Aesthetics Revisited: A Lutheran, Catholic School, and Brideshead
When Dad moved us from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast in 1984, my three younger sisters and I found ourselves without coevals at church. In school, we could not make friends; the cultural leap was too great. We had lived in Appalachian poverty, abjectly, in blissful ignorance, surrounded by great multitudes of poor people. Mom had made all our clothes, and Walmart was a reality somewhere in the future. The wealth residing along the Gulf Coast came to us as a monstrous shock, and we were miserable. After a lengthy negotiation, in which I understand some begging was involved, Dad enrolled us in Catholic School where the schoolchildren were in uniform, and even though socio-economic realities were only papered over, the open and relentless mocking of our outward appearances was also papered over, and we could learn again.
The school was run by a group of nuns who had escaped violence in Ireland after The Great War, I believe as young girls, and they were yet very much Irish in their manners and speech. Their order had even produced a picture book for children to read and learn of The Partition of Ireland. One page in particular stood out: a lightning-rent black sky with little Catholic children under its threat running for their lives. Would you believe it if I told you they loved U2? No one was ever smacked with the ruler when caught carving “U2: WAR” into the face of his wooden desk. Very soon every desk featured a carved version of the album cover.
Sister Assumpta adopted me as her very own, and I am to this day grateful for her life, and I hope with all my heart that she is resting in the gentle repose of Mary the Mother of God. Even though I was Lutheran, and a Lutheran pastor’s son at that, she insisted to the priest, as a way to integrate me into the general population of good little Catholic boys, that I become an altar boy and proceed through the education portion of Confirmation. Dad had been educated by Benedictines at St. Bernard College in Cullman, Alabama, so he had no objections whatsoever. The priest was never unsurprised when I refused the Blessed Sacrament. “I’m not Catholic,” I’d whisper. He’d roll his eyes and nod assent, reminded of Sister Assumpta’s spirited pugnacity once again.
A friend of mine and I took to secretly drinking the pre-sacramental wine in the sacristy, and while it was innocent enough in 1985 and 1986, it turned into a monstrous scandal when a new priest arrived and veritably encouraged young boys to get drunk, and what a tragedy to befall those wonderful nuns.
In the South, at least while I was growing up, the Lutheran aesthetic was almost indistinguishable from the Roman Catholic one. High art, liturgy, hymnody, literature, creeds, and catechesis dominated the rhythm of church-going, and the overlap in teaching and confession, to the average Southerner, is great. Visitors to the Lutheran Church in this tourist town would do a double-take when they entered, thinking that they had successfully avoided Papist devilry, only to find themselves chanting the Kyrie in a Medieval mode. As such, Dad taught me, the stratification of society (as happened in the South) left Lutherans pretty near the bottom, along with Blacks, Jews, and Catholics. A gentleman once stopped his car in an intersection, blocking us, having seen my Dad’s pastor collar, and cursed him to Hell, for particular doctrinal reasons, according to the dominant religion of that area, upon which he elucidated at great volume. An anecdote of the extreme, I’m sure, but it really happened. Dad had this way of laughing off affronts like that, so I laughed with Dad and shrugged: I had friends now, and they were almost all Roman Catholics, and all the things they thought important, as they struggled in their religion, were almost the same as all the things I thought important, as I struggled in my religion.
I was surprised and disappointed, then, when I moved to the Midwest, to find the hostility between Roman Catholic and Lutheran open. My efforts to find friends among Roman Catholics were rebuffed with prejudice by Roman Catholics and mocked by my Lutheran coevals. Nevertheless, I continued to make this effort, remembering the love of Sister Assumpta, until many years later, when I was in graduate school, the president of the Catholic Biblical Association spit at my feet when I acceded that we Lutherans were still open to the possibility that the events depicted in the book of Jonah might really have happened, considering the God of Israel and his power to raise the dead and all. At that, I gave up, acceding to finally bury Sister Assumpta as a miraculous accident who was there to row me through rather difficult shoal water.
In a way I became much like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional avatar Charles Ryder, who revisited Brideshead after the Second World War. I was inside, very closely attached, by love, to Roman Catholics who had suffered because they were Roman Catholic, yet I was external to it, an observer, very much outside it. In my most recent revisiting of Brideshead, I paid close attention to the fathers: Edward Ryder, Charles’ father; and Lord Marchmain, Alex, Marquis of Brideshead, father of the Anglo-Catholic Flyte family. This time through I finally caught on that Edward is suffering from a lifelong depression, bereavement over his wife. Charles casts his father’s behavior toward him as warfare. Charles then witnesses firsthand the behavior of Lord Marchmain, who is in open adultery against his wife, is a transactional Catholic, having converted for the sake of the marriage, and also openly declares that he is indifferent to his responsibilities as father and Marquis.
Who of the two is the more evil? Plainly, the behavior of Charles’ father is understandable, caught by the vicissitudes of life in a kind of painful and toothed snare. A middle-aged man would naturally exhibit hostile behavior toward his own son, even if it were couched in the sterile humanist’s English air, so that Charles could describe the emotional ripples as warfare, tongue-in-cheek. On the other hand, Marchmain is a volcano of hate, as his adulteress puts it. In a lengthy speech on boyish love preceding manly love, she continues, saying that the only crime his wife committed was to be loved while Marchmain was still a boy, a man unprepared to be a man even though he was old enough to marry. After fathering three children, he went to The Great War and never came home. From a humanist perspective, Marchmain is irredeemable.
Notably, when Marchmain was still in love with his wife, he built for her a chapel in Brideshead. When Charles encounters it, he is rendered speechless by its aesthetic beauty, making him an instant convert, he says, to the Baroque. From that point forward, he, an agnostic, trained from his youth to believe that religion was a fading relic of an ignorant past, must grapple with his love of the Flyte family and their religion. “You can’t believe in something simply because it’s lovely,” he scoffs at his lover, Sebastian. “Can’t I?” Sebastian ripostes. Charles reasons to himself (I paraphrase), “Religion is a hobby, the province of complexes and inhibitions, the realm of stupidity. But why had no one before made the case to me that its philosophy was coherent, hinging on its claims of transcendence, as evident in its aesthetic?”
As to redemption of the two fathers: well, I invite you to be enthralled with the Granada production of Brideshead Revisited, which makes a television masterpiece of a literary masterpiece, starring Jeremy Irons, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Andrews, and John Gielgud, and supported by one fine performance after another. You will see redemption, and the shaking of the foundations of English humanism, at least as Evelyn Waugh envisions it.
Now that the ugliness of the 1960s is over, and the vulgarity of the 1980s along with it, we are in an aesthetic-renewal movement, necessarily. Those who gripped the posts and chairs of music, art, and ritual during that overlong brutalism are finally dead, and their adherents, apparently, were adhering to the mongered power less than the ideals and expressions which belched forth like smoke from Sharky’s factories in The Shire. And how could it be otherwise? The sacred spaces and aesthetic forms of the late 20th Century are Foucault’s wet dream, the delight of Nietzsche, unsingable and irritating, a focus on technique and the artist, an aesthetic of solipsism absent of transcendent substance.
Even so, the conversion of so many aesthetes to the Baroque, as Charles Ryder, or to the Medieval and Renaissance, is troubling. Those are not our forms, and it is not our aesthetic. As for me, I am sympathetic to the rush away from the ugly to the beautiful, but it is a race to the past. Those older aesthetics are not relics, no, and they do carry forward the transcendent, and so their currency is still worthy tender for religious expression in 2021. Moreover, the disestablishmentarianism of the preceding century and the nihilism of this century leave us with no obvious aesthetic to build on; we have not inherited anything from our immediate predecessors except deliberately smashed and broken forms. Where else is there to go but to Europe, and to the past, when the aesthetic was the expression of current religiosity? Ah, but what pristine era do you choose? And where do you rest? And when do you know you’ve found the ground of aesthetics? A Lutheran’s heart is restless until it finds its rest in Bach.
Charles loves the aesthetic, but it isn’t his until he participates in the suffering of the Flyte family, the ugliness of adultery, will-to-power, alcoholism, defiance, lying, and a host of additional vices. Charles, wielding those same vices, himself delivers many hurts which ordinarily cause the human being to disintegrate into shapeless blood and water, both the wielder and the victim, and until he recognizes that his own condition is irredeemable, the Baroque remains bloodless and without flesh. It is only light playing on surfaces in a static dance. His recognition opens him to the suffering which had brought the Baroque forward, the aesthetic which created the chapel, and the power of death to redeem. The Baroque belongs to the Anglo-Catholics, as represented by Marchmain, and as ensconced in Brideshead, a possession bought with much blood and suffering delivered by the religious wars of England. During the Second World War, it is reopened, to some ridicule from English humanists, being hopeless clowns and the forebears to the collapse of English culture, but to some great relief for those who are enduring warfare.
American flight into the Baroque, the Renaissance, and the Medieval Era is perhaps a surrender. It is positively a retreat, a renewed monastic movement, to escape from suffering. Some are attracted to its light play, which is beneficial, but for many others, it is bloodless and without flesh, featuring endless arguments over minutiae of art and expressions of the past, how much gilding goes where, and how much lace belongs above the hem, and how much smoke should be billowed into the sacred spaces, a lot of delving into controversies and genealogies, observing days and months and seasons and years, none of which we will hand forward as from us to the following generations. This flight is representative of a people in love with its own childhood, the idea of a childhood innocence which never existed, not any more than some imagined aesthetic unity evolving from a definite terminus a quo to a definite terminus ad quem, without any variations branching here and there. It is a security blanket, a teddy bear, as surely as it is a diet of hard alcohol.
There are American forms which exhibit a worthy aesthetic. The Prairie Style in architecture for example, has left us with breathtaking buildings, such as the Dana-Thomas house in Springfield, Illinois. The blues scale has produced such rhapsodic music like Rhapsody in Blue and “All Blues,” among countless others. The decoration of space has been informed by the Arts and Crafts movement, which has its roots in England and Scotland, displayed in particular by the Glasgow School, crowned by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his exceedingly talented wife and partner, Margaret MacDonald. This last, in particular, is a genius for expressing the divine in an industrial (and now post-industrial) world. Are we to say that these distinctly early 20th Century forms, which have been preserved for us even after all that, cannot be adapted for the rites, rituals, and spaces consecrated for a spiritual aesthetic? Unlike the Medieval aesthetic, they are all surely born in secular humanism, but can we not appropriate them, give them flesh and blood and water? Pull them forward to us and then push them forward for our children? Those nuns on the Gulf Coast did it for me, adding their own flesh and blood to the art and architecture of the sanctuary, their persecution and flight from Ireland.
But we, like children, are unwilling to suffer. I fear that the American aesthetic moment is lost. What people, then, are dreaming, imprisoned, whose sacred spaces were demolished with prejudice, whose leaders are betraying them to death under a heartless totalitarianism? What aesthetic dreams are they sending up in greasy soap bubbles to trip along foul breezes from their filthy cells, carrying the transcendent in divine preservation for their children? Who are these mothers and fathers who are buying an aesthetic for them with their own flesh and blood and meager rations of water, making the fragile become permanent even after the inevitable collapse of their captor’s mighty towers?