Auberon Waugh’s finely sharpened pen cuts through the mist of illusions that prevent Americans from seeing Britain as it is. In these articles from the Spectator, he exposes a society nearly gone mad. Royalty and commoner, young and old, liberal and conservative are routed by Waugh’s scathing satire. He writes of the follies of socialism in which the Nanny State doles out its precious candies to its most bothersome brats. The absurd lengths to which the Nanny State seeks to regulate the lives of its little darlings should serve us as a warning against all would-be save-America-by-government fanatics, whether of the left or the right. I mean, what can you say of a country where householders are forbidden by law to drive tut, touch, or destroy bats which have invaded their homes, or where a man is prosecuted and fined $60 for failing to kill his goldfish when it was suffering?

Waugh’s response to the foolishness of modern Britain is mockery. Lower-middle-class parents are accused of showing hatred toward their children by stuffing “their mouths with sweets until their teeth blacken and fall out to lie like rabbit droppings all over the fitted carpet in the television lounge.” Waugh was disappointed in Parliament because he “had hoped to find the House of Commons like a cornrick where every sheaf lifted will reveal a family of rats fighting, eating and copulating with each other and dashing for cover when exposed to the light of day. Instead, I found an assembly of dirty-minded but torpid and inadequate drunks.”

Still there is a problem with Waugh’s satire. While stopping the mouths of the wicked and bashing their heads seems to me to be a perfectly proper response, there ought to be something more positive for us to do than carp.

Mr. Waugh may be shy about his own vision because it is rooted in his religious faith. The key to his theology is to be found in two articles. “Self-abasement” argues that modernist Christianity “by perverting the New Testament notion of humility into a message of self-abasement and self-immolation within the ‘Community,’ is actively assisting the triumph of evil, here identified with the power urge in man.” This new humility teaches that man is just a tiny cog in the much more significant wheel of society, history, or the ecosystem. The community is therefore the main driving force in events. The logical consequence of this is that the individual is not primarily responsible for his actions, or, to cite an example given by Waugh, it makes sense for a judge to award $45,750 to a convicted rapist against a drunken driver from whom he had accepted a ride on the grounds that the man only started committing rape as a result of his injuries.

Waugh sees the fundamental problem of British society as a surfeit of guilt, which paradoxically stems from losing one’s sense of individual responsibility. Everyone is at fault in some way because ultimately no one person is at fault. This misplaced guilt creates an attitude towards oneself and others that Waugh calls “wetness,” which might be defined as, I must be nice to all these miserable creatures because it is my fault that they are such nasty brutes. Waugh’s slashing style is itself a direct attack upon wetness. The ultimate in wetness is to imagine that the whole structure of society, rather than any individual, is to blame. The solution is consequently to turn our problems and our liberties over to a cadre of “experts,” who claim that they will radically reorganize society for the benefit of all but in reality are those with the strongest urge to power and with a psychological need to rule.

This new humility actually degrades man. True humility exalts the individual by making him answerable directly to God and hence more significant than any socialist aggregate. In “The Folly of God,” Waugh puts joking at the heart of his theology: “God has created the world purely to amuse Himself.” The universe, including man, is gratuitous. The wonder of it all is that the plaything and creature called man is also like unto God. The joke, for that is what it is, reaches its great punch line when God Himself becomes a man. In the Incarnation we see the hilarious paradox of God sucking at his mother’s breast, being burped, and falling on His face as he tries to walk. Christian humility does teach men to weep because they are miserable sinners, but more fundamentally it teaches them to laugh because they are an absurd combination of flesh and spirit. Humility exalts because only man can see the joke at the center of the universe.

Yet it is the seriousness of this insight which reveals the chief failure in this collection. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there are four types of satirists: those, like Rabelais, who love life’s absurdities and laugh at them with joy; those, like Swift, who hate the evil that men do and use their wit to attack all mankind; those, like Pope in “Atticus,” who can pity the sinner and respect the man even while satirizing both; and those, like Whistler, who mock men because they despise them. Given Waugh’s belief in the folly of God, he really should laugh like Rabelais, although in these dark days there is probably good cause to be angry like Swift and forgiving like Pope. Apparently, Waugh prefers to sneer like Whistler.


[Brideshead Benighted, by Auberon Waugh (Boston: Little, Brown) $16.95]