Black Mischief, arguably one of Evelyn Waugh’s most renowned novels, continues to be vilified by politically correct prudes (PCP), eager to charge the 20th century English novelist of crimes of cruelty, immorality, and racism.
These PCPs have been given a new lease of life on social media – namely Twitter – where campaigns for my great-grandfather’s posthumous trial against sensitivity are championed.
But here’s the thing: his critics, with their morals and their self-importance and their virtual pitchforks, are missing the point.
It’s not only with Black Mischief that Evelyn Waugh has been called out for not being politically correct (his 1938 classic Scoop has been taken to task in this respect). But it is Waugh’s third novel that has attracted most scorn for its sensibilities.
Does Black Mischief include racist remarks? Absolutely, and such moments are more shocking now than ever before. Does this make Waugh a racist? Absolutely not.
‘I don’t wanna write another 1000 words about Evelyn Waugh’s classist racist ass face,’ moans one puritan. ‘Evelyn Waugh was a fascist, a racist, an anti semite and a conservative,’ cried another. ‘Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief is racist garbage.’
I’ll say one thing for Twitter: it confirms there are plenty of prigs out there, eager to indiscriminately broadcast the same repetitive nonsense on any given subject.
Black Mischief is a transgressive comedy that satirizes modernization. In doing so, Waugh ridicules women, Jews, fascists, Arabs, the French, upper class white colonials, as well as indigenous populations, therefore showing himself to hold intense disdain for humanity.
Rather than racist, Waugh is anti-human and pro-God. Comedy is used to reveal the absurdity of the human race. The social media pharisees are missing the joke.
The novel follows the Oxford-educated Emperor Seth’s efforts to modernize his realm – the fictional East African Kingdom of Azania. Helped by his amoral university chum Basil Seal, Seth is eventually destroyed by his optimism and his determination to drive progress, killed by ‘the sickness of the jungle,’ symbolic of the definite power of the natural and the supernatural over mankind.
Following his death, Seth’s corpse is cut and stitched by the locals, who then attend a primitive parade by way of funeral, whereupon Seal accidentally eats the remains of his unfortunate girlfriend Prudence Courtenay in a stew. Of course, the plot is far more convoluted, uncomfortable, and – mostly – extremely funny.
But with descriptions such as the indigenous soldiers’ ‘fuzzy heads, jolly n—-r-minstrel faces, black chests shining,’ ‘the young darky,’ ‘black bastards’ and a character named Black Bitch, as well as several uses of the ‘N’-word, it is easy to see why the Twitterati cries out for justice.
Such terminology is indeed loathsome. But the calls for the eternal damnation of Waugh are nothing new. One year after the novel’s publication in 1932, Catholic newspaper The Tablet denounced Waugh and his conversion to Catholicism, which had taken place at the end of the 1920s.
Referring to Black Mischief, editor Ernest Oldmeadow wrote Waugh’s ‘latest novel would be a disgrace to anybody professing the Catholic name… we refuse to print its title or mention it to publishers.’
Over the years, Black Mischief has garnered much attention from critics keen to excoriate Waugh. But it would seem that in spite of the condemnations, opinions are being revised and, contrary to what Twitter would have you believe, readers are once again recognizing Waugh’s desire to satirize modernization as the driving force of the novel.
‘Satire and storytelling – even mischievous storytelling – to us Ethiopians is as ancient as Ethiopia itself,’ stated Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, Ethiopia’s poet laureate. He went on to say that ‘reading these immensely satirical, cunningly witty, and brilliantly cruel books of Evelyn Waugh… I’m immensely reminded of the greatest Ethiopian wit. I think it’s time for more Evelyn Waughs.’
Similarly, Dejazmatch Zewde Gebre-Selassie, member of the Ethiopian Royal Family has said that Black Mischief originally ‘made me angry because I thought he [Waugh] was ridiculing Ethiopia… [but] I think he has more or less done the same thing to English society, so there’s nothing really to be angry about.’
And therein lies the answer to the debate surrounding Waugh, racism, and Black Mischief. If the Politically Correct Prudes take care to look up from their screens and read the novel with a more critical (and less priggish) eye, they might benefit from realizing that every sector of society mentioned is ridiculed and satirized.
Women are shown to be glib, unintelligent and jolly, capable of conversing only on ‘their hats and physical disorders.’ Jews are portrayed as parsimonious and immoral – ‘[in the local town] you were jostled against the wall by… Jews foreclosing on mortgages… taxation… vulgar display… no respect of leisure.’ And similarly, the western white colonials are mocked and slandered, characterized as frivolous, corrupt and louche, ‘insupportable barbarians.’
The English are depicted as thick, semi well-meaning fools who get everything wrong. This is illustrated with particular emphasis, for example, when the reader finds English diplomat Sir Samson Courtenay sploshing around in the bath with a toy: ‘he was rapt in a daydream about the pleistocene age, where among mists and vast, unpeopled crags schools of deep-sea monsters splashed and sported; oh happy fifth day of creation, thought the Envoy Extraordinary, oh radiant infant sun.’
Courtney is soon interrupted by the announcement of the American secretary, whereupon he is brought back to base and godless reality: ‘Sir Samson returned abruptly to the twentieth century, to a stale and crowded world; to a bath grown tepid and an india-rubber toy.’
If this is not metaphoric of the illusions of imperial power, I do not know what is. In contrast, the French are presented as doubtful, and too cunning for their own good, seeing politics in everything yet failing to recognize reality. French minister M. Ballon is ‘moved by tiny, uncontrollable shudders of shocked atheism,’ yet fails to notice his wife’s affair.
So widely does Waugh cast his net of ridicule that none escape his wicked scorn. Consider the array of masks worn to a ball: ‘over faces of every complexion, brown as boots, chalk white, dun and the fresh boiled pink of Northern Europe. False noses again: brilliant sheaths of pigmented cardboard attached to noses of every anthropological type, the high arch of the Semite, freckled Nordic snouts, broad black nostrils from swamp villages of the mainland, the pulpy inflamed flesh of the alcoholic, and unlovely syphilitic voids.’
The detrimental effects of colonization are felt by the reader – they’re simply hidden in amongst the jokes. If the PCPs are happy to attack Waugh on the grounds of racism, they should tread carefully.
For in his quest to satirize the modern, to scorn the human race, to show that we are fallen and without God, Waugh leaves no race, gender or class unscathed.