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

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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)

Pope Pius X’s 1908 Words on Joan of Arc, Courage, and Lukewarm Catholics

There is an address written by Pope Pius X which we consider to be of much help for us Catholics in this current Church crisis, a text which could strengthen us in our courage and persevering combat.

Therefore, having seen over the years certain quotes from Pope Pius X’s discourse on the day of Joan of Arc’s beatification, we were wondering about the full content of that address. The Vatican has only listed it in an Italian version, so Giuseppe Pellegrino was so kind and translated it for us into English.

Pope Pius X, on 13 December 1908 — the Feast of Santa Lucia — the day of the beatification of the great Joan of Arc (in Orléans, France), speaks about the fact that divine providence “here below, allows her [the Church] to encounter along her way obstacles of every kind and formidable resistance.” The saintly Pope reminds us that “the Church is militant and therefore in a continuous struggle: a struggle that makes the world a living battlefield and every Christian a brave soldier who fights under the banner of the Crucified One.”

The Pope shows himself glad that “in times of so much disbelief and religious indifference; that in a time of so much weakness of character there are presented for our imitation generous souls who, in confirmation of their faith, have given their lives.” He inspires us thus to imitate the saints who witness for Christ until the end.

Pope Pius X inspires us to abandon a lukewarm Faith, saying that “many are ashamed to call themselves Catholics, many others seek to ruin God, faith, revelation, worship and clergy, and talk about everything with mocking impiety, deny everything and turn to mockery and ridicule, not even respecting the sanctuary of conscience.” In light of this deplorable state in our societies, we Catholics are called to a stronger Faith, to more courage. So the Pope says that he is glad about these saints, “because the virtue of these heroes must revive the weak and fearful in the practice of Christian doctrine and belief and make them strong in the faith. Courage, in fact, has no reason to exist except in so far as it is based on a conviction.”

These words of the Pope resemble those of another devout priest. As Father John A. Hardon, S.J. used to say to Robert Hickson: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.”

The saintly Pope put is this way: “Courage will come when faith is alive in the heart, when all the precepts imposed by faith are practiced, because faith is impossible without works, just as it is impossible to imagine a sun that does not give light and warmth.”

We invite our readers to read the full address below. In light of these inspiring words from Pope Pius X, let us try to imitate St. Joan of Arc:

And to speak of the one who is best known to you, the Pulcella d’Orléans, who both in her humble native country, as well as among the vices of soldiers, kept herself as pure as an angel, proud as a lion in all the trials of battle, and devoted to the poor and unhappy. Simple as a child, both in the quiet of the fields and in the tumult of war, she was always recollected in God, and was full of love for the Virgin and for the Most Holy Eucharist like a Cherub.

See here the full text:

Discourse of Pope Pius X, 13 December 1908, on the Day of Joan of Arc’s Beatification in Orléans, France:

I am grateful, Venerable Brother [Monsigneur Touchet, Bishop of Orléans], to your generous heart, which would like me to work in the field of the Lord, always having full sunlight, without clouds or storms. But you and I must adore the dispositions of divine providence, which, having established the Church here below, allows her to encounter along her way obstacles of every kind and formidable resistance.

And the reason is evident, because the Church is militant and therefore in a continuous struggle: a struggle that makes the world a living battlefield and every Christian a brave soldier who fights under the banner of the Crucified One; a struggle that, inaugurated with the life of our most holy Redeemer, will only be accomplished at the end of time. And so every day, like the warriors of the tribe of Judah returning from slavery, we must with one hand repel the enemy and with the other raise the walls of the holy temple; that is to say, we must work for our sanctification.

And in this truth we are confirmed by the lives of these heroes, for whom the decrees were published: heroes who came to glory not only by passing through black clouds and storms, but also through continuous opposition and difficult temptations, to the point of giving their blood and life for faith.

I cannot deny, however, that I am very happy, that with the glorification of so many Saints God manifests his mercies in times of so much disbelief and religious indifference; that in a time of so much weakness of character there are presented for our imitation generous souls who, in confirmation of their faith, have given their lives; and that these examples for the most part come, venerable Brother, from your country, where the civic rulers have openly unfurled the banner of rebellion and have wanted to break all ties with the Church, whatever the cost.

I am happy because at a time when many are ashamed to call themselves Catholics, many others seek to ruin God, faith, revelation, worship and clergy, and talk about everything with mocking impiety, deny everything and turn to mockery and ridicule, not even respecting the sanctuary of conscience. In the face of these manifestations of the supernatural, however much they may try to close their eyes before the sun that illuminates them, it is impossible that a divine ray will not penetrate them, and, if nothing else, by the way of remorse will lead them back to faith.

I am glad, because the virtue of these heroes must revive the weak and fearful in the practice of Christian doctrine and belief and make them strong in the faith. Courage, in fact, has no reason to exist except in so far as it is based on a conviction. Will is a blind power when it is not enlightened by intelligence; nor can one walk more safely through darkness. But if the present generation has all the uncertainties and doubts of a man who is groping in darkness, this is a clear sign that he no longer treasures the Word of God, which is the lamp that guides our steps and the light that illuminates our paths, lucerna pedibus meis verbum tuum et lumen semitis meis.

Courage will come when faith is alive in the heart, when all the precepts imposed by faith are practiced, because faith is impossible without works, just as it is impossible to imagine a sun that does not give light and warmth. And the martyrs we have commemorated are witnesses of this truth, because it is not to be believed that martyrdom is an act of simple enthusiasm, in which the head is subjected to the axe to go straight to Paradise, but rather supposes the long and painful exercise of all the virtues, omnimoda et immaculata munditia. And to speak of the one who is best known to you, the Pulcella d’Orléans, who both in her humble native country, as well as among the vices of soldiers, kept herself as pure as an angel, proud as a lion in all the trials of battle, and devoted to the poor and unhappy. Simple as a child, both in the quiet of the fields and in the tumult of war, she was always recollected in God, and was full of love for the Virgin and for the Most Holy Eucharist like a Cherub; you have said it well, venerable Brother. Called by the Lord to defend her country, she responded to a vocation to an enterprise, which everyone, and even she herself, believed impossible; but what is impossible for men, is always possible with the help of God. However, let us not exaggerate the difficulties of practicing what faith imposes on us to fulfill our duties and to exercise the fruitful apostolate of giving good example, which the Lord expects of each of us: unicuique mandavit de proximo sua. Difficulties come from those who create and exaggerate them, from those who trust in themselves without the help of heaven, from those who give in vilely, fearful of the mocking and derision of the world, for whom it must be concluded, that in our days more than ever the main strength of evil men is the cowardice and weakness of those who are good, and all the backbone of the kingdom of Satan lies in the weakness of Christians. —
Oh! if I were allowed, as the prophet Zechariah did in spirit, to ask the divine Redeemer: what are these wounds are in the middle of your hands: quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum? The answer would not be doubtful: these have been given to me in the house of those who loved me: his plagatus sum in medio eorum qui diligebant me; given by my friends, who have done nothing to defend me and who in every meeting have become accomplices of my opponents.

And to this reproach, given to the infamous and fearful Christians of all countries, one cannot exempt many Christians of France, which has been called, both by my venerated Predecessor as well as by you, venerable Brother, as you have recalled, the most noble missionary nation, generous and chivalrous, and I will add to his glory what Pope Gregory IX wrote to King St. Louis: “God, whom the heavenly legions obey, having established here below different kingdoms according to the diversity of languages and climates, has conferred on many governments special missions for the accomplishment” of his plans. And just as he once preferred the tribe of Judah to the tribes of Jacob’s other sons and gave them special blessings, so he chose in preference to all the other nations of the earth for the protection of the Catholic faith and the defense of religious freedom. For this reason, “France is the kingdom of God himself, the enemies of France are the enemies of Christ. That is why God loves France, because he loves the Church, which “spans the centuries and recruits legions for eternity. God loves France, which no effort has ever been able to detach entirely from God’s cause. God loves France, where at no time has faith ever lost its vigor; where kings and soldiers have never hesitated to face dangers and to give their blood for the preservation of faith and religious freedom”. Thus far, Gregory IX. Therefore, venerable Brother, on your return you will say to your fellow countrymen that, if they love France, they must love God, love faith, love the Church which, as for your fathers, so even now is the most tender mother of all of them. You will say that they treasure the testaments of St. Rémy, Charlemagne and St. Louis, which are summed up in the words so often repeated by their heroine of Orléans: “Vive le Christ qui est roi des Francs.” Only France is great among nations in this regard, by this covenant God will protect it by making it free and glorious, on this condition it will be possible to apply to France what is said in the holy books about Israel, “that no one was “found” to insult this people except when it “departed from God”, et non fuit qui insuttaset, populo ipsi visi quando reeessit a cultu Domini Dei sui. Therefore, your idea is not a dream, Venerable Brother, but a reality, nor is there only hope in me, but also the certainty of full triumph. The Pope died, a martyr in Valence, when France, having ignored and annihilated authority, banned religion, demolished temples and altars, exiled, persecuted and decimated priests, had fallen into the most detestable abomination. Two years had not passed since the death of him who was supposed to be the last Pope, when France, guilty of so many crimes, still soaked in the blood of so many innocent people, devoutly turned her eyes towards the one who, prodigiously elected Pope, far from Rome, was enthroned in Rome, and France implored, along with forgiveness, the exercise of that divine power in the Pope that it had so often contested, and France was saved. What seems impossible to men is possible to God. And in this certainty I am confirmed by the protection of the martyrs who gave their blood for the faith and by the intercession of Joan of Arc, who, as she lives in the hearts of the French people, so she continuously repeats her prayer in heaven: Great God, save France!

Translation Giuseppe Pellegrino