Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One is tasteless, irreverent, perverse, and merciless. These qualities, however, are the source of a strange sanity because they are the means by which we can all have a good laugh. Not only is it quite alright to take things lightly, it is a good habit. It is even advisable to laugh at serious things now and then. In fact, this is especially advisable for serious things, since they are the most in need of jocularity. Nothing on this earth is, or ever should be held, beyond the ticklish reach of humor. Not even things like Love, Death, and Art. The practice of taking things too seriously is dangerous to mental health. It is precisely such seriousness that makes people lunatics—that seriousness which makes a man believe with every conviction that he is a chicken and that it is no laughing matter.
All things should be taken with a sense of humor; which is to say, with common sense. Humor may even be considered the basis for sanity, for it provides the relief and balance we all need to avoid insanity. It keeps us level. It keeps us healthy. Upon reflection, none of the best things in life are terribly serious. We are refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than by academic analyses. Only a Chestertonian hat-chase on a windy day can bestow the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is just one of the wonderful jokes of humanity.
In 1948, Evelyn Waugh introduced his novel The Loved One with a warning that his story, which he called a gruesome little nightmare, was not for the squeamish. He actually suggested that such people should return their copies to the library unread, and save themselves from this mortuary love-triangle. Some may, understandably, choose to be spared from witnessing the defilement of English culture by Hollywood chic. Perhaps the fall of the modern tragic lover is a tale best left unheard. Evelyn Waugh, however, is a sly master at making such devilish degradations absolutely delicious.
It is slightly awkward to recommend The Loved One because Mr. Waugh’s warning is given with good reason. The Loved One is, without doubt, a humorous story—but its humor might be considered inappropriate and indecent. Its humor certainly must be considered beyond the pale of the common courtesy and sensitivity we naturally show to those who are grieving a recent death. Mr. Waugh is simply portraying a farce, vulgar though it may be, confident in the belief that it is healthy from time to time to poke fun at serious things.
When Evelyn Waugh came to Hollywood in 1947 to discuss the film rights for Brideshead Revisited, he visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He had heard it praised as a place unsurpassed in beauty, taste, and sensitivity; a place where “faith and consolation, religion and art had been brought to their highest possible association.” But Mr. Waugh found the cemetery dripping with saccharine sentimentality, macabre memorials, and repellent cuteness. (Mr. Walt Disney’s remains are actually entombed there.) Mr. Waugh found in that necropolis a grotesque denial of the reality of death. He found vulgar euphemisms crafted by entrepreneurial spirits. He found wonderful material for a novel to satirize the crassness and irreverence of the truly bizarre American funeral-home industry.
The novel’s protagonist, Dennis Barlow, has an embarrassing job—he works for a pet cemetery called The Happier Hunting Ground. When his friend Sir Francis dies, Dennis makes arrangements for the funeral at the famous and prestigious cemetery, Whispering Glades. There, Dennis meets Aimée, a funeral cosmetician, and falls in love. The head mortician, Mr. Joyboy, however, is pursuing Aimée as well. Dennis must keep his occupation, which makes a mockery of the funeral business so revered by Aimée, a secret in order to win his ladylove from the oily Joyboy. Once Mr. Joyboy turns out to be a less-admirable character than Aimée first supposed, she turns to Dennis—only to finally discover the truth about his blasphemous profession. Affairs rapidly unravel from there, until we are left with rivals suddenly and desperately united in the common purpose of furtively and artfully disposing of a very unexpected corpse.
If you do pick up this delightfully disgusting story, please prepare yourself. It is not a normal story. Prepare yourself for feelings of antipathy for all of the absurd characters you will meet.
There is no hero.
There is no loved one.
Mr. Waugh generously offered to donate proceeds from the book to certain Catholic charities. His Archbishop read The Loved One, and declined the offer. Did Mr. Waugh cross the line in his book? It is highly possible. But consolation can always be found in the author’s motives. Mr. Waugh came to the United States and faced off with the chewing-gum trends of America with a stiff collar and a shiny bowler. He stood up and stood out in the name of a civilization that was rapidly being destroyed and forgotten. For Mr. Waugh, the Catholic Church was the one bulwark against the new Dark Age. He looked with distaste on the mediocrities of pop culture, urban growth, and the epidemic of ugliness. The harsh treatment he gives in The Loved One to what he called the “Californian savages” was a genuine attempt to forestall the further deterioration of society. Mr. Waugh would certainly encourage his readers to feel free to appreciate and enjoy the story as such, indecent though it is—for it is base with the highest intentions.
It is true that we will not always like what we see when we hold up the mirror. But when we see something there that disturbs us, the first step to remedying the situation may be, perhaps, to have a good laugh over it.
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The featured image (detail) is courtesy of Pixabay.