Sunday, January 20, 2008

Waugh and Voluntary Deafness

I've just made an extraordinary find: excerpts of an audio interview given by Evelyn Waugh, one of my favorite authors of the twentieth century, to the BBC in 1960. Some points of interest: Waugh, when asked if he had had any crisis of faith since joining the Catholic Church, replies that nothing of the such had happened -- except, he remarks, "exasperation at the extraordinary behavior of individual clergymen." (It's interesting to note that he viewed this not as a matter of faith, but simply a personal difficulty.) Asked by the interviewer what ideological purpose there was behind his work, Waugh replies quite simply that he was "just trying to write books," that it wouldn't occur to him to attempt to be didactic.

Waugh calls his book Helena, a novella based on the life of St Helen, "much the best" of his books, the one best written and with the most interesting theme, even admitting that it was intended to be didactic. I read Helena several years ago, and didn't find it particularly remarkable, lacking as it did the black humor Waugh's early comic work and the psychological acuity of his more mature work. I do, however, remember a wonderful passage from the preface. Waugh writes that he heard a British aristocratic who had visited Jerusalem saying:
I got the real lowdown at last. The whole story was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guard showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel the "Invention of the Cross."

What I found most interesting in this interview was Waugh's explanation of why he had withdrawn from society and gone largely into reclusion. He withdrew largely due to deafness, he said, only to add that he had gone deaf due to boredom, and not bored because he couldn't hear. He had moved to the country, he concludes, because it was to him a place where he could be silent.

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