February 9, 2003


The Satirist of the Fall (F.H. Buckley, January 2003, The Crisis)
With Quintillian, the conservative might almost say, Satura tota nostra est: Satire is all our own. The most acidic satires have come from the pens of conservative writers: Juvenal, Butler, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Chesterton, Belloc, Mordecai Richler, Florence King, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O'Rourke, and Mark Steyn. A Walter Olson or Dave Barry simply reports on a piece of fatuous liberalism and exclaims, "I'm not making this up!"

Best of all, there is [Evelyn] Waugh (1903-1966), whose centenary we celebrate this year. The greatest satirist since Swift and the best stylist of his generation, Waugh was a deeply conservative convert to Catholicism who saw in it the only bulwark against a corrosive modernism. Waugh's satire is so mordant and politically incorrect that one is almost surprised to see it displayed openly on booksellers' shelves. [...]

Waugh abruptly abandoned his pose of modernity in 1929 when his empty-headed first wife left him for another man. "I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live," he wrote Harold Acton, "but I am told that it is a common experience." Of a sudden, Waugh rediscovered a serious side which is never wholly absent from the satirist. "I know very few young people," said Vile Bodies's Father Rothschild (Father Martin D'Arcy, S.J.), "but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence." In Waugh's case, this took him to Father D'Arcy in Mayfair and to the Catholic Church.

Waugh's conversion was an affair of the head, not the heart. He said that reading St. John of the Cross was like reading "about the habits of some strange tribe." Father D'Arcy himself said, "I have never myself met a convert who so strongly based his assents on truth.... He had convinced himself very unsentimentally-with only an intellectual passion-of the truth of the Catholic faith." [...]

Waugh's intellectual assent rested on his belief in Christianity and Father D'Arcy's apologetics. More than this, Waugh had retreated in horror from the destruction of values that the collapse of his marriage had symbolized. Graham Greene said that Waugh "needed to cling to something solid and strong and unchanging." Like Burke, Waugh recognized that "the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos."

The standard line on Waugh is that the satirist was spoiled by his religion. The madcap author of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies turned glum on his conversion, abandoning the icy brilliance of his earlier novels. The truth is just the opposite.

Many thanks to Jed Roberts for sending this along. Evelyn Waugh is a prime exhibit in our arguments both that all comedy is fundamentally conservative and that the enduring novels of the 20th Century will be, not those by Joyce and Woolf and Proust but, the conservative ones. If you've never read him, The Loved One is an especially good place to start. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2003 7:50 AM

Waugh got so little comfort out of his religion

that he died of boredom at the age of 63.

I'm one who thinks his earlier work was far

more interesting and if you can find it, "Black

Mischief" is a much better starting place

than "The Loved One." For one thing, it

takes on a meaningful issue.

Orrin, your thesis about the conservatism of

humor cannot get over the fact that three of

the best 20th century satirists -- France,

Hasek, Coover -- were all anticonservative.

But I await with interest your attempt to spin

an enemy of the Austrian empire as an antiliberal.

Posted by: Harry at February 10, 2003 12:25 AM

I don't know much about Waugh's Catholicism (though I dare say it didn't make him any less crotchety), but I have read somewhere that Graham Greene exploited his to feel extraordinarily guilty every time he cheated on his wife.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 10, 2003 4:25 AM

Mordecai Richler, if he were able, would double up with laughter to hear someone describe him as a

"conservative writer."

Unless, of course (which seems to be the case here) any satirist is, by definition, "conservative."

Which is itself pretty funny.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 10, 2003 7:02 AM

France isn't funny; Hasek is merely anti-bureaucratic (as all military humor); and Coover's intermittent but his best work, oddly enough J. Henry Waugh, is an anti-rationalist work, poking fun at Man's pretensions to godhood.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2003 9:14 AM


I've not read Richler yet, but satire, with its hostility towards Man, is by definition conservative.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2003 9:17 AM

I thought you said J. Henry Waugh failed in the last 100 pages, Orrin.

Richler had a piece in Paris Review around 1970 that was illiberal and, when I read it, hilarious. But when I read it again 20 years later, not so funny. He was, I think, a man of the moment, whereas the first 2 chapters of "Penguin Island" will be funny forever.

Waugh's Catholocism was, like everything else about him, idiosyncratic. I had not heard Greene's remark about it before, but it is completely off the mark. Even the Jesuit fathers a Farm Street, who were pretty weird Catholics to begin with, thought Waugh went off the deep end.

I did not know him personally, but I've read everything by him, including the letters and diaries, and I think the reason his religion brought him no consolation is that he had absolutely no one to share it with. Just speculation.

Orrin, by definition, anybody who opposed the Austrian empire for any reason has got to be anticonservative.

Posted by: Harry at February 10, 2003 5:39 PM