[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Preface & Prologue

The cover of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Sidenote: did they really dress like that? If so, maybe I was a (male) student at 1920s Oxford in another life because DAMN.

Remember that book club thing I said I was doing? Well, I’m doing it! And I’m starting with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisitedoriginally published in 1945 and revised by a rather contrite Waugh in 1959. (More on that later.)

As I said, I chose this book primarily because my mom said I should. (She said it’s “smart.”) But when I looked it up, I realized that this book is right up my alley for several reasons. First of all, Downton Abbey, a show I love, has been compared favorably to it (though others dispute the comparison). Second, it is a not a novel primarily about romance between a man and a woman (although it can definitely be said to be about romance–again, more on that later). Third, it’s a novel that deals heavily with nostalgia, which regular readers of this blog will know is a bit of a struggle for me.

It doesn’t even matter that it’s about 1920s/-30s British aristocrats. After seeing the film (which he calls a “travesty”), the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about the almost-universal appeal of the book:

Why does this novel have such a tenacious hold on the imagination, even of people who have never been to England or never visited a country house?

Well, to answer that first and easiest question, it is entirely possible to feel nostalgia for homelands, and for periods, which one has never experienced oneself. This applies to imagined times and places as well as to real ones: Waugh uses the phrase “secret garden” and also – alluding to the Oxford of Lewis Carroll – to an “enclosed and enchanted garden” reachable by a “low door in the wall”. The yearning for a lost or different upbringing is fairly universal, and one of Brideshead’s keys is precisely the one that unlocks the gate to it.

When I talked to people I know who’ve read the book (including my mom), most of them were unable to recall many (or any) specific details of the plot or characters. They just said that it left them with some sort of good feeling. I find that response fascinating because it parallels how nostalgia often works–we don’t remember many details (though our brains will sometimes fill them in without us realizing it), but we remember the way it felt, and the way it felt can be very difficult to convey in words.

This brings me to Waugh’s fascinating preface to the novel, which he wrote in 1959 when he revised the book. In it, he explains that he wrote the book quickly while on leave from the military during World War II. He writes, “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster–the period of soya beans and Basic English–and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” In other words, the novel reads like a restaurant review written by a starving critic, because war starves people of many things besides food.

But, Waugh says, he didn’t want to cut out all these passages entirely because that would completely change the book. Instead, he asks readers to try to understand the perspective he was writing from.

Now that the war is over, the nostalgia and romantization with which Waugh describes aristocratic life seems a little silly because the things he feared would be lost forever are back more so than ever:

It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain. And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible….Much of this book therefore is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.

I love this, because I think it would be tempting for many writers to claim that their works present Real Timeless Truth rather than a version of the truth that is informed by that author’s position in society and in time. Waugh doesn’t succumb to that temptation; instead, he freely admits that the style of the novel feels “distasteful” now that the war is over and things have more or less gone back to the way they were. He concludes the preface by stating that the book “is offered to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.”

Of course, all literature–all art in general–is an artifact of its time, and should be read that way. If you had no idea that this novel was written by someone on medical leave from a war in which they’ve been seriously injured, it wouldn’t really make sense. The only way it makes sense is with that framing.

Speaking of framing, though, you don’t actually need to know that much of Waugh’s biography to understand the context of the novel because the prologue conveniently frames it for you.

In the prologue, we’re introduced to Charles Ryder, 39-year-old army officer and narrator, who is apparently in the process of realizing that being in the army kind of fucking sucks and there’s no point to any of it. Nothing much happens in the prologue other than that Ryder and the rest of his company are dismantling their camp because they’re being sent to another location, but they don’t know where or why. Once they get there, though, Ryder realizes that he’s been there before, and at that point he starts remembering stuff that happened over 20 years ago and that’s when the novel actually starts.

Honestly, the prologue was a slog and I barely got through it. I had a hard time understanding even the basics of what was going on because I don’t understand a lot of military lingo (especially not military lingo from decades ago and a different continent), and because the narration itself was sort of lackluster and unclear. Which, I think, is kind of the point. As boring and dreary as the prologue was to read, I later saw that it served to set up a really clear contrast between Ryder’s wartime experience and his memories of Sebastian and Brideshead. Also, I think it was an opportunity for Waugh to vent some of his own frustrations with army life.

There was one particular passage that really struck me, where Ryder describes his lost love for the army:

Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o’clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.

Here my last love died — There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before ‘this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day — had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? — as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm her jealousy and self-seeking and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

Apparently this neatly parallels what Waugh himself went through in the army, but I think there’s more to this than just his military experiences. He had also divorced his first wife in 1929, so he presumably knew something about falling out of love. (Fun fact: his first wife was also named Evelyn. Just, you know, for maximum confusion.)

But I don’t think that the extended metaphor is overblown when it comes to Waugh’s/Ryder’s relationship with the army, either. I don’t have any military experience and I’ve always had a really difficult time understanding what drives people to war (both on the macro and the micro scale), which renders a lot of classic literature kind of incomprehensible to me. But when I look at the military as a particular type of group–a tribe–it makes sense. You can devote yourself entirely to your tribe, and you can become disillusioned with your tribe, trapped in it, desperate to leave it. The fighty-shooty parts don’t make any sense to me–like, why would you do that?–but the drive to belong, to be part of something greater than yourself, and to try to make that relationship work even as it’s obviously falling apart isn’t exactly unfamiliar.

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but that passage could well have been written by some of my friends currently/formerly in the secular movement.)

One more thing to note about the prologue is Ryder’s frequent mentions of young douchebag Hooper, a new addition to the company that everyone loves to hate. He really does seem pretty horrible–while passing by the local mental hospital (I’m not going to bother using the term Waugh uses), Hooper notes that Hitler would execute all of the patients and that “we can learn a thing or two from him.” Okay, yuck. Fuck you too then.

But I don’t think that’s why everyone else hates him; there’s something more to it that I’m not really understanding because I’m missing some cultural context. Ryder does some pretty epic burns on him, noting at one point, “Hooper had no illusions about the Army–or rather no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog with which he observed the universe.” Based on what I know of Waugh, Ryder probably also hates Hooper because he tried to avoid military service, and I think that’s the sort of thing Waugh would find disgustingly cowardly (of course, who’s he to talk? He asked to be let out of the army to write this novel). He acknowledges that despite being ” a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty,” he rarely complains and does his work very efficiently.

Shortly it becomes a little clearer what Ryder’s real issue is, and that’s all the meanings he’s attached to this one man:

In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting ‘Hooper’ and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: ‘Hooper Rallies’, ‘Hooper Hostels’, ‘International Hooper Cooperation’, and ‘the Religion of Hooper’. He was the acid test of all these alloys.

Ryder’s preoccupation with Hooper and his youth is interesting in the context of the rest of the novel, in which he thoroughly explores exactly the types of things that old folks tend to ridicule and berate young people about. Somehow Ryder is symbolically connecting Hooper to the loss of his own youth. Maybe he sees him as cowardly, ignorant, and inept compared to himself and Sebastian at that age. I honestly have no idea, but given how much of this prologue Ryder spends observing and discussing Hooper, I’m willing to bet that he’ll somehow come up again in the novel. (How, given that it takes place decades before Ryder and Hooper meet? I have no idea.)

As I mentioned, the prologue ends when Ryder arrives at the company’s new camp. He asks what the place is called and he goes silent, “for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

In the next chapter, a significantly younger Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte in a rather explosive way, and they sort of fall in love. So, if you’re reading, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am!

(Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.)

Up next: Chapter One.

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[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Preface & Prologue

[guest post] Hello from a Severely Disenchanted Former Democrat

While I’m in DC, here’s a guest post from my friend Andy, who wrote this after he received yet another letter from the Democratic Party asking for donations.

To whomever reads this letter:

Hello from a severely disenchanted former Democrat.

Firstly, I would like to politely ask you to remove me from your records from this date forward. I do not wish to receive any more solicitations through any medium from your organization or party or any of its accompanying PACs.

Secondly, I wish to express my sincere distaste with almost everything your party has done in the last 5-6 years. The President put it quite well when he pointed out to Noticias Univision 23 in Miami, Florida, stating “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. Your party has slipped its moorings and has floated so far to the right that I can no longer consider myself a Democrat by any stretch of the imagination.

My heart breaks to see a party that I had such hope in for so long disintegrate into this. When we called for a public option, an option our president told us would be kept on the table, we were stabbed in the back behind closed doors as the president promised pharmaceutical companies and medical lobbyists (many of whom poured millions of dollars into his campaign war chest) that the public option was a pipe dream. I am outraged at the complete silence this administration and party has had on the violence that met the peaceful protestors of the Occupy movement. Friends and people I cared about had their limbs broken, were arrested for no reason, and harassed, pepper sprayed, and beaten. And all of this without a word from our benevolent, supposedly progressive president. I’m sick of the hypocrisy on Guantanamo when the president’s plan was never to shut down the facility, but to only move it north onto the US mainland. Now hundreds of men sit in cages, tortured, abused, and being force-fed, many with no formal charges, many cleared for release, and all your party does is blame the Republicans for “stonewalling” which is complete crock.

I ache at the destruction we’ve once again caused around the world by becoming involved in meaningless conflicts throughout the world for no other reason than economic interest. We decimated Libya and put it into the hands of Islamic radicals (who now have vast arrays of weapons and are now turning them against their own people, who we were supposedly “saving”). We continue to terrorize and bomb, extrajudicially, people in the remotest regions of Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and many other countries with unmanned robotic drones, capable of vaporizing great swathes of people and never being seen. And we can never be held accountable for our actions, because Obama continues to insist on the secrecy of the program and refuses to submit to UN or ICJ investigation, all because we’re Americans and we know what’s best. This new prong of the War on (of?) Terror accompanies continued aggression in Iraq with special operations and Afghanistan with both convential and unconventional tactics. We have also considered arming Syrian rebels and have given equipment and arms to the Bahraini government, which is committing massacres with US equipment, while the media ignores it completely. This is to say nothing of Israel and its systematic degradation and war against Palestine, all of which is funded by the US, with this administration pledging more aid to Israel than ever before.

Our police continue to become more and more militarized, thanks in large part to help from the Federal government and loans. While our schools flounder and our infrastructure crumbles, I get to watch friends rounded up with Armored Personnel Carriers by police officers who, for all intents and purposes, may as well be soldiers in Afghanistan for all their equipment.

Obama is also the first president to assassinate a US citizen (and his 16-year-old son) without any due process or oversight. The labeling of this person as a supposed “enemy combatant” does not grant the right to the government to vaporize him without a trial. Yet, it still happened. And now, with the passing of the NDAA last year, the US government now has a legal basis to authorize force (in the absence of due process) on American citizens on domestic soil.

Your party claims to be sensible about immigration, too, yet under Obama’s administration it is likely to reach 2 million deportations (a record never before met) by 2014. There have been no serious talks of how to reform this broken and often racist system, yet the administration seems quite content on continuing the legacy of America’s exceptionalism while pumping up the rhetoric and pretending to be compassionate towards immigrants.

And despite rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s administration has stepped up the so-called War on Drugs, a $1 trillion dollar failure. He continues to harass and jail legal medical marijuana dispensaries and refuses to even talk about reforming these laws. Meanwhile, our jail system is overflowing with mostly petty non-violent criminals a great majority of who are poor, uneducated, and of minority racial status.

I could go on for pages about the failed policies, broken promises, and complete 180-turn-arounds that your party has done. To me, a lifelong Democrat, my heart is broken, my faith is shattered, and I am angrier than I have ever been before. While our country and our people reel in pain and sadness from tragedy, from no work, from low wages, from burdening debt that we cannot get out of, we watch as our supposed “People’s Party” hands more and more cash to corporate interests and grinds us under their heel.

The fact of the matter is that Obama (and the Democratic party) have continued almost all of the failed policies of the Bush administration. Whether it’s GITMO, warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, illegal wars, drone strikes, immigration, and much more, Obama has shown us very clearly exactly where he stands in terms of the American people and their wishes. Your party is now nothing more than Republican Party Lite.

Having said that let me reiterate once again:



Your Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist


Andy Cheadle-Ford is a professional activist in the secular student movement and is passionately involved in many social justice campaigns. He often refers to himself as the “Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist” and strives to show that anarchists are normal, compassionate, and intelligent people. When he is not working or plotting, he is typically enjoying a good book, video games, or a tasty vegan dinner with his friends.

Note: The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the national Secular Student Alliance

[guest post] Hello from a Severely Disenchanted Former Democrat

Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012’s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

Not All Activism is Good Activism