Bulldog and the Meaning of Life
When I selected the first Bulldog Drummond for our ongoing discussion of books, it was partly because it is the kind of old-fashioned adventure that people like to read in the summer, and partly the author's understand of certain fundamental things of life might remind readers of the "world we have lost."
I am not saying that either this novel or the series of novels has a point, unless it is the very banal point (even hackneyed at the time!) that British men had to be prepared to fight the Germans a second time. Fiction, low and high, rarely has a point or a message,and if a decent story does have an obvious moral, the best thing to do is to pardon the author and ignore his sermon, the way we ignore an otherwise wise man who, after dining too well and drinking too deeply, decides to share his insights with his younger friends.
The most obvious difficulty with the enterprise of finding messages in fiction is that we can never be entirely sure that the author's messages we find have not been planted by us his readers. Even when, as in an old Woody Allen movie, the light comes on flashing, "Author's Message," we cannot be sure that the writer is not having fun at our expense. We run this risk every time we read a modern or postmodern novel. Can we really be sure that Borges or Gadda is not pulling our leg?
But even in the case of Homer or Sophocles, it is difficult, often impossible, to distinguish between a writer's intentions and the bundle of conventional attitudes he would have shared with virtually everyone he knew. How important is it, really, to comprehend a writer's intentions? Poets and novelists are rarely serious thinkers, much less intellectuals, and we can appreciate Mrilton's well-crafted blank verse without taking the slightest interest in his zany--and I would add, childish--theology.
I have never been able to keep my temper when critics or teachers embarked on their search for meaning in the novels of Hemingway or the poems of Baudelaire. As an undergraduate, I more than once walked out of a class in which students were being encouraged to take part in this degrading exercise. When I have written about a "meaning" in a play of Sophocles or Shakespeare, my intent is most often to tease out the author's assumptions, especially when those assumptions are in conflict with the ideologies of our own age.
Then, with this in mind, what does the creator of Bulldog Drummond take for granted? Most obviously, he assumes the conventional view of mean and women, that men like to play the hero, defend their womenfolk, and enjoy taking risks. For the Bulldog and his pals, life without risk is like a vegan breakfast.
Second, he assumes there is a difference between ordinary decent people who, for all their little flaws, are content to lead their lives in peace and comfort without being compelled to take advantage of others. One is reminded of St Paul's injunction not to get the better of your brothers in the church. I believe that is what American Conservatives celebrate as the profit motive or success orientation.
Third, he assumes that decent people of the type described above will also feel a patriotic loyalty and duty toward their country, even if, as fun-loving risk-takers, they may act with an independence not always countenanced by the forces of order. Of course, if they do get caught, they are prepared to take their medicine without whining about their rights or calling a press conference.
In the second installment, the Bulldog and his pals form a vigilance committee and systematically round up traitors, spies, and the worst criminals and put them on an island. Some of the buddies began to take on more distinctive characters--Algy grows into his monocle as a flirtatious fop who is tough on the inside, Peter becomes the reliable second in command, more steady than the others and thus more reliable. Peterson becomes more effective--and more evil. The author does not make the mistake of landing him in the soup in every other chapter.
Having ticked off a few obvious points, we can take up what the author had on his mind, and here my old friend Wes has hit the nail on the head. Bulldog, in fighting evil, comes to understand evil, at least in its political sense. Remember that the books came out in the dirty period between the two wars, when capitalist corruption and red revolution were working hand in hand (whether they knew it or not) to make Europe and North America into the kind of Hell we live in today.
Too many people, then and now, refuse to see reality as it is. Leftists attribute all sorts of idealism to Marx and his disciples, though many gag at Stalin while accepting the still more odious Trotsky. Many professional anti-communists and their less educated stooges saw the Cold War as a war of ideas, as if either Communists or anti-Communists were likely to care about ideas. It's like expecting a prostitute to be concerned with love.
Men seek power, and, unless they are constrained by ties of kinship, religion, experience, and ethnicity, they will typically give way to the temptation to see it by the shortest way? What's so special about power? Because with enough power, you may achieve any objective, fulfill any desire. Machiavelli was the first to analyze power, and the is not because ancient and medieval philosopher were not aware of human nature or original sin but because in writing about politics Aristotle and Thomas and Dante were all writing about people living in families and communities with shared religion. The ties were being cut in Renaissance Italy and France, and already an early Marx might have said of the entrepreneurs and condottieri of that era that they have destroyed all the bonds between man and man and left only the power nexus.
In English, we need to commit to memory Burke's great dictum: "Whatever is the road to power, that is the road that will be trod." Since the16th century there have been many roads but they all go in the same direction. Bulldog's apparent enemies are, as he says, "Bolshevists, Anarchists, members of the Do-no-work-and-have-all-the- money Brigade,” but later in chapter 12 he and the American detective--one of the best rendered characters--come across evidence of leading MPs who have been bought by Peterson, many of them prominent political intellectuals. The American opines:
"In any country to-day you’ve got all sorts and conditions of people with more wind than brain. They just can’t stop talking, and as yet it’s not a criminal offence. Some of ’em believe what they say...; some of ’em don’t. And if they don’t, it makes ’em worse: they start writing as well. You’ve got clever men, intellectual men— look at some of those guys in the first-class general lecturers—and they’re the worst of the lot. Then you’ve got another class—the men with the business brain, who think they’re getting the sticky end of it, and use the talkers to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them. And the chestnuts, who are the poor blamed decent working-men, are promptly dropped in the ash-pit to keep ’em quiet. They all want something for nothing, and I guess it can’t be done. They all think they’re fooling one another, and what’s really going at the moment is that Peterson is fooling the whole bunch."
The American generalizes:
"Not one in a hundred”—the American’s voice broke into his train of thought—”of the so-called revolutionary leaders in this country are disinterested, Captain. They’re out for Number One, and when they’ve talked the boys into bloody murder, and your existing social system is down-and-out, they’ll be the leaders in the new one. That’s what they’re playing for—power; and when they’ve got it, God help the men who gave it to ’em.”
Peterson is organizing a vast army of social revolutionaries from the distressed working classes, and, as the American again points out, England's wealthiest classes are doing nothing to stop it. He takes out a scrap of paper and reads from Victor Hugo:
”’The faults of women, children, servants, the weak, the indigent, and the ignorant are the fault of hus- bands, fathers, masters, the strong, the rich, and the learned."
There is more sound practical understanding in this chapter than in everything I have read of George Orwell, who in this very period was one of the duped intellectuals. One of the reasons "conservatives" have never won a skirmish--much less a battle much less a war--is that they are always in awe of the partly converted leftist, the friendly black or non-feminist woman or homosexual who opposes same-sex marriage. Why? I suggest two reasons:
First, they don't know who they are, much less what they believe. Their minds are a mishmash of leftist cliches.
Second, like Arthur Miller's salesman they think it is not enough to be liked: One has to be well-liked. Like Bill Buckley, the conservative's noblest dream is to be part of the loyal opposition to the Left, decent godless people you can trust not to probe too deeply, sports fans and movie-watchers and Facebook posters.
Wal, as the America detective would say, I guess I've said enough, except this: If you don't want to spend your life as a recovering leftist providing a safe debating partner for the Reds, don't waste your time reading conservative ideology but allow you character to be reformed, your attitudes be reshaped by Shakespeare and Dante and Sophocles, and perhaps even by the Paleolithic manliness of Captain Drummond.