Thursday, December 20, 2012

English Catholic mysteries, part 2

Time for a second book by a subtle but zealous English Catholic convert - Brideshead Revisited. (The first was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, discussed here.) Yes, I know you've all read it already, ages ago, but, never having been a member of the bow-tied Anglophilic set, I had not. I begin with the sheepish admission that I had long thought this book was a sequel to some never-discussed earlier work, which would have had to be entitled simply Brideshead. Well, I was wrong, as I sometimes am about matters of religion, and also frequently but not chronicled here, matters of pronunciation. My second admission is that most of the social detail of the book - the Oxford geography and college rituals, and the clothing and furniture and wine and  seemingly impossible diversity of English garden flora - which was laid on so thick in the first half, was completely impenetrable to me, poor provincial American that I am, unable to discern a Burgundy from a claret! Perhaps something important was missed in that inscrutable mass of epicurean snobbery; I couldn't say.

Brideshead reminds me very much of Brodie for obvious reasons of setting, but also in its description of the world as a thoroughly Catholic place that has become, as if to the great astonishment of the author, incongruously peopled by all kinds of deluded, un-Catholic fools professing atheism or Calvinism or what-have-you ("spiritualism," involving seances, in another Spark novel was my favorite). And these fools, the "Hoopers" of Brideshead, spend their lives bumbling comically about in pursuit of all the wrong goods, headed blindly down the road to failure because of their unwillingness to accept God's providence and "convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum," as the chant the book repeats goes. But in Brideshead, all the Catholics are also doomed, at least in this life, so we heathens can at least relate, but only superficially, as the narrator does until the end. And so we are tricked by sneaky Waugh into thinking ourselves in the position of Charles Ryder, the hovering, loving  judges of the illustrious Marchmains' errors and ignominious decline, until his conversion at the end leaves no remaining intermediary between us and God, the hovering judge over us. This is a trick that would, in Waugh's parlance, be called "naughty." I do not like it.

Like Spark, Waugh attacks the Protestant and, by extension, secular - conception of vocation. Spark focuses more on vocation's over-reach - very few of us are equipped to single-mindedly devote ourselves to our work, and almost no secular work can merit such devotion in the first place, so in the end vocation is shown to be only sustainable in its Catholic sense of a calling to religious orders. Waugh, by contrast, points out its insufficiency - because it transfers the devotion that was to be reserved for God into worldly devotions - to war, or scholarship, or art - secular vocation is too thin for those who have a real vocation, which is to say, a vocation to the priesthood. Such is the fate of Sebastian Flyte, who, as his sister says, "had [a vocation] and hated it." Because "if you haven’t a vocation, it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it," there is nothing for Sebastian to live for outside the Church. As you can perhaps tell by my fixation on this point about vocation, I find this line of attack against both Protestantism and secularism particularly and unpleasantly persuasive.


Emily Hale said...

I love the idea of there being a Brideshead that comes first.

Miss Self-Important said...

There is, in some sense. It's just contained within the revisiting.

arethusa said...

Not what you were going for here, but I highly recommend the miniseries too. Still on Netflix streaming, I think.

Miss Self-Important said...

And I just cancelled Netflix last week when I discovered all the korean dramas were on Hulu for free! Hmph.