Et in Arcadia Ego
All of my anxieties about living as a recent graduate were put on full display by engaging with Waugh’s masterpiece
As a recent graduate of Notre Dame, I often find myself thinking back on my final days of senior year—those carefree times where the only thing we had to do was celebrate our four short years and the friendships that we had made along the way. Maybe it is the fact that I still live near the school, but I think about my friends every day as I walk through this beautiful campus. Experiencing this nostalgia can be considered living in the past, but there is a powerful strength that I draw from these memories that motivates me to live authentically and faithfully today.
When I was an undergrad, I studied in the Program of Liberal Studies and considered reading to be an activity I had to do every day like eating or sleeping. One of the great things I gained from graduating was rediscovering the joy of “reading for fun”, maybe better described as reading without a pressing deadline. One of the books I turned back to when I graduated was the English novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh which I haven’t read since high school. All of my anxieties about living as a recent graduate were put on full display by engaging with Waugh’s masterpiece: my fear of losing friendships, my anxiety of how to live an authentic Christian life, the abandonment of everything that comprised my security and routine. In many ways Brideshead encounters all of these themes by showing the destructive ways in which the characters deal with each other—they especially give us a particular lesson on friendship.
The novel’s narrator Charles Ryder meets a peculiar Sebastian Flyte, the descendant of an old and important English aristocratic family, at Oxford, and their meeting sparks an epic spiritual journey that gets to the very heart of the Christian understanding of friendship. Sebastian is not only a young socialite whose immaturity and charm get him into all sorts of trouble, he is also a member of a Catholic family that he deeply resents. Charles goes through the entire novel angry at how these ideas of religion torture Sebastian through guilt, especially as Sebastian develops a worsening case of alcoholism. In the novel Charles decides to support his friend’s fight against his family’s Catholicism, even going so far as to even provide Sebastian with the money to buy drinks when his family withholds both money and alcohol from him. Charles says that he does this out of the strong sense that he is Sebastian’s friend “contra mundum.” The genius of this friendship is that Waugh is portraying in many ways a friendship gone horribly wrong: a strict determination to help someone in their vice. The novel touches on this sad aspect of a bad friendship as Sebastian fades deeper into alcoholism and farther from his friends and family, and Charles goes on with his life without his friend who meant more than the world to him.
Waugh doesn’t end his novel on this point, however, but instead, Charles falls deeply in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia only to have her Catholicism get in the way of their relationship. Of course, that is an unfair thing to say of someone’s religion on face value, but Waugh gets to the very heart of what sin is: an establishment of some supreme good that isn’t God. After a rather sudden spiritual realization, Julia ends her love affair with Charles by telling him: “…The bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s…. It may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.” Julia ends her affair, but the friendship and love that Charles experienced with the Flytes have ultimately changed him for the better. Charles, who tried to save his friend Sebastian and lover Julia from their faith has actually been given faith by the two of them and their family. At the end of the novel, Charles seems to have adopted the Catholic faith and finally wished for the good of the Flyte family for the first time in prayer.
In my own life, I see the many ways in which I have tried to genuinely wish for the good of my friends and the many times I depended on my friends to help me to be good. Waugh’s novel has given me a chance to reflect on how dependent we all are on God’s grace and how lonely and miserable we all are without Him. Friendship should be the virtue from which God’s love is made evident and strengthened in our lives, but many times we fall into a shallow understanding of friendship where the only things people have in common are interests or geography. Those aren’t unimportant, but the message I have for those Notre Dame students listening is this: develop an austere understanding of friendship with your friends here. Life will be fraught with difficulties for all of us, and they will be necessary bulwarks when the time comes. Do not be for your friends “contra mundum” but so that they can be their very best self. Start now before friendships become harder to maintain due to conflicting schedules and long distance. Think of ways in which we can be better friends, and we will all already begin to protect ourselves from the difficult journey to come.
Brendan Besh is a graduate of the class of 2018. He is currently the Law and Public Policy Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. If he isn’t quoting Arrested Development, he also loves 20th century novels and road trips. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.