On converting

I intend—this may cause a few eyebrows to raise—to convert. Specifically, I intend to convert to Catholicism, and I shall do so on my deathbed. I was born an atheist (we all are, if you think about it), raised an atheist and, other than an interesting wobble which will be the subject of a later post, have been and will remain an atheist for almost my whole life—but convert I will, in my final moments, and I shall do so with good cause.

The reason I intend to convert has little to do with my immortal soul, or with the existence of an ultimate being. The ontological argument may have been good enough for Russell, but it fails to convince me. No, I shall convert for one reason only: to exact a perverse revenge upon Brideshead Revisited.

I loved that book, or rather I loved the first 95 percent of it. It’s Waugh’s first grown-up novel, after he had got bored of poking fun at airheaded poshos, and it’s a treat. Waugh could turn a fine phrase, and in Brideshead he hasn’t lost his satirist’s eye, but it is a maturer novel, about outsiders and left-behinds; a nostalgic but not misty-eyed paean to a departing age. It draws sympathetic though far from perfect characters, and even has as a major theme a fairly uncritical depiction of homosexuality (and if you’re one of those who, to protect your own sensibilities, insist that the relationship depicted between Charles and Sebastian is passionate but not physical, I suggest you reread the Italian section, and think upon what Sebastian means when he looks at the statue of a soldier and says “It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war”). Of course, the Brideshead family are Catholics, but I viewed this largely as a literary device to make even the characters from the aristocracy socially excluded. Waugh later wrote overtly Catholic books but, just as with Graham Greene, I credited him with being able to write about Catholics without writing a Catholic book. After all, the most mainstream Catholic of the book—Bridey himself—is an insufferable prig.

But then I reached the last chapter, and Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion. Lord Marchmain, the most attractive character in the book, uproarously living in sin and in Venice with his Italian mistress, resolutely refusing to return to his infuriatingly placid, devout wife in their mouldering country pile. I don’t usually invest myself emotionally in novels (did you not read the previous two posts?), and I don’t expect fictional people to be anything other than fictions, but nothing, nothing in literature has had me screaming in fury as much as his pathetic, woebegone end, feebly indicating his acceptance of extreme unction in his last hours. Nothing, that is, other than the consequent few pages in which not only the wavering Julia but also the narrator himself—the only other resolute sceptic in the book—see in Marchmain’s terminal capitulation evidence of the truth of the Faith; and it is clear that the reader, too, is enjoined to take a fictional act of despair as a shove in that direction. I thought I was reading a smart, gently acidic novel about a fading epoch; and I discovered that all of that, all of it was nothing more than a grotesquely elongated set-up for a crass and proselytizing homily.

What is this, Evelyn, what nonsense is this? The idea that a dying man’s terror of his imminent non-existence leads him to set aside his reason and take up Pascal’s improbable wager is perfectly plausible: but is that really the best that you can do for your religion, to claim that this should be an inspiration? That despair leads to unreason? Is that all you have?

So I shall have my revenge and I shall have it by converting, myself. A genuine, heartfelt, full conversion: bell, book, and candle. I shall recite the Pater noster, and savour upon my tongue the cannibalistically transubstantiated wafer. I shall set aside the millions I make from syndicating this blog for masses to be said for me by hair-shirted monks, and I shall firmly believe that when those very monks were beating the living shit out of their novices it was to induce moral improvement and a contempt for the flesh, and not because they were socially catastrophic sadists. I shall devoutly accept the absolute authority of the Bishop of Rome as granted by apostolic succession, and try my hardest to ignore the inconveniently contradictory fact that the man upon whose purported writings the vast majority of the Papal theology is based was a charismatic evangelist who never met Jesus, and fought with the man to whom the apostolic commission was actually granted.

I shall put my immortal soul out of peril, and I shall do so solely because of a few pages in an out-dated book. I said it was perverse: but nothing will give me greater pleasure in this world or the next than, having earnt my last-minute pass beyond the Pearly Gates, proceeding to hunt down Evelyn Waugh in the heavenly realm, wrenching his gaze back down to this terrestrial plane, and pointing out to him that, rather than a host of serene and uplifted mourners inspired by my last act to turn to Rome themselves, there will be but angry and confused individuals debating whether I was a hypocrite, a fool, or a coward. “There!” I shall exclaim triumphantly to him, “That’s what a deathbed conversion really looks like! Now, can a soul get a decent ambrosia and tonic round here?”

4 thoughts on “On converting

  1. You know, if you ever have the time, I would recommend reading an account of Talleyrand, the legendary French statesman, and his deathbed “treaty” with God & the mother church. Ever the diplomat to the very end, even with his creator…

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    • Ha, I just looked that up. Of all the various purported deathbed conversions it seems the most widely attested as genuine, and certainly the most entertaining. The letter sounds like a typical politician’s apology: if I have done anything wrong, then I am sorry for it. Actually looks like a very interesting guy altogether, I may have to fish out a biography of him… Thanks!

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      • I just recently read a bio of him by Duff Cooper that I’d highly recommend; while it doesn’t pull any punches about his ‘moral character’, it’s a fascinating look into his life as a whole as well as his days as “the only sane man” in Napoleon’s cabinet.

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