Maurice Baring’s autobiography The Puppet Show of Memory is my favorite book. Of course there are many books that are greater— more profound or illuminating, finer achievements of literary craft; but The Puppet Show of Memory is my favorite (abstracting here of course from the books of Sacred Scripture and others that I read for lectio divina). But why do I love The Puppet Show of Memory so much? St. Thomas teaches us that love is a conformity of the heart to its object, and that its causes are goodness, knowledge, likeness, and (per accidens) passions of the soul that arise from some other love. As far as its goodness goes, I have already admitted that there are better books, so its goodness cannot be the reason why I love it more than other books. Nor can I say that I know it better. Do I find some likeness or affinity between my own soul and Baring’s? I wish. And what other passions of the soul might per accidens cause a love of Maurice Baring? Oh dear.
Of course, it is a very good book, even if it isn’t in every respect the best. It is the memoir of a truly lovable man who had a wonderful power for appreciating beauty and nobility. Evelyn Waugh said of Baring’s novel C that it was one cliché after another and that this was “the curse of the polyglot.” In a way the criticism would be even more apt if applied to The Puppet Show, but I think that my defense of C is also even stronger when applied to Puppet Show. Baring did not lazily use other people’s expressions— rather he used expressions that he found to be good expressions of realities that he really deeply felt. Compared to the cynical Waugh there is something embarrassingly sincere about Baring. I remember once when we were reading Racine’s Phèdre in college, I read his extravagant praise of Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in that role to one of my classmates, and she rolled her eyes and said: Jeez la weez! One might apply Maria Bustillos’s term dorkismo to Baring, except that it seems unfitting to use such an ugly word for such nobility of soul. The things that he loved were truly beautiful and noble things.
His lack of cynicism and his unabashed adoption of the clichéd views of beauty and nobility make Baring deeply out step with his age. He was more appreciated in France than in England, and it sometimes said (I think Joseph Pearce says this in Literary Converts) that it is because his novels are all concerned with a subtle depiction of the workings of grace in human life. I’m not sure about that. It does seem to me that The Puppet Show of Memory is in some ways a reaction to the poisonous cynicism into which the First World War led European intellectuals— the generation of whom Alasdair MacIntyre writes,
who watched their own earlier ethical principles die along with the deaths of their friends in the trenches in the mass murder of Ypres and the Somme; and who returned determined that nothing was ever going to matter to them again and invented the aesthetic triviality of the nineteen- twenties.
Baring’s book is (perhaps not entirely consciously) a deeply felt rejection of that triviality. Things do matter, Baring tells us; beauty and goodness are realities, not false pretense or ideological superstructure. The culture of Europe was not a mere parade and therefore (pace Ford Maddox Ford’s interminable novels) there ought not to be a Parade’s End. I do not think that he wrote his book to prove a point (I certainly didn’t even notice that point the first time that I read it), but the book is about the beauty and nobility and joy and sadness of human life. It is a defense of the nobility of poetry and art and theatre and friendship and festivity, and (frankly) of war.
Baring had a deeply Christian soul, but there is something faintly pagan about his attitude towards war. Consider the following passage from the part of The Puppet Show where he is recalling his time as war correspondent in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War:
I thought of all the heroes of the past, from the Trojan War onward, and of the words which those who have not fought their country’s battles, but made their country’s songs, have said about these men and their deeds, and I asked myself, Is that all true? Is it true that these things become like the shining pattern on a glorious banner, the captain jewels of a great crown, which is the richest heirloom of nations? Or is all this an illusion? Is war an abominable return to barbarism, the emancipation of the beast in man, the riot of all that is bad, brutal, and hideous; the suspension and destruction of civilisation by its very means and engines; and are those songs and those words which stir our blood merely the dreams of those who have been resolutely secluded from the horrible reality? And then I thought of the sublime courage of Colonel Philemonov, and of the thousands of unknown men who had fought that day in the kowliang, without the remotest notion of the why and wherefore, and I thought that war is to man what motherhood is to woman a burden, a source of untold suffering, and yet a glory.
Baring’s war poetry is the very antithesis of Wilfrid Owen’s, and is probably another reason why he has been “forgotten”. He did not think dulce et decorum est to be a lie. To his fallen friend Auberon Herbert, Baring writes:
And on that day, you cast your heart’s desire
Upon a burning pyre;
You gave your service to the exalted need,
Until at last from bondage freed,
At liberty to serve as you loved best,
You chose the noblest way. God did the rest.
To Baring the Great War was not useless slaughter, but noble sacrifice. His remarkable memoir of the war years, R.F.C., H.Q.: 1914-1918, is much different from The Puppet Show, consisting mostly of excerpts from his diaries and letters, but it is no less important for understanding him. It is not as delightful, but it is at times brilliantly funny (much funnier than anything else he wrote (except maybe Xantippe and Socrates)), and at times deeply sad. His tender heart was deeply alive to the sadness and the suffering around him. Much more alive than Owen’s, I would say. His sensibility to suffering is brilliantly expressed in some of the simplest passages of R.F.C., H.Q. For example:
In the same hospital I saw a small child, who had been wounded by a bomb, being bandaged. She was holding a wooden sheep, and was very brave.
But he was really convinced that it was all worthwhile. Of the untimely death of Raymond Asquith, perhaps the most brilliant of brilliant generation, he writes:
On the 17th, while I was showing a party of Russians round the Aerodrome, someone casually told me that Raymond Asquith had been killed. “Eἶπέ τις Ἡράκλειτε τεὸν μόρον.” What a waste people said, when they thought of his brilliant brain, his radiant wit, his mastery of language, his solid scholarship, and all his rare gifts. But it wasn’t a waste, and never for one moment did I think so. Raymond’s service at the front was the crown and purpose of his life. A purpose fulfilled to a noble close. He loved being in the Army as much as he had hated being at the Bar. He went on with his life in the Army where he had left it off at Oxford, and he died in a second miraculous spring; and by being in the Army and being what he was, and doing what he did, in the way he did it, he made it a little easier for us to win the war.
But why was it so important for England to win the war? One searches R.F.C., H.Q. in vain for an answer. Unlike his friends Belloc and Chesterton, who not only wrote appalling war-propaganda but also seemed to believe it, Baring doesn’t seem to have had any illusions about the evils of the enemy. Before going to the front, he expresses something mild in that direction, but immediately accepts Conrad Russell’s (yes that Conrad Russell’s) rebuke:
“We must be careful of one thing,” I said. “Not to be made prisoners, for in that case the Germans will kick us on the head.” “How can you,” he answered, “you, who know the Germans well and have lived in Germany, talk such rubbish?”
Baring did indeed know and love the Germans well. What did he think England’s victory would gain? It is something of a mystery. World War I was in a real sense the end of so much that he loved. The sweeping away of the last vestiges of Christian Europe and the final victory of the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” that Edmund Burke had lamented over a century earlier. And yet Baring did not see this. For him the war was the renewal of the age of chivalry. Consider his description of going to Mass near the Western Front:
On October 25th, St. Crispin’s day, the anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, I went to Mass in the cathedral at St. Omer. One could not help thinking that Henry V had heard those very same words spoken in the very same way just before the battle of Agincourt. That battlefield was not an hour’s drive from St. Omer. Now, in the cathedral, French and English soldiers were praying for victory against a common foe.
Indeed, in a description of General de Castelnau Baring explicitly states that Burke would have torn up his famous lament had he been able to see de Castelnau:
General de Castelnau’s name and exploits need no comment. They will be written, and are already written in gold, in the history of France, and in the Gesta Dei per Francos, as the victor of the Grand Couronné and the restorer of the situation at Verdun. But it is perhaps permissible to say a word or two about his personality. He seemed to belong to a nobler epoch than ours, to be a native of the age of chivalry, of that time when Louis IX, who is known as Saint Louis, dispensed justice under a spreading oak-tree. He had the easy familiarity, the slight play of kindly irony, the little ripple of humour, the keen glance, the foresight and forethought, that politesse du coeur, that complete remoteness from what is common, mean, base, self- seeking, which are the foundation and substance of God’s gentlemen. His white hair, his keen eyes, his features, which looked as if they had been cut by a master-hand out of a fine block of granite, radiated goodness and courage and cheerfulness, a salt-like sense, and a twinkling humour. And his smile went straight to your heart, and made you feel at home, comfortable, easy and happy. When one had luncheon with him and the orderly said luncheon was ready he used to say : “A cheval, Messieurs,” and throughout his conversation there was always a rippling current of good-humoured, delicate and keen chaff. To hear him talk was like reading, was to breathe the atmosphere in which classic French was born, racy, natural, idiomatic, and utterly free from anything shoddy, artificial or pretentious. He was salt of the earth, and one felt that if Burke had met him he would have torn up his dirge on the death of the Age of Chivalry, for there it was alive and enjoying life and making others enjoy it.
Perhaps certain things are most visible when the are on the wane; die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug, and all that sort of thing. Baring’s soul was bathed in the last beams setting sun, but it surely curious that he did not see that the victory for which he was fighting hastened the coming of the dark.
In any case, as Laura Ingels Wilder says, “there is no great loss without some small gain.” World War I was a very great loss indeed. But one small gain that it brought was the particular pathos that it gave to the work of Maurice Baring. What Baring says of de Castelnau could probably be said with more truth of himself. Or better yet, his description B.K., one of his fellow English officers:
He was the most completely unselfish man I have ever met: a compound of loyalty and generosity and a gay and keen interest in everything life has to offer. Not long ago I heard a little boy of eight years old asked if he knew what the word gentleman meant. He said, “Yes, of course.” On being pressed for a definition he said: “A gentleman is a man who loves God very much and has beautiful manners.” This definition exactly fitted B.K.
Judging both from his own works and from the remembrances of those who knew him, that definition also fitted Maurice Baring.