Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nature and Aesthetics in Brideshead

I am teaching Evelyn Waugh's wonderful novel Brideshead Revisited right now. I'd like to share some thoughts about aesthetics.

Early on at Oxford, Charles, the future landscape painter, learns something critical:

It was not until Sebastian, idly turning the pages of Clive Bell's Art, read: "'Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?' Yes. I do," that my eyes were opened.
Modernity claims a radical divide between nature and man. Indeed, in modern parlance, nature is almost defined as "untouched by man" -- and thus man defined as "not nature." That isn't true, on a variety of levels. Sebastian teaches Charles that it isn't true on the aesthetic level. Art is beautiful precisely because it is an extension, a further development, of nature.

Anthony Blanche was the first to go . . . . The others left soon after him. I rose to go with them, but Sebastian said: "Have some more Cointreau," so I stayed and later he said, "I must go to the Botanical Gardens."


"To see the ivy."

It seemed a good enough reason and I went with him. He took my arm as we walked under the walls of Merton.

"I've never been to the Botanical Gardens," I said.

"Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn! There's a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don't know where I should be without the Botanical Gardens."
A beautiful arch, and more kinds of ivy than I knew existed. Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a man-made arch as for the brilliant natural variety of ivy? Yes. Sebastian does. And really, it's not hard to see it. Of course there is a beautiful arch among the ivy.

Then they go to Brideshead.

It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls . . . to sit, hour after hour, in the pillared shade looking out on the terrace.

This terrace was the final consummation of the house's plan; it stood on massive stone ramparts above the lakes, so that from the hall steps it seemed to overhang them, as though, standing by the balustrade, one could have dropped a pebble into the first of them immediately below one's feet. It was embraced by the two arms of the colonnade; beyond the pavilions groves of lime led to the wooded hillsides. Part of the terrace was paved, part planted with flower-beds and arabesques of dwarf box; taller box grew in a dense hedge, making a wide oval, cut into niches and interspersed with statuary, and, in the centre, dominating the whole splendid space, rose the fountain; such a fountain as one might expect to find in a piazza of Southern Italy, such a fountain as was, indeed, found there a century ago by one of Sebastian's ancestors; found, purchased, imported and re-erected in an alien but welcoming climate.

Sebastian set me to draw it. It was an ambitious subject for an amateur -- an oval basin with an island of formal rocks at its centre; on the rocks grew, in stone, formal tropical vegetation and wild English fern in its natural fronds; through them ran a dozen streams of counterfeited springs, and round them sported fantastic tropical animals, camels and camelopards and an ebullient lion all vomiting water; on the rocks, to the height of the pediment, stood an Egyptian obelisk of red sandstone -- but, by some odd chance, for the thing was far beyond me, I brought it off and by judicious omissions and some stylish tricks, produced a very passable echo of Piranesi . . . .

Since the days when, as a school-boy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

Where does nature leave off and art begin? Of course on some level there's a distinction -- but true art springs right out of nature, and ties it together.

Indeed, sometimes nature itself becomes art. Here is Charles returning to Brideshead in war time:
Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. It was a sequestered place, enclosed and embraced in a single, winding valley. Our camp lay along one gentle slope; opposite us the ground led, still unravished, to the neighbourly horizon, and between us flowed a stream -- it was named the Bride and rose not two miles away at a farm called Bridesprings, where we used sometimes to walk to tea; it became a considerable river lower down before it joined the Avon -- which had been dammed here to form three lakes, one no more than a wet slate among the reeds, but the others more spacious, reflecting the clouds and the mighty beeches at their margin. The woods were full of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces -- Did the fallow deer graze here still? -- and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water's edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs. All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity. From where I stood the house was hidden by a green spur, but I knew well how and where it lay, couched among the lime trees like a hind in the bracken.

A "man-made landscape." What can it mean? Well, this. Where does nature leave off and man begin? How can it be that the Doric temple (with its ivy-grown arch!) ties together the play of landscape, that the house itself is like a deer, grazing among the woods?

Note, also, before we move on, the play of political life: the fountain has been brought to this rural setting, but it immediately evokes the piazza in Southern Italy that was its natural home, while Brideshead ties in a farm up river, and indeed a whole community of farmers, while leading the mind down river toward Bristol, a major city, at the mouth of the Avon. To see this natural place is to see its connections to the human world around it.

But now it is time to talk of food. Who could forget that dinner with Rex at Paillard's. Like Charles, let us tune out Rex's awful noise, and attend to the beautiful:

I was there twenty minutes before Rex. If I had to spend an evening with him, it should, at any rate, be in my own way. I remember the dinner well -- soup of oseille [the herb sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton a la presse [duckling pressed, then cooked in its own juices], a lemon souffle. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bere of 1904.
Living was easy in France then; with the exchange as it was, my allowance went a long way and I did not live frugally. It was very seldom, however, that I had a dinner like this, and I felt well disposed to Rex, when at last he arrived and gave up his hat and coat with the air of not expecting to see them again. He looked round the sombre little place with suspicion, as though hoping to see apaches or a drinking party of students. All he saw was four senators with napkins tucked under their beards eating in absolute silence. I could imagine him telling his commercial friends later: ". . . interesting fellow I know; an art student living in Paris. Took me to a funny little restaurant -- sort of place you'd pass without looking at -- where there was some of the best food I ever ate. There were half a dozen senators there, too, which shows you it was the right place. Wasn't at all cheap, either."
Well, Rex understands some things.
He plainly wished to talk of his own affairs; they could wait, I thought, for the house of tolerance and repletion, for the cognac; they could wait until the attention was blunted and one would listen with half the mind only; now in the keen moment when the maitre d'hotel was turning the blinis over in the pan, and, in the background, two humbler men were preparing the press, we would talk of myself . . . .

"Ah." The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed separating each glaucose bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold.

"I like a bit of chopped onion with mine," said Rex. "Chap-who-new told me it brought out the flavour."

"Try it without first," I said. "And tell me more news of myself."
Glaucose is a shade of grey. Cream, butter, caviare, thin blini pancakes. Good cooking begins and ends with natural ingredients, gentle shades of flavor and color, gently brought together, so that each complements and nothing overpowers.
The soup was delicious after the rich blinis -- hot, thin, bitter, frothy.
But Rex is still talking.
"It's the kind of thing I hear . . . . But Ma Marchmain won't do anything about it. I suppose it's something to do with her crack-brain religion, not to take care of the body."

The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press -- the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast
The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. The pun is exquisite. Rex criticizes Lady Marchmain for a religion that, by his calculation, does not sufficiently care for the body. That seems "crack-brain" to him because -- well, because the soul is so simple and unobtrusive that Rex fails to notice it. He is bodily in a gross way, in a way that cannot appreciate the soul. But ironically, his grossness also cannot appreciate the body, for just as he overlooks the soul, so too does he overlook the fish, the sole.

The true contrast is not between body and soul, but between gross and fine. Nothing could be more physical than the crunch of bones as they prepare that delicate caneton. But it is a music Rex cannot hear.

Who can fail to think of that lovely dinner with Cordelia at the Ritz Grille in London, after a day of painting poor doomed Marchmain House, some eighteen months later.

"I hope I've got a vocation."

"I don't know what that means."

"It means you can be a nun. If you haven't a vocation it's no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can't get away from it, however much you hate it. Bridey thinks he has a vocation and hasn't. I used to think Sebastian had and hated it -- but I don't know now. Everything has changed so much suddenly."

But I had no patience with this convent chatter. I had felt the brush take life in my hand that afternoon; I had had my finger in the great, succulent pie of creation. I was a man of the Renaissance that evening -- of Browning's Renaissance. I, who had walked the streets of Rome in Genoa velvet and had seen the stars through Galileo's tube, spurned the friars with their dusty tomes and their sunken, jealous eyes and their crabbed hair-splitting speech.

"You'll fall in love," I said.

"Oh, I pray not. I say, do you think I could have another of those scrumptious meringues?"
Who has their finger in the succulent pie of creation? Still-secular Charles has seen something extraordinary in his painting. But so has Cordelia. A page before we read:
Presently on the last afternoon I heard a voice behind me say: "May I stay here and watch?"

I turned and found Cordelia.

"Yes," I said, "if you don't talk," and I worked on, oblivious of her, until the failing sun made me put up my brushes.

"It must be lovely to be able to do that."

I had forgotten she was there.

"It is."
So here's this fifteen-year-old girl who can sit in absolute silence and enjoy all the glories of the Renaissance man. He thinks her religion of friars stands between her and the joy of creation. She wants to be a nun and finds meringues scrumptious.

But let us return to Paillard's:
Those were the kind of things he heard, mortal illness and debt, I thought.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James's Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard's with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.
Another wisdom than his. The fabulous thing about viniculture is how it mingles man's wisdom with the wisdom of nature. Like the designer of English parks, the vintner gently harvests the fruit of the earth, pared through generations into subtly different grapes, and allows the yeasts that already inhabit the skins to gently work their magic, sometimes over decades (the wines that night at Paillard's were about twenty years old), in barrels themselves carefully cultivated from just the right oak. Where does nature leave off and art begin? The wisdom of the vintner is an ancient wisdom, slowly gleaned from the wisdom already built into the earth itself by its wise creator. It is a kind of contemplation, and it speaks words of hope that the world is an older and better place than Rex ever knew.

After the duck came a salad of watercress and chicory in a faint mist of chives. I tried to think only of the salad. I succeeded for a time in thinking only of the souffle. Then came the cognac and the proper hour for these confidences . . . .

The cognac was not to Rex's taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.

"Brandy's one of the things I do know a bit about," said Rex. "This is a bad colour. What's more, I can't taste it in this thimble."

They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home.

So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex's sort.

"That's the stuff," he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. "They've always got some tucked away, but they won't bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some."

"I'm quite happy with this."

"Well, it's a crime to drink it, if you don't really appreciate it."

He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We both were happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog's barking miles away on a still night.

A fine coup de grace: even antiquity is not a think to be sought for its own sake, just because a bottle has Napoleonic cyphers on it. Indeed, the truer antiquity is the wisdom that knows when to bottle and when to drink, and how to appreciate the subtler stuff. Antiquity itself is a heroic deed of man -- Napoleonic indeed -- but beauty is a knowledge of something beyond man, the cultivation of a wisdom that does not start with us.