Friday, June 20, 2014

`Though He May Lose His Soul in the Process'

In his review of Garry Wills’ first book, Chesterton: Man and Mask (1961), Evelyn Waugh, writing in the National Review, says “it is a grave reproach to suppose that [Chesterton’s] work needs elucidation. A writer who cannot make his meaning clear to his own generation and their immediate successors is a bad writer.” Waugh suggests Chesterton would have been displeased by Wills’ book having started as a doctoral thesis, and goes on to rebuke trendy obscurity, incoherence masking as profundity and the elucidation industry. “Chesterton, of all men of our times,” he writes, “wrote especially for the common man, repeating in clear language his simple, valuable messages.” The notion of an exegetical class would have horrified and amused Waugh. Do we really need books titled Understanding Tony Kushner, Understanding Rita Dove and Understanding Neil Simon? These are writers who neither require nor deserve understanding. 

Waugh next takes on Wills’ style, calling it “not uniformly bad.” Just the other day on the radio I heard a dancer describing some avant-garde twaddle she was performing as “existential.” Here is Waugh on Wills’ prose: “the jargon of the lecture room keeps slipping in – `existential,’ `dialectic,’ `normative,’ `experiential,’ `complementarity’ – in a way which would have set the teeth on edge in the head of the old journalist.” The same old ugly words used by the inarticulate to impress the pretentious. Waugh takes on Wills’ title, with its implication of “an attempt at exposure”: 

“It has become commonly accepted nowadays that any man’s idiosyncrasies of appearance or manner are a disguise deliberately adopted to conceal some fear or vice. Persona is one of the cant terms of modern criticism, and modern critics regard it as their function to strip their subject of its protective mask [more exegesis]. They should take note of Max Beerbohm’s Happy Hypocrite. The mask, the style, is the man.” 

While handling Wills rather daintily, Waugh expresses qualified admiration for Chesterton, and not merely as a coreligionist. He asks of Chesterton’s prolific output: “How much was it the product of nervous restlessness and sloth? For profusion can be slothful [one thinks of Dr. Johnson].” Here’s how Waugh describes the service performed by Wills in his monograph: 

“There used (and I daresay there still is) to be a company of ladies at the Hollywood film studios whose task it was to tell stories to the directors and producers who lacked the aptitude of reading. They used to peruse all the literature of their time, contemporary and classic, and spin a comprehensive yarn to the assembled company. Now and then they would strike a spark from those flinty imaginations and a voice would proclaim: `That’s for me. Go buy it.’” 

But he adds, “It is hard to conceive that Mr Wills’s exegesis will greatly illumine the general reader.” Thoughtfully, Waugh performs that service in lieu of Wills, and succinctly limns the relation of writer to man: 

“[Chesterton] was a lovable and much loved man abounding in charity and humility. Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice—all the odious qualities—which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.” 

And that is why Waugh’s artistic achievement is so much greater even than Chesterton’s. 

[The review of the Wills volume is collected in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, 1984.]

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