The 1920s, Chivalry, and the Two Sides of Hugh Laurie
The following is my rambling and (I'm afraid to say) quite repetitive reemergence as a writer on AP after a long break. Hopefully, I'll be able to turn out a few more essays over the summer.
The glittering decay of the 1920s glitters no more brilliantly than in contemporary works of literature. Jeeves and Woosters is one of my favorites not because of its pessimism, but because we do not take its laughter for granted. Unlike cynical novels in which laughter is simply a means to reject, in these works laughter is a means of acceptance. Of course, in a sense laughter is also what makes these books less great. There is simply laughter. There is no reflection. Hence, Jeeves and Wooster cannot be called a great comedy or even a comedy at all—no matter how much it makes us laugh, for all comedies must lead in a loop from humor to sadness and solemnity even as Dante’s did. We have to look beyond Jeeves and Wooster to history to see sadness or solemnity emerge. This essay will do just that at the risk of being condemned as unliterary. Still what makes the laughter of Jeeves and Wooster so powerful is that it deals with an awful situation and confuses our feelings about it. Wooster is naïve, immature, and in someway truly emasculated as a result of growing up in a society increasingly based on nonchalant selfishness. The BBC version of the book conveyed this atmosphere through comfortable, lazy, and indiscriminately indulgent objects. There are Wooster’s suits that all represent a past age of chivalry that now is gradually becoming no thicker than his tweeds. There are his golf-clubs that represent an gentlemanly leisure, which again lingers back to the ages of chivalry Yet there are no real signs of family connections. None of Wooster’s objects indicate anything about his responsibilities. They are so many toys or anecdotes of the past. Wooster’s world has routines rather than real goals. Golf is a routine, dressing well is a routine, as is eating well. Jeeves’ presence in the works is to reinforce these routines. The good old feudal spirit remains not because Wooster is a true baron but because the tradition is good and old—jolly good.
Wooster’s character is not only interesting because it reveals so much about his times but it is also fascinating because it allows us to draw a connection between nonchalant and cynical strains. The actor that played Wooster came to play Dr. Gregory House in the popular television series on Fox. House is generally considered Satrian in his outlook. You can pick up a popular guide to philosophy and see the two names mentioned together. The Satrian character of House was a perfect character for an actor who had been spending most of his career playing Wooster to take on. Wooster is not bitterly pessimistic and yet the slant he has taken on life is one stepped removed from hopelessness. He is alone, family-less, and a failure, willingly or unwillingly, in all he does. He does not progress. None of his friends with the exception of Jeeves really understand him. In fact, it is he who “diagnoses” their problems with good cheer, though we are just as confused by this charity as we are by House’s. Is it a calling to cure people that draw these characters or is it simply a kind of detached, scientific interest in the human organism? House’s patients are the medical-whack cases of America, just as Wooster’s friends tend to be the whackos of England. Wooster remains aloof. He has chosen the path of non-entanglement, but, in contradiction to his own resolves, he immerses himself in the problems of others. Wooster is, of course, utterly dependent on Jeeves, yet this dependency allows him to be independent from love. No conscious sense of self-superiority removes him from family life, but Jeeves undeniable superiority allows Wooster to look upon his friends and Aunts with an air of bemused, even distaining distance that remains even in those moments when he seems to have made a fool of himself. Even then, Wooster is never defeated, never inferior, so long as Jeeves can help.
So who is Jeeves? Wooster could be said to represent the normal man aided by the superior reason of enlightened scientific reason, but what we feel between these characters is a true bond of friendship. Jeeves, too, skirts the Satrian line, but never reveals true pessimism. His sense of what is feudal remains even in a world in which the feudal system has become rather more cute than fearsome. In fact, in many situations Jeeves is just that, cute. The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster is also timeless. The wealthy patron helps the lower class, aspiring artist, and, by helping him, increases his own prestige, becomes more superior. Yet the most interesting dialectics in the book are when we see the reason of Wooster—whether his reason be that of the ordinary man or the dumb aristocrat—set up against the reason of the masterful but detached Jeeves. Jeeves has, of course, the Sherlockian mind, which lies somewhere between the medical conjectures of a doctor and the sensible, all-knowing deductions of a mother. What makes Jeeves so smart is hard to say. In one episode, Wooster claims that it is fish.
Jeeves’ encyclopedic mind is able to answer all questions about literature, history and, most of all, the human species. He understands the latter not through commiseration, but through a kind of scholastic understanding of fallen nature. His deductions have the ring of commonsense as when a mother instinctually knows how to quiet a child and a father, who has been attempting to do so for half a hour, bows to superior wisdom. Yet Jeeves’ instinct, or blink, comes from the encyclopedia, which has almost become part of the fiber of his being. He does not sympathize like a mother, though he might graciously reveal affection, even benevolence, for his unknowing master. Jeeves more than anyone else could predict the crash of the British aristocracy and moral system and yet he does not really try to stop this from occurring. In Germany he might be a SS. In England he benefits from a selfishness and individualism he must know is doomed to sour and become corrosive. Be that as it may, Wooster lacks something Jeeves has. In the modern age men like Wooster are to be ousted by men like Jeeves, yet in these stories they have a tight bond. Wooster’s indulgence is the modern plague. Jeeves’s heartless knowledge of man are indications of the dangers of enlightenment. The beauty of these books is that we unconsciously know these things and yet we find ourselves laughing. We sense the cynicism of these men, but we find it pleasant, because Wooster’s laughter is the dominant presentation.
One last subject deserves to be touched on in this brief essay: self-sufficiency. The 20s were all about the self-sufficient man. They turned out characters like Humphrey Bogart, who truly did not seem to need to even give a damn. Jeeves and Wooster must be seen in this light. The objects of their world recall an age of chivalry when self-sufficiency was won on the battlefield; here it is won through the spirit of nonchalance. We see no gross displays of immorality, but we sense that this is because a kind of mediocrity has made the angst of the adulterer too energetic for someone like Tuppy to deal with. Rather things can and will be figured out, logic, no matter how confused it may become in Wooster’s mind, is still the dominant means of achieving whatever one wants. Now logic serves mediocrity. Even the greatest schemes are devised through a logic that will allow everyone to basically remain as selfish as they were to begin with. No real sacrifices or displays of passion and truth are really necessary.
Still what I really meant to write about was the self-sufficiency of Jeeves and Wooster. Satisfaction is the main expression of their existence. They may have minor squabbles over one of Wooster’s ties, but these are almost indications of their content—like love pecks. Romantic desire is at most a passing fancy. Wooster’s possessions are not accumulated to satisfy any real need. They are toys to play with. He may feel discontent because of a friend, but this is a game more than anything else again. Although this is a game always to be resolved, we have to pause here and return to our thoughts on the pessimism of Wooster. His friends entangle, and this entanglement does cause problems for Wooster’s self-sufficiency and satisfaction, just as it would for House. Perhaps, we can say then that the struggle of each story is to regain this self-sufficiency.
Overall, then, self-sufficiency is something that must be maintained under threat, and this threat comes within, from some less than selfish impulse—even if Wooster may become involved more out of curiosity than love. Jeeves, of course, is Wooster’s self-sufficiency, and when Wooster is really threatened, Jeeves—God from the Machine—steps into disentangle his master. We see an interesting thing happen in House. House is more prone to emotion than Wooster. He actually has romantic desires that torment him and pain that aggravates him constantly. His aggressive, caustic reason, which sees all things human with the sharp decisiveness of Jeeves, by insulting those around him, strives desperately to cut away at the cords that pull him away from self-sufficiency. Jeeves returns Wooster’s self-sufficiency by mending things for him logically and systemically, House restores his sense of self-sufficiency by logically and systemically breaking things. Yet in the end, his superior intellect makes him necessary to his medical team, just as in a way the brilliance of Jeeves’ mind makes Wooster necessary to his friends no matter how many times he may systemically break apart every situation with his faulty logic. What emerges from this analysis is the fact that in House we see the characters of Jeeves and Wooster combined. We see Wooster’s unfailing ability to royally screw things up all in the name of his own self-sufficiency become House’s far more logical but equally destructive habit of cutting people down. We see Jeeves’ sound and necessary logic emerge in House’s generally unfailing ability to solve medical problems. The self-sufficiency of Wooster fails without Jeeves because it becomes too involved even as the self-sufficiency of the insulting House does; for though it might seem to distance him initially, it actually does the opposite by revealing his human nature. Of course, all this is without bringing up Madeline Basset or Dr. Wilson. Truth, at last, is a looming issue in both these series. What is truth? Is truth medical, is truth encyclopedic, or does it come from relationship? Can we turn relational truth into encyclopedic truth or vice versa? House is undecided. His caustic insults strive to make the truth come out, but he is never sure if he has found it so he goes on insulting.
Why is modern man so emasculate? It is truly hard to say. Let us not ask this question then of modern man but of Wooster. I think the answer is obvious in his case. Manhood requires a loss of freedom he would not willingly choose. It means losing a sense of self-sufficiency that is now based on tidiness and self-indulgence. In a society where all people are interested in is a warm bath, is it really possible for Wooster to become a man? Women still are the source of contention in these stories, as they would have been in chivalric tales. Now the contention over a woman is the expression of selfishness and mediocrity. Romantic interest lives on as do romantic stories. The maid marries the aristocrat, and so on. Still those who indulge in these fancies are playing at an old game. It can be fun to keep up the old, feudal spirit, but is it worth it? It is mostly for show anyways. The idea of carrying on a bloodline or continuing an heritage is a thing of the past, as ancient as a suit armor. In fact, Jeeves and Wooster are more self-sufficient then these men who fall for women because they recognize that women want men—not Woosters. They want men who will become elected as governors or write novels. Wooster feels that these desires are out of place in the world he lives in, and he is right. Women, then, are comical figures in Jeeves and Wooster. They pretend to live in a dream world, which now only actually exists in a few remaining objects of the past. Women fail for the most part to realize what self-sufficiency means to the worlds they live in. Moreover, women are still operating under the assumption that there are still father figures, yet Wooster has never known a father figure. Without this knowledge, it is impossible for him to really become one. In fact, there is no compelling image of a father in his stories. They are always dry, crusty, and intolerant. They may be men, but their manhood, again, represents a past age, which thankfully is mostly gone—although its tweeds and golf clubs might be fun to keep around. Women, in the end, do not really want these kinds of men. They are happy overall to sense the manhood vacuum because it allows them to become as domineering and opinionated as they could desire. They revert to the past of chivalry only so that they can justify their complaints. In fact, this past if truly consulted would be shown to condemn them as much as it condemns Wooster.