Bernard Shaw: A Biography by Michael Holroyd. Random House.; Three volumes, each $24.95. ($15.95 paper)
September 1, 1992        

The most famous European writer of the first half of the twentieth century was not Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Mann, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Rilke, Lawrence, Brecht, Gide, or Pasternak. In fact, if one could somehow quantify literary celebrity, I suspect these dozen immortals would scarcely make up his sum. Perhaps the most surprising revelation in Michael Holroyd’s immense biography is the degree to which this period was the Age of Shaw. His plays were performed, his books sold, his lectures attended, his travels reported, his opinions publicized, his correspondence engaged, and his philanthropy solicited (usually successfully) at a staggering rate. “Of his influence,” Edmund Wilson concluded in 1936, “it is not necessary to speak. The very methods we use to check him have been partly learned in his school.”

Of Shaw’s influence it may once again be necessary to speak. “The confusions of his politics,” Wilson judged, “have not invalidated his social criticism.” Today, however, Commentary’s reviewer of Bernard Shaw judges differently: “ [I]n the wake of the worldwide collapse of Communism, it is hard to see how Shaw can continue to be taken seriously as a playwright of ideas.” Hard, perhaps, but worth the effort.

Holroyd is helpful on this score, though not authoritative, since his main interest in Shaw is not ideological but psychological. What made G.B.S. run, and in so many directions? Holroyd’s answers are suggested by the titles of the biography’s three volumes, especially the first. “In the lost childhood of Sonny [Shaw’s family nickname],” Holroyd proposes, “the philosophy of G.B.S. was conceived.” Shaw’s father was ineffectual and a drinker; his mother largely ignored her husband and son in favor of her gifted daughters and, especially, her voice teacher, the romantic, enigmatic George Vandeleur Lee. The family was shabby-genteel, ignored by respectable relatives on both sides. Young Sonny had only his imagination to entertain and comfort him. It was, Shaw later wrote, a “devil of a only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities.”

Biographer and subject differ about what Sonny made of this bleak beginning. Shaw usually professed gratitude for benign parental neglect, to which (along with the Irish climate) he attributed his “humorous power of resisting sentimental illusions.” Holroyd demurs. “Replacing mordant sentimentality by ‘eternal derision,’ Sonny began to laugh pain out of existence.” Began and continued, until, at the end, “what he had done was not (as he claimed) to change dreaming for reality, but to replace the first loveless reality with one dream and then another.”

Explaining Shaw (or anyone) without diminishing him requires considerable tact. By and large, Holroyd succeeds: he proves his case but does not make too much of it. A great many of us, after all, have had a devil of a childhood. The relentless Shavian critique of romantic love and other “sentimental illusions” may have originated in early unmet needs, but it issued it sublime word—music and scintillating dramatic dialectics. “Neurosis may be the occasion,” as Philip Rahv wrote of Kafka, “but literature is the consequence.”

Shaw himself insisted that he cared only for making effective propaganda and not a whit for making literature. History always gets the last laugh, however, even on a prince of jesters. Shaw’s dramaturgy is now pretty generally esteemed, while his political and philosophical opinions, when not ignored, are condescended to in the manner of Commentary’s reviewer. My own view is that people who do not take Shaw seriously need not be taken seriously.

About his character, at any rate, there can be no dispute. Shaw was a secular saint. He gave away his time, money, and advice without reserve and with exquisite tact; and in the course of a long and fantastically eventful life, he seems never to have done a mean deed or spoken a cruel or dishonest word. He was as good as he was clever-- and what more can one say than that?

Still, how about “the confusions of his politics”? During and after his trip to the USSR in 1931, Shaw was given to saying things like “I wish we had forced labour in England, in which case we would not have 2,000,000 unemployed” and “Our question is not to kill or not to kill, but how to select the right people to kill. …The essential difference between the Russian liquidator with his pistol (or whatever his humane killer may be) and the British hangman is that they do not operate on the same person.” If Shaw was so wise and good, then how, the question may arise (needless to say, Commentary’s reviewer rubs our noses in it), did he wind up a Stalinist?

He didn’t, exactly. This answer, however, calls for a few distinctions. Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley Jr., Paul Johnson, and George Will have all published apologetics for, or urged policies in support of, severely authoritarian right-wing regimes or movements. Yet it would never occur to me to label any of them a “fascist.” There are degrees of obloquy. Podhoretz et al. are intelligent, earnest people with a very firm grasp of several half— (or quarter—) truths. Shaw’s utterances on the Soviet Union were unfortunate, even appalling. But to classify-- especially for the purpose of summarily dismissing-- someone as a “Stalinist” who devoted, I would guess, considerably less than one-tenth of one percent of his oeuvre to discussion (in any case, not wholly uncritical) of Soviet Communism is unfair, and even a little absurd. Shaw is simply too large a phenomenon to cram into that cubbyhole.

There are qualitative as well as quantitative considerations. Take this familiar passage from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the Russian purges ... can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face .... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. ... Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

'While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.'"

The clear implication of Orwell’s essay is that a Stalinist is necessarily a hack. But Shaw was incapable of mere cant, of “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” He could no more write a stale, ugly, clumsily obfuscating sentence than could Orwell himself. (Or Podhoretz or Alexander Cockburn.) In the comments I quoted a few paragraphs ago, Shaw does not waffle about “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” being “unavoidable.” He says “kill” (four times in a short passage, like waving a Vietcong flag at an American Legion convention) and “forced labour.” These sentences are not apologetics, they are a provocation. A Stalinist could not have written them; Stalinists are capable of sarcasm, but not of irony.

“I am tired,” Shaw wrote in his eighties, “of the way in which the newspapers ... continue to make it appear that I am an admirer of dictatorship. All my work shows the truth to be otherwise.” Not quite all, but most of it does, from the Fabian Essays to “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” to Common Sense About the War to The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism to Everybody’s Political What’s What. Shaw blamed this misunderstanding, with much justification, on the brainlessness and bad faith of the capitalist press. He knew, as Holroyd points out, quoting a sympathetic contemporary journalist, that “if he said nine things favorable to the Soviet Union and one thing hostile, the reporters would cable over to America the one hostile comment and suppress the nine favorable.” (Much as opponents of the Vietnam War who criticized the postwar regime frequently saw their statements appear stripped of qualifications and context, thereby assisting the rehabilitation of the interventionist consensus.) And so, exasperated, Shaw would say “ten favorable and not one thing hostile.”

It was a no-win situation, and Shaw made the worst of it by tossing those verbal stink bombs about the desirability of forced labor and the problem of choosing the right people to kill. To the degree these remarks were jokes, they were in execrable taste; to the degree they were not, they were something worse. Still, let no one condemn Shaw without appreciating what provoked these (infrequent) outbursts of savage misanthropy. Shaw was not “some comfortable English professor” of the sort scoffed at by Orwell. He was poor into his forties, worked sixteen hours a day all his life, and gave thousands of speeches to workers’ groups, church groups, women’s groups, and anyone else who asked, without ever accepting a fee. He knew the British working class quite as intimately as Orwell did, or as Silone knew the Italian peasantry. He was perhaps the most important feminist of this century. His was the sanest and bravest voice in England during the First World War. But the popular credulity, chauvinism, and bloodlust evoked by that war, as well as the cowardice and conformism of editors, other authors, and Labour politicians, wounded and disillusioned him. His anti-democratic vein was, at least in part, the spitefulness of the rejected suitor. In a sense, it showed how much he still cared.

The refractoriness of the masses is a perennial embarrassment to the honest democrat. The temptation either to abandon some part of one’s democratic ideals or to take refuge in sentimental illusions is enormous, and Shaw did not always succeed in resisting it. What can be said in his defense is that hardly anyone else has, either.

Stalinism is a red herring; but were Shaw’s politics authoritarian, hierarchical, elitist? Didn’t the Fabian strategy of socialism by installments, supervised by enlightened civil servants, amount to forcing people to be free, or perhaps tricking us into it, or at any rate dispensing with our participation in our own liberation An almost entirely nationalized economy, the state as virtually sole employer—it sounds pretty dubious in 1992.

Shaw was not blind to the dangers of state control. Apropos of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s famous report to the British government on poverty and social policy, which became the program of the Fabian Society, he observed:

"These proposals are the most valuable yet made; and for years to come our main business will be to induce the country to accept them. And yet…consider what they mean. …We shall be serfs of the bureaucracy…We are to be drilled like soldiers of the bureaucrats cannot find us a job and if they find us one and we do not choose to take it, they are to haul us off to a penal colony and flog us… if it pleases them to allege that this is the right way to deal with refractory laborers. No such total abrogation of personal liberty has been proposed for white men since liberalism was invented."

Again no euphemism, no cloudy vagueness. William F. Buckley Jr. himself could scarcely wax more eloquent or, apparently, indignant.

"What are the safeguards [Shaw continued] against the abuse of this appalling extension of bureaucratic power? In the[Webb’s] report, absolutely none. It is left an open question whether…democracy and representative government will be a sufficient protection … or constitutional guarantees of some sort … or whether we are to imagine that all the new bureaucrats will be Sidney Webbs."

Shaw, naturally, has an answer to this all-important open question. “In a Social-Democratic state…everybody would be an official, or ex-official, or a future official, or the relative or at all events the unquestionable equal of an official.” They royal road to this blessed condition of universal social and political equality was to be equality of income. In a formulation that provoked even his fellow Fabians, he wrote: “Socialism means equality of income and nothing else.” What he actually meant was that from equality of income everything else followed. In The Intelligent Woman’s Guide Shaw argued at length (and persuasively—it’s a pity he was not around to make mincemeat of Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick) that no other principle of distribution is just or efficient. Allot exactly equal shares of the national product to every adult and child, and both the motive and means of bureaucratic abuse, commercial fraud, featherbedding, the subjection of women, racial discrimination and all the other injustices and inefficiencies of class society would be enormously diminished if not eliminated. Of course any institutional arrangement can be undermined by a lack of popular comprehension or consent. But once real social power—i.e., money—is distributed equally, it will at least no longer be impossible to distribute security, leisure, interesting work, and other social goods fairly.

Whatever one things of Shaw’s scheme (Michael Walzer’s criticisms of “simple equality” in Spheres of Justice are relevant, though not, to my mind decisive), the history of Soviet-style pseudo-socialism has almost no bearing on it. The essence of Fabianism was gradualism: a series of carefully prepared and legislated nationalizations. This partly for reasons of efficiency, because expropriation of resources without a plan for their alternative use was a mere doctrinaire revolutionism; but equally important, from a decent respect for public opinion. The Fabians may have been elitists, but they were above all (or underneath all) utilitarians, pragmatists, disciples of John Stuart Mill, and therefore persuaded of the ultimate futility of large-scale coercion. Perhaps some Bolsheviks were similarly persuaded. But the small purchase of liberalism in Russian political and moral culture, and still more important, the immediate and unremitting threat of violent overthrow from within and without, rendered any such conviction nugatory.

“Political drudgery has swamped my literary career altogether,” Shaw grumbled in 1889. The drudgery lasted another sixty years, but his literary career apparently made a comeback. Holroyd’s literary criticism is uneven; his discussion of Shaw’s five novels and of the late, now mostly unread and unperformed plays (The Apple Cart, Too True to Be Good, On the Rocks, Geneva, Village Wooing etc.) is useful, but only when relating the work to the life, and especially to the early life, does he put his heart into it. His psychologizing is deft, persuasive, and up to a point-- the point that marks off biography from criticism-- rewarding. But a great deal lies beyond that point.

To be fair to Holroyd, there may not be much that’s fresh or original to say about Creative Evolution, the Superman, the New Woman, and the rest of Shaw’s characteristic themes. As Holroyd notes: “Even before his death ... in 1950, infinitely more had been written about Shaw than about any other modern writer.” Presumably Holroyd, having read most or all of this commentary, saw no point in adding to it, especially since he had a mass of new material (this is the first biography written with the full cooperation of Shaw’s estate, and took fifteen years to research and write) and a new interpretive angle. I cannot fault his choice, but I also cannot resist, in conclusion, gnawing just a bit at those old bones myself.

Though his long life spanned both eras, Shaw is usually, and plausibly, classed as one of the last Victorians rather than as one of the first modernists. In “The Culture of Modernism,” Irving Howe describes the modernist as “disdainful of certainty,” and prone to “extreme subjectivity”; as one who experiences “a choking nausea before the idea of culture” and who “despairs of human history,” turning instead to a “preoccupation with psychic inwardness.” The modernist writer typically “strives for sensations,” has “little use for ‘wisdom,’” and becomes “entranced with the depths.” Howe concludes: “If there is in literary modernism a dominant preoccupation ... it is the specter of nihilism.” Few twentieth-century writers resemble this description less than Shaw. His temperament was robustly, almost bewilderingly, healthy; for all his political disappointment and philosophical skepticism, his energy and reformist zeal never flagged. Perhaps, his critics have suggested, he was blind to the specter of nihilism; perhaps he never outgrew the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment. That was Thomas Mann’s suspicion:

"The knotted muscles of Tolstoy bearing up the full burden of morality, Atlas-like; Strindberg, who was in hell; the martyr’s death Nietzsche died on the cross of thought: it is these that inspire us with the reverence of tragedy; but in Shaw there was nothing of all this. Was he beyond such things, or were they beyond him?"

Few nowadays, I imagine, can conceive of getting beyond such things. We beleaguered moderns and postmoderns are more likely to assume that anyone who laughs as incorrigibly as Shaw cannot have heard, or comprehended, the terrible news. But Shaw had heard it. He merely doubted there was anything more to be learned from it than ought to have been learned from the Albigensian Crusade, the Thirty Years War, and innumerable other episodes of murderous insanity limited in scale only by available technology. The question remained (and remains): is it likely that our culture, morality, and physiology will in one, five, ten, twenty, fifty thousand years, or as far as thought can reach, be essentially the same as today’s?

If not, can we learn something of fundamental importance for the present by reflecting on what they might be, or on what we want them to be? Romantic love, freedom-and-dignity, family loyalty, patriotism, and all the other sentimental illusions may be good enough-- may be indispensable-- for now, i.e., for our species’ childhood, and perhaps even for our adolescence. But are they really the last word? The fact that Shaw put these questions more explicitly and intelligibly than Nietzsche does not mean that Shaw is a greater thinker than Nietzsche, any more than the fact that Mill was right about logic and ethics while Plato was wrong means that Mill was a greater philosopher than Plato. What it does mean is that Shaw was no mere fantasist and that Back to Methuselah-- his self-designated magnum opus which, thankfully, Holroyd discusses at the length, if not the depth, it deserves-- is, for all its flaws, an awesome achievement and absurdly underestimated today.

* * * * * * * *

Though Holroyd is not, like this reviewer, a true believer, Bernard Shaw is also, in its way, a great achievement. It is witty, well-paced, thorough, astute, elegantly written, and beautifully illustrated. Shaw is quoted aptly and copiously, as is nearly everything notable said in praise or disparagement of him by his contemporaries. My favorite is from Yeats’s autobiography. I am not sure which category it belongs in.

"It was the prerogative of youth to take sides, and when Wilde said: “Mr. Bernard Shaw has no enemies but is intensely disliked by all his friends”, I knew it to be a phrase I should never forget, and felt revenged upon a notorious hater of romance, whose courage and generosity I could not fathom."