Though 90% of Americans asked told Gallup pollsters they believed in some sort of God, in some circles, admitting it is still taboo enough to avert eyes and trigger self-conscious coughs. In a review of Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss, (in the May 6, 2013 edition of The New Yorker) Adam Kirsch writes that “[to] confide such a moment [Wiman praying with his wife] is, in contemporary literary culture, perhaps more daring than the most outré sexual imaginings.” What Wiman was describing was more than a lukewarm belief in the existence of an entity understood only as the coalescence of a bunch of unimaginable (infinitude, timelessness, omnipresence, etc.) concepts; it was bowed-head, peaked-hands, down-on-your-knees practice, an admission so intimate it was bound to titillate some while embarrassing others. Though, as a philosophically and spiritually curious agnostic, I’ll admit that I find the sort of knee-jerk, ankle-deep atheism that’s become so popular a bit more embarrassing, in a way, reading Brideshead Revisited was like walking in on a couple engaged in spontaneous prayer: I vacillated between excitement (what prose! what characters!) and embarrassment (just how does even the most vocal agnostic end up Catholic?!).
The book tells the a rather unremarkable story of the decades long relationship between Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Marchmain clan and their Wiltshire estate, Brideshead. Lady Marchmain is a devout and influential Catholic and it’s her religion that binds the family in the absence of its patriarch, Lord Marchmain. Lord Marchmain, having shunned his wife and her Church, fled England for Europe, where he set up house with his longtime mistress, Cora. A smart and sophisticated man, Lord Marchmain makes no secret of his antipathy for his wife’s religion. Not the sort of man you’d think would undergo a deathbed conversion. And yet, years after Lady Marchmain’s death, when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead for what he knows will be the last time, this once proud man – a man who promptly sent the priest tasked with saving his soul packing – now sick and terrified, renounces his sins and submits to the last sacrament. In a way, Lord Marchmain’s reversal is understandable – who knows, on my deathbed, maybe I’ll make Pascal’s wager as well– and yet, it’s also astonishing. Even more puzzling, in some ways, is that rather than being received with the gracious indulgence owed to the dying, this final hour penitence actually inspires Lord Marchmain’s daughter, Julia, to renounce her love for Charles and return to the Church. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Evelyn Waugh famously converted to Catholicism in 1930 and Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, was his first avowedly Catholic book. Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”, I found myself wondering which of Charles’ memories were meant to be sacred and which were meant to be profane. In fact, the two periods in Charles’ life when he admits to feeling the most alive were periods during which he sinned gravely: his drunken and debaucherous days at Oxford, where he meets Lord Marchmain’s son, Sebastian; and the adulterous affair he has years later with Lord Marchmain’s daughter, Julia.
Charles starts Oxford with a diligent, if slightly dull, set. But Sebastian, with his beauty and wealth, with his odd manner and aesthetic sensibility, with his teddy bear and stable of louche friends, stands out, and before long, he and Charles are inseparable. Under Sebastian’s influence, Charles rebels against the staid propriety of Oxford life. He outfits his room with Partagas cigars and Lalique glassware and skulls in bowls of rose petals. He gets day-drunk and lives beyond his means. He drops his old friends and barely passes his classes. But throughout all the youthful hijinks, one never gets the sense that Charles’ rebellion is anything more than a phase. Sebastian, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated.
The only thing more irrationally intense than Sebastian’s fear of abandonment is his resistance to his moralizing mother. Though, he’ll eventually flee his family for a hard and drunken life in North Africa, this period, the period that solidified their friendship and Charles’ connection to the Marchmain family, is among the most important periods of Charles’ life. Remembering, many years later, a summer he once spent at Brideshead alone with Sebastian, Charles wonders if “perhaps the Beatific Vision itself has some remote kinship with this lowly experience” because he was “ very near heaven during those languid days at Brideshead.”
Though he’ll marry, have children, and enjoy a fair measure of success as an architectural painter, Charles will never feel so alive again. That is, until he runs into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, many years later. Like him, Julia is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it isn’t long before their shared sense of history brings them together. For two years, they’ll live as husband and wife in full view of their spouses.
That Julia would be amenable to such unconventional living arrangements is hardly shocking considering how Lord and Lady Marchmain arranged their households. But as the specter of WWII looms over Europe, marriage starts to feel necessary, and Julia starts to think of the requisite divorces. However, spooked by her father’s deathbed conversion, Julia decides the only way to redeem herself for her sins is to give up her happiness and Charles.
“[It] may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t despair of me in the end,” Julia explains and maybe that’s the key to understanding why Charles’ happiest memories, memories that I, in my pagan ignorance, would have picked out as his most sacred, are, in fact, his most profane. Though his joy has a purity and intensity that most of us would find aspirational, it doesn't change the fact that the source of his feeling is ultimately forbidden. Perhaps the transcendent, the spiritual, the supernatural, is found in the very act of denial. Knowing God is hard, and perhaps the simple, "lowly" joys of youth and love close our hearts to divine. Perhaps the most direct route to Him is through loss.
I remain unconvinced. Unfortunately, what is denied the reader is the perhaps most interesting story of all: how does Charles, a fervent agnostic, who made regular sport of baiting the Marchmains into theological debate, come to his faith?
Charles’ conversion is the shadow that hangs over the book. The novel’s conceit returns Charles to Brideshead during WWII, the grand estate now repurposed as barracks, giving him the opportunity to reflect on his time at Brideshead and his relationship to the Marchmains. Narrator-Charles is also Catholic-Charles, and the act of remembering pugnacious Agnostic-Charles sets up the expectation that whatever follows, the distance between the two will be covered and explained. Thwarting expectations can be a powerful tool, used skillfully. However, here, Charles’ conversion feels like a cheap sleight of hand; it feels unearned and baffling precisely because it's unexplained. In a way, I suppose, that’s probably the point: one’s personal relationship to God is ineffable. Which is a shame. Reading fiction is the only way we can inhabit other minds, and it's one of the most rewarding ways to explore experiences we may never have ourselves, and I, for one, would’ve liked to have peeped Charles’ conversion because it'll be a while yet -- I hope -- before I'm making a Pascal's wager of my own.