Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

This is one of those books which, coming to it fresh and with really no knowledge of Shaw and his writing, the introduction is indispensible in understanding what the author is trying to accomplish in the text that follows. In this volume, the introduction comes in the form of an “epistle dedicatory,” a letter, to Shaw’s friend and dramatic critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. In it, Shaw writes:

The world shewn us in books, whether the books be confessed epics or professed gospels, or in codes, or in political orations, or in philosophic systems, is not the main world at all: it is only the self-consciousness of certain abnormal people who have the specific artistic talent and temperament. A serious matter this for you and me, because the man whose consciousness does not correspond to that of the majority is a madman; and the old habit of worshipping madmen is giving way to the new habit of locking them up. And since what we call education and culture is for the most part nothing but the substitution of reading for experience, of literature for life, of the obsolete fictitious for the contemporary real, education, as you no doubt observed at Oxford, destroys, by supplantation, every mind that is not strong enough to see through the imposture and to use the great Masters of Arts as what they really are and no more: that is, patentees of highly questionable methods of thinking, and manufacturers of highly questionable, and for the majority but half valid representations of life. The schoolboy who uses his Homer to throw at his fellow’s head makes perhaps the safest and most rational use of him; and I observe with reassurance that you occasionally do the same, in your prime, with your Aristotle.

Wow. It’s an interesting and complicated web that Shaw weaves in Man and Superman, and this passage is one of the keys to understanding it all. “Supermen” have been sought and identified throughout history, those of each generation believing that they are the ultimate (or perhaps the penultimate) realization of a new form of humanity, wholly and irrevocably different (and better) than the infinite masses of decaying flesh and ideas that came before them.

But does any man seriously believe that the chauffer who drives a motor car from Paris to Berlin is a more highly evolved man than the charioteer of Achilles, or that a modern Prime Minister is a more enlightened ruler than Caesar because he rides a tricycle, writes his dispatches by the electric light, and instructs his stockbroker through the telephone?

Yes, many people do, but Shaw doesn’t. Shaw understands that the vast teeming masses of today’s humanity is not fundamentally different than the vast teeming masses of humanity that existed in Ancient Rome, or even on the prehistoric savannahs of Africa. And those who believe they are Supermen, or who can bring about a race of Supermen through education or tyranny, are wrong and always will be. Given the nature of man, this ideal is not attainable, and those who seek to foment the necessary revolution should heed Shaw’s words:

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.

In other words, since Supermen will always ever be a tiny minority of the population, focused on a societal ideal completely foreign to the millions of men that surround them, any revolution led by them is doomed to end in failure or tyranny.

Now, in the play, there is just such a revolutionist who supposedly wrote most of the words I’ve just quoted—in a “Revolutionist’s Handbook” that Shaw has included as a kind of appendix to Man and Superman. This revolutionist is a self-fashioned Superman named Mr. John Tanner, a gentleman of leisure who spends a good deal of his time rebelling and quoting philosophic aphorisms against the standard and everyday morality of the rest of the characters in the play. Shaw, I believe, is having a bit of fun with the character of John Tanner, using him as a kind of literary experiment, testing the worthiness of Tanner’s revolutionary ideas in the crucible of the drama as he creates it. In this belief, I was again tipped off by a comment he made in his introduction:

Not that I disclaim the fullest responsibility for his [Tanner’s] opinions and for those of all my characters, pleasant and unpleasant. They are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also. This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own. It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace. However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind. Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespear had no conscience. Neither have I, in that sense.

 It’s something I did a fair amount of—to a far less literate degree—in Farchrist Tales, as I forced Gil to struggle with the philosophic reality of his world so I could see how far some of those ideas could be stretched in mine. It seems that Shaw is doing very much the same thing with Tanner in Man and Superman, even giving him authorship of a complete handbook of revolutionary ideas as a primary weapon with which to do battle.

Like Tanner’s speech, his handbook is full of political and philosophical aphorisms. Here’s a smattering of the ones that most struck my fancy:

A movement which is confined to philosophers and honest men can never exercise any real political influence: there are too few of them. Until a movement shews itself capable of spreading among brigands, it can never hope for a political majority.

+ + +

The savage bows down to idols of wood and stone: the civilized man to idols of flesh and blood.

+ + +

Whilst we have prisons it matters little which of us occupy the cells.

+ + +

You cannot believe in honor until you have achieved it. Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

+ + +

We admit that when the divinity we worshipped made itself visible and comprehensible we crucified it.

+ + +

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

+ + +

The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

As you read it, this handbook actually creates kind of its own puzzle for interpreting Shaw’s purpose and meaning in writing Man and Superman. Despite Shaw’s claim in the introduction that he has no conscience—that there is no absolutely right point of view—I can’t help but question if the Superman that Shaw clearly thought himself to be hadn’t decided to cleverly couch his own beliefs in these scribbling of his fictional character. They are certainly radical—calling, as they do, for human eugenics controlled by the few Supermen who have so far emerged among us—so perhaps he thought by more closely aligning them with Tanner they would be less likely to inflame the passions of the throngs of regular men he has warned us about, those who would never allow such a program to take place. Yet, in the guise of fiction, Shaw would have the additional luxury of inflating the ideas for greater dramatic effect, further obscuring them from the reality he held dear. Tanner’s ideas could diverge from Shaw’s own in any number of places, and we would be unlikely to know the difference. Such subterfuge may be necessary because after all, as Shaw—or Tanner—himself says in the handbook:

…the world must remain a den of dangerous animals among whom our few accidental supermen, our Shakespears, Goethes, Shelleys, and their like, must live as precariously as lion tamers do, taking the humor of this situation, and the dignity of their superiority, as a set-off to the horror of the one and the loneliness of the other.

In many ways, I think Shaw  views himself exactly this way, as a lion tamer, and Man and Superman is one of his attempts to take in the humor of that difficult situation.

But maybe that’s overanalyzing things too much.

The drama itself seems to turn on two fundamental concepts. The first is closely aligned with what I’ve discussed so far—there is no absolutely correct way of looking at things, just the popular and the unpopular, and the unpopular, whatever its relative merits to the popular, and however “super” the men are who advocate it, will always lose out. Tanner is the embodiment of this concept, clinging fast to his unpopular views, but prescient enough to know that they are ultimately just another way of interpreting the world.

That’s one major theme. The other is, well... Here’s how Tanner describes it:

TANNER. Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? That is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love each other.

I won’t even pretend that I understand it fully. Shaw devotes a good portion of his epistle dedicatory to explaining this dramatic element, which he believes fashions Man and Superman as the kind of “Don Juan play” Walkley has evidently asked for. Perhaps it’s better if I try to come at it through the dramatic dialogue rather than Shaw’s explanation of it.

Tanner returns to this theme continuously, that women and the natural procreative urgings represent a dire and deadly danger to the creative aspirations of man. He desperately tries to caution his young friend Octavius to avoid the passion that inflates his breast for the play’s “everywoman” Ann.

TANNER. You think you are Ann’s suitor; that you are the pursuer and she is the pursued; that it is your part to woo, to persuade, to prevail, to overcome. Fool: it is you who are the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey. You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you forever.

OCTAVIUS. I wish I could believe that, vilely as you put it.

TANNER. Why, man, what other work has she in life but to get a husband? It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can. You have your poems and your tragedies to work at: Ann has nothing.


TANNER. Tavy: that’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination: she makes you will your own destruction.

OCTAVIUS. But it’s not destruction: it’s fulfillment.

TANNER. Yes, of her purpose; and that purpose is neither her happiness nor yours, but Nature’s. Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?

To Tanner, the predator and prey metaphors are legion. The charms of women are but a trap, a restraint on his freedom to pursue the sublime pleasures of philosophy and revolution. When Octavius pines for the eternal happiness he would find in marrying the object of his affection, Tanner chides:

TANNER. Yes, a lifetime of happiness. If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.

And this is an interesting comment given the dramatic license Shaw takes in the third act, transporting characters in his play to hell in the guise of other figures—Tanner himself in the guise of Don Juan—where it is revealed through intricate dialogue that heaven is only heaven to the Supermen. The sublime eternal pleasures offered there are only appealing to those few that seek them. To the vast majority interested in more earthly pleasures, hell is the much more accommodating place. Here, Tanner (as Don Juan), tries to convince Ann (as Ana, a woman Juan once seduced) to stay in hell and not yearn for heaven.

DON JUAN. Then you must stay here; for hell is the home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness. It is the only refuge from heaven, which is, as I tell you, the home of the masters of reality, and from earth, which is the home of the slaves of reality. The earth is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners; but they are dragged down from their fool’s paradise by their bodies: hunger and cold and thirst, age and decay and disease, death above all, make them slaves of reality: thrice a day meals must be eaten and digested: thrice a century a new generation must be engendered: ages of faith, of romance, and of science are all driven at last to have but one prayer “Make me a healthy animal.” But here you escape this tyranny of the flesh; for here you are not an animal at all: you are a ghost, and appearance, an illusion, a convention, deathless, ageless: in a word, bodiless. There are no social questions here, no political questions, no religious questions, best of all, perhaps, no sanitary questions. Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your pretensions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melodrama. As our German friend put it in his poem, “the poetically nonsensical here is good sense; and the Eternal Feminine draws us ever upward and on”—without getting us a step farther. And yet you want to leave this paradise!

ANA. But if hell be so beautiful as this, how glorious must heaven be!

The Devil, the Statue, and Don Juan all begin to speak at once in violent protest; then stop, abashed.

DON JUAN. I beg your pardon.

THE DEVIL. Not at all. I interrupted you.

THE STATUE. You were going to say something.

DON JUAN. After you, gentlemen.

THE DEVIL [to Don Juan] You have been so eloquent on the advantages of my dominions that I leave you to do equal justice to the drawbacks of the alternative establishment.

DON JUAN. In heaven, as I picture it, dear lady, you live and work instead of playing and pretending. You face things as they are; you escape nothing but glamour; and your steadfastness and your peril are your glory. If the play still goes on here and on earth, and all the world is a stage. Heaven is at least behind the scenes. But heaven cannot be described by metaphor. Thither I shall go presently, because there I hope to escape at last from lies and from the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness, to spend my eons in contemplation.


DON JUAN. Senor Commander: I do not blame your disgust: a picture gallery is a dull place for a blind man.

And as these arguments continue, Shaw’s tension between the artist man and mother woman is further revealed, in both allegory and fact. There are stretches in which the characters argue about what is natural, and which of these two philosophies best embody it.

DON JUAN. Nature, my dear lady, is what you call immoral. I blush for it; but I cannot help it. Nature is a pandar, Time as wrecker, and Death a murderer. I have always preferred to stand up to those facts and build institutions on their recognition. You prefer to propitiate the three devils by proclaiming their chastity, their thrift, and their loving kindness; and to base your institutions on these flatteries. Is it any wonder that the institutions do not work smoothly?

Touche. And finally, there are full-on forays into political philosophy, the most eloquent declarations of which are given to The Devil is Shaw’s metaphoric third act.

THE DEVIL. In the old chronicles you read of earthquakes and pestilences, and are told that these shewed the power and majesty of God and the littleness of Man. Nowadays the chronicles describe battles. In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one body runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly. And this, the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their Governments on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against the poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk. I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has served Life to the effort of organizing itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction. The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

Ouch. Take that, modern day patriots. Shaw does this throughout the text, turning ideas on their head as if to see if they look any better with their asses in the air. And the Devil, he sees such vacillation of perspective as part of the natural order of things, as the thing that swells men with passion in the short-term, but which tires the philosopher with a longer-term perspective with its tired repeatability. As he explains to Don Juan:

THE DEVIL. But I will now go further, and confess to you that men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving. But when you are as old as I am; when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven, like myself and the Commander, and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now, you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation, every swing from hell to heaven an evolution. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.

Like Man evidently, the pendulum swings, but whichever side it’s on, and whichever Superman is pushing it, it only rises so far and never transcends the arc that defines it.

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