Vice and Holiness
The early pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited describe the drunken antics of students Lord Sebastian Flyte and the narrator, Charles Ryder. Ryder later observes that he “got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape.” This difference is the same difference Chesterton touches on in Heretics: “If a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day.”
Sebastian continuously sought the exceptional, specifically, the exceptional feeling triggered by holiness. Sebastian—a youngster raised with a chapel in his house and constant access to the sacraments—sought that type of exceptional feeling because he was inclined to the insanity of holiness. Unfortunately, he was also a person caught in the trappings of English upper society, which resisted the tug of holiness, so he wrongheadedly tried to obtain it—and to escape mundanity—through drink.
This becomes clear in Waugh’s final words about Sebastian. Sebastian’s drinking worsened until he ended-up in a monastery near Carthage, not as a monk, but as an odd “hanger-on,” a drunken porter, “a joke to the novices.” He was fit for neither the secular world nor the religious world, still pulled in two opposite directions, pathetic by both worlds’ standards. But Waugh leaves us with the impression that Sebastian obtained a good life—all ambition thrown aside, still drinking, but at least ashamed of it. He became a man whose vice was permanently affixed to his back, but a man who was becoming holy by carrying it as nobly as possible.