Home Alone: Waugh, The Wandering Wit

I find this one a fitting piece to be born 35,000 feet into the welkin.

The Home is a place of infinite comfort and belonging, an inviolable bower to one’s identity. A Home may, but need not be, a physical place; its entreaties can be procured through such means as adherences to hierarchies of being, objective moralities, powers of the Divine, a profound mystification with Nature, and purposeful relations toward existence. But Homes, though secure, are solemn, immobile creatures, and therefore not conducive to the allusive wanderings of wit. Wit may never come home, for, if it did, it would cease to resemble wit at all, taking on instead the stoic visage of soporific sermon. Wit is secular; it allows positively zero room for worship. The eminent Wit, Evelyn Waugh, is known, anomalously, for both his wildly waggish prose and his religious obsession with The Home. In Waugh’s Complete Short Stories, the despotic fact nevertheless remains that, despite his musings on the like, Waugh’s wit-filled romps are riddled with homelessness. They say it feels good to have a home; for the rest of us, there is wit.

One may begin an examination of Waugh’s thirty-five-year diasporic odyssey with wit in his 1930 short story “The Manager of “‘The Kremlin.’” Boris, a wandering defector of the Russian military, is described as “ill-dressed and friendless, in another strange city…lost in a waste land, patrolled by enemy troops and inhabited by savage(s).” The additional allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem about the secular rootlessness of Modernity, The Wasteland, and the character’s being lastly depicted as having “lost one’s country” serve as further connotation. “Love in the Slump” describes one man’s experience in a strange part of the English countryside after a horseback hunting accident as awaking “quite alone in a totally strange country.” “Out of depth” contains a more blatant reference to this theme in its character, Rip, and his surreal encounter with occult visions of a dark, dystopian future: 

The officers and officials came and went. There was a talk of sending him “home.” Home, thought Rip and beyond the next official town, vague and more distant, he saw the orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, the cabin trunks and promenade decks, the casinos and bars and supper restaurants that were his home(;)

Such descriptions responds to the Romantic fantasy of returning to the halcyon past with the Modern answer of suggesting its laughably quixotic impossibility. 

A close analysis of language is not required to find Waugh’s most highly recurrent leitmotif; it may also be easily recognized by a moment’s attention to the stories’ more overt themes. “The Man Who Liked Dickens” follows a man who, after a failed African expedition, is marooned and held captive by a local madman, and therefore entirely without the possibility of return to his English home. Similar themes can be gleaned in “On Guard”, wherein a young husband is rendered unable, on account of a lengthy and failing African farming endeavor, to return to both England and his unfaithful wife therein. Related themes, such as leaving one’s intellectual home by way of daydreaming, can be found throughout the collection, suggesting each character’s difficulties with a type of cognitive dissonance as concomitant to the phenomenon of the loss of the Home.

It is this kind of cerebral eccentricity, however, that is necessary for the development of wit. Just as one must, when without a physical home in the world, devise an intellectual hovel for oneself, does wit’s roguish associative logic develop. Wit may not indulge; it must remain entirely phlegmatic in its flitting, lest it take an unironic stance, and with this pious misstep lose all of its fleetfooted secularity. Wit makes a deliberate end of its interminable process, and, in this way, makes a puckish home of its inherent homelessness. 

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