Friday, June 14, 2013

A little heavy culture: beauty, truth and goodness

I was having tea with Eliot Girl the other day and we briefly discussed Brideshead Revisited. She disagrees with my interpretation of the book but has not said what she thinks I get wrong, probably out of a desire to avoid a long argument when she'd rather be enjoying her tea. She did say, however, that she thinks I am projecting my own views onto Brideshead.

I don't doubt that a bit. I think it is one of the marks of a truly great novel, and I think Brideshead is the truly great novel of the twentieth century, is that it inspires you to project your deepest beliefs onto it. That is what great novels do—they are a place for us to exercise our moral imagination. The best ones allow us to return to them again and again, learning a bit more from each visit.

Here is someone else doing just that, projecting things onto the novel, and more power to him. That said, he gets a couple of crucial points wrong and he gets them wrong, I think, because he misunderstands the role of beauty in Brideshead.

Let's start with facts as they are clear. Father Barron, a brilliant man, makes what may seem a small mistake but is actually huge. Here is how he describes the chapel at Brideshead (beginning about 1:25 of the video):
At the centre of it is a chapel that is a riot of Baroque decoration the presence of the Eucharist in the chapel meant nothing to Charles when he first came in, he was an agnostic, but he loved the beauty of the place.
Well, actually, no*. One of the big problems for Charles right from the beginning is that he finds the chapel quite ugly and cheap compared to Brideshead. And one of the big reasons he finds it ugly is that it was done over in an arts and crafts style that came off poorly compared to the Baroque splendour of the rest of the house. Here is how it is described in the novel.
The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts and crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give the peculiar quality of being moulded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pock-marked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.
The line where Charles attacks the artist responsible for taking a noble material like oak and carving it, "so as to give the peculiar quality of being moulded in Plasticine,"  shows us how much he disdains what he sees.

By the way, note that the last decade of the 19th century is as close to the figures of the novel as the 1970s is to us. To get an idea of how Charles felt, imagine you are visiting a beautiful Victorian home and find that the living room has been done over in 1970s style.

And it doesn't stop there. Everywhere Charles looks at Catholicism he sees drab ugliness. Nowhere is this more the case than in the morality of the Catholics he encounters. Again, Father Barron gets this backwards.
He meets Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, who is a very devout Catholic, a very morally serious person, and from her he picks up, for the very first time, the moral demand of Catholicism, especially as it pertains to Sebastian's drinking.
Actually, he meets Lady Marchmain and discovers that she is a very manipulative woman. And he meets Bridey and discovers that he is a stiff prig incapable of human connection and Cordelia and discovers that she is a child who prays Novenas for her pet pig. None of these people, despite a whole lot of trying, manage to show Charles the logic behind the moral demand of Catholicism. It is Julia who shows him that in the last third of the novel just as Sebastian shows him the beauty in the first third.

Let's talk Evangelization

Now all this matters because Father Barron has a point to make about Evangelization
The best way to evangelize is to move to the beautiful, then to the good and then to the true.
And he goes on to say that the Catholic church is particularly well placed to do this.
The Catholic church, our genius is that we have embraced the beautiful.
That is well-meaning nonsense from a man who wants to see the good..If only it were true and wouldn't it be nice to think so. Waugh, with his gimlet eye, knew full well that the Catholic church of the 20th century had, in fact, embraced ugliness. She has been responsible for building some of the ugliest churches on the planet. The whole point of evoking the baroque was to recall a past in which the church had been very much invested in beauty.

Waugh also knew that if there was any church that was well placed to evangelize through beauty it was the Anglican church, whose buildings and liturgy were models of restraint and good taste. Waugh's central point was to ask what beauty really is and he found a remnant of it in Catholicism that was so beautiful, so true and so good that it couldn't be trampled by the ugliness of the well-intentioned fools in whose hands the church was left. The light would shine no matter how ugly the actual fixture the light is placed in and no matter how dowdy the people who worship beneath it. A point that is made on the last page of the novel.
"Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been built but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning new among the old stones."
The starting point is not just beauty for lots of things can seem beautiful. Violence is beautiful from certain perspectives.

Beauty, goodness and truth (to put them in the order they are usually presented) play a really important role in Catholic theology. They are the transcendentals; they are the things that we all desire and it is the pursuit of these desires that we can become perfect, "as your Father in heaven is perfect". Ultimately they are a unit (to pursue one is always to pursue the others as well whether we think we intend to or not) but which is the best starting point? What is the best way to draw people into the church?

I think Father Barron is absolutely right that beauty is the place to begin in our age. We live in an ugly age and, as a consequence, we all crave beauty. Despite its many ugly buildings and the appallingly slipshod way the liturgy is presented in many places, the Catholic church is, or could be with a little effort of the right sort, well-placed to evangelize through beauty. But only by turning back and rediscovering the beauties of its past. Father Barron instinctively understands this as all the examples he cites of beauty from within Catholicism are from centuries ago.

Where I think he makes his mistake is with the second move to goodness. In the novel, beauty goes not to goodness but to truth first and that is the way we should go in evangelization. The triumvirate of Lady Marchmain, Bridey and young Cordelia are well chosen for they well-represent the worst traits of modern Catholic moralizing: not a moral but a moralistic approach to life presented through manipulation, smug triumphalism and infantilism.

The last of these is the most dangerous as you can, as an older and wiser Cordelia notes, hate Lady Marchmain. You can also laugh at Bridey but the earnest, seemingly well-meaning but narcissistic morality we see in young Cordelia is much harder to see for the evil it is.

The right way to go is well presented in an old saw: Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. That is to say the law of prayer, then the law of belief and only then the law of living. The three transcendentals are all bound together but we can approach them individually for that very reason. Beauty begins with worship or prayer.

This, by the way, is one of Saint Paul's big points. You can't earn your way into heaven by good conduct. Attempts to become holy by becoming good will always result in evil. Only God's grace can redeem you. And where do you find God's grace? By observing the beauty that surrounds you. Once you become aware of that, you can become aware of the truth about God. The truth of God is not his existence. That's the easy part. Even the most hardened atheist grasps the existence, much as they deny it. They believe he exists and they hate him. The truth of God that is so hard to grasp is that he loves you and he wants you. He wants you more than you want anything. Only once you know that can you work at becoming good because how else could you possible respond to God who loves you so?

* Part of the reason he gets it wrong is clear right from the video itself. As Father Barron is speaking, we see images from Castle Howard. These are the same images used in the TV series and it misrepresents the chapel. The actual chapel that Waugh had in mind was the one at Madresfield Court and it is something else altogether, as you can see at the this site.


  1. Well, I agree with all of that! And the fact that the beauty of the chapel (perhaps better stated as the beauty related to the chapel) comes from something other than the architectural structure is reinforced by Cordelia's description of it as "an oddly decorated room" after the priest has stripped it and "it" has ceased to be.

    1. I'm glad we agree about this. Rereading it just before bed I think I've set out my fundamental beliefs here. This is where I stand.