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Spring books: Commentary

Waugh dramatized the emptiness of worldly things


“Novelists aren’t philosophers. They don’t lay out logical arguments; they dramatize positions,” said Douglas Lane Patey during a telephone interview. “And what Waugh dramatizes in all his fiction from Brideshead onwards is the emptiness of worldly things,” said Patey.

To read Waugh’s novels sequentially, Patey finds, “is to suck up like a sponge that what happens for the next 20 or 30 years [on earth] isn’t perhaps that important. An eerie effect.”

Did Waugh find love?

In the teleological sense, yes. “On the other hand,” said Patey, “since the end state of the process is one that is not realized in this world, it seems to me quite striking in Waugh -- although it is true -- that the emptiness of worldly things is there from the very start of his fiction. So did he find love? Yes, but not in the sort of places one looks first.”

Patey said he believes Waugh to be quite serious and to be believed when he says that his spiritual life was absolutely central to all his work. “If the question is more about his family life, it seems fairly clear that took second place for him.”

As a Catholic in the post-Vatican II Catholic family, Waugh was appalled by the modern liturgy and the loss of Latin. “I cling to the faith doggedly but without joy,” he wrote. He kept up a constant stream of letters to newspapers and church leaders to that effect and feared for the church’s universality, Patey writes. Waugh saw diversity as a new brand of modernism.

Waugh’s relevance to today?

“The larger matters that concerned him are as relevant as ever,” replied Patey. Patey means that in Waugh’s belief there could be no grounds for ethics unless they were religious grounds. Even as early as Lancing, his high school, “he knew in the philosophical sense what would be required to believe in right and wrong. It took longer to accept the beliefs themselves.”

Waugh set himself to proselytize through his novels, Patey contended, “and it could be more or less indirect. The direct starts midcareer (Brideshead). But from Decline on he is pushing us in certain directions. I’ve always been puzzled by that school of critics that reads Waugh the other way, reading the early novels for fun and denying the content.”

Patey -- a member of the Baby Boom generation -- came to Waugh through the television series. “He’s not someone I read in school. And my growing interest paralleled my growing interest in the faith I’d not had much to do with in the years before that.”

Once hooked on Waugh, Patey -- whose field is actually 18th-century English literature -- became mildly obsessed and taught a Waugh course at Smith for several years.

The Catholicism had hooked him, too -- including philosophically. In the Waugh book he refers to Pius X’s 1908 encyclical against modernism, Pascendi Domini, as “great.” Asked to explain a little, Patey said he was fascinated to look at John Paul II’s “Faith and Reason” in the light of Pascendi, for the current pope’s encyclical “has as part of its burden a kind of sorting through, a ‘what can we rehabilitate?’ from that period, a ‘what can we still accept?’ Agree with it or not, Pascendi is a philosophical text worthy of a place in the great philosophical texts of that period.”

As for Waugh’s works being worthy of a place in the great English texts: “Absolutely,” said Patey. “There’s a very good case to be made for Waugh as a stylist and as a literary architect.”

Patey actually canonized Waugh in a quite literal sense. Some confusion surrounded an offer to Patey to write a critical volume on Alexander Pope for a series on great English authors. He was asked to instead choose another subject. He didn’t hesitate.

“Waugh came as a surprise to the series’ editor,” said Patey.

Lucky Waugh.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999