Culture Club #5: Decline and Fall

Sex, drugs, satire ’n’ the meaning of life: Evelyn Waugh’s Roaring Twenties classic has it all

Warning: spoilers ahead, specifically Decline and Fall spoilers. The original novel, not the TV series that I’ve only just now learned exists — miiiight give that a chance one day, but I have an uneasy feeling that filmed versions of classic British fiction will never be good again and we all just have to live with it. (In the meantime we have this.)

Decline and Fall is about the adventures of Paul Pennyfeather, a proud member of that species of humanity that C. S. Lewis dubbed “men without chests”. He’s purposeless, valueless, a blank slate, a nothing, a vacuum for things to happen to and more interesting people to confide in. Not that the other characters come across as real either — they’re all distorted caricatures, endlessly silly, self-involved and shallow, nowhere near good but not human enough to be properly evil.

In other words, they’re vehicles through which Waugh can express his bottomless contempt for the interwar generation and everything it stood for, or didn’t stand for. The book is pervaded with its era’s uneasy feeling that the old institutions, traditions and truths are irrevocably slipping away, and now the world is going to have to be remade from scratch by people who have no idea what they’re doing. At one point Paul is struck by the fact that ‘there was something radically inapplicable about this whole code of ready-made honour that is the still small voice, trained to command, of the Englishman all the world over’.

(Ray Davies eat your heart out!)

But I don’t want to give the impression that the book’s full of elegiac passages like that — it’s actually very fast-moving and readable. Paul’s adventures take him to a number of different locations, giving Waugh the opportunity to satirize the school system, the prison system, the class system, society parties, bureaucracy, politics and just about every other facet of 1920s British life. This makes the novel a fascinating window into the world of a hundred years ago, although I was more struck by the recognisable elements than the alien ones: by 1928 modernism was already in full swing, so you get references to feminism, Freudian psychology, architectural innovations, rehabilitative criminal justice and clergymen who don’t believe in God.

The narrative’s also pretty frank about drug dependency, STDs, prostitution and trafficking — literature’s often pushed the envelope further than Hollywood, radio and popular music over the years, and in many ways it still does. As you’d expect, the most dated passages concern race. The subject comes up quite a lot and is far from sensitively handled. Honestly, the writing is saturated in so many levels of irony that it’s sometimes hard to be sure who exactly is being targeted at any given point — it’s clear that Waugh is satirizing prejudice at least some of the time, but of course he had plenty of prejudices of his own.

Speaking of irony, the book’s the funniest I’ve read in a long time, combining beautiful English (‘“One way and another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish”’) with endless dead-on satirical barbs (‘anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison’), pitch-black humour (I’m telling you, these characters make George Costanza look big-hearted) and a plot that’s so well constructed its convolutions are funny in themselves. Most of them involve Paul being punished for crimes he either didn’t commit or was only involved in because he wasn’t bright enough to know what was going on.

I’m not sure it’s fair to say that a book as cheerfully amoral as this one has a “moral”, but if it did it’d be that a conviction’s not a conviction until it’s tested. When we first meet Paul he’s training for the clergy, and his head is full of principles about how good vicars should behave and what they should believe on any number of obscure doctrinal matters. The rest of the narrative shows him up as nothing more than a chameleon: put him with debauched schoolmasters and he becomes a debauched schoolmaster, put him with society dandies and he’s a society dandy, put him with criminals and he’s a criminal, then put him back in college and suddenly he’s looking down on the party animals again.

It’s obvious that the Paul at the end of the book won’t make a bad vicar — as a good chameleon, he’ll fit right into his new role — but it’s equally obvious he won’t be a good one either. He doesn’t have the strength of feeling to become either a saint or a Graham Greene-style tortured soul. The complete lack of warmth, or really any kind of emotion, in the final conversation of the book makes that clear.

So if Paul can fit into any environment he’s dropped into, even prison, why does he want to be a vicar of all things?

Because it gives him the chance to opt out of life. Of course good clergy are profoundly engaged with the world, well-versed in human psychology, good listeners, passionate about the material and spiritual wellbeing of their communities, and so on. But it’s pretty easy for the mediocre ones to just…coast. Paul’s fundamentally interested in ideas, not people, which is why he prefers solitary confinement to bonding with his fellow inmates in the slammer. As a vicar he’ll spend all his time researching early heresies and none of it ministering to his flock.

There’s a fascinating monologue towards the end of the book that sums all this up and suggests another very different moral hidden away inside the story. In fact, it reminds me a lot more of Eastern philosophy than the Catholicism that Waugh famously converted to soon after finishing the novel. Fresh from a series of misadventures, Paul is in Corfu hanging out with an acquaintance, Professor Silenus, when suddenly the Professor drops this gem:

Shall I tell you about life?…Well, it’s like the big wheel at Luna Park…the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on…at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if one could only find it…Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others…who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone.

People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence…They can’t escape that — even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too — the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started. It’s so odd.

Now you’re [Paul] a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump…you’re static…they ought to class people as static and dynamic. There’s a real distinction there, though I can’t tell you how it comes. I think we’re probably two quite different species spiritually.

This passage just sets off so many associations in my head. Isn’t the analogy describing something very like the dharma wheel in Buddhism, with its endless cycle of births and rebirths, actions and reactions? Where getting flung off the wheel suggests death, jumping back on again stands in for rebirth and finally attaining rest at the hub symbolises nirvana? Sure, in context Silenus is just talking about two different approaches to living the one life — engaging with it or sitting it out — but the passage can very easily be read both ways.

There’s something I like about the fact that Paul in the stands and the enlightened yogis in the middle of the wheel are doing the same thing — sitting. I’ve noticed that there’s a detachment that comes from not engaging with life at all — turning your back on the world, or only interacting with a tiny sliver of it, or shutting down empathy, or attempting to deny the harsh realities in yourself and around you — and a detachment that comes from engaging with every aspect of life and coming out the other side. Both attitudes are equally calm, but the second one’s paradoxically softer and more resilient at the same time. More loving, more invulnerable to the slings and arrows.

Chögyam Trungpa points out in Work, Sex, Money that it’s easy for a hermit to be “enlightened” because they have no irritants. Real enlightenment generally has to be worked out right in the eye of the storm of tedious obligations, calls on your time and people who drive you up the wall. If you can keep an inner stillness going through all that, then you’ve got to the hub of the wheel.

The static/dynamic distinction also reminds me of a book I read as a kid, Hope for the Flowers. It’s about a caterpillar, Stripe, who becomes dissatisfied with eating leaves and develops an obsession with getting to the sky. One day he finds a bunch of similarly obsessed caterpillars all scrambling over each other in a fevered attempt to get higher, in the process creating a writhing column that stretches up as far as the eye can see. (The pun “cater-pillar” has only just occurred to me now; wonder if the author intended it.) Stripe pushes his way up to the top and discovers he hasn’t gotten anywhere: he just has a better view of the caterpillars below him and all around him, forming pillar after pillar of their own. Meanwhile his friend Yellow has happily continued eating leaves, and one day she spins a cocoon. You can guess how she gets to the sky.

Another association the “static/dynamic” division brings up for me is the tension that runs through all the classic Hermann Hesse novels: the purity of the life of the spirit, or the immediacy of the life of the flesh? You get it in Narcissus and Goldmund (deny yourself like Narcissus or indulge yourself like Goldmund?), Demian (live well and feel inauthentic, or rebel and feel bad?), Steppenwolf (be a respectable bourgeois citizen or a wild, antisocial “wolf”?), The Glass Bead Game (does truth live in the university or the world?) and his masterpiece Siddhartha (transcend the physical realm or embrace it to the full?).

Like Paul Pennyfeather, all Hesse’s characters exist somehow apart from humanity no matter what they do. Whether they’re ‘watching the wheels go round’ like a Lennon or hopping from rung to rung like a McCartney, they’re never satisfied. The “static” ones are haunted by FOMO — they suspect the party animals are having all the fun — and the “dynamic” ones try to get into it & get involved but persist in feeling alienated from everyone around them. The ones sitting in the stands want to be part of the game, the ones in the game want to sit it out. Take all the passion and high stakes out of this dilemma and you get Paul.

To be honest, that very lack of passion and high stakes is my favourite thing about Silenus’ Big Wheel analogy, and Decline and Fall in general. As someone who sometimes takes things too seriously, I draw a kind of comfort from the book’s almost nihilistic shrug of the shoulders (Silenus’ post-metaphor sign-off is ‘I know of no more utterly boring and futile occupation than generalizing about life…Good night’). The Professor doesn’t blame Paul for not wanting to engage with the wheel — ‘It doesn’t suit everyone’ — and doesn’t blame those who do want to for how they approach it or what part of it they feel most at home in. There’s a sense that everyone’s doing what’s in their nature, and that’s OK.

I get the same live-and-let-live sense from a good Ram Dass talk. For him we’re all on our way to God, and we’ll all get to Him eventually. In other words, we all reach the hub of the Big Wheel in the end — it’s just a matter of how many lifetimes it’s going to take, how much we want to explore the world of physical form first, how much karma we have to work out, how many times we’re willing to get thrown off the wheel. God isn’t in any rush, and most of us aren’t either, so it takes us incarnation after incarnation after incarnation to get our act together.

The vastness of that temporal landscape puts every event in our current lifetime into perspective, the way the spatial vastness of the universe puts the size of our bank balance into perspective. In a sense, our choices and actions matter a lot. In another, they don’t matter at all. And in another, they’re not our choices to make anyway. The whole saga is just sort of happening to us, unfolding according to laws as immutable as the laws of physics. On that level, we’re all as passive as Paul Pennyfeather, bouncing along from one adventure to the next until all the adventures are used up. It’s like that Tatami Galaxy quote: ‘It doesn’t matter what path you take, you’ll end up in the same place.’

In the meantime it’s tempting to say that the enlightened folk who have transcended life’s chaos are “better” than the people who are still swinging and jumping around, but at the end of the day chaos has a certain beauty to it too. If we were all meant to be the same we would be the same, and there wouldn’t be a Big Wheel at all.

I’ll leave it there, lest you start wondering whether Decline and Fall was secretly written by Alan Watts. I’ll just point out that Ram Dass’ views aren’t necessarily those of the management — the management doesn’t know what its views are lately — but I really enjoy playing in this particular intellectual sandbox, and I’m pleased to be joined in it by Professor Silenus.

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