Guest post by John Emmet Clarke.
I was reading Brideshead Revisited every Lent before it was cool to do so. I was quoting entire passages and explaining allusions long before every Catholic Bright Young Thing was surreptitiously searching how to pronounce “Tiresias” prior to stammering out a few lines of Eliot at a particularly boozy post-Mass brunch. But then the day came where I realized that the mere placing of Brideshead at the top of one’s list made one, well, one of them. Asked at some informal get-together what my favorite book was, I demurely replied, “Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.” At which my interlocutor groaned and bewailed the limited imagination of today’s Catholic Younger Set in their literary choices and I beat a hasty retreat to the exits and have been trying since to dislodge the phantasms from my memory.
However, I still read Brideshead once a year, albeit with much less fanfare; it retains its place on my list of must-reads for everyone with a soul, but my readiness to promote that list has receded. Until now, that is. This Lent, rather than read Brideshead again, I began to reflect on why the book holds such a basic appeal. And almost immediately I was struck by the novel’s immensely powerful aesthetic appeal. As a beautiful book about beautiful people and places it responds powerfully to the innate desire for what is visually pleasing.
At first blush, this is a remarkably superficial reason, denigrating a story of the conversion of the human heart to faith in almighty God to the level of a lavishly produced, compellingly performed period drama like Downton Abbey. However, that the aesthetic of reality can (does?) deeply affect our response to truth is immediately obvious from Sebastian’s apologia for his Catholic faith:
“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense.”
“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do,” Sebastian replies. “That’s how I believe.”
“And in prayers?…”
“Well,” I said, “if you can believe all that and you don’t want to be good, where’s the difficulty about your religion?”
“If you can’t see, you can’t.”
Here Sebastian is simply describing how he responds to the truth of something on account of its appearance being pleasing to him. In this, he is quite in accord with nature (St. Thomas says beauty is what gives pleasure on sight) and grace (St. Paul says to think about “whatever is lovely”). Maritain writes that the delight which flows from beholding beauty is the result of knowing the truth about the thing that is beautiful:
The beautiful is what gives joy, not all joy, but joy in knowledge; not the joy peculiar to the act of knowing, but a joy superabounding and overflowing from such an act because of the object known.
But of course the loveliness of faith fades fairly fast for Sebastian: “It’s very difficult being a Catholic,” he says—to which we could add, “when you mistake the delight of knowing elements of faith for the having of faith itself.” Brideshead, through Sebastian as much as through Charles and Julia, illustrates the particular tension that Catholicism introduces to human life: The faith’s ever-ancient, ever-new beauty calls to us, but no sooner have we arrived at its embrace than it calls us on to something difficult and seemingly defeating, something ugly and bloody—to the Cross.
Lent reminds us to beware of beauty that presents itself to us at a be-all-end-all. In these forty days, we see our Savior go from the most handsome of men to utterly bereft of beauty. In the portrait of faith, where does beauty belong in such days? Should we chase it from the picture altogether, lest it distract from the desolation of Calvary? Should we cover it momentarily, and when the stone is rolled away, make it the focal point once more? The words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger describing Christian art are applicable to what we do with beauty vis-à-vis our faith. Christian art is:
caught between two fires (as perhaps it always has been): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.
These two fires—deceit and conceit—rage in the same furnace. The illusory nature of beauty can deceive us into thinking that true beauty is nonsense and that ugliness, emptiness, sadness are the really real. Beauty can also deceive us into seeing beauty as a place to dwell happily ever after. Barbour writes that “the danger” of beauty is its “self-sufficiency”: beholding beauty, we may “rest content with the beautiful object qua object, making of it an idol.” Sebastian Flyte is not alone in believing because he delights in the loveliness of what is believed—every human heart is bared to that danger. We can mistake what seems beautiful for the fullness of the thing. And yet the fear of falling prey to that danger is what can produce the overreaction that affirms the lie that the ugly is what is real. Bernanos’s “saint of Lumbres” aims to “uproot that joy” which beauty brings, convinced that “grace has no such sensual attraction.” Greene’s Bendrix damns human happiness and even hates the beauty of his beloved, not seeing them for what they are—hints and symbols of the divine love which brings healing and true happiness. Chandler’s Marlowe sees a naked woman and sees only a dope.
When beauty is diminished to a conceit, it becomes a base, skin-deep self-aggrandizement. Such beauty is what Rodin called true ugliness—“the fake, whatever grins at you without cause, senseless affectations, pirouettes and capers, mere travesties of beauty and grace, whatever tells a lie.” The only nice thing Rex Mottram can say about the Catholic Church is that it knows how to put on a good show. Putting on a show, going through the glorious motions, satisfying ourselves with the hints and symbols—this is the lie on which Lent can shine a discomfiting light.
Sebastian identifies an idea’s loveliness as how he believes in the idea. This is what we do, when we stake the truth of something on whether we are pleased when we see it. And there, now, Lent hits us. What Thomas saw and believed, we see, too, albeit darkly. And now we see it bruised, beaten down, trodden in the dust, stripped of all loveliness. When we see it again, “burning anew among old stones,” we will see “the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems.”
John Emmet Clarke is editor-in-chief at Cluny Media. He currently resides in Washington, DC.