Friday, April 01, 2005

A Little Waugh

Drunken Brideshead Revisited

Sebastian Flyte: a young man with a sense of his English nobility and the oppressive air of dignity that title required him to assume. A young man with an acute sense of holiness. A young man with an intense desire for joy that he wrongly tried to capture with drink.

In the process, he blew out the transcendental receiver we're all hard-wired with. But the signal didn’t stop coming to him. He kept pursuing the exceptional feeling through more intense rounds of debauchery and drunkenness.

Fortunately for Sebastian, with the transcendental signal also comes grace. And with grace even the distortion can become a type of holiness.

This becomes clear in Waugh’s final words about Sebastian. Sebastian’s drinking worsened until he ended-up living with a shiftless German named Kurt, a pitiful and despicable man who took advantage of Sebastian, living off the small allowance that Sebastian continued to receive from his family. Sebastian provided for the man and cared for Kurt, for some inexplicable reason, but “as long as Sebastian had him to look after, he was happy.”

Sebastian’s call to holiness that he had translated as the call to drunkenness was becoming transformed in his soul and erupting in a proper form—the call to service. After serving Kurt for awhile, Kurt was caught by the Nazis, made to serve as storm trooper, escaped, was caught, and hung himself in a concentration camp. Sebastian spent a year looking for him in Europe, then went to Morocco when he learned Kurt was dead.

Eventually, Sebastian landed in a monastery near Carthage, not as a monk, but as a drunken porter. He was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world, pathetic by both worlds’ standards.

But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life. The portrait painted of Sebastian’s future is touching, in an odd sort of way. In response to Charles Ryder’s question about how Sebastian will end, Sebastian’s sister responds (in a way that leaves no doubt that is Waugh’s opinion):

"I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of the [monastic] community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back dishevelled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. . . If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life."

Waugh tells that Sebastian, the noble drunkard, would become a man whose vice was permanently affixed to his back, but a man who was becoming holy by carrying that self-inflicted cross as nobly as possible. His transcendental receiver, through nothing less than unmerited grace, carrying a better tune, even if still somewhat distorted.

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