‘the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric’

He [i.e., Lactantius] delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences*, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.

–Evelyn Waugh, Helena (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), Nook edition, chap. 6, p. 8.


*It is interesting to note that Waugh took some classes in carpentry before his literary career began in earnest†, and that, toward the end of that career, he answered an interviewer’s question about his motive for being a writer by saying, ‘It’s just my trade.’


† From a piece originally published in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, March 1937:

My next plan was to be a carpenter, and for a winter I went regularly to classes in a government polytechnic. Those were delightful days, under the tuition of a brilliant and completely speechless little cabinet-maker who could explain nothing and demonstrate everything. To see him cutting concealed dovetails gave me the thrill which, I suppose, others get from seeing their favourite batsman at the wicket or bull fighter in the ring. It was a charming class too. There was one young woman who, during the whole time I was there, was engaged in sawing longways an immense log of teak. She worked and worked at it hour by hour and had cut about a yard when I left. I often wonder if she is still at it. There were two Egyptians who did veneering of exquisite skill and the most atrocious designs conceivable. I never got as far as veneering curved surfaces, but I made an indestructible mahogany bed-table, which I gave to my father, and which survived the fire.

It soon became apparent, however, that it would be many years before I should qualify for a wage, and then for a few shillings a week. That did not worry me, but I had an inclination to get married, so I looked for more remunerative work. […]

Dickens held it against his parents that they tried to force him into a blacking factory instead of letting him write. The last firm at which I solicited a job was engaged, among other things, in the manufacture of blacking. I pleaded desperately. If I wasn’t employed there I should be driven to Literature. But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me. I had better make up my mind and settle down to the humble rut which fate had ordained for me. I must write a book.

The value of writing books is that it gives one a market for articles. So here I am, pen poised indecisively over the foolscap, earning my living.

But I am not utterly enslaved. I still have dreams of shaking off the chains of creative endeavour. Rimbaud got away from it and became a gun runner. Vanbrugh gave up writing plays to build the most lovely houses in England. Disraeli and A. P. Herbert went into politics and did themselves proud. John Buchan is lording it in Quebec. Boulestin took to cooking. Perhaps there is a chance of freedom.

–Evelyn Waugh, ‘General Conversation: Myself . . .’, collected in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), 28-29.


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Because being a slave to literature means being a whore for fame as well.

    No need to worry about that around here …

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      Yes, we seem to enjoy the protection of some pretty high-grade fame-retardant hereabouts.

      If Virgil is right, that’s probably a good thing.

      From Dryden’s translation of Aeneid IV:

      Fame, the great ill, from small beginnings grows:
      Swift from the first; and ev’ry moment brings
      New vigor to her flights, new pinions to her wings.
      Soon grows the pigmy to gigantic size;
      Her feet on earth, her forehead in the skies.
      Inrag’d against the gods, revengeful Earth
      Produc’d her last of the Titanian birth.
      Swift is her walk, more swift her winged haste:
      A monstrous phantom, horrible and vast.
      As many plumes as raise her lofty flight,
      So many piercing eyes inlarge her sight;
      Millions of opening mouths to Fame belong,
      And ev’ry mouth is furnish’d with a tongue,
      And round with list’ning ears the flying plague is hung.
      She fills the peaceful universe with cries;
      No slumbers ever close her wakeful eyes;
      By day, from lofty tow’rs her head she shews,
      And spreads thro’ trembling crowds disastrous news;
      With court informers haunts, and royal spies;
      Things done relates, not done she feigns, and mingles truth with lies.

      Talk is her business, and her chief delight
      To tell of prodigies and cause affright.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Possibly of related interest:


    I love not writing books.

    I think it might be what I want to do when I grow up. But other than writing, I am completely unemployable.

    My editor Jake Morrissey and I were completely done with Small Victories in early August. That was the part I love–final drafts, a trusted partner to help me bring the work up to its highest potential, and to bust me gently when I’m trying to shoe-horn in a funny line or to pull a fast one on my readers by trying to be dazzling, literarily pyrotechnic, or super New York ironic.

    Then the nightmare begins. Nothing happens for months, except for a ticker tape of mental illness and self aggrandizement and self-loathing. I’ve heard sober people over the years say that getting into a new relationship is like pouring Miracle-Gro on your character defects, and the same holds true for publication. The whole time beforehand, the poor writer obsesses about whether the NY Times, Washington Post and Terry Gross and NPR will deign to mention the book, or if you will be neglected by the people you used to give the power to determine your worth as human. And with whom you may still have tiny tiny unresolved feelings of neediness and desperation, hardly worth mentioning.

    God, it just starts to argue a wasted life, caring what these lofty sites think of you and your life’s work, when their approval or neglect has destroyed some of the people you love and admire most. Some of the writers you absolutely love best, who have been part of the Pit Crew that saved you, have been destroyed by the vagaries of these sites–have been institutionalized after great acclaim here, and then being trashed the next time. Think Bill Wilson, whose alcoholism had destroyed his life, wife, his health, his EVERYTHING, still just wanting one more drink. That who we writers and artists become with critics. It’s the most psycho toxic thing a writer does. It deep hurts your soul, your heart, and these are who you are.

    I don’t want to do it anymore.

    Some of the most degraded, insane people, who have destroyed the most women and children, are the writers you love best. I am not going to name names, and I only dated two of them.

    It’s 1000 times worse than being addicted to the bathroom scale, which as I have said before, is like giving Dick Cheney the power to make or break your sense of value and self-esteem and purpose. Maybe the NY Times loved this one book you wrote (for the record, none of my 16 books have warranted a daily NY Times review.) (Not that this has ever made me feel inadequate; and bitter. Hah hah hah, nothing could be further from the truth.)
    But maybe theTimes of Ms Gross don’t love this new one, and they say–if you read between the lines–it is a total piece of shit and you have squandered your life thinking you could write.

    When Small Victories came out, stories about forgiveness and spotting improbably movements of grace, I didn’t get the aforementioned big ticket items. But I got the real deal. I got one of the few publishing houses that publishes serious work to put its full weight behind me. I got you. I got our cousins at Twitter. A few friends went to great distances to help get the word out to the public. I pretty much danced as fast as I could to help get the word out via smaller interviews. And the book has done great–beyond my wildest dreams.
    But within a week of Small Victories hitting the NY times bestseller list, which is the golden calf of publication, for which we writers perform baby goat sacrifices, people started asking, What are you going to do next?

    Well. See, that’s the thing. What I want to do is write for free, write for you, write for me, be a part of trying to save the world for my son and grandson and my Sunday School kids. I can do this at Facebook, and would like to–walk away from the world of New York publishing, while remaining close to my agent and editor and the people at Riverhead Books, whom I adore. I have written and published 16 books, told you everything I know so far about God, Grace, families, truth, our souls, our healing, coming through, how we become resurrection stories; and writing. I have mentioned Shitty First drafts thousands of times, and that laughter is carbonated holiness. It’s all already on paper.

    People who love me are trying to think of a book that I could write next, that would also do well with the public and make money. I was trying to think of a new book, too–but then I had a moment of clarity, and knew I would only be doing it for the money, and because I struggle with an addiction to people-pleasing. And I was raised to believe my self-worth depended on pleasing and impressing people in power positions. But that was then.
    Now I want to write at Facebook, and maybe be of that kind of service in the world. I want to work on union with God, with Goodness, with loving Energy. I want to help raise my grandchild, and yours, and be a kind a kind of goofy birth coach and listener. I want to help us keep our heads above above water, in these devastating times, both in the world, and in our little galaxies. I don’t give a shit what Michiko Kakutani thinks about my work. Of course I somehow need to make a living, but maybe God, the Cosmic Muffin, will come up something. God always makes a way out of no-way.

    I’m not saying I’ll never write another book. I’m just saying I don’t know what I’m doing right now, except writing for you here, and wanting to be of service in the world–partly because God tells me too, and partly because it is the only way to fill up. If we want to have loving feelings, we need to do loving things. So could we all pick up litter today, even though there will be more tomorrow, and take care of the most vulnerable people we know and meet–the poor, the elderly, kids, ourselves. And maybe not know what else we are doing–together?

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