I was intending to post about this subject in February, but my attention wandered and the relevant newspaper cuttings got buried. I am very glad that I put it off, as I have now read this recently reprinted book, which startlingly addresses (answers?) many of the speculations I found myself making five months ago:
The Times of 28 December 2016 carried a full-page article entitled ‘How Wodehouse answered his critics’. It reported that a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s account of his wartime experiences had just been deposited in the British Library, and quoted from it his ‘detailed and spirited defence against accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser’.
For those unaware, Wodehouse (‘Plum’) was arrested by the Germans at Le Touquet in 1940, interned for nearly a year in Germany, and shortly after his release into the Reich gave a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin in which he portrayed his experiences of internment with his inimitable epigonic-Edwardian, public schoolboy humour. This provoked outrage in post-Blitz Britain and after the war Wodehouse was investigated by MI5, who concluded he was not a Nazi sympathiser, just ‘naive’. But I have to say, the quotations from the document printed in The Times are not so much a ‘defence’ as a lethally honed attack on some of his denigrators, e.g. A.A. Milne, and on this evidence Wodehouse was not naive in any usual sense of the word.
At the time, it was a cause célèbre (Wodehouse never returned to Britain). I had read George Orwell’s essay ‘In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse’ years ago, and sure enough next day The Times carried a reader’s letter referring to it. The reader called it ‘a well-informed analysis of why Wodehouse was slandered’, but I don’t think Orwell believed Wodehouse was slandered, simply that all kinds of people with their own agendas had generated a witch hunt that had gone on for far too long. Orwell’s essay is a complex masterpiece well worth reading. The Times reader rightly stressed that Orwell had defended Wodehouse’s art and called for the ‘incident’ to be ‘closed’, but he omitted to mention that Orwell believed Wodehouse had demonstrated ‘stupidity’ and that he, Orwell, thought ‘the really interesting question is how and why he could be so stupid’. Orwell was right: this is indeed the interesting question.
I have always found it surprising that Orwell exonerated Wodehouse from allowing himself to be a ‘useful idiot’ (Lenin’s phrase) for a homicidal political system. Of all people, Orwell was the least likely to accept Wodehouse’s defence that he was ‘never interested in politics’. Rather as Chekhov said in the nineteenth century that ‘writers must engage with politics to the extent that it is necessary to defend themselves from politics’, Orwell is renowned for believing every individual must ‘interest themselves’ in the politics of the totalitarian age or soon find themselves its victims. So why, apart from his own humanity and compassion, did Orwell forgive Wodehouse his ‘stupidity’?
Two days later The Times published another letter on the subject, which made me sit up. The reader quoted Evelyn Waugh’s belief that ‘Wodehouse’s world can never stale and he will release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own’, adding from himself: ‘In Wodehouse’s exquisite descriptions of worlds that never really existed, the reader escapes beyond the often bleaker nature of those that do.’ It so happens that I know this to be literally true. In the leaden depths of the Soviet era I asked Muscovite expert on English literature Gabriel Yegorov how he could put up with queuing for hours for potatoes, say, or a pair of pants, and he replied: ‘I just dream of Blandings…’ He explained that he really meant it. He could stand there for hours imagining life in ‘Plum’s’ Blandings and himself taking part in it.
So, I reasoned, Wodehouse’s writing is escapist. Orwell gives a brilliant analysis of how closely it relates to the Edwardian world in which Wodehouse started publishing, but he also emphasises that it hardly developed, so that even in 1936 ‘Plum’ was still writing about the life of the Edwardian man-about-town, the ‘knut’. In any case for Orwell this innocent, sunlit pre-1914 world never really existed, and ‘Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915’. The sheer length, unreality and stasis of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, then, make it not so much an idyll as a Utopia. It is pie in the sky.
This realisation alarmed me. I have never been able to get ‘into’ Wodehouse’s world. I have known so many highly intelligent people who are Wodehouse addicts that I have driven myself to read him several times, but I have never got further than a few pages. He is clever, often hilarious, but I simply cannot relate to his world; it leaves me cold. His language is very precise, but rather one-dimensional. The range of emotion and body language of his characters may not seem small, but it is limited. There is no sense whatever of a physical life outside what you are reading on the page. As Orwell put it, you can’t imagine a love affair in Wodehouse’s world being consummated; I would add that you can’t imagine any lavatories. ‘Plum’s’ world is not just a Utopia, it is a kind of system.
At this point I began to wonder whether Wodehouse was simply Aspergic. I don’t know how far the syndrome was recognised by the 1940s, but I do think it possible that Orwell intuited something clinical like this in Wodehouse and that is the only reason he absolved him from personal responsibility for being a useful idiot. ‘If my analysis of Wodehouse’s mentality is accepted’, wrote Orwell, the idea that Wodehouse consciously abetted the Nazi propaganda machine was ‘untenable and ridiculous’. Wodehouse was not ‘a person capable of understanding the nature of quislingism’ (my italics); he had a ‘complete lack of political awareness’ and seemed unable to acquire one.
Orwell had already investigated the psychopathic mutations of utopianism. In his 1940 essay ‘Inside the Whale’ he wrote that English intellectuals ‘can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism’. Of a line in one of W.H. Auden’s fellow-traveller poems, he observed:
Notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be used by someone to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. […] To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation’, ‘elimination’, or some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
But there is another way of looking at these (undoubted) facts. It is perfectly excusable for people to have ‘no experience of anything except liberalism’ or to not know that fire is hot, but it is not excusable for them to fail to exercise their imaginations, to fail to make the effort to understand, what genocidal totalitarianism or fire are. In fact their failure is so extraordinary that one is bound to ask, as with Wodehouse, whether such people are psychologically capable of it. Is the kind of lack of empathy that Orwell describes a symptom of psychopathy, or at least autism, or at least Asperger Syndrome?
At this point in my February meditations, I paused. Is it conceivable that imaginative literature, of all things, can be Aspergic? To write, I reasoned, you have got to experience feelings and you have got to extend yourself, for heaven’s sake, to other people’s feelings. In fact fiction is essentially about other people’s feelings, isn’t it? If as a writer you lacked empathy, how would you have anything to write about and why would readers, who we assume largely have empathy, want to read you?
A moment’s reflection, however, suggests that these assumptions are wrong. For a start, the autism spectrum is broad, and so many people lie somewhere on it, that it is highly likely some writers are Aspergic or autistic, can live with the fact, or may not even be aware of it. In any case, when you read a novel or short story, you know nothing about the author, whom you do not see, you only see and read his/her text. So what is it about the text that might be described as Aspergic or autistic?
I gave this some thought. I could not actually think of a creative text, a piece of fiction, that I would call ‘autistic’. In the late 1970s, I think it was, Norman Stone infamously described the voluminous historiography of E.H. Carr as ‘autistic’ because, in Stone’s view, it was a purely abstract account of Soviet history based on official statistics that Carr could not bring himself to accept were lies and it never mentioned the horrific sufferings of flesh and blood Russians; it had therefore lost contact with reality and was Utopian. Personally, I agreed with Stone. But Carr’s History of the Bolshevik Revolution is non-fiction.
However, I can say what it is about someone’s writing that I associate with the adjective ‘Aspergic’. The writing is in some way — perhaps some attractive or even beautiful way — etiolated, unreal, one-dimensional. The language lacks ‘thickness’, emotional allusiveness of any sort. It has, perhaps, a hugely impressive forward-driving ‘horizontality’, but no ‘vertical’ dimension. Similarly, characters have no imaginable life outside the work (within which they may well be lively enough), and there is no reality felt or imaginable outside the world of the work itself. This loss of contact with the real world (the world that readers are still living in) may go unnoticed, as the author’s world may be so vividly realised, but it is a very significant lack; it is bound to make the ‘Aspergic’ text’s world approximate to a detached utopia or dystopia. Writers who always produce a sense of their text being connected to a wider world (for example, I would say, Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Chekhov, Proust), have been described as practising ‘anacrusis’, i.e. instinctively leaving in extra bits and loose ends continuing ‘offstage’, away from the focus of the text into the world outside. If you stop to think of it whilst reading an ‘Aspergic’ text, you realise that it is totally self-contained; it is precise, even ‘exquisite’ as the Times reader put it, but there is no more to it than its literal meaning; it is low on reality’s dirt and roughage; it is remarkably ‘finished’; it is remarkably systemised.
Personally, I feel G.B. Shaw’s work is ‘Aspergic’. Its single-minded concern with ideas and argument does not correspond to my own experience of people or the world. Most of the time his characters’ speech is ‘head-speech’, not ‘art-speech’, to use D.H. Lawrence’s term. This is not to say, of course, that Shaw’s plays are not great and witty polemics, but with a few exceptions I do not feel they are continuous with mucky reality. They hardly move me. It does not surprise me that Shaw denied the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, insisting that they were figments of British propaganda. And, of course, it is inevitable that comic worlds like Wodehouse’s, or the worlds of children’s literature like those of Ransome and Stevenson, should be reduced or simplified worlds without grime and blood. But I still find the world of Swallows and Amazons creepily unreal — unreadable as an adult — and I sense there may be a connection between that and Ransome’s eccentric belief in Russian communism. Gulliver’s Travels has several features that might be called ‘Aspergic’, but they are perfectly attuned to Swift’s purpose — incomparable satire. Ezra Pound would also be on my list of writers of ‘Aspergic’ texts, and the beautiful constructivist world of Bolshevik Evgenii Zamiatin (see my post of 5 July 2016) seems to me full of traits that match the syndrome. Perhaps it is significant that all these writers are male. I have never ever met a woman who liked Wodehouse.
But enough, I told myself back in February: these are all very good writers! It follows, then, that there can be nothing inherently negative about Asperger Syndrome, despite the fact that you overwhelmingly read about it being bad for you and others. Indeed, I thought, most of the best mathematicians, engineers, physicists and structuralists that I know are blatantly Aspergic, so where would we be without them? At that point I stopped thinking, as I felt I had already exceeded my qualifications in this area.
Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the issue of my last paragraph in his brilliant chapter ‘When Zero Degrees of Empathy is Positive’. The empathy difficulties of people with Asperger Syndrome are ‘associated with having a brain that processes information in ways that can lead to talent’. ‘People with Asperger Syndrome […] systemise to an extraordinary degree’, they have ‘a brain that is exquisitely tuned to notice patterns’, and ‘spotting such patterns is key to our ability to invent and improve’. Moreover, they are fascinated by timeless patterns (they do not like change). Their ‘systemizing mind steps out of time to seek truths that are not tied to the present’, and ‘at least among the natural patterns, the truths may be eternal ones’. Human society ‘owes a special debt to those who have innovated in the fields of technology, music, science, medicine, mathematics, history, philosophy, engineering and other systemizing fields. The fact that they may be challenged when it comes to empathy is all the more reason to make our society more Zero-Positive-friendly’. I recommend reading the book from cover to cover.