5 March 1938: Evelyn Waugh on the word "Fascist"

From our correspondence.

St James’ Club, Piccadilly, W1
5 March 1938

SIR,—I am moved to write to you on a subject that has long been in my mind, by an anecdote I have just heard.

A friend of mine met someone who—I am sure, both you and he himself would readily admit—represents the highest strata of “Left Wing” culture. The conversation turned on the “May-fair” jewel robbers and the Socialist remarked that they exhibited “typical Fascist mentality.” This seems to me an abuse of vocabulary so mischievous and so common, that it is worth discussing.

There was a time in the early twenties when the word “Bolshie” was current, it was used indiscriminately of refractory school children, employees who asked for a rise in wages, impertinent domestic servants, those who advocated an extension of the rights of property to the poor, and anything or anyone of whom the speaker disapproved. The only result was to impede reasonable discussion and clear thought.

I believe we are in danger of a similar, stultifying use of the word “Fascist.” There was recently a petition sent to English writers (by a committee few, if any of whom, were English professional writers), asking them to subscribe themselves, categorically, as supporters of the Republican Party in Spain, or as “Fascists.” When rioters are imprisoned it is described as a “Fascist sentence”; the Means Test is Fascist; colonisation is Fascist; military discipline is Fascist; patriotism is Fascist; Catholicism is Fascist; Buchmanism is Fascist; the ancient Japanese cult of their Emperor is Fascist; the Galla tribes’ ancient detestation of theirs is Fascist; fox-hunting is Fascist … Is it too late to call for order?

It is constantly said by those who observed the growth of Nazism, Fascism, and other dictatorial systems (not, perhaps, excluding USSR) that they were engendered and nourished solely by Communism. I do not know how true that is, but I am inclined to believe it when I observe the pitiable stampede of the “Left Wing Intellectuals” in our own country. Only once was there anything like a Fascist movement in England; that was in 1926 when the middle class took over the public services; it now does not exist at all except as a form of anti-Semitism in the slums. Those of us who can afford to think without proclaiming ourselves “intellectuals,” do not want or expect a Fascist regime. But there is a highly nervous and highly vocal party who are busy creating a bogy; if they persist in throwing the epithet about it may begin to stick. They may one day find that there is a Fascist party which they have provoked. They will, of course, be the chief losers, but it is because I believe we shall all lose by such a development that I am addressing this through your columns.

Evelyn Waugh

[Mr Waugh is very enigmatic about the author of the remark to which he objects, but a similar comment was made to us by a friend who based his opinion not upon political bias but upon a conversation he had had with two of the guilty men. Moreover, anyone who, like Mr Waugh, has studied the growth of Fascism and Nazism, knows that among the most active champions of these movements were a number of young men with tastes which a repugnance or disability for work prevented them from gratifying. These, too, did not stop short of either brutal assaults or common dishonesty in their efforts to improve their position, and they can now be seen alike in Italy and in Germany enjoying the agreeable sinecures which their violence has earned. We do not suggest that the mentality of the Mayfair gangsters is that of all Fascists, but it is a historical fact that Fascism attracted men with just such a mentality and just such an economic position. Finally it will not have escaped Mr Waugh's attention that at least one of the guilty men had been active in selling arms to General Franco. We agree, however, that to call fox-hunting “Fascist” is a gross abuse of language.—Ed. New Statesman and Nation]

An anti-fascist protester outside the Cambridge Union. Photograph: Getty Images.

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KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism