The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War
Random House, 2008
288 pp., $26.00
Reviewed by Nathaniel Peters
Not the Same Man
Up to this point, The Same Man serves as a witty and brisk biography of the two men. But Lebedoff's analysis lacks depth. The last chapter is nothing more than a lightly fleshed-out list of comparisons between the two. The greatest enemy they saw was, as Waugh put it, "the Modern Age in arms." They hated totalitarianism with a passion but saw that even if totalitarianism was defeated, civilization as they knew it would remain in danger. Lebedoff writes: "What both believed—their core, who they were—was that individual freedom mattered more than anything else on earth and reliance on tradition was the best way to maintain it." (Here the lack of nuance in Lebedoff's analysis is glaringly apparent.) But reliance on tradition was in decline. Also in decline was a belief in objective reality and objective truth, which Orwell so deeply probed in 1984. Lebedoff also writes of their trust in the common sense of the common man against the condescension of an upper-middle class. The catalogue of ideological similarities ends in an all-encompassing synthesis: "It was in the freedom and courage to choose one's own life that Orwell and Waugh were most nearly the same. That their lives were deliberately chosen is the most valuable legacy that both offer to us now, in our own so-busy time."
Ugh. Clearly there has to be something more, something deeper that unites them than the "deliberate chosenness" of their lives. Or it might be that despite their similar critiques of the modern age, they were different men at the core. If this were the case, the place they were most different was in the area of religion. Both writers saw the need for man to believe in a moral code, but Orwell thought he could have morality without religion . He wrote to Waugh that he liked Brideshead except for "hideous faults on the surface," one of these being the book's Catholic themes. But Waugh did not believe that morality would last without faith. For him, the days of spending Christianity's cultural and moral capital without embracing its creeds were coming to a swift end.
In light of that impending end, Lebedoff writes, Orwell sought to improve this world by embracing and advocating a moral code to be lived in this life. Waugh, by contrast, deemed this world lost and thought that only by religious belief could one attain happiness in the next life. Such a caricature makes Waugh into a kind of Gnostic, and his Catholicism a kind of religious escapism. But that is far from true. Moral codes in this world mattered a great deal to Waugh, as he shows with the end of Julia and Charles' relationship in Brideshead. Both men cared deeply about right actions, but Orwell wanted to save the world through politics and Waugh through Catholicism. In the end, that would prove to be their greatest difference. They saw the same symptoms of societal disease but proposed different cures.
Both men saw society continue to decline despite their warnings. Orwell's politics could slow the impending disaster but provide little hope. The end of 1984 and Animal Farm show that clear as day. But Waugh's Catholicism gave him a flicker of hope. For as Charles Ryder stands in the ruins of the world he knew before World War II, he finds the "small red flame" indicating Christ's presence in the tabernacle of the chapel, the sign that no matter how far society falls, there is always hope of a resurrection. Indeed, Waugh wrote to Orwell that he had one problem with the hopelessness of 1984's Oceania: "But what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest … . I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time … . The Brotherhood which can confound the party is one of love—not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children's faces. And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful."
David Lebedoff's The Same Man is strongest when it tells the story of Waugh's and Orwell's lives, and useful when it shows the similarity of their critiques of modern society. But its treatment of their similarities and differences is too simplistic, especially in its account of the remedies they propose. For these remedies were answers to life's ultimate questions, answers that finally separated Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell at the deepest level.
Nathaniel Peters is an assistant editor at First Things.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.