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.

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