Western secular culture “is a kind of hothouse growth,” Christopher Dawson wrote—an artificial culture that shelters us from “the direct impact of reality.” Neither birth nor death in secular societies occasions confrontation with ultimate realities. Rather, each brings us “into closer dependence on the state and its bureaucracy so that every human need can be met by filling in the appropriate form.” Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future dramatizes this sheltering. In this novella, “junior sub-official” Miles Plastic does clerical work for the “Department of Euthanasia” in a dystopian state. Plastic, whose surname epitomizes artificiality and malleability, ensures that those in line for a happy death do “not press ahead of their turn,” and adjusts “the television set for their amusement.” Although “a faint whiff of cyanide sometimes gave a hint of the mysteries beyond,” Plastic is content to empty the waste basket and brew tea for the patients.
Because the “services” offered by the Department of Euthanasia are “essential,” Plastic has no feast on “Santa Claus Day” (December 25). After work he walks to the hospital to visit his lover Clara, who is with child, and finds “the hall porter . . . engrossed in the television, which was performing an old obscure folk play which past generations had performed on Santa Claus Day, and was now revived and revised as a matter of historical interest.” The porter’s interest, Plastic supposes, is “professional,” for the show “dealt with maternity services before the days of Welfare.” The porter cannot look away from “the strange spectacle of an ox and an ass, an old man with a lantern, and a young mother.” “‘People here are always complaining,’” the porter says. “‘They ought to realize what things were like before Progress.’”
The Nativity, the great fact of christology (Christ descended and passed through utter poverty in order to redeem) ghosts through the television screen. However, these “hothouse” inhabitants are haunted not by the mystery of Christ’s humility, but by Mary and Joseph’s woeful lack of medical conveniences. In the world of the novella, the Story of Christ has been shrunken and sanitized into a museum-like documentary. As Dawson wrote, “a completely secularized culture is a world of make believe in which the figures of the cinema and the cartoon-strip appear more real than the figures of the Gospel.”
Plastic moves through the hospital’s bowels until he finds his beloved in a ward marked “Experimental Surgery.” There, he inquires after “our child”—but Clara tells him: “that had to go” (italics mine). She then says that Santa Claus Day marks the nativity of her new face; her former one, ruined with facial hair, has been replaced by a “‘wonderful new substance, a sort of synthetic rubber that takes grease-paint perfectly.’” Clara’s plasticity is more real to her than the child (the “that”) which has been eliminated by a simple, state-proffered operation. Like a mother who has just given birth, she sits up in bed, “joyful and proud,” but Plastic cannot countenance the “tight, slippery mask,” which he experiences as “quite inhuman.” Instead, he stares at the bedside TV, where “further characters had appeared” in the obscure folk play: “Food Production Workers” apparently “declare a sudden strike,” for they leave their sheep in a frenzy “at the bidding of some kind of shop-steward in fantastic dress,” accompanied by “an old, forgotten ditty: ‘O tidings of comfort and joy.’”
Through Waugh’s artfulness, the Nativity has been “made strange” in Love Among the Ruins. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky contended that the purpose of art is to “lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’” Although the twenty-first-century West does not yet evince the extreme secularity of the dystopian society in Love Among the Ruins, Waugh helps us perceive how our own world, too, is unreal, and how in our day, too, the God who is Love has been relegated to the category of “historical and cultural preservation.” Waugh pairs Clara’s plastic joy with the tidings of comfort that break from the “machine” beside her. This juxtaposition brings Plastic to retch “unobtrusively” before he exits the surgery ward, baffled.
Waugh’s novella incubates us in a world that has abandoned God. Though the TV light extracts grace from the Christmas Story, Plastic and the porter watch with rare attention. They are arrested by the foreignness of God’s Incarnation, though they cannot put the fragmented pieces of the Story together. T. S. Eliot captures the disruptiveness of Christ’s coming in his poem “Journey of the Magi.” The narrator, one of the three kings, wonders whether he was “led all that way for / Birth or Death?”
…There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Although he daily helps hasten the happy terminations of unwanted lives, Miles Plastic has been kept conveniently away from the “mysteries beyond” the door. His first real encounter with death comes through the surgical slaughter of his child. And it makes him miserable. Holy Mother State has anesthetized his consciousness against the pains of reality, but the death of “our child ” on Christ’s birthday makes him long for another death. By the end of the novella, he has forged “a desert in his imagination which he might call peace,” a poor surrogate for the Prince of Peace. It's a desert that leaves him, like the Magi, “ill at ease.”
We inhabit a hothouse in many ways akin to that of Miles Plastic. Who among us can exit the hothouse and enter the enduring chill where the soul encounters the “bitter agony” and sublimity of Christ's birth? Who among us can craft a crèche that will soil our artificiality with the ultimate reality? Who can arrest us until our unease passes into peace, until we dare call the Maker’s cave-set maternity ward—like his death on Friday—“good”?
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.
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