A few notes on Sebastian Flyte
The early pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited describe the drunken antics of students Lord Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder (the narrator). Ryder makes the later observation that he “got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape.”
This difference is the same difference G.K. Chesterton touched on in his early book Heretics: “If a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day.”
As alcohol works through a person’s system, the drinker loses his sense of suffocating self-regard and its accompanying worries, with the result that he decreasingly sees existence through the distorting prism of self-regard. As the prism breaks apart, he becomes re-acquainted with the fact that earthly life is a gift—a good gift that is the gift of God, Who is Full Goodness. After enough drinks, everything seems good. Rather, everything is good (for all is created by God), and the drinker becomes acutely aware of this. This awareness gives him a joy that he has difficulty finding in the everyday world as he walks about with his constant sense of self-regard.
This was the plight of Sebastian, a young man who suffered under the oppressive air of dignity that nobility forced upon him. But he also 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 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.