Books and Booklets. The Philosophy of a Farceur [G.B. Shaw]

Man and Superman, by G. Bernard Shaw.

Said my friend of the Civil Service, “You should read Shaw. He will broaden your outlook. You are too narrow and bigoted and pedantic. Marxists always are. Shaw faces facts, he doesn’t blink them. His philosophy embraces them all. Read him !” Then came Mr. Bettany in the Bookman to say “Bernard Shaw … is a profoundly and persistently earnest person.” So that I began to feel that perhaps Shaw had not been fairly treated. It occurred to me that the gorgeous buffoonery of certain of his contributions to newspapers and magazines, or the desperate nonsense of “Fabianism and Empire” which represented the sum total of my knowledge of Shaw’s work, were probably not fair material upon which to base an estimate of a man’s position. Alternatively it was suggested to me that if his position was as faulty as I then thought it, it might have happened that Shaw had considered the error, not to say the silliness, of his ways. How else could the opera bouffe Shaw become the profoundly earnest Shaw ?

Therefore I have recently read the book specially commended to me as an example of the profoundly earnest Shaw, the Shaw of the great and all embracing philosophy, the incisive logician, Shaw. I have read “Man and Superman” and I’m glad I obtained the copy from the free library and risked none of my hardly earned siller in a purchase. The book consists of—

(a) An epistle dedicatory to A. B. Walkley.
(b) The play “Man and Superman.”
(c) The Revolutionist’s Handbook.
(d) Maxims for Revolutionists.

With regard to (a) there is nothing to be said except that I’m sorry for Mr. Walkley and hope he knows what Mr. Shaw is talking about. If he does—and as Mr. Shaw claims him for something in the nature ol a kindred spirit he may—he is probably the only one, apart from Mr. Shaw (although I am inclined to make no exception of Mr. Shaw even), in that happy (or is it unhappy ?) position, he is the Superman !

(b) Is of so much importance to the elaboration and explanation of Mr. Shaw’s theme that it can he taken out of the book entirely as extraneous matter ! The play, with the exception of an interlude in Hell, in which Don Juan holds prosy converse with the devil upon various philosophic issues greatly to the discomfort ol the latter has no material connection with the conservation of the Life Force which Mr. Shaw is concerned to expound, and seems to have been introduced to fill the book out and to give the writer an opportunity for the manufacture of a few grotesque situations, a few flouts at what is known as respectability, a few gibes at convention and a few sneers at Socialists of the type that Mr. Shaw has specially created for his own amusement, a type that exists only in the perverted imagination of Mr. Shaw and the imaginations of those who swear by him—like my civil servant—and who, although they heroically assume the label “Socialist” for certain genteel and cultured functions at which they can pose effectively as personifications of heterodoxy and advanced thought, know so little of Socialism and its champions that they are unaware that their leader has, to utilise a useful colloquialism, “sold them a pup.”

Mr. Shaw’s method in this, as in his other efforts, is the method of the iconoclast run mad. Every conception of good, every aspiration to the higher and nobler, is, in common with the expressions of convention and orthodoxy, transformed into idols only to be knocked down and danced npon. The false and the true, the just and the unjust, meet an identical fate. Why not ? Mr. Shaw has a reputation to maintain. He is expected to do these things. And he will continue to do them until the “intellectuals” whom he patronises and who patronise him, have found another god to break the idol, Shaw.

The play consists in great part of a tilt against the marriage convention. The man (Tannar) who is aware of the operation of the Life Force which makes man the quarry and woman the eternal hunter, has fled from the woman (Ann) who, animated by the same force, has marked him out as the predestined father of the child she is to bear. She has overtaken him, and their courtship, so sacred a proceeding to orthodoxy, finds expression thus—

Tannar—And do you care for me ?
Ann—Now, Jack, behave yourself.
Tannar—Infamous, abandoned woman ! Devil !
Ann—Boa-constrictor ! Elephant!

After which they marry ! Their offspring might easily have been Councillor McAllen if heredity can transmit a predisposition to the use of similar language.

However, the play in this case is not the thing. The thing is

c) The Revolutionist’s Handbook. In it Mr. Shaw sets out his gospel and his philosophy. To him nothing matters except the production of the mentally fit. Physical fitness is subservient to, although he is obliged to concede that is necessary to the mental. And Mr. Shaw, the facile and the incisive, works to his conclusions by the extraordinary process of swallowing the propositions of those whose opinions he derides as unsound and unscientific, although he endeavours to cover the weakness of his position with a profusion of “flashy” words and pseudo-cynical comments sufficient to gladden the hearts of the shallow pates who hail him genius.

We learn that although revolutionists make too much of the obstacles set up by property, the very first condition to the production of the Superman is that every person should be trained and nourished as a possible parent; which implies the abrogation of property because property in the hands of a class means the subjugation and enslavement of the propertyless, and produces the very conditions that constitute the problem, creates the very obstacles to the effectual handling of it.

Again, the practical abrogation of property and marriage, the two institutions having the greatest hold upon the mass of the people, yet the two which must be broken down before it is possible to successfully experiment in the procreation of the mentally fit, will, we are assured, occur without being much noticed, and this notwithstanding that “God himself cannot raise a people above its own level.” On the one hand one of the greatest changes of all is to be effected without the people knowing anything about it, and on the other no change worth talking about can be wrought except by the consent of these same people, a consent that is dependent upon understanding, as Mr. Shaw is at pains to emphasize with predictions of catastrophe, unless we can have a democracy of Supermen ! Which seems as intelligent a presentation as the Keir Hardie idea of Socialism coming as a thief in the night.

From whence then will the superfine mental mechanism of mankind come, and how ? Mr. Shaw apparently doesn’t know, but he is sure it must be born of a woman (which isn’t exactly profound) and must be the result of careful investigation and experiment (which isn’t exceedingly helpful).

He talks of possible human stud farms, either privately or State controlled and the like, but he does not deal with the question of first importance in this connection, viz., how every person is to be properly trained and nourished as a possible parent.

The whole of his argument elaborately evades this point. We are treated to page alter page of the usual fantastic and irrelevant flummery that will doubtless satisfy an “intellectual,” but will hardly mislead a serious student even of elementary political economy.

The fact is of course, that only by the removal of the obstacles set up by the present form of property ownership can the conditions favourable to the birth of super-witted men aud women be secured. And those obstacles can only be removed, as it would seem Mr. Shaw is obliged to allow, by an intelligent democracy understanding the underlying causes of the present property relationship and ready to apply the remedy.

And what are those underlying causes ?

They consist of the private possession of the machinery of production and the consequent oppression and exploitation of the non-possessors of that machinery. And the remedy ? Clearly the public ownership and control of the machinery from which alone the property owner derives his power, and the exercise of which results in the creation and aggravation of the problem Mr. Shaw set out to deal with.

We cannot move a step without being forcibly brought up against tiio obstacles raised by property. Mr. Snaw may squirm and wriggle and throw off a cloud of words in his endeavour to escape facing the results of the contention which his desire to score off the low-bred Marxists has led him to make. But he will have to come back in the last resort to their position, and although he will no doubt carry off his own humiliation by a display of rhetorical fireworks of super brilliancy, he must eat his leek, nevertheless.

I read Shaw for the improvement of my mind, but Shaw has no material wherewith to broaden it. His wonderful philosophy based upon a recognition of the persistence of the Life Force is absorbed with the first milk of every student of biology. His indictment of convention and orthodoxy has no merit of originality. His pessimistic estimate of the possibilities of the working-class population is no more than the outcome of a superficial survey of industrial evolution, a survey that takes no serious cognizance of the dependency of all expressions of human activity upon methods of production, and that therefore neither appreciates the fact that the stupidity and apathy of the working-class are directly tracable to their centuries old subjugation, nor that the removal of the forces that keep them in subjection (the obstacles set up by property) will ensure their rehabilitation as—if Mr. Shaw pleases—potential supermen. Mr. Shaw has no message for the earnest enquirer after the truth. He has built his reputation upon an extensive vocabulary, a literary smartness that serves only to lead him into impossible positions, and a certain ability to lampoon. With sublime and characteristic conceit he has repeatedly asserted his capacity to bury the reputation of Marx. It would be wiser if he first of all took the trouble to read him.

The final few pages of the book are made up of (d) Maxims for Revolutionistss, some of which are smart euough. But they suffer from the Shavian lack of discrimination already referred to. The method is easy enough. We take an accepted maxim, such as, say, “Honour thy father and thy mother and thy days shall be long in the land,” and we change it into “Don’t worry about the honor due to your father and mother or your days are not likely to be very lengthy.” It would be no difficult task for a man with some skill with the pen to manufacture a few such “maxims.” Set among some of the genuine articles it would, I doubt not, puzzle many of the most enthusiastic diciples of Mr. Shaw to divide the sheep from the goats.

However, the book will, I expect, find lodgement in the flats of the faithful and on the shelves of “culture.” It is by G.B.S., and G.B.S. happens to be the thing just now.


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