So you wouldn't mind awfully if we backtrack just a second to that title of the opening episode, "Et in Arcadia Ego" which kicked off, as they say, the new television series called "Brideshead Revisited."
It would seem to mean, "And in Arcadia I," and people who think of Arcady, that central part of Greece, suppose Arcady was a pastoral sort of place with lots of song and ornamental shepherdesses and plaintive shepherds. So they wind up imagining that the phrase means something of this sort:
"Things are pretty cruddy now. But once, when I was young, I lived in paradise."
And this is indeed the most common meaning. We live in an age of nostalgia. Americans go quite ape for the Old West, the Old Days. Planes crash and people long for horses (never mind that more people were killed in horse accidents in a month than on planes in 10 years).
We long for the past republican simplicity and nobility of Monticello and Mount Vernon when (we think) farmers were statesmen and gentlemen and leaders of heroic armies.
This nostalgic itch for a past that was lyric and sweet has always afflicted societies in decline -- they longed for the same things in Rome during the Empire.
But that is not what the title of this television drama meant.
Going back to the phrase itself, a more nearly correct translation is this: "Even in Arcady, I." And you fill in the unspoken verb, and it comes out, "Even in Arcady, I am present."
In the novel on which this TV entertainment is based (and what a superb entertainment it is) the hero buys a skull and sets it in a salver full of roses, and on the brow of the skull is the motto, "Et in Arcadia Ego."
It is not the skull saying to us that once he was tall and handsome as you, once he knew joy and so on. The meaning of the motto on the skull is, simply, "Even if you live in paradise, you won't escape me, you won't avoid disintegration and death."
When Caesar said "Et tu, Brute," he did not mean "And you, Brutus," but "Even you, Brutus." When the word Et is used in this way it means "Even" and it modifies the first noun to follow it. So it means "Even in Arcady" rather than "Even I."
If the only place in the story, in which that phrase appears, is on the head of the skull which the hero has gone out of his way to acquire (it was not just sitting around when he moved in) then we may safely assume he knew the meaning of it, as a warning from the tomb that youth and health and love and discovery and sunlight will not last. No matter how perfect, it will all cease, and golden lads and girls all must as chimney-sweepers come to dust.
It does not make much difference what the phrase is interpreted to mean, and those of us who know little Latin are almost certain to think it means something nostalgic, a vanished loveliness in the past that comes no more, but the very memory of which is a comfort.
But when you think of it, how could the 17-year-old hero who is only beginning to wake up in the world be dreaming back to some earlier paradise? When you are l7, there is nothing to dream back to except eat your soup, many a poor boy in China would be glad of that soup. Childhood is a time of being bossed, a time of being forced to be polite to old members of the family, a time to be forced to sit at desks and learn alphabets, that sort of thing. And no l7-year-old that I ever heard of looked back with any special longing to those days of being stretched and pummelled and conformed to civilized life.
And our hero, more than most, had been hauled and tugged every painful way to learn this and that, but now, at l7, and free at last in college where his parents couldn't get at him, he beholds Arcady opening up before his eyes. He is hardly in any state to dream back to the earlier years of lonely misery as a little boy. On the contrary, it is the future, the immediate future, that excites him. It adds to our understanding of a 17-year-old fellow if we know he knows that his paradise is quite temporary, and even clouded over in its present delight by the knowledge of its transience. Such a fellow is different from one who thinks it will last forever.
Furthermore, the fact that he spent hard cash to acquire the skull with its grim message can only mean he feels a strange need to be reminded of what will happen to him, even though (God knows) it would happen right on schedule without his having gone to the expense of reminding himself daily of it.
I would say the young man is obviously Scottish. All Scots love to think of doom, right in the middle of any festive occasion. Not that it makes any difference what his background is. But I do not think the Italians, say, at the age of l7 are poking about in shops to find mementoes of death.
Apart from all this, the Latin phrase has become the very title of the opening show. We know, of course, from our daily reading that a title often has no connection whatever with the words that follow. But in a serious work, we may be quite sure the title is not chosen just at random, the first thing to pop into an empty head.
So what we wind up with here, from the use of this Latin phrase in the opening show, is this statement (unspoken, of course):
"This is the story of a young man who knows, even as he enters on the most lyrical years of his youth, that he will rot. He is right. He does. So read along and see what else happens to him. See how he deals with the rot that he so precociously foresaw. "
The art historian Erwin Panofsky once wrote a dazzling little essay on this very subject of the meaning of the Latin phrase, and especially on its double nature as meaning both a warning of corruption to come, and of a golden age that once existed.
Evelyn Waugh, of course, was quite happy with both meanings. Each meaning works perfectly, in his "Brideshead Revisited." If we ignore the phrase altogether, no great harm is done. He does not stop his reader every few minutes to say, "Get it? Did you get that clever meaning there?"
On the contrary, he gets on with his story. Sooner or later, if you read his story or see it enacted, you get both those meanings and a few more.
But if you should be one of those curious people who likes to stop and say (as a number of viewers did), "Hey, why is it called 'Et in Arcadia Ego' then you will see (as you always see in the case of good writers) that the title does mean something.
Dr. Panofsky, who was rather clever, speaks in his essay of completing the circle. The phrase says that even in paradise there is death and rot. The opposite is that even in death and rot there may be paradise. This is what he means by "completing the circle" of the phrase. Behind any assertion, there lurks the opposite. It is hard to think of day without thinking of night, as you know.
That is why, when loudmouths start ranting on about patriotism and law and order and the family and all those things, one instinctively thinks of their opposites. And suspects them. For life is not white or black, and when too great insistence falls on either side, you darkly suspect (or brightly await the awful revelation) that too much is being protested.
In major works of art and in serious (preferably hilarious) novels, the point is not to portray happiness or despair, but to round out the circle in one fine curve sweeping through hell and heaven both. In the opening of this television play we see what is supposed to stand for heaven, along with the warning (there were plenty of hints, commencing with the Latin title) that hell is not far behind. The reasonable question to ask of a novel, as of a human life, is not whether there was hell or heaven in it, but how the circle came at last together. How the hardest empty arc of all was bridged.