Posts tagged with: Evelyn Waugh

waughWhile working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I can understand how Cash felt; I often get the same feeling when people talk about conservatism. For example, a friend of mine once wrote that, “Conservatism is what it is and it’s not subject to interpretation. It’s not a ‘living’ concept subject to the vagaries of public opinion. It’s small government, low taxes, and muscular foreign policy in its simplest form.” Although many conservatives in America would nod in agreement to that tune, all I can think is that while some of the words are right, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

No one seems to be able to agree on what the term conservatism means anymore, so we’re forced to keep adding modifiers—neo-, paleo-, pomo-, crunchy—to clarify what we intend. That being the (unfortunate) case, let me add one more for consideration: Waughian conservatism.

William F. Buckley, Jr. considered Evelyn Waugh to be “the greatest English novelist of the century.” His novels are certainly are worth reading (A Handful of Dust is a personal favorite) but it was a travel memoir that provides some of his most intriguing and overlooked thought. In his book, Mexico: An Object Lesson, Waugh presents what could be considered a succinct manifesto of his British, Catholic-influenced conservatism. (I’ve taken the liberty of breaking up the text into paragraphs to make it easier to read):
(more…)

The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”

Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.

It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.

Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.

What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.

The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.

“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)

The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.