Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Temptations of the Craftsman in Middle Age: Diabolical Art and Christian Vocation in the Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Temptations of the Craftsman in Middle Age: Diabolical Art and Christian Vocation in the Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Article excerpt


He is not a Catholic landed gentleman pretending to be an author. He is an author pretending to be a Catholic landed gentleman. But why, you may ask, should he not be both? Because they are not compatible.

J. B. Priestley, "What Was Wrong with Pinfold"

Drunkenness, despair and suicide among artists comes [sic] from their concentration on the task rather than on their own souls. Evelyn Waugh, Diaries

EVELYN Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, that "conversation piece' drawn,, as the author confessed, from his own "brief bout of hallucination in 1954 (Waugh, Ordeal n.pag.), has from the first moved critics to consider the man as much as the work. (1) Yet as Priestley's remarks, published a month after its first appearance, make clear, this is also a text that has its biographical foundations serve as an investigation of the artist's proper task. Priestley's response to this exploration is diagnostic; he presents the madness of protagonist and creator as rooted in a spurious faith and in the fundamental inconsistency of religious belief and literary endeavour. While Waugh soon turned Priestley's ad hominizing argumentation against him, (2) he did so by sidestepping this most serious of charges, suggesting that "what gets Mr. Priestley's goat [...] is my attempt to behave like a gentleman" (Essays 527), not a Catholic. Waugh's response notwithstanding, I maintain Priestley accurately identifies the central conflict of loyalties that lies at the heart of Pinfold's trial. The Ordeal is no simple memoir of madness, nor merely an accomplished author's meditation on his art. It is, additionally and crucially, a novel that asks how faith and art might be made part of a single vocation--whether Waugh's own attraction to craft is compatible with his being a Catholic writer--a question much on his mind in the post-war period, as his blunt mission statement in "Fan-Fare" makes clear: "in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God" (Essays 302).

This prospectus already entails two, not necessarily related, aims: an insistence upon literary form, on the one hand, and a commitment to a specifically Christian content, on the other. Waugh certainly understood that stylistic excellence could make a masterpiece of work hostile to belief; "[w]e remember the false judgments of Voltaire and Gibbon [...]," he maintains, "because of their sharp, polished form and because of the sensual pleasure of dwelling on them" (Essays 479). Yet while Priestley contends that lunacy threatens Pinfold/Waugh because art cannot be yoked to belief, Waugh's text instead demonstrates that, as my second epigraph suggests, madness and worse threaten him who would divorce the task of art from an active Christian life, who would pursue aesthetic excellence at the expense of the soul's call to communion with its fellows and its God. Thus, while many have affirmed Julie Labay-Morere's claim that the novel works to marginalize, or even subvert, the faith of its hero and author (87), (3) I agree with Gene Phillips that The Ordeal represents "a perfect extension of the religious vision which permeates Waugh's later works" (149). This it does precisely as it allies the reduction of art to craft, not communication, with a retreat from charitable communion with others, condemning mere aestheticism as morally false and spiritually dangerous.

Indeed, having withdrawn from a contemporary world he loathes, Waugh's alter-ego pursues his art as a form of escape: a solitary amusement for himself in the contrivance of objects that forge no communicative bonds between himself and others. But in this rejection of communion, Pinfold surrenders himself to fictions he cannot control, to the hallucinations that torment him over the course of his flight from the world, and into his work, aboard the S. …

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