War On Waugh

Have we become so humourless that we've stopped finding Evelyn Waugh funny?

The great British sense of humour — once renowned for its unwavering ability to identify and mock the absurd, its unparalleled propensity to ridicule the institutions upon which our society is built — is dying. Good jokes have been usurped by a suffocating blanket of bleakness. It’s worse than that: earnestness seems to be flooding our society, extinguishing any humorous embers that it finds. We have become so liberal that we’re in danger of becoming illiberal. We are so fearful of offending that we instead take umbrage at any remark that challenges our genteel sensibilities.

This tragic turn of events has been brewing for a while. It was only last month, with the BBC TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, that I realised quite how far down the humourless path of solemnity we’ve ventured. Waugh was my great-grandfather, so it is with particular interest that I witnessed the barrage of condemnation that swirled across cyberspace following the broadcast of the first episode. Waugh was denounced as a racist, a snob, an anti-Semite and — less imaginatively — a conservative. And it wasn’t just the puritans on social media that leapt to vilify him. Alex Larman went further: “Waugh’s depiction of  1920s high society means very little to modern readers.”

Can it be so? It is very unlikely that Waugh’s work means little to contemporary audiences, or the BBC would not have produced the new series. What is lost is the humour. At various times Waugh makes remarks that are shocking and plainly offensive to women, Jews, Arabs, fascists, the French, people of colour and many more. He depicts a world remote from the one we know today; his remarks allude to times past and worlds forgotten — at least to my generation. Yet his shrewd ability to capture the eccentricities of human conduct despite the 90 years that separates his fiction and our reality should serve to remind us of our infinite absurdities. So let us remember that: we are all ridiculous. And let’s keep laughing — before it’s too late, and we forget how to.

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