Joan Didion on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy

Joan Didion on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy

This review by Joan Didion is a very helpful article, just what I was looking for when I finished the book and didn’t know what to think. It’s not a formal analysis of the book, just one reviewer’s impressions. But it gives me some footholds, places to begin to think about the books from a different perspective. This, incidentally, is why I think studying books in a class is so important: reading books by oneself it can be difficult to step outside one’s immediate experience, to contextualize. Having other people’s reactions to bounce your ideas off of is imminently helpful. Even if you disagree with them, it gives you a place to start from, a point of departure. In fact stuff you disagree with can be more helpful than stuff you agree with, it forces you to argue. And nothing clarifies muddy thinking like wading into a good debate.

“…what he was up to in this trilogy happened in point of fact to be a complex elegiac study of the breakdown of a civilization, a great work, so right in every way that if my grandchildren should ever ask me how it was when I was little, I think I would press upon them, along with Faulkner�s chronicle of the emergence of the Snopes family and some bound volumes of the wartime Vogue, Waugh�s Men at War.”

“What Men at War is about is one man�s aridity, and his foredoomed attempt to make a social cause a moral cause in a society bereft of moral meaning; I can think of no other writer who has made that bereavement quite so clear to me.”

“As the end of the war approaches, the heaviest awareness of all strikes him: that whatever it had been to which he had dedicated himself on the tomb of Sir Roger that day in 1939, it had not been a Crusade. As he is told by a displaced person, �Even good men thought their private honor would be satisfied by war. . . . Were there none in England?� �God forgive me,� said Guy, �I was one of them.�

What happens to Guy Crouchback at the end of the war is nothing much: he marries, and lives with his wife and children in the agent�s cottage on his family land. But he is stranded, in a real sense, exactly as far from Jerusalem and exactly as far from home as Roger of Waybroke had been, there in Italy, centuries before. What Guy can never be � and that he cannot be is the measure of something that happened in those centuries between � is what Sir Roger had been: �a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled.�

To know as Waugh knows that there are no more great journeys and possibly no more great vows and still to trouble to write a novel at all exhibits precisely that fine hardness of mind most characteristic of him…”

I’m not sure about that last point. That there are no more great journeys or great vows. In fact I’m not sure about her whole point about “hardness of mind” that refuses to mourn lost innocence. (Or am I missing her point?) Didion seems to embrace the notion of a fall; but not really. For her it is a literary conceit not a historical fact. But for Waugh, as a believing Catholic, the fall is real not literary. Thus what Didion sees as hardness of mind seems to me to be a willingness to embrace the hard truth of the cross and man’s need for a redeemer… rather than wallowing in the misery of his fallen state. 

hat tip to the Llama Butchers

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  • Grinch time (‘cause, hey, it’s me):  Do we (and how do we) need to differentiate among types of fantasies?  Are there fantasies worlds (and lives) to be encouraged and other to be discouraged?  Are there rules for distinguishing the two?  I think this is what the Santa/St. Nick debate comes down to—which of these is a good fantasy?  Are both?  Is neither?

    Obviously, the “grown man living in a little box” understanding of the Tabernacle is a useful fantasy that leads up to an understanding (well, what can be understood) of the Eucharist.  Are there fantasies that would get in the way of that understanding?

    And again, (I ask because I’m thinking out loud, as it were) what is the connection among fantasy, metaphor, and sacrament?  Methinks I should start reading the essays you linked to a while back.

  • Also, a place to critically distinguish between different ages of “children”.  Fantasy-wise there’s huge differences between six and ten, I’m thinking… (and, dare I say, teens?)

  • Thanks, Jane, a good point. It is rather hard to discuss fantasy generally over a span of age ranges.

    Moreover, every child is different. That’s why I have a bit of a problem with a policy that sets a predetermined age at which a child should be old enough to be told about Santa, for example. In general when dealing with children it is best to make judgments on a case by case basis rather than too hastily generalizing about what children of a certain age should be like.

  • Kate, that’s a good question. Not sure I have an answer. I’ll give it a stab; but also put it on the table as something to explore.

    Definitely a post is brewing about the connection between fantasy, metaphor and sacrament. I think Tolkien is a good door into such considerations. Really, I am going to get a post going on that very soon.

    Meanwhile, with no rhyme or reason, here are some attempts to throw together some of my initial reactions to your question.

    Certainly the imagination, like any other human faculty, can be subject to abuse. I can think of adult examples pretty easily… porn would be a prime specimen of abuse of the imagination.

    Also, clearly, not all fiction is good. I think that people who promote Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High, saying, “at least the kids are reading,” are fooling themselves. That kind of material can stifle the imagination and lead to an impovrished fantasy life.

    I guess my initial reaction is that the bigger problem is kids having no fantasy life. But I can see that having the wrong kind of fantasy life could be just as bad. The question is, what would that look like.

    Michael O’Brien’s categories for sorting fiction might actually be helpful here. (see posts here and here). I don’t always agree with how he sorts individual books, but the categories he uses could be useful.

    Too much concern with demons and ghosts and the occult could be unhealthy. But, I think that’s more a concern for older kids.
    With younger kids, I’m not so sure. I think to really be unhealthy, the fantasy would have to be coming from some seriously bad outside influences. But most children’s
    fantasizing seems to be pretty harmless.

    Kids will entertain ideas that seem quite strange to adults. Their fantasy is often an attempt to make sense of the world when they don’t have all the facts or they simply don’t have the facilities for understanding or processing all the relevant information. But most of the time even erroneous beliefs are something kids will grow out of.

    I guess fantasies that involved children entertaining sinful proclivities… wanting what they can’t have and obsessing about it. I think this might lead into a post I’ve been contemplating on toys and how they can nourish a healthy fantasy life.

    I think I’d be more concerned with helping to guide and direct fantasies as they arise than in determining classifications of good and bad fantasies. Most fantasies are in themselves neutral, they can lead to bad habits or good. It’s a parent’s job to push their children toward the good and away from the bad in whatever activity the child is engaged in. It’s more about channeling what the child does than anything else.

    For example, all boys will inevitably play at sword or guns. Even if you ban all such toys, sticks and cardboard tubes and fingers can all become weapons. The better part for parents is to guide such play acting. To lead boys to channel aggressive play into fighting evil and defending the weak. Help them become knight fighting dragons or sheriffs getting the bad guys.

    For girls you can channel the princess thing toward a focus on inner beauty to match the pretty dress-up clothes. Teach them about kindness, charity, gentleness, good manners, generosity. Princesses are people who are well-behaved, gracious, etc.

    Not sure any of that was leading in the directions you were thinking. I might come back to this later.