Monday, December 6, 2010

The Season of Brideshead: some unkind thoughts about Sebastian

The bells of St Mary's were chiming nine
Charles loves Sebastian, and never stops loving him, and so we also, because we get to learn about Sebastian through Charles' account of him, come to love Sebastian. And perhaps we should love him in any case but let's love him with our eyes open.

The bells of St Mary's were indeed chiming nine and I wouldn't want to admit how many times I had to read this novel before the significance of that struck me. Nor would I want to admit how many times after I first figured it out that the full depth of it became obvious to me.

Other readers, sharper than me, no doubt immediately made the connection between that and the line just two paragraphs later when Charles asks who Hardcastle is, Hardcastle being the man who has kindly lent his car to Sebastian. Sebastian says,
He thought he was coming with us. Sloth undid him too. Well, I did tell him ten. He's a very gloomy man in my college.
But Sebastian is so charming and I did want to love him when I first read it so I just slipped by "I did tell him ten".

If we unravel this a bit, the first thing that will hit us is that Sebastian is a liar. The second thing that will hit us is the level of betrayal. Imagine that Mary has cheated on her boyfriend. Okay, now imagine that she has cheated on her boyfriend by bringing her lover to her boyfriend's apartment while he is at work. As we slide up the scale, we get an increasing level of callousness and Sebastian is quite a ways up the scale here.

And then there is the throwaway line at the end wherein Sebastian seems to justify what he has done to Hardcastle on the grounds that Hardcastle is "a very gloomy man".

Now here is a moral question, the answer to which you may want to keep to yourself. We'll start by taking it as a given that none of us would do what Sebastian does to Hardcastle. We might, in a moment of weakness, betray someone, but we wouldn't make the betrayal into an actual mockery of them as we did it would we?

Well, let's move along before we think about that too much.

Here is the real question. Suppose we were in love with an enchanting and beautiful person who was just brimming with charisma. And suppose that this person, someone we might normally expect not to want us, invites us into their life for a while and it is so wonderful we have to keep pinching ourselves to remind us that we are not dreaming. Now suppose that that person betrays someone the way Sebastian has betrayed Hardcastle here and then makes a joke of the person they have betrayed.

Would you:
  • Chastise this beautiful and charismatic person?
  • Let them get away with but shudder at the thought of how the other person might feel if they knew someone had not only betrayed them but was making a joke of them?
  • Gleefully say, "It's a pity neither of us can sing," and head down the road laughing and happy?
As I say, you might want to keep the answer to yourself.

Ralph Touchett and Sebastian Flyte
Ralph Touchett in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady is another rich aesthete whom you want to like when you first read the novel he is in. He seems a well-meaning man even though the end result of his attempt at benevolence is negative. If you read the James novel more than once, however, you begin to wonder about Ralph.

Here, from Alasdair MacIntyre, is what I think is a very perceptive analysis of Ralph Touchett that also applies to Sebastian.
James is concerned with rich aesthetes whose interest is to fend off the kind of boredom that is so characteristic of modern leisure by contriving behaviour in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.
MacIntyre goes on to say that it isn't that Ralph Touchett's wishes are malevolent. Indeed, as anyone who has read the novel will know, Touchett only wants to make it possible for Isabel to do what she wants. He wants to make it possible for her to marry whomever she wants, or even not marry at all, completely free of concerns about money and shelter. The problem is that he does this out of a  sense of voyeuristic curiousity, he wants to see what would happen if she were free to do what she wants.

 As James knew, of course, that is why we read novels. We read the story about Jane because we want to see what happens to shy and young Jane as she grows from adolescence into womanhood. She's just a character for our entertainment and not a real human being that it might really matter to us whether she is happy or not. We get as much pleasure from the tragic ending as we do from the happy marriage.

To live in a world where the distinction between real human beings and characters created to entertain us has disappeared is, as MacIntyre quotes critic William Gass,  to be a consumer of persons. And, let's be honest, that is the way we feel about Lindsay Lohan or River Phoenix. They are only there to divert us. We talk about Lohan in moral terms; we cheerfully condemn her excesses. No one who thought of her as a human being in her own right would do that. If you saw your ex-girlfriend, whom you had really loved once upon a time, doing what Lohan does it would tear you apart to watch.

By this standard both Sebastian and his mother and at least one more character I'll reveal the name of later are consumers of persons.They don't mean badly. Sebastian seeks distraction and fun. Lady Marchmain wants to have her children fulfill certain destinies she has for them; destinies she is firmly convinced would be good destinies for her children.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have a particular kind of person. I think it was Flaubert who said that a man hits his nadir when he pursues a woman because she is a particular type. But most men have done this. I wonder what it would be like to have sex with the slightly flakey young woman who works at the corner shop where I buy my pies? Or that oriental woman in the short skirt who was in front of me in the lineup for coffee. Not just to have her but something that would really benefit her too I assure myself. I want the sex to be really good for her too. I want her to have a positive experience. It's just that the positive experience I want her to have is my idea for her. I don't really care enough about her to really see her as an independent person with her own wishes and fears, her own pleasures and losses.

Let's go back to Hardcastle for a moment in conclusion. Part of Sebastian's excuse for consuming Hardcastle is that Hardcastle wants into Sebastian's world. He has told Sebastian a lie in claiming to know his father. He just wants in with me so exploiting him is okay.

For bonus points we could make our moral situation anodyne. I've always had a thing for level-headed women with strong characters and sharp minds but with what I call a soft, chewy hippy-chick centre under her business-like exterior. Now imagine I have the incredible good fortune to actually meet such a woman and that neither of us are married and she has always wanted to have a romantic affair and maybe more with a man just like me and likes the idea of sitting around in comfortable but elegant and sexy clothes having chai and oatmeal cookies or wine and cheese and discussing Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and the Catholic Catechism in between incredible sex sessions.

Hey, we both want exactly the same thing and no one will be hurt. That makes it all okay right?

Or do I owe her more than that?

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post is here.


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  2. You are out of my league when it comes to literature, Jules, but I am enjoying your posts on Brideshead Revisited.

    I confess that I am reading it for the first time. I've seen the 1981 British television serial several times, as well as the watchable but unsatisfactory 2008 film adaptation.

    At this point, on page 29, Charles and Sebastian, having lunched under the elms, are about to arrive at Brideshead. So far, it's been like reading the screenplay for the TV serial.

    By the way, what on earth is a crypto-Catholic libertine? Do you "continue in sin, that grace may abound?".

  3. Thanks for the kind comments.

    A "crypto-Catholic libertine" is an expression I stole from John Mullan who teaches English at University College London. He used it when discussing James II. Mullan said that even James older brother Charles II who was a crypto=Catholic libertine, which is to say a fairly debased character from Mullan's perspective, was able to see the folly of James behaviour "in matters of religion and sex".

    So the sense of the label applied to myself is to suggest that even as bad as I am I might have a moral, religious or literary insight now and then. Or, as the German proverb has it, even a blind chicken finds some seeds.

    By the way, the sense that you are reading the screenplay for the serial is not surprising. Although John Mortimer was commissioned to write the screenplay and gets a credit for it in the 1981 series, his work was not used. In the end, the series was shot almost directly from the novel. That series is not perfect as nothing can be but it is very close to the novel.

    It's very hard to think of any other television or movie treatment that comes as close. The only one I can think of is the version of A Christmas Carol with George C Scott as Scrooge which is the most faithful treatment that has ever been done of that novella.

  4. Jules, can we talk about The Waste Land for a moment? The bells strking nine.

    And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
    Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
    To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
    With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

    Eliot knew exactly what he was doing when he mentioned St. Mary Woolnoth in his poem, at this moment in his poem. He also knew exactly what he was doing when he sounded the 9 bells. The point of this passage is that the church is there, but the crowd flows past without noticing it. St. Mary Woolnoth in London was also, in 1922, the site of the Bank St. Tube Station, so the church itself is literally transformed into a commuter's passage-way, just as the bell sounds not the angelus but simply the tolling hours of another work day. But the church is there. With all of its magnificent history and symbolic potential, which Eliot knew, the church is there. Eliot offers it in the poem as a potential alternative to modern fragmentation, loss, grief and pain that is missed by the crowd. Later perhaps this potential is realized to some extent with St. Magnus Martyr church in "The Fire Sermon".

    So the bells ring nine here in Brideshead. Did Waugh know The Waste Land? We know he did. Could he have chosen some other Oxford church bells to ring out in this chapter? He lists, in chapter two, all the different church bells that do ring out. He chooses St. Mary, and he chooses the number nine. And the moment is followd, as you say, by a betrayal.

    Of course "chiming" is a much nicer sound than the "dead sound on the final stroke of nine" - but it is all a matter of perception, isn't it? When Sebastian comes, the bells chime. Of course they do - he's beautiful and we love him. But the echoes from this moment in The Waste Land are, I think, still there.