Three Views of Brideshead

Blogger-philosophers seem to be spending the winter months reading and thinking about the religious implications of Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. On the conservative weblog, there is a two-part review of a book first published in 1947 by theologian Alan W Watts and now re-available on Kindle. This is Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion and is reviewed by James J O’Meara. The book is described as an:

… exposition of Watts’ earliest attempt to reconcile traditional Anglican theology with a mystical, Buddhist based approach, but also as a personal expression of the mystical experience.

After beginning Part One of the review with an extensive praise of Amazon for making such works readily available and a summary of what Watts was writing in 1947, O’Meara offers an extended aside on what he calls an “Excursus on Cradle Catholics.” In this he considers the various aspects of religious belief as represented in several characters in Waugh’s novel: Sebastian’s childlike approach, Bridey’s dense and dogmatic beliefs, Cara’s more relaxed Southern attitudes and Charles’s more mature approach as a convert. As an example of how this works, here is O’Meara’s take on Bridey:

This combination of the primitive and the learned perfectly instantiates what Watts describes as the Catholic attempt to emulate Protestant moral seriousness, resulting in the dreary Puritanism of the Irish or French Catholics. Indeed, it is Bridey who carelessly (in both senses) triggers off the moral climax of the novel when he smugly points out his new wife can’t possibly share a roof with his adulterous sister Julia.

On the weblog (described as a showcase for the views of Reform Protestantism) there is an unsigned article entitled “Sin vs. Flourishing”. This mostly considers the religious life reflected in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock but it concludes with this paragraph:

…what is striking about Greene’s novels (and the movies based on them), along with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is that the point of becoming Roman Catholic is not to flourish as a human being or civilizationally. The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life. Theirs is a world haunted by moral choices and a God who judges them. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

Finally, on the website, American writer Delia Lloyd describes her reaction to binge-watching the 11-hour 1981 TV series of Brideshead. She praises the production and the performances and then, as a former Roman Catholic, she concludes her discussion of the TV adaptation on a more somber note:

…it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t just another voyeuristic journey into the heart of Oxbridge-bred England. Rather, it was essentially a protracted tale of one family’s inexorable, inter-generational and self-destructive struggle with Catholicism [here describing her own personal struggle to leave the Catholic faith]. What Brideshead Revisited added to that equation was the pain and guilt that goes along with that decision. I wanted desperately, as I watched, to identify with Charles Ryder, the protagonist of the story. He is the stoic, eternally rational hero who can’t quite fathom why this otherwise well-educated and cultured family in which he has become enmeshed – The Flytes – is so hopelessly caught up in their Roman Catholic faith. Instead, I ended up identifying with Julia, his beloved, who tries her very best to leave her religion (and thus, to some extent, her family) by embracing Charles (and divorce and modernity) and the skepticism it implies. In the end, however, it’s too much for her and she can’t quite bring herself to do it. It breaks her heart, but she chooses the Church over her true love. It is her destiny.

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2 Responses to Three Views of Brideshead

  1. margot metroland says:

    Mr O’Meara does not seem to comprehend Jansenism, that theological school that dominated Catholicism in Northern Europe during the Counter-Reformation, and eventually got run out of Dodge by the wily Jesuits (before they themselves were suppressed). Its dangerous teaching is belief in Predestination, which had been been part of Christian Doctrine (though not dogma) at least since the time of Augustine. Puritanism stemmed from that same Catholic root—although it cut its lifeline and accordingly withered away.

    The Jansenist tradition persists, however, and it clearly was one of the most appealing aspects to Waugh and other latter-day reverts. The point here is that it was not a lame attempt to emulate Puritanism, rather Puritanism was a attempt to ape this strain in Catholic theology.

    • James O'Meara says:

      Thank you for your usual erudite commentary. Of course your concern is really with Watts not me. When reading his version it did seem to rhyme with what I had heard before, that the rather grim version of Catholicism in Ireland and among its migrants here was a function of Irish priests being trained in Jansenist-tainted seminaries in France, due to the English closing seminaries in Ireland. In any event, Watts would agree that puritanism if not Puritanism permeates Christianity.

      On predestination, it may have been part of Catholic doctrine since Augustine — fount of so much mischief — but not Orthodox. The Reformers wrote to the Patriarch of Constantinople to suggest an alliance against the Pope.

      “A brief glance at the Confession of Augsburg showed that much of its doctrine [e.g., predestination] was frankly heretical, but it would be undesirable to spoil relations with a potential friend. The Patriarch and his advisers took refuge in the favorite device of oriental diplomacy. They behaved as if they had never received the communication, which they carefully mislaid.”
      “Luther had his chance”:

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