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.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    That little speech by the American did catch my eye. Visions of AOC and Bernie and Mitt and *shudder* Biden floated in my head – if only the American had known what was coming down the pike for his own country.
    .
    It’s not too difficult to imagine what Bulldog would think of today’s COVID hysteria – what a change to see folks so risk averse they’d prefer to just stay locked in their homes forever rather than chance a virus that is amazingly survivable, especially in the UK where lockdowns and the likes have been much more extreme than in the States. I think part of the appeal of Trump is that he pretends to be a little bit of a Bulldog type in front of his audience, although in reality he’s nothing of the sort. But the fact that so many average folks were so eager to believe in the lie seems like an indicator that the world, or much of it, is longing for the return of Paleolithic manliness.

  2. Michael Strenk says:

    “In any country to-day you’ve got all sorts and conditions of people…” This is precisely the passage that I chose to copy out into my reading diary. It puts in perspective a lot of what left me agitated after reading Christ In Concrete. Di Donato was an exact contemporary of my grandparents inhabiting the same landscape in New York. My people came to this country from what was and essentially medieval society and they became far too impressed with what they found here. They knew, however, that they were being had because their lives were barely livable much of the time. What they found here was not for them, but for others for whom they slaved. They wanted greater power over their lives and decisions. The major error into which many of them fell was to give themselves over to the left, which, in a way, was controlled by the same people who provided this outlet to distract them from building something more meaningful and permanent. They became trapped in the game, as was di Donato who gave over his intellectual power to them as well as his labor, without realizing that he served them either way.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Granting that what you say about Bulldog Drummond is true, the series is pretty far down on my reading list. Not all, but most of my reading has been novels of Jack Higgins, Tony Hillerman, and Peter Bowen. I am now in the beginning of Hillerman’s sixth Leaphorn and Chee story, The Ghostway. The Navajo Tribal Policeman Chee is featured in this one. He is in love with a white woman who apparently does not want to become Navajo. Chee must decide if he can and will abandon his Navajo traditions for her.

    I can identify with this to some extent. When I left home after high school to attend the Naval Academy I did not fully comprehend that I was pretty much leaving my past life, including family and friends, behind.

    I fell in love with a local girl who I married right after graduation. When I left active duty more than six years later I had to choose between settling near my family or my wife’s family. I could not separate the love of my life from her family and so here we are in Maryland.

    What will Jim Chee decide? (What did Tony Hillerman decide?)

    Bowen’s stories about the Métis brand inspector Gabriel Du Pre also involve deep traditions.

  4. Thomas Fleming says:

    I have stated pretty clearly I think, my reasons for selecting the first Bulldog Drummond novel. Something I implied, without declaring openly, was that I was making a stab at teaching how to approach a work of fiction on its own terms, forgiving the author his limitations and appreciating his good qualities. If this cannot be done, then one had best put down the book end read something else, which is what I did with Tony Hillerman, after reading two novels in which I found the Indian mythologizing tedious and the working out of the relationship between plot and character naive.

    Had I wished to discuss one or another variety of adventure or mystery fiction, I should probably have chosen, for example, Buchan’s Huntingtower, MacDonald’s Cape Fear, Hammet’s the Maltese Falcon, or one of the better Camilleri travesties of the genre (his Commissario Montalbano novels) or, towering above most mystery writers, Georges Simenon and his English spinster Magdalen Nabb. But since that was not my purpose, I took up what I took up, without, I freely concede, much success. I am reminded of a book night we had a year ago, devoted to one of the better RA Freeman novels, The Stoneware Monkey. Two friends of mine, who had not actually got more than half way, spent the evening ragging the book.

    I turned off the tape recorder and soon abandoned the project. Life is short, and what we make of it depends a great deal on our willingness to pay attention. I was a slack student in college, except in Greek, and occasionally in French I worked at it. One day, listening to Prof Henri, reading his yellow notes about Boileau, I was staring out the window and taking long drags on my non-filtered Camels. Prof Henri looked up and observed, “Oh, Mr. Fleming, I am sure you have every reason not to be interested in anything I have to say, but you will get more out of my lecture in the here and now than you will ever get from your own day-dreams.

    Perhaps he had read too much existentialism, but the barb stung my self-absorbed complacency, and I have become ever since a careful observer of the here and now, of the half a loaf happen to have in hand, whether it is a boring truck driver sitting next to me in a bar or a second-rate novel I have found under the bed in a rented house. (I read my first Mickey Spillane novel because I found it a beach house. I did not inspire any affection–though I have read perhaps five more in 45 years–but what he had to teach me–including the importance of the first page–I learned.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Well Dr Fleming, you can select any works for discussion that you want. I usually try them, like I did with the first Drummond book, but I do not always enjoy them. If I was younger I might read more of them, but as I am not I will continue to read what I enjoy.

  6. William Shofner says:

    I sense that when “Sapper” McNeile (1888-1936) carved into fiction his great English hero, Bulldog Drummond, ole Sapper may have had in mind the musings of his great contemporary Englishman, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who said that “[t]his world can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colors come back into everything else. When evil things have become evil, good things, in a blazing apocalypse, become good.” If so, jolly good show, Sapper.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    I had read only a few pages by fits and starts over the last few weeks, but binge read the entire rest of the book today. It seemed at first to be an unpromising venture to read, but then it began to keep my attention and proved quite interesting. The wisdom which comes through at the end of the book is, as has been said by other readers here at FF, quite insightful. McNeile understood something that it took me a long, long time to finally understand. There are only very few true ideological believers, and they are all mad. The rest are just in it for themselves.

  8. Allen Wilson says:

    I forgot to add that Edmund Burke would probably give his approval to this book.