Waugh and Religious Satire

Prof Terry Lindvall of Virginia Wesleyan University has written a book entitled God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert. In his broad survey, he gives some time to a brief consideration of the satire of Evelyn Waugh. To begin with, however, he discusses in his Introduction the difference between the religious satire, which is his subject, and social satire. Waugh, along with many other of the book’s subjects, wrote both:

Secular satirists take on the corrupt state and the mores of the people. Religious satirists focus on the people of God, their own community of faith, and its hypocritical leaders…The umbrella of satire employed in this book distills two recurring characteristics. First, as satire is used to attack, it aims not just to slice and dice but to correct and reform…Second, satire employs wit and humor; it entertains. It is not always funny but it appeals to a recognition of the ridiculous.

As his title suggests, Prof Lindvall ranges back to the prophets of the Bible,  passing through several historic phases of satire such as Classical, Medieval, Reformation and Augustan. When he gets up to modern times, he considers satirists in Britain separately from those in America and on the Continent and then takes on the present day. In his lengthy Chapter 9 “Brtish Catholics and Curmudgeons” he considers British satirists from John Dryden and Alexander Pope to C S Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge. Within that chapter there are separate sections devoted to, for example, “Satirist Named Smith” (this is Sydney Smith who was vicar at the Anglican church in Combe Florey in the early years of the 19th century), “Victorian Wit” (Oscar Wilde), “ChesterBelloc” (they need no introduction), and finally “Hard Knox” (i.e., Ronald). It is in this last section that Waugh gets a look in. The section begins with a discussion of Knox’s writings on satire as well as his satirical writings in his books Essays in Satire and Let Dons Delight.

This brings the story to Evelyn Waugh, Knox’s literary executor and biographer. According to Prof Lindvall, Waugh

would revolt against modernity in all its plastic and superficial postures of progress…he rebelled against the modern wasteland. He rejected behaviors of the hollow men and women as inadequate, pompous and, to use one of hs favorite words, “bogus.”

As examples of Waugh’s use of satire in a religious context, Prof Lindvall cites the faux religious characters in Vile Bodies, Fr Rothschild and Mrs Melrose Ape. This was written before Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicsm. Afterwards he wrote Brideshead Revisited where his use of satire is exemplified by Rex Mottram’s conversion of convenience, which quotes at length Rex’s clueless conversation with the priest who is providing his instruction. Prof Lindvall also discusses Waugh’s use of the device from Chesterton of “the twitch upon the thread” which is applied to the characters in Brideshead. Some consideration of Waugh’s later satire in Love Among the Ruins might also have been useful.

The book concludes with a consideration of the latter day satirists on TV such as Monty Python, The Onion and Stephen Colbert, where religious themes were also brought within the scope of their comedy.

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