Saturday, March 15, 2008

In Defense of "The Loved One"

We recently came across Edmund Wilson’s review of Waugh’s The Loved One. Though Wilson liked Waugh’s early work (especially A Handful of Dust), he became annoyed with his more overtly religious work, including Brideshead Revisited. He wasn’t particularly impressed by Waugh’s send-up of California funeral homes and cemeteries, in part because he thought Waugh’s religious vision of death was just as laughable:

The Loved One is a farcical satire on those de luxe California cemeteries that attempt to render death less unpleasant by exploiting all the resources of landscape-gardening and Hollywood mummery. To the non-religious reader, however, the patrons and proprietors of Whispering Glades [the novel’s opulent funeral home] seem more sensible and less absurd than the priest-guided Evelyn Waugh. What the former are trying to do is, after all, merely gloss over physical death with smooth lawns and soothing rites; but for the Catholic, the fact of death is not to be faced at all: he is solaced with the fantasy of another world in which everyone who has died in the flesh is somehow supposed to be alive and in which it is supposed to be possible to help souls to advance themselves by buying candles to burn in churches. The trappings invented for this other world by imaginative believers in the Christian myth—since they need not meet the requirements of reality—beat anything concocted by Whispering Glades.

Obviously, there’s not enough space here to address the issue of whether Catholics—or anyone who believes in an afterlife—ignores “the fact of death,” etc. On a more basic level, Wilson’s criticism does not engage with what makes the people of Whispering Glades so ridiculous. It’s not only that they “gloss over physical death,” but that they try to project meaning onto death by appropriating religious language but divorcing it from God. Here’s the inscription on the gates of the cemetery:

Behold I dreamed a dream and I saw a New Earth sacred to HAPPINESS. There amid all that Nature and Art could offer to elevate the Soul of Man I saw the Happy Resting Place of Countless Loved Ones. And I saw the Waiting Ones who still stood on the brink of that narrow stream that now separated them from those who had gone before. Young and old, they were happy too. Happy in Beauty, Happy in the certain knowledge that their Loved Ones were very near, in Beauty and Happiness such as the earth cannot give.
I heard a voice say: ‘Do this.’
And behold I awoke and in the Light and Promise of my DREAM I made WHISPERING GLADES.

The language, tone, and imagery are from Revelation. There’s even mention of a soul. But here, Heaven is a place on earth, and God isn’t there. Without Him, the Biblical language is all sound and fury. So it’s not just that the people at Whispering Glades are trying “to render death less unpleasant,” but that they’re trying to do so in religious terms without religious substance. Waugh’s central character clarifies this a bit later, when he speaks to his love interest (an employee at the Whispering Glades) about the home’s star embalmer, Mr. Joyboy: “Now your Mr. Joyboy is the incarnate spirit of Whispering Glades—the one mediating logos between Dr Kenworthy and common humanity.” The cult of the funeral home, although completely devoid of any Christian context, has developed its own trinity. As Ann Pasternak Slater says in her introduction to the Everyman edition, “The new religion is entirely secularized. It is a celebration of life alone.”

Waugh also critiques the celebration of life alone with Kaiser’s Stoneless Peaches, whose radio spots declare that “no other peach now marketed is perfect and completely stoneless. When you buy Kaiser’s Stoneless Peach you are buying full weight of succulent peach flesh and nothing else...” Pasternak Slater claims that this product symbolizes the eradication of “the little difficulties that give life its sharpness.” It does that, and more: without the seed inside of the pit, no part of the fruit endures; it is a physical presence with no meaning beyond itself, a human body without a soul.

The working stiffs at Whispering Glades share this superficial vision of life and death, and they promote it with equally vapid language--language from which they removed the core of religious meaning and relevance.

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