Tax Day Roundup

–An article in Lapham’s Quarterly commemorates Tax Day (even though it may have been postponed in the USA this year). This is from the recent book Rebellion, Rascals and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages by Michael Keen and Joseph Slemrod. It opens with a quote from Waugh:

In Scoop, Evelyn Waugh drew on his experiences in 1930s Abyssinia to imagine tax collection in fictional Ishmaelia:

“It had been found expedient to merge the functions of national defense and inland revenue in an office then held in the capable hands of General Gollancz Jackson; his forces were in two main companies, the Ishmaelite Mule Tax-gathering Force and the Rifle Excisemen with a small Artillery Death Duties Corps for use against the heirs of powerful noblemen…Towards the end of each financial year the general’s flying columns would lumber out into the surrounding country on the heels of the fugitive population and return in time for budget day laden with the spoils of the less nimble; coffee and hides, silver coinage, slaves, livestock, and firearms.”

It was from simple plundering of much this kind that today’s often mind-numbingly complicated tax systems evolved. Taxation may be one of the few things in our lives that our ancestors would recognize from theirs.

Something recognizable as taxation doubtless began as simple plunder in the mold of General Jackson, long before Ptolemaic Egypt or even ancient Sumer. Elements of plunder continued over the centuries. [,,,]

–Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Simon Heffer, reviews Selina Hastings’ career as a biographer. This is on the occasion of the recent publication of her biography of novelist Sybille Bedford. See previous posts. Heffer notes that several of Hastings’ subjects, including Bedford, have been relative monsters (with particular reference to Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham) and yet she has managed to describe them and their work in relatively moderate terms. He posits three reasons for her success:

…First, she can write. A remarkable number of biographers cant. Hastings’s style is clear, precise and uncluttered. Second, her scholarship is exemplary; she reconnoitres her ground before she writes, not merely combing the papers of her subjects and their networks but also interviewing those who knew them. […] But third, what distinguishes her biographies is their tone. Most of her subjects were outright monsters; to handle such people without alienating the reader requires immense skill.

Hastings sticks to the facts; she does not engage in amateur, posthumous psychoanalysis; she simply presents the story. Both Waugh and Maugham were monuments in selfishness, and in later life made themselves (Maugham especially) notably loathsome. Their biographer examines their lives–particularly Waugh’s inability to relate successfully to women, and Maugham’s sexual ambiguity and manipulativeness –and tries to see the best in them, while never denying their social and moral atrocities. […]

He goes on to describe Hastings’s treatment of Bedford, often described as arrogant, and concludes that Hastings “persuades us to accept her at a high valuation.” Since in Waugh’s case several of his closest friends and confidantes are women, his point on Hastings’s treatment of his “inability to relate successfully to women” may be a bit oversimplified.

–A BBC website posts a review by John Self of a book by Musa Okwonga (One of Them) about the latter’s schooldays at Eton College. In a discussion of how the school has been described by other writers (Ian Fleming, George Orwell and John Le Carré), Self writes:

… take the case of Evelyn Waugh, the envious outside chronicler of the upper class, who probably wished he’d gone to Eton instead of the humbler Lancing College. And in a typical act of one-up-manship, he sent his character Sebastian Flyte there in his most nostalgic novel Brideshead Revisited. “Thank God I went to Eton,” sighs Sebastian during an obscure philosophical argument between family and friends. Sebastian, significantly, starts the book as the epitome of glamour but undergoes a decline as the story proceeds. (Waugh’s mixed feelings about Eton may also have been coloured by the fact that his first wife, also called Evelyn, had an affair with an old Etonian.)

Waugh actually wished he had gone to Sherborne School where his father and brother Alec had been students. Evelyn was barred from entry there after his brother wrote a novel (Loom of Youth) depicting homosexuality at a fictional public school.

–The website has posted an essay by Rachel Hope Cleves that may be an excerpt from her latest book: Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality. It deals with the subject of how the attitude toward pederasty has changed since the prewar days of the 20th Century. The excerpt opens with this:

The British writer Norman Douglas was so famous during his lifetime (1868-1952) that he frequently turned up as a character in fiction. D H Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Richard Aldington all put him in their novels, while Douglas’s own bestselling novel South Wind (1917) appeared on the shelves of characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) and Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Bombarded by fans who sought him out in Florence, his home base during the 1920s and ’30s, Douglas had his mail sent to the local Thomas Cook travel bureau to keep his address secret.

Among the typically laid back views of Douglas in his lifetime held by upper class Britons are these expressed by Waugh’s friend Harold Acton:

Harold Acton, the Florence aesthete, [remarked] wistfully that ‘such a schoolmaster [Douglas] would have been ideal, and I regret that I met him too late, when I was more or less crystallised.’ Acton, who witnessed many of Douglas’s intergenerational affairs in Florence, including the final episode that led to his flight from the city, was under no illusion about the nature of Douglas’s relationships with children. He simply didn’t condemn Douglas for his sexual behaviour.

–An article on the alcoholism of Waugh’s character Sebastian Flyte is posted on the website The Daily Eudemon: Catholic Cultural Commentary on Everything that Matters:

The early pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited describe the drunken antics of students Lord Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder (the narrator). Ryder makes the later observation that he “got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape.” […]

As alcohol works through a person’s system, the drinker loses his sense of suffocating self-regard and its accompanying worries, with the result that he decreasingly sees existence through the distorting prism of self-regard. As the prism breaks apart, he becomes re-acquainted with the fact that earthly life is a gift—a good gift that is the gift of God, Who is Full Goodness. After enough drinks, everything seems good. Rather, everything is good (for all is created by God), and the drinker becomes acutely aware of this. This awareness gives him a joy that he has difficulty finding in the everyday world as he walks about with his constant sense of self-regard.

After a discussion of Sebastian’s alcoholism as it is described in Waugh’s novel, the article concludes with this:

Sebastian was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world. He was still pulled in two opposite directions and pathetic by both worlds’ standards. But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life—all ambition thrown aside, still drinking, but at least ashamed of it. He became a man whose vice was permanently affixed to his back, but a man who was becoming holy by carrying it as nobly as possible.

Thanks to Dave Lull for a link to this article.


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