As I read David Lebedoff’s latest book, The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War , I began to think of George Orwell as a real-life Dr. Rieux, the hero of Camus’ The Plague , whose heroism suggests that it is possible to be a saint without believing in God. In support of this I can cite not only Orwell’s morally passionate life and works, but also the fact that Evelyn Waugh, having visited him on his deathbed, pronounced him “very near to God.”

Though a non-believer, Orwell attacked injustice and brought religious fervor to his advocacy of democratic socialism. (He even joined a crusade called the Spanish Civil War.) His commitment to democratic socialism amounted to faith because, as he admitted in several essays, there was little reason to expect that it would ever prevail. Yet Orwell never, at least in his essays, explains why does not accept religion.

Perhaps the closest approximation to such an explanation comes in an essay arguing that it is impossible to believe in immortality. Even those who say they believe in it, Orwell claims, show that they don’t by the worldliness of their conduct. Perhaps his experiences as a young man in Burma, where he saw much death, decisively influenced his thinking on this point. But in all his other writings known to me, he assumes without explanation that religion is a dead-end.

Waugh put it this way: “[Orwell] has an unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth, but he seems never to have been touched at any point by a conception of religious thought and life.” I would add that, although he got to what Waugh called “the root of the matter”¯the choice between this world or the next¯especially in his brilliant essay “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” his conception of religion was perhaps limited. This is suggested by his handwritten notes to his unfinished essay on Waugh, in which he claims that “One cannot really be Catholic & grown up . . . . Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be . . . while holding untenable opinions.” But why, unless he confused real Catholicism with some thin caricature, should Orwell judge them untenable?

Though exactly opposite in their beliefs about the root of the matter¯Orwell chose this world, Waugh the next¯the two men respected one another highly, perhaps in part because of their striking similarities. Both had willed themselves into being as writers and had consciously constructed personas. Orwell was the socialist proletarian whose Etonian accent and manner always gave him away, and Waugh was the country squire, whom few would ever mistake for a real aristocrat. Lebedoff’s project in his book is to explore this seeming paradox: Despite standing in the starkest opposition to each other in some respects, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell were in other respects the same man.

To prove this point, Lebedoff first outlines each man’s biography, then describes as much as can be known about their final meeting and gives the opinion of each on the other’s writing. Then follows the core chapter, in which he argues his main thesis. The book ends with an epilogue describing each writer’s last days.

Most reviews of Lebedoff’s books have commended the biographical portion of the book, but strongly criticized the argumentation. And there is truth to these criticisms. One should not dismiss Lebedoff’s thesis, and it’s an enjoyable read, but his argument is woefully lacking in precision and rigor.

Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

The crucial thing about how Orwell saw Waugh is that he took him seriously. What other secular critic was there, then or now, who saw the greatest issue of our time as the choice between good works in this life and belief in the hereafter? Many who believed in life after death saw this as the great moral choice, but of those who did not share that belief but still respected the choice, there seems only to have been Orwell.

Now his characterization of Orwell’s view is correct, but Lebedoff is surely wrong to suggest that it was unique to Orwell. There were other prominent non-believers who took religion seriously¯one thinks immediately of Camus, who showed deep respect for religion, though he could not accept it.

In another passage Lebedoff writes that “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.” Unless I misunderstand him here, this is wrong on both counts. Waugh valued individual freedom but would certainly place the authority of the Church above it. Orwell valued tradition in the sense of rural English customs and what he called “common decency,” but that is a far cry from what we usually mean when we call someone a traditionalist.

If we must name a defining conviction common to Waugh and Orwell, a far better candidate is their shared belief in objective reality, the unshakeable certainty that there is a real world independent of individual consciousnesses. The corollary of this view is the belief that there is such thing as objective truth. Lebedoff does mention this at one point, but he does not give it the centrality it deserves.

All things considered, however, readers who can get past the somewhat lame humor¯at one point Lebedoff says that Waugh “was the toast of the town, but burned”¯and who admire either man, or who simply want to reflect on “the root of the matter,” should find The Same Man fascinating and enjoyable.

Franklin Freeman is a writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.

References

The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War by David Lebedoff

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