February 3, 2006

Jeeves and Wooster -- Wodehouse as moralist

Wittgenstein asked, "Could one explain what modesty is by pointing at someone and saying, 'That man is not modest?'" I just discovered P.G. Wodehouse. I'm midway through The Mating Season, a dangerously funny book. I think I might die laughing. But, strangely from a book I wanted just for fun, I am having so many thoughts about morality, reading this. These are guys who do whatever it takes to get themselves out of whatever jam their last lie got them into. They exist just for this split second. They don't think ahead or around or deeply. And they lie, constantly, frivolously, ineptly. And that tickles the moral nose.

Partly what they are up to is sort of ok. They don't treat the dramas around them very seriously, and the dramas around them don't really demand seriousness. People can live like that for awhile, and then not anymore. In Schnitzler's dramas, folks this care-free and rich and frivolous end up making tragedy. That's in one way better writing, and lots of people who have done comedy with a real odor of Wodehouse -- think Dorothy Sayers, think Robertson Davies -- have tried also to show that goofiness has its limits, to find a place for goofy guys in an ungoofy world. (It is very instructive to read Davies' Tempest Tost in contrast to The Mating Season. Davies cares about his characters, however silly they get, and he keeps reminding the reader that they can really get hurt. In one way, that makes Davies a much bigger novelist.)

But Wodehouse's greatness is different -- a philosophic greatness, I think. He draws a very appealing world in which moral seriousness is totally absent. One gets drawn in, begins to talk like that, enters the world, and then -- one notices that something is missing. And as one notices that, one begins to ask quite seriously: what is it exactly, that this world lacks? And that question persists.

This is just my take, for now, as a baby Wodehousian. But I'd be happy if I gave somebody dour an excuse to read The Mating Season. Just, don't read and eat at the same time.

Posted by shea0017 at February 3, 2006 9:51 PM