Decades after the 1933 novel A Handful of Dust highlighted it, modernity has done nothing to civilise the savagery inherent to human nature
I recently read Evelyn Waugh’s fabulously-written A Handful of Dust (1933), which is simultaneously a hilarious novel while being a most depressing read. Waugh was a great 20th-century English satirist, and his Scoop (1938) is a riotous look at journalism through stylised prose. Briefly, Scoop is about a man of the declining rural gentry, who is the nature columnist for a London newspaper but is mistakenly sent off to East Africa to report on a crisis. (Incidentally, after several LOL misadventures, he does manage a ‘scoop’ that is credited to the foreign correspondent in whose place he is mistakenly sent.) Scoop never resorts to abuse; contrast that to the illiterate hordes in contemporary India, whose intellectual achievement is to call journalists “presstitutes”.
Technology and modernity have apparently done nothing to civilise the beast, if the savagery of Donald Trump is any indication. Pic/AFP
Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is depressing because it is situated inside a crumbling marriage, presumably modelled on Waugh’s own a few years earlier (his first wife’s name was also Evelyn; friends referred to them as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn). Incidentally, Waugh’s great depression is set during the (economic) Great Depression.
It is about Tony Last and his wife Brenda, who live in his ancestral home, Hetton Abbey — a Victorian mansion in Gothic style, whose rooms are named after characters from King Arthur’s tale (presumably Tony is the ‘last’ of that gentry). Tony does not want to let go of Hetton Abbey despite its cost, even though Brenda feels imprisoned in it. She falls into an affair with an impoverished society man, John Beaver, and spends her time with a parasitical London set that vicariously enjoys the affair as it unfolds. Brenda herself confesses to the affair after a domestic tragedy. She leaves Tony, who travels deep into the Amazon jungle in search of a mythical ‘City’ (mirroring the City of London, presumably). He loses contact with civilisation and meets the half-tribal, half-European Mr Todd, who saves his life. But Mr Todd also takes Tony prisoner, so that Tony can read Todd’s collection of Charles Dickens to him.
Waugh’s writing pierces the heart of two matters: marriage and human nature. Marriage is such a precarious and impossible Westphalian balance-of-power that it often ends in a Cold War type standoff, each partner held back by the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (yes, marriage is MAD). Brenda’s feeling of imprisonment is uncannily familiar. Often individuals allow themselves to be imprisoned because they rationalise that marriage is a never-ending negotiation, though it is more corrosively a state of compromise, in which both think they’ve lost the balance of power.
Marriage nowadays seems anachronistic, because of economic democratization among the sexes and because extended life-spans far outlast the ‘natural’ life of a marriage. Many argue that marriage provides stability, but that is just a facade. They argue it provides companionship in old age, but most elderly couples can’t seem to stand the sight of one another and look trapped in mutual dependency. No wonder, then, that a bureaucrat friend mentioned a colleague who was planning on a modest wedding for her daughter. As she put it, marriages don’t last more than four-five years anyway, so what would be the point of an extravaganza?
In A Handful of Dust Tony is the “last” to learn of his wife’s affair; the entire Bavarian set in London enjoy too much gossiping about the affair (“Hard cheese on Tony” is as sympathetic an utterance as anyone makes). Several have themselves had briefly-lived affairs. Still, their cruel comments reveal the novel’s other Hobbesian truth: that whether in London’s dining houses or in the Amazonian rainforest, humans are at heart savage, even if they enjoy Dickens. Our traditions call it matsyanyaya (the law of the fishes), where the strong prey on the weak; Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan saw the life of man in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
Technology and modernity have apparently done nothing to civilize the beast, if the savagery of Arnab Goswami or Donald Trump is any indication. Instead, technology has shrunk the planet to reveal only cyber-glimpses of human nature’s unrelenting ugliness. Just ask anyone who’s been trolled on Twitter. Scientific discoveries like that recently of gravitational waves ought to push us up a rung on the evolutionary ladder, but not quite. We’re still blindly bound by the prejudices of faith, beheading or lynching one another.
In A Handful of Dust, Waugh takes the most intimate human connection, marriage, to reveal our wasteland of savagery; and if two people can’t escape the asphyxiation of association, then society likely can’t, either. No surprise that the modern world around us often seems more depressing than the saddest of stories. Waugh got his novel’s title from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which says: “our society promises to show us fear, in a handful of dust”. That possibly exemplifies our modern condition.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org