For Evelyn Waugh, modernism is characterized by a romantic existentialism "that sought fulfillment by means of an ecstatic union of subject and object, self and world, a sort of secular mysticism" that posed itself against what it considered to be the "artificial strictures of Western culture." Waugh stood squarely and unashamedly for the "essentialist tradition and the incorruptible region of pure ideas that distinguished between sensation and perception, between the random flow of material existence and the purposeful organizing power of the mind, between the confused roaring and the wisdom of the eye." For Waugh, who saw the world as "irretrievably fallen," modernists, led by Bergson, Woolf, Joyce, and Proust, sought to establish "if only momentarily within the boundaries of their art—the prelapsarian harmony between the self and the world."
In Waugh's view, modernist fiction lost "its representational credibility because of its pernicious and . . . unwarranted assumption that there is no abiding pattern to be discovered in the play of experience. It is on this question that all else stands or falls" for Waugh. "Existence either has a purposeful order or it does not. By dismissing the possibility of a metaphysical order, the [modern] artist subverts his own order-making ability."
Paradoxically—and this is McCartney's central point—Waugh stole from the techniques of modernism to create his antimodernist satire. Borrowing the modernist devices of authorial neutrality, temporal dislocation, juxtaposition, counterpoint, and the collagic devices of film, Waugh attacked modernist ideas. That attack, McCartney asserts, is based upon a sense that reality is made up of a set of irreconcilable opposites that constitute a kind of "signature, an idiosyncratic expression of personality anterior to any writing. His stories are hostage to his binary imagination." Thought is posed against desire and will; the static, the ordered, the Apollonian against the dynamic, the destructive, the Dionysian; aimless speed against the stationary and defined; the multitude against the individual; the shared and traditional against the isolated and novel; heroic Odyssey an constancy against the modern inconstant hero; the primitive, tribal, and emotional against the rational; the reflective against action; the timeless against the historical. Interestingly enough Waugh, McCartney argues, does not try to resolve such oppositions but rather intensifies them.
Although brief and even reductive, this summary of McCartney's line of argument gives some sense of the sharpness of his readings of Waugh's novels, of the techniques and ideas that make them. However, that argument places Waugh [End Page 282] in something of an historical cul-de-sac. Waugh's fictional achievement is irretrievably tied to the ideology it attacks—modernist romantic existentialism. Given this analysis, Waugh's popularity in the Eighties remains a mystery. McCartney's point of departure simply cannot relate Waugh's work to anything that follows him—say the kind of postmodernist irony defined by critics such as Alan Wilde and Philip Stevick. Although Waugh's use of collagic construction, his satiric play with cultural dreck, his refusal to reconcile opposites make his antimodernism seem at least congenial to if not synonymous with postmodernist satire, McCartney's position can render no insight into that relationship. Moreover, Waugh's current popularity seems to stem less from his satiric attack on a now outmoded modernism than from his ability to invoke the same conservative and right-wing chords played so well by Reagan and Thatcher. He stands not only as an opponent of romantic and existential modernism, not only as a defender of the "essentialist tradition," but as a powerful voice of the moral and social right that claims to be the single voice of culture. Waugh's dichotomized consciousness seems to participate in the social myth that the present is simply the debasement of some past time when order and sense prevailed. Put straightforwardly, his satire seems to participate in those popular conservative myths that equate rectitude with the apex of an empire, whether British or American.
If Waugh deployed the technical innovations of modernism to attack...