Happiness is Seldom Universal

Nine months of the Obama administration have prompted me to flee, not to New Zealand or Argentina, but rather to Blandings Castle. In such locations, considerable disarray exists. Blandings is more likely to lead to what Chesterton called sanity.

The first lines of P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmth are these: “At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.”

But the title of the first chapter is ominous: “Dark Plottings at Blandings Castle.” Thus, the second sentence: “It was a lovely morning and the air was fragrant with gentle summer scents. Yet in his lordship’s pale blue eyes there was a look of melancholy….” This was also my mood after the first couple of hundred days of the “new era”-plottings: melancholy.

Professor Charles Smith, at Marymount University across the Potomac in Virginia, invited me over to their “Deep Waters” lecture series. Here, the students, in case they miss them in class, might have a second plunge into things of ultimate importance. John Paul II, following Christ’s admonition to the fishermen apostles, advised us to push further into the “deep,” a handy symbol for those things Aristotle called of greatest worth.

Smith told me that once, in one of my published book lists, he saw a reference to Wodehouse, whom, unaccountably for a well-educated man, he had never read. At the time, he purchased a book of Wodehouse novels. He confessed, however, that he had not yet read them. Imagine a Smith not having yet read Leave It to Psmith! Marymount’s Smith is an amusing and insightful man, so I am quite sure that Smith and Psmith will soon come together in a happy encounter.

Two days before I went over to Marymount, I received an email from one of my students, Elisabeth Griesedieck, who is spending a semester in a Scottish university. I had mentioned the Wodehouse novel in connection with one of her middle names, which is Stith, pronounced, I inquired, “PStith,” like in “Psmith?” It turns out the pun was not wasted.

She had already read this great Wodehouse novel. “I love Wodehouse! I have read Leave It to Psmith again and again. I can’t stop laughing when I read it, often on Spring break at the beach. Psmith is up for any job except that which involves fish.” I said to myself, “This young lady does not need to go to college.” If she had delighted over Psmith, she is already educated. Nothing we can do here on the Hilltop of Georgetown will be of much more avail.

Another ex-student of mine, Michael Jackson, was the one who put Schall, himself already at the time into early dotage, onto Wodehouse. I still have the copy of Leave It to Psmith that he gave me.

But I also have a handsome 1987 Folio Society of London edition that Jackson’s and my friend, yet another ex-student, Scott Walter, gave me for my birthday in 1990. Needless to say, the dedication begins, “For Father Pschall….”

Many of the Wodehouse books have happy endings, as do Psmith and Eve Holliday in this novel. The happy ending for Bertie Wooster, however, is when he just manages not to get married to some beautiful young lady with whom he could in no way live happily ever after. Divine providence watches over Bertie in this regard, not that Wooster has anything against marriage.

The last chapter of this novel begins with a lovely description of the blooming flowers in Blandings Castle “and its adjacent pleasure grounds.” There are also “birds and bees and butterflies.” We are again warned, however, not to be deceived by the scenery. “But happiness, even on the finest mornings, is seldom universal.” Happiness and unhappiness are located in the souls of men and ladies, as one or two of the greatest philosophers have indicated to us.

On this glorious Blandings morning “Even Head-gardener Angus McAllister was as happy as a Scotsman can ever be.” Again the shadow is there. “But Lord Emsworth, drooping out of the library window, felt only a nervous irritation more in keeping with the blizzards of winter than with the only fine July day that England had known in the last ten years.”

Pschall shan’t go on. Things turn out all right at Blandings Castle. The last words are “and with a stately gesture of farewell, Psmith passed out on to the terrace to join Eve.” The only lasting city we have here is the one that Wodehouse left us. Indeed, we “can’t stop laughing when we read it.” This is because this world is not our final home.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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