Sunday, January 20, 2008

PJ O'Rourke isn't funny any more

I have just finished reading PJ's commentary on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations which came out, by a happy chance, shortly before I decided that as a great admirer of Smith I ought to actually, you know, read something he wrote.

I haven't finished Wealth of Nations yet but, if the way Smith spent the last years of his life revising his earlier book Theory of Moral Sentiments is anything to go by, that is no shame because, it can be inferred, nor did Smith.

PJ's book is, especially in its earlier stages, full of wisecracks that don't really work. These fade out as the book progresses, and the only jokes become the sort of silly examples and anachronistic comparisons that make any subject more tolerable. For example:

Smith attended a little village school in Kirkaldy that seems to have been somewhat different than the little village school my children attend. Smith began studying Latin at ten. But I doubt he knew how to play "Kumbayah" on the recorder or to scold his mother for not recycling.
I can one-up Smith there, having started studying Latin at the age of nine. Or, to be more precise, having started not studying Latin at that tender age. I continued not to study it until I was twelve, with one brief interlude when a teacher's habit of making us translate sentences like "The green cow sat in the ditch" woke me up for long enough to memorise one declension.

And that's the point. Silly examples make economics more tolerable, as they do Latin. But the wisecracks about his wife's mother make PJ seem like a sort of American Les Dawson, only without the genius of the piano playing.

Because the truth of it is something that would make O'Rourke whoop with laughter if it were ever suggested to him, in the same way that Wodehouse would have whooped if it had ever been suggested to him that he wrote about real life, as Douglas Adams put it. But then, Wodehouse did write about real life. It's just that he did it in a very particular way. To take Oswald Moseley, drop him into Bertie Wooster's world as Sir Roderick Spode and make him the leader of the Black Shorts, and a secret lingerie designer, was probably the most complete exposure of the absurdity of the man ever accomplished.

Moseley's reincarnation, George Galloway, demands to be ridiculed. He even ridicules himself, but that isn't as effective. The only person who came close to this way of writing was Auberon Waugh (who could even posthumously expose Polly Toynbee for the cowardly and spiteful harridan she is). But Waugh is no longer with us and Wodehouse has also gone, leaving behind nothing except a hundred books that have kept me sane, and will continue to do the same for generations to come.

Because the awful truth of it is that, having spent the majority of his life as a humourist, and having started with pieces with titles like "How to drive fast on drugs while getting your wing wang squeezed without spilling your drink", PJ has become a serious commentator. And what's worse, he has become a writer. Only a real writer could come up with a paragraph as poignant and understated as this, on Smith's death. It reminds me of John Mortimer's description of the death of his father, when Mortimer kept an oxygen mask against his father's face "until he had no further need of it".

Nature made its last call on July 17, 1790. Smith's health had worsened. In his last revisions to Moral Sentiments he added two dozen paragraphs, mostly approving, on the Stoic attitude toward death: "Walk forth without repining; without murmuring or complaining. Walk forth calm, contented, rejoicing, returning thanks to the Gods, who, from their infinite bounty, have opened the safe and quiet harbour of death, at all times ready to receive us from the stormy ocean of human life." Smith had grown thin and weak, but on the Sunday before he died he hosted the customary weekly supper for his friends. His last recorded words were, "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place."


Anonymous said...

I like the old Pelican paperback abridgments. I bought Gibbon and Wealth of Nations aeons ago but I didn't read Origin of Species until I was in my 40s. Silly me; it's a tremendous read. As for pyjamas: I can forgive a lot to the man who wrote Give War a Chance.

sbw said...

Despite his sophomoric humor, or perhaps because of it, I have given away the better part of a dozen copies of O'Rourke's "On the Wealth of Nations" to needy politicians and activists. And I shall continue to do so -- and recommend you do the same -- until people come to their senses.

No other version I know is as pithy, timely, or accessible.