Tuesday, June 19, 2018

'An Ugly Version of Scott Fitzgerald'

We like our villains ugly or at least grotesque. It makes life tidy and simple to understand. Outer and inner ugliness ought to correspond. Call it truth in advertising. Recent reading has turned up two reassuring examples. In his History of England, Macaulay describes Titus Oates, who fabricated the “Popish Plot” of 1678, the fictitious Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. At least fifteen innocent men were executed as a result. Here is Macaulay’s portrait of Oates in the courtroom:

“A few years earlier his short neck, his legs uneven, the vulgar said, as those of a badger, his forehead low as that of a baboon, his purple cheeks, and his monstrous length of chin, had been familiar to all who frequented the courts of law. He had then been the idol of the nation. Wherever he had appeared, men had uncovered their heads to him. The lives and estates of the magnates of the realm had been at his mercy. Times had now changed; and many, who had formerly regarded him as the deliverer of his country, shuddered at the sight of those hideous features on which villainy seemed to be written by the hand of God.”

One of my favorite collections of journalism is Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1949; rev. 1965). In it she writes of William Joyce, derisively known in England as Lord Haw-Haw, the American-born Anglo-Irish traitor who fled to Germany days before the Nazis invaded Poland. He broadcast propaganda to Great Britain, urging its people to surrender. Joyce was captured weeks after Germany’s surrender, tried for treason and executed by hanging on Jan. 3, 1946. West covered the trial for The New Yorker. Here is part of her description of Lord Haw-Haw in the courtroom:

“The strong light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a shock to all of us who knew him only over the air. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness, but he was a tiny little creature and not handsome at all. His hair was mouse-coloured and sparse, particularly above his ears, and his pinched and misshapen nose was joined to his face at an odd angle. His eyes were hard and shiny, and above them his thick eyebrows were pale and irregular. His neck was long, his shoulders narrow and sloping, his arms very short and thick. His body looked flimsy and coarse. There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. But this did not create the savage and marred distinction that it might suggest, for it gave a mincing immobility to his small mouth. He was dressed with a dandyish preciosity, which gave no impression of well-being, only a nervousness. He was like an ugly version of Scott Fitzgerald, but more nervous. He moved with a jerky formality, and when he bowed to the judge his bow seemed sincerely respectful but entirely inappropriate to the occasion, and it was difficult to think of any occasion to which it would have been appropriate.”

[Whittaker Chambers (an unattractive man who testified against a treasonous Adonis) reviewed The Meaning of Treason for Time. He concludes: “Thus, in a prosy age, her style strives continually toward a condition of poetry, and comes to rest in a rhetoric that, at its best, is one of the most personal and eloquent idioms of our time.”]

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

You know what the problem with this case is? We're cast wrong. I look like a slob, so I should be the villain. [Alger] Hiss, the handsome man who knows all the society people, is the born hero. It's bad casting. If it was the other way around, nobody would pay any attention to the story; but because of the way we look, all of you people think he must be telling the truth. That's what has made him so valuable to the other side.
-- Whittaker Chambers, quoted in Bennet Cerf's _At Random_, 1977