Monday, August 25, 2014

Honour, Virtue, and Not-Unpleasant Accents

It's (still) the summertime, and from my lofty perch top atop the Honorary Chair of Leisure as Culture, I can't think of a better time to review some recent — and not-so-recent — works of literature and television concerning Catholics living in times of tempestuous social change!

It also happens that this post coincides with the centenary of WWI, which is the setting for Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End trilogy. This great tragedy that marked the beginning of the 20th century could not be stopped, despite attempts to secure peace by the reigning Pope and the devout Catholic Emperor of Austria. 

Benedict XV
Blessed Charles/Karl I 
Even after two years of bloody fighting, the secular liberal democratic powers of England and France actually covered up Germany's diplomatic peace efforts, lest their own soldiers hear about a chance to end the fighting. Martin Middlebrook describes the situation in The First Day on the Somme: "Weakened by her heavy losses of 1914 and 1915, [France] claimed that she could not hold the German pressure at Verdun indefinitely.... It was unthinkable that Britain could stand idly by and watch her partner go under, for Britain too would share the stigma of defeat. She had, therefore, two alternatives — to fight hard and divert the Germans, or to attempt to make peace."

How sad it is that Britain's decision to maintain her "honor" (lest some 500,000 casualties be all for naught) ultimately resulted in much, much worse loss of life. The Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 signalled a turning point in the war. For the sake of "honor," so that France would not bear the indignity of surrender, Britain would stagger away from WWI with roughly 2,200,000 casualties. (Yes, America too only made things worse by her eventual entry to the fight and meddling afterwards.)

The disaster of this war paved the way for WWII, the conflict which was to prompt the writing of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. These massive conflicts are yet another example of the secularizing progressive trend Western Europe was following. It is this trend that shapes the respective worlds of Ford's Christopher Tietjens and Waugh's Guy Crouchback.

We will begin with Sword of Honour (due our policy of preferential treatment for all things Waugh...). Our hero, Guy Crouchback, joins the armed forces at the outbreak of WWII, hoping that it could be some sort of noble crusade. His life as a Roman Catholic member of English aristocracy up to that point had been generally comfortable but left him feeling unsatisfied. Cuckolded by his wife and refusing to remarry despite their divorce, Crouchback has been living in a self-imposed quasi-exile in Italy. Guy's attempt to serve his country honorably makes him a witness to the daft lunacy of Army regulations and his fellow servicemen, both trooper and upper echelon.

Evelyn Waugh made a name for himself in Catholic circles (and indeed the world over) with his novel of youth, lost innocence, and the potential of grace, Brideshead Revisited. Yet, it was this trilogy that was his last grand flourish as a writer. Where does his faith come into play? It is to Waugh's credit that he does not hit one over the head with religion, but weaves it into Crouchback's life. Guy is inspired to join the war effort by the legacy of an ancient English crusader, who died in the Italian town where Crouchback was living. His faith governs his attitudes toward matrimony and also leads him to seek out a priest for the Sacraments when he is deployed. It also functions as as a plot point when, in Eastern Europe, he attempts to mediate between the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox involved in partisan efforts.
All in all, the story is a hilarious satirical tale featuring Waugh's trademark scathing wit, borne of the author's personal experience. If you need something new to read, stop perusing this blog post right now and acquire a copy of the book ASAP! [Ignore Paul. Please do not stop reading the blog. —Ed.]

Daniel Craig as Guy Crouchback
After you've read the novels, there is an all-too-brief 2001 TV movie starring pre-Bond Daniel Craig as Crouchback. However, the short time allotted to the production means much was cut out, and some of the funniest parts never made it onto the screen. It's generally inoffensive and should be credited for bringing a number of the more memorable characters and scenes to life. One only wishes it could have received the long-form Brideshead treatment and more emphasis on the humorous spirit of Waugh's original work.

Mr. Cumberbatch doing his best Waugh impression
Parade's End is another matter entirely. Ford Madox Ford was a lapsed Catholic convert when he wrote his wartime trilogy. (I haven't read the books, merely seen the TV treatment. The 2012 BBC adaptation is praised as being true to the books, so any conclusions drawn will be with this in mind.)

Christopher Tietjens is a perfect gentleman to a fault. He married his wife Sylvia to save her from the disgrace of bearing a married man's child. His identity is so tied to ideas of tradition and honor that he finds much of modern life distasteful, especially polite society and politics. He is a serious but apparently not too devout Catholic, for he is never depicted availing himself of the Sacraments. Faith does not offer all that much succor to this beleaguered soul. When it does appear, faith seems to be a curiously restrictive and old-fashioned thing.

While also a Catholic, Sylvia resents Christopher for his high morality and devotion to things of the past. That their married life is unhappy is an understatement, and the arrival of a young suffragette into Tietjens' life only complicates matters. His disillusion with modern life continues as he joins the military at the outbreak of the Great War. He's not a careerist or desirous of glory, and the good he does for his men at the front is confounded by Army bureaucracy and petty rivalries.

"Oh, dear. Looks bad out there, chaps."
Returning home after sustaining minor injuries, Tietjens finally breaks. He gives up on society and the world in general and merely wishes to carve out a bit of happiness for himself before it all goes to Hell. After a long resistance to being unfaithful to his already unfaithful wife, he leaves her and his son to live with the suffragette, Miss Wannop. With this depiction of Tietjens' struggle, the conclusion which sees him abandon some of his dearly held principles must come as a relief to the modern viewer. Finally, one must think, he can allow himself some pleasure after years of a frigid marriage.

As a Catholic, it's not heartening to watch Tietjens' devotion to principle gradually weaken, since I instinctively want to root for him. He is, after all, a man of my faith in a society which had cast off belief, only retaining the Church to make the State look good. He was a man of honor in a society devoted to pleasure and taking the easy route at any cost. While the eventual erosion of his principles may be a welcome conclusion for some, I can only regard it with regret.

Marital strife — what fun!
I cannot decide whether Christopher Tietjens is simply unrealistic or just unlucky. His fatal flaw appears to be devotion to the idea of "honor," which may at root be based in pride, or to be more specific, vainglory. John Zmirak's witty and insightful The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins places the vice of Vainglory opposite the neurosis of Scrupulosity — both aberrations of the virtue of Humility. Zmirak writes "Vainglory amounts to preening over qualities you either don't have or didn't earn." For Tietjens, honor defines the class he was born into, yet his strict idea of how to represent that ideal leads to alienation from both friends and family. This ultimately leads to him despairing of living a life of virtue and embracing the spirit of the age. Now lest that be the last word, none other than Benedict Cumberbatch himself was inspired by the character:

«I have such a huge affection for Christopher, more so than almost any other character I've ever played. I sympathise with his care, sense of duty and virtue, his intelligence in the face of hypocritical, self serving mediocrity, his appreciation of quality and his love for his country. He mourns a way of life that is being eroded by money, schemers and politicians, ineffectual military boobies and the carelessness of man's industrialised progress. He is a noble, if accidental, hero fighting for relevance, a man out of time who is struggling with political and economic injustice. That's what makes him relevant in what could be dismissed as 'merely another Toff in a period drama'.»

"Toff? Bah!"
The value of watching Parade's End may or may not be in the character of Tietjens or that of his wife, but it really shines in exposing the disintegration of morals and the very framework of society before and during the First World War. It's no wonder the Catholic Church was ignored in her pleas for peace. Her guidelines on sexual morality and economics were rejected by the West as outdated and no longer relevant. Why should the world heed her warnings on one thing more? Sylvia laments "this beastly war," but can it really be blamed for all that goes wrong? Men are fallen creatures (as the show reminds again and again), and the horrors of the war ought to be a shock reminding society of how far low this mad Modernism has brought them.

The classical ideal of a soldier is associated with strength, virs in the Latin. From there, we get the word virtue, and it is the lack of this moral strength in society at large that sets Tietjens and Crouchback apart from their fellow soldiers and countrymen. Since the war was a mere symptom of society's ills, the Crusades both Tietjens and Waugh's Crouchback sought on the battlefield were never to be. The "honor" of the nation was thought to be at stake, so suing for peace was thought of as a shameful defeat — a fate worse than throwing away the lives of millions on the battlefield. This idea of the nation's "honor" demands victory and abhors a negotiated peace is certainly contrary to the humility Christianity demands (not to mention Just War Theory...). WWI truly was the triumph of the secular nation-state over the claims of the Church to provide a sane perspective on society.

"Oh, well — that's that."
The despair Ford projects onto his protagonist is not unknown to Waugh, though the two had opposite reactions to it. Waugh battened down the hatches and stuck out the fight to the last, until his death after Mass on Easter Sunday. His staunch devotion to conserving the good in society resulted in the Sword of Honour trilogy, his final work before his death. On the other hand, Ford was apparently never happy as a Catholic, hardly practicing the faith while pursuing relationships with multiple women. While he never stopped writing, Parade's End appears to demonstrate a certain resignation and embrace of the downwards spiral of Western society.

While we stand in the rubble, we can take solace in J.R.R. Tolkien's words:

"Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains some samples or glimpses of final victory." (Tolkien, Letter 195)

Waugh's Sword of Honour is a worthwhile read both for its unsentimental view of the British war effort and the solid virtue of Crouchback despite facing a situation similar to that of Tietjens. I've yet to read Ford's Parade's End, but the TV adaptation isn't encouraging me to take up the books. Despite the obvious care with which it was made, the depiction of the main characters' marital infidelity and general tone of despair is too disheartening. For this reason, the miniseries would seem to be a more accurate picture of the age than a sentimental soapy drama such as Downton Abbey, but I don't know if that's enough to recommend it. Both the stories of Crouchback and Tietjens have their moments of delightful wordplay and scathing wit, but Waugh's vision captures a glimpse of victory, while Ford concedes defeat.

"Dash it all! Waugh was right..."

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