Monday, February 15, 2010

Life Is A Mutual Aid Association


For years, I had a really troubled reader-author relationship with P. G. Wodehouse.

I knew Wodehouse wrote the kind of books I might like.  A lot of people whose taste I admired loved Wodehouse.   The humor was said to be clever and pleasant.  But I'd sit down with one of those Jeeves books, or with a Blandings Castle book, and I just ... I just couldn't get into it.

The only explanation I could think of was that I couldn't get past the misogyny.  'Cause, you know, in a lot of these books, the women situation is kind of a disaster.  In general, Wodehouse women take on one of two forms:  the middle-aged nag/jailer/pain-in-the-ass, and the young and stupid marriage-entrapper.  "Good heavens," I thought.  "These books are awful."

Now it must be confessed that the men in Wodehouse aren't so great either.  Lots of dopes and and ne'er-do-wells.  But often there's a sort of scamp character who is presented as fun and lively and worth knowing; that person is always a man.

Then one day I decided to listen to a Wodehouse book as an audiobook.  I've written before about how listening to Henry James transformed my impression of him as a writer.  And lo, the same thing happened with Wodehouse. I listened; I laughed; I sympathized. I was transfixed.  I downloaded one after another after another ... and when I reached the end of Something Fresh, I knew I was in love.

My main theory about the transformation is that it's a narrator-author-distance issue. Somehow, in reading Wodehouse, I was believing that the author was saying what the narrator was saying.  I don't know why.  I'm well acquainted with the idea of an unreliable narrator. I've even written about being one.  So, why all this credulity?

I don't know, but wherever it came from, it only took the mildly sarcastic voice of Jonathan Cecil about one minute to completely undo it and lodge firmly in its place a total ironic distance.  When I read Wodehouse saying, as he does at the beginning of Something Fresh, "The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously on London town," I take it as a straightforward description.  When I hear Cecil say it, though, it comes layered with allusion, gentle mockery, and quiet hilarity.

It must also be said that the early books aren't like the later ones.  Something Fresh is the first of the Blandings books, and it features an adorable feminist heroine who is also the main love interest.

Toward the end of Something Fresh, this heroine, Joan Valentine, enters a mood of quiet sadness.  She's been bouncing around doing one thing and another, and the phase she's been in is about to end. Now what? she wonders.  What is the point of all this?  What am I doing?  What could be the meaning of this life, so full of one stupid thing followed by another?

I've had some of these thoughts myself, when I'm in a sad mood.  And it is a sign of how little distance I have from literature that when I heard Joan express them, my mind snapped to attention.  What's the hero going to reply? How will Wodehouse, through the voice of his young suitor Ashe, advise this poor young thing?

I like his reply so much I went to the library and copied it out.

"What is the good," said Ashe, "of traveling fast if you're going round in a circle?  I know how you feel. I've felt the same myself.  You are an individualist.  You think there is something tremendous just round the corner, and that you can get it if you try hard enough.  There isn't.  Or, if there is, is isn't worth getting.  Life is nothing but a mutual aid association.  I am going to help old Peters; you are going to help me; I am going to help you."
I love that:  life is nothing but a mutual aid association.

When you're a philosophy professor, people sometimes ask you about your favorite philosopher, or whether you have a kind of philosophy of life.  I've never had a good answer.  But for now this is going to be my standard reply.


Daniel said...

I love this post. I have been thinking of something very similar lately, while reading Crime & Punishment. There are certain books and narrator voices that I love and immediately 'get'. Others, not so much. My usual assumption is that I'm not a good reader, at least sometimes, but I'm not so sure that's it. I don't think it's that Fyodor, in this case, is not a good writer, but I think that there are certain things about writers' voices that resonate with me psychologically sometimes, and some that don't - so I miss the tone, jokes, attitude when I'm reading.

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel, yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes, too, it varies with time. When I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school I was all indignant about being required to read a book that was clearly for boys. I wasn't prudish about it, I just felt, what in this book could possibly speak to me, a girl?

When I read it later on in my 20s and again recently, I loved it and found it resonated as familiar immediately - as you say, I felt able to get the tone, the jokes, and the attitude in a way I hadn't before.