For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. I read this amazing Epistle of St Paul this morning at Mass of Sexagesima Sunday. In this piece of writing, Paul shows his complete break with conventions and all the suffering that could afflict him in his apostolic labours. He was shipwrecked, taken prisoner, punished by whipping and many other adversities. I was brought back to a theme on which I wrote just a year ago – Fools for Christ. I also remembered my article Stages of Spiritual Life.
I thought of this subject as I recently re-read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the character of Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian is the eccentric student at Oxford who becomes an alcoholic. In this following clip, Cordelia relates Sebastian’s sad fate in northern Africa.
Evelyn Waugh wrote some of the finest portraits of characters I have ever read, through his use of satire and going to the very depths of the soul. He painted each character in his unique way – the agnostic Charles in his army uniform kneeling to pray in the chapel, Cordelia’s innocence, Julia’s guilt. Sebastian is the fool for Christ, one whose very human dignity is stripped away. Cordelia is the voice by which Waugh showed his profound understanding of humanity.
The 1981 television series is very close to the book, beautifully acted and produced. I know nothing about the more recent dramatised version, and I don’t want to know. I have nearly finished reading this tattered book for maybe the tenth time since I bought it in a London bookshop some thirty years ago. Holiness, yes holiness, exists where it is least expected. It is a contradiction of worldly wisdom, something that St Paul understood very well when he wrote to the Corinthians.
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.
This foolishness is not merely the condition of someone who is suffering from a mental or spiritual illness. It is not merely a voluntary act of abnegation. The Eastern Orthodox recognise this state as a style of asceticism, of contemplative life, something chosen and stylised. An example would be a sane man pretending to be insane for the purpose of ascetic abnegation. Most people in this world go by conventions and conformity to norms. They are a part of our culture and civilisation. However, not all conventions are right, and disobedience to them is a sign of contradiction. This is the essence of Christian Cynicism.
We are all born as fallen and imperfect beings, and we are the products of our upbringing and experience in life. Some go on to be great and famous. Others leave their mark through creation, art and music. Most of us struggle through life, obscure and unknown, and many struggle against tougher odds than others. Some try to become great in spite of their inability to do so. Others accept their limitations and gave away what they have to follow their way. The more “conventional” might join a monastery. A few end up as vagrants and good-for-nothings like Sebastian Flyte.
In my earlier article, I above all described those who went out to shock society as a form of Christian witness – between the fools of Holy Russia to the prophets of American revivalism with “fire in their bellies”. This tradition also exists outside Christianity. Some of the stories about these crazy characters can be quite revolting. This sign of contradiction is there to challenge conventional values when they depart from Christian morality or good spirituality. When these conventional values involve hypocrisy, lust for power and money and intrigue, they have to be challenged. This was the whole point of Christ challenging the Scribes and the Pharisees. I also described Francis of Assisi and the description of him by Oscar Wilde from his prison cell at Reading. The aesthete and poet also have their say as well as the lawyer and the theologian.
I return to Sebastian Flyte, for he is not an ascetic in the way that would make Eastern Orthodoxy recognise him as a saint, or anyone for that matter. His life would seem to be more the result of vice and sin than virtue and selflessness. We might judge him for having everything – aristocratic birth, Eton and Oxford and a loving family – and blowing it all on booze! We think with the wisdom we were taught. What about the Parable of the Talents? Are we not here to use those talents in God’s service and achieve to the maximum of our potential? I ask this question of myself as did my parents, my teachers, and now myself as I move through middle age.
Waugh’s Sebastian is a complex character, and I need not fear discussing him because he is fictitious. At the same time, he is so plausible and exists in a number of people I know – whether or not they are drunkards. The symbolism is all there. Sebastian is a beautiful young man, in love with his youth and childhood, and is unable to grow up. There is another side to childhood, that of innocence and the total lack of sophistry – a quality Christ insists on for being made capable of sanctity. At the same time, we are called to adulthood, responsibility and seriousness. In the novel, we don’t see Sebastian grow old, though it can be argued that the timespan of Brideshead Revisited extends from 1923 to 1939 – only sixteen years. Waugh makes him nineteen years old in 1923, so he was thirty-five at the outbreak of World War II when the novel begins and ends.
As a young man, Sebastian is an aesthete as were many foppish upper class university undergraduates in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beauty and charm are the windows through which the whole of life is seen. He is also eccentric in his exaggerations and imperatives, a distorted sense of reality as the reader might judge. His charm is heavily insisted upon in the way the outrageously camp Anthony Blanche describes it.
I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. 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.
I find Anthony Blanche creepy, and I cannot relate to his camp affectation. In spite of his grotesque sophistication, he is not entirely wrong in what he says. Is there any substance to Sebastian Flyte, or is he just superficial tinsel and lack of personality? The character study of these two men is fascinating.
We find a contrast between charm and the profound character of a mature and balanced personality. I find the word charm fascinating. What does it mean? There are lucky charms, snake charmers, magical spells and that sort of thing. As a human quality, it is not easy to understand in Blanche’s description. I find that person charming – this is usually a compliment and a kind thing to say. It is a quality of the person that makes us like him. The person fascinates, delights and attracts. So then, why should such a quality kill everything it touches? Perhaps it is a superficial quality, and there must be a depth of character Blanche found missing in Sebastian. The reader cannot bring himself to dislike Sebastian, as he might wince upon reading Blanche’s camp patter. Again, Anthony Blanche is one of those lost souls who keeps coming back, and we find some affection for him. Waugh obviously wants us to see through charm and seek more profound human qualities. This is the quality of Anthony Blanche. On the other hand, charm can attract unconditional love in spite of all the character faults and vices like the alcoholism and immaturity.
Sebastian’s religion is a whole subject of study. Charles Ryder is unable to understand it from his agnostic point of view. I am impressed by Cordelia’s observation that he could not fit into either the secular world or a monastic community. He recognises his own limitations and lack of will to come up to the mark, to make the required standard. Are not these things so familiar to many of us, certainly to me. Going by Cordelia’s story as she relates it to Charles, Sebastian’s values have completely changed. He wants to look after a destitute German, leave his English aristocracy behind and escape his past. Then Cordelia speaks of Sebastian’s holiness. How can this be for a man who failed to use his talents, sunk into a life of vice and booze – almost worthy of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress?
I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God.
I too have come across such men. Worldly wisdom would shun and banish them. Conventional Christian morality would condemn them for any number of vices and sins, yet something makes them loved and lovable. It would be improper to name any real persons, but I imagine that many of us know a Sebastian, be it our own son, a pupil we are teaching at school, whoever.
We are all fools and worldly wise at the same time. We hesitate between our conformity to society, to what makes us feel safe, and our prophetic instincts that make us want to break with it all and follow our calling and deepest instincts. This is the message of Christ, of the saints and the many hidden souls no one knows about – and perhaps ourselves…