Love and Madness walk hand in hand. When we fall in love, we lose our sense of gravity and balance, the world turns upside down, and the simple act of holding hands while walking along together unfolds into a sort of madness. The lover thinks only of the beloved, sonnets are written, all other friendships cast aside, and 10,000 ships are launched to batter the walls of Troy.
This is all well and good. As Socrates tells Phaedrus, madness is a divine gift. Without it, by which he means to say, without Desire, we devolve into Waugh’s dreaded “Modern Man,” a creature so base that it has lost the desire for greatness, and in so doing has lost all of the virtues that ennoble the human soul. In Brideshead Revisited, the honor of representing soulless, modern life goes to Rex Mottram, of whom it is said,
He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.
Without the madness of desire, we are nothing. We have no Eros. Rex, for instance, has no sense of beauty, no compass to point him to truth, and thus is malleable, safe, and neglectful of his own soul. He is half a man. Life is a madcap adventure and he’s sitting on the sidelines – just like Modern Man. We need madness to live, because from overwhelming desire alone spring the glories culture: the urge to labor in cities and farms, build cathedrals, paint the Mona Lisa, create families and give our lives over to protecting them. But madness is a two-edged sword and, used improperly, cuts deep.
What are some improper expressions of Eros? The first would be when it disorders the relationship between the passions and the intellect. When desire overflows into the emotions and is unchecked, it can overwhelm the rational nature. Soon enough, we find that we are like Romeo and Juliet on an immature flight of fancy that ends only in drams of poison and self-immolation. Desire run rampant is dangerous. It leaves us a simpering mess with no sense of perspective.
The other improper expression of Eros is when it is directed at an unworthy object. I have said that desire is necessary for human flourishing; this is because we are creatures with souls. The problem with the soul is that we cannot sense it; we see only its sensible effects. Thus with love we sense it first through the erotic, which is sensible. But we are led ever upward towards a more pure love and we able to grasp the love that lies beyond the senses. This higher love is what actually feeds the soul; nothing else will do, as other sorts of nourishment are below it in dignity. Eros and desire are preparatory, revealing to us what otherwise might remain hidden. Desire for a spouse, for instance, leads to Agape. As romantic love comes and goes with the vagaries of life and emotion, Agape will continue to grow. The two are connected, but there is a hierarchy and the Eros leads to a higher form of love. When desire seeks out that which is not worthy of love, when we desire not the good of a spouse, for instance, but instead continue to desire only the sensible aspects, we are not actually in love with a person at all. It also happens that we might desire something which is ugly or untrue or brutish. We do not find Agape at the end of that road, only a coarsening of the soul.
Charles Ryder is a painter, a seeker of beauty who claims, “You could appreciate the beauty of the world by trying to paint it.” Brideshead Revisited is the tale of his Love and Madness as he hesitantly but steadily works out the object of his desire. His way is crooked, yes, but it is nevertheless the way of beauty, and Waugh reveals the path by which an aesthete may, indeed, come to salvation by love of beauty itself.
We begin with his first love, Sebastian. At Oxford as a young man, Charles is ripe for the encounter, saying that he was, “in search of love in those days.” He admits, “I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting…” Sebastian’s beauty is appealing to Charles and seems to be an object fit for his love. He describes the blossoming of their relationship,
That day was the beginning of my friendship with Sebastian, and thus it came about, that morning in June, that I was lying beside him in the shade of the high elms watching the smoke from his lips drift up into the branches.
There is a short, idyllic romance, but Sebastian as an object of love turns out to be ephemeral and the weight of desire ends up crushing him. He cannot live up to the expectations and, although he may in the end turn out to be a sort of mad saint himself, he cannot be what Charles needs him to be. We learn from Anthony Blanche, who is a mutual friend and also a holy/sinful fool, that, “those that have charm don’t really need brains.” Sebastian is charming, and the attraction he exerts on Charles turns out to be based entirely on pleasure and the sensible passions. He has no intellect to recommend him. While at Oxford, the two had been in the grip of mutual madness that was unable to resolve itself into true love. Anthony warns Charles, “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you”
Socrates explains in Phaedrus that following desire towards pleasure without reason is outrage. It is hubris of the highest order and will end up consuming those who give themselves over to it.
But what if the desire doesn’t settle and instead prompts us to move on to a more worthy form of beauty? What if it is, as Pope Benedict XVI argues, an arrow that wounds and sticks in the side of a man until he broken-heartedly staggers towards the beauty that hurts him so? Desire itself functions as a reminder that there is a higher beauty to be found and we cannot rest until we stand face to face with a beloved worthy of our love. Charles and Sebastian have well nigh destroyed each other, but eventually their pain causes them to renew the search for the object of their madness.
Madness is equivocal, it may destroy but it also prompts us to continue seeking beauty. Socrates describes the soul of a man like a chariot with winged horse. The soul is immortal and its proper nature is to grow wings and rise up to higher realms. Desire alone can cause the chariot to fly heavenward.
Sebastian could never be what Charles needed him to be, so before they went their separate ways, Charles spent time attempting to recapture a first flame, to return to the way things used to be back at Oxford. Julia, however, presents a more fitting object of desire in the way that only a man and woman can be fitted to each other. She is, theoretically, an answer to the desire for beauty that might also be accompanied by the intellect. This is an Eros that could potentially blossom into a rational love. Charles notices her beauty, which has developed and matured over the years since he last saw her. Waugh writes,
That was the change in her from ten years ago; that, indeed, was her reward, this haunting, magical sadness which spoke straight to the heart and struck silence; it was the completion of her beauty.
The problem is that the very sadness that makes her beautiful is the result of her own failed marriage. In a theoretical world, she is a perfect fit for Charles. In the real world, however, her love is already given to another. This desire, which seemed so full of potential, cannot seek out the love and beauty of marriage, but must remain illicit and against reason. Socrates explains that at some point, right-minded reason will take the place of Madness, otherwise it never turns into Love. Instead, we are left with a situation in which desire is warped into the need for pleasure instead of what is truly best for the beloved. What is best for Julia is to halt her unhealthy relationship with Charles. She understands that their faulty love is an imposter; it has made them both worse. She exclaims, “The worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him.” To continue to profess love for each other in such circumstances would be madness. Whatever it is that they shared, it must now be the cause of its own destruction as it spurs them on to true love, found only, as Julia puts it, in the mercy of God. Charles sees it too, but isn’t happy about it. He tells her, “I don’t want to make it easier for you…I hope your heart may break; but I do understand.”
It turns out that Julia has charmed Charles no less than Sebastian had. His love for her is revealed to be yet another example of misplaced desire. But he has progressed much further down the path of beauty and their love, although halted in its tracks, is more substantial and pure than his earlier fling with Sebastian. If it is true that, “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom,” then Love and Madness are about to come to fruition in the life of Charles Ryder.
The Bride of Christ
After Sebastian, Charles had turned to his painting again. Perhaps in travel to foreign places and the beauty of the art he made there, he would find the fulfillment of his desire. When he returns to England, he displays his new pictures in a gallery and Anthony Blanche arrives to see them. He says,
My dear, I could hardly keep still in my chair. I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, ‘Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures.’ Well, I went, but the gallery after luncheon was so full of absurd women in the sort of hats they should be made to eat, that I rested a little–I rested here with Cyril and Tom and these saucy boys. Then I came back at the unfashionable time of five o’clock, all agog, my dear; and what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.
In other words, Charles is still mistaking charm for beauty. But perhaps what is most important is that he is still looking and he remains unsatisfied. The relationships he has attempted to form aren’t virtuous in and of themselves and Charles undoubtedly could have found a better path, but such is the capriciousness of sinful humanity. We must be careful to stop short of claiming that there are inherent goods to be found in his romance with either Sebastian or Julia (the relationships themselves are incapable of producing virtue), but instead be content to point out that God makes good come from even evil situations. With each attempt, Charles purifies his search for beauty. His attempt at love with Julia, for instance, and her gift to him of a broken heart finally pushes him onwards to true beauty wherein his madness can resolve itself into genuine love. This true beauty, for Waugh, is found in the Bride of Christ.
Charles is reticent to share about his conversion, but Waugh gives us a few small hints that this has happened. In the prologue, Charles’s army mate, Hooper (another example of Modern Man), says that he has been inside of Brideshead and, “There’s a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on – just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine.” In the end, Charles enters the chapel and says, “a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words.” Where Modern Man is uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the expression of authentic Madness and Love (because Modern Man is boring and dreary), Charles has opened himself up as an acolyte of a Love so ancient that it is ever new. He has learned to pray.
Waugh never sentimentalizes the faith. His description is romantic but in no way romanticized:
Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot; hanging over the bed in the night-nursery; hanging year after year in the dark little study at Farm Street with the shining oilcloth; hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers; no comfort except a sponge of vinegar and the kind words of a thief; hanging for ever; never the cool sepulchre and the grave clothes spread on the stone slab, never the oil and spices in the dark cave; always the midday sun and the dice clicking for the seamless coat.
The faith is beauty, but it is a rough, painful sort of beauty. As such, it is the only repository strong enough to hold the weight of our desire. The madness of the world resolves itself at the cross into infinite love, a love so strong that it can support the yearning of all mankind. We are lost and we are searching, and here is where the journey both ends and begins. It ends because it is the only possible culmination of love and madness. It begins because the virtue of love is limitless and, once we find it, there is no outer boundary to limit the range of our pilgrimage.
Waugh puts it so well when he muses,
Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
Passages like this one are the reason Brideshead Revisited is a book I will read and reread for the rest of my life. I will never stop chasing shadows that peek around the corner, and even though it makes me sad to be a step late, I will sprint as fast as I can in the hope of glimpsing the reality from which all beauty emanates. Occasionally we all have missteps, but better to exclaim “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient ever new,” than to never taste Madness at all.