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«Chapter Two Man and Superman Shaw’s Non-Dramatic Writings haw was a failed novelist, and a successful journalist and critic before he became a ...»

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Chapter Two

Man and Superman

Shaw’s Non-Dramatic Writings

haw was a failed novelist, and a successful journalist and critic

before he became a playwright. His criticism for newspapers,

although interesting and voluminous, frequently deals with

subjects that are not relevant to the central issue of his relations

to contemporary philosophical ideas. His three extended attempts at criticism, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, The Perfect

Wagnerite, and The Sanity of Art, are of more immediate interest and will each receive a brief discussion in the sections that follow.

Reinhold Grimm and Michael Holroyd have both described a

Max Beerbohm cartoon that depicts Shaw:

Max was to draw a cricature of Shaw bringing a bundle of clothes to the Dutch critic, Georg Brandes (who is represented as a pawnbroker) and asking for immortality in exchange for the lot. Brandes protests, “Come, I’ve handled these goods before!

Coat, Mr Schopenhauer’s; waistcoat, Mr Ibsen’s; Mr Nietzsche’s trousers—.” To which Shaw answers: “Ah, but look at the patches!”1 The previous chapter has been devoted to showing the clothes that Shaw used and patched together to form the philosophic basis of his dramas and his beliefs. It is time now to look at the patched garments that Shaw stitched together from the philosophic clothing of his predecessors.

Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah are not isolated incidents in Shaw’s literary life. Throughout a long and active literary career he continually asserted his belief in the primacy of the will, and he just as vociferously expressed his belief in evolution. To show the continuity and development of Shaw’s philosophy, it is necessary to do some preliminary work and to look at his evolutionary dramas in the context of their development.2 Shaw’s literary career began with several attempts at novel writing, and, when that proved unsuccessful, he eventually turned to journalism. The journalism took the form of art, music, and theater criticism for a number of different papers and literary journals, but because of its essentially ephemeral nature, it is not as relevant to our discussion as his more extended dramatic, musical, and artistic essays.

1 Holroyd, Power, 69. For Grimm’s description see his “The Hidden Heritage: Repercussions of Nietzsche in Modern Theater and its Theory,” Nietzsche-Studien: Internationales Jahrbuch für dieNietzsche-Forschung, 12 (1983) 355. Grimm’s article is concerned mostly with an evaluation of the influence of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

2 This is, as Kaufmann says, the appropriate way to read Nietzsche, “rück- und vorsichtig: with consideration and caution—but the contrast of the two prefixes which literally mean “back’ and ‘fore’ also suggests that he needs to be read with an eye for what comes before and after…” (Kaufmann, Mind, II, 154). It seems to be appropriate to Shaw as well.

–  –  –

The Quintessence of Ibsenism and Schopenhauerean Will The Quintessence was originally written in 1891 and was subsequently revised by Shaw in 1913. The revisions consisted of additional material that related to Ibsen’s last four plays, The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken.

Other material that appears to have been added includes his comments on Strindberg and his plea for an Ibsen theater. The Quintessence, as it exists in the Ayot St. Laurence edition of Shaw’s collected works, consists of about 100 pages of material from the original 1891 3 (Letters, I, 621). See also page 76, above.

edition and about twenty-five to sixty pages added in 1913. Most of the material that we are concerned with appears, in fact, in the first eighty or so pages of the work and can safely be assumed to represent material from the 1891 edition.

The Quintessence starts by describing the two types of pioneers “of the march to heaven.” These represent two attitudes towards moral doctrine:

The second, whose eyes are in the back of his head, is the man who declares that it is wrong to do something that no one has hitherto seen any harm in.

The first, whose eyes are very longsighted and in the usual place, is the man who declares that it is right to do something hitherto regarded as infamous.

The second is treated with great respect by the army. They give him testimonials; name him the Good Man; and hate him like the devil.

The first is stoned and shrieked at by the whole army. The call him all manner of opprobrious names; grudge him his bare bread and water; and secretly adore him as their saviour from utter despair. (15) Shaw gives as an example of a proposition from the second type of pioneer: “It is wrong to kill animals and eat them.” This is taken from Shelley’s avowed vegetarian position, a position that was also Shaw’s. Shaw’s example of a proposition from the first type is: “It is not wrong to take your sister as your wife.” This proposition was also advocated by Shelley (15). One of these propositions advocates abstinence from, and the other advocates indulgence in, certain appetites. In the first case Shelley appears as the gentle advocate of ahimsa (non-injury), a “gentle humanitarian,” while in the second case he appears as a “corrupter of public morals and family life” (16). Shaw postulates that if The Daily Telegraph attacked Ibsen in the same way that The Quarterly Review was wont to attack Shelley, “There must be something of the first pioneer about Ibsen.” Shaw contrasts the attitude of the British newspapers towards Ibsen, as represented by The Daily Telegraph, and the attitude of the progressive reformers towards him. His task, as he conceives it, is to explain how part of the population could regard Ibsen as a pornographer, for a play such as Ghosts, while another portion of the British public could regard him a great “dramatic poet and moral teacher” (18). The Shavian hypothesis is that Ibsen is a moral pioneer and that Ibsen’s pioneering efforts involve the destruction of existing





moral institutions:

…social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones; and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step. (19) One part of this repudiation of duty, and a part that has its share in Shaw’s appraisal of Ibsen’s most famous and most feminist play, is woman’s repudiation of duty. The repudiation of duty means that in theory the freethinker is free to do as he sees fit without the restraint of moral codes. Shaw describes this as appearing to “the pious man” as “claiming the right to rob and murder at large.” Shaw’s contention is that “The freethinker soon finds reasons for not doing what he does not want to do; and these reasons seem to him to be far more binding on our conscience than the precepts of a book of which the infallibility cannot be rationally proved” (20). This position is similar to that described by Sartre in his

essay “Existentialism”:

About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having an a priori existence.…In other words…nothing will be changed if God does not exist.4 Shaw’s derivation of ethics seems to be the same process employed by Sartre’s “French teachers.” This process of substitution does not seem to have the same affective content as

it does for the existentialist. The non-existence of God was a source of anguish for Nietzsche and for the Sartrean existentialist:

The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. 5 The existential angst of Sartre over the nonexistence of God contrasts sharply with that of Shaw. Shaw shares Sartre’s position that certain moral doctrines are not innate, but that they are derived from human teachers and human doctrines. This characteristic is for Shaw a source of rejoicing, while for Sartre it is a source for anguish and concern because it involves man in the responsibility for creating his own values. The moral doctrines that Shaw wishes to enforce, however, are frequently those very practices and doctrines that are advocated by the “pious men.” There is, within the Shavian ethos, no room for divinely inspired moral codes, but neither is there an a priori basis for the imposition of the Shavian or Ibsenite moral code. If the death of God was for Nietzsche a source of anguish, as exemplified in aphorism 125 of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and a source of distress for Sartre, nothing so profound happens in the realm of Shavian ethics. The rejection of faith in a transcendent God leads not to existential angst but to a substitution of one transcendent entity for another. The entity that is substituted is the will.

Shaw recognizes the will as something distinct from reason and identifies it with

Schopenhauer:

In our own century the recognition of the will as distinct from the reasoning machinery began to spread. Schopenhauer was the first among the moderns to appreciate the enormous practical importance of the distinction, and to make it clear to amateur metaphysicians by concrete instances. (22–3)

In a lengthy footnote Shaw clarifies what he means by “the moderns”:

I say the moderns, because the will is our old friend the soul or spirit of man;

and the doctrine of justification, not by works, but by faith, clearly derives its validity from the consideration that no action, taken apart from the will behind it, has any moral character: for example, the acts which make the murJean Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, trans. Bernard Frechtman and Hazel E. Barnes, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957) 21–2.

5 Sartre, 23.

derer and the incendiary infamous are exactly similar to those which make the patriotic hero famous. “Original sin” is the will doing mischief. “Divine grace” is the will doing good. Our fathers, unversed in the Hegelian dialectic, could not conceive that these two, each the negation of the other, were the same.

Schopenhauer's philosophy, like that of all pessimists, is really based on the old view of the will as original sin, and on the 1750-1850 view that the intellect is the divine grace that is to save us from it. It is as well to warn those who fancy that Schopenhauerism is one and indivisible, that acceptance of its metaphysics by no means involves endorsement of its philosophy. (22–3) What is evident here is that Shaw does not care to make careful distinctions. The Schopenhauerian will is not the soul of man; it is a transcendent force that creates a world of illusion. Further, unless Shaw is identifying the will with faith, it would seem more appropriate to identify the will with justification by works, which is the actualization of the potentiality of the will, rather than with justification by faith. Original sin is not the will doing anything at all; it is an inherent tendency in the will to choose evil over good. Hegelianism is dragged in so that an identification can be made between “Original sin” and “Divine Grace.” But grace is a gift from God, and even with Hegelian dialectics the thesis and the antithesis are not the same; they are negations of each other. Shaw’s final remark implies that he sees a distinction between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his metaphysics.

The distinction between these two aspects of Schopenhauer is unclear from Shaw’s footnote. This is a relatively early example of Shaw’s tendency to conflate ideas that may or may not be similar and then to claim that because they are similar that they are identical.6 Similarity, contrary to Shaw, does not imply identity. A Persian cat is similar to a lion (in that both are cats), but it is not identical to a lion. The same principle applies to ideas.

There may be a similarity between the Hindu and the Christian trinities, but they are not identical. Shaw glosses over the distinction between intellectual concepts and postulates their identity.

Shaw’s letter to Archer of 25th October 1891, cited above, repeats the distinction between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his metaphysics. In this letter he contended that the distinction between intellect and will was a natural fact. The metaphysical aspect of Schopenhauer is evidently, for Shaw, the distinction between the intellect and the will.

The philosophical aspect, again for Shaw, is to be found in the pessimism and in his “conviction that the will was the devil and the intellect the divine saviour.” 7 Because Shaw has set up an opposition between intellect and will, and has claimed that this will is the same as the will of Schopenhauer, he is able to say that we now recognize ourselves as “willful creatures.” This means a loss of faith in reason as the “prime motor.”Shaw, as we have already seen, refused to think in the conventional channels defined by philosophy. The academic philosopher would dissent from the Shavian identification of certain ideas with other ideas. The academic philosopher would also dissent from Shaw’s division of society into Philistines, idealists, and realists. The latter two terms, in the professional discourse of philosophers, signify specific positions regarding the reality of the external world.8 To Shaw, however, the two terms signify an attitude towards social 6 (Letters, I, 316–7). See also page 75, above.

7 (Letters, I, 316–7). See also page 75, above. Philosophy and metaphysics are not usually separated as Shaw appears to separate them and his distinction is confusing at best.What Shaw appears to mean is that acceptance of the distinction between Will and Idea does not imply acceptance of Schopenhauer’s pessimism.

relations. The Philistine is the everyday citizen who is perfectly happy with existing social relations. The idealist is the person who perceives his own unhappiness as a result of societal prohibition but attempts to rationalize the existing conditions.9 The realist is aware of



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