Vernon Lee’s ‘Satan the Waster’: Pacifism and the Avant-Garde


Detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Vernon Lee, 1881 / Wikimedia Commons

Part essay collection, part shadow-play, part macabre ballet, Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy (1920) is one of Vernon Lee’s most political and experimental works. Amanda Gagel explores this modernist masterpiece which lays siege to the patriotism plaguing Europe and offers a vision for its possible pacifist future.


By Dr. Amanda Gagel
Associate Editor
National Association for Olmstead Parks


When all the nations shall welter in the pollution of warfare, this child’s eyes shall remain clear from its fratricide fumes; she shall drink deep of sorrow, but recognize and put away from her lips the sweetened and consecrated cup of hatred.1

So spoke a fairy bestowing a gift upon an infant Vernon Lee in a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1915. The tale, resembling that of Sleeping Beauty, describes a group of fairies attending Lee’s christening. Each is the personification of a country from which Lee can trace her lineage and upbringing (England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Poland), and each gives her a gift from their culture. Although most are good fairies, one is evil (we are not told which country this fairy represents) and condemns Lee to a life in which she will never fully belong to one nation over another. However, one of the good fairies has yet to give her a gift; she lessens the severity of the curse by issuing the blessing above. In a neat nine paragraphs, Lee gives a synopsis of her multi-national identity and declares that this status keeps her free from being engulfed by the “fratricide fumes” of World War I.

Europeans succumbing to a war mentality and mutual animosity was due, Lee felt, to emotions associated with patriotism, nationalism, heroism, personal honour, and self-interest that made it impossible for them to see any way out of international conflicts short of armed warfare. Aside from the obvious causes of World War I (the armament build-up, secret diplomacy, disagreement over Alsace-Lorraine), Lee found that the monumental task for Europeans, if they wanted to avoid another world war, was to change not just policy but their way of thinking about the makeup of Europe, its citizenry, and their own national biases. These ideas found expression in two highly original works, Satan the Waster (1920) and its precursor The Ballet of Nations (1915). In these experimental dramas Lee demonstrates her distinct ability to bring together nineteenth-century philosophical trends, her own brand of aesthetic analyses, and her opinions on modern scientific innovation and religious ideology in order to promote pacifism.2

Cover to Vernon Lee’s The Ballet of the Nations (1915), illustrated by Maxwell Armfield / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lee was visiting England when war was declared and was unable to return to her home, Il Palmerino, a villa outside Florence, until 1919. During those years she tried to mitigate the pro-war sentiments of her fellow Brits, and her letters and articles show that she was unwilling to compromise her beliefs in order to maintain what were long-standing friendships with those supportive of the war. She produced a flurry of polemical writings, mostly as articles and letters-to-the-editor in the Nation and the Labour Leader and in pamphlets for the Union of Democratic Control, of which she was one of the earliest members. Satan the Waster is, however, the most comprehensive, creative, and compelling of all her wartime writing. It is a remarkable work and a truly modern amalgamation of texts: a shadow play in prose (intended to be read aloud and not performed), philosophical essays, and a personal memoir in which Lee investigates her innate psychology as a self-described “neutral”. Lee spends pages explaining how she has attempted to empathize (empathy and emotive understanding are central tenets in Lee’s analytical process) with her pro-war friends and insists that she understands why she disgusts them. Nevertheless, she holds fast that she is able to see what they cannot, and the writing of her play was her way of communicating her vision.

Lee wrote Satan the Waster over the course of six years, from 1914 to 1920. The central action, the “Ballet of Nations”, was published in 1915 with illustrations by painter, illustrator, and decorative artist Maxwell Armfield (1881-1972). One could consider this an early draft of Satan.3 Armfield and his wife and collaborator Constance Smedley had met Lee a number of times in Florence over the years and renewed their acquaintance with her in London in 1914.4Armfield and Smedley were very much involved in avant-garde theatre productions in London. They were also dedicated pacifists, and they invited Lee to give a reading of the Ballet of Nations at their studio in 1915, one of the few “performances” of the piece. A second one occurred soon after at the Margaret Morris theatre and publishers attended. Upon hearing it, Chatto and Windus offered to publish it accompanied by Armfield’s “pictorial commentary”, as he termed it.

Lee and Armfield may have appeared to be ideal partners, as they held in common the idea of a unified synthesis of the arts, but Armfield’s aesthetic method in theatre production was a strict adherence to symbolism. “Art is only valuable as a symbolic language”, he’d write, “and the nearer it approaches nature, i.e., the imitation of life, the less vivid does it become as a language.”5This argument against realism was a way to disassociate from the political and social chaos of the time, using a symbolic language that could be a unifying, idealistic artistic force. His illustrations, therefore, do not depict Lee’s play but provide symbolic renderings of some of the major players and archetypes. The result is Lee’s aggressive and, at points, violent text being paired with Armfield’s passive, static drawings. It is dissonant and distracts the reader from the main narrative. Here, for example, is Armfield’s illustration on pages 13 and 14, to one of the more bloody passages in the play, when the dancers are “dancing themselves to stumps”. Instead of a realistic rendering, he uses symbolic designs of the dancers performing what art historian Grace Brockington terms an “elaborate body-movement script” in which gestures are used as a universal mode of communication.6

Pages 13 and 14 from Vernon Lee’s The Ballet of the Nations (1915), illustrated by Maxwell Armfield / Internet Archive
Detail from above

Soon after this publication, Lee began revising the Ballet to enlarge its scope. It came to more closely resemble the form of a play when she reshaped it as the nucleus of Satan the Waster, to which she added a Prologue (sometime after 1915), an Epilogue (a series of drafts written between 1915 and 1918), an Introduction (1919), and Notes to the Prologue and the Ballet (written at various points in 1918 and 1919). This discontinuous composition in itself speaks to how Lee found it difficult to make sense of the war as it progressed year upon year. The Introduction and the Notes, in part, focus on the subjective opinions of Lee, her friends, and the pro-war movement. Lee held fast to the theory that one’s emotions create his or her individual reality, a reality which is more meaningful than the so-called world of facts: “the logic of emotions which is more cogent, more irrefutable, than the logic of facts, for the excellent reason that facts are outside us and can be overlooked or distorted, whereas feeling being in us, being the dominant part of us, cannot.”7 One’s emotive response to any one of a number of events forever frames their responses to successive ones, which feeds into “war delusion” and the one-dimensional perspective that plagues most of Europe. All the nations end up participating in a circular experience of war delusion, fed by propaganda and traditional mores of honour and patriotism. This preoccupation with passion, emotions, and the memories of emotions that define multidimensional realities is a thread found overtly and metaphorically throughout Satan the Waster.8

In its initial 1914 composition and even more so in the 1920 revision, the Ballet is written in imitation of a medieval masque, a dramatic form which Lee had studied since her early career when she traced the origins and dramatic conventions of the Italian commedia dell’arte in Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880) and in Euphorion (1884). Generic characteristics of a masque consist of the actors playing mythical or allegorical figures and the central action being a dance or ballet. The dialogue was usually sparse and always of secondary importance to the music, scenery, mechanical effects, and the dance. Her reimagining of it as an anti-war drama in prose is groundbreaking given her focus on the color, movement, sound, and shape of the primary players and the minimalist scenery. The twentieth-century reader could only imagine what a medieval masque looked like based on centuries’ old descriptions. Similarly, while reading (not viewing) Lee’s play, the reader is forced to imagine the drama, just as one would a medieval masque.

In the Ballet, the warring nations participate in a macabre death or battle performance to an orchestra comprised of the Human Passions. Lee describes a visually stimulating tableau, with some scenes purposefully evocative of fine works of art. The Prologue opens with a description of Satan awaiting the beginning of the Ballet. “He is seated at one end of a long Empire sofa, very much in the pose of one of Michelangelo’s Medici Dukes, resting one arm on his knee and his chin on his hand, deep in weary and mysterious meditation.”9 Lee uses color, sound, and light to describe the eerie luminescence and seductiveness of Satan and his nephew Ballet Master Death. As the Ballet is about to begin: “The place, which, with the earthquake, had become suddenly dark, is lit by the sinister luminousness emanating from Satan’s archangelic person, until the whole is suffused with a strange and ominous light as if in a fog, in which near objects are oddly visible and others shade away in nothingness.”10 These imagined, though nonetheless arresting, sets make for a highly evocative modernist work that encourages the reader to experience this war drama as a deeply emotional experience.

Portrait of Vernon Lee, taken by André Noufflard (undated, but likely sometime after 1924) / ThesibyBlog

When the Prologue was added, so was the crucial character of Clio as interlocutor. Satan has invited her to be a kind of reporter and record the ballet performance for future generations. With Clio as a sounding board, Satan extemporizes on various theories of life, love, and war. Per the book’s title, Satan is the waster of human virtues, and he delights in spoiling the love that humans feel for each other, for art, for ideas, for all things. Lee frames the Ballet within a rhetorical framework of good vs evil, but not in a Judeo-Christian sense. War should not be understood under the traditional dichotomy of one righteous nation battling a degenerate opposing force. Rather, the evil is the impetus itself to go to war, and the good (a Platonic love for mankind, for beauty, and a decent moral life) is inherent in all the belligerents — they can resist the urge to engage in mass murder. Satan personifies evil, and he and Ballet Master Death use the players to demonstrate how easily people and nations can be misled by their virtues.

The Human Passions gather to form the orchestra before the performance. Satan points them out to Clio as they arrive: Vanity, Indignation, Hatred, Self-righteousness, Idealism, Adventure, Sin, Self-interest, Suspicion, and many more. Then, the new members, Science (a gramophone) and Organization (a miniature pianola), enter. They are Lee’s most overt indictment of the waste of human virtues, in that science and organization should be used toward universal peace and progress and not toward the manufacture of weapons and organized slaughter. The orchestra members come together to perform a symphony of Patriotism, the most essential participant being Heroism, “with limbs like a giant’s, blushes like a girl’s and eyes like a merry child’s, but which saw not” as he is blind.11 Lee intends that his voice is the only one to be heard if the play is ever recited: “ . . . none of the music must be audible, except the voice and drum of Heroism. Anything beyond this would necessarily be hideous, besides drowning or interrupting the dialogue.”12 Dancers moving to silence except for the sound of a monotonous drum and the lone high pitch of Heroism is indeed a terrifyingly eerie spectacle. Lee uses music, or in this case the idea of music, as a powerful tool of imagination and implication: this symbolic driving force of war is something that is so maddening that it cannot be heard. This aesthetic experience speaks to the power that Lee believed music holds. In her critical essays and especially in Music and Its Lovers (1933), Lee explains the acute responses that music effects in a listener, ones tied to our innermost psychology. Therefore, music as a force driving nations to war is one that necessarily cannot be heard by humanity, but only Satan. If humanity were exposed to the power of this music, the result would be utter chaos.

As the bleak dance progresses, the nations perform their own parts and are instructed to ignore the dissonance of the other parts. Some attempt variations of a pas de deux, but this cooperation never lasts. In all, the steps are increasingly imitative, then dissonant, improvised and then violent and aggressive, especially between the prominent protagonists in the war.

Yet dance they did, chopping and slashing, blinding each other with squirts of blood and pellets of human flesh. And as they appeared and disappeared in the moving wreaths of fiery smoke, they lost more and more of their original shape, becoming, in that fitful light, terrible uncertain forms, armless, legless, recognizable for human only by their irreproachable Heads . . . mere unspeakable hybrids between man and beast: they who had come on to that stage so erect and beautiful.13

The atmosphere of battle is mimicked on stage further by the addition of smoke and small explosions that the dancers must maneuver around. Lee describes the stage, as she did in earlier scenes, in terms of a painting, this time one that morphs in front of the viewer.

For whereas the Ballet had begun with the tender radiance of an August sunset above half-harvested fields … the progress of the performance had seen the deep summer starlit vault flushed by the flare of distant burning farms, and its blue solemnity rent by the fitful track of rockets, and the luminous fans of searchlights and the Roman candles and Catherine-wheels of far-off explosions. Until, little by little, the heavens, painted such a peaceful blue, were blotted out by masses of flame-lit smoke and poisonous vapours, rising and sinking, coming forward and receding like a stifling fog, but ever growing denser and more rent by dreadful leaping fires, and swaying obedient to Death’s bâton no less than did the bleeding Nations of his Corps de Ballet. In and out of that lurid chasm they moved, by twos or threes; now lost to view in the billows of fiery darkness, now issuing thence toward the Ballet Master’s desk, or suddenly revealed, clasped in terrific embrace, by the leaping flame of an exploding magazine; while overhead fluttered and whirred great wings, which showered down bomb-lightnings.14

At last, the bloody scene seems to reach its culmination as the nations have “danced themselves to stumps”, but Pity and Indignation take up the charge and “thus the Ballet of Nations is still a-dancing”.15

Vernon lee with walking stick, 1914, unknown photographer but from the Vernon Lee Collection at Colby College / Colby College Libraries

The Epilogue, added when Lee began to expand the narrative after 1914, continues with the allegories in the play and the relationship between Satan and Clio. It opens with the conclusion of the performance and the players having fallen asleep with exhaustion. Clio congratulates Satan on the triumphant performance. He then teases her by offering to show her “the real Reality” of the Ballet of Nations — a glimpse behind the scenes, as it were. The reason he can do this after the fact is that he had everything recorded, by cinematograph and gramophone. Lee again plays on the idea of reality and how it shifts according to the knowledge at hand at any given time and place. Here only Satan can show the absolute reality of what brought about the Ballet of Nations.

What you are going to see and hear are indeed Supermen; say, rather, the mortal Gods in my little machine of myriad-fold death and ruin. In other words, the Heads of the Nations. For it can scarcely have escaped your acumen that what passed muster for such during my Ballet, and rolled about on the shoulders of the Dancing Nations, could be only cardboard masks. These are the Real Ones, the Masters of Men’s Destiny, even if not always of royal birth or Cabinet rank; sometimes mere humble specimens of the Investor, the Homo Œconomicus who sways the modern world.16

Lee uses the Epilogue to address what she could not in the Ballet. Using the devices of performance and mechanization (motion pictures and recording devices), she relates the causes of the war in truncated scenes that flicker across a screen. Her use of mechanization is twofold. First, she acknowledges it as a mark of human progress by way of inventions that benefit human health and understanding, but she then delves into the “mechanical” inter-workings of society. Satan uses the cinematograph to help Clio understand the “machinery” of society: each player individually contributes to bringing about a world war. In her notes to the Prologue, Lee stresses this point, that modern mechanistic living has stunted our spiritual growth while advancing the instruments of modern warfare. This is achieved through the invention of weapons and the manipulation of liberal capitalist practices that feed the greed of heads of state and industry. Then, inevitably, it is the working class man that fights the wars that capitalism produces. Lee anticipates the class warfare in Europe that follows strongly on the heels of World War I.

Some scenes Satan shows are ones contemporaneous to the war (cries for peace) and ones that show discussions of what is needed for a lasting peace when the war ends. Citizens argue and their voices merge into a kind of strange Greek chorus in which the combative European powers insist that peace can only last if each nation gets the territorial boundaries they ask for — ones dating back decades and centuries. As one actor explains with irony: “I repeat that none of us are out for aggrandisement, but for the future peace of the world. We must go on fighting to establish a really lasting peace, equally just towards friends and foes.”17

Detail from a photograph of, and signed by, the “Big Four” of the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919. Left to right: Vittorio Orlando (Italy), David Lloyd George (UK), Georges Clemenceau (France), and Woodrow Wilson (USA) / Wikimedia Commons

The Epilogue ends with Ballet Master Death waking from his drunken slumber and railing at Satan for taking all the credit for the success of the Ballet when it was Master Death who really “draws an audience”. With that, he implores blind Heroism to confirm this. Reaching out to touch him, Heroism finally “sees” how grotesque the reality of Death is with his tattered bones and deformed visage: “Where is the Death I loved and followed so faithfully — the true, pure, lovely Death? Oh, horror, horror, horror!”18 The success of war rests on Heroism continuing to believe in the illusion of a beautiful, moral, and necessary Death. Satan knows this, so he “cleans” Death up for another performance. “You vile, old-fashioned scarecrow, do you now understand that Heroism has almost found you out for the preposterous, indecent anachronism that you are? And if, by any chance, that Blind Boy should really be surgeoned into seeing . . . why, then, this will have been the last of our Ballet of Nations!”19

With more text than all the other components of Satan combined, the “Notes” to the Introduction, Prologue, and Ballet constitute the last, most substantial, third of the book. More than simply explanatory, the notes are philosophical musings and extended glosses which digress from the topics touched on in the main text to become essays on entirely different subjects. She writes on everything from the futility of finding one ultimate cause of the war, to the role that “Love” plays in her Ballet, to the need for England to fundamentally change its ideological and nationalistic outlook, to the role of art in deterring war. Though seemingly disparate, these essays in concert support a sustained argument: that there is an independent, ever changing, nebulous Reality working apart from our own individual realities.

Lee genuinely feared for the future of Europe, and when Satan the Waster is not explaining the political origins of warfare it is encouraging readers to discover within themselves why they would accept a modern way of life that threatens their ability to actively engage with beauty. In its religious and moral dimensions, this engagement with art and beauty is illustrative of Lee’s “gardening of life” ethos she describes in many books, such as Hortus Vitae(1903). Other points addressed in Satan, however, such as the changing realities that we must come to terms with by utilizing our intellects and “protean” emotions (not religious superstition) is a point she revisits time and again in her works of the twentieth century: including Gospels of Anarchy (1908), Vital Lies(1912), and Proteus, or the Future of Intelligence (1926). Satan the Waster is perhaps her most avant-garde attempt to understand the quickly changing world around her, but definitely not the only one.

When Lee returned to Italy in 1919, what she found was a home quite destitute. Il Palmerino was in fairly good shape but the country was poor and hungry. Crops had failed or food had been taken for the war effort, and it took her some time to get things back to normal. As before, she continued with her interest in international politics and with her voluminous output of articles and books. At odds with many of her British friends, she understood that during the war she was in the unique position of being a British-born Italian expatriate living in London. At times, she rejoiced in her independence and isolation, and at others, craved intellectual companionship. Regardless, she was a woman who would never sacrifice her beliefs or censor her opinions in order to get along with others. The loss of friendships during the war was not as deplorable to her as the rejection of her principles. She knew without a doubt that her arguments in support of a pacifist Europe were correct. Her opponents had detestable “righteous indignation” on their side and she had incontrovertible reason. “While all this has been going on, never for a second have I repented or distrusted my own attitude; never for a second wished my attitude might be different. My position about the war seems as entirely natural and inevitable given me, as I recognize and feel theirs to be given them.”20

Notes

  1. Vernon Lee, “The Heart of a Neutral”, Atlantic Monthly, November 1915, 687
  2. Kristin Mahoney, for example, has analyzed Lee’s unique rhetorical methods in these writings as both a Victorian and an early Modernist: “she draws on a highly anachronistic set of aesthetic strategies while responding to contemporary political problems. Attending to Lee’s performance of marginality, detachment, and anachronism in her pacifist writings allows us to periodize aestheticism differently and to consider its modes of political engagement in a new light.” Kristin Mahoney, “Vernon Lee at the Margins of the Twentieth Century: World War I, Pacifism, and Post-Victorian Aestheticism”, English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 56, no. 3 (2013): 313–342
  3. Grace Brockington, “Performing Pacifism: The Battle Between Artist and Author in The Ballet of Nations”, in Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, eds. Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 143–159. Grace Brockington’s excellent article explores Lee’s collaboration with Armfield and their opposing aesthetical viewpoints
  4. Constance Smedley, Crusaders: The Reminiscences of Constance Smedley (Mrs. Maxwell Armfield) (London: Duckworth, 1929), 177, 217, 223
  5. Constance and Maxwell Armfield, “The Importance of Gesture”, Little Theatre Review, November 4, 1920
  6. Brockington, “Performing Pacifism”, 153–157
  7. Vernon Lee, Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy with Notes & Introduction (London: John Lane, 1920), xxiii
  8. “Reality requires successive and various orientations and focuses, requires the telescope and also the microscope; it is bigger and smaller than your powers of sight; it is above and below; it is before and also after.” Lee, Satan the Waster, xxxiv. The paramount role that our deep, inner emotions hold over our actions is a direct influence on Lee of Théodule Ribot, whose work Lee cites as an influence in Satan and in many of her works in the twentieth century. Her analysis can also be read as a response to Freud’s theories on dreams and projections and Kant’s Categorical Imperative. She references the latter in her notes to the Prologue, introducing another type of Imperative: She insists that obscure inner feelings (ones hidden and not discussed in public) are among the inner Categorical Imperatives, or intimate feelings of the solitary self, and are more a part of the bedrock of humanity than is usually admitted to. These protean forces of the soul are the basis for the essential rhythms of life (Lee, 143).
  9. Lee, Satan the Waster, 3.
  10. Ibid., 33.
  11. Ibid., 43.
  12. Ibid., 57.
  13. Ibid., 52.
  14. Ibid., 50.
  15. Ibid., 57.
  16. Ibid., 64.
  17. Ibid., 105.
  18. Ibid., 109.
  19. Ibid., 110.
  20. Ibid., xiii.

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Originally published by The Public Domain Review, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

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