Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, both tragic and glorious, grave and exalted, is fittingly punctuated by one of the funniest and saddest depictions of the modern man.
Rex Mottram, a man of action, of savvy and power is impotent at his core. A half-formed caricature, he only happens to have a man’s body and the habit of a passable imitation of humanity.
But in this world, the final word, whether we know it or not, is substance. That is to say, reality:
Did Dad ever really mean the things he said? Did mom every really love her kids in a sacrificial manner? Does someone measure up to his resume–written or implied?
We ultimately must answer questions like this, not in some facile way, but in the most profound way which only a human being can, and in a manner which every human being alive to the dignity and task of being human must.
The woman who settles for the words of love, but knows that in truth there is nothing alive behind the eyes of her lover, is no true woman, but just play acting. The man who is satisfied with his son or daughter saying the right words without believing them or doing them, is hardly a father at all, hardly more than a child himself.
Even worse is such a child grown old, who thinks that the simulacrum (or what the simulacrum serves as currency for) is the final reality. What more is there than words and deeds that are the passcards of life, allowing one to enter into one fraternity or another, providing access to certain clubs and resources—a way of playing the game, getting ahead, and showing you know what it’s all about?
Perhaps such passwords and handshakes, the formalisms of the world are important in themselves to some, but for many, they are just a wink and a nod, a way of sorting out the goats from the sheep and keeping things organized–instruments of the market.
And yet someone who has bought into just this commodity also thinks they know the truth of things, whether they have bought into some pseudo-scientific jargon or half baked social platitudes, the world is a formula to them which they have mastered.
They have too easily overcome the mystery of life, and thus have become impenetrable to its reality. Therefore, they are mystified by those who make things more complex than they need to be or take things so seriously. They may feel very strongly about their opinions, but if you ask them to submit such opinions to the fine scrutiny of reason, they think you a pedant. That which is not plain on its face cannot be in any way worth knowing.
Evelyn Waugh lambastes just this attitude and mentality in Rex Mottram. When this man attempts to marry into a powerful Catholic family and must therefore undergo catechesis, he proves the most difficult catechumen. This man of business and politics who can smooth over anything with his polish and American vigor just cannot make heads or tails of a church that would not be honored to have him.
So Rex was sent to Farm Street to Father Mowbray, a priest renowned for
his triumphs with obdurate catechumens. After the third interview he came to
tea with Lady Marchmain.
“Well, how do you find my future son-in-law?”
“He’s the most difficult convert I have ever met.”
“Oh dear, I thought he was going to make it so easy.”
“That’s exactly it. I can’t get anywhere near him. He doesn’t seem to
have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.
“The first day I wanted to find out what sort of religious life he had
had till now, so I asked him what he meant by prayer. He said: ‘I don’t mean
anything. You tell me’. I tried to, in a few words, and he said: ‘Right. So
much for prayer. What’s the next thing?’ I gave him the catechism to take
away. Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He
said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’
“Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud
and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes,
Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose
it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’
Is this not humor and tragedy at once? Is this not the living death of reason and spirit? What could be greater indifference to the very essence of man and seriousness of religion?
Later, in a laugh out loud moment, readers discover Rex has somehow come to believe that the Vatican is full of sacred monkeys and a horse who was almost cardinal. This of course would be even funnier, if the ideas which men and women hold about the church and religion were just a little but more sober than this. Sadly, one finds nearly such farcical absurdity or moral and intellectual indifference in such men and women–usually a combination.
We indeed are need of exorcism from the Spirit of this Age. The rights of such exorcism are the words of love and truth. But the power is from God alone. May he have mercy on us all, and may we be alive to that vocation to holiness and truth which our very humanity enjoins upon us. And may we not loose hope, that our fellows are all quite as impenetrable of Mr. Mottram.