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Personal/Theological Notebook: Grace's Sixth Birthday; Revisiting Brideshead

Today was my niece Grace's sixth birthday. She has, in the last few months, finally come to be reasonably comfortable in talking on the phone, but when I called her before dinner to wish her a happy birthday, she barely made a sound. Leslie said that she had been so excited last night about today and the plans for the day (a lunchtime gathering of her friends at Chuck E. Cheese's) that she woke up last night at 10pm, 2am and 4am, if I recall correctly, each time ready to start the day. So when I called she was more-or-less in a coma. Maybe I'll call again in a day or two.

I was out last night at Dan's when my brother called to let me know that he and Daniele had had an ultrasound of their first child and now knew what they were expecting, but we played phone tag through the rest of today and this evening, so I still don't know that news.

Dan and I took advantage of Amy's absence on a business trip to watch the documentary that came with my more recent DVD set of Brideshead Revisited. (This after a London Broil, a very good Cabernet whose name I've lost, toasting my man Columcille, whose feast day it was, and his putting Owen and Anna down for the night.) That turned into about as intense a discussion as we've ever had on the masterpiece (by which I mostly mean the novel, though the beauty of the miniseries is that it is a purist's filming of the novel and not really much of an "adaptation" in the way that the forthcoming 2008 monstrosity looks to be). I remember two points of particular interest. The first was our disbelief at the lack of imagination of many of the critics commenting in the documentary. They seemed to uniformly assume that Charles and Sebastian's relationship was a homosexual one, which I don't think there's any evidence of at all in the text. Where that theme does pop up, Waugh is pretty frank about it, as he would be from his own experience. But the seeming incomprehension that there can be any sort of love between men that isn't sexual – and this seemed the real issue: the reduction of all love to sex – was amazing to me. For all that one hopes that one's literary critics are liberal in the sense of having a wide experience of life, these seemed the most conservative lot – even if a "left" conservatism – that I'd ever heard.

I was further annoyed with the simple-minded Marxist or republican tendency to see all consciousness of class as reducible to the hostility to the very idea of any possible value to an upper class. Speaking as a poor kid myself, that kind of glib assumption still fell short of any open-minded experience of reality. To see Charles Ryder (or maybe more importantly Evelyn Waugh as the author) as purely engaged in a kind of envious social climbing (see again the forthcoming disaster of a movie – at least going by the trailer) is to have a very shallow view of the possibilities, even if its the most generally rewarded one. Charles sees the decline coming in the post-war years as the time of the "Hoopers": of the egalitarianism of the coming democratic republic of the United Kingdom, but an egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator. Of the mundane, or of the crude. Is that merely elitism? Hooper cannot see any sense in one family owning a place like Brideshead. Am I turning a blind eye to the miseries the rich have contributed to over the centuries? Of course not. But it's still not so simple. While the benefits of being upper class – the conveniences of wealth, the ability to acquire wider ranges of experiences through use of that wealth, or to contribute to the artistic production and collection that the wealthy sometimes do – are true benefits, they do not necessarily turn into moral excellences. They do not automatically make you a better human being. But I do think that they can make you a richer kind of better human being than being a morally excellent and wise uncultured and unlearned person. Charles, in his youthful paintings in the house, contributed to the house's beauty and began a kind of artistic nurturing of beauty in himself that could be an avenue for a spiritual experience of God later on. The Hoopers of the army scrawled pornographic graffiti onto his paintings. That's what Charles fears from the Hoopers gaining control of the world. And I don't think it's mere snobbery to say so. The cultivation of culture, like the cultivation of wealth or of power, is in itself neither a moral good or evil – but it has the potential to become either, and we shouldn't forget the former simply because we love the self-righteous feelings of denouncing the latter.

There is something to art and culture that is deeper than simply being fashion or style. There is a unity between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – between Metaphysics, Ethics and Aesthetics. I'm not denying that these are complicated by their incarnation in human beings, nor that there aren't lesser realities that I'm here calling mere fashion or style, that are economically-driven more than anything else. But I cannot look at my culture today and insist that we don't reap what we sow when we spread out the seeds of crudity and shallowness. And again, I'm not denying the complexity of these situations in an American-conservatism "back-to-the-1950s" way, which I know is what some people would immediately try to reduce what I've said to being. There is a point to an artistic moment in the verbal crudity of a Lenny Bruce, or the artistic randomness of a Jackson Pollack. But a world full of copies of Lenny Bruce and Jackson Pollack? That's no longer making anything like the same points. I don't know: I think I was more precise when I was trying to articulate all of this to Dan last night.

Three other notes: we came to the conclusion, from seeing him discuss his part of Anthony Blanche, that Nickolas Grace is a superlative actor.

We were astounded, looking at the whole, on the makeup job done on Jeremy Irons, who truly looked like he'd aged twenty years over the series, and not like he was made up to look like he'd aged twenty years.

And then there was Diana Quick's (who played Julia Marchmain) explanation that, in trying to understand the Catholic themes of the novel, she came to the conclusion that it was fundamentally about "original sin." Not sure what this was, she got her hands on some books on the subject, written, she said, for readers who were about the age of 7. They explained everything to her, she assured the interviewer. My thought on putting an ad in Variety offering myself as a theological consultant for films came back to me.
Tags: art, beauty, books, catholicism, cultural, family, friends-marquette era, grace, literary, movie review, nathaniel, personal, sexuality, theological notebook, waugh
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