Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Divine grace, Brideshead Revisited, Stephen Fry and Berlusconi’s cathedral-borne injuries…

I was unexplainably apprehensive about reading Brideshead Revisited, the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh. Although the TV adaptation was a firm family favourite, albeit one I had never watched, delving into the weighty hard-back gathering dust on the bookshelf seemed an unappealing prospect. In fact, my misgivings seemed justified when I read Waugh’s description of its theme: “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”.

However, from the opening sentence my reservations dissolved and I became absorbed in the meandering tale of the protagonist, Charles Ryder. Throughout, I felt as if Charles himself was softly relating his tale to me over a cup of tea. I was gradually immersed into his ambling account of idle college lunches, hedonistic weekend jaunts and carefree merriments.

As well as being an indulgent foray into a world tinged with luxury bordering on gluttony, it also delves into the murky swathes of Catholicism and atheism. Despite obediently reciting my Hail Mary’s at a Catholic school for five years, I had never thought much about the hazy debates surrounding Catholicism until I became engrossed in this book - each character’s actions are defined by their attitude to religion.

One evening, midway through my Brideshead adventures, I was surprised to find myself hooked on a televised debate about Catholicism, where the mighty Stephen Fry, paired with razor-sharp journalist Christopher Hitchens, argued a motion that the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world.

The bumbling ramblings of Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, and conservative MP Ann Widdecombe were no match for articulate Fry and bulldog debater Hitchens, and the duo mercilessly lambasted the church. Fry’s final punch, which centred on the notion that celibacy is fundamentally unnatural and leads to a distorted perception of one of the body’s most instinctive instincts, reverberated with the conclusion that the Catholic Church is paradoxically obsessed with sex.

Following this verbal onslaught I read Brideshead with sharpened interest, closely following each character’s inner turmoil and their sensitivity to religion. Some surrendered to devout, unquestioning piety whereas others were ensnared in a paradoxical moral debate, trying to rebel from stifling moral expectation but remaining tied by embedded Catholic loyalties.

Post-Brideshead I have taken more interest in the debates swirling around Catholicism that feature in the media, which have most recently been awakened by the peace-threatening passions of staunch Catholic MP Iris Robertson for a 19-year-old. Other occasions when the church has appeared in the unflattering light of the media, aside from tragic cases of child abuse, range from the bizarre (Berlusconi’s unfortunate encounter with a model cathedral) to the demoralising (the attack on the pope on Christmas day).

Overall, glimpses of Catholicism in a positive light seem far and few between - whether that is the flaw of a pessimistic press or a reflection of the church is anyone’s guess. Either way, such a sparse smattering of praise for such a powerful religion is not particularly encouraging.

1 comment:

  1. Hello!
    I just ran across your Jan 2010 post about Brideshead Revisited, and I think it's really perceptive. I've been studying Brideshead for nearly six months now because I wrote my senior thesis on it, and now that I'm revising my paper for publication, I'm still obsessed with the novel.

    This may sound strange coming from a total stranger, from a different country (I live in the U.S.), but I really think my paper could fill out some of the implicit questions in your blog post, especially about Catholicism. Also, if you're interested in Brideshead from a literary point of view, you might enjoy the parts of my paper that study comic-romance and tragic-irony in the novel. (Yes, these are very strange combinations, and I try to tie them into the novel's main themes.) Plus, I think you would find the two critics I argue against in my paper (Spender and White) rather funny because their positions are so extreme.

    My paper isn't long or full of critical jargon because I only graduated from a four-year college, so if you are interested at all, do email me whenever you like: