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Sloth: the besetting sin of the age?

IN A REVIEW of J. F. Powers's Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947), Evelyn Waugh observed:
 "Prince of Darkness" is a magnificent study of sloth--a sin which
 has not attracted much attention of late and which, perhaps, is the
 besetting sin of the age. Catholic novelists have dealt at length
 with lust, blasphemy, cruelty and greed--these provide obvious
 dramatic possibilities. We have been inclined to wink at sloth; even,
 in a world of go-getters, almost to praise it. An imaginative writer
 has advantages over the preacher and Mr. Powers exposes this almost
 forgotten, widely practiced, capital sin, in a way which brought an
 alarming whiff of brimstone to the nostrils of at least one reader.
 (1)


The deadly sin, or capital vice, of sloth--what the medievals called acedia--remains as obscure for us today as it did sixty years ago when Waugh penned this review. We usually don't go further than the common association of sloth with laziness and procrastination, with the result that sloth does not seem to have much place in our hyperactive "world of go-getters." Nonetheless, Waugh conjectures that sloth is, not merely a deadly sin, or a pervasive sin, but the besetting sin of the age. This leads us to wonder about the true nature of this most elusive of capital vices, as well as the character of the present age, which, perhaps more now than sixty years ago, makes it so vulnerable to sloth.

Waugh did not pursue these questions in his review of Powers's book. He did return to the subject of sloth, however, some years later. In 1962, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels and member of the editorial board of the London Sunday Times, invited Waugh to contribute an essay to a Sunday Times series on the seven deadly sins. (2) Joining the likes of Edith Sitwell, writing on pride, and W. H. Auden, writing on anger, Waugh contributed a marvelous essay on sloth. Still, it is not so much in this essay, which is very brief, but in Waugh's novels that we find the argument for his claim that sloth is the besetting sin of the modern world. For one way to read the dramatic arc of his oeuvre is to see it as an extended reflection on the nature of sloth and the way in which the moral, political, and spiritual conditions of modernity make us particularly prone to it.

To say this is to assume that we can find in Waugh's novels a moral argument at all, as opposed to mere dramatic illustration. Do works of narrative fiction make arguments? Does not an inquiry into the nature of sloth and its relation to modernity better belong to revealed theology, philosophy, sociology, or some combination of the three? (3)

Works of narrative fiction do make arguments, not of course demonstratively, but in what we might call a dialectical mode. For the images that such works place before us are images that combine "poetical" form with philosophical or theological content. A successful plot places such complex images in conflict, setting up a dialectical debate that proceeds toward the story's ultimate crisis, climax, and resolution.

In constructing this debate the writer of fiction attempts to show the incoherence of one or more of the contending images, which is to say the incoherence of a given philosophical or theological outlook, espoused more or less reflectively by one or more of the characters. At times, as in Shakespeare's Hamlet or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, writers end their stories with this incoherence, leaving the reader to infer how what is defective in the thoughts and desires embodied by the characters and their situations might be made whole. At other times, as in Jane Austen's Emma or in Waugh's own Brideshead Revisited, writers present an image that emerges as a clear victor in the dialectic of the plot, thus showing how what is incoherent in the defective images is made coherent. In either case, the debate proceeds in and through images, never merely by way of philosophical or theological claims. Concepts and propositions, embedded in narration or dialogue, no doubt play a significant role. But in works of fiction concepts and propositions are always subordinated to the dialectical power of the image.

This bare outline of the way in which fiction functions as argument does not tell us why a story might be better suited to speak about a particular subject matter than a conventional work of philosophy or theology. Waugh declares that an imaginative writer has advantages over the preacher, and presumably these advantages hold also over the philosopher or theologian. But why?

In answer it is necessary to underscore that, far more than purely theoretical arguments, images have the power to engage us with the particular realities that are the object of our understanding. Through the image, we encounter reality with our minds but not just with our minds. Aristotle famously said that poetry is more universal than history. This is to say that in the image the essences which the mind seeks to abstract from things are present, as embodied in the sensuous particulars contrived by the artist's imagination. It is to these sensuous particulars that we cleave with our mind and our will, but also with our emotions and our senses. In this encounter with the image, our loves and our hatreds are elicited as we experience more intimately than is possible with the intellect alone the full-blooded goodness or evil of the reality in question. This is why art customarily has a far greater influence on moral formation than do works of theoretical inquiry.

This implies that any elusiveness regarding the nature of sloth must partly be a function of the loss or obscurity of the images necessary to make it manifest. This is precisely the point where Waugh's novels are so instructive. For throughout his oeuvre Waugh presents us, usually to great comic effect, images that expose the modern world's unwitting captivation by sloth-engendering practices. But in the second half of his career, we find Waugh offering counterimages that not only expose the sloth-engendering practices of the modern world, but also reveal the sinuous path through these snares to a spiritual awakening or reawakening, and a richer mode of existence. This is certainly true of Brideshead Revisited, yet no novel of Waugh's presents a more compelling dialectical engagement with the evils of sloth than does The Sword of Honor, the trilogy of novels set in World War II, that many take to be Waugh's defining achievement.

Born into an illustrious, recusant Catholic family, the hero of The Sword of Honor, Guy Crouchback, is a man in his mid-thirties, nel mezzo del cammin, living in the Crouchback family castle in the Italian seaside town of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce. His childless marriage having ended in divorce, Guy has retired to Italy to the castle where he spent many happy holidays as a boy. His life there is solitary and idle. At the opening of the first novel of the trilogy, Men at Arms, Guy is presented as a man who has failed at making any real human connections in Santa Dulcina:
 He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town.
 He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico. Grafin von
 Gluck, who spoke no word of Italian and lived in undisguised
 concubinage with her butler, was simpatica. Mrs. Garry was simpatica,
 who distributed Protestant tracts, interfered with the fishermen's
 methods of killing octopuses and filled her house with stray
 cats.
 ... Guy alone, whom they had known since infancy, who spoke
 their language and conformed to their religion, who was open-handed
 in all his dealing and scrupulously respectful of all their ways,
 whose grandfather built their school, whose mother had given a set
 of vestments embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework for
 the annual procession of St. Dulcina's bones--Guy alone was a
 stranger among them. (4)


Even in the practice of his faith Guy feels no brotherhood. Sometimes he imagines himself "serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world." (5) He does not go to communion on Sundays, preferring to slip into the church early on weekday mornings when few others are about. His virtue is more the product of inertia than attraction to good. When he first came to Italy he "had prosecuted a few sad little love affairs," but lately "he had fallen into a habit of dry and negative chastity which even the priests felt to be unedifying." (6)

The incident that launches Guy's quest in The Sword of Honor is the announcement, on August 23, 1939, of the Russian-German alliance. The coming together of these two thuggish regimes brings "deep peace" to Guy's heart. The outbreak of war seems to bless Guy with a new mission. He sets out immediately for England "to serve his King." (7) But this new sense of mission and peace coexists with a mysterious sadness: "Eight years of shame and loneliness were ended. For eight years Guy, already set apart from his fellows by his own deep wound, that unstaunched, internal draining away of life and love, had been deprived of the loyalties which should have sustained him." (8) Guy experiences an evil beyond the shame of his divorce and the loneliness of his exile. He has a deep spiritual wound that drains away his life and love.

Before leaving Santa Dulcina, Guy goes to confession, "not because his conscience troubled him but because it was a habit learned in childhood to go to confession before a journey":
 There was no risk of going deeper than the denunciation of his few
 infractions of law, of his habitual weaknesses. Into that wasteland
 where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter. He had no
 words to describe it. There were no words in any language. There was
 nothing to describe, merely a void. His was not an "interesting
 case," he thought. No cosmic struggle raged in his sad soul. It was
 as though eight years back he had suffered a tiny stroke of
 paralysis; all his spiritual faculties were just perceptibly
 impaired. (9)


Guy's thoughts reveal that his "deep wound" is also a "void," that it is not so much a struggle but a sadness. The metaphor of paralysis invites us to think of Guy as handicapped. But it is not any physical ability that is impaired, it is Guy's "spiritual faculties" that are diminished.

In light of the essay that Waugh contributed to the Sunday Times series, written a decade or so after he began Men at Arms, we can more clearly identify Guy's wound with the encroachments of sloth. Waugh's definition of sloth in the essay is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas. Sloth is tristitia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of spiritual good. (10) "Man is made for joy in the love of God," Waugh proclaims, "a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair." (11)

The sadness of sloth, however, does not concern just any spiritual good. If one is sorry because someone forces him to perform acts of virtue that he is not bound to do, as Aquinas contends, then he is not committing the sin of sloth. (12) Rather, the sadness of sloth concerns the refusal of the highest of spiritual goods, the Divine Good, to which we are directed above all by charity. (13)

Aquinas explains that the sadness of sloth is due to the opposition of the flesh to the spirit. One sins mortally in regard to sloth when the flesh utterly prevails over the spirit in reason's consent to the abhorrence, horror, and detestation of the Divine Good. (14) But while sloth reflects the opposition of flesh to spirit, it is not the same as lust or some other act of intemperance. It is a spiritual condition in which, at its most severe, the "flesh," understood as our disordered love of creatures, so dominates the spirit that the flesh becomes loved as a god, while God Himself becomes regarded as something detestable. (15) For this reason Waugh states in his essay that "Sloth is the condition in which a man is fully aware of the proper means of his salvation and refuses to take them because the whole apparatus of salvation fills him with tedium and disgust." (16)

All this is not quite Guy Crouchback. Though his confession does not attempt to venture into the wasteland where his soul languishes--Guy does not think any attempt could be successful--it is still too much to say that the proper means of salvation fill him with utter tedium and disgust. He still goes to Mass and Confession. He still prays. On driving away from Santa Dulcina, he mouths the words: "Sia lodato Gesu Cristo. Oggi, sempre." Praised be Jesus Christ. Today, always. Guy is not a man who has spurned the faith. Nonetheless, his soul does suffer from the wound of sloth. He himself assesses his spiritual condition while in Italy as one of "despair." He may not have utterly refused his spiritual good, but having lost sight of how to attain it, he has become sluggish in its pursuit.

But as he sets out for England, Guy thinks he has found his way again. The old despair is contrasted with his "new-found contentment." He is exhilarated by the prospect of identifying himself with his nation's mission to defeat the two-headed monster of National Socialism and Communism. "The enemy at last was in plain view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle." (17)

In the opening pages of Men at Arms, right before he goes to confession, Guy visits the Church of St. Dulcina and the tomb, not of Dulcina herself, but of Roger of Waybrooke, a medieval English knight who, after being shipwrecked off the Italian coast, never made it to the Crusade in which he had hoped to fight. Sir Roger was, like Guy at the beginning of the trilogy, "a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled." (18) Sir Roger's tomb has become a place of pilgrimage for the townspeople: "the people of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, to whom the supernatural order in all its ramifications was ever present and ever more lively than the humdrum world about them, adopted Sir Roger and despite all clerical remonstrance canonized him, brought him their troubles and touched his sword for luck, so that its edge was always bright." (19) When Guy makes his pilgrimage one last time to the tomb of Sir Roger, he runs his finger along the edge of Sir Roger's sword and prays: "Sir Roger, pray for me ... and for our endangered kingdom." (20)

The title of the trilogy indicates that the image of the sword is one of the key images in the trilogy, and the sword of Sir Roger of Waybrooke is the first sword that we encounter in the story. Sir Roger's sword is the sword of traditional heroism in defense of Christendom; it is the sword, at least in the eyes of the people of Santa Dulcina, of sanctity. Guy feels "an especial kinship with 'il Santo Inglese,'" (21) and so he begins his own journey through the war seeing himself in the image of Sir Roger: a crusader in defense of Christian Europe.

But it isn't long before Guy's experiences in the military bring on deep disillusionment. Men at War and the second volume of the trilogy, Officers and Gentlemen, are replete with darkly comic episodes in which Guy's ideals are ludicrously undermined by the realities of military life. Readers of the trilogy will smile at the remembrance of Apthorpe and his thunder-box, Ritchie-Hook and his "biffing," and Ludovic and his dog, Fido. Yet it isn't only the cast of comic characters weaving in and out of Guy's life that is responsible for the undermining of Guy's ideals--Guy himself is also to blame. But in order to recognize this, Guy must first undergo the testing of his slothful attitudes and feelings. On both the political and the personal levels, Guy must come to see how his favored images of honor and heroism ensnare him, keeping him from the love that "expresses itself in service."

On the political level, Guy's image of England as representing an honorable alternative to that of "the Modern Age in arms" is tested by his country's alliance with Communist Russia in 1941. At the beginning of the third volume of the trilogy, Unconditional Surrender, we find Guy back in London, driving past Westminster Abbey on the way to lunch. The date is October 29, 1943, and a line has formed outside the Abbey to view the Sword of Stalingrad, the sword that King George VI commissioned as a gift to Stalin in honor of Russia's victory over the German Sixth Army in the Siege of Stalingrad (Churchill presented the sword to Stalin at the Teheran Conference in November 1943). The Sword of Stalingrad is a celebration of the Russian alliance, but more significantly, it is an idol of modernity, exposed for adoration, ironically, "hard by the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor and the sacring place of the kings of England." (22) The Sword's exposition at Westminster Abbey, the culmination of its nationwide tour, is described as its "apotheosis." The sword is described as standing on a table "counterfeiting an altar," thus making of the sword a counterfeit sacrament. In contrast to the sword of Sir Roger of Waybrooke, symbol of Christian heroism, the Sword of Stalingrad is a secular sword, forged in order to portray as heroic the pragmatic and often tyrannical machinery of the modern nation-state.

On this overcast, damp, misty October day, Guy drives past "the line of devotees on his way to luncheon," unmoved "by the popular enthusiasm for the triumphs of 'Joe' Stalin. ..." (23) The "popular enthusiasm" for this "State Sword" (Waugh's title for this section of the novel) takes the form of a somber ritual in which Londoners shuffle forward in a long queue to venerate the sword "as the symbol of their own generous and spontaneous emotion." (24) This veneration is a kind of mock liturgy, an ersatz festivity. The Times even lauds the sword's arrival with poetry tinged with Christian symbolism:
I saw the Sword of Stalingrad,
Then bow'd down my head from the Light of it,
Spirit to my spirit, the Might of it
Silently whispered--O Mortal, Behold...
I am the Life of Stalingrad,
You and its people shall unite in me,
Men yet unborn, in the great Light in me
Triumphs shall sing when my Story is told.


Through this image of the common folk of London venerating a sword made in honor of Stalin's brutal tyranny we can discern a subtle and paradoxical connection between "popular enthusiasm" for secular idols and the joylessness of sloth, a connection that is brought out well by Josef Pieper in his beautiful little book, In Tune with the World. Pieper's book is a study of the notion of festivity, which he defines as a living out, "for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole." (25) The essence of festivity is a joy-filled yes to the goodness of creation. Celebrations of all sorts, whether they be marriages, baptisms, anniversaries, processions, or that festival of festivals, the Mass, are festive insofar as the world and its goodness is received with love. In our era, in which the world is more and more perceived as a menacing place from which God has departed, it has become increasingly difficult to find reasons for giving assent to the whole. Accordingly, true festivity is replaced by ersatz, indeed antifestive, festivity.

It is precisely in such antifestive festivities that we can recognize the "undue rest" that Aquinas associates with sloth, a rest, often in the form of celebration, which does not take its ultimate rationale from the goodness of God. (26) Sloth is a rest opposed to true festivity, which is why Aquinas sees sloth as opposing the commandment to honor the Sabbath, the principal festival day of each week. (27) Pieper finds himself half-agreeing with the provocative statement of Roger Calillois that in the modern world, C'est la guerre, qui correspond a la fete: in the modern world, it is war that fulfills the function of festivity. Pieper ultimately repudiates the claim, but he still reminds us that in Nazi Germany as early as 1934, May 1 was deemed the "National Holiday of the German People," and became the occasion "for striking displays of weapons of destruction, which the regime was already accumulating in preparation for total war." (28) Such veneration of violence is the inevitable result of the kind of persistent nay-saying to the gift of creation that, as Pieper points out, we find in its most grotesque form in Nietzsche. (29)

Of course, the exuberant "will to nothingness," the "pleasure in destruction" that characterize Nietzsche as the self-proclaimed "destroyer par excellence" goes far beyond what Guy Crouchback and most of his compatriots experience during the war. And yet, what else but a certain slothful forgetfulness of the goodness of creation, of the sources of true festivity, would lead the people of London, however appreciative of Russian efforts on their behalf, to line up outside of a Christian house of worship to venerate the Sword of Stalingrad as though it were a religious object?

Guy wisely drives on past this bogus festival, not tempted to join "the line of devotees" in their "piety." (30) In the Sword of Stalingrad he rightly sees an image that obscures the moral degeneration of the British people. He realizes, too, that if he is to live according to the ideals of the counterimage, the sword of Sir Roger of Waybrooke, then he cannot do so by identifying himself with the morally compromised honor of Britain's cause in the war. No doubt, Guy would find congenial the moral comparison of the Allied and Axis powers offered by another Waugh hero, the dim public schoolmaster Scott-King, who refers to the conflict of the Second World War as "a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts." (31) But if Guy's fate, like that of his hero Sir Roger, is not to fight in a Crusade, then what is he to do? How is he to overcome sloth and figuratively pick up the sword of Christian knighthood?

In the "Synopsis of Preceding Volumes" that Waugh attached to the beginning of Unconditional Surrender, Waugh previews his answer: "As Guy, in the late autumn of 1941, rejoins his regiment he believes that the just cause of going to war has been forfeited in the Russian alliance. Personal honor alone remains." (32) There is an echo here of a chapter title from another Waugh masterpiece, Helena: "The Post of Honor is a Private Station." Apparently unable to identify himself with the spoiled honor of his country, Guy must man a private post of personal honor. The contrast Waugh wants to draw, however, is not one between the secular nation-state, on the one hand, and some modern sense of personal authenticity, on the other. For as the argument of Unconditional Surrender unfolds, we realize that the sense of personal honor Guy must discover and ultimately embrace is rooted in the virtue of Christian caritas, the theological virtue of communion with both God and neighbor. In coming to recognize how God is calling him to live charity within the highly constrained circumstances of the war, Guy begins within his own sphere to rebuild the Christian community that lies in ruins, not only due to the punishments of the Second World War and centuries of increasing secularization, but also due to his own sinful failures--his own sloth.

This last stage of Guy's quest begins during one of the most evocative scenes in the entire trilogy, the funeral of his father, Gervase. "To Guy his father was the best man, the only entirely good man, he had ever known." (33) He was a man who
 had always seen quite clearly the difference in kind between the
 goodness of the most innocent of humans and the blinding, ineffable
 goodness of God. "Quantitative judgments don't apply," his father
 had written. As a reasoning man, Mr. Crouchback had known that he
 was honorable, charitable and faithful; a man who by all formularies
 of his faith should be confident of salvation; as a man of prayer he
 saw himself as totally unworthy of divine notice. (34)


Gervase Crouchback, a man who never loses sight of the "blinding, ineffable goodness of God," is an embodiment of Christian charity. His maxim, "Quantitative judgments don't apply," is one that lingers in Guy's consciousness for the rest of the novel, and ultimately becomes the key that allows Guy to escape the prison house of sloth.

In the prologue to Unconditional Surrender, titled "The Locust Years," Guy has a conversation with his father about the significance of the Lateran Treaty of 1929, in which the Church formally ceded its temporal power over the city of Rome and the Papal States. Guy believes that subsequent events have exposed the whole thing to have been a mistake, and thinks that the Church should now show its disdain for those temporal powers that sought to marginalize her significance. His father does not agree. "That isn't at all what the Church is like," he says. "It isn't what she's for." (35) Later in a letter, anxious to explain himself more fully to Guy, Gervase writes:
 When you spoke of the Lateran Treaty did you consider how many souls
 may have been reconciled and have died at peace as the result of it?
 How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might
 have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgments don't apply. If only
 one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of
 loss of 'face.'" (36)


Quantitative judgments don't apply. One doesn't measure loss of "face" in the temporal sphere against the salvation of even one soul. Guy's father thus urges Guy to avoid the kinds of judgments that allow the flesh to triumph over the spirit and that lead to a diminished sense of the blinding, ineffable goodness of God.

When the words of his father return to Guy at the funeral, he struggles to figure out how he might live them:
 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. He saw himself as one of the laborers in the
 parable who sat in the marketplace waiting to be hired and was not
 called into the vineyard until late in the day. ... One day he would
 get the chance to do some small service which only he could perform,
 for which he had been created. Even he must have his function in the
 divine plan. He did not expect a heroic destiny. Quantitative
 judgments did not apply. All that mattered was to recognize the
 chance when it was offered. (37)


These reflections show us the last reserves of Guy's spiritual strength. The fact that he still seeks to perform "some small service" for God shows that, inspired by his father, he does not want to give in to sloth, that he is ready to take the chance when God offers it. And for this, God rewards him in two unexpected ways.

The first occurs with the return of Guy's wife, Virginia. After injuring his leg in training as a paratrooper, Guy is sent back to London to recuperate. While staying at his uncle Peregrine's, he is visited by Virginia. It is not the first time he has seen her since the war began. Years earlier, as depicted in Men at Arms, he encounters her at her hotel in London. By the dictates of his faith still believing her to be his wife, he makes a clumsy attempt to lure her into bed, for which she laughs at him. Now, Virginia finds herself with the tables turned. She is pregnant from one of her many affairs, with no money and no longer able to stay with her friends, the Kilbannocks, whom she has imposed on for too long. She attempts to solve her problem, first, by procuring an abortion--the emblem of feminine power in the modern world--but the only doctor she can find to do it is a witch doctor and she cannot go through with killing her baby. Desperate, she finally runs to Guy, whom she wants to make fall in love with her again, to marry her and to help her raise her child.

Virginia Troy (this last name taken from the third of her husbands) is one of the most important characters in The Sword of Honor, and indeed within Waugh's entire oeuvre. Just as Guy can be taken as the culmination of all those fainthearted male characters in Waugh who, to one degree or another, lack the audacity to love God with all their heart, mind, and strength--from the hapless Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall to the feckless Adam Fen-wick-Symes in Vile Bodies and the fey Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited--Virginia represents all those brash, assertive, modern women in Waugh's novels who try to get on by their wits and by their wiles--from Margot Beste-Chetwynde in Decline and Fall to Nina Blount in Vile Bodies, Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust, and Julia Flyte in Brideshead. As the aesthete Everard Spruce says to a companion about Virginia: "Virginia Troy was the last of twenty years' succession of heroines. ... The ghosts of romance who walked between the last two wars. " (38) For Spruce--not the first of Waugh's aesthetes to serve as the mouthpiece of wisdom--Virginia is an image of that romantic eros which inspired the indulgences of the flappers and those who followed them, of the sort we also meet in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan and Hemingway's Brett Ashley. Spruce makes this latter connection himself:
 Hemingway coarsened the image with his Brett, but the type
 persisted--in books and in life. Virginia was the last of them-the
 exquisite, the doomed and the damning, with expiring voices--a whole
 generation younger. We shall never see anyone like her again in
 literature or in life and I'm very glad to have known her. (39)


Pregnant and without resources, Virginia comes to Guy hoping to restore "normality" in her life, and to Virginia, normality means
 power and pleasure; pleasure chiefly, and not only her own. Her power
 of attraction, her power of pleasing was to her still part of the
 natural order which had been capriciously interrupted. ... Virginia's
 power of pleasing enabled her to cash checks, wear new clothes,
 lave her face with its accustomed unguent, travel with speed and
 privacy and attention wherever she liked, when she liked, and choose
 her man and enjoy him at her leisure. The interruption had been
 prolonged beyond all reason. (40)


In Virginia's desire for "power and pleasure" we once again find an image of that antifestive festivity characteristic of sloth. In speaking of festivity Josef Pieper remarks that it is often very difficult to identify, for the "quality of this assent is such that we must attribute it even to martyrs, at the very moment, perhaps, that they perish under brutal assault." (41) The difficulty of seeing also holds true for the nonassent of sloth. By all appearances sloth may look like the gayest pleasure; it may bury itself underneath the most electric activity. But in the slothful heart even the most sybaritic existence cannot utterly extinguish the cry of a sadness edging toward despair, the discomfort of not ever being quite at home in one's own skin. Pieper elaborates:
 At issue is a refusal regarding the very heart and fountainhead of
 existence itself, because of the "despair of not willing to be
 oneself" which makes man unable to live with himself. He is driven
 out of his own house--into the hurly-burly of work-and-nothing-else,
 into the fine-spun exhausting game of sophistical phrase-mongering,
 into incessant "entertainment" by empty stimulants--in short, into
 a no man's land which may be quite comfortably furnished, but which
 has no place for the serenity of intrinsically meaningful activity,
 for contemplation, and certainly not for festivity. (42)


Virginia's pursuit of pleasure and power, therefore, must be recognized as the paradox that it is: a form of refusal of joy. It is a "quantitative judgment" that measures happiness according to the calculation of material satisfactions. Virginia's despair of not willing to be herself, her inability to live with herself, physically drives her out of her own house and takes her from man to man, hotel to hotel, to the point that she no longer has anyplace else to go. Aquinas speaks of the "daughters" or effects of sloth, five of which have to do with the "wandering of the mind after unlawful things." Wandering is the lot of the slothful, both the wandering of the mind in its unease and the wandering of the body seeking rest. (43)

There is no doubt that Virginia comes to Guy for selfish reasons. She even professes to Uncle Peregrine an interest in converting to Catholicism. But there seems little reason at first to think that this is anything more than part of her plot to resume her marriage to Guy. Guy is far from insensitive to Virginia's machinations. He tells her, "I think you are unhappy and uncomfortable and you've no one you're specially interested in at the moment, and for the first time in your life you are frightened of the future." (44) He offers to help her until she can find "someone more convenient." (45) But it is then that Virginia tells him that she needs something more than temporary help. She tells him about the baby.

Far from being angered by this revelation, Guy sees his opportunity. "If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of 'face.'" By resuming his marriage to Virginia and helping raise her illegitimate child, he finally finds a way to follow his father's good counsel, to achieve a genuine sense of personal honor by doing the small service--small in the eyes of the world--that only he could perform. He defends himself to Virginia's friend, Kerstie Kilbannock:
 "You poor bloody fool," said Kerstie, anger and pity and something
 near love in her voice, "you're being chivalrous--about Virginia.
 Can't you understand men aren't chivalrous any more and I don't
 believe they ever were. Do you really see Virginia as a damsel in
 distress?
 ... "Knights-errant" [Guy] said, "used to go out looking for noble
 deeds. I don't think I've ever in my life done a single positively
 unselfish action. I certainly haven't gone out of my way to find
 opportunities. Here was something most unwelcome, put into my hands;
 something which I believe the Americans describe as 'beyond the
 call of duty'; not the normal behavior of an officer and a
 gentleman; something they'll laugh about in Bellamy's."
 ... It was no good trying to explain, Guy thought. Had someone
 said: "All differences are theological differences"? He turned once
 more to his father's letter. Quantitative judgments don't apply. If
 only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount
 of 'loss of face'. (46)


We see here Guy situating his "single positively unselfish action" within the tradition of knight-errantry. Guy has found a way to make the image of Sir Roger of Waybrooke effective in his life, to take up the true sword of honor. But he also recognizes that heroism in the Modern Age must be something very different than it was for Sir Roger; it must take the form of the small, unexpected action, the action that will probably, in the world's eyes, involve a "loss of face." All differences are theological differences, and what makes Guy's choice different than anything that Kerstie Kilbannock might expect from a modern man is that it is a choice that is governed by charity and not some "quantitative" result that will help Guy maneuver more successfully in the world.

Thus Guy finds the remedy for sloth. In essence, as Waugh says in his essay, it is joy in the love of God, a love that is expressed in service to others. At the core of this love is a yes to the goodness of creation--the goodness even of a faithless wife and an illegitimate child conceived with a man Guy loathes. Virginia, too, finds her remedy. She converts to Catholicism, a conversion in which her natural cunning is beautifully transformed into a holy and winsome practicality:
 In Westminster Cathedral ... Virginia made her first confession. She
 told everything; fully, accurately, calmly, without extenuation or
 elaboration. The recital of half a lifetime's mischief took less
 than five minutes. ... Little Trimmer stirred as she knelt at the
 side-altar and made the required penance; then she returned to her
 needlework.
 ... That evening she said to Uncle Peregrine, as she had said
 before: "Why do people make such afuss? It's all so easy. But it is
 rather satisfactory to feel I shall never again have anything to
 confess as long as I live." (47)


And indeed she doesn't. Not long afterwards, Virginia and Peregrine--though not the baby--are killed when a bomb hits their apartment building. Guy learns of it while stationed as a liaison officer in Yugoslavia, where he becomes involved in the British policy of supporting the Communist Partisans. But here he is given his second opportunity to perform "some small service" that only he can perform: namely, to come to the aid of some Jewish refugees trying to get across the Adriatic to Italy.

When the Jews come to him for help, Guy reflects, "But more than this he felt compassion; something less than he had felt for Virginia and her child but a similar sense that here again, in a world of hate and waste, he was being offered the chance of doing a single small act to redeem the times." (48) Guy succeeds in nagging the military bureaucracy to transport the Jewish refugees, only to see them, upon arriving in Italy, shunted off to a refugee camp, while their spokesmen, a Madame Kanyi and her husband, whom Guy particularly wanted to help, are taken by the Partisans and--due ironically to Guy's interventions on their behalf--executed as traitors. Guy is forced to learn more thoroughly that growth in compassion does not always equate with effectiveness in the world of quantitative judgments, here represented in ruthless form by Communism.

While planning the transportation of the Jews, however, Guy has a conversation with Madame Kanyi in which his recognition of the depths of his former sloth is made complete. Madame Kanyi says to Guy,
 "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
 honor 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." (49)


Madame Kanyi helps Guy see that his original motivation for seeking a place in the battle was no purely selfless desire to defend England and Christendom. It was, at its deepest level, a will to war, a death wish, a desire to annihilate pain under the pretense of saving the world that actually edged even beyond sloth into despair. (50) It was, at bottom, a strange, unconscious form of anti-festive festivity. The war came as a relief to Guy because it allowed him to be distracted from the sadness caused by the tiny stroke of paralysis inside his heart.

The argument of the Sword of Honor, therefore, is that the sloth that characterizes so many practices and institutions of the modern world, governed as they are by quantitative judgments, and that festers within the hearts of so many--even believers such as Guy Crouchback--can only be combated with acts of charity, small acts of service for love of God and neighbor that have no guarantee of success or even recognition by the world. Virginia dies and the Kanyis die, but the worth of Guy's efforts on their behalf, the good he did both for their souls and for his own, is eternal and unseen by those who judge according to the flesh.

Still, in the novel's epilogue, Waugh provides an oblique glimpse of the Christian community that even in the ruins of modernity is made possible through charity. It begins, appropriately for a novel concerned with the devastations of sloth, with a secular festival: "In 1951, to celebrate the opening of a happier decade, the government decreed a Festival. Monstrous constructions appeared on the south bank of the Thames, the foundation stone was solemnly laid for a National Theatre, but there was little popular exuberance among the straitened people and dollar-bearing tourists curtailed their visits and sped to the countries of the Continent." (51)

Here at the end of the story, we are offered yet another image of antifestive festivity: "monstrous" constructions met by "little popular exuberance." Waugh invites us to reflect one last time that in the modern world, perhaps especially on the level of politics, the triumphs of the flesh over the spirit succeed only in creating the conditions for sloth. Things, however, turn out very conveniently for Guy Crouchback, as his brother-in-law rather resentfully notes in the final line of the trilogy. For at the end of the war Guy returns to England and marries a woman who had been helping look after Virginia's baby. Guy retires with his new family to a country farm. (52) Virginia's child inherits a good sum of money from his Uncle Peregrine. This final, unsentimental image of domestic peace, forged through great sacrifice, serves as an image of that genuine rest in the Divine Good that is the antidote to sloth. It is an image of the only kind of community that has the power to resist the enmeshments of modernity. But this image of Guy's new family also recalls for us that this peace is only made possible by the sword, a sword that first must be wielded against ourselves and that tendency in our hearts to shrink from the demands of loving service and make "quantitative judgments" the measure that we use to guide our lives.

Notes

(1.) The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher (London: Methuen, 1983), 374, quoted in Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999), 303. The argument of this article is deeply indebted to Patey's magisterial analysis of Waugh's novels in The Life of Evelyn Waugh. I have also benefited from David Cliffe's A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's The Sword of Honor, www.abbotshill.freeserve.co.uk/SHContents.htm (accessed November 5, 2008).

(2.) The pieces were eventually collected in The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1962).

(3.) The thoughts that follow owe much to the reflections of Alasdair MacIntyre in "Poetry as Political Philosophy: Notes on Burke and Yeats," reprinted in MacIntyre, Selected Essays, vol. 2, Ethics and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 159-71.

(4.) Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honor Trilogy (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 14.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid., 15.

(7.) Ibid., 11.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid., 13.

(10.) Waugh is certainly referring here to St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 1: "Quia igitur acedia, secundum quod hic sumitur, nominat tristitiam spiritualis boni." The text of the Summa I rely on is that published by the Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Mardid, 3rd edition, 1963, which contains the Leonine Commission text. I have also consulted the second and revised edition (1920) of the English translation made by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (found online at newadvent.org).

(11.) The Seven Deadly Sins, 58.

(12.) Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 3, ad 2.

(13.) Aquinas's discussion of sloth, accordingly, occurs in the midst of his treatment of charity.

(14.) Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 3.

(15.) Readers of Waugh's Vile Bodies will associate these thoughts with the Scriptural passage from Philippians 3:17-21 from which the title of this novel is taken: "Who shall change our vile body [corpus humilitatis nostrae], that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body; according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself " (Authorized Version). At one point in the novel, the hero Adam Fenwick-Symes expresses disgust, in slothful tones, with the ceaseless round of parties that consumes his life:
 "Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties
 (Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties,
 parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties
 in St. John's Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships
 and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea
 parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned
 crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked
 Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in
 Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris--all that succession and
 repetition of massed humanity. ... Those vile bodies). Waugh, Vile
 Bodies (New York: Back Bay Books, 1999), 170-71.


(16.) The Seven Deadly Sins, 58.

(17.) Waugh, Sword of Honor, 11.

(18.) Ibid., 12.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Ibid., 404.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 1999), 30.

(26.) Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 4, ad 3.

(27.) Ibid., q. 35, a. 3, ad 1.

(28.) Pieper, In Tune with the World, 79.

(29.) A comparable observation is made by another critic of modernity, Walker Percy, in his essay, "Diagnosing the Modern Malaise": "A case might be made that, given a certain urban environment and an educated class of laymen alienated from each other and from themselves, only two real options remain, genital sex and violence, and perhaps the realest of all, death."Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, edited with an introduction by Patrick Samway (NewYork: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), 215.

(30.) Waugh, Sword of Honor, 404.

(31.) Evelyn Waugh, "Scott-King's Modern Europe," in Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Short Stories and Selected Drawings, edited and introduced by Ann Pasternak Slater (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2000), 355.

(32.) Waugh, Sword of Honor, 396.

(33.) Ibid., 437.

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Ibid., 398.

(36.) Ibid., 400.

(37.) Ibid., 438.

(38.) Ibid., 541.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Ibid., 500-501.

(41.) Pieper, In Tune with theWorld, 27.

(42.) Ibid., 28. Add to this Waugh's reflections from the essay on sloth, where he says, in words just as applicable to our society as his:
 Almost all the men and women in England proclaim themselves to be
 busy. They have 'no time' to read or cook to take notice of the
 ceaseless process of spoliation of their island or even to dress
 decorously, while in their offices and workshops they do less and
 less, in quality and quantity, for ever larger wages with which to
 pay larger taxes for services that diminish in quantity and quality.
 We have voted for a Welfare State but are everywhere frustrated
 because we are too lazy to man the services; too few school teachers,
 too few hospital nurses; too few prison warders. That way lies
 national disaster. " The Seven Deadly Sins, 62.


(43.) Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 35, a. 4, ad 3.

(44.) Waugh, Sword of Honor, 501.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) Ibid., 503-4.

(47.) Ibid., 519.

(48.) Ibid., 535.

(49.) Ibid., 565-66.

(50.) "The new demon of volume three that Guy must purge is what the novel repeatedly identifies as 'The Death wish'--not mere slothful sadness in the face of spiritual good, but full-fledged despair at the collapse of all one's deepest worldly hopes." Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh, 354.

(51.) Waugh, Sword of Honor, 571.

(52.) In the original version of the third volume of the trilogy, Waugh had blessed Guy and his wife, Domenica Plessington, with two sons of their own. He was disconcerted, however, when readers took these natural children as evidence of a happy ending for Guy. "This was far from my intention," Waugh wrote Anthony Powell. "The mistake was allowing Guy legitimate offspring. They shall be deleted in any subsequent edition. I thought it more ironical that there should be real heirs to the Blessed Gervase Crouchback dispossessed by Trimmer [Virginia's lover and the father of her baby] but I plainly failed to make that clear. So no nippers for Guy and Domenica in Penguin." This letter is quoted in Patey, The Life of EvelynWaugh, 411, n. 70, who refers toWaugh's decision not to allow Guy and Domenica natural children as emphasizing Guy's "healing humiliation." The one-volume recension of the three original novels--Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender--was in fact published by Chapman & Hall in 1965.Yet strangely, the one-volume The Sword of Honor Trilogy published by Penguin in 1984 retains the reference to Guy's and Domenica's natural children: "Now they've two boys of their own. When Domenica isn't having babies she manages the home farm at Broome," 573.
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Author:McInerny, Daniel
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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