I linked to The Guardian’s obituary of Wilfrid Sheed (1940-2011) yesterday. Sheed’s first book was A Middle Class Education (1960), which was apparently semi-autobiographical, much like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
The Guardian notes that there’s a lot of drinking in Middle Class:
Owing more to Kingsley Amis than to Evelyn Waugh, A Middle Class Education proclaimed that Oxford undergraduates drank beer and chased girls as enthusiastically as their redbrick counterparts.
I like the reference to Amis, whose anthology of three short drinking books (Everyday Drinking) is a mainstay in my drinking library, but I’m not sure I understand the reference to Waugh. There was a helluva lot of drinking in Brideshead Revisited, too, and it was alcoholism that did in—and arguably saved—the book’s tragic hero, Sebastian Flyte.
I’ve long maintained that Sebastian, had an acute sense of holiness, which created an intense desire for joy—a supernatural trait—and he wrongly tried to capture it with drink. After Sebastian had destroyed his sense of holiness through debauchery, calls from the divine didn’t stop coming to him.
This becomes clear in Waugh’s final words about Sebastian. Sebastian’s drinking worsened until he ended-up living with a shiftless German named Kurt, a pitiful and despicable man who took advantage of Sebastian, living off the small allowance that Sebastian continued to receive from his family. Sebastian provided for the man, for no apparent reason.
But Waugh tells us, “As long as Sebastian had him to look after, he was happy.”
Sebastian’s call to holiness that he had translated as the call to drunkenness was becoming transformed in his soul and erupting in a proper form—the call to service. During WWII, Kurt was forcibly conscripted by the Nazis and made to serve as a stormtrooper. He escaped, was caught, and hung himself in a concentration camp. Sebastian spent a year looking for him in Europe, learned that Kurt was dead, then went to Morocco.
Eventually, Sebastian landed in a monastery near Carthage, not as a monk, but as a drunken porter. He was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world, pathetic by both worlds’ standards.
But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life. The portrait painted of Sebastian’s future is touching, in an odd sort of way. In response to narrator Charles Ryder’s question about how Sebastian will end, Sebastian’s sister responds:
I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of the [monastic] community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, ‘Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,’ and then he’ll come back disheveled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. . . If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.
Sebastian was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world. He was still pulled in two opposite directions and pathetic by both worlds’ standards.
But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life—all ambition thrown aside, still drinking, but at least ashamed of it. He became a man whose vice was permanently affixed to his back, but a man who was becoming holy by carrying it as nobly as possible.
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