Saturday, February 11, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twelve

“George Bernard Shaw,” pages 75-80

Bernard Shaw came to public notice first as a music critic, Fabian socialist, and novelist, then as a playwright, and finally “as a prophet demanding equal admiration for St. Joan of Orleans and St. Joseph of Moscow [p. 75].” Russell’s strong admiration for Shaw did not survive the Stalinist phase.

Russell and Shaw first met in 1896 at an International Socialist Congress, and they began to spend time together; Russell recounts one joint and slightly ill-fated bicycle trip, which worked out better for the vegetarian Shaw than for Russell. Bertie speaks highly of Shaw’s wife, who showed great solicitude towards her husband and (barely) tolerated his repetitive storytelling.

“Shaw’s attack on Victorian humbug and hypocrisy was as beneficent as it was delightful, and for this the English undoubtedly owe him a debt of gratitude [p. 77].” Part of Shaw’s attack involved indicating that the norm against showing more regard for oneself than for others was wearisome; he himself not only was willing to show self-regard, he seemed to have an excessive amount of it to show.

“Shaw, like many witty men, considered wit an adequate substitute for wisdom [p. 78].” Shaw was skilled at making the worse appear the better reason, leaving debate rivals in the dust. His contempt for science cannot be defended, but can be explained -- by his unwillingness to highly rate anything he couldn’t understand. In political controversy, Shaw excelled at exposing the silly parts of his opponents’ platforms. This admirable trait, though, was lost when he succumbed to Soviet applause. He was never as strong at presenting a positive case for his views as he was at criticizing the views of his opponents, though in old age, his embrace of the Marxian system lent coherence to his opinions.

Fearless, Shaw was willing to say unpopular things. His unrelenting attacks sometimes fell on targets who deserved better. “As an iconoclast he was admirable, but as an icon rather less so [p. 80].”

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