Tag Archives: P.G. Wodehouse

Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots and Resets

31 Dec

What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile.
 ~ The Doobie Brothers

Oh my gosh, it’s been a harrowing year – you, too? How about a little levity to round it out.

So, René Descartes is sitting in a café. A waiter approaches and asks, “More coffee, Mr. Descartes?”

After a moment, the philosopher replies, “I think not.”

*Poof!* (Insert rimshot and cymbal splash here.)

Yeah, it’s a groaner, but it’s a good one – one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s clever, and it pokes fun at philosophy – who wouldn’t love a joke like that? My kids have heard it a million times. In fact, around my house, you can simply say, “I think not – poof” and you’ll probably get at least a snort if not an actual pity-laugh.

Regardless, shared laughter is almost always a good thing. It elevates the spirit, distracts us from our travails, and lightens our mutual loads. It buoys courage and restores hope – and it’s contagious, thank God. Someone giving way to a serious fit of giggles will inevitably create ripples of mirth among those nearby, even if they have no idea what got it started. Like that Descartes joke. My littler kids, who know nothing of philosophy, grew up laughing at it along with the older kids just because they were laughing (the first dozen times at least).

Sure, there are times when laughs are inappropriate, but humorous resets are frequently desired and desirable. St. Francis de Sales alludes to this idea in his Introduction to the Devout Life. He writes of eutrapelia, the Greek virtue of jesting and taking “friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.” While warning us off anything that approaches scorn or contempt, De Sales makes it clear that goofiness is not only a good thing, but often preferred to its alternative.

To illustrate, he tells a brief anecdote about King St. Louis of France: “When a religious wanted to speak to St. Louis after dinner about certain lofty subjects, the king told those present: ‘This is not the time to quote texts, but to regale ourselves with jokes and puns.’” Even kings need a break now and then – tell him the one about René Descartes (ba-bum, splash!).

And what’s true for kings is true for the rest of us, a perspective brought to life on the screen by director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It’s a movie about moviemaking, but much more than that. It’s also a movie about why people generally go to movies in the first place: To forget their troubles, to escape and retreat, and, more often than not, to laugh.

I discovered Travels by accident. It’s mentioned in another film, Grand Canyon (1991), which I’ve actually never seen all the way through. But some glorious serendipity brought me in touch with a particular Canyon clip in which Steve Martin’s character, a movie producer, lectures Mack (Kevin Kline) about filmmaking:

Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels? That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way – he’s a filmmaker like me – and he forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do. Fortunately, he finds his way back. It can happen, Mack. Check it out.

All life’s riddles being answered in the movies was a huge stretch, I admit, but I was intrigued by the “finding his way back” theme of Travels. I tracked it down.

What a find.

John L. Sullivan is a successful director of screwball comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about serious stuff (over the objections of his studio bosses). Accordingly, he chooses a serious book, O Brother Where Art Thou (yes, there’s a Coen brothers connection here) about social justice and the “common man,” and he hits the road as a hobo to get some firsthand experience of the common man’s lot.

The director discovers more than he bargains for, and when his plans to alleviate the misery of the poor by personalist wealth redistribution goes awry, he finds himself among their number – not as an observer, but as a fully vested participant. Injured, jailed, and isolated, Sullivan is indignant, but his dire circumstances lead to a revelation: Yes, suffering demands alleviation and injustice demands redress, but in the meantime, a bit of humor goes a long way. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says in the end, as he puts aside his plans for a serious movie. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The killer is that our cockeyed caravan is chock full of laugh-bait these days, but so much of it is dead center in the scorn and contempt arena that De Sales cautioned us about. The stuff we gravitate to – in the movies, on the internet and TV – tends to galvanize ill will rather than dissipating it. It accentuates division instead of drawing us together.

No thanks.

For me, I prefer the tried and true when it comes to lighthearted fare – stuff I can count on to make me laugh out loud, over and over again, and without a lot of political or ideological overhead. When I’m overwhelmed or down, I turn to Dave Barry’s writings, like his annual “Year in Review” in the Miami Herald, and archived NPR “Car Talk” gold from Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Plus, there are plenty vintage screwball comedies out there to be enjoyed – the kind that John L. Sullivan would’ve made. Classics like Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and It Happened One Night, for example, plus anything from the Marx Brothers and the entire Thin Man collection starring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – wise-cracking sleuths who mix mayhem with their murder mysteries.

But, let’s face it, the undisputed master when it comes to evoking hilarity is P.G. Wodehouse, and it seems like I end up back on his doorstep round about this time every year. Winter has settled in for a couple months, a new semester of teaching looms, and I’m getting regular email reminders from TurboTax about my annual financial slog. Bleah. That’s the cue to go hunting for a Jeeves and Wooster volume or two to carry  me through to the other side.

Now here’s the beauty of being acclimated to Wodehouse’s whimsical genius is that it simply doesn’t matter where you dip in. You’re practically guaranteed to hit a jackpot of jollity every single time. Here, let’s try an experiment. I just went into our home library and plucked down the first Wodehouse volume I laid eyes on: A tattered paperback of Thank You, Jeeves (1933). Open it up in the middle (p. 81), and here we go:

“Will you keep quiet!”

“Of course, of course.”

“You keep shoving your oar in….”

“Sorry, sorry. Shan’t occur again.”

And so on – already hooks me in, I tell you. Clearly, some kind of ruckus is underway and Bertie Wooster is in the thick of it. It’s like I’m already present in the scene and I can hear the voices and I start to relax. It’s a tonic, almost magic.

It was also a magical tonic to those who read it the first time back in 1933 – right when the Great Depression was in full swing. The world needed lots of laughs back then, and Wodehouse supplied them. It’s noteworthy that the Great Depression was also the incubator for many of those Sullivanesque comedies we keep mentioning. The more challenging the times, it appears, the greater market there is for sweet release in gales of glee.

So happy new yearhopefully a better one than the last. May your troubles be few, but when they come (and they will), brace yourself, have courage, and arm yourself with Wodehouse and companions. No need to go it alone.
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Of Humor, Homicide, and Julian the Hospitaller

13 Feb

masolinodapanicale_scenesfromthelifeofstjulien

“The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

Read more…

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WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary

24 Apr

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer,
The Paschal Mystery

It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala,
The Imitation of Mary

Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.

That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.

At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:

‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’

‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’

‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’

Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!

jw13Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.

Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.

That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”

Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:

Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.

Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!

Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.

It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.

  1. She spoke up: Mary was in her teens when she became the Mother of God, but she had pluck beyond her years. An Archangel appears and announces the impossible, and she asks, “How?” He fills her in a bit, and she responds, “Let it be so.” Later, sharing this spectacular news with her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1.46-47). Unlike Joseph, her silent husbanGerard_David_-_The_Marriage_at_Cana_-_WGA6020d, Mary is depicted in the Gospels as someone always ready to speak her mind – particularly when it concerned her Son and savior. “They have no wine,” she tells him at Cana, and then to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2.3, 5).
  2. She acted: The Blessed Mother not only spoke up, but also followed up her words with deeds. As I mentioned, as soon as Gabriel brought her the time-shattering news of the Incarnation, she hightailed it over to her cousin’s house – for camaraderie and companionship, no doubt, for mutual support as they both navigated extraordinary pregnancies (Lk 1.39). At the end of Jesus’ life, we also see her attending him at the Cross and receiving the Apostle John as her surrogate son (Jn 19.25-27), and then participating in that unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which equipped her and the Apostles for their evangelistic task (Acts 1.14, 2.1).
  3. She pondered: As Gabriel announced Mary’s divinely appointed role as the vessel of the world’s salvation, Mary didn’t panic or bolt – she pondered (Lk 1.29). Then, after the birth of her man-God Son, as the angel-inspired shepherds proclaimed God’s praise, she pondered again – “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2.19). Mary readily spoke up and acted, but she seemed inclined to process events internally – a prerogative that Jesus himself took full advantage of by leaving the crowds with their needs and going off to pray to the Father in quiet and solitude from time to time (Lk 5.16).

So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.

It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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