I was stunned recently to hear that one of my students would be studying a novel by Agatha Christie entitled And Then There Were None. Stunned because I know Christie’s work quite well, but I’d never heard of that one. Handily, her complete works rest on a bookshelf in my house (a collection of volumes which was most foully filched from me by my sister, but let that pass). I searched for a long time but I couldn’t see And Then There Were None anywhere.
It took a while, but finally I realised that the novel in question was called Ten Little Niggers, before it was called Ten Little Indians, before it got its present title.
Where exactly, I thought to myself, will this end? With a new edition of the complete works of Joseph Conrad, including The African-American of the Narcissus? And of course, we’d have to re-bowdlerise Shakespeare: how well does ‘the sooty bosom/Of such a thing as thou’ scan to sensitive modern eyes, exactly? And what’s to be done with ‘It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’? (Othello: I.ii.69-70, and Romeo and Juliet: I.v.44-45, respectively.)
These meditations resurfaced when I recently re-read Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Decline and Fall. And they resurfaced because I wondered what a bien-pensant cultural commentator would make of it.
Decline and Fall, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a spectacular romp through the worlds of British public schooling and British social aspirations – it’s hilarious, and some of the moments of hilarity only work because of the racism they examine.
Take this one, for example:
“‘The Welsh,’ said the doctor, ‘are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing,’ he said with disgust, ‘sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver. They are deceitful because they cannot discern truth from falsehood, depraved because they cannot discern the consequences of their indulgence.’”
It might help, here, to recall that the attitude of the English towards the Welsh is analogous to the attitude of Australians towards New Zealanders.
Of course, somewhere, some self-righteous prick will now feel the urge to point out that categorising an entire culture as artistically null and composed exclusively of liars, thieves and degenerates is both unkind and inaccurate. Of course it is. But the kind of person who makes comments like that is generally unable correctly to define ‘plastic’, is too dim to notice the fine rhythmic control that Waugh exhibits in the dialogue here and wouldn’t even be able to make a start on why the two beautifully balanced clauses of the final sentence are so funny.
So, for the pricks out there, let’s have a closer look.
‘Plastic’ means ‘malleable’ or ‘flexible’, so we can assume – given the context – that the good Doctor refers to sculpture when he mentions ‘plastic art’. Then notice the way the narrative voice breaks up the dialogue: “‘They just sing’, he said with disgust, ‘sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver.’” Try reading it aloud, and then read it aloud again, but pause for the time it would take to say ‘he said with disgust’ (instead of saying it) before you read on.
Bingo – you’ve got the rhythm, and therefore the pedantry and the whole character of the Doctor in a flash. And you should also have realised, having spent this much time on it, that Waugh is poking fun at a racist, not endorsing his views.
And isn’t ‘plated silver’ a nice touch? Those sheep-shagging phlegm-factories of Welshmen can’t afford the real thing, you see.
And the final sentence?
Here it helps to have read rather more widely than the average fulminator against ‘racism’. If you’ve read your Gibbon, you’ll recognise the cadence and you’ll have seen how the two clauses are elegantly held together by alliteration and repetition (‘deceitful… discern… depraved… discern’). It’s a balancing act that uses consonance as its fulcrum. You see the same trick used often and to great effect by the better prose writers in English – Jane Austen and George Eliot are only two outstanding examples. And the Gibbonian rhythm is yet another dig at the Doctor, of course: who talks like that?
Arseholes. That’s who.
But onwards we must go.
The Welsh were only a warm-up for Waugh. Feast your eyes on this:
“‘I think it’s an insult bringing a nigger here,’ said Mrs Clutterbuck. ‘It’s an insult to our own women.’ ‘Niggers are all right,’ said Philbrick. ‘Where I draw the line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things. I had a pal bumped off by a Chink once. Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear.’”
You laughed, didn’t you? I did. Out loud and for a long time. If you feel guilty I suppose you could tell yourself that you only laughed because the passage is so outrageous. And if you didn’t laugh, you should have stopped reading this post somewhere around the first sentence – or just skipped to the last three.
But again, and crucially, there’s a point being made here.
In fact, there are at least two.
Why does Mrs Clutterbuck (and what a fantastically Dickensian name, by the way) say “‘It’s an insult to our own women’”? Surely that’s something we would expect a bigoted man to say in unenlightened times? And why would the genially drunk Philbrick, in this era (Decline and Fall was first published in 1928), bother to say anything that could be interpreted – however loosely – as being generous about black people, even if it happens to be at the expense of the Chinese?
It’s not so hard to work out, is it? Waugh is satirizing a view of racial tension that depends upon paranoia: specifically, the fear that exotic men will seduce (if not carry away and ravish) all of your women. But we expect to hear such absurdities from nervous and single males. By putting the words into the mouth of a female character, Waugh is able to emphasise the peculiar absurdity of this view. And good old Philbrick (by expressing the view that one foreign race is far worse than another because one member of such a race happened to be a monster) gives us a wonderful opportunity to laugh at the entire notion that a race should be subject to sweeping claims on the basis of isolated experiences.
If you’ve followed me so far, you should have no trouble laughing at the following, and appreciating it for what it really is:
“‘’Pon my soul,’ Colonel Sidebotham was saying to the Vicar, ‘I don’t like the look of that nigger. I saw enough of Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Soudan – devilish good enemy and devilish bad friend… I don’t see the race myself, but there are limits…’”
But if you’re still stuck, you might reflect on the fact that Papuans who fought with or helped out ANZACs in World War Two are still referred to as ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels’ in the Australian media quite regularly.
What I suppose I’m raving against here, is humourlessness. Which is a doomed project considering that any attempt to show that a joke is worthy kills its humour. This, perhaps, is the final victory of the humourless over those who want to laugh.
Nietzsche said that a joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling; in doing so he anticipated the cliché that comedy is tragedy plus time. Like so many of Nietzsche’s utterances, this one is wholly arresting, but in the last analysis not quite satisfactory. Really good jokes don’t riff on deaths: they mourn them.
The unreflecting racism of Agatha Christie (or indeed of anyone else) is to be regretted: anyone who could write ‘I’ve been working like the worst kind of nigger’ (yup – that was Agatha) is to be condemned simply because they didn’t think. But then again, all unreflecting writing is to be regretted. It’s all humbug, cant and bullshit – pure and simple.
But when we start to censure anything that connotes discrimination (in the actual sense of the word) between races, we’re getting ready to kiss goodbye to art, as well as to basic rights of expression.
This is probably going to be the first of many entries I post on censorship and Puritanism, but the fundamental point for all of the posts will be quite simple.
It is this: censors don’t need to put effort into their jobs. But critics do.
And anyone who doesn’t understand that can fuck off.