The Aesthetics of Morality: Brideshead Revisited 

Brideshead Revisited is a novel known by many, and when a piece of literature has been so read, so well understood, so analysed, it becomes more difficult to compartmentalise. I approach Brideshead Revisited as a novel of contradictions; at its best it is a terrifying encapsulation of sin and the vices that prey on those who so try to avoid it. At its worst, Brideshead is a novel of sheer, unapologetic gluttony: consisting of twilight frolicking and a life that is “reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings.” Such gluttony was described by the author, Evelyn Waugh, as being “distasteful” on a full stomach.

There may be a case to be made for Waugh’s observation; the descriptions of three course meals and cigar smoke can lie heavily on the gut, feeling so rich that they can often appear sickly, but they are nevertheless a crucial part of Brideshead Revisited. For the novel as a whole clings to a nostalgia that constantly aches for something, be it the understanding of love, the simpler days of Oxford undergraduate study, or the presence of the nobility. Brideshead’s narrator, Charles Ryder, spends the entirety of the book reflecting on his enchantment with the Marchmain family; an infatuation that begins with his meeting of Sebastian at Oxford, and trickles away in the final pages as the love affair between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia culminates. Whether fascinated by the world that the family inhabit – the inherent privilege that accompanies the Marchmain existence is miles away from the life Charles lives with his widower Father – or the family members themselves, Charles’ inability to escape his links with the Marchmains forms a pivotal part of Brideshead Revisited. The book spans over three hundred pages, and the years progress rapidly. There is, however, the constant feeling that Charles Ryder is reaching back through the past towards that first, juvenile, hot Oxford summer – “if it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone.” Ryder insists that his theme is “memory, that winged grey host that soared above me one grey morning of war time”. From the title alone, it is clear that Brideshead Revisited is a reconstruction, the familiarity present even in the opening line: “I have been here before.” Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the novel aches with a longing to return. 

I approach Brideshead, or the aftermath of Brideshead, as a series of contradictions. The rich, almost sickly aestheticism of the Marchmain lifestyle; the vast, twin fireplaces of sculpted marble, and later, in Venice, whereupon Charles Ryder found himself to be drowning in honey, stingless, drawn to the effervescently vivid opulence, is heavily contrasted with the religious lifestyle led by the family. Julia, Sebastian’s graceful sister, is tempted until the last minute with a second marriage to Charles, but recoils with one of literature’s most famous monologues: the deliberation of sin – all in one word, too, one little flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime. Like Charles, Julia is obsessed with love, although neither seem to understand it. Charles describes standing “on the extreme verge of love,” despite having been desperately cold to his previous wife, and viewing Julia as a fragment of Sebastian, who has captured his eternal entrancement. The contradictions in Brideshead mount when Julia’s aestheticism, “the magical sadness… The thwarted look that had seemed to say: surely I was made for some other purpose than this?”  disappears, and she cancels her engagement to Charles due to her fear of the consequence of sin. The novel then becomes what it has always been destined to be: a war novel, like Heller’s Catch 22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and the eclectic assortment of novels that end or begin with war, with forgetting or remembering war, that were published before and after this one. 

Brideshead Revisited is a retrospective account, a narrative that reconstructs a summer of idealism that changed the course of Charles Ryder’s life. It differs in the way that Ryder – or perhaps Waugh – is constantly reaching; reaching back into the past, back to the aquatint city of Oxford, back to having ideals of love concocted in twilight gatherings. Whether in Oxford, or Venice, or the trenches, Waugh’s richly superficial magnum opus is wonderful in that all the things for which it so desperately reaches, are doomed to be eternally out of grasp. 

Advertisements

Synonyms for Nostalgia: Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust 

There are numerous things with which I associate Diamonds and Rust. Firstly, a body of saltwater, lying motionless underneath a cloudless sky. A half melted ice cube, still in its three dimensional form, but perceptibly not whole. Later, tumbling through the lines – now you’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square – nostalgia curls like wisps of cigar smoke. Diamonds and Rust, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, is wonderful for all the things that it doesn’t say. It is the white space around the lyrics, the fragments of memory that are too buried in the past to grasp, that is reflected most within this song. Like the melted ice cube, Diamonds and Rust tells the story of something that was once whole, and is now irretrievable. Baez’s lyrics lack the mocking bitterness of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, and are without the gradual acceptance that creeps into Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. 

There is a fascination with Diamonds and Rust because of Baez herself, and the relationship which she shared with Bob Dylan. Written a decade after the ending of their romance, the song is without the reeling from shock that created Jann Arden’s Insensitive, and is instead a quiet reflection on being haunted by an old lover. A few key lines signify Dylan’s presence in Diamonds and Rust – I remember your eyes were bluer than robin’s eggs, the original vagabond – but they’re so oblique, so scattered in the verses, that they would be difficult to pick out unless you were looking for them. The song itself, intended to be something entirely different until Dylan phoned from a booth in the Midwest to read the completed lyrics to Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, is weighted by an exploration of memory, and a half sense of longing which never really culminates. It is as if Baez never lets herself get that far. 

The song is entirely Dylan’s. His response arrived within his album No Direction Home, a remark in passing: it’s hard to be wise and in love at the same time. But it could have been anyone’s. The vagueness of memory; the scrambling to find forgotten pieces, things once said, gifts once exchanged – you bought me something, it’s funny what memories can bring, they bring Diamonds and Rust. I was first intrigued by this song in much the same way as I was by Stevie Nicks’ Rooms on Fire – it had a gripping title which reminded me of a line in a poem from Lolita and all the rest is rust and stardust. The title of the song itself, thought to be based on the idea that time turns charcoal into diamonds and shiny metal into rust, challenges the imperfections of memory and the dusty haze of the past. 

Diamonds and Rust is almost aqueous in its calmness, the lack of demand in Baez’s voice clear until she reaches the line: Now you tell me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it. You were so good with words. The whole song is a grapple with nostalgia, trying to find a synonym for missing the past without having it become the present. 

It’s not until the end of the song that Baez reaches a crescendo that falls away with acceptance – Now it’s all come back too clearly, yes I loved you dearly, but if you’re offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid. 

Diamonds and Rust is a break up song that reconstructs the event, inspired, as some of the best songs are, by a burst of nostalgia. It is Baez’s calm soprano, restrained emotion and quiet reflection that sets it apart from others in the genre.