February 09, 2009

The Forerunner: Love, Evelyn Waugh and Plato

Three times in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder's relationship with his student friend Lord Sebastien Flyte is described as being the forerunner, the shadow of his relationships to come. Once Flyte's father, Lord Marchmain, tells Charles this in Rome, twice Charles tells Sebastien's sister Julia that his love for her brother was an expression, a forerunner of his love for her- the grand passion of his life. Charles's sincerity is unquestionable- but it is also interesting for it demonstrates an echo within the novel- an echo of Plato deep into the 20th Century.

Plato of course in the Symposium established a hierarchy of loves- from heterosexual love to homosexual love to philosophical love. Christian philosophy with its stress that God is love found Platonic ideas about love attractive. The influence on Waugh's work is obvious- Charles's love for Sebastien is a precursor to his deeper and more mature love for Julia- and Julia who sees more clearly than her beau, sees that her love for him sets up a good against God: in order to love properly she understands that she has to progress to loving God. A progression that Charles himself makes at the end of the novel by becoming a Catholic.

There is much more going on in the novel than this- but what is interesting about this is the deep psychological structure that Waugh, using Platonic progression of loves, builds into the framework of his story. His characters advance or regress in terms of that that they love and its closeness to the divine- furthermore it is that love that grants them grace. Sebastien who becomes an alcoholic for example is led eventually to God through a love of Kurt, a down and out German he encounters, and through his desire for alcohol. Sin is eventually forgiven as eccentricity- as Cordelia the most astute of the Flyte children tells Charles.

There are lots of ways of thinking about this presence in the novel- it unquestionably is there. Perhaps though it is the mark of an atheist to find Brideshead revisited to be a book with a disappointing ending- as its characters move from the love of humans to the love of the divine- I certainly felt and found that. And yet it is as Waugh said a statement about theology, to understand the novel we must respect it as such- and as such it encompasses a sophisticated doctrine which relates the earthly loves to the spiritual ones. In that sense, we have in Waugh's work a clear statement- amongst other things- of modern Catholic philosophy- which unsurprisingly is tied to an ancient metaphor about the human psyche.


James Hamilton said...

Completely fascinating again - I suppose I'm going to have to read Waugh's horrid book now, having avoided both TV series and the novel up until now. I am also an atheist, and note here again that Catholic idea of atheism as gauche, awkward, lower-class, missing-something-out. Both Plato and Catholicism offer for those minded for them routes into sophistication, sophistication anyone not inclined to sophistication for its own sake would find repellant. Drug users employ the same kind of discourse to justify their actions.

I wonder what Plato would make of, say, Rolf Harris's "Pet Rescue"?