Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Brideshead Revisited: Catholic with a Universal Appeal

This summer a group of friends and I have been reading British author Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Each week we have a new reading assignment and then we'll discuss it amongst ourselves on a blog we set up just for the occasion. 

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
served as the location for filming Brideshead
 in both the miniseries and the 2009 adaption.

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Brideshead Revisited consists of a series of memories of British commander Charles Ryder, which are triggered by his battalion's encampment at a large abandoned estate known as Brideshead. These memories revolve around Ryder's relationship with a Roman Catholic aristocratic family in England in the 1920's. Evelyn Waugh also described this work as semi-autobiographical, recounting memories from his own years at Oxford. Waugh converted to Catholicism in the year 1930 after the failure of his first marriage.
Though Catholicism serves as one of the central themes of the story, it appeals to people of all beliefs (as evidenced by the fact that it is in top 100 lists of secular publications). For example, Waugh is one of the favorite authors of Fr. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest well known for his work in the "Catholicism" series, as well as the recently deceased British atheist, Christopher Hitchens. Why does a universal audience appreciate this novel when many non-Christians reject so many Christian stories? First of all, it is a well-crafted piece of literature! The writing style and the descriptions are beautiful, elegant, and poetic. Good art -- in this case, good writing -- appeals to a universal audience, regardless of background and belief. You can be a Budhist, an atheist, or a Catholic and still find the Sistine Chapel inspiring! In this case, we are dealing with literature not painting, but the truth still stands. As a quick example, I'm including a passage from the beginning of Book II:

"The human soul enjoys these rare, classic periods, but, apart from them, we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves -- the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast, the machine, and the sleep-walker, and heaven knows what besides, all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye. We get borne along, out of sight in the press, unresisting, till we get the chance to drop behind unnoticed, or dodge down a side street, pause, breathe freely and take our bearings, or to push ahead, outdistance our shadows, lead them a dance, so when at length they catch up with us, they look at one another askance, knowing we have a secret we shall never share."
Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons, and Sebastian Flyte,
played by Anthony Andrews

Secondly the story itself is appealing to a broad audience with its high stakes and universal themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and spirituality. Thirdly, the view of Catholicism is coming from an outsider's perspective: Ryder is an agnostic raised without any religion. I think perhaps this may make the story more approachable for non-Christians. In addition, the portrayal of Catholicism is both enigmatic and controversial. I would hardly call it a favorable portrayal of Catholicism. Most of the characters who identify themselves as Catholic are seriously flawed. 
And yet, it is called one of the most Catholic novels of the 20th century. I have yet to understand why, but I am hoping it will become apparent by the novel's conclusion. 
We are currently nearly into Book II. I have also been watching BBC's miniseries adaption of the novel as I read. Though there have been a few unnecessary butt shots and there may be a sex scene in need of skipping (though I haven't gotten that far yet), the series is a commendable adaption of Waugh's masterpiece thus far! One of its greatest strengths is its faithfulness to Waugh's beautiful words. It also contains some excellent acting from Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. If you are looking for some quality entertainment and food for thought before summer's end, I highly recommend Brideshead Revisited
And for all you soundtrack buffs, I've read reviews of the newer film that came out in 2008 and, while it's not as accurate and probably not as good, it does have a beautiful soundtrack! It's a similar style to the recent adaption of Pride and Prejudice and Finding Neverland.

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