Monday, January 31, 2011

Sir Pelham Wodehouse

I was reminded this morning while reading no.4 of the 7 Quick Takes in the excellent Jen F's Conversion Diary of an article I read some years ago. It was Joseph Bottum's take on P. G. Wodehouse and I have to confess that I found it somewhat wanting. He treats the late Sir Pelham as if all he ever wrote was light-hearted and trivial; most of it was but certainly not all. Mr Bottum also took the view that there was no redemption (which presupposes a Fall) and certainly no moral sense in all of the Wodehouse canon. I dissent from these unfounded judgments, and as only a single counter-example is required to disprove a universal statement, I'll give three or 14!

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories is a collection originally published in 1917 and now available in multiple editions. I had a copy that I bought for comfort reading (it's a bit like comfort eating but rather less fattening) some years ago. Having long since lost it, my beloved bought me a copy to replace it. I got more than just some typical Wodehousian goings on in a country manor, though. Instead, there were such gems as The Man with Two Left Feet wherein the socially awkward and physically maladroit narrator learns by a hard route to accept the love and admiration of his wife. The double brush with and rejection of suicide in The Making of Mac's and A Sea of Troubles is also well worth a read. The jewel in the crown however is the tale of grubby betrayal, hope despite everything and the promise of redemption that is At Geisenheimer's. The heroic patience of of the wronged party is understated but very moving. (For those whose admiration of "Plum" is centred around Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, this collection also features their debut but in a not wholly recognisable form.)

Doctor Sally definitively gives the lie to the notion that all of Wodehouse's heroes are gadabouts who get plucked from the dreamless at the unearthly hour of 11am and the trickle around to the Drones for a spot of lunch. Bill Bannister certainly gives that impression at first with his relentless wooing of the eponymous and striking Dr Sally but first impressions do deceive sometimes. Far from the idle rich he is in fact a very hard working (and thereby wealthy) country landowner and farm manager. Also one should never underestimate the romantic impact of devices capable of defeating lactobacilli!

Uneasy Money shows what is perhaps the strongest strand in Wodehouse's moral constitution. The somewhat clueless hero Lord Dawlish has a very clear, unambiguous if not wholly comprehensive moral code. His ideal man (and I suspect Wodehouse's too) is a man who is honest and straightforward. He expresses it thus
Bill was a simple young man and he had a simple code of ethics. Above all things he prized and admired and demanded from his friends the quality of straightness. It was his one demand. He had never actually had a criminal friend, but he was quite capable of intimacy with even a criminal, provided only that there was something spacious about his brand of crime and that it did not involve anything mean or underhand. It was the fact that Mr. Breitstein, whom Claire had wished him to insinuate into his club, though acquitted of actual crime, had been proved guilty of meanness and treachery, that had so prejudiced Bill against him.

It is this quality, present throughout Wodehouse's published work that absolves him, I think, from the charge of amorality for all his professed unseriousness. Wodehouse remained something of an adolescent in his writing, indeed therein lies its charm; this does not mean that the central human story of love freely given, love betrayed and love redeemed is absent from his work. At his best, it is that story that Wodehouse tells with a superlative command of the English language and an exquisite human sympathy. He isn't Tolstoy and he isn't Shakespeare but then he wasn't trying to be. He wasn't trying to be a serious author of any kind but I suspect he might have succeeded all the same, rather better than one would suspect at first sight.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The 29th Amendment to the Constitution

I'm rather fond of our Constitution. It's not perfect by any means but it's robust, durable and has earned the respect of successive generations of Irish citizens since it was enacted in 1937. It even managed to be a monarchical constitution for 11 years and a republican one thereafter, without an iota of change in the text itself. (Yes, it is very odd that Eamon De Valera wrote a constitution for a monarchy while the Blueshirts used it to throw the King aside in favour of a Republic!)

It is also a very sensible document or very reasonable, if you prefer. The common inheritance of the Anglosphere is a reflexive acceptance of the principles of Common Law. Thus in 1937 a new republican(ish) Constitution didn't mean that we dropped trial by jury or the presumption of innocence; Habeas Corpus was, if anything, greatly strengthened by the personal rights provisions of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Now, by dint of a legislative proposal as stupid as it is malicious, this long tradition of constitutional equity is in danger of being thrown overboard. The Green Party (which seems to be composed of knaves and bigots in equal measure) and as if they haven't done enough damage already, now propose to punish someone (or perhaps just anyone they can get their hands on) for acts which were lawful at the time they were done. Think about this for a minute: suppose that I campaign for a law to ban fruit gums. The pro-fruit gums lobby then succeed in prohibiting "anti-fruit gum activism". They then seek to punish me for having broken the law, even though there was no such law at the time I performed those acts. This way lies simple tyranny.

Aside from this general consideration, there is the utterly ridiculous notion of "economic treason". Treason is strictly circumscribed in Irish law; this is specifically to allow for the greatest freedom of political action excluding only armed violent action against the State from legal protection. This new and ill-thought-out idea is, I hope, just a ploy to attract favourable media comment or the like. As a provision of the criminal law, the kind that gets people arrested and imprisoned, it is risible. On the positive side, the Greens are about to bid goodbye to the Government benches for a generation or more. Deputy Sargent, Minister Gormley, here's your coat, what's your hurry?

Monday, January 03, 2011

Real men & masculinity

Hey, if you consider yourself a man, then you need to be there - no ifs or buts!!! This is for men of all ages, including older teenagers. It is the start of something new in Ireland where men come together to get down to the business of manhood and masculinity, and how that relates to the great gift and challenge that... living Catholic Faith is. Starts at 9am, ends with mass, speakers include Mickey Harte and Bishop McAreavey. €20 waged/ €10 unwaged... come on lads, time to drop a gear and round up a carload of men, I guarantee you wont regret it!!

A little while back, I saw on Facebook the announcement reproduced above. It's for a worthy venture called the Meant4More conference. The man who posted it is someone I know and respect but I couldn't help feeling that something was a bit amiss about the whole business. The intention was to get men to come along to be edified as men and as Christians. That's laudable. Some of the language used was a bit over-bearing; if someone actually spoke to me face-to-face using those words, I'd probably be a bit terse in responding to him. However, I'll give a lot of leeway to someone who has stopped cursing the darkness and has instead begun to set flint to tinder. I think, however, that the thing that turned me off most was the fact that it was a conference. The fact that most of the re-posts and "likes" for the event on Facebook were from women wasn't lost on me either. I suppose that I've always considered that while women talk about things, men simply do them. I've learnt more about being a man from being with men who do things than from men who talk. The business of being manly is one which needs to be learned by observing and imitating good example. (That's knowledge by connaturality for the Thomists among you.) A conference, however laudable, can't really plug that gap.

I think what I am really trying to say is that if you consider that you want to be a man - in the full moral sense of embodying virtus or manly physical and moral excellence then go to a conference if you like but perhaps the RDF might be a better start. Or go and get trained to run into burning buildings when everyone else is going the other way. Alternatively we're always looking for new recruits - when, despite your best efforts, you've failed to save a life, you tend to discover what you're really made of.

For an example of manliness I'd suggest a good friend of mine, serving with the old FCA, who was guarding the back gate of a military facility. He was wrapped up against the cold but had a machine gun and some sandbags for company. The warning had come down from the camp O/C that "subversives" might attempt to infiltrate the area - they had been intercepted doing exactly that the previous week. He heard noises at 02.30 hrs, flashed his searchlight on the intruders and challenged them; they replied irately and drunkenly that they were regular soldiers and expected to be let pass unhampered. He challenged them again, this time with a 3 round burst from his weapon, deliberately high & wide of their position. They stopped in their tracks but what, I asked if they had not? He replied that he would have fired on them and killed them. He knew that he would have regretted it and lamented those deaths but his duty was clear, as was the harm that could be done if criminals were allowed to seize a government armory. That is what real men do, though, "their duty even if it breaks their hearts."

Of course, while manliness is a natural good, we are meant for a supernatural end. Where do we find the manly virtues redeemed and raised to supernatural goodness? Funny that you should ask ...