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Why Read Brideshead Revisited?: A Meditation on Sloth

October 12, 2022 10 min read
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Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder is perhaps one of the fictional literary works which most integrates the Catholic imagination, to live and think imaginatively with the Church. We could put it in the Mount Rushmore of Catholic literature if the novel weren’t also so distinctly English, which is part of the story—the Church in England past and present. Waugh’s prose is witty, his characters vivid, and their situations often poignantly tragic and somehow hilarious. Though Brideshead follows the immensely wealthy and eccentric aristocratic family, the average reader—say, an American commoner—still feels much sympathy with the novel’s characters. This is largely because the novel deals with the rise of the modern era, the decline of institutional Christianity, and the admixture of sin and grace in each character we meet. In this way Waugh begins to trace some of the transitional contours between the Christendom and Apostolic ages. Brideshead is told through the witness of Charles Ryder, a largely secular and jaded figure drawn into the world of the aristocratic Catholic Flyte family. He becomes the intimate friend of Sebastian Flyte, his Oxford classmate, but later is close with other members of the Flyte family, namely Sebastian’s sister Julia. In this way, the Flyte’s Catholicism is taken with a critical eye while its dogmas, as well as the faith of the Church’s members, becomes a matter of questioning.

Though we can call it a “Catholic” novel, it is also a potent engagement with vice, namely the often misunderstood vice known as sloth. Our contemporary notions about sloth fail to see the richer meaning present in the Christian tradition on the vices. Though we take sloth to mean something akin to laziness, the vice sloth—traditionally one of the seven “capital” or head vices—is really a “lack of love” in the Christian tradition. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes in her book Glittering Vices,

Sloth is opposed to the great Christian virtue of diligence—that powerful sense of responsibility, dedication to hard work, and conscientious completion of one’s duties… The telltale root of our word diligence is the Latin diligere, which means “to love.” Sloth, on this view, is apathy—comfortable indifference to duty and neglect of other human beings’ needs. (DeYoung 81)
By this definition, sloth can then be a vice of the lazy or the busybodies who get much done except the needful thing.

Waugh picks up on a similar theme in his essay, “Sloth,” published in a series of essays on the vices in the Sunday Times, when he says that sloth is often misunderstood to be a problem of laziness. Does not most trouble come from those “busy” people, though, the politicians, bureaucrats, and capitalists, he questions? He says that this ambivalence about busyness versus laziness is really secondary to the main point of sloth. Like DeYoung, he looks to Thomas Aquinas as a resource for understanding this vice:

St. Thomas’s answer is both comforting and surprising: tristia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of the spiritual good. Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair. (58)
More fundamental to sloth is refusing the love of God—our refusal to enjoy God’s love. Waugh goes on to qualify this type of despair as it manifests in spiritual rebellion of the good, writing that “Sloth is the condition in which a man is fully aware of the proper means of his salvation and refuses to take them because the whole apparatus of salvation fills him with tedium and disgust” (58). By this account, many things in life can be enjoyed, but the necessarily vital thing, salvation through repentance of sin and accepting God’s loving forgiveness, refuses to be accepted. This battle over the soul lies at the heart of Waugh’s novel.

Decadent Beauty

In many ways, Charles Ryder is in the long run converted to the Catholic faith more through beauty than its dogmas. This happens through his relationships with Sebastian Flyte, an indulgent and alcoholic aesthete, and Julia, an unfaithful yet truthful penitent by the novel’s end. But for a significant portion of the novel Charles is locked into Sebastian’s indulgent vortex of art, drink, and food. He lacks love for eternal things, namely love for God.

In the novel, Waugh’s Sebastian emblematizes the vision of earthly pleasure, aesthetic and culinary, and he is Charles Ryder’s introduction to these worlds in their innocent youth. Charles was learning his aesthetics by the book, while Sebastian’s grand interruption is like a real man stepping through the movie screen. Sebastian is for Charles tied to beauty, and from the beginning is emblematic of the beauty entering through the senses. “I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour which seemed to know no bounds” (28). Sebastian introduces Charles to fine taste, in art as in food, and as when he is converted to the baroque at Brideshead manor heaven is similarly come down to earth when Sebastian is around. Charles’ nostalgia in the opening section of the book then, when he is introduced to Sebastian and the Brideshead family, is something of a prelapsarian world that cannot be put back right again.

Charles’ aesthetic conversion coincides, too, with his religious one, though much more slowly. Waugh places both of these beginnings at Brideshead and they run parallel to his and Sebastian’s wine tasting. They scour the depths of history in the family’s wine, and their half-drunk days were another kind of education: “We had bottles brought up from every bin, and it was during those tranquil evenings that I made my first serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of that rich harvest that was to be my stay in many barren years” (83). This scene, with the boys drunk and wildly singing the praises of the wines, forecasts so much of Sebastian’s later days: “Ought we to get drunk every night,” Sebastian asked. “Yes, I think so,” Charles responds. “I think so, too,” Sebastian agrees (84). But the veil is for a moment rent, and we see the negotiation between belief and behavior which often appears disconnected with Sebastian.

“Does [being Catholic] make much difference to you?”
“Of course. All the time.”
“Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don’t seem much more virtuous than me.”
“I’m very, very much wickeder,” said Sebastian indignantly.
“Well then?”
“Who was it used to pray, ‘Oh God, make me good, but not yet’?”
“I don’t know. You, I should think.”…
“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”
“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”…
“Well,” I said, “if you can believe all that and you don’t want to be good, where’s the difficulty about your religion?”
“If you can’t see, you can’t.” (87)
Sebastian’s application of Augustine’s youthful wish, to be good but not yet, is taken romantically here, but we also see sincerity behind Sebastian’s flippancy. He believes he has a vocation from God, but he can’t bring himself to care for it, to follow this vocation.

For the most orthodox Catholic characters in the book—Cordelia and Bridey—are homely merely on the outside, though quite alive inside, even if that vigor doesn’t manifest itself in beauty. These characters who believe the teachings of the faith lack the romanticism of Sebastian or Julia, but they are bent upon the love of God. Conversely, Sebastian’s character must undergo a kind of slow battle against the flesh. We come to understand that Sebastian’s sloth is perhaps his way of fleeing his vocation, to the priesthood or to family, which he repels with alcohol.

Sloth as Running from the Love of God

Sebastian’s flight to Morocco, the final third of the novel, is his dislocation from his family, but also from God. Even there, though, he finds he cannot escape it. Charles, as a kind of stand-in for the reader, struggles to understand what it means to be holy. Witness after witness in Greece, where he has come from Algiers, find him similarly drunk, this time on Grecian absinthe, but as a kind of holy fool. “They loved him there,” she says. “He’s still loved, you see, wherever he goes, whatever condition he’s in. It’s a thing about him he’ll never lose… They all had the same story: such a good man, they said, it made them unhappy to see him so low” (304). Sebastian approached the monastery, bearded with suitcase in hand, and asked to join as a lay brother or to be a missionary out far as he could go, among the lepers or near a river somewhere (305). Cordelia knows that the Superior’s decision to turn him away and pray for him was wisdom, and that “He was a very holy old man and recognized it in others.” “Holiness?” Charles responds, incredulously, for he does not yet understand what it is. Cordelia says that “No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him… I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love” (309).

Charles’ question on how Sebastian’s life will end enters into the theodicy of suffering; this theodicy entails how God mercies those who he has given much but cannot bear the weight of their calling. Sebastian is such a man, who has now wound up a sort of under-porter “hangers-on in a religious house” (307), and Charles witness bears upon him the weight of his own decisions—ultimately the decision not to marry Julia, whose forerunner was Sebastian, but who is herself the forerunner of God. Charles asks, how will Sebastian’s poor life end?

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 around with his broom and his bunch of keys… Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a 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. (309)
Waugh’s complicated presentation of sin and grace appears in Sebastian to be that battle between following God’s will and finding some way to distance ourselves from it. Sebastian’s “flight” from God, his slothful negligence throughout the novel, is aided by pleasure-seeking but ends in contrition. In his own flawed way, Sebastian is brought to what the monastery Superior knows as “holiness,” and though his beauty does fade, his life is made whole and his end, holy. When the superior asks him who is, an English royal with land and title, he can only respond, “Oh, I’m nothing” (305).

Sloth and the Modern West

Waugh sees that the vice of sloth has beset Western culture, developing a consumerist, individualist apathy that is spurred less by love than by desire. Modern science has heightened the vice of sloth because it has lengthened human life, removed the burden or work, and filled it with countless distractions. We can “flee” to any number of petty pleasures, and loving what God loves and how God loves can seem a burden.

Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte offers the reader the weight of rejecting or accepting his or her calling. Sebastian’s incurable illness, his struggle to throw off sloth, suggests the constant but necessary battle to pursue God no matter what ails us. Brideshead manor ends without an heir, and Sebastian’s dissolution and “lack of care” is partly to blame for the manor’s disrepair. Sloth is a rejection of the love that God has for us, what might even be called our spiritual inheritance. Sloth undermines our ability to be diligent about our vocation, about attending to the things we ought to care for and tend to. However, God still calls even the greatest of sinners to diligence, to love.

Waugh, Evelyn. “Sloth.” The Seven Deadly Sins. London: Sunday Times, 1962.

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