Et in Arcadia Ego

I found it hard to write about being back home while I was actually there. Like a painter sitting too close to my subject, I lacked perspective and context. Much of my writing about England is, of course, idealised, romanticised nonsense, and it’s very difficult to romanticise something when it’s right there in front of you; it’s frankly a bit awkward, too – like gibbering about a person’s ethereal beauty while they look you steadily in the eye. The part of my brain responsible for hopeless sentimentality (the Hallmark Greetings Card Lobe, perhaps?) obviously needs a bit of space to airbrush the flaws and add the requisite imaginative detail.

My visits home are primarily about spending time with much-missed family and friends, but they are also steeped in a selective and entirely self-indulgent nostalgia. And on this trip, not without a hint of self-irony, my chosen reading was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I’m my own worst enemy, I know… Just like the time when I actually ate a box of chocolates whilst watching Forrest Gump, I’m afraid it all got a bit ‘meta’… The decision I appeared to have made was to fill my thoughts with nostalgia both as an intellectual concept and literary theme whilst simultaneously wallowing in my own actual, personal nostalgia: it was a sort of experimental double-whammy, just to see if I could make my own brain implode.

Brideshead Revisited recounts the emotional entanglements between Waugh’s narrator, Charles Ryder, and the various members of the aristocratic Flyte family, starting in the golden, hazy summer days of the early 1920s. In his 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Waugh all but apologises for his sumptuous, romantic prose and blames the darkness and uncertainty of the Second World War in which the novel was written:

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. (Waugh, 1959)

Nostalgia 2The opulence of both content and style is at its height in Waugh’s depictions of Charles and Sebastian (and Aloysius, the teddy bear) at Oxford, drinking champagne in the morning, picnicking, getting drunk at luncheon, and dining on plovers’ eggs; or their long, dreamy, drunken summer at Brideshead, tasting wine from the cellars and painting lavish pastoral scenes on the Rococo panels of the colonnade office. One can understand why, writing from such a distant and different time, the blithe freedoms and indulgences of the past would burn so much brighter. When writing about things lost to us, we become magpies – picking out the glittering and jewelled fragments of memory.

Nostalgia and homesickness can, I think, be seen as siblings – one is temporal, the other geographical – but there are significant areas of overlap and both can make the heart ache. So I would like, if I may, to dwell on Waugh’s words of self-criticism and use them in my own defence… I’m not saying that living in Dubai is in any way like living through the Second World War (though it is, for some reason, rather tricky to get hold of a decent bunch of bananas out here), nor am I attempting to compare my own bewildered witterings with Waugh’s magnificent prose; it’s the concepts I’m interested in – the magnetic retrospective, the plaintive echo of ‘how things used to be…’, the similarity between time and place when they exist purely abstractly: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between). It’s all about contrast, separation and wanting what you can’t have. It’s about the grass being greener – whether that remembered greenness exists twenty years in the past or twenty thousand air-miles away. It may not necessarily make my occasionally saccharin prose any more palatable, but it does, I hope, make it more forgivable – the linguistic equivalent of hot, tinned chocolate pudding with custard on a lonely winter’s night, maybe.

But Waugh’s novel is much more than a languid yearning for the heady irresponsibility of youth or an elegiac Paradise Lost for the old regime. It is about profound and lasting change – and we all struggle with that at times. The themes of Brideshead Revisited are complex and, frequently, antithetical: youth and middle age; war and peace; sin and innocence; faith and agnosticism; darkness and light; drunkenness and sobriety…

Nostalgia 3Perhaps writing indulgently about the things we long for is a bit like a sort of mild, pleasant drunkenness – removing oneself ever so slightly from the here and now, blurring time a little, a romantic softening of the edges of things, simultaneously numbing and warming…

And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ Sebastian asked one morning.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I think so too.’

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945)

Related posts:
The Rose-Tinted Glasses
Top Ten Nostalgic Puddings

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14 Comments

  1. I was lucky enough to grow up in the period of the post war consensus that life should be made better for people…I have a great sense of loss that the tyranny of the stronger has returned.
    So it is a time, an experience, that I miss and mourn, rather than a place.

    I go to England to visit my mother…and I enjoy being there, taking her shopping, going to a garden centre….
    I go to France to see to the house there…and enjoy meeting my friends face to face as opposed to via Skype and the e mail inbox.

    But not one moment of nostalgia.

  2. I’m now trying to imagine Waugh’s protagonists armed with bowls full of chocolate pudding and custard. I loved the idea of a Hallmark Greetings card lobe – very clever :-) I only get emotional about Britain when I get back home to Cornwall and my kids have to drag me away from the cheddar cheese shelf as they reassure me that I can go back tomorrow and it will all still be there.

  3. Rick

    Probably the deepest, most thought provoking and intellectual of all your blogs. An analysis or at least an attempt to understand the inner workings of homesickness, nostalgia and the longing for things no longer available or attainable. The golden glow that pervades the description of these memories or even the very memories themselves; singling out only those things that are the happiest, most beautiful or most wonderfully memorable, is a totally natural phenomenon. Like all beauty there is always an underlying sadness for which we have no word; maybe homesickness or nostalgia might do.The Portuguese sum it up admirably in one little word; Fado, roughly meaning the Beauty of Sadness or the Sadness of Beauty (although today this word is mostly associated with the music of the Alfama and other parts of the country and is always to do with deep longing; which is much the same really).
    Another lovely piece of writing.

    • Wow – thank you – what a beautiful contribution to the discussion. It’s wonderful to discover the single words that exist in some languages, which other languages need an entire sentence to explain…

  4. I don’t think I feel nostalgia about the UK either when I think about it. I enjoy going back but I don’t yearn or hanker for it, or for times past.

    Living abroad means that you get to be surprised when you return to the home country, and I love surprises. Surprised at how much cheddar around there is, the variety and quality of eateries (that I’ve experienced), and the general familiarity of it all.

    But then I’m very happy to come back to France so when I go back to Blighty and can feel all happy and surprised all over again. :)

    • Brilliant! Cheese is clearly even more emotive than I first thought. Perhaps dairy products are at the centre of all feelings of longing or loss ;-)

  5. I loved reading this one Luce. Beautifully thought out and written. Certainly your most thought-provoking piece… I think you’re absolutely right about the mind being like a magpie – preferring to pick out only the glittering and jeweled fragments of memory. Could it be an in-built defence mechanism? Something that has evolved into us over time? A bit simplistic perhaps, but you could argue that selecting only the happier memories is a useful adaptation that contributes to living a happier (and therefore more healthy?) life in the here and now… Or could it actually be regarded as a fault or handicap? You could possibly argue that by selectively remembering only the good stuff it can hinder the ability to see some things with objectivity and perspective.
    Time for a drink outside in the starlight I think! Much love as always, Will x

    • Ooh – lovely thoughts – thank you, Will! I think it might actually be a bit of a handicap, you know… But I rather like it :-)

  6. A beautifully-written and very thoughtful reflection on what we miss and remember and why. Welsh has a single word for that kind of nostalgic, homesick yearning – hiraeth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiraeth

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Perpetua. What a lovely word – hiraeth – I wish I could pronounce it :-)

      • Oh, that’s one of the easy ones, HH – heareyeth. ;-)

      • I shall practise! :-D

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