Brigid Brophy

  • Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side by Arnold Silver
    Stanford, 353 pp, $25.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 8047 1091 0
  • Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: A Correspondence edited by Mary Hyde
    Murray, 237 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3947 1

The most charming fact I have stumbled on in intellectual history is that Freud and Shaw were shocked by one another. Freud’s wounded romanticism speaks in his reference (in Group Psychology, 1921) to ‘Bernard Shaw’s malicious aphorism to the effect that being in love means greatly exaggerating the difference between one woman and another.’ If I am right in supposing that what he had in mind is one of the speeches Undershaft addresses to Cusins at the climax of Major Barbara, ‘Like all young men, you greatly exaggerate the difference between one young woman and another,’ then Freud has performed a little secondary elaboration. In substance it is fair. The ‘being in love’ is extrapolated from the dramatic context, where Cusins is indeed in love. But in giving the words the formal and impersonal turn of an aphorism Freud suppresses the dramatic characterisation, including that of Undershaft as the Prince of Darkness, and attributes to Shaw himself both the supposed aphorism and its supposed taint of the ‘malicious’.

For Shaw, the declared puritan, it was perhaps easier to profess himself directly shocked by Freud. ‘Some day,’ he wrote in a magazine, ‘I will try to found a genuine psychology of fiction by writing down the history of my imagined life: duels, battles, love affairs with queens and all. The difficulty is that so much of it is too crudely erotic to be printable by an author of any delicacy.’ Nearly half a century later, he reprinted this passage in his book Sixteen Self Sketches and added: ‘When I wrote this in 1901, I did not believe that an author so utterly void of delicacy as Sigmund Freud could not only come into human existence, but become as famous and even instructive by his defect as a blind man might by writing essays on painting ... ’

Freud has flustered him into very unaccustomed confusion. In logic, he is saying that Freud is totally uninstructive, since he is only as instructive as a blind man would be on the subject of painting. Yet the impression he gives, by putting an ‘even’ in front of ‘instructive’, is that he is conceding that Freud is instructive. As a matter of fact, I believe that his simile, which appears to impede his meaning, is unconsciously chosen to liken Freud to Shaw. Wrapped in the confusion there is a confession. In a minor way Shaw was himself ‘a blind man ... writing essays on painting’. He practised as a critic of painting despite being blue-green colourblind.

Elsewhere in his Self Sketches Shaw recorded ‘a point to be scored by our psychoanalysts’, and in his ‘apology’ for the volume as a whole he again seems at pains to mark himself as no Freudian and yet as not dismissive of Freud. ‘I violate the biographical laws I began this apology with by telling you little about myself that might not have happened to a thousand Shaws, and a million Smiths. Perhaps our psychoanalysts may find in such dull stuff clues that have escaped me.’

Although he makes no mention of it, this is the fair but discouraging challenge that Arnold Silver has taken up. The ‘darker side’ alluded to by his title consists not, as Shaw himself might have expected, of the ‘crudely erotic’ but of the violent aspect of Shaw’s imagination. This is precisely the point where, I argued twenty years ago in a fat book about the human impulse towards destruction, we ought to be employing Freud and Shaw to complement each other. Starting, like Shaw’s, from a basis in evolution, Freud’s thought arrived (where many psychoanalysts could not follow him) at the hypothesis of an independent death instinct. As many mythologies betray, the vision of universal desolation, the end of everything, is one of the most beautiful and alluring ever to cross the human mind. Humans now possess the technical means to make our myths come true. My contention was (and still, for the matter of that, is) that Freud has demonstrated that our conscious endeavours are at risk of subversion by our unconscious wishes: we should be safer from ourselves if we recognised the allure of violence, which we could then combat by rational means; otherwise, we (conscious, rational, pro-life, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly we) are in danger of being gulled by our own subterranean destructive fantasies into seeking to avoid destruction by measures precisely, though unconsciously, calculated, like neurotic symptoms, to bring about what we persuade ourselves we are trying to avert.

Psychoanalysis is a technique that can bring the mechanism of a neurotic symptom (that is, of an unconscious hypocrisy) to the attention of the conscious mind, but it can’t and shouldn’t tell the conscious mind what to do about it then. In a cannibal society it may be in a position to explain to the eccentric who declines to kill and cook his fellows that his squeamishness is a reaction formation against his fiercer than average impulses, but it cannot in itself pronounce on or relieve him of the responsibility of deciding about the moral standing of cannibalism. Freud cast more illuminating sidelights into moral, artistic and political problems than almost all the experts on those questions put together, but he could not tackle the problems head on without compromising the neutrality of the instrument he used, and it is at the point where he stops perforce short that, to my mind, we should turn to the ‘artist-biologist’ Shaw – who (I add in explanation of my second sentence in this paragraph) answered ‘Were you always a vegetarian?’ by ‘No: I was a cannibal for twenty-five years,’ and went on to say that it was ‘Shelley who first opened my eyes to the savagery of my diet’.

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