In praise of disengagement
The publication of Sophie Ratcliffe’s P.G Wodehouse: A Life in Letters has re-opened the awkward issue of his “collaboration” with the Nazis, in the form of his notorious Berlin broadcasts.
Better people than I have defended Wodehouse on this matter. However, I want to praise his motives for those broadcasts.
Let’s be clear. Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathizer; no-one who reads his depiction of Spode’s Black Shorts - “a handful of halfwits” - could possibly think that. Instead, he faced an involuntary dilemma: to accede to the Germans’ invitation to broadcast and have a quiet life in which he could continue writing, or to refuse and face perhaps a more uncomfortable internment.
Choosing the easy option arose from the same motive that gave us his writing - an escapism, an urge to block out to unpleasant real world. As he said, “I haven't developed mentally at all since my last year at school.” His books contain, AFAIK, barely any reference to the two wars or great depression; they are, in a way, as much a fantasy as his near-contemporary’s Tolkein’s. Orwell overstates things when he says there are “no post-1918 tendencies at all” in his writing, but not by much.
What’s more, this disengagement from reality was perhaps necessary for his writing. Wodehouse was a workaholic of "awesome focus"; he wrote over 90 books in his lifetime (not to mention countless song lyrics), many of which he redrafted dozens of times. You can’t do this - and certainly not as lightly as he did - if you trouble yourself with ugly politics. In this sense, his disengagement and his genius are two facets of the same thing.
There’s a lesson here for us all. Good work can only be done by blocking out some things, by ignoring what we cannot affect and focusing upon what we can. The polar opposite of Wodehouse is Dickens’ Mrs Jellyby, who devotes her life to the futile Borrioboola-Gha project, whilst neglecting everything around her.
There’s another difference between the Wodehouses and the Jellybys. To have refused to broadcast would have been an empty gesture. It would not have materially weakened the Nazis or strengthened the Allies by an atom. All it would have done would be to signal Warehouse’s “moral compass”. It would have been an egotistical posture. Yes, we live in an era when such posturing is the norm. But this shouldn‘t hide the fact that some of us feel uncomfortable with the “pathetic sincerity of outrage”.
The Jellybys make the noise. But it’s the Wodehouses - the quiet men who choose not to take a stand but to carry on with their work - who deserve out gratitude.
Against all this, you might cite Burke’s (supposed) dictum: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing“. Sometimes, however, nothing is all that good men can do. And wise ones know it.