(Author’s note [affectation, ah, noted]: I have been looking at posts that I have started over the years but never finished. This one is, more-or-less, complete, so I am posting it. This is from October 2017.)
Reading this book review about the latest biography concerning Evelyn Waugh, one of the greatest writers of prose that the English language has been privileged to have, I was affected most powerfully by the passage, which was nothing more–though we are talking about Waugh–than was an extended quotation from his short story “Out of Depth” :
And then later—how much later he could not tell—something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos [emphasis mine]. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
“Ite, missa est.”
By juxtaposing this passage alongside of a comment made by Waugh regarding the nature of his work, the reviewer goes on to say that Waugh’s work was an attempt to form a shape–though a fictive one –in the very real chaos of modern life. The reviewer continues by emphasizing that Waugh penned his comment back in 1946–a time that, for all its faults, looks nearly repressive compared to the moral anarchy that we currently witness. (Oh, goodness, what Waugh would make of slut marches and gender identification quandaries and safe spaces on campuses were he still alive today–and with what elegance he would lampoon them.)
A shape in chaos. We are living in a dying age, in the kali yuga or the age of iron. As I have written before, I believe that we are transitional people. If we can, perhaps our greatest lot, our saving vocation, will be to function as the bridge to the generation that is able to reinvigorate and restore traditional understandings and norms, preventing humanity from eating itself as it seems intent upon doing all while calling it progress.
If only I can live long enough to see another Evelyn Waugh….