A couple days ago, my mom found a brand new tea-ball hidden away in an old box. Since I’d wanted one for awhile, I was pretty excited. So I dug out my copy Douglas Adam’s Salmon of a Doubt and read the essay he wrote on how to make a good cup of tea (I needed the authentic Britishness). Well, I read the essay and made the tea- excellent by the way, noticably better than how I’ve made it- but I also stumbled on essay he wrote on P.G. Wodehouse, the British comedic writer. It’s a great essay, apparently prefacing an edition of Wodehouse’s final novel, which makes the case that Wodehouse’s particular brand of genius puts him in the company of Shakespeare and Milton. A few nuggets:
What Wodehouse writes is pure word music…he is the greatest musician of the English language.
Like Milton Wodehouse reaches outside his paradise for metaphors that will make it real for his readers…Of course, Wodehouse never burdened himself with justifying the ways of God to Man, but only of making man, for a few hours at a time, inextinguishably happy.
Wodehouse better than Milton? Well, of course it’s an absurd comparison, but I know which one I’d keep in the balloon, and not just for his company, but for his art.
He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.
Heavy praise, indeed. Now I haven’t read any Wodehouse, though I want to and I’ll probably make time now, so I can’t really comment on his genius. He’s one of those niche authors whose books all come in $19 hardback editions because, within that niche, price isn’t an object. Unfortunately, it is an object for me and I don’t much like reading humor books in the store (people give you funny looks if you start rolling on the floor). But, the essay reminded me of how I’ve thought of G.K. Chesterton- a glorious writer who is woefully underappreciated because he wrote the wrong sort of things.
He’s not a perfect writer. Adams pooh poohs the criticism that Wodehouse was repetitive, but that’s certainly something that was true of Chesterton. He had mastered the particular- individual sentences, paragraphs, etc- but as you move outward to page and plot, the writing wears on you a bit. Rare is the Chesterton book which holds up as a unified whole. And don’t try to read too much Chesterton in a short period of time- he needs to be doled out like tart cheese.
His fiction has unique difficulties- the people are all just ideas masquerading as characters. The same ideas, usually. Still, in that short space- what I’ve called, in honor of him, the “two minute” passage (it takes approximately 2 minutes to read aloud)- when his ideas are at their sharpest, he is a man nearly unmatched in English letters. Is there anything better than this?
But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world. If it were an error, it seems as if the error could it hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in it instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For, it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ, and the soul of it was common sense, Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid and the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor, and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple trees or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light.
I don’t know that I’d put Chesterton with Milton or Shakespeare, because I don’t know how much of that seeming limitation was self-imposed, a result of his laser focus to do but one thing: defend the Christian religion to mankind. Regardless, I think our “literary” pantheon should have a bigger place for writers like Wodehouse and Chesterton, who had geniuses of their own though they didn’t hue to convention.
I’ve got this class where…well, I had to find a picture of a Fox. To stand in for Brer Fox. Don’t ask. So I head over to google images, type in fox, hoping to be bombarded by pictures of that clever bushy-tailed creature of yore who bedeviled Isaiah Berlin and Elton John. Instead, the number one result was this:
In fact, a full 30 of the first 40 results were Megan Fox in various stages of undress. Right. I’m a 22-year old American male so, like…umm…you can probably figure out this image isn’t altogether…unpleasant. But, if I wanted to a see a girl in the altogether, I could do it pretty easily. Is it too damn much, to ask that when I’m searching for long-snouted vulpine, I get…you know, a long-snouted vulpine? Phhhhaw. Here’s a real fox.