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E-mail and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ Visited

I made no resolutions this year, nor planned anything, Life has continued, mostly with a relaxed energy and efficiency. One thing I’ve noted is that I’ve started unsubscribing from e-mail marketing lists. Now, not only am I going out more into the world, but also getting far more done. It wasn’t my intention to unsubscribe, it just crept up on me, but as opting out got out got under way it seems to have gained a momentum of its own.

Castle Howard has been used as the setting for 'Brideshead Revisited', both as a T.V. series and a movie. (Photo: Pwojdacz Creative Commons 3.0)

Castle Howard has been used as the setting for ‘Brideshead Revisited’, both as a T.V. series and a movie. (Photo: Pwojdacz Creative Commons 3.0)

Evelyn Waugh‘s great novel Brideshead Revisited is about a painter, Charles Ryder, relating to a family of Roman Catholic aristocrats. It contains a phrase that has a reassuring ring to it:

My cousin Jasper had told me that it was normal to spend one’s second year [in university] shaking off the friends of one’s first, and it happened as he said.”

Brideshead Revisited is also a work about love, initially late adolescent homosexual love and later the passionate heterosexual kind, in which Ryder melds Julia a kindred-spirit soul-mate. In the background, however, something subtle and powerful is happening.

I wonder if you remember the story mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk I mean the bad evening. ‘Father Brown‘ said something like “I caught him” (the thief) “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Whilst I am not a Roman Catholic I have always enjoyed the prose in Brideshead Revisited, not simply because it’s so beautifully written but more because there’s something moving about Rider’s struggle to discover contentment. At beginning of the story Charles Ryder seems a broken despondent man, with few personal resources apart from class and cynicism. He struggles as an army captain to run a platoon as well as cope with his life losses and middle age:

Perhaps that’s one of the pleasures of building, like having a son, wondering how he’ll grow up. I don’t know; I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow
up. I’m homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper.’ He looked to see if I was being funny, decided that I was, and laughed.”

At the very end, and almost on the same page as the quote above, he finds a kind of redemption in the form of, if not faith, a kind of acceptance and appreciation of the beauty of the world as it is. This is how the experience is written:

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 of deplorable design 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 the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.’ I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.”

In an uncanny way the story in that paragraph is so powerful, even if told so briefly, that it overrides everything in the book that precedes it. It has everything, builders, a house, a chapel, knights, a crusade – which in turn implies faith and the tragedy of wars fought because of it. There is symbolism and the acceptance of tasteless design, which becomes regarded, in this context, as perfect. It all ends in a small flame signifying what?

Only you may answer this.

We are invited to imagine that following his experience Charles Ryder is liberated from the burdens of the past, as well as those of age and military responsibility. There may no longer be the sexual passion, or the fusion of souls, but an intensity may be found for what we may simply call experience.

I feel something of this as 2015 takes root. A sense of exquisite uncertainty, a direction with neither map nor compass, a purposeful purposelessness in which there’s no space for distracting e-mails which are designed to serve the owners of marketing lists. Something is being polished here. For me, God has no part in it. Yet sunshine, coldness or heat, the world seems right – and life, sans e-mail, feels good just the as it is!

All quotations from Brideshead Revisited, (1945) by Evelyn Waugh.