Wooster’s Version

I hope my readers will excuse this long quote from one of the Jeeves and Wooster books:

The effect the apparition had on me was to make me start violently, and we all know what happens when you start violently while holding a full cup of tea. The contents of mine flew through the air and came to rest on the trousers of Aubrey Upjohn, M.A., moistening them to no little extent. Indeed, it would scarcely be distorting the facts to say that he was now not so much wearing trousers as wearing tea.

I could see the unfortunate man felt his position deeply, and I was surprised that he contented himself with a mere “Ouch!” But I suppose these solid citizens have to learn to curb the tongue. Creates a bad impression, I mean, if they start blinding and stiffing as those more happily placed would do.

But words are not always needed. In the look he now shot at me I seemed to read a hundred unspoken expletives. It was the sort of look the bucko mate of a tramp steamer would have given an able-bodied seaman who for one reason or other had incurred his displeasure.

“I see you have not changed since you were with me at Malvern House,” he said in an extremely nasty voice, dabbing at the trousers with a handkerchief. “Bungling Wooster we used to call him,” he went on, addressing his remarks to Bobbie and evidently trying to enlist her sympathy. “He could not perform the simplest action such as holding a cup without spreading ruin and disaster on all sides. It was an axiom at Malvern House that if there was a chair in any room in which he happened to be, Wooster would trip over it. The child,” said Aubrey Upjohn, “is the father of the man.”

“Frightfully sorry,” I said.

“Too late to be sorry now. A new pair of trousers ruined. It is doubtful that anything can remove the stain of tea from white flannel. Still, one must hope for the best.”

Whether I was right or wrong at this point in patting him on the shoulder and saying “That’s the spirit!” I find it difficult to decide. Wrong, probably, for it did not seem to soothe. He gave me another of those looks and strode off, smelling strongly of tea.

“Shall I tell you something, Bertie?” said Bobbie, following him with a thoughtful eye. “That walking tour Upjohn was going to invite you to take with him is off. You will get no Christmas present from him this year, and don’t expect him to come and tuck you up in bed tonight.”

I upset the milk jug with an imperious wave of the hand.

The joke, of course, is that we see what happened but we also see that Bertie doesn’t really see, even though he’s our source. Or he’s deliberately ironic, since the man on whom he spilled the tea is his old headmaster, feared and loathed. There’s a lot of this kind of thing in literature, but can it ever be done in art? In the eighties a few artists tried, but the work depended on the assumption that any work of art is a subjective expression. The critical discourse then pounded that work into dust by going on and on about a critique of that same subjectivity, which was nothing but a social convention anyway. The irony was forced into service, instead of left to vibrate with amusement. Abstraction has rebounded as an objective practice, thankfully, but I still want it to achieve the same level of self reflection and consequent comedy as literature. It may or may not be impossible.

Jiri Georg Dokoupil The Studio 1984

Jiri Georg Dokoupil, The Studio 1984

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