To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom. ∼ Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Wisdom is indeed a wonderful thing, but the knowledge and love that produce it are, like roots, usually better left underground. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a story of the cultivation of wisdom and even salvation. Where it has confused critics and devotees alike is in its concern with the root and not the flower, being a study of the unhappiness that is sometimes the manure for a plant whose flower blooms, if it blooms, in heaven. It is a bloom of which we on earth can only see faint signs, as through a glass darkly. To be ready to read this book, and to be able to benefit from it, it is of absolute importance to take this definition of the “root of all wisdom” seriously.
Brideshead Revisited is a truly gnarly book, being root-like, and is an uncomfortable read much of the time. There are many reasons: For one, the prominence of a faded elite which rebuffs us with its snobbery and which stings us, like a slight branch whipped across our face, with the consciousness of the real superiority of that elite in culture and intelligence. For another, there is the combination of sordidness and elegance in 1920’s Oxford. Harder to bear than the confrontation between the elite and us, are the duels among the former—the slender, deep sword-thrusts of cruelty and apathy within families, even married couples. Most uncomfortable of all is the unhappiness that accompanies most of the characters in the book most of the time.
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But there are great rewards for making one’s way through this book. The most uncomfortable moments compensate by being laugh-out-loud funny. Working by paradox, the current of unhappiness powers some of the most humorous scenes in the book. But even more lovely, and more worth the hard work of reading, are the few moments in the book of complete content and joy, true love expressed truly, “zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth,” and the “languor… that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.”
One of the ways Brideshead Revisited can be misinterpreted is as some sort of elegy to aristocratic England, to its manners, its social ease, and its refinement. That interpretation can only be corrected by forgetting about the author (Waugh, the consummate snob) and remembering this author’s insight about wisdom. Refinement can be, on one hand, a way to love; indeed, Hilaire Belloc writes in one of his poems, “in my Walks it seems to me/ That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.” And it is the courtesy of plover’s eggs and strawberries, mansions and estates, and especially wine, that Charles Ryder, the protagonist, learns to know and love. But to steep in refinement is to lose one’s way, to forget the joys one used to have in discovering the pleasures that God made good, and to become an antiquarian of tastes that no longer really please.
And it is a mere fact of Brideshead Revisited that the things which we readers encounter with Charles, and by which we are at first delighted, become more and more dreary as the book goes on. Sadly, for one character—Anthony Blanche, who is only able to know and to love things and not people—there is no hope for attaining wisdom. One character tersely brings to a head the futility of overmuch refinement with these words to Charles Ryder shortly before his conversion: “Why must you see everything secondhand?” Refinement always follows from experiencing the world in an original way; excessive refinement is always secondhand.
Another common way to misunderstand Brideshead Revisited is as an implicit condemnation of the Catholic faith, of the Catholic life, or at least the Catholic belief in the reality of evil and original sin. It may seem that every single Catholic character is unfulfilled directly because of a faith that thwarts love and happiness at every turn.
However, this is like blaming a state such as Oklahoma or California for the corruption of their politicians, rather than blaming the nature of modern politics. In Brideshead Revisited, almost everyone ends up being unhappy, from Rex Mottram to Hooper, and Catholic to non-Catholic. It is not Catholicism that is to blame, but aristocratic England, plebian England, individual vice, family pride, you, me, and fallen human nature. It may seem like quite the summary judgement and execution of the Catholic faith when one character, after his conversion, announces that he is now “homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless.” But, when we consider these days of no-fault divorce, contraception, and abortion, one might be forgiven for thinking that this could be said by most of the baby-boomers one has met.
As might be understood from what has been said, this book is a good book, but not good for a child or even an adolescent. It deserves its place on the shelf at a later stage in life, perhaps exactly when one reaches middle age, for it is on one hand a bracing review of one’s own life, and a voice crying in the wilderness that insists on appreciating the innocence one once had. The real challenge of Brideshead Revisited seems to be threefold: Though loving and knowing a human being is the root of wisdom, loving and knowing can be very painful. Though loving and knowing a human being is the root of wisdom, one may have to go beyond the person one knows and loves to get to wisdom itself. And, if loving and knowing a human being is the root of wisdom, how does this truth apply to the human being who is at the same time Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus Christ?
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a still from the 1981 Granda Television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte.