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The Hook of Truth

January 26, 2010 

A review of Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh (Ignatius Press, 2005 [First published by Longmans, 1935])

By: Gerard Kreijen

That the undisputed master of dark humor and satire should have produced what is arguably the most compelling short biography of a saint to date is perhaps even more extraordinary than the claim that, today, both the biography and its author deserve close attention. Indeed, few means serve better to confront the hollow relativism of our age than turning to the conversion of Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) and the life of Edmund Campion (1540-1581), the saintly subject of his 1935 book.

When Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic Church on September 29, 1930 his latest book had just been dubbed “the ultramodern novel”, so that his conversion caused sensation and bewilderment. In an article entitled, “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me”, Waugh made it perfectly clear that his decision was not about ritual nor about submission to the view of others. The essential issue was the choice between Christianity and chaos.

Waugh had come to see Modernity as “the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for”. Civilization, he understood, “has not in itself the power of survival”. Christianity was the foundation of the West and without it the moral and aesthetic fabric of Europe would unravel. For Waugh this was a fact and the acknowledgment of this fact set him against modern society; it was his casus belli:

“The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state […] It is no longer possible […] to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests. “[1]

Thus Waugh turned “from ultramodern to ultramontane, and in doing so passed from fashion to anti-fashion”.[2] He became, as George Orwell quipped, “about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions”.[3] In his literary attempts to represent man more fully, which for Waugh meant “only one thing, man in his relation to God”[4], he focused on the theme of the redemption of lost souls – notably, in his celebrated novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Redemption, Waugh later explained with a reference to G.K. Chesterton, may be compared “to the fisherman’s line, which allows the fish the illusion of free play in the water and yet has him by the hook; in his own time the fisherman by a ‘twitch upon the thread’ draws the fish to land”.[5]

One gathers why Waugh wrote a life of Edmund Campion, the respected Oxford scholar who fled Elizabethan England amidst the troubles of the Reformation and who returned as a Jesuit priest to “crie alarme spiritual against the foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many my dear countrymen are abused”, finally to meet a martyr’s death at Tyburn.

Obviously, the time of crisis in which Campion left his marks differs from our modern age in many ways. Yet, in Waugh’s account of Campion’s life one is able to feel, though perhaps less palpably, the fascination with that same Christian theme of the redemption of lost souls.

In his simple and elegant style Waugh captures the life of an Englishman seemingly destined for eminent scholarship, who, through his influential friends, could have easily risen to prominent places in Reformation England, if he had given the right answers to the right questions at the right time. When asked to declare for the Reformation, however, Campion was evasive and eventually chooses exile, first in Ireland, but later on the Continent in Douai, Rome, and Prague.

At first, his motives appear to be entirely those of the academic, preferring the reclusiveness of his study and the pursuit of knowledge to the ugliness of real life politics and the noise of the street. Even while at Prague, as a Jesuit teacher, the road toward academic excellence still seems the obvious one for Campion. But there is the “twitch upon the thread”; turning the scholar into a priest, then the priest into a hero, and the hero into a martyr.

Beyond the “twitch”, however, Waugh also seems to be offering the reader a glimpse of the hook: Truth. That same hook which lured and eventually caught Waugh through the notion that Truth suffers no compromise. Captured by that hook, Campion quickly rises to become Truth’s heroic protagonist, a role for which he was ideally suited because of his rhetorical skill.

“[T]he conditions of life” of the Catholics to which Campion along with his small group of English Jesuit preachers returned in 1580, Waugh tells us, were “always vexatious, often utterly disastrous”. Their circumstances “could only produce despair, and it depended upon their individual temperaments whether, in desperation” these people “had recourse to apostasy or conspiracy”. It was Campion’s achievement in particular to set the example for “a third supernatural solution” by bringing them, besides his “priestly dignity and the ancient and indestructible creed, an entirely new spirit of which [he] is the type; the chivalry of Lepanto and the poetry of La Mancha, light, tender, generous and ardent”.[6]

We still have a vivid account of what moved Campion and set him on his course against the spiritual current of this time. It is a declaration written in 1580, known to his allies as the “Challenge to the Privy Council” and as “Campion’s Brag” to his enemies. It is the remarkable testimony of a fugitive, expecting capture and summary execution at the hands of his enemies without having had the chance to plead his case. “[I]t was composed in great haste, when the saddle bags were already packed and the horses waiting to take Campion on his journey […] the work of half an hour”.[7]

Towards the end of the Brag we find words that still radiate the ardor of an intransigent champion of Truth:

“And touching our Societie [of Jesus], be it known to you that we have made a league […] cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored.”

Today the battle is fought on another ground and against another enemy. The fight is against what then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) called the “Dictatorship of Relativism, which recognizes nothing as final and which, as the ultimate measure, only admits the self and its desires”.[8]

When man is the measure of Man the inevitable result is emptiness. But, happily, not always despair. For there remains the lure of the fisherman’s well-dressed hook: Truth, capturing those with the grace to see it. As with the fisherman’s lure, the hook, paradoxically, goes unseen, or rather, lies beneath. It may take a poet to explain that:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.[9]


Gerard Kreijen, Ph.D., practices law in The Netherlands, where he is also a  Lecturer in the Leiden University Law School. Currently, he is teaching Aristotle’s Ethics.

[1] Evelyn Waugh as quoted by Joseph Pearce, ‘Evelyn Waugh: Ultramodern to Ultramontane’, Lay Witness Magazine, May 2001 Issue, pp 54-55 at 54.

[2] Ibid., p. 55.

[3] George Orwell in his notes for an unpublished review of Brideshead Revisited as quoted by Christopher Hitchins, ‘The Permanent Adolescent’ in The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003.

[4] See Pearce, above n. 1, p. 55.

[5] Waugh in a memorandum to MGM Studio’s when a film version of Brideshead Revisted was considered. Quoted by Pearce, above n. 1, p. 55.

[6] Waugh, Edmund Campion, p. 114.

[7] Ibid., p. 124.

[8] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, sermon of the Dean of the College of Cardinals at the opening of the Conclave, 18 May 2005. Translation from the German by the author.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954.


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