Bertie The Magnificent

I had always wondered how P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertrand Wooster came to be so beloved a character–and how Wodehouse came to be so beloved for creating him–even among leftists. As droll and melodious as Wooster’s inner monologue can be, he is at bottom an aristocratic playboy who cannot manage anything as simple as choosing his socks without the help of his ingenious manservant Jeeves. As moral stuff goes, there is little there for the proletarian to like or even identify with.

Yet Orwell, who said he wouldn’t mind seeing London’s gutters run red with the blood of a socialist revolution, deeply admired Wodehouse. This fanatical enemy of fascism even wrote an essay defending Wodehouse after he (Wodehouse) broadcast Nazi propaganda while interned in Berlin. With perhaps an excess of charity, Orwell said Wodehouse probably didn’t know what he was doing.

Christopher Hitchens, onetime Trotskyist, many-time singer of “The Internationale,” called Wodehouse his favorite author and peppered his essays, at appropriate moments, of course, with slyly hilarious Woosterisms.

Again, whence this love for Wodehouse’s Wooster, an obtuse princling who spends his days tippling, cavorting with other richies, and fretting over evening wear?

Readers will of course have their own answers. An obvious one is that Wooster’s bumbling brings him down to our level: we find he is as fallible as us despite his money. Then there is always the appeal to Wodehouse’s mastery of style: his writing is so good, we simply love Wooster for the loveliness of the text that animates him.

Unsatisfying. These accounts still don’t create sympathy. They don’t explain Wooster’s immense likeability.

I found a clue to the riddle in, of all places, Nietzsche. In The Geneology of Morals Nietzsche is doing what he does–exposing the social construction of concepts we think of as having fallen crystalline from heaven–when he makes the following ingenious observation on the origin of the idea of good. Contrary to what we commonly believe today, that the concept of what is good derives directly from religious or ethical codes, Nietzsche says it would have been aristocrats who established the first use of the term.

Although we don’t think well of aristocrats these days, it is worth hearing Nietzsche out on this claim. Aristocrats, he says, acted entirely autonomously in their determination of what was good: they defined goodness as whatever characteristics they exhibited in full form–honesty in communication, intelligence and bravery in contest, revelry in celebration, and of course, prosperity in acquisition.

Then, says Nietzsche, along came a priestly class, who “transvaluated” this system by condemning the exercise of power as a bad thing, one that trampled the feelings and livelihoods of the rest of humanity. For the moment, let’s skip over the fact that there is a lot to recommend this view; the rights and freedoms of the 99 percent would seem to deserve a robust defense.

For Nietzsche, what was so dramatically different about the priestly outlook was that, unlike the aristocrtic one, it was reactionary. Aristocrats simply did what they did, and it seemed good to them, without the “aid” of any external reference. The priests’ idea that the exertion of power was bad was formed precisely in resentment of the aristocrats’ power. It was, Nietzsche believed, a subtle and crafty form of hatred. Subtle because it would form the basis of its own claim to power, i.e. that the meek would inherit the Earth. And crafty in that it disguised hatred of aristocratic good as a love of justice.

When I read this, I felt Nietzsche had hit exactly on Bertie Wooster’s appeal. Bertie does not so much have an oafish disregard of the poor; rather he inhabits a system of values that neglects their subjectivity entirely. He is, in this sense, a completely self-made man.

hugh laurieAnd within Bertie’s universe, he is deeply moral. His circle of friends and loved ones is highly circumscribed, but anyone who has read even one of the Wooster and Jeeves novels knows  it is the code of the Woosters not to let anyone in his circle down. In one of the moments of highest comedy in the novels, Bertie remarks that his determination to stick with friends through any kind of trouble (albeit mostly having to do with drink, amusement or fretful love affairs)  is “the whole point of being a Wooster.”

Which brings me to my final, brief thought. Because Bertie so fully observes his code, he comes as close as an aristocrat can to what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or fulfillment. Often set aside from Aristotle’s list of cardinal virtues is magnificence. Magnificence in Aristotle’s sense was the wealthy man’s capacity to be generous in proportion to his wealth. To be magnificent, a rich man would not just be expected to invite friends occasionally to nice dinners; he would host lavish feasts and give generously from his own wealth to help out friends. This Bertie Wooster is constantly doing, as his hijinks testify. Whenever Bertie can do right by a friend, money is no object.


Fukuyaman Mischief

I spent the 1990s as a young seargent in the Air Force. A reflective type even back then, I had the rare experience of knowing my place in the world: I was a speck riding the crest of American power at high tide.

One never knows in real life when a thing has reached its peak, because one hasn’t got to the downside of it yet (Kierkegaard: We only understand life in retrospect.) But I had lived through two epochal dramas that told me clearly the United States stood alone at the top of the international order.

First, as a young Airman in the first Gulf war, I witnessed the overawing display of high tech firepower that announced to the world that we had no military peer. Second, from my perch in Germany from 1991 to 1995, I viewed the death of totalitarianism in eastern Europe and the political reunification of the continent that followed the Iron Curtain’s demise with miraculous speed.

By the late 1990s, I was wondering how good it could get for U.S. power. The thing was, we dominated in both the conflicts I witnessed–militarily in the Gulf and  politically in Europe–

Francis Fukuyama

because we had History on our side, and it seemed inevitable that things would keep going our way. Fukuyama had told us in The End of History And the Last Man that no nation that achieved liberal democracy would willingly turn around. Once on our side, an ally would never go back. Fukuyama also hinted that our talent for economic innovation guaranteed a leading place in the world’s arms race. War was a bad thing, but we would always be the best at it.

The demise of these myths is too well raked over to review here. If I have time later I would like to defend Fukuyama to the extent that he was widely misinterpreted rather than substantively wrong. His basic arguments for the preeminence of liberal democracy and free market economic development remain sound. What we have learned since the 1990s–and this is to riot in understatement, as Gore Vidal was fond of saying–is that the Fukyaman principles were never meant for military export. One cannot simply conquer a foreign country and expect it to join the train of Fukuyaman History. But more of that later, inshallah.

Today’s lesson is in hubris, particularly the hubris of the Neocon attitude awoken by Fukuyama’s idea. The feeling of it came rushing home to me this morning as I was reading Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. In the book, a native grandee returns to East Africa with a degree from Oxford, a handful of European connections, and a Big Idea about how to civilize his homeland through military conquest and reform by fiat.

This passage of high farce is Waugh at his absolute best. The young Europeanized African king explains to an aide why his forces will prevail in a civil war against the native tribes:

We are Progress and the New Age. Nothing can stand n our way. Don’t you see? The world is already ours; it is our world now, because we are of the Present. Seyid and his ramschackle band of brigands were the Past. Dark barbarism. A cobweb in a garret, dead wood; a whispering echo in a sunless cave. We are Light and Speed and Strength, Steel and Steam, Youth, Today and Tomorrow. Don’t you see? Our little war was won on other fields five centuries back.

As I read this passage, my youthful belief in Fukuyama resurfaced, and I was ashamed for a brief moment. I had once sincerely believed the political philosophy that Waugh skewers so indelicately here. Right wins because it is based on superior ideas, born centuries ago: its forward march is inevitable. Luckily (for me), I grew out of my Fukuyaman excesses. Less luckily, for our republic and the world, men much more powerful than myself (led by Podhoretz, followed by Cheney & Co.) only entrenched their belief in the mythologized version of Fukuyama. What horrible mischief followed!


Crossroads Vienna

TONY JUDT’S MAGISTERIAL Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is one of my favorite books. I regard it much like the Bible, but better; it tells not one but two of the greatest stories ever told about humankind–one, that states seemingly addicted to war and battered by centuries of it can be re-organized to achieve lasting peace, and, two, that liberal politics can be blended with economic development to achieve a fair and just distribution of wealth, the crowning glory of social democracy. Although Europeans since the 1990s have not had enough babies to keep this second achievement going much longer–there simply aren’t enough young workers to finance the benefits most Europeans regard as basic government services–they have demostrated the feasibility of forming governments whose first priority is to safeguard their citizens’ welfare.

I also admire the audacity of Judt’s overarching thesis in Postwar. Contrary to established opinion, Judt argues, World War Two in Europe lasted not six years, but 51, taking into consideration its 45-year long denouement. If you accept Clausewitz’s principle that war is the continuation of politics by other means, Judt’s claim is robustly plausible. The main political conflicts behind the war were not fully resolved–and the provisional resolutions certainly lacked popular legitimacy–until the Iron Curtain came down, 45 years after the fighting stopped.

Judt says this insight came to him in a rush as he was waiting in Vienna’s main train station in 1989, witnessing the sudden, massive flux of people across Europe’s Cold War borders. East Germans, not yet permitted to travel directly to West Germany, were taking

crossroads vienna2
Vienna, at the boundary of the Soviet and U.S. occupation zones

advantage of a looophole that allowed them to travel through Czechoslovakia and Austria to reach the West. Curious, and sensing an historic opportunity, Poles, Czechs and Austrians joined the rush to see the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the surface what was happening was the erosion of communist eastern Europe’s bureaucratic authority, no small thing in itself. But at a deeper level something truly revolutionary was happening. Thousands, eventually millions of easterners were voting with their feet to abandon the old political order, and there appeared to be no will or way to turn back. No wonder Judt thrilled at the spectacle. That moment in Vienna was, he says, when he decided to write Postwar. Europe’s people, for once, were choosing their destiny.

You can imagine my delight, then, when I read this passage from I.F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine, a firsthand account of the massive illegal migration of European Jews to the British Protectorate in Palestine in 1946. Stone had been traveling by train with a group of Jewish refugees, when they reached Vienna. He observed:

This Vienna, which begins to seem more a relic than a living city despite the trams and hurrying people in the streets, is the great crossroads of the Jewish exodus from Central and Eastern Europe, an exodus that is greater in magnitude, misery, and drama than those from Egypt and Spain.

Stone also felt the Earth move beneth his feet in Vienna and sensed political change of historic proportions. Another people was choosing its own destiny. The Jews’ determination to leave the old continent once and for all and to inhabit a land they deemed sufficiently empty to accommodate their grand liberation project was a world-changing force. Never again would the region’s politics be the same, for better or worse.

Today, with so many people on the move in Europe again, this time flowing from the Middle East, one wonders what kind of history is being made right in front of our noses. For better or worse, Europe is decidely unlikely to be the same after the dust settles and the wretched of the Earth have finished voting with their feet for a new life.




IN HIS 1995 NOVEL Slowness, the Czech writer Milan Kundera asks:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands, and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

Over the next few months I will be doing more gazing at God’s windows. My posts to this blog may slow down a bit with the summer heat. I have two articles in the works. One is a review of two books on the morality of bombing German civilians in World War two. The other one is about what it’s like to die and come back to life.

The Sella Group, in northern Italy

If I slow down significantly, it will be because of trail running. This passion always competes with writing for claims on my time, and in Germany’ high green summer, it competes mightily. I have found a race to run in September, 61 kilometers of mountain trail circumnavigating one of the most beautiful alpine rock formations I have ever seen, the Sella Group, in northern Italy (or southern Tyrol, for those who don’t mind overlapping geographic designations).

The training I do for this race, puts me in a frame of mind that Kundera explores in Slowness: “The runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion: when he runs, he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and his time of life.”

Slowness, the watchword of the next four months. Here’s to the lost art of gazing at God’s windows.