Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Chapman and Hall, 1945
“I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsly and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer. . . .
Sometimes I go back there. Alone. When classes are shut tight behind thick wooden doors. When the trees sway mournfully in the wind. At times, now older, I pretend it’s a different time and different place from when I was there, a time and place when the large halls were first laid open, when the last cornerstone were set in mortar. Students wearing thick wool. Caps and gowns at the turn of the century. The columns of the buildings could be Greek temples. The angled roofs, a classical symposium. Roman relics. Stone ruins in a cold desert below the blue Nevada sky. I’m 18 again and walking fast to class. The grass on the quad is spotted with brittle leaves. The backpack on my shoulder feels like it’s filled with lead. The building bricks blaze red in the morning light. Ivy sucks their warm sides like creeping sea barnacles. I pretend I’m at Harvard. Princeton. Brown. Anywhere but this small western university surrounded by casinos, dirt and brush.
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one’s youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one’s stature on the edge of the door.
If only everything in life could be a first semester. The grassy walks. The beery table stains. Autumn afternoons that cut your neck like mythical god lashes. New friends. Old ones left behind. Bad sex and aching love. Literature. Philosophy. Sociology. Principles of economics in which you failed miserably. During the day your head buzzed with new ideas, new concepts, new things you never realized existed. At night you woke up in vomit on somebody’s floor. You were young, passionate. Eager to learn and eager to achieve. But vulnerable and insecure like a wild beast in traffic. Nothing mattered except you of course (hey, I’m a college student!). Soon enough you’d realize you were wrong.
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; 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.
Take me back. Back to the melancholy tables, the sad college windows pointing forever outside, the thick book of American Poetry and the enigmatic professor who told me to re-read passages three times. Then read them out loud once again! Take me back to the gin fizzes and afternoon football games, the dark sunglasses, the girls and boys with bright October smiles; beautiful kids soon to be killed in car crashes, or gone on to be managers, doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, educators, researchers; or to marry and have kids and live in thin duplexes; or to die slowly of cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease. To never have really loved except for one torturously beautiful spring morning between classes when you dropped your notes and someone kind picked them up and gave them back to you looking you straight in the eyes; that person to smile and suddenly turn away and run off to class and never be seen or heard from again. Never to return. Never to be mentioned or thought of except late at night in bed when you were alone and couldn’t sleep in another city far far away.
Raise the fire bushes. The dynamite flowers. The trees tipping ghosts and dog memories in the wind. Raise the high spires of yesteryear. Your skin is brown and your hair thick and you are young and your heart pumping buckets of blood a thousand miles a second. And once you are done with all this college business, once you have learned, you’ll be gone, gone out to make your mark on the world, change the spinning orbit of this whole fucking planet. Travel the world and love and lose and learn all over again—that’s right, there’s no going back again my friend, no going back at all, but you can visit every once and a while.
The halls are empty. The architecture huge and foreboding. The Vatican domes and Munster towers. Marble and shoelace. You’ll walk this earth and for whatever reason that will not be revealed to you, not in your syllabus, your textbook, not in your long list of names of alumni that run like brick lines across all the vast campuses around the world; for whatever reason you’ll stop and remember a brief minute when you were young and happy and green among the whispering edifices. To search. To yearn. The temples crumble and change but are built back up again. A new class enters. The old one goes away. The lights in the library burn late at night. Light diffused from the dorm rooms, the fraternity basements, the late night snack places. The pages turn. Yellow markers highlight the text. The windows are open. The windows are lit.
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre of Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.