The Completed PhD and Its Ironic Postscript

Mike Martin

I always wanted to be a writer. I don’t recall ever wanting to be a doctor. I can, though, remember the gist of the reasoning behind my decision to read for a PhD in Creative Writing.
As I said, I wanted to be a writer. So I read for an MA. I came out of the other end of it with three things (apart from an MA); recognition of the value of the community and fellowship of writers, a still-intact yearning to write, and a desperate fear of the impending loneliness. And it’s that loneliness, really, the continuing need for fellowship and community, which drove me into the arms of the PhD.
What a mistake that was. Compared to the MA crowd, the community of PhD writers is a shrunken, introspective affair. They are, on the whole, either too busy, too self-absorbed or too esoteric to be fellows and to commune with.
So, retrospectively, I’ve invented other reasons for wanting to be a doctor. One of them is that I have a passion to make a contribution to knowledge, to add some minutiae to the world’s enormous agglomeration of information. All very well, but some better reason than this was going to have to appear in my PhD study document. How about this?
“I embarked upon my course of research because I wanted to understand better the art and craft of black comic literary fiction. Given the breadth of the genre, I focused my attention on the treatment of death-work, on the assumption that this provides an important key to successful black comedy. I aimed then to bring my understanding to bear upon a creative work.”
Don’t kid yourselves. That’s not the order of things. You write the novel. Then you think about the research.
I wrote the novel. It’s called Three Jumpers. It tells of the descents of two protagonists – the spiritual descent towards irreparable loss of faith of one, and a morbid downward spiral towards suicide of the other. These are not jolly leitmotifs for a comedy, and the protagonists’ courses seem to run counter to Bernard Bergonzi’s view that “we expect comedies to end more or less happily” (Bergonzi 27). Is he right? After all there is, on the face of it, something anomalous about untimely death and the happy ending.
Conveniently, this suggested a more concrete question for me to address in my research:
“How is death-work handled in comic narrative and plot resolution?”
By death-work, I mean the engagement and transformation by the literary text (that’s the technical chat for any Eng. Lit. examiners) of the business of death, from the cause of death, whatever the degree of its certainty, through the dying process, beit improvised or ceremonial, to its aftereffects, both corporeal and spiritual, as they impact both victim and related observers. So – to the research.

Clasping my rather oblique question to my bosom, I stood shivering beside a vast ocean of works and writers, contemporary and recent, that might concern themselves humorously with death-work. I dipped in my toe and stubbed it on what I now perceive to be two rocks of the modern British comic literary “tradition”, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. Why these two, and not the Amises, or the “campus” novelists, or Burgess and Spark, why these Brits and not Roth and Auster, or others whose writing I admire? Why “he was an old man, and the white slab was there in the vestibule of the Columbarium, waiting for him” and not “it was the day my grandmother exploded” (Huxley, Summer 170; Banks 3)? Why “Sir Francis was visible from the waist up. Dennis thought of the wax-work of Marat in his bath” and not “the corpse looked fine, fine, fine. New suit, hair cut and greased, his boots highly polished and loaned by an anonymous donor were firmly nailed to the coffin for additional security” (Waugh, Loved 61; Milligan 73)? I am at a loss to explain. Nevertheless, with a vast bibliography of critique and biography attaching to them, to Huxley and Waugh, I hoped to uncover some recipe for success in the genre that is black comedy.
What a ridiculous notion. Over the years, I have lived and died with Aldous and Evelyn (not always the most companionable of bedfellows), focusing upon four key texts; two novels by Huxley (After Many a Summer (1939) and Ape and Essence (1948)), Waugh’s essay, ‘Half in Love with Easeful Death’ (1947) and his novella The Loved One (1948). Yet, at the end of my interminable research, still the secret of good comedy, black or otherwise, remains as elusive as ever.
I don’t suppose I should be surprised. What has surprised me, though, having believed everything must have been said that there was to say about Huxley and Waugh, was that everything had not been said. I discovered new things. (Actually, I must be honest here. Some of what I consider to be discoveries, one of my Eng. Lit. examiners describes as “conjectures”.) Be that as it may, I offer the following contributions to God’s Wikipedia:
Firstly, Huxley, the satirist, perceived, in 1939, that there was an absence of an agreed morality. Such agreement is a necessary precursor for the corrective critique of effective satire. The age of Fascist ascendancy and unrestrained capitalism demanded stronger meat. After Many a Summer is an allegory. It addresses America’s pursuit of world domination. America is embodied in the main protagonist, the death-fearing Jo Stoyte. In a narrative rich in uproariously funny death-work, the novel tells of Stoyte’s naivety, his greed, his isolation, and, most importantly, his search for immortality. In its tense ‘fairy tale’ conclusion, we see that an ancient Earl and his servant (both now into their third centuries of life) will, as far as we can tell, continue to live ever after, happy in themselves but appalingly for those who look upon them; their death in life provides an uproariously funny ending to the novel.
Secondly, despite many critical claims, Waugh is no satirist because his work rarely bears any corrective intent. It is a celebration of life as Waugh sees it, albeit he sees it in terminal decline. The Loved One is a farce. In Waugh’s own words, “the tale should not be read as a satire on morticians but as a study of the Anglo-American cultural impasse with the mortuary as a jolly setting” (Amory 259). The mortuary is Forest Lawn, one of California’s finest, and it provides a backdrop to another novel rich in side-splittingly funny death-work. Clearly informed and inspired by After Many a Summer, The Loved One closes with an equally hellish, unhappy and funny end, focused around the incineration of Aimée Thanatogenos’s body in a pet crematorium.
Thirdly, and what excited me most about my research, was the discovery (or conjecture) that it was Evelyn Waugh who inspired and sustained Huxley’s creative juices through the writing of Ape and Essence. There are two main reasons for believing this. The sustenance, first. There are uncanny textual similarities between Huxley’s novella (published in the U.S.A. in 1948) and Waugh’s essay, ‘Half in Love with Easeful Death’, published first in Life in September 1947. Both have scientists of the future journeying from across the date-line to rediscover California, a land once of primitive worship now laid waste and reclaimed by the desert. They share the scenario of Los Angeles’s strategic unimportance and susceptibility to easy obliteration. In Ape and Essence, for instance, Dr. Cudworth states Waugh’s thesis pretty precisely. “‘Cut the aqueducts, and it’s all over in a week. No drinky, no livey.’ Delighted by his own joke, he laughs enormously.” (Huxley, Ape 36) Cudworth might be as close as Huxley ever got to putting Waugh straight into one of his novels. Buried in both essay and novel are the idolatrous statuary of Hollywood celebrity and the mortuary statuary of Forest Lawn. And then, in a kitsch ending to his essay, Waugh gives us a view from some sky-borne camera:
There is the hope that we may find ourselves, one day beyond time, standing at the ballustrade of Heaven among the unrecognizably grown-up denizens of Forest Lawn, and, leaning there beside them, amicably gaze down on Southern California, and share with them the huge joke of what the professors of anthropology will make of it all. (Gallagher 337)
Huxley is surely picking up on this when he gives us his own camera, zooming in from some heavenly balustrade:
Only five miles up and it becomes increasingly obvious that the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town, that what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a waste-land. (Huxley, Ape 45)
There, we find Professor Grampian’s young wife, “who is only an anthropologist and so has nothing to contribute to the argument.” (35)
And so at last we come to the nub of my presentation, Waugh’s inspiring of Huxley to write Ape and Essence. On 26th March 1947, Huxley wrote a letter to Anita Loos saying, quite enthusiastically, that he was going to write “something about the future […] about, among other things, a post-atomic-war society in which the chief effect of the gamma radiations had been to produce a race of men and women who don’t make love all the year round, but have a brief mating season. The effect of this on politics, religion, ethics etc would be something very interesting and amusing to work out.” (Smith 569). But why now? After all, fragments of the story must have been festering in Huxley’s mind for at least twenty years. “‘Morality’d be very queer,’ […Philip Quarles] reflected aloud [in Point Counter Point, published in 1928], ‘if we loved seasonally, not all the year round. Moral and immoral would change from one month to another’” (Huxley, Point 85).
Why, apart from the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan, that is, why write the story now? Well, it was in March 1947 that the Waughs came to dine with the Huxleys. Evelyn couldn’t stand Aldous, but they came to dinner anyway, an invitation engineered by Sir Charles Mendl, a mutual friend and diplomat, presumably at his most diplomatic. What on earth did they find to talk about?
I’ll tell you what they talked about. They talked about Forest Lawn, and Evelyn’s enchantment with the place. As the Beverly Pantheon, it had appeared in After Many a Summer in 1939. It would appear again in The Loved One as Whispering Glades. And it was, of course, the subject of that essay of Waugh’s , ‘Half in Love with Easeful Death’.
I’ll tell you what else they talked about. They talked about Waugh’s frustration with the Hays Code, a Jesuitically inspired self-censorship regimen operated by Hollywood’s Motion Picture Producers to ensure nothing “dubious” reached the silver screen. Waugh would have rehearsed another of his essays:
“The function of the Hays Office is to enforce a code which forbids the production of any film which can be harmful to anyone, or offend any racial or religious susceptibility. No such code is feasible in a heterogeneous society […] Every attempt is made by innuendo to pack as much lubricious material as possible into every story, while mature dramatic works intended for a morally stable, civilized audience have their essential structure hopelessly impaired.” (Gallagher 330)
Waugh was certainly not going to allow Brideshead Revisited to be bastardized into compliance with such a code, however generous a host M-G-M might be. More inspiration for Huxley. I read Ape and Essence as an allegorical attack on the United States’ censorship regimes of the 1940s, not just on the Hays Code, the iniquities of which they must have agreed upon over dinner, but on HUAC too, the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities whose Communist witch-hunt, not properly under way until later in the year, would result in the blacklisting of more than two hundred writers and producers.
March 1947, that unlikely occasion when the Huxleys hosted the Waughs and that conversation over the dinner table – now that is the stuff of inspiration. The story, albeit fictionalized, should be told. And then, packaged with the proper research, it would make the very essence of a PhD in Creative Writing – certainly something much better than an already half-finished novel around which a study has to be cobbled together. And I’ll take the title from one of Shelley’s pieces on censorship, The Woodman and the Nightingale. They must have talked about Shelley, too, him being the subject of the biopic that Barlow came to Hollywood to write in The Loved One, him rescued from the book mines by Dr Poole in Ape and Essence. I’ll call it The Hungry Dark. It will be a play, a film, a novel. The novel could start like this:
For a studio man, it was an ideal location. Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City. Yes, the distinguished little house at 145½ South Doheny Drive was convenient for them all.
The old brown Ford slowed to a stop in front of it. As always, the woman was driving. The screenwriter, flannel-suited, tall and thin, uncoiled himself from the passenger seat. As he stood, he stretched his arms to the gray sky.
It was the sixth of March 1947. Eric Bickerton checked his watch, sat down and made a note. “4:15 p.m. Subject + Wife return home.” He dropped his field glasses onto the bed. Took off his hat and dropped that beside them. With his right forefinger, he wiped away the cold perspiration at his temples. Then, sighing, he slipped his headphones on.
He had listened in before, of course. Subject’s beautiful English was clear but quiet. Bickerton supposed that this was how the British king talked. And Wife? Every sort of register her voice had, with the remnants of an accent, more pronounced when she got excited – when, for instance, she was complaining about having to do all the driving, or about her husband refusing to discuss their financial affairs. Belgian, that was the accent he assumed it to be, for, according to the records, she came from Belgium. And she got mail from there, a lot of it from a sister whose name was Jeanne.
Those Wifely complaints apart, Bickerton was generally baffled by the household’s bugged conversations. Bluntly, he understood barely a word of them. Because he was conscientious, he would type them up. But then reading them back, he would find they read like complete nonsense. Bickerton’s SAC, Richard Hood, suggested that perhaps they were talking in code. (In the FBI, SAC means Special Agent in Charge). It was a joke, of course, perhaps even a joke at their own expense. Complete nonsense is what you get when you don’t understand half the words, and most of the phrases, and the sentences; when you get strangled in the convoluted syntax of their impenetrable debates.
And so the surveillance continued.
Remember my original research question? How is death-work handled in comic narrative and plot resolution? I’m not sure I’ve time to go into that now. I’m too busy engaged by this new project of mine – the PhD novel that never was, but should have been.

Amory, Mark, ed. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1980
Banks, Iain. The Crow Road. 1992. London: Abacus, 1993
Bergonzi, Bernard. David Lodge. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1995
Gallagher, Donat. Ed. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. London: Methuen London Ltd, 1983
Huxley, Aldous. After Many a Summer. 1939. (First published in USA under the title After Many a Summer Dies the Swan) London: Penguin, 1967.
--. Ape and Essence. 1948 in USA. London: Chatto & Windus, 1949
--. Point Counter Point. 1928. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1967
Milligan, Spike. Puckoon. London: Penguin, 1965
Smith, Grover, ed. Letters of Aldous Huxley. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969
Waugh, Evelyn. The Loved One: an Anglo-American Tragedy. 1948. London: Penguin Classics, 2000

Copyright - Mike Martin 2008



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