Wednesday, 10 August 2011

From Bible to Babel: Chaos, Corruption, and Confusion of Tongues in Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

by John B. Cruttwell

It is rare that the literary critic can feel the satisfaction of the scientist and hear the click of a fact fitting neatly into a hypothesis. Yet I heard the click twice, once loudly, once softly, in my epistemic interrogation of Scott-King’s Modern Europe, Waugh’s “light tale” of an innocent classicist abroad. How far I was right to feel the satisfaction and hear the clicks readers may decide for themselves. I had begun by trying to understand the significance of the hiccups that afflict the novella’s protagonist, the “dim” but learned “Scotch-Kink,”[1] at a dinner held late at night in the Mediterranean republic of Neutralia, a “composite” of Franco’s Catholic Spain and Tito’s communist Yugoslavia. Scott-King is there a year after the Second World War to commemorate the tercentenary of the death of the Neutralian poet Bellorius in 1646.

The waiters had already devoured the hors-d’œuvre, but when at length the soup arrived, the first mouthful made him hiccup...

“Comment dit-on en français ‘hiccup’?” he asked his neighbour.

“Plaît-il, mon professeur?”

Scott-King hiccupped. “Ça,” he said.

“Ça c’est le hoquet.”

“J’en ai affreusement.”

“Évidemment, mon professeur. Il faut du cognac.”

The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand. Scott-King tossed off a glassful and his affliction was doubled. He hiccupped without intermission throughout the long dinner.[2]

Scott-King is a “classical master” and the dinner is in honour of Bellorius, dim creator of the “1500 lines of Latin hexameters”[3] that Scott-King has translated into “Spenserian stanzas.”[4] In that context, the first syllables of “hiccup” and “hoquet” are instantly reminiscent of the Latin demonstratives hic and hoc, the masculine and neuter forms of “this.”[5] Hic also means “here” and I wondered whether Scott-King’s hiccups were ironic reminders that he was “here, here, here,” trapped in the “new Neutralia”[6] that will so sadly disappoint his dreams of the “enchanted” South. [7] However, I vaguely remembered that hic is also used in the Vulgate, or Latin Bible, in the descriptions of Christ inaugurating Holy Communion at the Last Supper, which was, of course, held late at night. And yes, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark yield hic est enim sanguis meus, “for this is my blood,” and echo hoquet with hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body.” Then I read the Gospel of Luke and heard the click of fact fitting hypothesis:

Hic calix novum testamentum est in sanguine meo, qui pro vobis funditur. Evangelium secundum Lucam, XX, 20.

This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. Gospel according to Luke, 22:20.

If “hic calix” is written half in Latin, half in English, it becomes “hiccup.” The word is mixed, miscegenated, but mixture and miscegenation occur again and again in the novella, reiterating its implicit message: that Catholicism is the only secure refuge from the chaos and confusion of modernity. I suggest, then, that the hiccups that afflict Scott-King are bathetic symbols of a perennial Wauvian theme: a character’s sad and foolish refusal to accept the Catholic faith. Although Scott-King moves in Catholic Neutralia “through a world of piety,”[8] there is no hint that he shares any of it. In the town of Simona, he sits at a café table “at the hour of the angelus,” hearing bells “deliciously chime... in the sunlit towers of twenty shadowy churches.”[9] However, the bells please his senses, not his faith, for he seems to have none.

Yet faith is central to the novella, or rather, Fe is. This, the Spanish truncation of the Latin fides, “faith,” is the surname of the corrupt but congenial Neutralian official who hosts Scott-King at the Bellorius Tercentenary. In full, he is Dr. Arturo Fe. Here one finds almost all the letters of auto-de-fe,[10] the “act of faith” whereby unrepentant heretics were publicly burnt in the days of the Inquisition. That aspect of pre-modern Europe did not disturb Waugh’s own faith and he intends further irony by the name, for Dr. Fe shares Scott-King’s indifference to religion. So does Dr. Bogdan Antonic, a refugee from Catholic Croatia who is the International Secretary of the Bellorius Association. “Bogdan” is the Croat form of “Theodore,” or “God’s-gift,” but the secularist Bogdan offers bad advice when the hiccups strike Scott-King. They are doubled when Scott-King swallows brandy with medicinal rather than metaphysical intent, yet they “mysteriously” cease when he leaves the meal and enters a “foyer.” Then, on a “piazza,” he breathes “deeply,” testing “the limits of his miraculous recovery.”[11] Here are further, bathetically distorted echoes of Christ’s Passion.[12]

Hic calix, then, was the first click of confirmed hypothesis. The second, and softer, came when I investigated the meaning of Scott-King’s own name. “‘Dim’ is the epithet for Scott-King,” Waugh tells us;[13] this is what Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary tells us:

scŏtōma, ātis, n,=σκότωμα, dimness of vision, Isid. Orig. 4, 7, 3

scŏtōmătĭcus, a, um, adj,=σκοτωματικός, of or belonging to dimness of vision: passio, Cael. Aur. Tard. 1,2—Hence, subst. scŏtōmătĭcus, i, m., a dim-sighted person, Scrib. Comp. 99, Theod. Prisc. 2,3[14]

Scott-King is a king of dimness, blind to the transcendent claims of salvatory Catholicism. The scotoma that echoes his name was defined by “Isid.,” or Isidorus Hispalensis, a Latinist who died in 640 A.D., almost exactly a millennium before Bellorius in 1646. One can doubt whether Waugh read that exact definition and intended those exact echoes, but a classical scholar called Scott inevitably reminds one of Greek skotos, “darkness, dimness,” and its derivates in Latin. Bellorius and his homeland Neutralia are “dim” too.[15] The Neutralians are a “clever Latin race,”[16] but they have drifted outside the main currents of history. The names of their cities are a mixture of Spanish and distorted Italian: Santa Maria and Bellacita, for example.[17]

Whether or not they also occur in “hiccup,” such mixture and confusion are central themes of the novella. Bellorius’ name echoes both bellus, “beautiful,” and bellor, “wage war.” He is confused with “Mr. Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius” [18] by the unscholarly, cigar-smoking Miss Bombaum,[19] whose own name seems half-French, half-German (bon, “good” + Baum, “tree”).[20] The mild, apolitical Scott-King is called a “fascist beast” and “reactionary cannibal” when he tries to correct her mistake. [21] Later, cast adrift in Neutralia after the fiascos of the tercentenary, Scott-King seeks help at the British Embassy and meets a Horace, named after the greatest of Latin poets. But this Horace is surnamed Smudge.[22] Fleeing Neutralia on “the Underground,”[23] Scott-King sits in “extreme discomfort” dressed as an “Ursuline nun”[24] and then spends six days waiting for a ship amid a polyglot babble of Slovene royalists and Syrian anarchists, Turkish prostitutes and French millionaires, Hungarian ballet-dancers and Bulgarian terrorists.[25] Europe has moved from the Bible to Babel and Scott-King is caught up, willy-nilly, in the chaos. The final irony of the novel is his involuntary pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where, after a harrowing voyage from the Neutralian port of Santa Maria, Holy Mary, he finds himself sitting stark naked in a tent while an ex-pupil watches a doctor “tap... his knee with a ruler.”[26]

Scott-King’s Modern Europe is “the story of a summer holiday, a light tale,”[27] but Scott-King’s feelings doubtless came to approximate those of Tony Last, the foolish and faithless protagonist of Waugh’s tragedy A Handful of Dust (1934):

...for a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears. He smiled at Milly from the doorway...[28]

Waugh is describing his own emotions after the collapse of his first marriage. He was horrified by the experience and sought refuge in faith, fleeing chaos for Catholicism. He would write constantly thereafter on that theme, even in the light tale of a classicist on his summer holiday. In Waugh’s eyes, Scott-King is right to reject modern Europe, but wrong to think that there is salvation in the classics. Where are the precision and pellucid excellencies of Horace now?[29] As Scott-King’s meeting at the embassy should have warned him, they are “smudged” and irretrievable, and although classical learning would have its place in a better world, the place could only be a subordinate one. Scott-King has a glimpse of that better world before the horrors of “the high seas,”[30] but his scotoma blinds him to its significance. The “town of Simona,” standing “within sight of the Mediterranean Sea,”[31] offers the beauties of nature and architecture and the stimulation of scholarship, but also and more importantly, underlying, enriching, and justifying all these, the consolation and guidance of the Catholic faith:

The medieval university, the baroque cathedral, twenty churches in whose delicate limestone belfries the storks build and multiply, a rococo square, two or three tiny shabby palaces, a market and a street of shops are all that can be found there and all that the heart of man can properly desire. The railway runs well clear of the town and betrays its presence only by rare puffs of white smoke among the tree-tops.[32]

“All that the heart of man can properly desire” – that is Waugh’s message both to his protagonist and to his readers. Simona is an oasis of sanity and order in the desert of modern Europe, for even the railway “runs well clear.” Perhaps the bells that deliciously chimed there would echo on in Scott-King’s mind, calling him out of his Anglicanism or agnosticism and into Catholicism. That is the journey taken by Charles Ryder, the protagonist of Brideshead Revisited (1945), and would be, in Waugh’s eyes, the only possible happy ending for Scott-King.

Note: After working many years in marine insurance, John B. Cruttwell is now retired and helping part-time at a canine welfare charity in Philadelphia.



[1] At the dinner, a “menu of enormous length, printed in gold, lay on his plate beside a typewritten place-card ‘Dr. Scotch-Kink.’” (Op. cit., Chapman & Hall, 1947, pg. 38)
[2] The French text roughly means: “How do you say ‘hiccup’ in French?” “Excuse me, professor?” “That...” “That’s called an hoquet.” “I’ve got them very badly.” “You certainly have, professor. You need some brandy.” (pg. 38)
[3] pg. 3.
[4] pg. 5.
[5] Fans of Asterix may recall a joke about hiccupping and hic-hæc-hoc in, I think, Asterix in Britain. Hæc is the feminine form of the word.
[6] The phrase “the New Neutralia” is a slogan of the Neutralian regime and is often parroted by Neutralian characters. The echoing of “new” by “neu-,” of English by Latin, is a further example of confusion of tongues.
[7] Scott-King’s first impulse is to turn down the invitation to the tercentenary commemoration. However: “He had not been abroad since 1939. He had not tasted wine for a year, and he was filled, suddenly, with a deep home-sickness for the South. He had not often nor for long visited those enchanted lands; a dozen times, perhaps, for a few weeks – for one year in total of his forty-three years of life – but his treasure and his heart lay buried there.” (pg. 11)
[8] Charles Ryder makes his way “through a world of piety” to Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Book One, ch. 2.
[9] Op. cit., pg. 52-3. The angelus is a hymn in honour of the Virgin Mary.
[10] Better-known in English in its Portuguese form auto-da-fé.
[11] pg. 44-5.
[12] For example, a “foyer” is literally a space with a fire and Peter denies Christ thrice at a fire.
[13] pg. 3.
[14] Definitions from A Latin Dictionary founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, Revised, Enlarged, and in Great Part Rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, LL.D., Oxford Clarendon Press, first published 1879.
[15] “‘Dim’ is the epithet for Scott-King and it was a fellow-feeling, a blood-brotherhood in dimness, which first drew him to study the works of Bellorius...” (pg. 3) “Neutralia sequestered herself [from the Second World War] and, from having been the cockpit of factitious sympathies, became remote, unconsidered, dim...”  (Waugh’s italics; pg. 5)
[16] pg. 5.
[17] Bella città means “beautiful city” in Italian.
[18] “‘Borrow this any time you like,’ said Miss Bombaum, producing Mr. Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius. ‘It’s sad, though. He ends up blind.’” (pg. 17)
[19] “For the banquet they returned to the Ritz. The foyer was empty save for Miss Bombaum, who sat smoking a cigar with a man of repellent aspect.” (pg. 68)
[20] There is another biblical echo here: Christ speaks of distinguishing good trees from bad by their fruit.
[21] pg. 60.
[22] “‘Officially,’ said Mr. Horace Smudge, ‘we don’t even know you’re here.’” (pg. 68)
[23] Miss Bombaum, who helps place Scott-King on the Underground, describes it as “...an alternative map of Europe, like a tracing underlying all the established frontiers and routes of communication.” (pg. 74)
[24] pg. 82.
[25] pg. 83.
[26] pg. 86.
[27] pg. 85.
[28] Op. cit., ch. IV, “English Gothic II”, sec. II.
[29] In his early biography Rossetti, Waugh uses the phrase “pellucid excellencies” to describe the work of Picasso. He would revise this opinion drastically in later life.
[30] Scott-King boards the ship and “...soon they were on the high seas in very nasty weather... It would be inappropriate to speak here of those depths of the human spirit, the agony and despair, of the next few days of Scott-King’s life.” (Op. cit., pg. 85)
[31] pg. 51.
[32] pg. 52.

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