As a precursor to this post, I should mention that I will be assuming a prior familiarity with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, so if anyone reading this has not read the book, there will be a great deal of plot revelations. I will be looking at the character of Sebastian Flyte, who acts as an entry point for the principal character and narrator – Charles Ryder – into Catholicism, and whose development throughout the story provides a strange counterpoint to Charles’ own growing spiritual development and understanding of the Catholic Church. I should also mention that in my analysis of Sebastian’s journey as an illustration of the operations of grace, I am in no way condoning any aspects of his lifestyle.
Sebastian enters the story as a charismatic, eccentric figure, and Charles, a self-avowed aesthete, immediately sees him as representing something beautiful and fantastical, standing out from the humdrum hedonism of Oxford life. Sebastian’s Catholicism is not something hidden, but a full examination of his faith is introduced with a suddenness that forces the reader to engage with what will form the backbone and underlying texture of the book. This introduction takes place via Charles’ questioning of Sebastian one weekend at Brideshead:
‘“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.”
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”’
Brideshead Revisited (2011), p.109, Penguin Classics.
It would like to suggest that it is in this passage that we may be able to find the key to Sebastian’s alcoholic deterioration later in the novel. Whilst it is commonplace to attribute his heavy drinking to an overbearing mother, and the Catholicism that she represents, I think this is only a half-truth, and that the heart of the matter can instead be found in an admixture of Sebastian’s Catholic upbringing and the particular interpretation that he has brought to bear upon it. This interpretation itself stems from the combination of an intense appreciation for the aesthetic element of Catholicism, and the pampered, indulgent life he has been allowed to enjoy throughout his life.
Sebastian’s appreciation for beauty and joy, as evidenced in the above quotation, combined with his privileged upbringing, create in him a rather naïve expectation that beauty and joy should meet him on every corner. When Charles meets him at Oxford, he is still revelling in a life without responsibility, and has discovered the temporary joys of drink and debauchery. As terms pass and it becomes apparent that Sebastian’s dedication to the joys of living it up are impeding his academic progress, his family become concerned, and their attention intensifies his desire to escape into the easy-access joys of drink:
‘I had left him morose but completely sober at a few minutes before twelve. In the succeeding hour he had drunk half a bottle of whisky alone. He did not remember much about it when he came to tell me the next morning.
“Have you been doing that a lot,” I asked, “drinking by yourself after I’ve gone?”
“About twice; perhaps four times. It’s only when they start bothering me. I’d be all right if they’d only leave me alone.”…
“…Really” I said, “if you are going to embark on a solitary bout of drinking every time you see a member of your family, it’s perfectly hopeless.”
“Oh, yes,” said Sebastian with great sadness. “I know. It’s hopeless.”’
The attentions of Sebastian’s family that cause him to retreat further into alcoholism are not just a reminder of the religion that he has cast off during university life, but also the call to look life straight in the face, warts and all. He is being led to realise that he has responsibilities, that he cannot just indulge his desire for beauty and joy – that one cannot rest one’s happiness on the idea that life will be a perpetual beatific vision. His family’s recognition is a reminder of his failure to face reality, and Sebastian associates his letting them down with letting God down, for his attachment to beauty and joy is also bound up with a love for holiness.
Sebastian has placed all his hopes in the idea that he may find fullness of life and happiness in every moment, and when this doesn’t happen, he turns to a source of instant gratification that allows an escape from reality – drink. But this yearning for joy in the present moment is also connected to his recognition that true beauty is found in holiness; this is what I think Sebastian means when he says that the story of the Nativity is a ‘lovely idea’ and that is ‘how I believe’. He instinctively sees beauty radiating from holy things, and holy people, and it is this that he is desperately trying to recapture by his escape into alcoholic reverie.
We can see this innate desire for holiness practically realised in Sebastian later in the novel, where, fatigued and weakened by drink, he is living in drastically reduced circumstances, and has taken it upon himself to look after Kurt, a disreputable character who lives off Sebastian’s kindness. This new situation seems to provide Sebastian with an opportunity for self-sacrifice and charity that he had never had before:
‘“For God’s sake,” I said, “you don’t mean to spend your life with Kurt do you?”
“I don’t know. He seems to mean to spend it with me. ‘It’th all right for him, I reckon, maybe,’ he said, mimicking Kurt’s accent, and then he added what, if I had paid more attention, should have given me the key I lacked; at the time I heard and remembered it, without taking notice.
“You know Charles,” he said, “it’s rather a pleasant change when all your life you’ve had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself. Only of course it has to be someone pretty hopeless to need looking after by me.”’
Sebastian’s sister Cordelia recognises this trait in Sebastian when, later on she returns to Brideshead and tells Charles of her assessment of the state of life that her brother had fallen into. She describes what she sees as his future – living half in and half out of the monastic community that he had become attached to, going on occasional drinking sprees and cultivating private, eccentric devotions; he will become a familiar face around the monastery, where everyone will know about his drinking, but they will become very fond of him and remember him in their prayers, until one day his body finally gives in:
‘“…Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere 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.”
I thought of the youth with the teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. “It’s not what one would have foretold,” I said. “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”
“Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is – no dignity, no power of will. 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…”’
Suffering as the spring of love – this, I think, is central to understanding Sebastian’s character, and why he drinks. He is haunted by beauty, by holiness, and ultimately by love. His disposition throughout the book is presented as ebullient, forthcoming, ready to embrace all the joys and brightness of the world that he found in that story of the Nativity all those years ago in the nursery. A cosseted and privileged upbringing, combined with his sensitive and loving nature was, tragically, a recipe for disaster, and so he sought refuge in the instantaneous joys of the bottle. But later in life, as he fell upon hard times, he found another way to recapture the glimmers of joy that he had known as a child – in the self-giving love of service.
I don’t think it is accidental that Sebastian is so named. His namesake, Saint Sebastian, is famous for his wounds and the battering he received in order to complete his martyrdom; Sebastian Flyte carries the wounds of a life spent looking for love in all the wrong places, and ends his days battered by the consequences of his misplaced desires. Yet, by the mysteries of grace, he is finally perfected in love by the very sufferings that his misdemeanours brought upon him. As Cordelia says, ‘no one is ever made holy without suffering’; and Sebastian achieves a strange kind of holiness towards the end of the novel. Waugh, it seems, intends the reader to see his character as an imperfect icon of the workings of grace through our weaknesses – God’s writing ‘straight with crooked lines’ – and the life of Sebastian Flyte is certainly an affecting testimony to that abiding truth.