Her mind was quite free from anxiety. Somehow, somewhere in the blank black hours she had found counsel; she had communed perhaps with the spirits of her ancestors, the impious and haunted race who had deserted the altars of the old Gods, had taken ship and wandered, driven by what pursuing furies through what mean streets and among what barbarous tongues! Her father had frequented the Four Square Gospel Temple; her mother drank. Attic voices prompted Aimée to a higher destiny; voices which far away and in another age had sung of the Minotaur, stamping far underground at the end of the passage; which spoke to her more sweetly of the still Boeotian water-front, the armed men all silent in the windless morning, the fleet motionless at anchor, and Agamemnon turning away his eyes; spoke of Alcestis and proud Antigone.
One can compare this passage from The Loved One (1948) with the earlier passage from Decline and Fall (1928). The commentary on Captain Grimes was clearly ironic and humorous. This entry into the consciousness of Aimée Thanatogenos is more mixed in tone, even though the novel is a humorous one. She is a pseudo-tragic figure, caught romantically between two seriously defective men. The passage above occurs after she has come to grips with the emptiness of both men, and it continues,
The East lightened. In all the diurnal revolution these first fresh hours alone are untainted by man. They lie late abed in that region. In exaltation Aimée watched the countless statues glimmer, whiten and take shape while the lawns changed from silver and gray to green. She was touched by warmth. Then suddenly all round her and as far as she could see the slopes became a dancing surface of light, of millions of minute rainbows and spots of fire; in the control house the man on duty had turned the irrigation cock and water was flooding through the network of pierced and buried pipes. At the same time parties of gardeners with barrows and tools emerged and tramped to their various duties. It was full day. (TLO 131-2)
Just prior to this, Aimée had sought the advice of the recently unemployed advice columnist Mr. Slump concerning her romantic troubles. He kindly tells her to “Find a nice window and jump out” (130). Considering the despairing undertones of the scene, and Waugh’s brutal sense of humor, I am inclined to call this passage ironic, although maybe not obviously funny. She does, after all, make the columnist’s advice her own.
Still, there is something absurd about portraying suicide as a noble act. One can see glimpses of nobility in Cato and even Dido, but for Ms. Thanatogenos to end herself over the troubles with Dennis Barlow and Mr. Joyboy? It hardly seems worth the effort, much less a part of a “higher destiny.” Perhaps this is not an epiphany but an apophany, a mistaken recognition of patterns in actual chaos.
By the time she walks into Mr. Joyboy’s workroom to find a hypodermic syringe, she has put the men entirely from her mind, and raised the matter to something exclusively “between herself and the deity she served” (133). Is this still meant to be ironic, or is Aimée now communing with the ghosts of Greek deities, or the devils who take their shapes? It is hard to laugh at this passage, in spite of the absurdity of her dilemma, the absurdity of her surroundings, and the absurdity of her actions. One could posit that Ms. Thanatogenos finally reaches a moment of transcendence above the ridiculous setting of glamorous American consumerism and image-worship, brushes her fingers against the wings of something Real, and decides that there’s only one way never to descend back into banality.
Leave it to Waugh to juxtapose life and death, tragedy and comedy, nobility and commonness, all together in one act.