Saturday, August 21, 2010

One of my favourite subjects ...

... was introduced by my very favourite person. In the comments on the manly experience of being shaved post, the Serpentine One writes:

So do the three scenes in Brideshead Revisited (just to work a Catholic angle in) that involve shaving speak to the manliness of the characters in any way?

-Charles, Sebastian and Boy Mulcaster getting shaved after spending the night in jail
-Charles having his beard removed during the storm on the ocean liner
-Charles shaving in the bathroom in the New York hotel and having the difficult conversation with his wife

It seems to me that these three scenes do say something about the characters involved and their idea of themselves. And isn't that an aspect of manliness? How you portray yourself to the world? 
You missed one. (I'm smirking most arrogantly as I type this. Of course some third person will now come along and spot another that we've both missed.).

A fourth is a sort of suggested shave at the very beginning when Charles goes to the barber right after Sebastian has been to get a brush with which to spank Aloysius. That scene is followed by these curious lines:
The man [the barber], who, in his time, had had ample chance to tire of undergraduate fantasy, was plainly captivated. I, however, remained censorious and subsequent glimpses of him, driving in a hansom cab and dining at the George in false whiskers, did not soften me, although Collins, who was reading Freud, had a number of technical terms to cover everything. [Emphasis added by me.]
And note what an under-appreciated genius Waugh is. The delicious ambiguity of language like "undergraduate fantasy" or Collins technical terms that "cover everything" that they pretend to explain.

Anyway, to backtrack to the point that may  displease some, shaving is indeed connected to manly experiences in Brideshead Revisited but it is especially connected to the manly experience of having sex (the biscuits were thin not the captain, meaning not that sex is always a manly experience but that in this book shaving is always particularly connected to the manly sexual experiences of Charles). The homoerotic experiences with Sebastian are connected to false whiskers. The visit to the brothel at the Old Hundredth with Boy and Sebastian is followed by a shave suggesting that Charles has grown by the experience, and we may remember here Charles's earlier admission on meeting Cara that he was so inexperienced that he could not confidently identify a prostitute in the street. Then there is the shaving in New York after a night in which Charles and Celia have had sex but failed to connect. Charles only shaves to neaten his beard after the fight which, not incidentally, comes after a night in which he and Celia have sex for the first time in months. But later, on the ship, Charles has a barber remove the beard entirely preparatory to his having sex with Julia.

The shave on the ship might be seen as a prelude to his making a real connection with Julia but the paragraph that describes it tells us that Charles is fooling himself. First of all, it is preceded by a conversation in which Julia tells Charles that she has had a massage and she then wonders  "What is it about being on a boat that makes everyone behave like a film star?" Charles claims that he does not and Julia casts doubt on this by reminding him that he sent her some roses. Okay, with that set up, here we go to the actual shave with the question, is Charles now ready for sex with Julia or is he fooling himself?
The barber did his work with extraordinary dexterity—indeed with agility, for he stood like a swordsman in a ballet sometimes on the point of one foot, sometimes on the other, lightly flicking the lather off his blade, and swooping back to my chin as the ship righted herself; I should not have dared use a safety razor on myself. [Again, my emphasis.]
Charles's manly sexual confidence is a sham.

This is reinforced by the way that Waugh has Charles describe the actual experience of having Julia.
It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance had been drawn and sealed. I was making the first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.
As with the shave where he, like Julia herself, is acting like a film star rather than a real person, Charles is acting a part here; he is only a part of a person acting like a whole person. But what is missing?

And here let me ask a terribly indelicate question. The paragraph above describes something incomplete but does it describe something offensive? Should we be offended at Charles's attitude towards Julia?

Even more indelicately, should we be offended on her behalf? That is, is there anything in those scenes in the book leading up to the paragraph above that would entitle us to suppose anything other than that Julia fully understands how she is being taken? That she, in fact, doesn't want to be take in precisely the way Charles takes her?

Okay, the full Monty here, is the problem the way Charles takes Julia or is it that something else, something could sanctify this act (for sex is always an act of surrender and taking) by making it part of something bigger?

My but I am terribly verbose this morning.


  1. What about the fact that Rex has arranged the barber for them on the morning after the visit to the Old Hundredth? Is there an interesting sub-text here, given that Rex "seems much older" than the undergraduates at the time, later takes possession of Julia and potentially through her of Brideshead, and given all of the connections between Charles and Rex that become apparent later on? Could it be that Charles's shave (with Boy and Sebastian) in this scene doesn't really indicate a growth since the whole thing was managed and controlled by Rex who is simultaneously Charles's double and shadow?

    And, you'll probably disagree, Jules, but since I think that the love between Charles and Sebastian is a truer love than the one between Charles and Julia, I wonder if the contrast between the shave and the false whiskers is a sign of Charles's inadequacy - a very early sign. Because ultimately it is Charles who fails in love, not Sebastian.

    So shaving - manliness? Or lack of confidence disguised?

  2. Yes, I suspect you must be right about Rex. He, in rather kingly fashion, sweeps in after their boyish efforts and restores order. For which they show him no gratitude.

    There is so much here. I just found a bunch of stuff about the significance beards in the original Catholic encyclopedia.

    "Beard.—Among the Jews, as among most Oriental peoples, the beard was especially cherished as a symbol of virility; to cut off another man's beard was an outrage (II Kings, x, 4); to shave or to pluck one's own beard was a sign of mourning (Jer., xli, 5; xlviii, 37); to allow the beard to be defiled constituted a presumption of madness (I Kings, XXi, 13). Certain ceremonial cuttings of the beard which probably imitated pagan superstition were strictly forbidden (Lev., xix, 27; xxi, 5). On the other hand, the leper was commanded to shave (Lev., xiv, 9)."

    And it just hit me that Waugh must have meant for the shaving to connect up with all the beard references in King Lear.

    As to whom Charles really loved, I sort of agree. I think he mistook his love of Sebastian as a "forerunner" (Charles's word) for Julia when Sebastian was really a forerunner for his love of Jesus Christ.

  3. I agree with both of you about Charles/Sebastian, Charles/Julia, and Charles/Jesus. However, to what degree do you think class issues--which I think Charles (and Rex) are more acutely aware of than the Marchmains--figure into all of this, and was this Waugh's intent?

  4. I don't want to give up to much of my amunition ahead of time here because I plan to blog Brideshead in the future. (Probably starting around Advent).

    But, I will say that I think one of the things that I think Waugh is doing is drawing a very close parallel between Charles and Rex. A parallel that Charles is willfully blind to. The harshest criticism then is not for the upper classes but for Charles's social climbing which he keeps painting as a search for nobility.

    Many critics, missing this point, get angry at what they see as a fawning book about the upper classes.

    That's what I think anyway and give me a couple months and I'll try and prove it here. As the Serpentine One noted earlier today, there are many more people interested in Brideshead than there are in Sir Walter.

  5. "The harshest criticism then is not for the upper classes but for Charles's social climbing which he keeps painting as a search for nobility."

    Thank you so much for saying this, I agree completely, but few people I've ever spoken with about it seem to get it, especially when PBS ran the series in the 70s (I never saw the more recent movie because I couldn't imagine that it could be better than that series). Its why I was never really able to warm to Charles, he reminds me of too many people I know!