Lord Marchmain’s Freedom: Radical Autonomy in Brideshead Revisited

The passage below is taken from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It highlights what I consider to be one of, if not the sole, central factor underlying the enormous social changes that have transformed Western culture into something quite different from what it was fifty to sixty years ago. This factor is radical autonomy, the absolute right of the individual to determine one’s freedom from external constraints. There is now no consideration of what this freedom might be for; the important thing is that one is free to do what one wants at any given time, and cannot be beholden to such notions as commitment, subsidiarity or responsibility.

Such notions, when brought up, are commonly rejected as being ‘out-of-date’, ‘backward’, ‘antiquated’, etc – there is no question of rejecting or accepting them on the basis of their intrinsic rational value or explanatory power; it is enough to suggest that they are not modern and progressive, and that they can therefore be rejected out of hand. This chronological snobbery is invoked both unthinkingly and across the board. One of the biggest societal changes that has taken place as a result of this celebration of de-racinated autonomy is the ease of obtaining a divorce (and as in many divorce cases, the abandoning of a family). This has had catastrophic knock-on consequences for society at large, given that the family is the most basic foundational unit that it is built upon – it is, in essence (to slightly alter a saying of Blessed John Paul II) a societas domestica, or society-in-miniature, in which the moral codes, history and practices of a given culture are passed on, re-established and reinvigorated.

I won’t go into this subject any further, as it has been discussed and debated by many people better qualified than myself, but I would submit that there is no doubt that our culture has changed drastically since the Second World War, and particularly since the 1960’s, especially in terms of a decreased sense of corporate responsibility, politeness, charity, and (amongst other things) common sense. This is all due to the elevation of the individual’s right to choose, supposedly in some sort of ethical vacuum, above any other right or duty. The problem has since become more confused by the ever-changing concept(s) of what human rights actually are, and whether or not they have any legitimate limitations.

The following, rather tragic passage seems to me to perfectly encapsulate the attitude that is the grounds for all this change – an uncritical assumption that, contra John Donne, man is an island, entire of itself, rather than a piece of the continent of mankind as a whole. This is never spelled out, or even argued for, but simply assumed. Here, Lord Marchmain displays this attitude with a blasé air that characterises the bulk of what passes for debate on social and moral topics from then until now:

A cylinder of oxygen was placed beside his bed, with a long tube, a face-piece, and a little stop-cock he could work himself.

Often he said: “It’s empty; look, nurse, there’s nothing cornel out.”

“No, Lord Marchmain, it’s quite full; the bubble here in the glass bulb shows that; it’s at full pressure; listen, don’t you hear it hiss? Try and breathe slowly, Lord Marchmain; quite gently, then you get the benefit.”

“Free as air; that’s what they say – ‘free as air.’ I was free once. I committed a crime in the name of freedom. Now they bring me my air in an iron barrel”

Once he said: “Cordelia, what became of the chapel?”

“They locked it up, Papa, when Mummy died”

“It was hers, I gave it to her. We’ve always been builders in our family.  I built it for her; pulled down the pavilion that stood there; rebuilt with the old stones; it was the last of the.new house to come, the first to go. There used to be a chaplain until the war. Do you remember him?”

“I was too young.”

“Then I went away – left her in the chapel praying. It was hers. It was the place for her. I never came back to disturb her prayers.  They said we were fighting for freedom; I had my own victory. Was it a crime?”

“I think it was, Papa.” 

“Crying to heaven for vengeance? Is that why they’ve locked me in this cave, do you think, with a black tube of air and the little yellow men along the walls, who live  without breathing? Do you think that, child? But the wind will come soon, tomorrow perhaps, and we’ll breathe again. The ill wind that will blow me good. Better to-morrow.”

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