George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 57
The Life Force

BERNARD SHAW PRESENTED IN HIMSELF ONE OF THE MOST BAFFLING COMPOSITES in the history of literature. The great universal emotions, to which every individual responds--love, romance, sentiment, sexual passion, patriotism, consanguineous fidelity, family solidarity--left him cold. Nay, more; they found in him an unyielding foe, a relentless satirist. In the imaginative phantasmagoria, The Dream in Hell, Don Juan defines hell as the "home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness," as the "only refuge from heaven, which is the home of the masters of reality, and from earth, which is the home of the slaves of reality." With a directness of style and a glorified common sense, Shaw created an impression of startling realism in his writings. Yet this most forthright and lucid of writers was profoundly mystic, intensely pursuing an ideal--not of art or poetry, realism or romance, although these are by-products of his genius. His ideal was Life, the intensification and glorification of the vitality and mystic urge of the race.

Shaw was a pontifical artist, a rhetorician of the intellect. In spite of his continual play upon personal characteristics, as a dramatist he was essentially an ideologue and a thinker. From out the mephitic cloud in which love and sex are enveloped, he would disengage the universal, racial purpose of the propagation of the species from the mere personal prepossessions which, apart from their use as clues to eugenic sexual selection, are comparatively negligible and transient. Again and again he assured me that the passion for thought was the strongest of all the passions; and that this passion for intellectual analysis and philosophic generalization animated the entire body not only of his work but of all great and enduring literary structures. "Let the Sapphos and Swinburnes sing as sweetly as they can," he observed to me, "when we think of great poets we think of their brains, not of their concupiscences."

When I first pronounced him a philosopher and put forward the first reasoned exposition of his philosophy,1 the notion of Shaw, the public jester and Socialist crank, as a philosopher was greeted in many quarters, particularly in England, with skepticism and derision.

During his last forty years, Shaw's philosophy broadened and deepened,

____________________
1
Archibald Henderson, "The Philosophy of Bernard Shaw," The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1909. Consult also Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Work ( Cincinnati, 1911), Chapter IV, "Artist and Philosopher."

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