Jasmine Bajada


De/Mythologising the Mediterranean in the Modern Age: Evelyn Waugh's Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1930)

 The sea might have been any sea by the look of it, but he knew it was the Mediterranean, that splendid enclosure which held all the world’s history and half the happiest memories of his own life; of work and rest and battle, of aesthetic adventure and of young love.

–Evelyn Waugh,

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.[1]

‘I did not really know where I was going, so, when anyone asked me, I said to Russia.’[2] Evelyn Waugh’s travelogue Labels opens with his desire to visit Russia, located on the Eastern outskirts of Europe. First impressions have never been so misleading; what ensues is an account of Waugh’s trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Norwegian cruise ship M.Y. Stella Polaris. Subtitled ‘A Mediterranean Journal’, Labels follows this Englishman abroad in his late twenties as he discovers the ‘spectacle of inexhaustible variety’ (L, p. 82) that the Mediterranean offers, starting from Monte Carlo and stopping at over twenty destinations until Waugh finally sails back home from Lisbon. Indeed, pleasure cruising is a mode of transportation that suits the Mediterranean and its various cities, ports, peoples, and cultures since it enables the tourist to sample this rich multiplicity. Waugh’s Labels reads like a catalogue of the Mediterranean because it comprehensively maps out the Mediterranean imaginary in a series of textual postcards, ranging from notable tourist attractions such as Gaudì’s Sagrada Familia and the ancient Egyptian pyramids in Cairo to undiscovered places situated off the beaten track like Arab Town in Port Said and the Manderaggio in Valletta.

No matter how foreign these Mediterranean locations may sound, an idea of the ‘Mediterranean’ would probably have already been lodged in the readers’ mind prior to reading Labels, which Waugh acknowledges when he claims that ‘there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard’ (L, p. 13). Waugh is conscious that his readers would have been acquainted with canonical writers of English travel literature, such as Lord Byron, John Ruskin, and Henry James. Due to the gradual expansion of tourism, some would even have physically experienced the Mediterranean, although likely, their perception of it would still have been filtered through Baedeker or Murray’s guidebooks. Aware of how the warm South, as the Mediterranean is known, enchants the Northern traveller and seduces their imagination, in Labels, Waugh attempts to show how the Mediterranean that English travellers experience is in fact not the Mediterrean itself but a mythologized Mediterranean, that is a Mediterranean fashioned out of the myths that for centuries have been constructing the Mediterranean imaginary. The Mediterranean, especially for people of a Northern origin, is a place where culture, history, vitality, passion, and mystery intersect. Waugh’s aim in Labels is precisely to deconstruct this mythologisation of the Mediterranean in order to depict a Mediterranean that, in Kingsley Amis’s words, is ‘totally free of Mediterranean mystique’.[3] However, as shall be discussed, Waugh’s travelogue is ironically a construction of the Mediterranean in the interwar period of a ‘modern megalopolitan’ (L, p. 11) in search of a ‘Sense of the Past’ (L, p. 45) that ultimately is not as free of myths as it purports to be. Counterproductively, Labels reconstructs the Mediterranean from the perception of a Northerner gazing upon the Mediterranean with a colonial eye that reproduces a deeply embedded myth of the Mediterranean, that of Eurocentrism.

As Selina Hastings in her biography of Waugh recounts, in January 1929, Waugh and his wife Evelyn Gardner (referred to as ‘She-Evelyn’) decided to spend their honeymoon aboard a cargo boat sailing in the Black Sea.[4] In an attempt to earn some money, Waugh wrote to his literary agent A. D. Peters asking whether any magazines would be interested in his travel articles, adding that he would be ‘quite pleased to adapt [his] plans to editorial tastes’.[5] Aware of She-Evelyn’s ill health, Peters, writes Hastings, ‘negotiated free passages on a luxurious Norwegian vessel for a cruise in the Mediterranean, the voyage paid for by a series of articles to be published as a book’.[6] Thus, the textual trip that Labels tracks was born concurrently with the physical voyage. In February, the Waughs caught a flight to Paris and then boarded the cruise ship in Monte Carlo. The rest of the story is told in Labels. There is however, a striking omission in Labels: She-Evelyn. Due to the failure of the Waughs’ marriage a few months after their return to England, which the ‘dismal sound’ of the foghorn (L, p. 270) towards the end foreshadows, Waugh edited She-Evelyn out of the travelogue. To be precise, he turned her into a fictional character, Juliet, and gave her a fictional husband, Geoffrey, on whom Waugh projects all his marital anxieties, particularly those regarding She-Evelyn’s health. This is why Christopher Sykes, another biographer of Waugh, comments that Waugh’s first travel book is ‘unique’ for its ‘artful mixture of factual record and fiction’.[7] Omitting his estranged wife had the purpose of sparing Waugh the recollection of painful memories of marital bliss that ended too soon, but for Labels, the loss of a wife meant a gain for its claim to one of the most significant strands of the genre of travel writing: the ‘Englishman abroad’. By fashioning himself as ‘A Bachelor Abroad’, which is the title of the American edition of Labels, Waugh could stage himself as a carefree man in his late twenties, unbound by the ties of marriage or family, and crucially, he could pose as the modern addition to the tradition of the ‘Englishman abroad’.

Labels is a self-reflexive travelogue since Waugh shows his awareness of the genre he is participating in. Early on, he explains that there are ‘two kinds of Englishmen abroad in the last century’ (L, p. 46). The first type is ‘the survivor of the grand tour; he is invariably male; a young man fresh from the University’ (L, p. 46) who seeks to educate himself through both cultural expeditions and sexual adventures. Waugh’s youth, his quest for culture, his aesthetic judgements, and his frequent visits to ‘houses of ill fame’ (L, p. 113) in Cairo among other places are a few qualities that relate Waugh to the Grand Tourist. Due to ‘middle-class prosperity and mechanical transport’ (L, p. 46), Waugh continues, the second type of traveller emerged in the mid-1800s: ‘the Jones, Brown, and Robinson of the picture books, the Paterfamilias of Punch’ (L, p. 46-47), who probably would have booked a trip to the Mediterranean through Cook’s travel agency and kept a Baedeker close at hand. Pleasure cruising, ‘this leisurely pottering from port to port’ (L, p. 45) as Waugh describes it, immediately aligns him with the second type of Englishman abroad, who enjoys the accessibility and comfort of modern tourism. He praises the Norwegian cruise ship for its ‘outstanding comfort and leisure’ (L, p. 51), but notes that the disadvantage to this type of travelling is that ‘[o]ne cannot curtail or prolong one’s stay in accordance with one’s sympathies’ (L, p. 57). Still, Waugh gives pleasure cruising its due by highlighting the advantage of the sampling nature that a cruise trip around the Mediterranean affords: ‘one can, however, very conveniently reconnoitre for future journeys and decide what places one wishes to visit again at one’s leisure’ (L, p. 57). In this way, Waugh pays for his passage; now, he needs to write sellable articles. His tendency to rely on his Baedeker also marks Waugh’s affinity with the second type of traveller that he singles out. Waugh’s perception is partly filtered through Baedeker’s own experience of the Mediterranean since Waugh is very happy to follow the track beaten by Baedeker: ‘I had a list, compiled from Baedeker and Mr Sitwell’s Southern Baroque Art, of those [Neapolitan churches] I wanted to see.’ (L, p. 67) Waugh’s praise for Baedeker’s ‘unfailing discernment’ (L, p. 66) manifests itself in his frequent quotation of Baedeker’s descriptions and estimations of Mediterranean places, unsurprisingly agreeing with him on the implied sentiment of Northerners’ racial superiority: ‘Baedeker’s admirable phrase, ‘always extortionate and often abusive’, applies perhaps more fitly to the Neapolitans than any other race.’ (L, p. 64).

The writing personality of Labels is therefore a composite of both of these types of Englishmen abroad; within the travel writer converge the persona of the Grand Tourist and the amenities of the modern tourist. However, in a self-reflexive comment, Waugh writes that the twentieth century saw the birth of another kind of Englishman abroad:

There is a new type of traveller which is represented by nearly all the young men and women who manage to get paid to write travel books. […] It is his duty, he feels, to the publisher who has advanced him his expenses, to have as many outrageous experiences as he can. (L, p. 49)

Therefore, in Waugh’s view, travel writers in the modern era require unique content in the form of ‘outrageous experience’ in order to earn a living. As Paul Fussell states, travel literature ‘is addressed to those [...] who require the exotic or comic anomalies, wonders, and scandals of the literary form romance which their own place or time cannot entirely supply’.[8] Only entrancing tales like those of Othello would sell and be read in an age when the beaten track was not only trodden on by travel writers, but also directly accessible to the readers through the democratisation of travel. It is the myth of the Mediterranean as the exotic Other which is ultimately sold, a Mediterranean that is located in the imaginary rather than a physical geographical space. Despite Waugh’s tendency to walk in Baedeker’s footsteps, Labels is a catalogue of distinct anecdotes recounting ‘outrageous experiences’, which are ‘outrageous’ more in the sense of humorous, rather than unbelievable. He describes plenty of anomalies he encounters, which are often humorous at the expense of the travel writer, who comes across as naïve, unsuspecting, and easily duped. These include being persecuted with offers of Pompeian dances in Naples, to which Waugh ‘shook [his] head in Protestant aloofness’ (L, p. 62), the magic tricks of the ‘gully-gully men’ in Port Said, who ‘are the worst possible conjurors but excellent comedians’ (L, p. 84–85), and the religious dance that took place in an Egyptian tomb, which reminds Waugh of ‘kindergarten Eurythmics’ (L, p. 130), only to later find out it was yet another trick performed on the tourist by the dissimulative local. What emerges from these instances of ‘outrageous experience’ is that Labels projects a very subjective experience of Mediterranean, coloured through Waugh’s distinct comic-satiric vision that characterises his early novels Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930). Rather than depicting the Mediterranean itself, the travelogue depicts Waugh’s Mediterranean. The foreign place is thought of as the space where the Other is encountered, but in the case of Labels, the otherness of the Mediterranean counterintuitively serves to affirm Waugh’s sense of self. In his discussion of Lord Byron’s influence on post-Romantic travel writers, James Buzard notes that ‘the overriding impression of his work and persona was that of a grand subjectivity making travel into an opportunity for self-staging’.[9] Like Byron, Waugh stages his self and exhibits the persistence of the travel writer’s identity abroad, particularly his Englishness. This is particularly evident when Waugh compares Mediterranean anomalies to English equivalents, of sorts, thereby showing how Waugh carries his national character in his luggage. For instance, Simon Arzt’s emporium in Port Said is described as having ‘almost everything you could hope to find in Harrods at a considerably higher price’ (L, p. 95), the Egyptian porters ‘throw themselves upon one’s baggage like Westminster schoolboys on their Shrove Tuesday pancake’ (L, p. 123), and the Greek island of Santorini is referred to as ‘a whole town of Tesses of the D’Urbervilles’ (L, p. 177). Not even the ancient architecture of Egypt is spared from the bathetic effect of the English comparison: the experience of being close to the pyramids in Cairo is likened to ‘having the Prince of Wales at notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there’ (L, p. 126), while the Serapeum at the necropolis is ‘like a completely unilluminated tube railway station’ (L, p. 132). Waugh’s ironic repetition of the cliché ‘travel broadens the mind’ (L, p. 38) is very apt here. Behind the humour lies the crucial implication that it is difficult to leave one’s identity and nationality home. In his attempt to depict the Mediterranean, Waugh counterproductively denies its foreignness and provides, instead, his own idiosyncratic version of the Mediterranean. The subtitle, ‘A Mediterranean Journal’, immediately indicates that Waugh’s perception of the Other is as personal as a diary entry. In selecting this subtitle, there is the recognition that the Mediterranean ‘as it is’ cannot perhaps be represented; one can think of Baedeker’s Mediterranean and Waugh’s Mediterranean, but the travel writer cannot depict ‘the Mediterranean’ as such because as the subject of the traveller’s study, it is subject to their personal vision, which also comprises inherited myths of the Mediterranean.

Scholars of travel writing, such as Buzard and Fussell, argue that the ‘tourist’ and the ‘traveller’ have antithetical attitudes towards being abroad. The tourist, Buzard writes, ‘is the cautious pampered unit of a leisure industry’ and their experience of otherness is often considered as superficial.[10] While tourists often travel in packs, travellers are mostly lone wanderers that go off the beaten track to gain a more genuine experience of the foreign place. Waugh combines within his writing personality elements of both the tourist and, to a lesser extent the traveller. Like the Grand Tourist, Waugh has a set itinerary, although not just classical in nature, and similar to the modern tourist, Waugh makes use of a luxurious mode of transportation, guidebooks that set the tourist on the well-trodden path, and guided tours, which Waugh sometimes joins to avoid being duped by the locals. However, Waugh at times dissociates himself from the mass of tourists travelling with him not just by going off the beaten track, but also by ironically commenting on his fellow tourists’ superfluous experience of the Mediterranean. Moreover, his subjective view of the Mediterranean, which is filtered through his Englishness and his comic-satiric vision, also suggests a personal engagement with place that is akin to that of a traveller. In fact, early on in Labels, Waugh admits his affinity with ‘the real travel snobs’ (L, p. 50), the travellers, since like them ‘[he] ha[s] shuddered at the mention of pleasure cruises or circular tours or personally conducted parties, of professional guides and hotels under English management’ (L, p. 50). Interestingly, however, Waugh implies that posing as a traveller, which in the nineteenth century meant being the deviation from the norm, has ironically become the norm itself:

Every Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist. As I watched my luggage being lifted on to the Stella I knew that it was no use keeping up the pretence any longer. My fellow passengers and I were tourists, without any compromise or extenuation [...] (L, p. 50).

Thus, although Waugh plays the part of the Englishman abroad, he adopts the label of a tourist partly to appear unconventional and candid, partly for humorous effect, but also, more crucially, to signpost what kind of relationship his travel book stages towards the foreign place he depicts. In other words, the travel writer’s self-conscious assertion of his stance and strategy is a crucial revelation for the reader’s understanding of the text because it divulges the way through which the travel writer encounters the Mediterranean in Labels. By adopting the stance of the tourist, Waugh proclaims his intention to encounter not the Mediterranean as it is but the touristic Mediterranean, constructed from the myths in the Mediterranean imaginary. Waugh proposes to question and deconstruct this mythologised Mediterranean from within by adopting the viewpoint of the modern tourist, knowing very well that the stance of the traveller is fast becoming a questionable, clichéd position. This is reminiscent of Byron’s own strategy who, according to Buzard, ‘furnished post-Romantics with accredited anti-touristic gestures that were performable within tourism’.[11] Clearly, Waugh is not simply a tourist either; his ironic portrayal of his fellow cruise tourists signal that he is an ironic tourist, or an anti-tourist. Waugh’s aim is therefore to deconstruct the English tourist’s expectation of the Mediterranean not by elevating himself through the pretence of the traveller, which would reconfigure the Mediterranean as a more subjective and equally problematic experience, but by experiencing the Mediterranean as a modern tourist, with the added self-consciousness of the constructed nature of the Englishman’s perception of the Other that irony affords. ‘The tourist’ is therefore a role or, in Buzard’s words, ‘a mythic figure, a rhetorical instrument’ for Waugh through which he seeks to demythologise the Mediterranean.[12]

Waugh’s awareness that the Mediterranean is never experienced directly by the tourist but always mediated through received myths is suggested in the title, which is then explained towards the beginning of the travelogue:

I have called this book Labels for the reason that all the places I visited on this trip are already fully labelled. [...] I suppose there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard; no towns so constantly and completely overrun with tourists as those I intend to describe. But the interest I have found in preparing this book, which I hope may be shared by some of its readers, was that of investigating with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows, the basis for the reputations these famous places have acquired. (L, p. 134

The term ‘labels’, for Waugh, is synonymous with the tropes that construct the Mediterranean in the tourist’s imagination. By foregrounding this concept in the title, Waugh intends the reader to constantly keep in mind the constructed nature of this ‘Mediterranean’ that he represents. Waugh’s aim is precisely to map out the labelled Mediterranean so that he could judge whether the ‘real’ Mediterranean lives up to its myths.[13] The frontispiece (Figure 1) drawn by Waugh, placed next to the title page, visually captures some of the recurrent stereotypes of the Mediterranean. As Fussell notes, the frontispiece ‘delivers a twenty-seven-year-old's version of the standard British mythology of the Mediterranean as the Other Place.’[14] It is worth noting, first, that the sketch establishes the distinction between the cold North and the warm South, a deeply entrenched binary within English travel writing and Western thought. In the top right corner, the British Isles are partly covered by dark clouds and rain, the visual representation of the ‘intolerably cold’ (L, p. 5) weather of the ‘lifeless and numb’ (L, p. 5) London that Waugh describes in the opening chapter.[15] It is this cold North that compels Waugh and his fellow Northerners to travel South and seek a warmer climate. Fussell rightly observes that the ‘Mediterranean is the model for the concept South, and it is a rare Briton whose pulses do not race at mention of that compass direction.’[16] Meanwhile, the blazing Mediteranean sun shining on Egypt in the top left corner of the frontispiece is one of the key tropes that contribute to the seductiveness of the Mediterranean. As Paul Valéry writes in ‘The European Mind’ (1922), people are ‘drawn by the splendor of the sky, the beauty and special intensity of life in the sun’.[17] The warmth of the Mediterranean sun, the stereotype goes, stirs the Northerners’ primitive passions and injects them with vivacity and a certain joie de vivre. The great expanse of the Mediterranean Sea takes up most of the sketch and apart from joining the exotic, Oriental countries of Egypt and Turkey, it also brings together sensuousness, suggested by the sand of the desert, to religion, which is figured in the Hagia Sophia. Thus, the Mediterranean as it is perceived and constructed by the tourist is condensed in this postcard-perfect frontispiece. As Valéry puts it, an ‘irresistible tropism acting through the centuries has made of this admirably shaped basin the object of the world’s desire’.[18] This paratext placed before the travelogue begins effectively encapsulates the desires that tourists project onto the Mediterranean as the warm South.

In Labels, Waugh pays close attention to how the mythology of the Mediterranean is constructed within the tourism industry by analysing the catalogue of tropes that travel agencies use in their advertisements. He notes that these advertisements are made of an ‘assembly of phrases – half poetic, just perceptibly aphrodisiac – which can produce at will in the unsophisticated a state of mild unreality and glamour’ (L, p. 59). They lure potential tourists with the promise of ‘Mystery, History, Leisure, Pleasure’ (L, p. 59). Although this ‘rosy sequence of association’ (L, p. 59) does not betray a sexual undertone, for Waugh, ‘all delicately point the way to sheik, rape, and harem’ (L, p. 59). Unsurprisingly, it is fascinating for Waugh, as an ironic tourist who can see through this commercialisation of the Mediterranean’s mystique, to scrutinise his fellow tourists and to note their reaction to the physical rather than the advertised Mediterranean. The following is one of Waugh’s most telling comments:

I do not think these happier travellers are ever disappointed in anything they see. They come back to the ship from each expedition with their eyes glowing; they have been initiated into strange mysteries, and their speech is rich with the words of the travel bureau’s advertising manager […] (L, p. 59-60).

The charm of the Mediterranean has clearly worked on these spellbound tourists but one wonders how genuine this sense of enchantment is. These tourists merely enact the received, conventional response to the Mediterranean. Juliet and Geoffrey are not the only fictions that Labels contains;  just like ‘Hollywood and the popular imagination’ fashioned the ‘fiction of Paris’ (L, p. 15), travel literature and tourism have led to the construction of the fiction of the Mediterranean, which tourists are often more than eager to consume. The reader can sense Waugh’s silent relish when the tourist’s expectations are thwarted: ‘We passed Stromboli late in the evening. Everyone came out on deck in the hope of seeing an eruption, but was unrewarded.’ (L, p. 217)

 Significantly, Waugh is sceptical of the touristic impulse ‘to give licence to one’s fancy and invent some personal romance about [the object perceived], and to generalise sagely about the mutability of human achievement’ (L, p. 132), the kind of superficial aesthetic response that tourists would have assimilated from well-read travel writers like Robert Byron. This highly romanticised view of the Mediterranean is precisely what Waugh strives to demythologise in Labels. Apart from posing as an anti-tourist, Waugh also comes across as anti-Romantic, conscious of how the Mediterranean is ‘suffused in a delicious way with an air of romance’ (L, p. 58) and ready to demystify the Mediterranean that tourists encounter by responding to its fictions in an unconventional manner. The Romantic sentiment in the tourists of the Stella Polaris is palpable. Waugh derisively describes the flock of tourists following their guide in the Egyptian necropolis as a ‘whole rag-tag and bobtail of self-improvement and uplift’ (L, p. 133), each one ‘bruised and upbraided by the thundering surf of education’ (L, p. 133). ‘Uplift’ is a word that recurs in Labels, used by Waugh to critique the facile Romantic feelings that are triggered in tourists. His anti-Romantic disposition is, in fact, most explicitly expressed when he describes tourists who diligently visit every notable site as ‘poor scraps of humanity thus trapped and mangled in the machinery of uplift’ (L, p. 51). For Waugh, this pretence of transcendence is automatic rather than authentic. Fussell states that ‘the Mediterranean has had the power to hustle Englishmen into hyperbole’ and it is this reaction which Waugh mistrusts.[19] Waugh’s ‘general diffidence about the superlative’ (L, p. 258), at least positive ones, is what drives him to question the overstated mythology of the Mediterranean, which impresses itself so strongly on the tourist’s mind.

‘Must reverence still be done to the past?’ (L, p. 51) Waugh asks. Throughout Labels, he undercuts the Mediterranean by being irreverent to its perceived wonders in order to demythologise it. To counter the upward movement of the tourist’s romantic transcendence, Waugh gives his descriptions of mythical Mediterranean views a downward thrust through the use of bathos. The best example to illustrate the anti-climactic effect that Waugh strives to achieve to undermine the touristic constructions of the Mediterranean is his recollection of Etna at sunset:

I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting. (L, p. 217)

This ‘travesty of the “I-do-not-think-I-shall-ever-forget” travel-book turn’, as Fussell aptly calls it, is just one example in the catalogue of debunked myths that Waugh provides in Labels to counter the tropes that are deeply ingrained in the Mediterranean imaginary.[20] The bathos works effectively because the reader is well tuned to the mellifluous and seductive siren song of Mediterranean myths, so the incongruous conclusion is all the more jarring. Another notable example is Waugh’s impression of the Sphinx, which he judges as ‘an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal’ and ‘hopelessly inadequate to its fame’ (L, p. 129). The description of the Sphinx is particularly interesting because Waugh weaves in his critique of fiction-making advertisements:

People from the hotel went out to see it by moonlight and returned very grave and awestruck; which only shows the mesmeric effect of publicity. It is just about as inscrutable and enigmatic as Mr Aleister Crowley. (L, p. 129)

Is this ‘cultural blasphemy’, as Sykes calls it, merely a contrived performance of anti-tourism that Waugh cultivates in order to individuate his travelogue and to ultimately sell?[21] Waugh’s curated Byronic persona might create that impression, but his demythification of the Mediterranean is also, at times, expressed in a simple, direct manner. For instance, he claims that the ‘pyramids are less impressive when seen close’ (L, p. 126) and that ‘Catania looked dirty and uninviting from the sea’ (L, p. 71). Waugh does not hesitate to expose the less picturesque side of the Mediterranean and travel more broadly, which includes street hawking, being accosted by beggars and vendors everywhere, and being cheated or robbed. Implicit in this is the idea that if the Mediterranean is truly a region that encapsulates a broad variety, then a Mediterranean travelogue must also acknowledge this ‘other side’ of the Mediterranean.

Fully conscious of how rich the tradition of travel writing is and how often the Mediterranean has been constructed and reconstructed, Waugh realises the modern travel writer’s difficulty to say anything new:

What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every educated reader of this book? (L, p. 203)

Added to this problem is that of conveying genuine appreciation when superlative praise which was once authentic is now merely formulaic. ‘So we go through our lives generalising and analysing,’ Waugh writes at one point, ‘and that, anyway, gives us an impersonal and rather comforting attitude towards them.’ (L, p. 45) Places like Venice, for Waugh, have been domesticised through repeated praise, which has rendered them familiar and transformed their particular aura into cheap mystique. Waugh’s demythologising strategy is effective in this regard as it serves to defamiliarise the Other and to renew one’s encounter with it. In Athens, Waugh states that the colour of the Acropolis is not white as is often thought, but ‘a singularly beautiful tone in very pale pinkish brown’ (L, p. 193). ‘[T]he nearest parallel to it of Nature that I can think of,’ Waugh continues, ‘is that of the milder parts of a Stilton cheese into which port has been poured.’ (L, p. 193) This strikes the reader as a genuine appreciation of one of the most important symbols of the Ancient Greek civilisation and of the Mediterranean. He deconstructs the myth first by countering the popular view that the Acropolis is white so that he can then depict it with a fresh perspective. Moreover, Waugh tends to praise places and sights that are off the beaten track while making sure not to ‘trespass too dangerously upon Mr. Robert Byron’s ground’ (L, p. 193) by eulogising and hence romanticising them.

Ultimately, therefore, Waugh’s project to de-label the Mediterranean has a noble cause. While his main project is that of deconstructing the Mediterranean, along the way he notices genuine beauty that is often overlooked by the tourist for the simple reason that it is not usually advertised. For instance, he admires Corfu – ‘one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen’ (L, p. 200) – and fails to understand why the French Riviera is preferred. Arab Town does not strike him for its ‘local colour or picturesque bits’, but for its ‘intoxicating sense of vitality and actuality’ (L, p. 106). Waugh delightfully pursues and describes Gaudì’s architecture in Barcelona and is arrested by the Baroque opulence of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. Today, these undiscovered wonders that Waugh pinpoints have actually reached the status of myths, thereby confirming his keen eye for what captures the Mediterranean spirit. These affirmative moments are all the more convincing because Waugh provides ample examples of uninhibited critique. Not only do they stand out because some parts of the Mediterranean warm Waugh into genuine admiration, but also because it is rare for Waugh to express praise without adding his typical cutting edge of irony. Waugh’s praise at times even extends to Mediterranean people and their way of life. For instance, he commends the ‘Utopian socialist state’ of  Port Said (L, p. 94), which gives its inhabitants a particular happiness. In Algiers, he is struck by the ‘apparent absence of racial and colour distinctions’ (L, p. 244), which even provokes him to question his race: ‘What is it, I wonder, which gives the Anglo-Saxons, alone among the colonists of the world, this ungenerous feeling of superiority over their neighbours?’ (L, p. 245)

As discussed earlier, it is not easy for Waugh to shed his national identity, especially his feeling of superiority and his colonial eye/I through which he perceives the Other. If there is one sin Waugh is guilty of, it is English snobbery ‘engendered by two centuries of wildly successful imperialism’, as Fussell explains.[22] Waugh explicitly professes his belief in the ‘uncontaminated glory in the fact of race’ (L, p. 269). In so doing, he fits Buzard’s observation that ‘[a]broad, the tourist is the relentless representative of home.’[23] Upon encountering the Other, Waugh strengthens his attachment to Englishness and the West. At the beginning of Labels, Waugh presents himself as a ‘modern megalopolitan’ (L, p. 11) aiming to explore the Mediterranean to search for a ‘Sense of the Past’ (L, p. 45). His travelogue is therefore based on one of the fundamental myths of the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean as the cradle of Western civilisation, which Waugh, for all his demythologising, does not attempt to undercut. Crucially, his definition of culture is essentially Eurocentric. In other words, by ‘culture’, Waugh means Western Europe and excludes the Mediterranean Orient. The latter, which Jacques Derrida refers to as ‘the other heading’ is, in Iain Chambers’s words, ‘the southern, denied shore of the Mediterranean’ that brings together the ‘Arabic, African, Asiatic, Islamic, [and] Jewish’ under the label of ‘alterity’.[24] This divide between the ‘civilised North’ and the ‘Southern Other’ is illustrated in the foreground of the frontispiece. The English tourists interact with Oriental vendors, but ultimately, the cruise ship’s rail keeps them separated. The Englishwoman on the right is visibly distraught by the dark-skinned man’s advances, while the Englishman curiously leans over the other side of the rail but keeps his distance. Therefore, the frontispiece, which projects the travel writer’s perception of the Mediterranean, reproduces the Englishman’s discriminatory gaze on the Mediterranean Other and dramatises Waugh’s attitude towards Oriental people and their culture during his travels.

In Labels, modern Egyptians and Turks are stereotypically represented as people of vice and unhindered sexual passion. Waugh, who often poses as an art critic and an arbiter of aesthetics, makes a significant distinction between ancient Egyptian art and modern Arab art when he visits Cairo. In his view, the great ancient Egyptian civilisation is aligned with those of Western Europe; hence, he has nothing but praise for the Egyptian remains, which bespeak ‘a civilisation of splendour and refinement’ (L, p. 136). On the other hand, Arab art, which Waugh comes to contact with in a museum in Cairo, inspires in him a feeling of not just aesthetic but also religious superiority – a ‘Crusader’s zeal for cross against crescent’ (L, p. 140) – since it is astounding, for him, that while the Christians were producing the masterpieces of Musée Cluny, the Muslims were creating ‘these little jigsaw puzzles’ (L, p. 140). Waugh concludes thus:


Living as we are under the impact of the collective inferiority complex of the whole West, [...] we can still hold up our heads in the Mohammedan world with the certainty of superiority. It seems to me that there is no single aspect of Mohammedan art, history, scholarship, or social, religious, or political organisation, to which we, as Christians, cannot look with unshaken pride of race. (L, p. 140)

Waugh’s condescending attitude towards Oriental art extends to Turkish art:

In Cairo I have noted the pride and superiority which a Western mind must feel when confronted with Arabic art; this feeling is intensified and broadened a hundred times in relation to everything Turkish. They seem to have been unable to touch any existing work or to imitate any existing movement without degrading it. (L, p. 180)

Clearly, Waugh’s Eurocentric mindset leads him to actively participate in denying Oriental art its claim to ‘Art’. Art, in Waugh’s worldview, is a Western concept, as is civilisation. By implication, Waugh denies the Mediterranean Orient not just its claim to civilisation, but also its participation in the so-called ‘Mediterranean’. The myth of civilisation as synonymous with Western Europe persists in Waugh, thereby pushing the Mediterranean Orient further into the margins as ‘the Other within the Other’. Waugh’s journey in search for a ‘Sense of the Past’ is ultimately an affirmation of Eurocentrism and a rejection of the Oriental Other. It is ironic, then, that one of the books that Waugh packs with him is Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (L, p. 6), in which Spengler makes a case for problematising Eurocentrism to think, instead, of World History and to equally value diverse civilisations. As Martin Stannard argues, Waugh’s ‘emphasis is ultimately more on cultural retrenchment than exploration.’[25]

How seriously, therefore, should the reader take Waugh’s project to de-label the Mediterranean if his depiction of a demythologised Mediterranean is still, after all, a problematic, Northern reconstruction due to the persistent myth of Eurocentrism that denies its Oriental shores? Waugh misrepresents the Mediterranean since as a Eurocentric Englishman, he fails to recognise that, as Adam J. Goldwyn and Renée M. Silverman following Fernand Braudel argue, it is better ‘to think of “the Mediterranean” as a series of “a” Mediterraneans’ because the singular does not encapsulate ‘all Mediterranean voices’, including that of the Mediterranean Orient.[26] Ultimately, then, although pleasure cruising allows Waugh to sample and depict the rich multiplicity of the Mediterranean, his modern reconstruction of the Mediterranean is deeply flawed because it does not represent its essential plurality, or at least it does so only superficially. Due to his underlying Eurocentrism, Waugh’s travelogue may be plural in sights but, crucially, not plural in thought since his Western gaze does not perceive the Mediterranean as a geographical location where various peoples, histories, cultures, and civilizations intersect.

Travellers and tourists alike must return home, and so does Waugh. On the voyage back to his country, Waugh spontaneously throws a champagne glass he was carrying into the Mediterranean Sea and watches it ‘flutter and tumble into the swirl of water’ (L, p. 269). This ‘oddly important’ (L, p. 269) moment for the home-bound Waugh is a symbolic refusal of what John Keats calls ‘beaker full of the warm South’, leading Waugh to conclude Labels on the note of patriotism and pride of race.[27] In so doing, Waugh re-enacts Ulysses’s ‘self-confirmation of home’, as Chambers writes,‘thereby overcoming the challenge of a worldly heterogeneity announced in the numerous language of “poly-phemos”’.[28] By ultimately refusing the polyphonous Mediterranean, Waugh’s cruise aboard the Stella Polaris serves him to confirm his Englishness and to subsequently  colonise the Mediterranean textually by writing a travelogue that appears to deconstruct previous Northern representations of the Mediterranean but that reimagines the Mediterranean as a region with a Western centre and an Oriental margin. Only years later in hindsight, as Waugh writes in his semi-autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), does he realise that the Mediterranean is inclusive and home to many, even to himself: ‘The Mediterranean had always welcomed Mr. Pinfold in the past. His annoyance would be over, he believed, once he was in those hallowed waters.’[29]


Amis, Kingsley, ‘Introduction’, in Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, by Evelyn Waugh (London: Duckworth, 1974), pp. 5-7

Buzard, James, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800–1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993)

Chambers, Iain, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)

Fussell, Paul, Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)

Goldwyn, Adam J., and Renée M. Silverman, ‘Introduction: Fernand Braudel and the Invention of a Modernist’s Mediterranean’, in Mediterranean Modernism: Intercultural Exchange and Aesthetic Development, ed. by Adam J. Goldwyn and Renée M. Silverman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 1-26

Hastings, Selina, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994)

Keats, John, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, in Poems, ed. by J. E. Morpurgo (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953; repr. 1985), pp. 173-75

Stannard, Martin, ‘Debunking the Jungle: The Context of Evelyn Waugh’s Travel Books 1930–9’, Prose Studies, 5 (1982), pp. 105-26

Sykes, Christopher, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (London: Collins, 1975)

Valéry, Paul, ‘The European Mind’, in History and Politics, trans. by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962), pp. 307-23

Waugh, Evelyn, Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (London: Penguin Classics, 1930; repr. 2011)

Waugh, Evelyn, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece (London: Chapman & Hall, 1957)

[1] Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece (London: Chapman & Hall, 1957), p. 114.

[2] Evelyn Waugh, Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (London: Penguin Classics, 1930; repr. 2011), p. 3. All subsequent references to this work will be parenthetically given in the text, using the abbreviation L and followed by the relevant page number.

[3] Kingsley Amis, ‘Introduction’, in Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, by Evelyn Waugh (London: Duckworth, 1974), pp. 5-7, p. 6.

[4] Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p. 184.

[5] Waugh quotes in Selina Hastings, p. 184.

[6] Hastings, p. 184.

[7] Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (London: Collins, 1975), p. 103.

[8] Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 203.

[9] James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 128.

[10] Buzard, p. 2.

[11] Buzard, p. 121.

[12] Buzard, p. 4.

[13] Whether ‘a real Mediterranean’ exists is a questionable concept in itself, hence why ‘real’ is put in inverted commas.

[14] Fussell, p. 178.

[15] This is what Fussell calls ‘the conventional I Hate It Here opening’ (p. 178).

[16] Fussell, p. 131.

[17] Paul Valéry, ‘The European Mind’, in History and Politics, trans. by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962), pp. 307-23, p. 312.

[18] Valéry, p. 312.

[19] Fussell, p. 131.

[20] Fussell, p. 183.

[21] Sykes, p. 103.

[22] Fussell, p. 74.

[23] Buzard, p. 8.

[24] Iain Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 131.

[25] Martin Stannard, ‘Debunking the Jungle: The Context of Evelyn Waugh’s Travel Books 1930-9’, Prose Studies, 5 (1982), pp. 105-26, p. 112.

[26] Adam J. Goldwyn and Renée M. Silverman, ‘Introduction: Fernand Braudel and the Invention
of a Modernist’s Mediterranean’, in Mediterranean Modernism: Intercultural Exchange and Aesthetic Development, ed. by Adam J. Goldwyn and Renée M. Silverman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 1-26, p. 13.

[27] John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, in Poems, ed. by J. E. Morpurgo (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953; repr. 1985), pp. 173-75, l. 15.

[28] Chambers, p. 12; Chambers, p. 33.

[29] Waugh, Gilbert Pinfold, p. 96.