Minne’s Diner is a fantastic breakfast joint in Rogers, Minnesota. Right off I-94, the place reminds one of so many other classic breakfast places in the big city–only the hours are different, i.e., this place actually has a closing time. It was here, last Thursday, that I and some colleagues gathered for breakfast and Evelyn Waugh’s short story, “Out of Depth.” We, as a faculty, come together monthly for some real intellectual discussion and sideline, for a time, the day-to-day and logistical aspects of teaching high school students. While others may derive some benefit from the latest educationist’s theory–theories that G.K. Chesterton remarked are younger than our charges–we take a different approach. In order to convey true, good, and beautiful things, we must be exposed to and immerse ourselves in them. This, of course, does not mean closing our eyes to modern realities, rather it is a decision to be defiantly indifferent to what the “Joneses of the educational establishment” are doing and do what we know will help to cultivate our own souls so that we may therefore assist parents in cultivating the souls of their children. So it was, over a plate of eggs, ham, hash browns and fried onions, with a side of rye bread (that looked more like pumpernickel) and an endless cup of coffee that I and my colleagues poured over this little known of Waugh’s short stories.
Written in 1933 for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, this little short story has been described as “bizarre” by some of those who are working to compile the Collected Works of Evelyn Waugh. Indeed, these scholars, a great group doing the English-speaking world an excellent service were correct. This is a bizarre tale and, truth be told, my colleagues and I were attempting to tease out the point between the sips of coffee and the eggs. The story begins with Rip, a middle-aged, truly modern man who is obviously rootless, but nonetheless “living a contented life between New York and the more American parts of Europe.” Rip is a man who was “wealthy and in good health” and “none of his women [the married ones that we know of that he had seduced] had ever borne him ill-will (and what better sign of good character was there than that?).” Rip was also brought up a Catholic.
In the opening scene of the story he is enjoying a party thrown by one of his old acquaintances Lady Metroland, the 1930s equivalent to one of the “Real Housewives of [fill in the blank].” Yet, Rip’s enjoyment is tempered by his awareness of a new and unexpected guest, Dr. Kakophilos. Not someone in the regular parade of guests at these social occasions, there is something sinister in the presence of Dr. Kakophilos whose strange credo is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” As his name suggests, he traffics in the dark arts and speaks strange things. As the party progresses, so too does Rip’s drinking. In the end, he, and a similarly situated companion, end up giving Dr. Kakophilos a ride to his Bloomsbury flat. (Bloomsbury, you will recall, was the place where the avant-garde, Bohemian, and literati of England held court; not unlike Greenwich Village in NYC. One wonders whether Waugh’s situation of Dr. Kakophilos in Bloomsbury was a commentary on its real inhabitants.). While in the flat, an incantation of sorts is made by Dr. Kakophilos in deadly earnest, while the two drunkards laugh uncontrollably at his costume. The incantation has the effect of transporting Rip–after a collision with a mail van–500 years into the future.
Upon waking up, Mr. Van Winkle recognizes the familiar sights of London, but now overgrown with years of dilapidation and neglect. It is a primitive society, inhabited by mud flats, canoes, and “fair-haired” and “fair-skinned” people who were “shaggy” and “moved with the loping gait of savages.” Along with the white savages are uniformed black-Africans. They seem to be colonizers or at least military guards in a trade route that used to be civilized England. He is trapped in this nightmare and time ceased to have any reality for him as he was under care of the guards and traveled with them down the Thames in their boat. Suddenly, Rip sees something “that was new, yet ageless:”
The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar…and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him disheveled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned, The priest turned towards them his bland, black face. “Ite, missa est.”
At the end of the tale, Rip finally wakes up several days after the accident with the mail truck–back in his own time. A priest is present and Rip says: “Father…I want to make a confession…I have experimented in black art…”
While many themes are present in this short story, I thought it fortuitous that our faculty considered this at the same time that Synod for the Family was concluding in Rome. Great controversy erupted over the theological posture and proposals of the consistently avantgarde Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, so much so that it has pitted Cardinal against Cardinal, bishop against bishop, and even calling into question the position of the pope himself. Indeed, Cardinal Kasper himself courted even more controversy when he suggested that the African bishops should “not tell us [Western Europeans and Americans, presumably] too much what we have to do.” Kasper, later denied this, but journalist Edward Pentin put the recording of the exchange online. Over and against the now well-known Kasper proposals, are the traditional understandings of Catholic morality and doctrine and pastoral practice in harmony with this doctrine. A harmony that the African Cardinals and bishops seem to see but, amidst the chaos of the West, many of the bishops from the Western European nations and even America do not.
I think Waugh’s story is an appropriate lens through which to see the current situation. First of all, the person of Rip is not unlike many of the cradle Catholics in our day–they have neglected their faith for a life on the surface of things. “Out of Depth” first of all refers to the ephemeral nature of Rip’s living–middle-aged with no commitment to a wife (or even priesthood or other vocation), living only for himself, having no regard for others (or others’ marriages), living a life of luxury and seeking nothing other than this-worldly pleasures. In sum, “doing what he wills is the whole of his law.” Secondly, as a type of the decadent living devoid of objective and spiritual values to which Western Man has fallen, Rip encounters the natural result of such living–a new barbarism. The England of his five-hundred year sojourn into the future is one where indiscernible grunts and living is only for the satisfaction of physical desires. Yet, amidst Rip’s nightmare, something still remained. The encounter of the Mass, the African missionary priest in a simple chapel, showed Rip that there was something that was unchanged amidst the loss of the civilization he encountered. The unchanging faith of the Church–sped on and preserved by the Prime Mover among the peoples he chooses–would last through all the trials and travesties of time. Indeed, the Church herself and her timeless teaching is the one thing that will survive the ages, because her soul is that of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Rip, upon finally waking and seeing the priest at his bedside asks for a confession, his own personal De profundis–for “experimenting in black art,” i.e., his own life of dissolution and its effects on the persons around him and its own contribution to the dimunition of culture.
There seems to have been a lot of “experimenting in black art” lately or proposals to excuse those that have. Perhaps, it will be a simple African priest who will restore the world–like Rip–and some in the Church to their senses. Perhaps even in the precincts of St. Peter’s itself, in the not too distant future, we will see the word “Mission” painted on a rough-hewn board–for it was several rough-hewn boards two-thousand years ago afixed together, that brought us out of the depths.
This article, Out of Depth is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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About John M. DeJak
John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.