Wodehouse and Wittgenstein

During my Dornford Yates talk at the Newcastle Great War and Popular Culture conference earlier this year, I got an unexpected laugh (as well as some chuckles I’d planned for). It was when I quoted Wittgenstein saying:

I couldn’t understand the humour in Journey’s End.… I wouldn’t want to joke about a situation like that.”

I suppose people thought I was having a dig at humourless Teutons, or over-serious philosophers, but I didn’t intend this, actually.

In fact, Wittgenstein seems to have had a serviceable enough sense of humour when not in his most intellectually savage moods, and was a fan of P.G.Wodehouse (full details can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein : Personal Recollections, ed. Rhees, Rush, Oxford 1981).

According to the memoir, Wittgenstein named Wodehouse’s Honeysuckle Cottage as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Not perhaps one of P.G.’s most famous works, it’s one of the stories collected in Meet Mr Mulliner (1927). The Mulliner stories all begin in the bar of the Angler’s Rest pub. Conversation begins on some general subject, and then Mr Mulliner (unstoppably) monopolises the discourse with an anecdote about a member of his vast extended family. The stories are mostly tall tales about romantic entanglements. And Wittgenstein’s judgment was bang on the nose – they are indeed very funny.

What’s rather interesting is the story he singled out. The hero of Honeysuckle Cottage is James Rodman, a writer of hard-boiled detective stories who inherits the cottage from his aunt, a gushingly prolific romantic novelist called Leila J. Pinckney, who in her time had composed “ a matter of nine million, one hundred and forty thousand words of glutinous sentimentality”.

When he moves into the cottage, what happens terrifies him. He gets going on a good tough story:

“His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther he made one quick step to the desk, drew out his automatic…”

But when he flings open the door, his weapon poised:

“On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld… She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him.”

Uncannily, the cottage has turned him into a writer of romantic slush. He tries desperately to write a chapter where the hero is trapped in the den of a desperate leper – but a lovely girl with a roguish smile trips into the scene despite all his conscious intentions.

The house’s aura doesn’t only affect James. His hard-nosed agent visits, and suddenly becomes sweet and fey. He decides to renegotiate James’s contract because it was too hard on the publishers. “But you shan’t lose by it, my mannie. I shall waive my commission.”

What really complicates the situation is the arrival of a lovely girl who is just like one of his aunt’s heroines – so sweet and fragile. And an episode happens that is straight out of a romantic novel – she is hit by a car outside the cottage, and the doctor orders that she needs to stay there for a few weeks.

James, who had always had “a congenital horror of matrimony”, begins to fall in love with her. He reads to her:

and poetry at that; and not the jolly wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either – good honest stuff about sin and gasworks and decaying corpses, but the old fashioned kind with rhymes in it…”

How Wodehouse resolves James’s problem I’ll leave you to discover. What amuses me is how thoroughly Wittgensteinian the story is.

There are two separate language worlds – tough detective stories and romantic slush, and they’re quite incompatible. You see the world one way, or you see it the other way, but you can’t see it as both. In ‘Honeysuckle Cottage, characters switch between tough and slushy as quickly they might switch between seeing a duck and seeing a rabbit in Wittgenstein’s favourite drawing.

duckrab1.jpg

But another thought strikes me. This business of mutually exclusive language-codes is part of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (when he’d decided the Tractatus was only a partial truth). From what I can gather, he began to develop this philosophy in 1927 – exactly the year when Meet Mr Mulliner was published. In fact, the story may have appeared in a magazine earlier than that.

So is it possible that this story appealed to him because it suggested ideas that he would explore more fully in his later philosophy? Does Wodehouse deserve a place in the philosophical canon as well as the literary one? I’d vote for that.

12 Comments

  1. Posted July 12, 2006 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this fascinating post — and for sending me off in the direction of this story, which sounds truly funny.

  2. Posted November 6, 2006 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    That is very interesting, and this does seem like one of the most Wittgensteinian of Wodehouse stories. Didn’t Wittgenstein mention something about language being illusory or bewitching, and that we should attempt to bring language back to reality? This is exactly what Rodman struggles with at Honeysuckle Cottage. Great observation.

  3. The Shadow
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always loved this story, but I’d always assumed that no-one else rated it very highly. Now it turns out that me and Ludwig have the same taste in humour. The mind boggles!

  4. Mark
    Posted October 18, 2009 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    I just read Honeysuckle Cottage, and thought it so good that I wanted to Google it to see what others thought. It is a great read. I certainly believe Wodehouse stories contain a lot of wisdom and philosophy along with the humor and literary skill. According to Wikipedia, Honeysuckle was first published in January 1925 in the Saturday Evening Post.

  5. Posted October 18, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    That 1925 date means that Wodehouse almost certainly wrote the story just after the release of the film, The Enchanted Cottage, based on Pinero’s play. In the film, a war-scarred and bitter veteran makes a marriage of convenience with a plain girl, and the magical cottage enchants them so that each sees the other as beautiful. Wodehouse’s story can be read as a debunking of the sentimentality of this enormously popular film.

  6. Richard
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    The second aspect of the story is the revulsion felt by James Rodman, much like Wodehouse, for the (misleading and misguided) sentimentality in the world, leading to softheaded decisions. This is despite Wodehouse’s kindness and generosity, even as expressed by Rodman, who tolerates the presence of the girl far beyond what he really wanted, much as expressed by Bertie Wooster in his references to the Code of the Woosters. He initially felt obligated to do the right thing.

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Yes – the obligation to do the right thing is always a terrible burden in Wodehouse.
      It’s why Aunt Dahlia, who imposes obligation on Bertie by asking him to do things as a favour, is ultimately more dangerous than Aunt Agatha, who merely strikes terror into his soul.

  7. Posted April 26, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I love this piece and would like to reblog it to my Wodehouse page if you don’t mind.

  8. Posted April 26, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Plumtopia: The world of P.G. Wodehouse and commented:
    The philosopher most often associated with Wodehouse is surely Spinoza. We know Jeeves preferred him to Nietzsche, whom he famously proclaimed to be ‘fundamentally unsound’ (Carry On, Jeeves).
    Jeeves’ views on the philosopher Wittgenstein are less clear, but it seems Wittgenstein was fundamentally sound in his appreciation for P.G. Wodehouse – as discussed in this lovely piece by George Simmers. My thanks for permission to reblog here.

  9. Posted April 27, 2014 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Lovely post. Embedded in most of his narratives are gems of wisdom which put him in the ranks of seasoned philosophers. The exterior is all light stuff but the interior is a core comprising serious lessons from life. That perhaps explains the importance of the ‘psychology of the individual’ in Jeeves’ scheme of things!


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