Friday, January 4, 2013

insisting on the "flowery" language in Brideshead

From a commenter on Matthew Walther's First Things post on Orwell's view of Waugh:
Hitchens makes quite a bit of hay out of Orwell's deathbed quote mentioned above. ["Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions."] In fact, Hitchens obsesses a good deal about Brideshead in both his memoir, Hitch-22, and his collection of essays. Like Orwell, he clearly admires Waugh's talents as a writer, but is mystified by his Catholicism. (Hitchens also attacks Graham Greene through an anti-Catholic lens.) Part of this bias is grounded in Englishness - the historical suspicion of Catholicism in England, i.e. the Gunpowder Plot, Bloody Mary, Dissolution of the Monastaries, etc. But, as you rightly point out, it is also related to modernism's distaste for religion as snobbishly exhibited by both Orwell and Hitchens.

They would each like to dismiss Brideshead as sentimental tosh, but recognize that there is real power in Waugh's writing that can only be attributable to its central theme of Catholic redemption. This makes them uneasy. Granted, there are weak spots in Brideshead - overwrought passages with flowery language - but on the whole it remains a masterpiece with a complex plot that future generations will continue to rediscover.
I love the "flowery" language in Brideshead and I think it is essential to the structure of the novel. Captain Ryder used to be the sort of person who refused sensible advice about his college rooms simply because "there were gillyflowers growing below the windows which on summer evenings filled them with fragrance." The great drama of his life--the whole stuff of the novel between prologue and epilogue--has already happened; he has fallen out of love with the Army; he is totally alone; his conversion to Catholicism is uneventful and even boring. How can such a man not recall the "ancient lore" that the name of the great house awakens with anything but "overwrought" language?
I slept until my servant called me, rose wearily, dressed and shaved in silence. It was not till I reached the door that I asked the second-in-command, "What's this place called?"

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds -- for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.
To admit that Waugh somehow failed artistically with that language (even if he made some similar sort of admission himself) is to give over the whole of the novel to Orwell and Hitchens (and, I can now add, Cartwright). Waugh's "untenable opinions" may have led him to write a novel in which someone converts to a Catholicism fraught with what another commenter calls "moral emptiness," but the "twitch upon the thread" that animates his work involves no impossibly supernatural irruption into the ordinary, and, in fact, the Catholicism and conversion to it that so upsets the English atheist is precisely the threshold through which a decidedly un-flowery ordinariness enters into the novel. If Orwell and Hitchens knew how to read they would have held up Brideshead as a masterful antidote to conversion in precisely the same way as Ryder held up Bridey's (in my opinion very sound) grasp of his own faith and Lady Marchmain's efforts to prevent her son from drinking.
Brideshead was as grave and impersonal as ever. "It's a pity Sebastian doesn't know Monsignor Bell better," he said. "He'd find him a charming man to live with. I was there my last year. My mother believes Sebastian is a confirmed drunkard. Is he?"

"He's in danger of becoming one."

"I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people."

"For God's sake," I said, for I was near to tears that morning, "why bring God into everything?"

"I'm sorry. I forgot. But you know that's an extremely funny question."

"Is it?"

"To me. Not to you."

"No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man."

"It's arguable," said Brideshead. "Do you think he will need this elephant's foot again?"
"D'you know, Bridey, if I ever felt for a moment like becoming a Catholic, I should only have to talk to you for five minutes to be cured. You manage to reduce what seem quite sensible propositions to stark nonsense."

"It's odd you should say that. I've heard it before from other people. It's one of the many reasons why I don't think I should make a good priest. It's something in the way my mind works I suppose. I have to turn a thing round and round, like a piece of ivory in a Chinese puzzle, until -- click! -- it fits into place -- but by that time it's upside down to everyone else. But it's the same bit of ivory, you know."
In the end, though, what sort of flame burns in the sacred places of Orwell, Hitchens, and Cartwright?


Tony said...

Hopefully my comments on the ordinariness of Ryder's Catholicism are not taken as a rejection of it. But just in case, I want to highlight this paragraph from David T. and Life's Private Book:

And it reinforces Christianity's connection to the ordinary. Jesus Christ doesn't replace the ordinary, mundane world with an extraordinary world only reachable through mystical experience; he transfigures the meaning of the ordinary world through His Life, Death and Resurrection. Cana didn't just transform the meaning of a wedding reception in ancient Palestine, it transformed the meaning of all wedding receptions from then on. Wine is never the same after Christ transforms it into His Body and Blood at the Last Supper. The nuclear family is something more than merely a sociological statistic in a world that has seen the Holy Family. And the ordinary fact of death, which once heralded the everlasting end of all that is good, becomes instead a means to conquer evil when death itself is conquered by Christ.

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