Et in Arcadia ego

by Fergus Higgins

‘You see, it wasn’t the ordinary sort of Doubt about Cain’s wife or the Old Testament miracles or the consecration of Archbishop Parker. I’d been taught how to explain all those while I was at college. No, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.’

Doubt. That the was reason Mr. Prendergast gave for leaving the comfortable life of a parish priest in Worthing for the life of a master in a beastly North Wales school. Prendergast is just one of the many intriguing individuals that the protagonist of Waugh’s Decline and Fall encounters on his cyclical journey. The novel is a masterpiece of satire and a truly humorous read, but I think Mr. Prendergast makes a serious point that compels further consideration.

Doubt. It came to mind recently as I attended the funeral of a childhood friend. He had died suddenly, aged but eighteen. Although I hadn’t kept in close contact with him for some years, the news of his premature passing provoked both shock and a sense that an injustice had been served on both him and his bereaved family. Sitting in the silent church waiting for the funeral to begin, another Waugh novel registered in my thoughts. This time his magnum opus: Brideshead Revisited. Waugh entitled the first chapter of the book ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – ‘Even in Arcadia I am’. That is to say, even in the most idealised situation, death will always be present. The injustice that, in the Arcadia of his youth, this promising young man had met death, with the possibility of his future cut short before it could ever be fully realised, struck me. But what appeared all the more striking, absurd even, was that we were supposedly commending him to ‘God, our merciful redeemer and judge.’ Surely I couldn’t have been alone in thinking that it was this God who should be the one judged and not the judge?

Of course my thoughts were far from original. There have been Jobs and Prendergasts in every age; the classic ‘Why does a good God allow suffering?’ question has been spoken by the lips of many. And in response there have been the theologians with their clever arguments to get God off the hook, to reconcile the seemingly dichotomous. But somehow the Irenaean Theodicy doesn’t quite cut it in the face of a mother burying her son. Nor does the idea of privatio boni do anything to salve the inevitable grief. Writing from the perspective of the repentant thief crucified with Jesus, the poet Sydney Carter seemed to get it when he wrote,

‘You can blame it on to Adam,
You can blame it on to Eve,
You can blame it on the apple,
but that I can’t believe.
It was God that made the Devil,
And the woman and the man,
And there wouldn’t be an apple,
If it wasn’t in the plan.
It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.’

I gazed up from the order of service and saw the crucifix placed upon the coffin. It couldn’t have been a more fitting sign. The needless pain, the cruelly scourged flesh and oozing blood: human existence at its lowest ebb. But perhaps this is where the answer to the doubt is to be found: in the dead carpenter from Nazareth, hanging on a tree outside the walls of Jerusalem.

As much as my remote experience of this young man’s sudden death had elicited a doubt in my mind, it had illuminated a certainty also: that it is towards the image of the Crucified that all life tends, in other words, death is our destination. It seems we all need a memento mori from time to time, and this was mine. The words of that ancient student song express it well, ‘Our life is brief, soon it will end. Death comes quickly, snatches us cruelly. To nobody shall it be spared.’ Never mind the doubt, there’s the certainty. And faced with such a certainty it seems only right that our response be the first words of that song: ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ – let us rejoice! For, having health and life, we can surely do nothing else.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Alex Waygood & Aidan Chivers.

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