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There are two types of satirist. One, who may be called the responsible satirist, looks at a particular action or attitude and compares it to a fixed standard of morals or behavior. He bites, he makes fan, with a purpose in mind. Swift, Shaw, all the great satirists have been of this breed.
The other is the irresponsible satirist who makes indiscriminate fun of actions and attitudes, and shows no solid body of ideas behind his humor. Evelyn Waugh is an unhappy example of this second species.
Waugh is a man of great talent: his mastery of the purely technical aspects of writing is alone sufficient proof of this. But, with one exception, his books have been mere exuberant spoofery.
The long series of novels he put out before the war lampooning the gay young set of England was shot through with affection for what he was supposedly lacerating. All the people in these early novels are delightfully eccentric, delightfully amoral, delightfully loose in the head. They are so delightful, in fact, that one often loses sight of the fact that they are amoral and loose in the head--in a word decadent.
But Waugh gave evidence in his one great book "Brideshead Revisited" that he did have a brain underneath that fun-and-games exterior. It was a serious study, streaked through with a deeper humor, of much the same sort of people he had had such fun with in his earlier books. Waugh had come of age, one tought.
His next book, "The Loved One," a cheery tale of the appalling decadence of a Hollywood cemetery, was a kick in the stomach to his well-wishers. "Helena" is still another.
Waugh sets himself to tell the tale of saint Helena--the mother of the Emperor Constantine--who lived in the third and fourth centuries AD, and who, according to legend, discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. The story naturally enough concerns itself mainly with the moral and religious background of the times.
But where Robert Graves made a long and intensely absorbing book out of "I Claudius," a study of an earlier but similar area in Roman history, Waugh has written piffle. "I Claudius" was a major work, something to tussle with and to remember. "Helena" is not.
Waugh is as indiscriminate as over. Half the time he is telling the story of the rise of Christianity in that era: the first official recognition of it by Constantine, the search of the dowager Empress Helena for the Cross and here success. Half the time he is "satirizing," in his old irresponsible way, the merges of the corrupt Romans of the Court and City.
Waugh hasn't even broken new ground for satirical treatment. In the middle of the Roman scene we find palpably modern types. Here is the Empress discussing the Pope:
A thoroughly holy, simple old man. No one has a word against him except that, frankly, between cursive, he is something of a bore. P.m. all for holiness, of course. Everyone le now, But, after all, one le human.
This woman has been plucked bodily from one of his pre-war English society satires.
An even worse case of this indiscriminate satire occurs at the climax of the book, when Helena has a vision of where the Cross is hidden in Jerusalem. If the book and the story are to have any meaning, this should be a moving scene. But no. The Empress Helena, Salut Helena, is led to the Cross by an incense merchant who speaks like this: I'm in incense, see. There's no finer connection. All the leading shrines are on my book. They know I handle the right stuff. Buy it myself in Arabls, ship it myself. Besides, they all like dealing with me because I'm reverent, see. Whatever it is they worship--monkeys, snakes; I've seen some pretty queer goings-on in Phrygia, I can tell you--I always respect religion. It's my bread and butter.
The fact that this man is a modern sharp businessman incarnate doesn't illustrate the timelessness of the breed, as the author would no doubt tell you. It illustrates the fact that waugh is mining a narrow vein, and the same old vein, at that.
Evelyn Waugh is one of the finest prose stylists writing today. He is a master stery-teller--"Helena" does not lag, even without a real plot. He has a delicate touch in recording the Inanities (and worse) of civilization. But "Helena" lacks the religiousness of a religious story, and the bite of a proper satire. What remains is mere teeth.
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