Friday, December 31, 2010

Enjoy responsibly?

Everywhere I've gone this Christmas, the liquor stores have had a poster up showing a bottle of wine in silhouette, the label not visible, with the words "Enjoy Responsibly" printed below.

So I got this "clever" notion that an imaginary condom company might hire the same advertising agency as the liquor stores. You can imagine it, can't you, a picture of a  woman in silhouette, obviously naked but no specifics visible, with the tag line "Enjoy Responsibly". I thought, "That would nicely highlight just how much we trivialize sex."

And then I wondered if the idea had occurred to anyone else. And it has for I Googled it. But the other people it occurred to saw no irony in the situation. They clearly thought, "What a great way to promote safe sex."

And it suddenly struck me that—contrary to what I'd imagined when I was thinking I was being clever—that the troublesome part is not the "enjoy". Husbands and wives should enjoy one another. Proverbs advises men to enjoy their wives' breasts. Heck, we should enjoy the beautiful people around us as we go about our day.

It's the "responsibly" part that is troublesome. It's the notion of enjoying someone "responsibly" that demeans them. For any time at all we decide to relate to someone sexually (whether or not we actually have sex with them) there are tremendous risks. The trivialization of sex comes when we reduce those risks to disease or unwanted pregnancies.

Not unrelated. A breathtakingly sexy young woman sat beside me on the bus this morning. Designer ski-jacket, jeans, Dolce and Gabbanna sun glasses. She had her ear buds in and the volume cranked so loud I could hear the music sitting next to her. And not once on the trip did she seem to even notice me. She just sat their texting madly. It's something you see all the time so it didn't occur to me that there was any emotion connected to her texting beyond the desperate need some young women have to be in touch all the time.

When it was time for me to get up and step around her, though, she turned and smiled wanly and said, "Sorry". And then I realized she was apologizing because she'd been sobbing the entire time she'd sat next to me. I hadn't heard a sound over her iPod but when she turned towards he I could see the tears pouring out from under her sunglasses. Her face, chin and collar were soaked. She'd been crying very hard for a long time.

I have no idea what her story is and I hope you (and she should she land here and recognize herself)  will forgive me for assuming it was a sexual relationship that had her crying. Maybe her mother died (although that too is a sexual relationship if we think about it). But this young woman's whole persona was that of a sexual being—a persona she clearly puts a lot of time and effort into developing and maintaining to wonderful effect. In a sense if there was anyone on the face of the earth it might theoretically been possible to enjoy responsibly it ought to have been her.

No matter who, when, why or how, there is something irresponsible about sex.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wordsworth, Tennyson or Eliot or something else

The Season of Brideshead
Perhaps the strongest similarity between Brideshead and Proust is the way people in both books keep trying to make their lives rise to the level of art and failing. They have a problem and the proposed solution to their problem is art—they believed that human life could achieve a wholeness if we managed to make our living it into a work of art. But art keeps failing us. We get powerful hints that the aesthetes ideal of wholeness can't be achieved through life as art but can, instead, be achieved through a relationship with God. (A conclusion not a few aesthetes before Waugh also arrived at.)

To flash back a bit. When Julia tells Charles about her marriage to Rex, she sums up by quoting Father Mowbray:
'You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn't all there. He wasn't a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle. an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole.'
Later, when Charles pulls a Gauguin (someone who looked for primitive savagery and brought something ghhastly with him) and goes to Latin America to find an artistic redemption there he says of himself,
But despite this isolation and this long sojourn in a strange world, I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole.
There are echoes of great poetry throughout this book as people keep trying to behave like art.

In chapter one of book one, just out of the prologue, Charles tells us that he had been to Brideshead for the first time "more than twenty years ago". Now we can date that Eights Week when he makes his first visit to 1923. The novel was written (mostly) between February and June of 1944 and that gives us our latest possible date for Charles return. In fact, it gives us our only possible date: the spring of 1944, I would guess April. And he left after parting from Julia in 1939. That makes five years.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
With a soft inland murmur ...
Only Charles hears no waters for the fountain has been close up and circled off with wire. His ending is more like the following
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
if there were water we should stop and drink
Over and over again, the characters in the novel strive for some Romantic past and end up in a waste land.

The first hint of Wordsworth is in the title. Purists will object that there  is no poem called "Tintern Abbey Revisited" and they would be, of course, correct. But that was the short hand title for the poem for years. Nowadays, just "Tintern Abbey" is more common.

If we are going to be really purist about it, that should bother us too for Tintern Abbey never appears in the poem. It makes a brief appearance in the title and there only as a place marker. The poem is about a spot on the banks of the Wye a few miles from Tintern Abbey.

And yet ...

Suppose I told you that the first girl I ever fell in love with, back in grade six, lived just off Regent Street, past the corner where Baskin Robbins was. Those could be purely geographic details or I might just be using "Regent" and "ice cream" to tell you something about the nature of the not-quite-relationship I had with Anne McCreary.

And that is the puzzle of Tintern Abbey. Why mention the Abbey at all? And the poem concerns itself with a sort of religious feeling that Wordsworth feels in the presence of nature a few miles from a ruined church! He goes back and refinds something there.

In the preface, Waugh tells us that he had though the great English country houses doomed in 1944. And he goes on to say,
It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century.
So the parallel was in his mind.

At the opening, the farmlands where the first camp is located is described like this:
The camp stood where, until quite lately, had been pasture and ploughland; the farmhouse still stood in a fold of the hill and had served us for battalion offices; ivy still supported part of what had once been the walls of a fruit garden; half an acre of mutliated old trees behind the wash-houses survived of an orchard. The place had been marked for destruction before the army came to it. Had there been another year of peace, there would have been no farmhouse, no wall, no apple trees. Already a half a mile of concretete road lay between clay banks, and on either side a chequer of open ditches showed where the municipal contractors had designed a system of drainage. Another year of peace would have made the place part of a neighbouring suburb.
Compare that with what Worsworth describes
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door ...
Yup, Waugh has slated Wordsworth's little cottage plot for development into a suburb. All it would have taken is "another year of peace": How's that for irony?

The character whose dreams are most Wordsworthian is Sebastian. He talks about burying the pot of gold. And that golden treasure is echoed in very Wordsworthian terms when Charles returns to his rooms that Sebastian has filled with flowers and he thinks,
'Nothing, except the golden daffodils seemed to be real.'
Finally, Sebastian, flipping through Clive Bells reponds as follows,
'"Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?" Yes, I do.'
But does Charles ever manage this?

He has his shot at a Wordsworthian return in Book 3, Chapter 3 which begins with Charles and Julia musing about how long it has been, how many summers, how many Christmases  it had been. (Not incidentally, he and Julia leave Brideshead for the exact same number of Christmases that Charles got to visit Brideshead with Sebastian.) But it doesn't work and the memories, we quickly realize are a desperate attempt to deny what they both know, that their peace cannot last.

By the way, Tintern Abbey has its own echo of the Song of Songs and I think we can see Sebastian very clearly in it.
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the things he loved.
From Tennyson to Eliot
As much as Waugh might use Wordsworth, some sort of break is inevitable for he could not, as we should not, embrace the following pagan stupidity as Wordsworth does:
Knowing that nature never did betray
The heart that loved her ...
Death will come and, when faced with death, characters resort to another kind of art: the art of heroic chivalry. We cannot miss the link between Lord Marchmain's soliloquy and this sort of poetry:
So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the wnter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chnacel with a broken cross.,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
It's the barren waste land that keeps winning though (And Eliot has to have had Morte d'Arthur in mind when he wrote The Waste Land). Waugh keeps peppering Lord Marchmain's reminiscences with allusions to Eliot's great poem. Notice how he recalls the hill where the old castle used to be before it was torn down to build the new house:
You can see where the old house stood near the village church: they call the field "Castle Hill", Horlick's field where the ground's uneven and half of it is waste, nettle, and brier in hollows too deep for ploughing. They dug to the foundations to carry stone for the new house; the house that was a century old when Aunt Julia was born. Those were our roots  in the waste hollows of Castle hill, in the brier and the nettle; among the tombs in the old church and chantry where no clerk sings.
It's hard not to think of passages like this in Eliot:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is a shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
With the dead in a dead language
 In the end, Waugh isn't quite like Eliot either though. Waugh had a counter-reformation mind. The aesthetic education Charles goes through is not accidental. He goes from Gothic Oxford (irrecoverable as Lyonnesse), to Renaissance Italy to Baroque Brideshead. He then makes a brief sojourn in modernist Paris before coming back to Brideshead. What matters to Waugh is not western civilization itself, and it is very much civilization and tradition that matters to Eliot. What matters most of all to Waugh is a purpose compared to which the problems of three little people don't add up to a hill of beans.
'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 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 lit but for the builders and tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
"It could not have been lit but for the builders and tragedians": that is what the priest is for; to gather the builders and tragedians. And note that the priest at the end is himself a shelled wreck. For Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot, a ruined chapel would do provided the right kind of spirit blew through it. For Waugh that would never do. For him it must be a working church, a consecrated space and God's priest in it:
Nobis quoque peccatoribus, famulis tuis, de multitudine miserationum tuaram sperantibus, partem aliquam, et societatem donare digneris, cum tuis sanctis Apostolis et Martyribus: cum Joanne, Stephano, Matthia, Barnaba, Ignatio, Alexandro, Marcellino, Petro, Felicitate, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucia, Agnete, Caecillia, Anastasia, et omnibus Sanctis tuis: intra quorum nos consortium, non aestimor meriti, sed veniae, quaesemus, largitor admitte. [Translation* follows the video.]

(I love the placement of the Beata Beatrix to correspond with the one and only uplifting musical line in that section.)

* To us also, who are sinners, thy servants, trusting in thine infinite mercy, grant of thy goodness a place in the fellowship of thy holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and with all thy Saints. Admit us to their company, we beg thee, not weighing what we deserve but generously pardoning us.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

There will be no next post 'cause this is the end on the sixth day in the Octave of Christmas, 2010.

If you want one more thing to ponder, there is this: The Serpentine One notes that the sanctuary lamp when we first see it is brass. Here at the end it is copper. Is that a mistake that no one noticed? Did Waugh simply mean "a copper alloy" i.e. brass by "copper" at the end? Or has the brass been purified as in an oven to give us copper?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Season of Brideshead
 A Twitch Upon the Thread, Chapter five
There is an audio discussion of Brideshead Revisited in Slate's book Club. (the link is here if you want to listen to it,) One of the more interesting things in it is that none of the three certified smart people who take part can quite pin down the moment of Charles conversion. They think it must be somewhere in the epilogue. The people who made the recent awful movie are similarly confused and they also leave the question unresolved until the very end.

But we know better don't we? The conversion moment is right here in chapter five.

A little Hegel to lighten the conversation
We've had hints that it is coming and one of the biggest is at the end of Chapter four when Charles says to Cordelia, "You knew I wouldn't understand." That moment would play very differently if Cordelia had said, "I knew you wouldn't understand."

One of Hegel's most famous, and justly so, arguments is that to define a limit is to surpass it. Imagine you and I are standing on the prairie. I know I cannot see forever and you would hardly disagree. But suppose I say, "I can only see as far as that rock over there." Then you'd be inclined to disagree. Even if I said, "I can only see as far as the horizon," you might think, "But you can see the sky behind the horizon."

To set a limit on what we can understand is to build a fence and say. "Beyond this I cannot go." But to build a fence you necessarily learn something about what is on the other side. Charles is setting a limit here: he is saying, "I can understand this far but no further," and, by doing so, he has already allowed himself to peek over the fence he has built. Now it only remains to be seen whether he is willing to climb that fence.

Charles has been accumulating reasons to convert but he has not made the crucial move that will make it possible for him to do so.

The temptation in the desert
I forgot to gloat at Sebastian appearing in his final iteration as a hermit in the desert last chapter, just as the elder Bellini's painting would have it. This is more apropos than it might seem for it connects to the temptation of Jesus in the desert after his baptism. The story gets told in different ways with the temptations happening in different orders in the synoptic gospels (John does not want to admit that Jesus was baptized). It is Luke's version that is interesting here. Luke has Jesus tempted by feast, then by the offer of dominion over this world and finally by testing God so that he may provide a sign. Jesus, of course, passes all three tests with flying colours. Charles fails all three.
  1. He feasts on what Julia and Brideshead can offer him.
  2. He covets the worldly power as represented by possible ownership of Brideshead and is thrilled at Bridey's misstep that looks like to give it to him.
  3. He tests God by praying to him for a sign.
The first needs no further comment.

The second is fascinating as we see Charles quickly go over to the dark side. He glories in Bridey's defeats, talks of "mumbo jumbo" and "witch doctors". He says he is doing this because he fears that religion will cast a dark cloud over he and Julia but everything he does angers her. He is not so stupid that he could not figure out he would be further ahead if he just shut up about it. Charles is won over not just by a desire to have the house but by a desire for worldly power.

Finally there is the request for a sign. This comes in a moment that might initially seem an ascent to holiness but is actually a  descent into sinfulness for it is only when Charles is all the way down that his conversion takes place. (And we will remember Charles' earlier discussion of his love for Sebastian and his being unable to decide whether it was an ascent or descent.)

Here is the descent:
Then I knelt, too, and prayed: 'O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin.' ....

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign. It seemed so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgment of a present, a nod in the crowd. I prayed more simply; 'God forgive him his sins' and 'Please God, make him accept your forgiveness.'

So small a thing to ask.
Never before have we seen Charles acting in what seems so saintly a manner. Saintly but not a saint. You can hear "Lady Marchmain or even Charles' appalling commanding officer in "So small a think to ask"; it's like saying to God "I don't ask for much." This is the very bottom of the abyss.

The conversion comes in the next paragraph when Lord Marchmain's hand reaches for his forehead and Charles thinks that he is only doing it because he has felt the oil touch the skin and is about to wipe it away. And Charles prays, 'O God, don't let him do that.'

That is the moment. This is when Charles comes face to face with nihilism.

 I mentioned the Slate book club because they catch the nihilism. One, Meghan O'Rourke, says, correctly, there is a nihilism about the book. Another, Katie Roiphe, calls it "The darkest sentimental book in the world." And the third, Troy Patterson, says that none of the characters have done anything to earn their conversion.

That last comment is a favourite type for me. You see it again and again from non-believers—the conviction that the thing they don't want to believe in is something incredibly valuable that must be earned. They call Christians hypocrites for not being morally superior beings: "How can you, a Christian, be just as bad as me." "No, no," says Sebastian, "I am much wickeder."

Nihilism is a funny thing. It gets called up in the Slate discussion like it was something unusual. And yet, we live in an age where nihilism is commonplace. john Lennon's "Imagine" is about as straightforwardly nihilist as nihilism can get. So was Seinfeld. But that nihilism is a nihilism that refuses to take itself seriously. It wants to have a party in the dead end alleyway instead of going and beating its head to a pulp against the brick wall at the end of the alley. Just as Julia wants to have a few years peace.

It's here, just when we, and he, might think that he is headed for salvation, that Charles is dealt a harsh blow; it's at that "oh crap" moment when he thinks he is going to be denied the sign he so badlywants that Charles is converted. For only then does he become whole and admit to himself how desperately he craves this affirmation. Now he can understand precisely because he has so dreaded the awfulness of the nihilism he thought he might have had to face.

And notice that there is nothing in Lord Marchmain's act that guarantees anything at all. We've had all this explained to us in the long preceding discussion about "What is the priest for". In a sense, the answer is "Nothing", for God can do whatever he wants with or without a priest and any person can be genuinely penitent priest or no priest. (To be a good priest requires incredible humility; remember Charles saying when he meets his first priest "how unlike he was to a parson"?.) We don't know that Lord Marchmain really wants forgiveness so we don't know if he gets it. The sign could be bogus as so many religious signs turn out to be.

The only thing we know for certain is real in the scene is Charles' craving for God at just the moment when he thinks his nascent hope is nipped in the bud.

A little Proust to finish off
I've been dropping hints about the Proust influence on Waugh throughout. That is a bit contentious as there seems to be no evidence that Waugh had read Proust at this point. If we trust what Waugh says in his own letters, he had not.

But he clearly knows something about Proust as we saw in the Charlus remark that Mr. Samgrass makes.

I think it was Joshua Reynolds who told his students that they should know something about philosophy but went on to say that instead of reading philosophy, they could learn everything they really needed to know by having conversations about it with learned people. Waugh's knowledge of Proust may have come this way. Proust's great book was still coming out in various volumes and these were much discussed among the aesthetes at Oxford during Waugh's time there. And we know from letters and interviews that Waugh had a long-standing sense of inferiority at not being able to read Proust in French as his friends could.

But I think there is more and there is a telling hint in this chapter.

One of Waugh's favourite tricks was to use pastiches on other works in his writing. We've already seen one example in the travesty of Christ's passion in Anthony being dunked in Mercury. Edward McAleer writes about some examples from Waugh's first book, Decline and Fall, in Winter edition of The Evelyn Waugh Newsletter of 1973. Here are a couple of the examples he gives.
1. Here is a speech by Shylock Waugh will make an allusion to from The Merchant of Venice:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
And here is a Chokey speaking in Waugh's Decline and Fall:
"You folks all think the colored man hasn't got a soul. Any thing's good enough for the poor colored man. Beat him; put him in chains; load him with burdens … But all the time that poor colored man has a soul same as you have. Don't he breathe the same as you? don't he eat and drink? Don't he love Shakespeare and cathedrals and the paintings of the old masters same as you? Isn't he just asking for your love and help to raise him from the servitude into which your fore-fathers plunged him? Oh, say, white folks, why don't you stretch out a helping hand to the poor colored man, that's as good as you are, if you'll only let him be?"
2. Again, here is a paragraph from Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
 And here is Professor Silenus from Decline and Fall:
"What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man! How obscure and gross his prancing and chattering on his little stage of evolution! How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of this biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned body! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature and the doing of the machine, the vile becoming!"
Again in that Slate discussion, Meghan O'Rourke says of Brideshead that it seems "Stitched together from passages from different genres". What she doesn't see is that pastiche is one of the glories of Waugh's writing. He is always stitching things in.

And one of the reasons that I think we can be pretty sure Waugh had read Proust is that he stitches in a bit of it into this chapter. In the first book of Swann's Way Marcel's Aunt Leonie owns the house in Comray and will leave it, along with considerable wealth, to Marcel and his family. As she is dying, Marcel describes her behaviour like this:
... so, this evening, she said to my grandfather, "Yes, some day when the weather is fine I shall go for a drive as far as the gate of the park." And in saying this she was quite sincere. She would have liked to see Swann and Tansonville again; but the mere wish to do so sufficed for all that remained of her strength, which its fulfillment would have more than exhausted. Sometimes a spell of fine weather made her a little more energetic, and she would get up and dress; but before she reached the outer room she would be tired again, and would insist on returning to bed. The process which had begun in her—and in her a little earlier only than it must come to all of us—as the great renunciation of old age as it prepares itself for death ....
And here is Lord Marchmain in today's chapter,
There were days days when Lord Marchmain was dressed, when he stood at the window or moved on his valet's arm from fire to fire through the rooms of the ground floor, when visitors came and went—neighbours and people from the estate, men of business from London—parcels of new books were opened and discussed, a piano was moved into the Chinese drawing-room; once at the end of February, on a single, unexpected day of brilliant sunshine, he called for a car and got as far as the hall, had on his fur coat, and reached the front door. Then suddenly he lost interest in the drive, said, "Not Now. Later. One day in the summer,' took his man's arm again and was led back to his chair.
The borrowing is pretty clear. But, as with all Waugh's borrowings, he re-purposes the text. Proust shows us how his Aunt Leonie has already begun to accept the great renunciation of this world. Waugh uses the same approach to show us Lord Marchmain's inability to do so. For later, when he is on oxygen, Lord Marchmain is still in that non-accepting mindset:
'When the summer comes,' said Lord Marchmain, oblivious of the deep corn and swelling fruit and the surfeited bees who slowly sought their hives in the heavy afternoon sunlight outside his windows, 'when the summer comes, I shall leave my bed and sit in the open air and breathe more easily.'
But summer never will come again for him. He will no more taste of the fruit of the vine until ....

The only thing that remains to point out is that this is not a famous passage of Proust. It is not something Waugh would have found out about by overhearing others discussing it. Only someone who knew his Proust quite well would know about this. I think Waugh read the first translated volumes of Proust and had read him closely. The influence is all over Brideshead Revisited. He uses Proust's techniques to a different end but he uses them.


The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here when there is a next post.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch Upon the Thread, chapter four
It took me yesterday's post just to get back in the rhythm I think. Also chapter three has a lot of stuff in it, much of which I had to leave without comment.

There are, for example, odd little symmetric details about that chapter. There is a section about Bridey's private life that talks about his membership in "the Knights of Malta", a group of eminent men who "meet once a month for an evening of ceremonious buffoonery." And in the relevant paragraph, we get this odd little detail:
...each had his sobriquet—Bridey was called Brother Grandee—and a specially designed jewel worn like an order of chivalry, symbolizing it ...
Did you catch the echo? Don't feel bad if you did not. I've read this book over and over and it was only this time that I spotted it. It takes us back to, what a surprise, chapter three of the first book, "Et in Arcadia Ego", when Edward Ryder is making his son's life difficult through ceremonious buffoonery in the form of an awful dinner party and he shows up:
I saw my father snuffling from behind a case of ceramics as stood with them. That evening he wore, like a chivalric badge of battle, a small red rose in his button hole.
Parallel lives
This sort of repetition is constant.
'It's frightening,' Julia once said, 'to think of how completely you have forgotten Sebastian.

'He was the forerunner.'

'That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since, perhaps I am only a forerunner, too.'
Later on the same page, she says something even more telling. Charles has tried to explain that he is not forgetting Sebastian but experiencing him in Julia and her he had been experiencing in Sebastian all those years before:
'That's cold comfort for a girl,' she said when I tried to explain. 'How do I know I shan't suddenly turn out to be somebody else?'
And I take you back to the very beginning where Waugh replaces the usual boilerplate disclaimer about any resemblance to persons or events et cetera with this:
I am not I : thou art not he or she : they are not they
That now reads more like an epigraph than a disclaimer. It's shame really that Waugh did not live long enough to mock Facebook and texting. As shallow and vapid as the Bright Young Things might have appeared at the time, they show substance and depth compared to the Facebook generation. But mock as he might, Waugh would not have been disappointed by the Facebook generation. He would have been gleeful to see people turn out to be just what he expected they would.

You are not the person you think you are. You are not interesting. Your text messages are boring. Your Twitter tweets are facile and vapid. Your Facebook profile only magnifies the foolishness you pathetically dare to call your life. Your daily blogging about Brideshead only serves to show how empty your existence is.

If, like me, you have the incredible fortune to be married to a wonderful woman, you might think yourself unique. But, precisely because she is wonderful, she would most likely have been married happily if I had not come along. She has the gift of love and everything magic she has brought to me might have gone to someone else if I had blown it all; and I am so good at blowing it when it really matters.

Not at all by the way, I hope it is clear now that we should not trust Charles telling this tale. When he says his theme is memory, we should wonder just how reliable those memories are because they are based on judgments that are dubious. When, at the very beginning of this chapter, he refers to Celia's new lover  Robin as "[a] half-baked, pimply youth" we should see the older Charles realizing just how easily each generation of youth is replaced by another. Every husband can be replaced; every youth bounding over the hills like a stag will, in five years time, be replaced by others.

Which brings me to Cordelia's reappearance. There are two miraculous bits of casting in the 1981 TV series. The first is Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche and the second is Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia. For all the talk about Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, it is those two who make the series work. And it is their willingness to appear faintly ridiculous that works. Not because these two characters in particular are supposed to be faintly ridiculous but because every character in every Waugh novel is faintly ridiculous.

Nicholls delivers the following lines perfectly in the series:
'You and Julia ...' she said. And then, as we moved towards the house, 'When you met me last night did you think, "Poor Cordelia, such an engaging child, grown up a plain and pious spinster, full of good works"? Did you think "thwarted"?
There is something perfect about how Nicholls opens and closes that paragraph. When she says, "You and Julia," there is a smile in her voice but it doesn't quite come off. We hear a bit of the little girl who saw her brother's friend and imagined a little what it would be like to marry him. And again only bettter, there is the way she comes down on "thwarted". She puts all the weight on that word—exactly the word someone who really didn't worry about it would not emphasize—so we think, she is trying to convince herself it isn't true as well as Charles.

Here on the page she might convince us a little too easily. We might miss the hint, just a little earlier in the dialogue, when she is surprised and a little miffed to find out that Charles already knows that her governess had committed suicide when Cordelia was a little girl. Cordelia, not being Bridey, would know full well that this is exactly the sort of gossip that gets passed on about one but she hoped not in her case. She wanted to believe that she was different.

Her lingering childhood crush is not, I think, unrequited. We have Charles, as well, desperately wanting to believe for he too had a crush on her. It was barely there and it would have been so wrong—like wanting to fondle the Blessed Virgin Mary—so he suppressed it. But it was there.

So, when Charles says the following of Sebastian turning out as he has, we should think of more than Sebastian:
I thought of the youth with the teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. 'It's not what one would have foretold,' I said. 'I suppose he doesn't suffer.'
We should think of Cordelia here too. And Julia. And Charles. And even Bridey. They're all thwarted. They're all suffering, albeit not suffering so intensely as the holy one, Sebastian.

Two Springs
In response to Charles' remark about Sebastian and suffering that I quoted above, Cordelia says,
'Oh yes, I think he does [suffer]. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is—no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It's taken that form with him ... I've seen so much suffering in the last few years; there's so much coming for everybody soon. It's the spring of love ...'
It's the spring of love. You might almost miss that reading along.

In the last paragraph of the chapter, Charles gives us another, extended metaphor of spring in a trapper during the last storm of winter "everything dry and ship-shape and warm inside" only for the sun to come out high on the slopes afterward and melt enough to cause the avalanche to carry away this little cozy repsite.

Yes, the spring of love in so many senses. The spring that launches love. The spring that is fed with melting water from the high alpine snows. The spring that is the wonderful season of almost pagan rebirth. No one with any poetry in their soul could associate winter with warmth and spring with suffering could they?

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering        
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

"Mixing memory with desire"? Does that remind you of anyone? Of someone who says his theme is memory but is, unbeknownst to himself, telling us just as much of thwarted desire as his memories?

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

What I don't like about about Julia's speech

I won't build up to it: I think the emotion is wrong. It just doesn't make sense that Julia would be reduced to hysterics by Bridey's comment about living in sin. She's been through this a long time and there is nothing in that comment to inspire that reaction. I think it is sexism plain and simple.

I recognize that many but not all women cry more than men but it just doesn't work.

More importantly, the explosion is unnecessary. If it were rewritten so that the emotion was anger and a little bit about "they know all about it" and the pamphlet at the back of the church it would work better followed by Julia angrily saying to Charles that it does make sense. But none of this stuff about Mummy dying with it. It's over the top and crass quite frankly

Perhaps biggest strike against it is that the whole scene is doing almost no useful work in the novel as it stands. If you left it out completely you'd miss very little. Lord Marchmain's soliloquy coming up does not fit realist conventions either but it does real useful work in the story. It could have been rewritten to be replaced with Charles saying he sat with him alone every day and then summarizing what he was told about the history of Brideshead and that would solve the stylistic problem. But all of it fits; it really belongs in the story. Julia's outburst does not.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

That Ruskin quote

The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch Upon the Thread, Chapter 3
'Julia,' I said later, when Brideshead had gone upstairs, 'have you ever seen a picture of Holman Hunt's called "The Awakened Conscience"?'


I had seen a copy of Pre-Raphaelitism in the library some days before; I found it again and read her Ruskin's description. She laughed quite happily.

'You're perfectly right. That's exactly what I did feel.'
By way of background, here is the painting in question and, below it, the full quote from Ruskin.

Sir,–Your kind insertion of my notes on Mr. Hunt’s principal picture encourages me to hope that you may yet allow me room in your columns for a few words respecting his second work in the Royal Academy, the "Awakening Conscience." Not that this picture is obscure, or its story feebly told. I am at a loss to know how its meaning could be rendered more distinctly, but assuredly it is not understood. People gaze at it in a blank wonder, and leave it hopelessly; so that, although it is almost an insult to the painter to explain his thoughts in this instance, I cannot persuade myself to leave it thus misunderstood. The poor girl has been singing with her seducer; some chance words of the song "Oft in the stilly night" have struck upon the numbed places of her heart; she has started up in agony; he, not seeing her face, goes on singing, striking the keys carelessly with his gloved hand.

I suppose that no one possessing the slightest knowledge of expression could remain untouched by the countenance of the lost girl, rent from its beauty into sudden horror; the lips half open, indistinct in their purple quivering, the teeth set hard, the eyes filled with the fearful light of futurity, and with tears of ancient days. But I can easily understand that to many persons the careful rendering of the inferior details in this picture cannot but be at first offensive, as calling their attention away from the principal subject. It is true that detail of this kind has long been so carelessly rendered that the perfect finishing of it becomes matter of curiosity, and therefore an interruption to serious thought. But, without entering into the question of the general propriety of such treatment, I would only observe that, at least in this instance, it is based on a truer principle of the pathetic than any of the common artistical expedients of the schools. Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent and distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart. Even to the mere spectator, a strange interest exalts the accessories of a scene in which he bears witness to human sorrow. There is not a single object in all that room, common, modern, vulgar (in the vulgar sense, as it may be), but it became tragical, if rightly read. That furniture, so carefully painted, even to the last vein of the rosewood–is there nothing to be learned from that terrible lustre of it, from its fatal newness; nothing there that has the old thoughts of home upon it, or that is ever to become a part of home? Those embossed books, vain and useless–they also now–marked with no happy wearing of beloved leaves; the torn and dying bird upon the floor; the gilded tapestry, with the fowls of the air feeding on the ripened corn; the picture above the fireplace with its single drooping figure–the woman taken in adultery; nay, the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon the pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast foot failing in the street; and the fair garden flower, seen in the reflected sunshine of the mirror–these also have their language–

"Hope not to find delight in us, they say,
For we are spotless, Josy–we are pure."
I surely need not go on. Examine the whole range of the walls of the Academy; nay, examine those of all our public and private galleries, and, while pictures will be met with by the thousands which literally tempt to evil, by the thousand which are devoted to the meanest trivialities of incident or emotion, by the thousand so the delicate fancies of inactive religion, there will not be found one powerful as this to meet full in the front the moral evil of the age in which it is painted, to waken into mercy the cruel thoughtlessness of youth and subdue the severities of judgement into the sanctity of compassion.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

Denmark hill.

I'd only add, I don't think the painting works at all. I like some of Hunt's stuff but this painting is a failure.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

What Waugh didn't like about Julia's speech

The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch Upon the Thread, Chapter 3
For many critics, the big problem with Brideshead is that it is not realistic. But realism is a nebulous thing. There is. for example, a site on the web that offers students information for essay writing that says the following with great authority
... and one Anthony Blanche, a ridiculous character who, as scholars say, embodies every gay stereotype of Waugh’s era. He also speaks with an affected stutter.
I don't know which "scholars" are supposed to have said this but Anthony Blanche is a very realistic portrayal of a guy named Brian Howard and there are other verbal portraits of him that confirm Waugh's. It is the scholars who are deluding themselves because they so desperately want to believe that these are just stereotypes. All gay men are not now, and were not then, like Anthony Blanche but there are people today who fit the type and it isn't hard to find them. And they are not, as the supposedly "unbiased" author of the above would have it "ridiculous".

Imagine if I wrote the story of an ordinary middle class kid who never did anything to change the world but I had as one character in his life a supreme court judge whom this kid knows and talks to. You might be inclined to think, what  a crock, ordinary kids don't get to confide with supreme court judges. But that story is very real for you see it is my story. Every famous person knows some ordinary people.

The point being that one of the most common criticisms of Brideshead is bogus. It is often said that the people portrayed are not realistic because they are not typical. And while it is true they are not typical, they were very real. Every character in this book is like people Waugh actually knew. In one sense at least, this is very much a realistic book.

The other criticism is that Waugh is too close, too enamoured about the people he is writing about to be realistic. And yet, if we actually read the book, we can see that this too is unfair. The presentation of these people is not sycophantic or fawning, it's actually quite cold and critical.

So what is it that bothers critics? Well, a big part is the fact that the novel is Catholic and, little as they like to admit it, many critics don't want a novel in which a man is convincingly converted to Catholicism. But, more than that, the novel uses some of modernism's favourite techniques to undermine modernism. It isn't the snobbish story of aristocratic glory that critics attack but it is very much a capital-R Romanticism we are reading here.

Seen from enough distance, patterns begin to emerge that cannot be seen from close up. That, at least, is the ideology. And the standard story that goes with it is like this: for a long time the people lived in darkness and then came the Enlightenment and scientific and political progress; but the Enlightenment had excesses and in response to that there arose a movement called Romanticism; and Romanticism, however, was slowly overcome by Modernism; eventually Modernism itself was replaced by Postmodernism. The story gets a bit murky here, however, because nobody really knows what Modernism was supposed to be about and that makes defining Postmodernism difficult.

As I've said before, you can see the problem right in the word "Postmodernism" which, like Post-Impressionism from which it descends, tries to define something by a negative quality. People only do that when they don't know what to say and decide to get by by faking it.

But the whole idea that we see things better from a distance, that is dispassionately, is an Enlightenment idea. The whole idea that history divides into periods that represent a progress from darkness to greater and greater levels of ... well of enlightenment is an Enlightenment idea.

Romanticism, on the other hand, has never really gone away. If you think it has, I have two words for you: Harry Potter. Or the Lord of the Rings, or teenage-girl vampire fiction. In fact, perhaps the most embarrassing secret for those who wish to be modern or enlightened is that Romanticism has always been the art of the modern era.

In many ways we might say that far from moving from Enlightenment to Romanticism to Modernism to Postmodernism, we've actually been having the same argument between a kind of Progressivism and Romanticism. People keep buying Romanticism even while our betters keep pushing us to accept an art they feel is more in accord with the modern world.

Through it all, the rallying cry of the Progressives is that we must see things dispassionately, from a distance, so we can see them as they really are. They accuse Romantics for failing to do this and, therefore, of embracing a past that never was.

And Waugh?
We can see the contradictions in reactions to Waugh. Here is Charles Rolo in The Atlantic of October, 1954.
The paradox, in fact, is that when Waugh is being comic, he makes luminous the failures of his age, confronts us vividly with the desolating realities; and when he is being serious, he is liable to become trashy. For without the restraints of the ironic stance, his critical viewpoint reveals itself as bigoted and rancorous; his snobbery emerges as obsessive and disgusting; and his archaism involves him in all kinds of silliness. 
Rolo is only one of many critics who keep telling us this about Waugh. And he is only one of many who keeps telling us that we shouldn't like the side of Waugh that we like the most, that is the Romantic side. Back in 1954, Rolo was obliged to admit the following:
Despite the fact that Brideshead Revisited -- which introduces the "later" or "serious" Evelyn Waugh -- has sold many more copies in the United States than all of Waugh's other books put together, his name, at least among the literary -- is still most apt to evoke a singular brand of comic genius. 
It is now more than five decades since Rolo wrote that and the gap between sales of Brideshead and all of Waugh's other books put together has grown. And, to be rude about it, the reputation of our betters—"the literary" as Rolo would have it—has plunged to the point that their very future is in doubt. Humanities, once the largest faculty at most universities, now attracts about one in ten students. Magazines such as The Atlantic have a very uncertain future and only survive because of cost-cutting and patronage.

The contradictions of realism
In one way or another, the anti-Romantics have always been realists of a sort. They have always accused the Romantics of embracing not just illusions but, and this is the more important part, embracing illusions that have no place in the modern world. One of the early moves was straight realism. If art could simply represent the world as it was, it would conquer Romantic illusions.

It didn't work out as planned.

Here are two paintings of the Annunciation. Neither is a realist painting but the second might be said to be more realist than the first.

And here we see a number of paradoxes here. The first is that the more realist of the two paintings is the second one that is more likely to give us a sense that a supernatural event like the Annunciation could actually take place. Rossetti's Mary has a Halo and Rossetti's angel's feet are not actually touching the ground and yet everything else is close enough to real that we can imagine the picture without either of those two supernatural details. In a modern movie, the Angel could be a guy who just shows up in Mary's room.

The Burne Jones painting, on the other hand, is clearly mythological. And yet, Burne Jones, as I've remarked before, can be more honest in his portrayal than Rossetti as we will note that his Mary, as we would expect in a young woman, has very nice, touchable-looking breasts. Rossetti's Mary (his sister was the model if I remember correctly) doesn't seem to have entered puberty yet.

And those are the contradictions of realism. It seems to subvert its own aims in that you can use very realistic representations to make the unreal more convincing. Realism always turns out to be just a series of stylistic conventions that promise honesty.

Conversely, non-realist art can often be honest in ways that realist art cannot. Even today, you would cause scandal if you crossed the two paintings. If someone re-did the Rossetti painting above but gave Mary a convincing sexual presence–imagine her bra-less breasts pressing through that thin fabric and you will see the problem. It is only by making her mythological that Burne Jones can get away with painting Mary as a fully sexed woman.

Waugh plays with these paradoxes all the time. As Rolo dimly recognizes, it is in the exaggerations for comic effect that Waugh is most bluntly honest. But he fails to see that Waugh is not deluding himself when he writes more realistically. Rolo may mock Waugh for being a snob with a taste for the archaic and things aristocratic but he could not possibly mock Waugh more mercilessly than Waugh mocks himself for these things. When Waugh writes realistically, as he does in Brideshead, he does so with the explicit intention of undermining our sense of the real. And he lets us know this is plain language when Charles tell us (in "Brideshead Deserted", chapter 1):
I had left behind me—what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance? The conjuring stuff of these things, 'the Young Magician's Compendium', that neat cabinet where the ebony wand had its place beside the delusive billiard balls, the penny that folded double, and the feather flowers that could be drawn into a hollow candle.

'I have left behind illusion,' I said to myself. 'Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions—with the aid of my five senses.'

I have since learned that there is no such world, but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue.
His goal is quite clear here. Charles is embracing the real only to find that the real isn't real; it is only realism which is to say it is just a  series of stylist conventions.

And we see that happening in this chapter (A Twitch on the Thread" Chapter 3) as we see Charles, admitting even in the seemingly Idyllic moments that open the chapter that he "feared to break the spell of memories." As the chapter goes on we see Charles, the one who is trying to be realistic, increasingly forced to resort to artistic images to try and deal with what is troubling Julia by using art to explain reality. The height of which is his pulling out Ruskin's description of Holman Hunt's painting to try and convince Julia that her reaction to Bridey's comment about "living in sin" was just something psychological and his attempts to bring about a reconciliation between he and Julia by comparing their lives to a drama.

And that, for Waugh, is the problem with Julia's speech. It does not follow realistic conventions. Waugh knows full well that the problem is not whether a person might or might not say such a thing in real life but whether we would accept it as realistic. As he writes in the preface:
I have been in two minds as to the treatment of Julia's outburst about mortal sin and Lord Marchmain;'s dying soliloquy. These passages were never, of course, intended to report words actually spoken. They belong to a different way of writing from, say, the early scenes between Charles and his father. I would not now introduce them into a novel which elsewhere aims at verisimilitude.
His goal was to write in a  style that appears to be real as a way to undermine realism. As such, these two speeches don't really belong here. Both are much liked by some readers as Waugh points out. I feel that way about Lord Marchmain's dying soliloquy. But I'm not sure about Julia's outburst. I'm going to linger on it a while. More this afternoon.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Me too sometimes

"But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."

"Can't I?"

"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings
and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't BELIEVE things because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A small break

The Season of Brideshead
Running out to the fountain

Note: On Tuesday, traffic dropped to half of what it usually is and then, yesterday, it dropped to about one tenth. People are obviously traveling for Christmas. I'm not traveling because I already live in a perfect place but I will be taking a little break. Brideshead blogging will resume on Monday.

Meanwhile, here is the question: What is wrong with the fountain scene?

When he revised the book, Waugh noted that two of the speeches—Julia at the fountain and another by Lord Marchmain coming up—simply had no place in a realistic novel. He had a point. Both are more like soliloquies than like real speech.

And yet neither harms the novel; and this is odd because they both seem crucial.

But it seems to me that there is a bigger problem with the Julia speech and that is that it isn't psychologically plausible. It's the wrong emotion. Julia simply would not break down like that. It's not that some people wouldn't react that way but Waugh has done nothing to prepare us for this. It doesn't fit the Julia we know. And in the end it is another emotion, anger, that actually makes the difference.

Anyway, much more on that and on Tintern Abbey starting Monday.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Contra Mundum

The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch Upon the Thread, Chapter two
The expression "contra mundum" has a history by the way (almost everything in this novel has a history). It is associated with Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria who "won" the Council at Nicea. He won in the sense that he managed to convince the Council to support the doctrine that God the Father and Christ had both always existed as opposed to the belief that God the Father had created Christ at a particular time in history, a view known as Arianism. And thus the Nicene Creed.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.
Athanasius was famous for taking on the whole world and never once flinching in his opposition to Arianism. He suffered exile and abuse rather than give in. Although the decision at Nicea went his way, he was shortly afterward sent into exile because of the political enemies he made. So much so that the expression "Athanasius contra mundum" came to mean going a little crazy in the defence of truth as you see it.

Which is not what we imagine Sebastian as having been up to is it? But he is. You might say that he stands no matter what the cost against what his mother was, in Cordelia's words, striving to be saintly instead striving to be a saint.

The temptation when we read Julia saying, 'Oh, my darling, why is it that love makes me hate the world?' is to think, 'Well, this can't really be love; love is a good thing and will have good effects.' But a certain kind of Christian can never believe that love will necessarily have good effects in this world.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

"You see, it's all happened before"

The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch Upon the Thread, Chapter two
One of the deceptive things about reading any old book is that things change. The last chapter, for example, was set on a grand old ocean liner. We look back on such a thing with nostalgia, everything acquires a brown tint like an old photograph. At the time, however, the ocean liner was the latest thing. It was the symbol of everything that was new and stylish. Waugh underlines this by having Julia say that there is something about it that makes everyone behave like a film star. He underlines this by having the Hollywood director and Celia's suggestion that Charles talk to him about set design while describing the boat itself like a Hollywood film set. And he underlines this by talking about the modern conveniences such as there only being chilled or hot water on board.

And then the storm to show that even such very modern luxuries are fragile.

And that is perhaps the most important thing for us to remember when reading this book. It describes a period between storms. Between one horrid war and another even more horrid. Millions had died in the first and they had imagined they were fighting a war to end war. And then here we are again.

Painful repetitions haunt the novel.
A blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another like it could be born—that was how it felt ....
We can imagine this a little. We know what it is like to fall into the same bad habit again and again. The sister you always have a fight with and you start off every time meaning not to and then things start to go off the rails like they always do. The frustration we have meaning to change some bad habit, get out and exercise, but we do just what we always do instead.

That's the sense that Waugh is counting on and I think he achieves very well. We read this chapter with an awful sense of dread. That is why people so often remember the first part as being about halcyon days in Oxford and the second about this horrible loss. In fact, there is very little happiness in the first part. There at least seems to be more in the second part. But we read every page waiting for that blow.

And so, we reach the very last page of the chapter and read this:
'Oh, my darling, why is it that love makes me hate the world? It's supposed to have quite the opposite effect. I feel as though all mankind, and God, too, were in a conspiracy against us.'
And we think, 'Oh crap, it's contra mundum again; Julia's demons are haunting her the same way Sebastian's did him and now the same horrid things are going to happen again.' So, from now on, nothing can be as beautiful as those few fleeting moments of bliss in the first part because we've been through this before. Somewhere along the line someone explained to us that 'et in Arcadia ego' was death speaking and he was saying that even in our most blissful moments he is already there and now we can't pretend. We cower like a regularly beaten dog waiting for it all to go wrong again.

The flaneur
In chapter two of book one and again here in book three, Waugh relies heavily on a realist technique originally developed by Flaubert. A flaneur is a like a loiterer only with, as a great Muriel Sparks title has it, someone loitering with intent.
Picture a young woman in a bar. She is hoping something will happen. She wants a magical meeting leading to romance, adventure or maybe just dirty sex. So she sits there in sexy clothes hoping the right person will approach her. Meanwhile she is recording what is happening around her in a bored way. She isn't like a camera because a camera doesn't care and she cares, she just doesn't particularly care about what is happening just now. So she runs through the details of what is happening in an impassive way. The details seem random. The walls were green; a middle-aged woman who didn't look like the type to sit in a bar alone was looking for something in her purse, perhaps money, maybe her cell phone so she could call the friend who was late; over in the corner, two young men were sitting at the table of an older man she thought might be gay and she wondered if they were negotiating something or, and she worried about this a bit, if they were setting him up so they could rob him or even just beat him up; in the background, as if her thoughts had caused them to respond, she heard a police car coming down the boulevard its siren wailing. Suddenly, the siren got louder, and she turned to see that it was because the door had opened and she saw three girls her own age who had wandered in. They stood there at the door and scanned the room. They were girls from her college and they too had somehow decided to enter this bar, a bar the students never went to because it had a reputation. She noticed one of the girls eyes settle on her and felt herself being assessed. The other two girls don't notice her but one of them said, "Let's get out of here," and they all laughed as if they all had simultaneously decided that they could never imagine sitting in such a place; as if they couldn't imagine allowing their skin to touch the upholstery.
That's the style. It's a familiar style now, I just made that paragraph up. It's a realist style

Waugh kicks the style in in a big way this chapter. And so we float along as the Duke of Clarence comes in and we see that he is a twit. And then Mr. Samgrass makes a brief appearance. And then the critics. And then a photographer. And then and then. All the time we are waiting for a moment with Julia again. But then Anthony shows up and delivers another remonstrance just like he does in chapter two of book one. And if you go back to that chapter, you'll notice that Waugh uses the flaneur technique there too.

Although Waugh moves us much faster here. he takes two whole chapters to get from the two remonstrances in chapter two to the train ride to Brideshead at the end of chapter three with the cutlery jingling. Here that takes only one very short chapter to get from remonstrance to a train ride with, and this repetition is no accident, cutlery jingling. The seeming halcyon days will arrive with chapter three this time. This, of course, increases our sense of doom. The last time we went to hell in a hand cart, this time we're on the express elevator.

Like in book one, the days are significant. This time it's Friday. The entire thing happens on Friday. The key moment is when Charles, sometime mid afternoon on Friday (What other event happened mid afternoon on Friday?) remembers his last exhibition when he had detected Celia in adultery. And he tells us:
 I was a free man; she had given me my manumission in that brief, sly lapse of hers; my cuckold's horns made me lord of the forest.
Do you believe that? I don't. He has let slip his own, repeated affairs earlier. This sounds more like a man who has convinced himself that he has been wronged when he was really just looking for an excuse to leave Celia all along. That brief, sly lapse of hers. "Manumission" means to be set free from enslavement and Charles was no slave. Following this moment, there is a sort of trip to the underworld and a return.And then a train ride.

But things aren't exactly the same. This time Charles is impervious to Anthony's criticism. Like last time, he recognizes that Anthony has a point but now he doesn't care. It's well-reasoned abuse but the Charles who hears it this time has hardened himself to life.

And I think that is the sleight of hand here. Waugh the conjurer has us paying attention to Julia with his right hand while he pulls a switch with his left. We're all worried about what is up with Julia; with her personal demons and how they are going to tear her and Charles apart. Meanwhile, though, something is happening with Charles; something in him, as Anthony says, has died.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Revisiting that Bellini

The Season of Brideshead
A Twitch on a Thread, Chapter one
 I have finaly gotten around to looking up the iconography of the two Johns: that is Evangelist and Baptist.

John the Evangelist is typically represented with an eagle, sometimes with a cup with a  viper in it and  with a book meant to represent his Gospel.

John the Baptist is represented wearing rough clothing or skins, carrying a long cross in one hand and with either a lamb or with a text showing the words Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

Knowing that, my earlier suspicions are confirmed: the guy on the left below is obviously John the Baptist. (Okay, it was more than a suspicion but I decided to check anyway, something Wikipedia obviously did not do.)

The image is courtesy of Wikipedia who label him incorrectly as John the Evangelist. As a rule, Wikipedia is always unreliable about controversial issues but this tells us they can get even what ought to be straightforward wrong.

Anyway, why should we care about which saint it is with regards to Brideshead. Well, maybe we shouldn't except that there is this interesting dialogue in this chapter. Julia has just asked Charles why he ever married Celia. He answers:
'Physical attraction. Ambition. Everyone agrees she's the ideal wife for a painter. Loneliness, missing Sebastian.'

'You loved him, didn't you/'

'Oh yes, he was the forerunner.'
Julia understood.
She did, did she? I think that is one of Waugh's weaker moments. It strikes me as a mind-bogglingly oafish thing for a man to say to a woman and I have a hard time imagining Julia understanding or accepting this. It could easily have been fixed too. All Waugh had to do was have Ryder tell us this thought directly.

In any case, the point I want to make here is that John the Baptist is, in Christian thought, the forerunner of Christ. When I Google "John the Baptist" and "Forerunner" I get 581 thousand hits as of December 21, 2010. (Check for yourself here.) He is the one who rises to prominence and then must diminish in order that Christ can increase. (There is a great sermon by Saint Augustine where he says that John's feast is on June 24, after which the days get shorter, diminish, until the feast of Christ's birth on December 25, after which they increase. He's off by a couple of days but it's a nice metaphor.)

In any case, the point is pretty straightforward: Sebastian is now cast in the role of the Baptist, in which case, Charles is wrong thinking Sebastian was the forerunner for Julia. He is the forerunner for someone just not Julia.

The remaining pictures here are the Annunciation over the top (which occurs in Luke's Gospel not John's), Saint Sebastian in the middle and Saint Anthony of the desert on the right. So, wouldn't it be just too weird if the next iteration we get of Sebastian turned out to be him living a monastic life in North Africa?

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post will be here.