1 April 2011

Early Wodehouse

A few months ago I decided I would look into some rather early Wodehouse to see how he developed.


I read, in no orderly sequence, Mike and Psmith, Psmith in the City, Psmith Journalist, Picadilly Jim, Damsel in Distress,  and The Coming of Bill. They were all delightful, but the first two contain so much cricket that I began to study the rules of the game.  The earlier novels are conventional in form,  less brilliantly plotted, and only occasionally marked by the dotty brilliance one comes to expect.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed them enormously.  Psmith Journalist is the most unusual, since it comes close to being an edgy crime thriller set in New York and based on the exploits of a real gang.  In the latter three, however, the future master is already showing his hand.  There is a reason why many of the best English writers of the last century adored Wodehouse, and these earlier works show the milieu that produced such a man.  Psmith in the City, in fact, gives us a glimpse of PGW’s early days working in a bank.

In case you are one of those  philistines who think Wodehouse is of inferior brain for writing light fiction, I recommend the earliest work on this list, Mike and Psmith, a lighthearted school memoir.  Wodehouse already shows a settled world view, which might be described as a cross between Jorrocks and Machiavelli.  Like Trollope, who gave himself away a bit only in the earlier works like The Warden,  Wodehouse is too clever to show his hand, ordinarily, but in this early story, Psmith (the P is silent as in psychology) asks his new pal Mike, if he minds being addressed as comrade.  “I’ve just become a socialist.  It’s a great scheme.  You ought to be one.  You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.”  The story was first published in 1909, eight years before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, and nearly 50 years before the slightly ex-Communist Milovan Djilas made a similar point in The New Class.  As our drab world goes from brown to black, at least we have the art of earlier generations to cheer us up, Mozart and Hayden, WS Gilbert and PG Wodehouse.

29 March 2011

The Origins of Freemasonry, by David Stevenson.  Cambridge University Press,  1988.

Most of what has been published about the origins of Freemasonry is either reckless myth-making or outright lies.  The nonsense concocted by Masonic “writers” is bad enough, but somewhat worse are the paranoid fantasies of the anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists, whose scholarship and honesty is slightly lower than Dan Brown’s.  David Stevenson was a sober, sometimes pedantically dull Professor of Scottish History at St. Andrews.  In The Origins of Freemasonry, Stevenson traces the transformation of masonic guilds in Scotland from the typical late Medieval craft association to the semi-occult band of enlightened brothers whose illuminist descendants in Paris’s Grand Orient Lodge would hatch the French Revolution.

What became Freemasonry was originally nothing more sinister than a set of craft guilds to promote the interests of stone-masons, builders, and architects.  Unlike the guilds of doctors and goldsmiths, the Masonic guilds could not be merely local, because masons travelled all over Europe and spent years or even decades on big jobs like cathedrals, palaces, and fortifications.  Their lodges were in fact the cabins in which they had to live on the job site, and their emphasis on benevolence and brotherhood was essential to workers from different towns, regions, and even countries, who needed to work together for extended periods of time.

By the later Middle Ages, most craft guilds developed sets of rituals and myths and adopted symbols to strengthen the solidarity of members. Inevitably, they turned to antiquity, both to the Bible and to the pagan traditions.  Physicians invoked patronage of the divine Aesclepius and Apollo as well as the human Hippocrates.  The Masons had a rich body of myth to turn to: the builders of Solomon’s temple, and the exaltation of the architect as mathematician provided by the Augustan architect and engineer, Vitruvius.

Stevenson is weakest on Renaissance intellectual history, where he relies heavily on the important but sometimes misleading accounts of Frances Yates, who sometimes seems to write as if she were an apologist for the neopagans.  It was at the beginning of the Renaissance when Vitruvius’  book on architecture was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1410.  Poggio was the disciple of Petrarch and one of the earliest Florentine humanists. (Born in Terranuova near Arezzo).

Poggio represents the more benign aspect of Renaissance humanism, whose goals were the rediscovery and elucidation of ancient works, the restoration of classical Latin, and the acquisition of Greek, but another agenda was being pursued by his contemporaries like Ficino, Pico and their more radical disciples, and that is, the recovery of the perennial wisdom or perennial theology found in Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Proclus, Egyptian mysteries (Iamblichus and Hermes Trismegistus), and the so-called Chaldean oracles.  Interestingly enough, the two traditions collided in the 17th century, when the French Protestant humanist, Isaac Casaubon, proved that the writings of Hermes were not an ancient predecessor of Plato and Moses and the NT, but a fake concocted in late antiquity by someone who had read Greek philosophy, and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

In Scotland, where the Masonic guilds came under the supervision of  royal officials, the new Hermetic learning was incorporated into the Masonic propaganda.  The intentions were harmless enough, and since many architects were gentleman amateurs, their membership in the lodges made masonry so respectable and even fashion that gentlemen of all sorts began to be accepted as non-operative members, who wanted to enjoy the good fellowship of the brotherhood. The Masonic principles of friendship and brotherhood were very popular in the 16t and 17th century, as people grew weary of religious strife between Catholics and Protestants.  The Reformation also influenced the development of Scottish Masonry in another, profounder manner.  Calvinism, in eliminating the rituals and pageantry of Christianity, had punched a great hole into the lives of ordinary people.  If they could not have costumes and ceremonies in their churches, they could develop them in the lodges, and what was more fitting than all the mumbo-jumbo of occultism?

Masonry went in a number of directions.   The Stuart pretenders to the English throne, for example, used the lodges to recruit followers and plot their counter-revolution.  By the middle of the 17th century, many  lodges had accepted the Egyptian mythology and hermetic ideology, along with a rationalist insistence upon the universality of religious principles–always a sign of de-Christianization.  Ironically, it was probably the Jacobites who introduced Freemasonry into France after the Glorious Revolution.  But that is another story.