“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Finding Hope in a Fierce Little Human Tragedy (Part 2, "Brideshead Revisited")

Last time, I discussed The Great Gatsby; this time, I turn to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Evelyn Waugh wrote his masterpiece twenty years after F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his, but they are set in roughly the same time period: the early-to-mid 1920s. Both Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby are centered on an "enchanted palace;" both concentrate on thwarted passions; and both contain thematic elements such as wealth, self-indulgence, transformation, authenticity, family, memory, the quest for happiness, and the presence of God; both even feature a room elaborately stuffed full of flowers. Here I will focus again on the role of hopehope specifically as expressed in the Catechism's definitionthe virtue by which we "desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness."

In case you're unfamiliar with the story, here's a link to a good synopsis.

Charles Ryder is a far more developed character than is Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby. In fact, Charles becomes the central character of the story; like Dante in the Commedia, Charles the Narrator illuminates for us Charles the Pilgrim. Sebastian is a kind of Virgil for the first half of the novel who is then replaced by Julia as a type of Beatrice. Charles describes Sebastian as a "forerunner" (as John the Baptist was for Jesus) for his love for Julia. But then Julia becomes a forerunner for his love for God. The journey to that point involves many detours as thwarted passions obstruct the path. Charles like Gatsby grasps at a woman for the fulfillment of all of his hope. Juxtapose in your mind the climax of each of these stories: the scene in the Plaza Hotel when Gatsby realizes that Daisy is not entirely his and that he does not understand her set against the scene at the fountain when Charles realizes the same thing about Julia. The falling action splits into different directions, however. Unlike Daisy's betrayal of Gatsby, Julia's severing with Charles is an occasion of grace; for her intentions are not at all selfish. As she realizes that their affair must now come to an end and she must give up the one thing she wants so much, she explains,
The worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable, [...] the bad thing that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's.
Both Charles and Julia are brokenhearted. Yet is that very brokenness that allows God to come in. Julia relinquishes her earthly aspiration to happiness through love with Charles for the sake of a true happiness that will last for all eternity. And her prayer that Charles may someday understand is not only answered, but transcended as he eventually follows her lead. Following the Catechism's definition of hope, they learn to place their trust in Christ's promises rather than our fallen world, relying not on their own strength but on the help of the Holy Spirit: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (Hebrews 10:23).

Gatsby never reaches this catharsis as Daisy remains his "rival good" to the last moment. I've argued that it is because Gatsby mislays his hope that he comes to such a tragic end. What so many people find deeply unsatisfying about Fitzgerald's novel is that it doesn't suggest to the reader a better alternative. It asks questions without answering themnot only Gatsby's questions, but the perennial questions of mankind: what is it all for? this longing? this ambition? where am I going? why? We can imagine the green light as a pulsing question mark, keeping time with our beating hearts as we live each day. The trouble with this light is that it is a fixed point on the same horizontal plane as this world below. It is not above us, calling us up and out of ourselves. Therefore, it can never actually fulfill us. As St. Augustine said in the beginning of his Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Waugh's light, by contrast, is red. It is the red light flickering above the tabernacle in the chapel of the great mansion. It is red for the Holy Spirit, for the blood of Christ, for the flame inside each one of us that burns for eternal happiness. It is a stop sign to Gatsby's pulsing green light that says, "Here. Stay here. Pray with me. I am the answer to all your heart's desires. I am that which you have sought all your life. I AM."

We can get a very good idea of how Brideshead functions as an answer to Gatsby by situating their final scenes next to one another. Fitzgerald's novel ends,
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
 Waugh ends with Charles kneeling and praying in the chapel:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
Both Fitzgerald and Waugh conclude their great works by having us gaze upon a light and then inviting us to meditate on the past and it's place in our lives. Fitzgerald leaves us with a seasick, Sisyphean feeling while Waugh lifts us into the Communion of Saints.

I've often been puzzled by the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald said of himself that he was "a moralist at heart" and that he wanted to "preach at people." What was it that he was trying to teach them? Where did he hope to lead them? To the "eyes of God" in the advertisement overlooking the Valley of Ashes? These eyes are described as watching in the sense of judging, but it is not clear that this is a loving gaze that invites His poor sons and daughters back to Him. I can imagine that Waugh might have closed The Great Gatsby, set it by, and thought, "I can do better than that." Waugh lived at the same time as Fitzgerald, saw many of the same things, had many of the same influences, struggled with the same issues; but after becoming a devout Catholic Waugh the satirist set out to write a novel that, he stated explicitly, is "about God" and is therefore "a work of theology." The image of God that we are given in Brideshead is taken from G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories:
"I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
 God calls us to Him, catches us up like the Good Shepherd that He is. His judging stare gives way to a smiling embrace like the father of the Prodigal Son. And in exchange for our hope, He gives us his peace. In Waugh's novel, Charles and Julia misplace their hope at various points throughout their lives and they all suffer mightily for it.  But thanks to their cooperation with God's grace, they transcend earthly delights and come to know the joy of awaiting heaven. The final sentence of Brideshead Revisited shows this subtly but beautifully as Charles is said to be "looking unusually cheerful today."

The Great Gatsby has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD. I invite you the watch it and appreciate it for the faithful retelling that it is and ask yourself what it means for this story to be "the classic American tale". Then, find somewhere the 1981 mini-series of Brideshead Revisited, which is the most perfect transference of a book to film ever. (Yes, it's quite long but, whatever you do, do NOT watch the shorter version that came out a few years ago. It turned Waugh in his grave. Here's how.) Look: Breaking Bad might be over by the time you read this. Downton Abbey doesn't start again until January.  Mad Men comes later in the spring. So for three whole months, you probably have nothing to watch. It is the perfect time to embark upon eleven hours of greatness in manageable installments just as it was originally aired. Maybe you have already done this. Maybe you're like me and you've seen the whole thing six times. But I'll be revisiting it myself bearing in mind it's relationship to Gatsby, and I'm sure the experience will be a rewarding one. Care to join me? I'd love for you to share your insights and comments.

Next topic: Breaking Bad & Flannery O'Connor.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Finding Hope in a Fierce Little Human Tragedy (Part 1, "The Great Gatsby")

If you have not yet seen this year's The Great Gatsby, you should. Not because it is a "great film" in the weighty sense of those words, but because it's a very faithful rendering of what many still laud as the "great American novel." I saw it in the theater, reread the novel, then saw it again. I've read many reviews, some of them helpful, others far too picky about technical details. Baz Luhrmann has not messed with the story, which is rare in modern adaptations. I think that he really appreciates the themes of the book and has instructed his excellent cast accordingly. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is just right. He captures so much of the complexity of the character (especially the endearing little boy-like aspects) that Robert Redford simply did not pull off in the 1974 version. I could say quite a bit about the other characters as well; but here, I want to focus just on Gatsby and the virtue that he embodies: hope.

The story's narrator, Nick Carraway, says that Gatsby is "the single most hopeful person" he has ever met. We can track the development of Gatsby's hope by first examining his early life. Nick learns that Gatsby grew up a poor boy in the Midwest named James Gatz. He never embraced his parents or his mean circumstances as his own, always feeling that he was destined for much more. Nick tells us,
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
We see here that Gatsby's hope is earth-bound: it seeks only a "meretricious" beauty—one that glitters but is not gold. His is a godliness limited to the mastery of empty glamor. Freighted with such ambition, Gatsby fashions a new self that will be capable of overcoming any obstacle in service of his dream. But then, he falls in love with a mere mortal:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
I was very glad to see that Baz Luhrmann included these wonderful lines of narration in his movie because they are really necessary for understanding Gatsby's motives and his flaws. His life's trajectory is redirected in the moment when he deposits all of his hopes into Daisy, particularly the realization of "a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty." The language of "incarnation" shows that Gatsby must now accomplish "His Father's business" in and through Daisy. But by doing so, his plans are thwarted; because Daisy is a person, and therefore cannot be used as a medium for the sort of empty beauty that he pursues, unless she consents to lose her personhood. She cannot be sculpted or tailored to his exact specifications like his garden or his shirts. Therefore, Gatsby is taking a major risk, and he knows it: "I always knew it was a mistake for a man like me to fall in love," he tells Nick. He placed all of his happiness in her, but she does not consent; for whatever reason, she does not wait for him. She marries another man. Gatsby reacts by entering the world of organized crime, using his profits to build an enormous palace just across the bay from Daisy's mansion, hoping to lure her back to him with his wild and elaborate parties. In the book, when Daisy finally comes and tours the house, Nick describes Gatsby's reaction:
He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.
The movie does not include this bit of narration in voice over, but it does give a line to Gatsby that nicely completes the same idea. Watching Daisy glide through his rooms, Gatsby says to Nick, "She makes it look so—so splendid, don't you think, old sport?" He sees her as the crowning glory of his imagined life, set like a gem at the pinnacle of his immense palace—like the queen on her rightful throne. This is the world of meretricious beauty, in which he understands her—knows her—and intends to keep her.

Before Daisy had finally graced his home with her presence, Gatsby could only imagine her as he gazed across the bay fixing his eyes on the green light glowing at the end of her dock. For years, the green light represented all of his desires. Once Daisy is at last beside him, he shows her the green light. In that moment, Nick tells us,
Possibly it had occurred to Gatsby that the colossal significance of that light had vanished forever. Now it was once again just a green light on a dock, and his count of enchanted object had diminished by one.
The fact that the light is green loads it with a plethora of symbols: envy, greed, money and other forms of mammon; and sexual desire; but this color can also represent Gatsby's great hope, like the angel dressed in green from Dante's Purgatorio. This paradox is useful to the reader/audience: green can symbolize lust which instrumentalizes persons while at the same time it can mean hope in the transcendent God with whom there is no use but instead only self-surrendering love.

Tragically, Gatsby's definition of hope never reaches that of Dante's; for within the arc of the story, he is not heading for a Christian vision. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Christian hope as
the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. The Holy Spirit . . . [is] poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life." (CCC 1817).
Gatsby did not desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life. He desired riches and splendor and placed all of his trust in himself, in going upward, for which he had to be unattached—not unattached to worldly things but unattached to persons. He then attached himself to Daisy but, in order to continue in his upward trajectory, he would have had to destroy her in the service of his vision. We see one point of a possible departure from this doomed path when Gatsby moves from measuring Daisy according to "His Father's business" to reassessing  his possessions according to her. This might signal a chance for him to get beyond a seventeen-year-old's dream of the splendor of riches. Given more time, he may have ascended to that new vantage point; but instead, a myriad of sins—his own as well as those of all of the other characters in the novel—conspires to end his life.

Imagine if Gatsby's love for Daisy had set him on a higher path had they not separated, had she not married Tom Buchanan, had he finally come to see her as Dante saw Beatrice—an image of God who could have guided him eventually to union with Him. Imagine if Daisy had been Gatsby's forerunner, like John the Baptist, paving the way to Christ. When I think about how these changes might have shaped the story, the plot starts to seem remarkably similar to that of my all-time favorite novel...

Years ago I read somewhere that the British novelist Evelyn Waugh said that his magnum opus Brideshead Revisited was written as an answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I have not been able to find this quotation again—which at first I found distressing; but then I realized that it doesn't matter whether or not Waugh actually claimed that, because it's just a fact that Brideshead can be read in that way, and it is even more smashingly successful when it is. We can compare the narrators, Nick and Charles, the heart-breakers, Daisy and Julia, the cuckolds Tom and Rex, and of course the complicated, lovable protagonists, Jay and Sebastian. There are countless themes in common. In fact, the more I think about this the more I wonder if Waugh may have even had a copy or at least an outline of The Great Gatsby at his elbow while he composed his absolutely gorgeous, profoundly moving answer.

I will explore this idea in Part 2 of this post. Please join me next time!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Apologia: Why I'm Writing This Blog

Recently I attended a panel discussion about whether or not women can "have it all." This conversation is happening all around us right now (here is a very heartening contribution if you're interested). A little over three years ago I chose to leave an excellent job at a very prestigious university in order to stay home with my then nine-month-old son. I have never regretted that choice, but there have been times when I have missed the daily experience of engaging in conversation with groups of other adults who are interested in topics related to faith and culture. I am blessed to have a brilliant and thoughtful husband, inspiring and wonderful friends, and an ever-challenging and stimulating book club; but I always want more. As an undergraduate, I created my own major, which I called "Catholic Studies." Later, I taught apologetics at a Catholic high school. Now that I no longer spend my days in an academic environment, I still want more: more hours, more detail, more depth. I realize that for me, "having it all" means raising my own kids and keeping at least a toe in the door of academic discussion. Little else gives me greater joy than discussing doctrine and the arts from the perspective of the Christian Tradition with anyone who wants to.

One of the panelists at the event I attended said that she had wondered if she should continue pursuing her PhD when, after her son was born, she felt a strong pull towards staying home with him. A wise mentor told her that the value of earning those extra letters added to her name would be that people would be much more likely to listen to her if she ever had anything to say. That was about 20 years ago. Now, thanks to the internet, things have changed. What matters most is whether or not the writing is interesting. "Yes...people LOVE interesting writing!" proclaimed Elaine Benes on Seinfeld. So that's the challenge I lay before myself: don't go back to school for a PhD. It will add too much stress on your family now that you husband is also finishing up a PhD and your children are still so small. Just have an outlet. Just write something interesting.

The first thing I'd like to do is explain the title and the background image I'm using for this blog. The photo was taken in the Lateran Basilica in Rome just a moment after a tall, handsome, intelligent friend of mine had explained the typological schema in the iconography of the church. He told me how the Old Testament mosaics lined up wit the New Testament paintings and how both were linked to the statues of the Apostles situated below. My soul was stirring with wonder as I dashed around with him, soaking in all of the beauty & truth, faith & reason that I had never known existed in the Church in which I had been born and raised. He was moved by my heart, I was moved by his mind. This was our "Vision at Ostia" moment. The photo captures the very same beam of light that shone on us in the instant when I realized that he and I would have a phenomenal life together. I know this sounds a little "double-rainbow"-esque; but this photograph has always represented the first time I came to see that truth, goodness, and beauty are all one thing--one Person--and so everything in the world that shares in those attributes also shares in the Paschal Mystery. Mad Men is a good show. A great show. Therefore, I believe that it reflects God in some ways, and can lead us back to Him. Wittingly or not, Matthew Weiner has let God shine through him. That's the kind of thing I want to discuss here. I am quite aware that other people are doing this right now and I have every intention of linking those fantastic articles as I stumble across them (great example). I'm just dying to weigh in when and where I can. And I want you to challenge me with your questions and comments.

The title "Through a Glass Brightly" comes from an essay by the same name that I wrote a few years ago about Hans Urs von Balthasar's theology of transparency. The soul is like a pane of glass through which God's light shines either brightly, dimly, or not at all, depending on how much of our selves we have allowed to be transformed so that He may shine through us. C.S. Lewis explains this perfectly in "The New Men", the last chapter of Mere Christianity, which I had all of my senior students read. I want to argue that art acts in the same way. It is the creation of man, therefore sub-creation, as Tolkien called it his essay "On Fairy Stories"; and a work of art is a crowning achievement of human culture insofar as it shares in the likeness of God and His Art. The more true, beautiful, and good it is, the more it acts as a conduit of His grace. So you will see me argue that thing likes Breaking Bad and Mumford & Sons can give one authentic spiritual insights. I am lifted up to God as I take in that show, that band, and also countless novels, plays, and even commercials. The point of this blog is to share in that experience with you.

"For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Between the darkness of concupiscence and the clarity of Beatific Vision, we can spend our time learning to see ourselves, our neighbors, and all art ever more brightly. Domine ut videam. 

 Thank you so much for spending this time with me!

First topic: The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited