Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Drowned in Honey, Stingless . . .

It must have been one such night when I watched Brideshead Revisited in a dark room, in a different house, in a different part of the city. I probably stayed away from university the next day and remained in bed to keep watching the sacred and profane memories of Charles Ryder. It is with the darkness of the night that I associate the television adaptation of the book; and until very recently, the book itself, with the slanting rays of the evening sun. It all changed when I bought the book after five years of first attempting to read it and abandoning it (despite recognising the sheer poetry of the lines), and stayed up all night to finish it. In my confused mind I am now unable to paint precise temporal and spatial correlatives to which I can relegate the memories of the book, to be evoked every time I sense a distinct lack of beauty in my life; just as Sebastian eloquently elucidates a similar need: 

I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.

In response to his cousin Jasper's remonstrance, Charles thinks that "to know and love another being is the root of all wisdom." Those of us who are looking for love, hope to come across that low door in the wall, which others like Charles had found, and which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which is somewhere, not overlooked by a window, in the heart of the grey cities of our minds. Charles and Sebastian meet each other at that low doorstep in the aquatint of Oxford, languishing in the heady summer at Brideshead, drifting in the bylanes and canals of Venice, returning to Oxford feeling positively middle-aged -- which of course is worse that being old or dead -- and during those two years, recreating a lost childhood in the company of strawberries and Chateau Peyraguey.

However, the langour of youth is so quickly and irrecoverably lost. As Charles grew closer to Sebastian's family, he gradually lost admittance to Sebastian's solitude. For Sebastian wanted to be left alone, and with Charles -- whom he refused to share with his family -- he felt himself. When Lady Marchmain took Charles to her little talks through the Christmas and New Year, as well as Easter, Sebastian gradually drifted into a certain kind of solitude where not even Charles was welcome. No one is ever holy without suffering: Sebastian was suffering, and had turned to drink to forget. A lifetime of clamour from a big, religious family; Sebastian's own religiosity was perplexing to Charles, who eventually tried to make his way to Sebastian again through a world of piety. It is by wading across the world of piety that years later Charles would meet the dying Sebastian in a monastery in North Africa; it is by revoking to piety again that he falls in love with Julia, Sebastian's sister, and the only person who bore such a striking similarity to Sebastian. Julia lacked the temerity to break away from the religion that was ingrained in her, and by turning away from Charles back to her god, she breaks her own heart.

In Brideshead Revisited, during those golden years before the Second World War, every one is fighting their own war: the war to live. The "free as air" image which abounds the Arcadia in the beginning, enters later in iron barrels, and we hopelessly crave for the heady fragrance of gillyflowers beneath the window in summer. But we cannot forget Et In Arcadia Ego, or the end of the langour of youth, or death in Arcadia too. Charles possesses nothing with certainty except his past, which too had scattered behind as he moved forward, until

wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

Hence he relies on his memory to salvage the past which came flooding back years later as he stood in front of Brideshead dressed in army clothes.

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.

To understand all is to forgive all. To understand the magical certainly of the past is certainly the path to wisdom.

Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us. 

As I type these final lines in broad daylight, listening to the music which to me is synonymous with beauty on certain evenings, a curious feeling creeps over me. When I first saw the adaptation, the various scenes made me long for a past that I never had, and for a future that I thought I wouldn't have. When a few years later I was sitting at St. Mark's Square, looking at the pigeons fluttering in the sky, I thought of a little pink marble palazzo; and of the corner away from the crowd where Kate Croy and Merton Densher abandon a terminally ill Millie Theale and make love; but most of all, I thought of Bellini (but like Charles I wasn't sure which one of the three) and those two young boys of nineteen, who wandered along the streets, drifted in gondolas, walked in the sand among the rain, and throughout the summer, drowned in honey, stingless, hoping that if it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper . . .

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