The Same Indifference
By David Lebedoff
Random House, 2008
The problems with the double biography can be grouped into three overlapping areas: (1) a faulty premise; (2) an inability to articulate a coherent case to support it; and (3) terrible writing. The third weakness contributes cripplingly to the first two. Lebedoff’s consistent inattention to the meaning of the words he chooses gives the impression that he has some vague sense of what he wants to say but lacks the wherewithal to do much more than fawn over two celebrated, but very different, writers. Given that he believes of Orwell and Waugh that “no one wrote better in the twentieth century, or ever,” the irony is a sad one.
One of the many words that give Lebedoff trouble is at the center of his book’s title. Though he is the kind of writer who feels compelled to share his discovery that the word “sensitive” has multiple meanings, he evidently did not bother to check the definition of “same.” He wants to argue that Orwell and Waugh were identical not only because of coincidences such as their being born in the same year and going on to become writers but also for less obvious reasons. He invokes class:
The class system absolutely stamped the lives of Orwell and Waugh from early childhood. In Orwell’s case he rejected the system completely and chose not to compete on its terms…. Waugh embraced the system as it was and devoted his life to rising within it to the very top.
So, for Lebedoff, being affected by social stratification makes people the same, regardless of how they respond to it or choose to live. He fails to see that this makes everyone the same and that, as a consequence, sameness is not a meaningful designation. Insisting on it is akin to declaring that both Orwell and Waugh were human beings. Yes, and?
Lebedoff does try to narrow his focus and find more specific signs of sameness, but his results do not improve. He points to their intense dedication to writing, which for both Orwell and Waugh could take precedence over family. If this were as far as it went, such commitment to their work could qualify as a shared characteristic, though hardly a unique one. It would be easy to find examples of other writers, or people who achieved prominence in other fields, who concentrated on their careers more than their personal relationships. Forced by known facts to admit that Waugh as a parent could be indifferent on his best days while Orwell was an attentive and devoted parent, Lebedoff does not bother to prop up his faulty contention of sameness; instead, he blithely turns to some other area where he can claim that a modicum of similarity makes Orwell and Waugh indistinguishable.
Their determination and drive resulted in work that brought them both fame, and while this too could be said of countless successful people throughout history, Lebedoff takes this as evidence of the two writers’ inseparability. He holds to this view even when allowing for all the differences that his broad conception of sameness can contain. “Orwell and Waugh willed what they became,” he says. “In a modern phrase that each would have hated, they invented themselves, carefully constructing public lives that could not have seemed less similar.”
Lebedoff’s thesis (problem number one) takes him to a critical cliff, and he plunges off it, twisting himself in argumentative contortions as he falls into low nonsense (problem number two). It pushes him to have the pair recognize how alike they supposedly were. Selectively ignoring what Orwell actually wrote, he tries to finesse matters either by refusing to engage statements that contradict his view or by attempting to reshape quotations to make them less destructive to his shaky foundation. As an ailing Orwell sank closer to death, he agreed to write about Waugh for Partisan Review, but he could not finish what he started, stopping after composing several paragraphs and some notes. Lebedoff reproduces part of Orwell’s scribbling about plans for an analysis of Brideshead Revisited thus:
Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross…. One cannot really be a Catholic & grown up….
Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be … while also holding untenable opinions.
Lebedoff does not even try to respond to the remark about the link between faith and immaturity. Doing so would force him to address with more vigor how sharply contrasting views on religion would not render his belief in Orwell and Waugh’s essential similarity completely illogical, which, of course, it is. Instead he imagines what the piece “might well have gone on to say” if Orwell had finished it. Lebedoff conjectures that Orwell would have declared Waugh “a great novelist, period.”
Lebedoff would have done better to attend to Orwell’s actual written words, which flatly contradict his suggestion that Orwell “sensed how much Waugh was like himself not only in courage but philosophy” and that Orwell “would have honored him.” If he presented Orwell’s handwritten notes without the ellipses, the absurdity of this can be seen immediately:
Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be a Catholic & grown up.
Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while also holding untenable opinions.
|Lebedoff wants Orwell to feel the “envy” he believes any first-class writer must after reading Brideshead Revisited. Leaving in Orwell’s comment about Waugh’s inevitably crumbling artifice would complicate this. Similarly, the parenthetical remark undermines Lebedoff’s hypothesis that Orwell would have proceeded to praise the novelist Lebedoff so obviously admires. Indeed, what Orwell says, despite Lebedoff’s attempts to make it seem otherwise, is that he found Waugh a pretty good writer for his debased period.
More than his view of Waugh’s talent as a prose stylist, Orwell’s explicit statements about belief and their implications present Lebedoff with insurmountable hurdles. Just as he misunderstands the meaning of same, he stands oblivious to sense with his use of another key term. He concedes that their conflicting views on religion create “the great fundamental difference between the two men,” yet if he took care when selecting the word fundamental, he would not then posit that the two still shared the same “moral core.” Simply put, what mattered to the two men did not coincide.
However, Lebedoff’s elastic lexicon permits differences to be simultaneously fundamental and not. Rather than abandon his unworkable argument, he attempts, in the guise of broad-mindedly admitting a potential challenge to his same-man notion, to cast the irreconcilable differences between the writers as only trivial matters. After reading Nineteen Eighty-four, Waugh wrote a letter telling Orwell that he found the novel’s vision of the future “spurious” because of “the disappearance of the Church.” Lebedoff describes Orwell and Waugh as “two highly moral men confronting evil in their world,” before going on to delineate the real threat to his argument:
They differed about what to do about it. It was to be or not to be. Orwell chose to be – and to take action in the here and now. Waugh chose to not be in this life other than to live morally enough to be welcomed in the next.
To live morally enough: Lebedoff’s does not take the trouble to demonstrate Waugh’s proximity to this high moral standard. Waugh expressed commitment to Catholicism and believed that that alone was sufficient. Lebedoff does note that Waugh could be pompous, arrogant and cruel, that his conversion to Catholicism “may have changed his faith but not his manners,” and that he “liked being thought a Beast.” Yet somehow, “behind the snobbery, the social climbing, the endless parties and the bottomless glasses, Waugh’s life was as dedicated to moral principles as Orwell’s.” Conveniently, Waugh’s principles did not require him to do anything, and his supposed dedication to them excused whatever he did do, no matter how shabby. “Drunkenness and frivolity were of no importance, because they were little related to the life of the spirit after death,” Lebedoff says of Waugh’s grand code. “In that sense, everything in this life was irrelevant – social justice as well as debauchery.” Lebedoff exonerates behavior ranging from unkind and boorish to absolutely indefensible by pointing to religious faith. “To Waugh, the only moral compass was the Catholic Church.” He carried that precious compass in his vest pocket like a talisman that kept him unaccountable for his actions. When he sought to have his first marriage annulled so that he could marry again in the Church, he advocated an Italian victory in Abyssinia, which he believed would keep Benito Mussolini from entering an alliance with Adolf Hitler. Not so coincidentally, this happened to be the Church’s position at the time. Waugh also had a friendly meeting with the Italian fascist.
Despite being aware of all this, Lebedoff dares to suggest that the political views espoused by “the devout but sybaritic country squire and the ascetic socialist” could be brought into alignment. He cannot do this without contradicting himself. Forgetting, it seems, Waugh’s vocal support for Mussolini’s imperial aspirations, Lebedoff at one point claims Orwell and Waugh “opposed totalitarianism, period, and they opposed it with all their heart” (Lebedoff’s emphasis). Elsewhere in The Same Man, Lebedoff says Waugh “cared nothing about politics.” So he was an unyielding opponent of totalitarianism and a friend to fascists as well as completely indifferent to politics. Waugh himself was not even the same man, and yet was just like Orwell, in Lebedoff’s peculiar way of thinking.
In another bid to justify anything the comic novelist did, Lebedoff claims that Waugh “was performing a role all his life” and that “the fierce and puffy country squire” constituted “one of the meatier roles in the upper-class repertoire.” It escapes his notice that pretending to do uncaring things meant actually doing them. Sure, he may have forced his children to watch as he consumed exceptionally rare treats that were supposed to be for them. After World War II the British government issued bananas, which had previously unobtainable because of German blockades, to youngsters like Waugh’s children who until then had never enjoyed, or seen, such food. In Waugh’s house, the children were only permitted to see the bananas as the father devoured them covered in cream and sugar. Yes, years later, he refused to visit the hospital room sheltering one of his children after he perforated himself with machine gun bullets. It does not matter, Lebedoff reassures us, because Waugh did such things as “part of an act,” which magically makes it as if he had never done them at all.
Unlike Waugh, Orwell did not accept unfairness “because, after all, only heaven mattered.” Indeed, as Lebedoff puts it, Orwell entered a “day-to-day struggle against injustice” and thought that “belief in the next life was just an excuse for inaction in this one.” Orwell explicitly expressed his views on Waugh’s religious beliefs in his aborted Partisan Review essay: “Waugh’s outlook on life is, I should say, false and to some extent perverse.” Lebedoff silently ignores this unambiguous rejection of Waugh’s way of thinking. He will not be deterred in his quest for compatibility between Orwell and Waugh. “What they had most in common was a hatred of moral relativism,” Lebedoff offers. “They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently.” As Orwell asserts in the unfinished Waugh essay, “There is still such a thing as truth and falsehood,” and his and Waugh’ opposed views about an afterlife cannot both be valid. Lebedoff does not recognize that in reducing the undeniable difference between Orwell and Waugh to an irrelevance he is engaging in precisely what he says they both despised. He hints at some implications of the disagreement over religious belief, but refuses to follow up on them. He mentions that in Nineteen Eighty-four Winston Smith knows that “the harsh, austere, and enslaved world of his torturers” is wrong. Morality, the novel suggests, is something innate, a matter of instinct rather than of subscription to a religious creed.
|Yet Lebedoff clearly favors Waugh’s faith to Orwell’s disbelief, so he tries to transform Orwell into a kind of honorary believer. Lebedoff says Waugh “simply couldn’t understand why someone as highly moral as Orwell wasn’t deeply religious, too,” and he shares this incomprehension. He wants to unearth an essentially religious nature in Orwell, despite what Orwell thought and said about his beliefs. “Waugh saw Orwell as an innately religious man who didn’t believe in religion.” Indeed, Orwell did not, as Lebedoff certainly knows. Straining to make both authors equally relevant to his interests, Lebedoff complains that “the flight from faith” that Orwell and Waugh observed “has only intensified in our own time.” He worries about “the steady loss of faith” and believes the novelists would share his concerns. “No one can fail to see the coarsening of our general culture, and the new low standards are hardly compatible with a belief in higher powers.” This non sequitur alone demonstrates the irredeemable fatuousness of The Same Man.|
Lebedoff provides plenty of other examples of unclear thought and poor reasoning, which he makes most apparent by way of cringe-making prose (problem three). He reveres Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” but writes as if Orwell’s words made no impression on him. He displays the same indifference to clear language and clear thought that Orwell sought to combat. “A scrupulous writer,” says Orwell, “in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Could someone who considered such questions really have generated lines like these? “And the rock bottom, the nadir, the living end (except that it isn’t living) of speech today is its transformation by technology. Think e-mail. To put it mildly, many people no longer communicate in complete sentences. Speed is life.” Indeed, sometimes Lebedoff gives the impression that he constructed The Same Man as an elaborate joke, as in portentous sentences like these:
What had happened to him was Burma. He had spent five lonely years with his books and his thoughts. Many who leave their mark in life have reached their path through isolation. Blair had been cut off from everything he knew, and so he came to know himself. He had begun to think. From his imperial cocoon came transformation. The policeman became a writer.
Lebedoff probably was not trying to by funny here. He yearns to be taken seriously. Indeed, in the section where he praises “Politics and the English Language,” Lebedoff explicitly states: “This is serious stuff.”
In the essay Lebedoff so esteems, Orwell offers tips on effective writing that Lebedoff wholly disregards. “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” Orwell advises. Yet for Lebedoff, traditions are invariably “time-honored,” strong wills are made of “iron,” drives are “unstoppable” and faith is “pure.” Alas, in these sorry modern times, bread always comes with circuses, souls can be “seared with bitterness” and good news can lead to unintended consequences. He not only uses clichés, he highlights the practice as if doing so confers depth: “There is a phrase: adding insult to injury.” Near the end of The Same Man, perhaps fearing he still had an inventory of truism he failed to deplete, Lebedoff strings these together: “The time between birth and death is all too fleeting, and life is a train that picks up speed. To waste is sinful.” He lacks clarity about the different figures of speech Orwell lists. (Maybe he thinks they are all the same too.) Describing the unpopular Captain Waugh’s military career, he says that soldiers serving under him “wanted to kill him” and then explains: “This is not a metaphor.” Well, no, in the strict sense, it is not. He does have reason to worry that readers might expect him to exaggerate, since he repeatedly does so in ways that shatter any semblance of seriousness. (Waugh’s hunt for an aristocratic wife “outdoes Stanley’s search for Livingston,” A Handful of Dust boasts “what might well be the most chilling scene in English literature,” and Waugh’s description of Oxford in Brideshead Revisited “will live forever,” just as Orwell’s essays are “immortal.” The man who produced those “treasures” – “the most sensitive soul in the world” – also “tore down the Berlin wall,” by the way.)
In addition to wishing that same could apply to very dissimilar figures and amplify the importance of coincidences and that fundamental could denote insignificances, Lebedoff also repeatedly relies on certain words to point in the direction of ideas he either does not or cannot express. If writers keep pet words, “amazing” would have to be one of Lebedoff’s. Waugh’s “use of dialogue”? Amazing. An ill Orwell’s capacity both to read and to write? Amazing. That each believed people needed to live according to a moral code? Amazing. As with “interesting” (in lines like “what [Orwell] put down on paper will be interesting forever”), he registers his admiration for these writers but does not communicate reasons for it. His hollow praise, no matter how sincere, fails to convey anything more than inarticulate awe. Lebedoff’s slapdash prose style also includes painful punning (he calls his chapter on the man whom men in the ranks wanted to murder “The Waugh to End All Waughs”) and equally groan-worthy attempts at humor (a meeting between Waugh and Ian Fleming left the creator of James Bond “more shaken than stirred”; after his divorce, “Waugh was the toast of London, though badly burned”).
Lebedoff claims to venerate Orwell and Waugh for their craftsmanship but does them no honor by writing about his heroes the way he does. By blending radically condensed biographies, he tries to homogenize two incompatible figures. The effort involves mixing reflections on trivial coincidences while disregarding the way language functions. It yields unpalatable results.
Lebedoff’s book also asks readers to skip over basic facts. Though both writers may have produced crystalline prose and worried about the state of the world, Orwell was convinced that people must take responsibility for improving this life because there is no other, while Waugh had faith in a forgiving father in heaven. The Same Man depends on the unsupportable assertion that these ideas are equivalent because they reflect commitment to moral ideals. They are not the same.
John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.