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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Waugh's Revising Brideshead and Charles' Discussion of the Faith 
22nd-Sep-2007 09:48 pm
Augustine: Vittore Carpaccio
I have been re-watching the 1981 masterpiece of the BBC's production of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited over meals this last week, having recently purchased the new DVD edition at bargin price on eBay. A passage struck me that had me turn to the internet in curiosity, and I found my way to a website discussing the Preface to the book which I realized I had visited under the same circumstances when I first borrowed the videos from the Lloyds.

The website writer drew my attention to Waugh's discussion in the Preface to the 1960 edition of having revised the text from the 1946 version that had bearing on that passage that had caught my ear, when Charles and Sebastian are touring the treasures of Venice together:
EW mentions many small additions and some substantial cuts. It would take some effort and much time to give details of all EW’s changes, but I should like here to point out one change I find notable. (Others are signalled in the Companion itself.) It concerns the account of Charles Ryder’s attitude to religion which EW places at Brideshead at the time Charles becomes aware of the way in which religion colours Sebastian’s whole life. The original version reads as follows :
I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it: religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the providence of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ - catch words of the decade - and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophic system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.
The replacement passage (on page 83 of the latest Penguin edition) emphasises indifference and mild scepticism towards Christianity rather than outright hostility. It contains two sentences that accurately describe EW’s own experience at Lancing College. Many might consider the new passage more suitable for fleshing out the agnostic that Charles maintains he is during his first summer at Brideshead :
I had no religion. I was taken to church weekly as a child, and at school attended chapel daily, but, as though in compensation, from the time I went to my public school I was excused church in the holidays. The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy. They never suggested I should try to pray. My father did not go to church except on family occasions and then with derision. My mother, I think, was devout. It once seemed odd to me that she should have thought it her duty to leave my father and me and go off with an ambulance, to Serbia, to die of exhaustion in the snow in Bosnia. But later I recognised some such spirit in myself. Later, too, I have come to accept claims which then, in 1923, I never troubled to examine, and to accept the supernatural as the real. I was aware of no such needs that summer at Brideshead.
I can see why EW thought the second version more suitable – it gives a background of home and school of greater naturalness, it tells us more about that intriguing but unknown character Mrs Ryder, it reveals a self-sacrificial nature in Charles - but I regret the loss of the splendid obloquy of the first. One of the decisions of the Granada Television production that pleased me at least was to reinstate these first thoughts, along with parts of the second version.
I had to agree with him that the Granada production's weaving of the two versions is masterful. It gets the best of both versions: the personal introspection of the revised version, and the articulation of the first version, which very accurately summarizes what would have been the fashionable educated (but not very educated) opinion of the day in the 1920s in Europe. That's the same thinking at the root of today's learned dismissal, but today it is more of an inherited position, less able to be clearly articulated, much less actually defended, as much as it is assumed it needs no defense.
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23rd-Sep-2007 06:14 am (UTC)
Huh. I didn't know that it had hit you so strongly. Yes, I was trying to sell it to my friend Bob yesterday while we dueled over the chessboard. That statement of Waugh's in the 1960 Preface about its theme is remarkably concise:
Its theme – the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters – was perhaps presumptuously large, but I make no apology for it.
The more I think of it, I'm stunned by the ambition of the idea. I've given more attention to the Theology of Grace than to almost anything else in my doctoral studies, and I've long since come to the conclusion that grace is the most complex idea in theology, even moreso, in its way, than the Doctrine of God. Trinitarian theology just starts to flow once you grasp the initial logic. But studying grace makes you have to take that theology of God and interface it with what you know of the universe. So the intersection of divine grace and human freedom is incredibly complex because its the interweaving of such different systems or concepts: the meeting of infinity and the finite.

That's what's so impressive about the novel. Without being a "religious tract" in any way, you are teased with the possibilities are for the utter subtlety with which God could act – over the course of an entire human life – to bring about the desired end, even through things that are not very grace-filled on the surface or in themselves. I have also long opined that God is incredibly devious or even ruthless in what lengths he'll go to in order to draw someone to Him. The imagery from the Chesterton "Father Brown" story about the "twitch of the thread" is used masterfully in the text: I wonder what relationship that story has to the inspiration for the novel?
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25th-Sep-2007 06:32 am (UTC)
I think that's the most difficult and even most horrifying thing for the non-believer to have to come to understand: there are no other options to reality. We want to fight and say the universe is the way we want it to be, despite the fact that we cut ourselves off from real satisfaction in doing so, whatever we believe to the contrary. The sheer relief one hears in the voice of people who have finally figured out what this stress was all about is moving in itself.
25th-Sep-2007 06:32 am (UTC)
And the icon did not go unrecognized, by the way!
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25th-Sep-2007 06:43 am (UTC)
Yes, a Mormon who was asking me questions for some six hours one night finally exploded with the exclamation/objection, "How can you all believe something so complex?!!" And all I could do was point at reality, and ask why the circumstances of "religion" or "spirituality" should be excused from that aspect of The Way Things Are.

The woman I was dating in the spring found that encounter terribly offensive of me from the perspective of the sort of basic "tolerance" philosophy that isn't very well thought-out by the American Left, but I thought it would have been far more offensive for me to be so condescending as to pretend that either the childish construction of Mormonism (so similar in its basics to how we articulate Christianity for a five year-old) was an adequate response to reality, or that the question really didn't matter (in the "spirituality is whatever makes you content" fashion). If these questions are really important, I'd be a fool to treat them with anything less than the kind of comprehensive vision I bring to physics, history, medicine, or any other discipline that tries to get at the truth of reality.

Waugh is impressive in accomplishing that comprehensiveness through the vision of the lapsed Catholic characters who don't really articulate it very often, since they rarely think of it and are not educated enough on the matter to say much about it. Yet nevertheless, it is already there woven into the ultimate genuineness of the characters, and their own desire for what's real. Yes, Modernism, especially when you look at its historical development, does seem to be fixed on avoidance more often than not, despite its cant.
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25th-Sep-2007 06:45 am (UTC)
Huh. Merton was embarrassed, in later years, of some of the glib anti-Protestantism he'd inherited in his new, 1940s Catholicism, and that came out in The Seven-Storey Mountain. But I wonder whether this would have been part of that.
24th-Sep-2007 04:03 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I wrote my senior thesis on Waugh in my Irony class at Notre Dame in 1995-1996. I don't remember a dang thing about it, though I seem to think I liked it at the time.
25th-Sep-2007 06:28 am (UTC)
Definitely time for a re-read. It would be interesting to discover your reactions now, with this much more life under your belt.
22nd-Oct-2007 09:56 pm (UTC) - Stingless or skinless ?
Which do you hear ?

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