"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

26 April 2007

On Brideshead Revisited

A couple of weekends ago, as a reward for grading research essays, I allowed myself to begin Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh). The one chapter per graded essay quickly turned into two, three, four, and I inhaled the novel over the course of two days. (Yes, I finished grading the essays, too; it did take two days instead of one.) I am now re-reading it, a little more slowly, and will laze my way through it with pen in hand this summer. It is worthy of many readings, and I only regret it has taken me this long to discover Waugh.

It is a framed narrative; the first-person narrator opens with a scene from his Army days in which he finds that his unit is being billeted at Brideshead, a family estate where he spent much time with his friend Sebastian as a young man and where he fell in love with Sebastian's sister Julia. This makes the novel one of my favorite types -- he goes back in time to his first visit to Brideshead and narrates the story chronologically from there, but comments on it from the later perspective as he does so.

The writing is of course superb. The story is poignant and breathtaking. It reminds me of Graham Greene and perhaps others I've read. They are Catholic writers exploring the place of Catholicism in the lives of their characters, and doing so without glibness or falsity. We are a fallen race, and this they show clearly. We fail, often spectacularly; we are frail, often beyond hope of improvement; but we cannot escape, if we are honest, our need for something beyond ourselves. And the fact that God is, that He is the Heavenly Hound seeking us, seeking us, that we cannot finally escape Him, that His grace is greater than our frailty . . . this informs the narratives in such a compelling manner that any thinking reader must be drawn to consider whether this be truth.

I have read some spectacularly good novels by Protestant evangelical writers. However, for the most part, novels from that perspective tend to present faith as the end of the matter. Like a Harlequin romance, but with the lover being Jesus, everyone lives happily ever after once they have "gotten saved." I suppose this is fine as far as it goes -- but for me that is not far enough. It leaves one with the idea that faith is about me and its object is to make me happy. Oh, and it automatically makes me good, of course.

But faith is about its object -- the triune God of the universe. And this God is not just a sentimental lover who wants us to be happy. He is a just and righteous God who wants us to be like Him. And this is what the Catholic characters in Greene's novels, and those in Brideshead Revisited, struggle with. They know they have a responsibility to God, they are well aware of what that responsibility entails, which is often a painful decision that does not necessarily make them happy -- and they cannot just throw it off and live as they wish.

And yet, when they accept that responsibility, whether it brings them some kind of temporal happiness or not, whether it looks like what others expect it to or meets the approval of others, there is a sense of "rightness" in their lives that confirms that acceptance. I am not saying this well, I'm afraid, but what I see again and again in these books is that the end of faith is not righteousness in itself (though of course we should strive to be righteous) but rather is desire for the God who is righteous.

I have heard many criticisms about placing too much emphasis on obedience, and I have seen crippling guilt and fear in people who do so. However, I am also sceptical about a total emphasis on grace, in the sense of "you don't have to worry about anything; God is gracious." Well, yes, He is, but He is also righteous and just, and the believer is not exempt from His discipline -- which means that He notices and cares when we are disobedient. So there must be a balance. Some guilt is a good thing: it makes us desire to do better. Understanding His grace is freeing; it allows us to fail without believing we are unloved.

What I love about Greene and now Waugh is that they do not gloss over this tension, nor present glib responses to the complexity of human nature in relation to the One who created us and loves us despite our fallen choices. They make me think, and they make me desire to be compassionate instead of judgmental and at the same time demanding instead of complacent. They make me want to be more like the God that glimmers through the pages of their texts.

9 comments:

St. Kevin & the Blackbird said...

Between papers as well -- so thanks for a refreshing bit of genuinely coherent commentary. A thoughtful and helpful response to these writers. Waugh makes me laugh more that Greene, but their sense of the human condition is compelling. Your response to this is lucid. (I just realized that I sound as though I am marking! Not! But I must get back to it.)
-R

alaiyo said...

Thanks for the laugh ("I sound as though I am marking")! I feel that way at times when I'm just comenting on others' ideas, too -- we do so much grading it's hard to get out of the mode!

Thanks for the kind words, though. I've been thinking about some of the issues BR brings up for a long time, and this one really hit me when I read the novel. Waugh is defnitely "lighter" than Greene in tone. But they both give me much more hope than novelists who suggest not that "all *will* be well" but that "all is *already* well."

St. Kevin & the Blackbird said...

But then: "It is accomplished", no? There is a book on Karl Barth's theology I still read, though I've had it 25 years. "Jesus is Victor". I want to embrace this "already" and dive into it. And then there is CSL's mentor Williams:
"This also is Thou: neither is this Thou". C Williams grave in Oxford says, "Under the Mercy".

Anonymous said...

I can see I may have to get Brideshead and read it before that collection of Waugh's travel writing. . . .

Isn't the difference that the Protestant Evangelical writers you mention are presenting it as simply "already" while the Catholic writers are comfortable with the "already - not yet" tension?

Kamilla
(I found you from your comment elsewhere this morning)

Sarah said...

"I have heard many criticisms about placing too much emphasis on obedience, and I have seen crippling guilt and fear in people who do so." - and what a long path it has been to discover the grace that transcends the guilt and fear that was rooted so deeply within...

alaiyo said...

R and Kamilla -- thanks for your responses. I'm posting some more ideas that you've generated by your thoughtfulness.

Dearest Sarah -- I agree with you, more than you can know. Of course, the opposite extreme is equally destructive. The glory of it all lies in this: that He *does* offer, and we *can* grasp, the grace that frees us from the pain of others' inevitable sins and errors; and that He *can* use our suffering to make us wiser, so that we can both comfort and teach others.

Does that make it "okay" that sin occurs which brings about pain and struggle? Of course not! But given its inevitability in this fallen world, how good of Him to use it for our good, so that perhaps we can do better than those who failed us . . . not in bitter reaction but in wise growth, because we see that indeed we all sin and err, after all . . . Even when we intend good, we do not always understand how to bring it about.

alaiyo said...

p.s. Kamilla -- welcome -- you post at MC and at CCC, right? Thanks for visiting!

JohnOS said...

Try the Sword of Honour trilogy next. That's Waugh's other Catholic magnum opus. Again there's an aristocratic Catholic family: the Crouchbacks. This time recusant, rather than converted. And again there's great humour - not least with the thunderbox.

Brideshead does stand up to repeated readings - I'm blogging my fifth iteration here... http://brideshead.wordpress.com

alaiyo said...

John -- I shall defiinitely look for the Sword trilogy. I am almost afraid to get more Waugh -- where will I find the time to read other things?! :)

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