Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Charles Darwin, Evelyn Waugh

December, 2009: For months, Origin of Species has been my kitchen-table reading, unless there’s something more ephemeral passing over it (the table), such as an issue of the Monthly, or the Inner West Courier, or the SMH. Darwin is a clear, considerate writer, and “I got a song out of it” (a frequent consolation for my failures), but my steam seems to have run out for Origin at page 76. To answer the question of species’ origins, Darwin saw that it was necessary for one single person to review every piece of available evidence. He devoted himself to this almost superhuman task, not to prove his points, but to find out what the evidence would tell him. In the editor’s introduction, there’s a quote from Darwin describing his own mental qualities and conditions that were most important to his success, “the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.”

It should be remembered that systematists are far from being pleased at finding variability in important characters, and there are not many men who will laboriously examine internal and important organs, and compare them in many specimens of the same species. It would never have been expected that the branching of the main nerves close to the great central ganglion of an insect would have been variable in the same species…yet Sir J. Lubbock has shown a degree of variability in these main nerves in Coccus, which may almost be compared to the irregular branching of the stem of a tree. This philosophical naturalist, I may add, has also shown that the muscles in the larvae of certain insects are far from uniform. Authors sometimes argue themselves in a circle when they state that the important organs never vary; for these same authors practically rank those parts as important (as some few naturalists have honestly confessed) which do not vary; and, under this point of view, no instance will ever be found of an important part varying; but under any other point of view, many instances assuredly can be given.

Much of the first 76 pages is about the necessity of organising things into categories (species, variations), but the mistake of forcing things into categories. We’re so uncomfortable with things that are neither one thing nor another. But if we insist on making things fit, then we miss out on seeing the truth.

Nothing is easier to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult – at least, I have found it so – than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

December, 2009: Unconditional Surrender (1961) is Evelyn Waugh’s last novel in the trilogy. Guy Crouchback reaches the final stage of his disillusionment, and learns to find meaning in little things, instead of searching for it in grand things. “Quantitive judgements don’t apply”; this is what Guy’s father, seeing his son in a crisis of apathy, writes to him. He’s talking about Catholicism and saving souls, but I, an atheist, have no difficulty translating this beautiful decree into a secular one. To me, it’s about leading a principled life on whatever modest scale you can manage.

“I don’t ask anything from you”; that was the deadly core of his apathy; his father had tried to tell him, was telling him now. That emptiness had been with him for years now, even in his days of enthusiasm and activity in the Halberdiers. Enthusiasm and activity were not enough. God required more than that. He had commanded all men to ask.

In the recesses of Guy’s conscience there lay the belief that somewhere, somehow, something would be required of him; that he must be attentive to the summons when it came. They also served who only stood and waited.

Again we meet Ludovic (see below), who is now a successful author, and a commandant of a parachute training ground. He is hugely tall and pudgy, haunted by a bad conscience, and becomes increasingly bizarre.

Into this jolly company Ludovic entered like the angel of death. No one had believed the literal detail of de Souza’s fantasies but their repetition and enlargement had created an aura of mystery and dread about the commandant who lurked overhead and was seen and heard by none, which Ludovic’s appearance did nothing to dispell.

He overtopped the largest man in the room by some inches. There was at that time a well-marked contrast in appearance between the happy soldiers destined for the battlefield and those who endangered their digestions and sanity at office telephones. Standing before and above those lean and flushed young men, Ludovic’s soft bulk and pallor suggested not so much the desk as the tomb. Complete silence fell. “Present me,” Ludovic said, “to these gentlemen.”

Captain Fremantle led him round. He laid a clammy hand in each warm, dry palm and repeated each name as Captain Fremantle uttered it “…de Souza…Gilpin…” as though he were reciting the titles of a shelf of books he had no intention of reading.

Ludovic reappears the next night:

At dinner he introduced one topic only, and then to Captain Fremantle, saying: “I think I shall get a dog.”

“Yes sir. Jolly things to have about.”

“I don’t want a jolly dog.”

“Oh, no, I see, sir, something for your protection.”

Not for protection.” He paused and surveyed the stricken staff captain, the curious and silent diners. “I require something for love.”

No one spoke.

Ludovic goes on to buy a Pekinese that he names ‘Fido’ after the man he probably murdered in Crete.

Another wonderful character – not delivered up to us to judge, but to observe in all his fascinating detail – is Uncle Peregrine, a bachelor. Virginia, the woman whom Guy marries twice, grills him:

“Didn’t you ever want to marry?”

“Not really.”

Uncle Peregrine was not at all put out by these direct personal questions. He was essentially imperturbable. No one, so far as he could remember, had ever shown so much interest in him. He found the experience enjoyable, even when Virginia pressed further.

“Lots of affairs?”

“Good heavens, no.”

“I’m sure you aren’t a pansy.”


“You’re not homosexual?”

Even this did not disconcert Uncle Peregrine. It was a subject he had rarely heard mentioned by a man; never by a woman. But there was something about Virginia’s frankness which struck him as childlike and endearing.

“Good gracious, no. Besides, the ‘o’ is short. It comes from the Greek, not the Latin.”

Virginia gives birth in Peregrine’s apartment. Peregrine says to his niece’s husband:

“Angela has been a great help. Of course, you must know all about childbirth. It has been rather a surprise to me. I had never given it much thought but I had supposed that women just went to bed and that they had a sort of stomach ache and groaned a bit and that then there was a baby. It isn’t at all like that.”

“I always moved out when Angela had babies.”

“I was awfully interested. I moved out at the end but the beginning was quite a surprise – almost unnerving.”

“I am sure nothing ever unnerves you, Peregrine.”

“No. Perhaps ‘unnerving’ was not the right word.”

It doesn’t quite seem right to note down the most important passage in the book, plucking it from the beautiful, subtle setting of this trilogy. A Jewish woman, a refugee, whom Guy has tried to help while in Yugoslavia, says to him:

“Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?”

“God forgive me,” said Guy. “I was one of them.”