Is it wrong to appreciate works created by artists who have done bad things? These days the quandary arises around #MeToo transgressions, but it has been around for as long as there has been art. The question comes to my mind in connection with a controversy from nearly eight decades ago, not in recent memory, but not lost to history.
I’ve just finished P.G. Wodehouse’s novel, The Mating Season. Noting the original publication date, 1949, I thought how close it was to the end of World War II, during which Wodehouse did a series of broadcasts on Nazi radio. Looking further, I learned he began the novel in 1942.
Wodehouse was living in France in 1940 when Germany invaded. His effort to escape failed and he was interned. During the summer of 1941, he made several broadcasts on Nazi radio. In a series entitled “How to be an Internee Without Previous Training,” he made light of his time as a prisoner of Germany. Afterwards, saying he regretted the broadcasts, he offered two justifications: His fellow British prisoners had enjoyed the stories and also that he wanted to thank his American readers, many of whom had written to him during his internment. According to the BBC, he also claimed that by that time, he thought of himself as an American, and the United States was not then at war with Germany.
The view that Wodehouse’s broadcasts were reprehensible was widely shared at the time. He was condemned in Parliament, and the BBC banned his work. At war’s end, he stayed in France until departing in 1947 for America, which he never left again.
The more I delved into the episode, the more ambiguous the moral questions became. But I started with the belief that Wodehouse’s actions were repugnant, and for purposes of this essay, I’ll maintain that attitude. The question is whether I should feel obligated to refrain from reading Wodehouse’s work because of my objection to his wartime activity.
The world is divided less between readers who love or hate Wodehouse’s work than between those who get it and those who don’t. I used to be in the latter camp. For one thing, at the rawest level, Wodehouse’s stories are drawing room comedies, a category that has no intrinsic appeal to me. More significantly, I saw them as encomia to the idle rich. Except for the butlers, the leading characters in his most famous novels tend to be people of leisure, although less so in his lesser known works. The “lower classes” aren’t always treated with respect. In The Mating Season, the local policeman’s power to influence behavior and enforce the law is far exceeded by that of the terrifying noble aunts. Other works offend today’s sensibilities, as they ought to have done those of his day. His first novel, Thank You, Jeeves (1934), uses blackface, a device that isn’t funny even in that otherwise funny novel. Yet all Wodehouse’s characters get satirical treatment, and the more I read, the less I thought he had contempt for ordinary people. Somewhere along the way, I got the humor, and then I was hooked. I realized that although the stories are about upper-class English life, they bear little or no resemblance to reality. They are a fantasy world where the writing is what matters. Their value lies beyond time and place, although it reflects back on them.
The humor relies heavily on repetition and variation on themes. Characters come and go throughout Wodehouse’s oeuvre. There will invariably be friction in the household, often involving two lovers falling out over misunderstandings, while privileged elders cast jaundiced eyes at misguided youths and other “gumboils.” It takes shrewd plans by brainy characters, most often the butler Jeeves, to restore harmony and good feeling.
The plots are ingenious. The reader is caught up in genuine suspense, wondering both how various characters will extricate themselves, or be extricated, from jeopardy, and how Wodehouse is going to pull it off. Each time I start one of his novels, I wonder how he’s going to hold my attention yet again in matters I couldn’t give a manor house fig about. What do I care about butlers, or idle aristocrats who can always borrow themselves out of debt, or the love affairs of frivolous people? I am a plebe, not a lord; a democrat who seeks equitable income distribution, not a backwards-looking, stick-in-the-mud conservative. And yet every time, just a few pages in, I’m hooked. It’s remarkable.
The deepest satisfaction in Wodehouse’s stories are found in individual scenes where word play and literary allusions heighten the melodrama. To illustrate, here’s the nub (a Wodehousian term) of a storyline and one scene in The Mating Season.
Wooster is determined to restore the marriage plans of the “fish-faced gargoyle” Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, alias “the Bassett,” whose physical presence is captured by Wikipedia as follows: The Bassett “has golden hair, a treacly voice, a tinkling, silvery laugh and when she sighs, it sounds ‘like the wind going out of a rubber duck.'”
Previous episodes have depicted misbegotten engagements between Wooster and Bassett, and she’s convinced he’s in love with her. Whatever he does, it only reinforces her conviction in his undying adoration. The “code of the Woosters” has put him in the untenable position of having to marry her if she says she will. Thus it is crucial for him that Gussie’s engagement to her stay intact. Unfortunately, things have gone awry between the mushy Bassett and the loyalty-challenged Gussie, who has fallen for a childhood friend of Wooster’s, now a Hollywood film star on holiday back in England.
Indeed, Gussie writes Bassett a letter breaking off the engagement. In the hope of snagging the letter before the Bassett sees it, Wooster takes the train down to her residence, a lush, sprawling estate, with a view to leaping unseen into the dining room and seizing it, unopened, at her place setting before the residents sit down to breakfast. Miraculously, he succeeds. Then, spontaneously, he seizes a framed photograph of the Bassett that he plans to take to Gussie to reawaken his fond feelings for her. However, before he can make his escape, he is forced to hide behind a couch, where Bassett’s friend discovers him, letter concealed but photograph in hand.
The reader anticipates that Bassett will confront him with accusation and acrimony. Instead, she is filled with compassion for his doomed obsession with her. To demonstrate, she recites the plot of a romance novel she’s read (written by another Wodehouse character named Rosie M. Banks) with what she sees as a parallel story. In that tale, at the very moment the forlorn lover’s hopes are realized, he ends up being shot dead. Finishing her recital, Bassett assures Wooster the right woman will one day appear. When she is called away, Wooster dashes through the French windows and legs it across and away from the property.
This summary hardly does justice to Wodehouse. Indeed, it could help make the case for the anti-Wodehouse set. But anyone who cares about pure writing can’t help but be enthralled by his style. Moreover, he was conversant with Shakespeare, the bible and all sorts of other literature, high to middle to low. The scene between Wooster and Bassett, so filled with storyline irony, is made the funnier and richer by his satire of romance novels, as conveyed via Bassett’s speech. The satire isn’t nasty. Indeed, Wodehouse’s stories are themselves romantic; the satire is directed equally at his own work. Other Wodehouse novels rip apart private detective novels, Hollywood melodramas, political dramas, even cloak-and-dagger spy thrillers, only to put them back together again. A reader might hate or love each of these genres, but either way, the takedowns are delightful.
For me, the prospect of denying myself Wodehouse’s comedy would be, as his characters would say, frightful. However, his Nazi broadcasts weren’t merely naïve, as his persona would have had us believe. His suggestion that German treatment of conquered peoples was mild feels treasonous, even though it didn’t meet the technical definition. How, then, do I justify my willingness to enjoy and admire his work?
When I look back at a story of mine that holds up over time, I typically have a sense that while it’s familiar and expresses something I feel or believe in, it couldn’t have come from me. Our minds record so many impressions that in expressing ourselves, we are giving voice to a culture, a time, a movement—something far beyond our individual selves. We may analogize our minds to computers, but what our minds produce, while less quantifiable, is richer.
Artists are vessels. When an artist sits before an easel or a writer before a blank page or screen, there’s no real knowing what will emerge. They may have a plan, but that’s only a start or a framework. So much more is itching to get out. Hence the pleasure artists and writers experience as the blank page or screen before them fills up in ways they never predicted. The result is more than a single perspective, even though the style may be the artist’s own. It comes from a lifetime’s four-dimensional universe of places and time. Call it inspiration.
That said, few among us have the gift to create something that touches wide audiences. Those who do often aren’t otherwise exceptional. Some musicians and painters are highly articulate and well-informed, but many can barely put a sentence together. Some writers can be the life of the party, but many are recluses or just plain socially inept. Some creative people are criminals.
Wodehouse was a flawed human being who had the great fortune to be the vessel of comedy that has lightened the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. When I read a story of his, I’m not reading him, but something he produced.
Our friendships often work on a similar track. Carnivores like me are bound to frustrate our vegetarian friends, and our friends may do hurtful things. It is said we discover our true friends when we face adversity. The flipside is just as valid: We recognize the friends who matter most to us when we are moved to embrace them despite differences and when we stay friends during their hardest times. Of course, we all have occasions to forgive ourselves.
Or take the people we rely on for everyday services. I’m unlikely to fire a competent plumber because his political views annoy me. Likewise, when it comes to artists, we don’t need to like or approve of them.
In order to come to terms with art whose creator is flawed, we should look at it as being generated not by a person, but by something bigger giving voice through that person. What would the world, let alone literature, be without The Iliad and The Odyssey? A poorer place, for sure. But consider how little we know about Homer. For all we know, he exploited women the way Harvey Weinstein is accused of doing.
In reality, it’s likely Homer was a composite author consisting of many voices, probably including women’s. Each work of art that earns our respect and affection is, in the end, the work of a composite creator: voiced through a single artist, yes, but incorporating the millions of impressions that went uncensored and unprocessed into that creator’s imagination.
Artists work hard, but in the hope that inspiration will seek them out. As their audience, we might do well to appreciate the inspiration and, at least while viewing or reading, to ignore the vessel.