"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Unruly Catholics and Other Crazies

Two years ago I wrote an article on the notion of holy fools in the works of the great English Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, especially the figure of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. Brideshead is Waugh's most popular and well-known novel, but he came later in life somewhat to regret the fame attached to a work that, he said, he wrote during the deprivations of wartime and which, afterwards, he himself found perhaps a bit de trop in places.

If you want to watch Brideshead then you must watch the British TV adaptation of it from the early 1980s (from which the picture at right of Sebastian, played by Anthony Andrews, is taken) and not that ghastly, tendentious 2008 movie version which turns the novel into a tedious, predictable Hollywood festival of sodomy and incest: such a lot of nonsense (as Charles Ryder's father frequently says).

And if you want to read more about Waugh's life, then of the four or so extant biographies, only one is worth your time: Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography. It is impossible for me to overstate how superlative this work is. If I ever write a biography of anyone, I hope it will be even half as good as Patey's study, which is a careful, rigorous but sympathetic analysis of Waugh's life and works done by someone who understands theology critically and how it operates in Waugh's novels and life. It is a marvelous piece of scholarship.

My article on Waugh and fools is forthcoming as a chapter in a collection under Marc DiPaolo's editorship: Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna: Faith, Heresy, and Politics in Cultural Studies (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013, forthcoming). About this book the publisher tells us in rather heavyhanded political terms:
In Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna: Faith, Heresy, and Politics in Cultural Studies, contributors explore through literary and cinematic works this unsettled state of affairs and the not uncommon stark choices confronted by modern Catholics of whether to stay in the Church and reform it from within or leave the institution altogether. Contributors through their analyses ask such trenchant questions as: Is there a middle ground? What lessons might modern Catholics learned from subversive Catholic theologians, activists, literary figures, and filmmakers of the past? How did those individuals address the conflict between their personal beliefs and the official teachings of the Church? Can their strategies be adapted and recreated today? Should their strategies be adopted today?

Throughout the volume, essayists, consider and question the spiritual and political authority of the Roman Catholic Church, Liberal Catholics, Liberation Theology, church corruption, prominent fictional Catholics, fictional representations of Catholics as frightening immigrant figures, the question of abolishing Catholicism, and other related Catholic themes. Each examines the extent to which it is possible for contemporary Catholics to continue as active members of the Roman Catholic Church despite its advocacy of a conservative politics, its troubling treatment of women, its role in persecuting homosexuality, and its role in protecting its clergy from charges and prosecution for sexual crimes.
Such a blurb given us by the publisher, alas, makes it sound like I've gone off my onion (another Waughism from his semi-autobiographical Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) and become a second version of Hans Kung or something. But my chapter says nothing at all about ecclesial politics or reform.


  1. Have you seen Elizabeth Quackenbush's brilliant essay on Brideshead? I blogged about it here: http://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/an-education-in-desire/

  2. Thanks! Yours and hers were both fascinating, as was Howard's. Can never get enough Waugh!!

  3. Dr. DeVille wrote a brilliant essay. Well-researched, even-handed, and an excellent description of an apolitical, mystical Jesus and how we (or Holy Fools, at least) may follow his example, apolitically and mystically. It qualifies the portrait of Jesus as a more political, revolutionary figure made in other essays and in my introductory material, from which the over-the-top back cover material is gleaned. I also suggested the lurid cover. So, if the book makes any readers uncomfortable, blame the editor - yours truly - and keep poor Dr. DeVille out of it. I'm the chap who is off his onion. :)


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