GEORGE BERNARD SHAW.* As a general rule we do not
much value critical monographs upon living authors. There is not only a want of perspective, but there is usually a reticence—the reticence of good manners, the oppression, as we might say, of contemporaneous- ness—to defraud the reader of the truth. But now and then, especially when the subject of the inquiry is by way of teaching or influencing, such inquiries may be necessary, and are likely to be helpful and profitable. The book before us would come within that class if it were the work of a plainer and less brilliant mind, for undoubtedly not only does Mr. Shaw's philosophy need defining, but his wheel often wants skidding too ; yet as it is, we cannot consider it so much a useful guide to "G. B. S." as a suggestive and whimsical extension of the personality of "0. K. C." Mr. Chesterton no doubt set out to analyse and codify with businesslike precision;
• George Bernard Stew. By G. K. Chesterton. London: John Lane. De. net.]
but himself was too much for him. He tries to hold the microscope in his left hand, but often after laying it down for a moment takes up a mirror instead. For ourselves, we do not / mind ; we consider Mr. Chesterton an intellect as original and fearless as Mr. Shaw, and the examination of Mr. Shaw has led him to a number of acute and ingenious reflections upon life which will be of interest even to those over whom the initials "G. B. S." exert little or no spell. Indeed, although Mr. Shaw is the subject of this book, and Mr. Chesterton has done his best to keep to the point, we feel that a not very similar result would have been attained had he placed upon the title-page the name of one far less worthy of his steel.
The case of Mr. Shaw is a remarkable one, not to be over- looked. He has a following ; he stands for certain negations and certain affirmations. Without any of the cosmic raillery, the delight in mischief, that makes the observer of Ferney human even when most destructive, he has much of Voltaire's cold logic and has set out to perform much the same task. That is to say, a large part of his work is directed to the discrediting of superstition. Voltaire, however, with all his steely reason, was yet a man and frail. Mr. Shaw glitters impeccable on the outskirts of every crowd ; he is never of it. Perhaps the passages in which Mr. Chesterton remarks upon this aloofness from the world and detachment from the ordinary joys, troubles, and temptations of life are the best in the book :—
"What then is the colour of this Irish society of which Bernard Shaw, with all his individual oddity, is yet an essential type? One generalisation, I think, may at least be made. Irelandhas in it a quality which caused it (in the most ascetic age of Christianity) to be called the Land of Saints ' •, and which still might give it a claim to be called the Land of "Virgins. An Irish Catholic priest once said to me, 'There is in our people a fear of the passions which is older even than Christianity.' Everyone who has read Shaw's play upon Ireland will remember the thing in the horror of the Irish girl at being Eased in the public streets. But anyone who knows Shaw's work will recognise it in Shaw himself. . . . . . However he may shout profanities or seek to. shatter the shrines, there is always something about him which suggests that in a sweeter and more solid civilisation he would have been a great saint. He would have been a saint of a sternly ascetic, perhaps of a sternly negative type. But he has this strange note of the saint in him, that he is literally unworldly. Worldliness has no human magic for him; he is not bewitched by rank nor drawn on by conviviality at all. He could not understand the intellectual surrender of the snob. He is perhaps a defective character, but he is not a mixed one. All the virtues he has are heroic virtues. Shaw is like the Venus of Milo ; all that there is of him is admirable But here comes the paradox of Shaw; the greatest of all his paradoxes and the one of which he is uncon- scious. These one or two plain truths which quite stupid people learn at the beginning are exactly the one or two truths which Bernard Shaw may not learn even at the end. He is a daring pilgrim who has set out from the grave to find the cradle. He started from points of view which no one else was clever enough to discover, and he is at last discovering points of view which no one else was ever stupid enough to ignore. This absence of the. red-hot truisms of boyhood, this sense that he is not rooted in the ancient sagacities of infancy, has, I think, a great deal to do with his position as a member of an alien minority in Ireland. He who has no real country can have no real home. The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth ; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth. But we must not expect any of these elemental and collective virtues in the man of the garrison. He cannot be expected to exhibit the virtues of a people, but only (as Ibsen, would say) of an enemy of the people. Mr. Shaw has no living traditions, no schoolboy tricks, no college customs, to link him with other men. Nothing about him can be supposed to refer to a family feud or to a family joke. He does not drink toasts ; he does not keep anniversaries ; musical as he is I doubt if he would consent to sing. All this has something in it of a tree with its roots in the air. The best way to shorten winter is to prolong Christmas ; and the only way to enjoy the sun of April is to be an- April Fool. When people asked Bernard Shaw to attend the Stratford tercentenary he wrote back with characteristic contempt:
do not keep my own birthday, and I cannot see why I should keep Shakespeare's.' I think that if Mr. Shaw had always kept his own birthday he would be better able to understand Shakespeare's birthday—and Shakespeare's poetry."
Just as Mr. Shaw is separated from Voltaire by this frigid self-control and ascetic front, so is he divided from another great mocker and political ironist by his total inability to understand poetry. Heine's emotional heart and miraculous sense of language are alike foreign to this latter-day iconoclast Mr. Shaw, who knows so much, deliberately disregards the element of romance and wonder in the human mind ; nor does one ever receive the impression as one reads him that he has the faintest sense of the beauty of words. The vocabulary to him is a weapon ; no more. It is never a pleasure. He has even stated that any one can write Shakespearean blank verse; and in a few hours he once re- wrote a novel about a prize-fighter in that medium to prove it It is true that it was a tour de force, and a very amusing one; but one can only marvel at the bumps of a man who
could mistake such facile decasyllabics for the real thing.
The writer with whom Mr. Shaw has most points in common is Nietzsche. of whom he is, if of any one, a disciple. Like Nietzsche, he would make every man think and act for himself, no matter what the consequences, so long as there was sincerity at the back of his actions. But Nietzsche had a wild vision —mad, if you will, but very wonderful—totally beyond Mr. Shaw's very mundane gaze. Mr. Shaw is far more superficial. A very trivial anomaly gives him too much pleasure. With unparalleled dexterity he reveals the subterfuges and mockeries of our poor society, calling the
while upon his audiences to be more reasonable and have done with compromise. And all the time compromise, whether we like it or not, is the life-blood of society. Without it as a butt Mr. Shaw would cease to be. Probably no dramatist living would make a poorer show than he with a play of barbaric characters and elemental passions. At least half his
stage humour, perhaps more, is dependent upon the forms and ceremonies of civilisation. Remove them and he would be inoperative. Even as it is, his brilliant materialism can pall. In his description of You Never Can Tell Mr. Chesterton
puts his finger on the cause. He writes :— •
"And yet if anyone will read this blazing farce and then after it any of the romantic farces, such as Pickwick or even The Wrong Boa, I do not think he will be disposed to erase or even to modify what I said at the beginning about the ingrained grimness and even inhumanity of Shaw's art. To take but one teat: love, in an extravaganza,' may be light love or love in idleness, but it should be hearty and happy love if it is to add to the general hilarity. Such are the ludicrous brit lucky love affairs of the sportsman -Winkle and the Maestro Jimson. In Gloria's collapse before her 'bullying lover there is something at once cold and unclean ; it calls up all the modern supermen with their cruel and fishy eyes. Such farces should begin in a friendly air, in a tavern. There is some- thing very symbolic of Shaw in the fact that his farce begins in a dentist's."
But it is not part of our purpose to attempt in a brief review to define Mr. Shaw. Mr. Chesterton has taken a volume and has filled it with definitions, some of them, as those cited indicate, remarkably shrewd, and some rather too wilfully ingenious, and all a little overweighted with emphasis in Mr. Chesterton's generous, abundant way. Positive words have little interest for him to-day, if ever they had. This intensifying of adjectives we do not greatly resent, even if others do; because they are a characteristic part of his mind. The ordinary critic or essayist shuts himself in his study and works in private until his conclusions are completed, and he then offers the result. But Mr. Chesterton does nothing of the kind. He flings open the doors and windows and calls us up to see his reasoning in the making ; we go along with him, we are in at the birth. It is not that he is intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity: he is not verbose; he is intoxicated with the importance and novelty of his own discoveries.
Such delight does not, however, make for the best propor- tions in critical monography ; and we must confess to having fbund this work a little monotonous,—the monotony of brilliance, we admit, but monotony no less. The fault of Mr. Chesterton is that he is an oasis with no desert. He offers the dazzled eye no dull stretches of sand on which to rest. His procession of urgent sentences each saying something tires one out. For our own part, we like him better when his essays (this, after all, is only a long essay) are briefer. To deal with one thing at a time is of course impossible to so ardent and tumultuous a mind, but for sheer reasons of space he must necessarily deal with fewer things in three pages than in three hundred.