A Form of Style Not to Be Despised: Evelyn Waugh’s Lactantius in Helena (1950)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    5 May 2019

Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572)

Epigraphs

***

But your question just now [said Marcias the Gnostic-Mystagogue, and Helena’s former tutor as a slave in Britain, but now a visiting savant from Marseilles]—‘When? Where? How do you know?’—was a child’s question.”

“That is why your religion [your current Gnostic religion] would never do for me, Marcias. If I ever found a teacher it would have to be one who called little children to him.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena (1950), page 123—my emphasis added)

***

“[O! Lactantius,] I should not have asked [you]. All my life I have caused offence to religious people by asking questions. Good night, Lactantius.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 125—my emphasis added)

***

In the sixth chapter of his historical novel, Helena (1950),1 Evelyn Waugh introduces us memorably to the historical character, Lactantius (c. 250-c. 325), the early Christian Latin writer and occasional tutor who was also later to be an advisor to Emperor Constantine. However, at one point in his earlier life–while he was still in exile in Trier on the Moselle River—Lactantius conveys to the Empress Dowager Helena herself—who is not yet a Christian– his considered views on the mystery of martyrdom and on the lesser mysteries of forms of alluring language. He thus briefly considers the role of a writer as well as the enduring power (and regrettably abiding influence) of some eloquent, but specious, forms of prose style. He especially shows his own attentiveness to those writers who give the right form to the wrong thing, as well as those who give the wrong form to the right thing.

Leading up to Lactanius’ candid response, Helena—still an unbaptized non-Christian herself—shows compassion for him, and did it, unfortunately, in the presence of the trifling and quite characteristically superficial Minervina, Helena’s former daughter-in-law, as well:

“It’s funny, nowadays, how much talk there is everywhere about Christians. I don’t remember ever hearing of them when I was a girl in Britain [with Marcias as her tutor].”

We have our martyrs there too [said Lactantius]—before your imperial husband’s day of course. We are very proud of Alban [i.e., Saint Alban, the proto-martyr in Britain, circa 305 A.D.].”…

“It must be a sad time for your people [who are back in Nicomedia, southeast of Byzantium-Constantinople],” said Helena.

“Also a glorious time.”

“Really, Lactantius, what possible glory can there be in getting into the hands of the police?” said Minervina. “I never heard such affectation. If you feel like that I wonder you didn’t stay at home in Nicomedia. Plenty of glory there.” (115—my emphasis added)

In his humility and with modesty, Lactantius tried to answer the actual and implied questions posed by both of these prominent ladies—Empress Dowager Helena and Minervina, who, like Helena, is now also divorced, being the former wife (or concubine) of Constantine and the mother of Emperor Constantine’s own first son, Crispus. The refugee Christian scholar and writer thus says:

It needs a special quality to be a martyr—just as it needs a special quality to be a writer. Mine is the humbler rôle, but one must not think it quite valueless. One might combine two proverbs and say: ‘Art is long and will prevail.’ You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in the years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded towards the gibbon [that earlier-presented “Indian ape” (110)]2 who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.” (115-116—my emphasis added)

By contrast, we had already earlier been told by Evelyn Waugh’s narrator that:

Minervina yawned in Helena’s salon [both in Trèves (Trier on the Moselle) and in nearby Igal]. It was not what she [with her vague and emotional gnostic mysticism] was used to in the Middle East. Lactantius [being a Christian] shunned it. The celebrated man was ostensibly Crispus’s tutor, but lessons had never prospered and soon lapsed. It was all of a piece with [Emperor] Constantine’s vague conception of splendor to search out from obscurity the greatest living prose stylist and set him to teach the obstreperous little [eleven-years-old] prince his letters. Crispus now played all day long with boats and catapults and lorded it over his contemporaries, while Lactantius followed his own calling in his own quarters….He had outgrown ambition but he believed that it would not be convenient to be [at least at court] entirely forgotten. (112-113—my emphasis added)

Waugh further prepares us to appreciate Lactantius’ deeper insights about language and sophistry by first giving us the current context (and a little history) of his life:

The post suited him well [there in Trier on the Moselle River and nearby at Igal], for he was a Christian; he had got out of Nicomedia only just in time [amidst the lingering Diocletian persecutions of 303-305 A.D.]. Half his friends were caught in the latest wave of arrests and executions. Others of them [his other friends] turned up in Trèves from time to time with horrible stories. Refugees naturally headed there for it was one of the safest towns in the Empire, with a Bishop and countless priests going openly about their business. One was not starved of the sacraments in Trèves. What irked Lactantius was the lack of a theological library. The Bishop was an admirable man but his books were negligible. Lactantius had been unable to bring anything with him save his own manuscripts [e.g., the Institutiones Divinae—the Divine Institutes], and was thus left, with all his unrivalled powers of expression, rather vague about what to express; with, more than that, the ever-present fear of falling into error [such as Pre-Millennialism?]. (113—my emphasis added)

Waugh then gives us a further taste of Lactantius’ inspired views about language and literature:

He delighted in writing, in the joinery [as in fine cabinet-woodmaking] and embellishment of his sentences, in the high consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games [sic] of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning. If only I were a little braver,” Lactantius sometimes thought, “if I had dared stay near the centre of things, across the Alps, I might have been a great writer.” (113-114—my emphasis added)

But, in contrast to Lactanius’ modest thoughts about excellence and about objective fame, we have, presented as a foil, the example of Minervina. For Trier, in addition to allowing the small but flourishing Christian cult, also

Teemed with mystagogues of one sort and another, and Minervina, who had formed a taste for such company in the Middle East [and in Bithynia, on the Black Sea in modern Turkey], had a coterie of them, which Helena deplored. Almost everything about Minervina was objectionable but Helena bore with her for the sake of Crispus [now eleven years of age].” (114—my emphasis added)

Moreover:

It was to Gnostic friends [such as Marcias, who is on the way from Marseilles] that Minervina now referred to when she said: “I shall be glad when we move back to town. I miss my Souls [sic].” (114—my emphasis added)

More and more Helena is sympathetically welcoming of, and drawn to, Christianity and away from vague emotional mysticisms and Gnostic abstractions and frigidities. At one point of her attempts to understand a visiting gnostic lecturer, Marcias, she had a germinating and a somewhat uncontrollable reaction:

Helena felt something shockingly unsuitable to the occasion take shape deep within herself and irresistibly rise; something native to her, inalienable, long overlaid, foreign to her position [as Empress Mother], to marriage and to motherhood, to the cares of her great household, the olive-presses and the almond picking; foreign to the schooling of thirty years, to the puzzled, matronly heads of the stuffy, steamy hall; something that smacked of the sea-mist and the stables and the salty tangles of a young red head [in her happy childhood home with her beloved father in Britain]. Helena fought it. She compressed herself in the chair, she bit her thumbs, she drew her scarf over her face, she ground he her heel against her ankle-bone, she tried furiously to cram her mind with all the sad things she knew—Minervina’s Bithynian accent and deserted Dido [as depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book IV]–but without avail. Overborne, all the more audible for her efforts at suppression, Helena began to giggle. (120—my emphasis added).

At once Waugh deftly adds: “The infection did not spread.” (120)—somewhat surprisingly so, at first, but also revealingly so, given the nature of Marcias’ audience of enraptured ladies “absorbed” and “agog.” And even “happier [were] those who surrendered without resistance to the flood of [Marcias’s] buoyant speech and floated supine and agape; they were getting what they had come for.” (119—my emphasis added) Vague Sophistry and Soothing Sentimental Religion.

 

CODA

In Waugh’s historical novel, Helena and Lactantius are both depicted as critical of, and especially resistant to, the permanent temptation of Sophistry to the human mind. And this sustained resistance to various forms of specious Sophistry, as it turns out, further prepares Helena herself to become a faithful and resourceful Christian—and one who will then adventurously come to discover the Holy Cross in distant Jerusalem.

My beloved mentor, Josef Pieper, succinctly summarized the perennial twofold danger and seductive corruption of Sophistry: sophistry corrupts our access to reality and also corrupts our communication of that reality to another. And to do it in proportion!

The intermediate and preparatory chapter six of Evelyn Waugh’s cherished larger novel, Helena, conveys to us many other things of moment to man—and not just about the use and abuse of language.

May we now also come to read (or to read once again) and to savor Helena as a whole. And, like Evelyn Waugh himself, may we also come to read it affectionately aloud. Even to our children.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950). Chapter Six, where we shall meet Lactantius, is entitled “Ancien Régime.” All future references to Waugh’s novel will be from this text and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

2Evelyn Waugh also makes a subtle allusion here to the often-ironic and even mincingly sneering and depreciative historian, Edward GIBBON (d. 1794), the author of the 6-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written 1776-1788.Waugh was likely also thinking of the memorable style of another anti-Christian Enlightenment thinker, namely Voltaire. Furthermore, before mentioning Lactantius’ own allusiveness to a chattering gibbon, Evelyn Waugh had deftly begun his book’s sixth chapter with these effectively preparatory words: “An Indian ape, the recent expensive present of a visiting diplomat, rattled his gold chain on the terrace. Helena threw him a plum.” (110)

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