under this definition there are certain aspects in Waugh's life and works -- some real, but many more badly misinterpreted or even apocryphal -- that do lend some credence to the standard indictment against him. Not touching upon his fictional characters, one can find material in his letters, diaries and essays that could be taken as supporting this charge of snobbery, certainly. DeVille quotes two of the funnier examples from the generally sympathetic portrait offered some ten years ago by George Weigel:
Despite his undisputed personal bravery, Waugh's anarchic personality made him an impossible military officer. At one intelligence briefing during his early days in the Royal Marines, Waugh inquired whether it was true that "in the Romanian army no one beneath the rank of Major is permitted to use lipstick." In 1940, Waugh was charged with neglecting his duties during a training exercise; part of the charge filed against him was that he had been seen smoking a cigar and drinking claret. When pressed on this during a Court of Inquiry in 1945, he admitted to having been smoking a cheroot and drinking Burgandy, but demanded of the Court why he should be "run in by an officer so ill-bred that he could not distinguish between these totally different things."
Here DeVille proceeds to a discussion of Waugh's highly unfashionable views of resisting what he saw as the creeping socialism of postwar Britain and of resisting the increasing secularism and democratization of his times by converting to Catholicism and writing about the Catholic faith of an aristocratic family in Brideshead Revisited . This brought down upon Waugh the unleashed fury of the critic, Edmund Wilson, in a review of Brideshead in The New Yorker in the mid-1940s, whose charge of "snobbery" and "cult of high nobility" stuck.

In undertaking to exonerate Waugh of the charge of snobbery according to Epstein's working definition, DeVille asks us to bear in mind five things: (1) Many of the comments made by, or attributed to, Waugh are "nothing more than occasional rudeness and do not rise to the level of snobbery as Epstein defines it." He points out that Waugh was constantly apologizing and sending flowers to hostesses for saying beastly things at their dinner parties. He himself once admitted, "I always think to myself: 'I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.'"

(2) The vast majority of stories in circulation "were told by Waugh himself against himself, thus violating, in one stroke, a central tenet of snobberty as Epstein defines it." DeVille offers as an example his novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold , which Waugh himself confessed to be autobiographical, a novel that invites numerous laughs against Waugh himself -- such as his becoming clinically paranoid through a combination of pharmacologically primitive sleeping potions liberally taken with large splashes of creme de menthe -- hardly the sort of admission a social sycophant seeking to impress his betters would make.

(3) One may also make the case that Waugh, far from being a snobbish reactionary crank, is actually an ally of many who have otherwise heaped scorn on his political and social views, as they would soon discover if they were better versed in his criticism of urban planning, modern architecture, the decline of the arts under the onslaught of Hollywood mass media, the triumph of homogenized bourgeois "good taste," and globalization of what Waugh called "drab uniformity."

(4) Waugh' rejoinder to Wilson's critical review was to shrug off the charge of snobbery: "Class-consciousness, particularly in England," he declared, "has been so much inflamed nowadays that to mention a nobleman is like mentioning a prostitute 60 years ago." Soon after, he responded to an Irish review, which made a similar accusation of snobbery, by saying, "I think perhaps your reviewer is right in calling me a snob ... but I do not think the preference is necessarily an offence against Charity, still less against the Faith."

(5) Most important, the "snobbery" of which Waugh was accused, says DeVille, was "nothing more than an elaborate put on, largely to annoy the ascendant political left in postwar Britain." As Randolph Churchill and others in the 1950s first realized, he says, Waugh was fond of "corrective snobbery" over and against the "proletarian snobbery" -- an unctuous romanticization of the lower classes that was then engulfing the Labor government that Waugh called the "Atlee terror." DeVille quotes Waugh's son, Auberon, as saying, shortly after his father's death, that Evelyn "nurtured a romantic attachment to the aristocratic ideal [especially] when he discovered how much it annoyed people."

I pause over this last point briefly only because I find the illustrations of this point that DeVille offers are so amusing for their blatant and self-conscious political incorrectness. The first is from Arthur Lunn:
Once, when we crossed the Atlantic together, Waugh, who was of course traveling first class, accepted an invitation to dine with me. I was traveling second class and, as he entered the dining room, he sniffed and said, "Curious how one can smell the poor." This amused me but some of those to whom I have told this story were not amused. And ti was that kind of person whom Waugh delighted to shock by particularly outrageous performances in his favorite comic role, the supersnob.
A contemporary such as Ann Coulter comes to mind, although I suppose she hardly deserves to be placed in the company of a literary Catholic master such as Waugh. Nevertheless, they have something in common in the shock department. This deliberate role-playing on Waugh's part was well known to others as well, such as his friend Ann Fleming, who tells this story:
Some may have been permitted to telephone Evelyn, to me it was forbidden, though I once broke the rule. Some hours after he left our house in Kent for a hotel nearby, a telegram arrived for him; it seemed to me urgent.... I telephoned and was crushed. "Your manservant should have delivered it," he said reproachfully and rang off. He knew perfectly well that I had no manservant, though these obsolete and useful persons were part of his act.
Thus, as DeVille argues, when we attend to the contexts of his remarks, remembering the satirist Waugh was and recalling above all that his "snobbery" was largely purposeful and melodramatic, the charge virtually vanishes. While this is hardly a "general absolution" of everything Waugh did and wrote, one cannot ignore Waugh's extraordinary generosity, his unadvertised charity (which DeVille details), and his unabashed Catholic orthodoxy.

DeVille then turns to a careful secondary distinction that Epstein goes on to make beyond his "working definition" of snobbery. Epstein writes:
Not wanting to run with the general herd, not wanting to run with that higher herd -- the herd of independent minds -- does not quality one as a snob. It makes one ... a person struggling to be an individual. Being discriminating isn't necessarily being snobbish either.... Nor does having high standards make one a snob.... High standards generally ... far from being snobbish, are required to mintain decency in life.... Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant.
Here are two key tests, says DeVille -- (a) an independent mind, and (b) a holding fast to, and delight in, high standards of excellence. By these standards, Waugh is certainly "guilty" -- but then there is really no real "guilt" at all, because there is no real vice. Hence, what we see exemplified in Waugh is what I call the virtue of his "snobbery."

DeVille first examines the first test of Waugh's being an independent contrarian and finds in Waugh's corpus a rich body of material. Here are some samples of what DeVille offers: from (1) politics, which Waugh loathed: "I have never voted in a parliamentary election.... I do not aspire to advise my Sovereing in her choice of servants"; (2) modern art: "Perhaps in the Providence of God the unqualified hideosity of Modern Art has been sent us to scourge us"; (3) psychology: "Voodoo, bog-magic, the wise woman's cabin -- there isn't such a thing as psychology ... the whole thing's a fraud"; (4) socialism: "[Marxism is] the new opium of the people [and] the ideal of a classless society is so unnatural to man that his reason, in practice, cannot bear the strain"; (5) the sexual revolution: "Responsible people -- doctors, psychologists, novelists -- write in the papers and say, 'You cannot be happy unless your sex life is happy.' That seems to me just about as sensible as saying, 'You cannot lead a happy life unless your golf life is happy.' It is not only nonsense, it is mischievous nonsense"; (6) the health and dieting craze: "Food can and should be a source of delight. As for 'nutrition,' that is all balls"; (7) liturgical reform: "'Participation' in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voices. It means God hearing our voices."

On the liturgical question, Waugh was adimant. When the liturgical changes were pressed upon the faithful, he began speaking of "traitors from within" and "cranks in authority" who wanted a vernacular liturgy now celebrated "in dingy churches decorated with plaster and tinsel." The liturgical authorities failed to realize that it is "highly doubtful whether the average churchgoer either needs or desires to have complete intellectual, verbal comprehension of all that is said.... Awe is the natural predisposition to prayer."

It goes without saying that Waugh's view has not prevailed, and when these changes were implemented he began experiencing a certain despondency that sometimes exhibited itself in dark humor: "They are destroying all that was superficially attractive about my Church.... I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but ... now ... church going is pure duty parade." His worries about the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, as he himself admitted, aged him considerably, and he confessed to a hope not to live to see all the damage wrought. Providentially -- so his family all claimed, according to DeVille -- he died on Easter Sunday 1966 after attending a Latin Mass.

DeVille next examines Epsetein's second test of high standards. Here again, he finds ample material from Waugh's corpus of writings. In a section of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold entitled "Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age," we read the following, clearly autobiographical, statement: "His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz -- everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime." His disdain for change in the contemporary world is nowhere more evident than in his views on what happened to the traditional Roman Mass [Note: DeVille here appends an endnote, which says: "For more on Waugh's view of liturgical change, see the exchange of letters in A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on Liturgical Changes, ed. Scott M.P. Reid (St. Augustine's Press, 2000).]

Waugh had learned to appreciate and delight in the standards of a well-executed liturgy after converting to Catholicism in 1930:
Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at a low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do.
As DeVille points ought, Waugh loathed all that came to replace such standards of liturgical craftsmanship -- the dumbing down of the liturgy and a false bonhomie that characterized even the revisions of the 1960s that preceded the new Mass (which, DeVille reminds us, Waugh did not live to see). Said Waugh: "The Mass is no longer the Holy Sacrifice but the Meal at which the priest is the waiter. The bishop, I suppose, is the head waiter."

All of this added fuel to the fire, of course, giving his critics fresh ammunition for their charge that Waugh was a reactionary crank and snob, whereas -- as Waugh himself put it -- he in fact wanted nothing more than simply to assist at "the Mass for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold" (including St. Edmund Campion, about whom Waugh wrote a biography, Edmund Campion, that won him the coveted Hawthornden Prize in 1936).

What is Waugh's virtuous Christian "snobbery," then, in the final analysis? DeVille says that, properly understood, it consists in
the willingness, no matter how out of step with the Zeitgeist, to utter a firm and unyielding no to every instance of doctrinal diminution, oral malingering, and liturgical slovenliness, a refusal of every faddish temptation to let the world set the agenda for the Church ....It insists on certan standards of excellence, of decency, and, yes, of taste.... It is unyielding in its refusal of everything but the best for God.

In the end, Christian "snobbery" is not merely a negation. It is not simply a refusal of the vulgar and the slovenly. It is, in fact, not snobbery at all in the common definition, but rather, a certain contrarianism and an intolerance of the slipshod and shopworn. It is not only an insistence on certain standards ... but is, finally, born out of joy and love, and only when lived joyfully and charitably can it be justified.

Christian contrarianism like Waugh's exists only as a corrective device; it is teleological and pedagogical. It insists on certain things and looks intolerantly on others for the simple reason that God is not mocked, and we who tryuly love Him will not offer Him anything but our utmost for His highest.
With the Three Wise Men, we shall insist on the finest gifts; and, as DeVille points out by way of conclusion, in what Waugh regarded as the finest passage of his best book, he wrote thus about the Wise Men, and mutatis mutandis, about any and all of us defending the high, transcendental values of the good, the true, and the beautiful:
"Like me," she said to [the Magi], "you were late in coming.... You are my especial patrons," said Helena, "and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.... For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom."
For further reading: [Adam A.J. DeVille's original article, the author of "In Defense o "Christian Snobbery": The Case of Evelyn Waugh Reconsidered," Latin Mass (Spring 2004), pp. 72-77, carries the following bio: "Adam A.J. DeVille, a subdeacon of Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Candada of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is a Ph.D. student at the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, where he was writing a thesis on the Roman papacy and Orthodoxy in response to Ut Unum Sint. He is also the text editor for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies and was married in August 2003. He and his wife Annemarie are expecting their first baby in June 2004."]

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