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.
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.