13 October 2009

IDENTITY

I am not quite sure what I am ... although one or two of the head masters with whom I crossed swords in my three decades teaching and chaplaining in a Public School could probably fill up that lacuna very adequately. Possibly my wife, too, could provide an analysis. Wives so very often can. But stay: what am I talking about?

Evelyn Waugh was once described as a man who thought of himself as being, in the eyes of God, an English Country Gentleman of ancient and recusant ancestry. In fact, he was the son of an parvenu Anglican publisher quite well down in the Middle Class. I feel it is one of the characteristics of the last century and a half ... say, since the time of Disraeli ... why is it him that I mention? ... that we construct our sense of self-identity, not from our actual and family backgrounds, but from what we have discovered for ourselves; and not infrequently in reaction against our real individual inheritances. Is that something to do with the cultural disintegration of this period?

I would describe myself as a Latin Catholic, deeply rooted Classical Antiquity, but at home in ancient Rome while only a sympathetic visitor in ancient Athens. Classicism baptised makes me profoundly the product of the latinate culture and Liturgy which has shaped Western Europe for centuries. I am not in the least English; in fact ... well, Waugh once described me rather well in his account of another equally dim classics master: " ... he was filled, suddenly, with deep homesickness for the South. He had not often nor for long visited those enchanted lands; a dozen times, perhaps, for a few weeks ... but his treasure and his heart lay buried there. Hot oil and garlic and spilled wine; luminous pinnacles above a dusky wall; fireworks at night, fountains at noonday; the shepherd's pipe on the scented hillside ... he had left his coin in the waters of Trevi; he had wedded the Adriatic; he was a Mediterranean man." Hot oil and garlic and spilled wine ... ah, how that tugs at me now while I sit here tapping at my computer. My temptations are to reach for Ovid's Metamorphoses while I should be saying my Office and to dream about Tiepolo ceilings while I should be making my meditation. I feel most at one with my deepest identities when saying the Tridentine Mass or leering at my classically erudite wife across a table laden with Mediterranean food and wine. I rarely pass through London without going to commune with the statue of S Pius V on the right hand side of that wonderful North Italian Lady Altar at Brompton.

My father, on the other hand, was a British naval officer who was romantic only about crooks like Drake and Raleigh, who loathed Irish, waps, and dagoes, and had an enormous picture of Nelson upon his wall. Do you see what I mean?

6 comments:

Patricius said...

How very resonant. As for myself, I identify more with the Sindarin Elves of Beleriand than with my Irish and Anglo-Saxon parents. Or, perhaps more accurately, I can identify with Cogidubnus of the Regenses - a literate barbarian, above the other Northern barbarians but still only a novice in the Literae Humaniores.

Father TE Jones said...

There has been a change, I think,Waugh and his ilk did ( as people have ever done) re-invent themselves, their invention was tolerated by those they aspired to join if they were clever/wicked/rich/dirty/original/amusing (Choose any three), for those lower on the social scale they were just accepted as generic gentry. The world has changed, everyone now re-invents themselves, often more than once and people accept other peoples self presentation, because those presentations are never, now, about claims to not having fish knives but about a complexity of positions and opinions.
My late father sounds like an army version of yours.

rev'd up said...

An edgy and candid post...(Ah, Disraeli makes perfect sense, being a Geryon-faced Cromwellian doppelganger – he gave mass murder savoir faire; a truly "modern man").

These lines come to mind:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep - while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

-Edgar Allan Poe

-----

I suggest vegetable gardening and/or raising chickens.

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches.

Michael McDonough said...

Fr. Hunwicke,

Was your naval officer father like Jack Aubrey, a character who loathed everything "Irish, wap, and dago (and Papist)" in principle, though each one he met, he regarded as an exception to the rule?

Benedictus said...

I got a sense of what Lewis calls "The Northerness" when I was a teenager, being raised by Cuban Baptist parents. Drank heavily from Malory, read Geoffrey of Monmouth's Chronicles of the Kings of Britain, and, predictably, developed a love of the Prayer Book and became Anglican. My love for the Mediterranean (my actual cultural heritage via Spain and Sicily) came later, and now, being Orthodox, love both Rome and Athens with almost equal passion. Ah, Romanitas!

Woody said...

Well, if we are confessing our secret lives (more or less), mine started when I was young and while playing one day in 1954, the maid was cleaning the house and had the radio on; suddenly the music stopped and the announcer came on with a news flash: "General de Castries has ordered the guns turned on his commend post at Dien Bien Phu..." Then a little later, "General de Castries has surrendered at Dien Bien Phu..." For some reason this has remained with me ever since, and late in the 1950s, I became very sensitized to the war in French Algeria. The clincher was reading the English translation of Jean Larteguy's "The Centurions." From then on, Algerie Francaise, and the broader war of the West with Communism (yes, one now knows that the two were not necessarily the same) were my greatest interests.

So in a way I was not at all unhappy when the draft notice came in 1968, and a year later I too went to Southeast Asia. It seemed all of a piece. I sometimes confused my comrades by referring to the enemy as the "Viets" instead of "Charlie" or "the Cong", or worse names. Funny thing is, my wife and I went with a group back there last year and all was forgiven, everyone happy to see Americans. We heard lots of "foundational myths", with the twist that we had been the bad guys. I thought then that it must have been like an Englishman visiting the US in the 1820s or so. A fascinating country and a great people, the Vietnamese.

But perhaps it is still to France that we must look...to await Henri, the hidden king.