Shaviana

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’.

The instinct Freud recognised as Thanatos was dramatised by Shaw as ‘the gospel of St Andrew Undershaft’. (Incidentally, Freud and Shaw shared a fondness for the Salvation Army.) Cusins is allured into accepting the Undershaft inheritance by the Dionysian intoxication of pure destruction (which is why Cusins’s Greek scholarship specialises in Euripides). The Undershaft armaments factory is already, in 1907, reaching out to command the means of ending everything. By l9l9, the arms race has produced its world war, and the ‘aerial battleship’ designed at the Undershaft factory has evolved into the bomber that bombs Heartbreak House. It is not Wagner, one of the mythologists of the end of everything, but a composer with a bigger popular vote than Shaw’s propaganda managed to win for Wagner whom Shaw’s dialogue invokes as he dramatises the Liebestod of European civilisation. As the bombs fall, Hesione Hushabye cries, in a perfect transcription of an orchestral crescendo into dramatic dialogue, ‘Did you hear the explosions? And the sound in the sky: it’s splendid: it’s like an orchestra: it’s like Beethoven,’ and Ellie transcendently responds (tutti, with a nimbus of cymbals): ‘By thunder, Hesione, it is Beethoven.’

For his insight into Thanatos, Shaw gets, however, no credit from Mr Silver, who applies the methods of psychoanalysis not to the major imaginative visions of Shavianism but to Shaw. The route to his book is signposted not by my book of 1962, which he does not know of, but by a brief article by Lawrence Keough, ‘The Theme of Violence in Shaw’, which appeared in the Shavian in 1966. To this Mr Silver gives a mention, though only in a sentence appended to one of the notes at the end of his book. He calls the essay ‘acute’ but puts it down by claiming that it nevertheless ‘limits itself to a few of the plays and says nothing of the politics’. This is unfair. The essay begins with the politics. It points out that Shaw’s defence of the dictators in the Thirties was consonant with themes that had already appeared in his work. As for limitation, the essay discusses three plays in six pages: Mr Silver has taken a whole wordy book to discuss four (different) plays and one novel. His treatment of the essay is particularly mingy given that the essay’s conclusion, that ‘Shaw’s writing ... has its truly devilish, darker side,’ has all the appearance of having furnished Mr Silver with the subtitle of his volume.

What Mr Silver discerns in his (limited) material is an impulse in Shaw’s imagination towards fantasies of destruction, such as the offstage vaporisings (sudden and painless disappearances) in The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. This he traces, often convincingly, to Shaw’s need to wish away the intrusion into Shaw’s infancy of George John Vandaleur Lee – or, rather, the intrusion of the suspicion that Lee had been the lover of Shaw’s mother and was, perhaps, Shaw’s real father.

In the teacher-pupil (or sculptor-statue) relation of Higgins to Eliza Doolittle, Mr Silver persuasively sees the relation of Shaw, as ‘playwright-director’, to Mrs Patrick Campbell, his first Eliza and last sweetheart. I think he is wrong, however, in supposing Higgins to be ‘quite unlike Shaw in regarding himself first as a scientist’, with a ‘laboratory fitted out with a laryngoscope, burners, tuning forks’ and ‘a supply of wax cylinders for recording accents’ as well as an interest ‘ “in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject” ’. This ignores the extent to which Shaw did regard himself as a scientist (‘My own Irish eighteenth-centuryism made it impossible for me to believe anything until I could conceive it as a scientific hypothesis’), and it misses or at least muffs a trick that Mr Silver should have taken decisively. The apparatus Higgins uses in his phonetic research and speech lessons is a transposed dramatisation of ‘The Method’ by which Lee trained singing voices, including the mezzo-soprano voice of Shaw’s mother, who presently herself used it to teach pupils, with whom Shaw showed an almost compulsive tendency to fall in love.

That near-compulsion is documented in Margot Peters’s Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, which I wrote about in the London Review of Books in July 1981. Her book deals cardinally with the teacher-pupil and playwright-actress relationship that Mr Silver correctly takes to be the centre of Pygmalion. He seems not to have had the opportunity to read it. He assumes that Shaw and his wife never went to bed together. Ms Peters argues very convincingly, from Shaw’s reticent (or delicate) account, that they did: before their marriage, but not after. Her interpretation fits the obviously careful wording (Shaw being, by his own description, ‘the greatest pedant alive’) of Shaw’s testimony that ‘As man and wife we found a new relation in which sex had no part,’ which Mr Silver reads as meaning that sex had never had a part in their relation. This leads him into a gross misreading of Man and Superman as an expression of Shaw’s frustration by a sexless and childless marriage. Failing to explore the paradox of a childless Shaw resting the salvation of society on eugenics, he blindfolds his psychological faculty and misses the simple reversal of genders in the play. Ann Whitefield, driven to unscrupulous lengths by the Life Force in order to secure the best father for her future children, is Shaw driven by the same Force to the unscrupulous and unsocialist length of marrying a ‘millionairess’ in order to secure the future of his children, his works of literature.

Mr Silver is at his most blundering with Man and Superman, forever shouting that he has caught Shaw out when he has tripped over his own feet. You need intellectual agility of an order he doesn’t approach to catch out the play and the epistle dedicatory where, Shaw said, he put all his ‘intellectual goods in the shop window’. As a line-to-line critic of Shaw, Mr Silver has many handicaps. One is an indelicacy, not in Shaw’s sense, but in his apprehension of Shaw’s historical period, and this impedes him even when he is right. Shaw, he says, ‘strongly hints’ that Higgins is given to masturbation ‘by making Higgins’s most characteristic gesture a nervous playing with his hands in his trouser pockets ... In the wittiest suggestion of his hero’s possible habits of masturbation Shaw juxtaposes word and deed as Higgins informs his mother: “I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women; some habits lie too deep to be changed. (Rising abruptly and walking about, jingling his money and his keys in his trouser pockets.)” ’ This is as obtuse as it is perceptive. It is historically and personally impossible that Shaw was consciously hinting any such witty thing for exhibition on the stage. The credit should be directed to Shaw’s creative intuition and to the wit of his unconscious.

Mr Silver is further hindered by taking, it seems, no interest in music. This deafens him to the operatic nature of Shaw’s dramatic construction and lets him waste time, in his discussion of Man and Superman, nattering about Shaw’s use of the phrase ‘odor di femmina’ without recognising that it comes from the Mozart and da Ponte opera of which Shaw’s play is a version. He speculates about what led Shaw to the name of the eponymous heroine of Candida without noticing the allusion to Candide. ‘I cannot too often repeat,’ Shaw wrote, ‘that though I have no academic qualifications I am in fact much more highly educated than most university scholars.’ Mr Silver, who, according to the jacket, ‘teaches English literature at the University of Massachusetts’ but who writes ‘referral’ where he means ‘reference’ and ‘deprecate’ where he means ‘depreciate’, is simply not educated enough to cope with Shaw.

His book amounts to a string of comments: several bright, a few dud and some, like his notion that Candida is in part an answer to Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire, disputable but worth discussing. With his declared theme he scarcely comes to grips. That Shaw could contemplate extermination as a method of restraining political dissent prompts him to conventional disapproval, which is of course deserved but which prevents him from recognising that Shaw’s genuinely political mind was addressing, albeit wrongly, a genuine political problem. Violence that happens daily on a massive scale but with the approval of the conventions seems to escape his notice. He therefore does not notice that Shaw arrived at the notion of extermination as a political solution from the analogy of most people’s immediate response if their doorsteps swarm with ants or their gardens are overrun with slugs or rabbits eat their cabbages. It is doltish to have devoted a book to the ‘basic and hitherto unrecognised conflict in Shaw between his humane and his destructive impulses’ without yourself recognising the major present-day destructive activity of human society or Shaw’s major humane commitment against vivisection laboratories and slaughterhouses.

Insofar as he means it aesthetically, Mr Silver fails, I think, to make good his claim that, in the ‘new perspective’ he opens, Shaw’s ‘plays and their characters will be seen to possess more complexity and depth’ than is usually allowed. An experienced critic would have known in advance that this endeavour would fail. It is possible to uncover the identical ‘complexity and depth’ in the sorriest trash and in the Oedipus Rex. The disclosures of psychoanalysis cannot dispense the conscious mind from the responsibility for making aesthetic any more than for making moral judgments. So far as Mr Silver’s aesthetic judgments go, which I can only compare with mine, since there is no absolute and supra-personal Last Aesthetic Judgment, I share his high esteem of Shaw (which is, however, less of a rarity now than he supposes and than it was twenty years ago) and think it shrewd of him to remark that ‘more often than they realise, Shaw’s detractors allege a play lacks emotion in order to avoid its disquieting effect.’ To my taste he is, however, perverse in (twice) calling Pygmalion the ‘loveliest’ of Shaw’s plays, an ineptly Housmanly word, it seems to me, for that efficient but, for good artistic reasons, disquieting sado-masochistic fable.

In contrasting the public with the private Shaw, Mr Silver seems to forget that the original twins were the public Shaw and Private Shaw (alias T.E. Lawrence), and in promising that ‘new perspectives’ will appear ‘once we grasp that the public Shaw was only the playwright’s most famous creation,’ he seems to have forgotten that it was the public Shaw who thus defined him. (‘G.B.S: Oh, one of the most successful of my fictions.’) He was in fact the most straightforwardly autobiographical of Shaw’s projections, and he kept both the truthfulness and the pedantry of the original intact. Closer attention to his pronouncements and their wording (or, indeed, to me, for I have published this point before and propose to go on drawing attention to it until explorers of Shaw’s life heed me) would have allowed Mr Silver to enlarge his exegesis of the vaporisings in The Simpleton. He makes much of the heartlessness with which the parents receive the news that one of their children has been vaporised:

‘And the others? Quick, Pra: go and find the others.’
‘What others?’
‘The other three: our children. I forget their names.’

This episode, which Mr Silver makes the centre of his thesis about the murderous fantasies in Shaw’s work, has in fact a quite specific fantasy content. It is a fantasy about abortion. Either it wishes that an abortion had taken place or, which I think much the likelier, it justifies one that did take place. That this subject touched Shaw’s real life is clear, I think, from the account he published in 1930 of his young manhood. Explaining that he remained a virgin until he was 29 and thereafter had ‘scruples, and effectively inhibitive ones too, about getting women “into trouble” ’, Shaw bade his biographer (Frank Harris) dismiss ‘any doubts as to my normal virility’ and affirmed: ‘I was not impotent; I was not sterile; I was not homosexual.’ Shaw did not use words imprecisely. At the time he was writing about, before 1900, there was only one way that he could have known that he was not sterile: by begetting a child. The most likely method of getting the woman he had got ‘into trouble’ out of it was abortion, which was also the likeliest to perturb the conscience of a man committed to not wantonly exterminating animal life. The fantasy that erupted, in 1934, in the form of a seemingly heartless as well as rather pointless or at least surreal episode in The Simpleton was, I suspect, an expression, by an old man who was to be survived by no children except his works of literature, not of his destructive impulses but of his need to assuage his humane impulses.

Some of Shaw’s humane impulses were exercised, by letter, on Lord Alfred Douglas. Shaw’s only meeting with Douglas was at the Café Royal on the fateful afternoon in 1895 when Frank Harris and Shaw tried to dissuade Oscar Wilde from the libel action he had set in train against Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Douglas arrived and dragged Wilde away lest they should succeed. In 1908 there was a tiff by letter when Douglas reviewed and misrepresented Shaw’s play Getting Married. Shaw ended that exchange with the forgiving salutation ‘Sans rancune’. It was in 1931, when Shaw was 74 and Douglas 60, that Douglas initiated a correspondence that went on fitfully until Douglas’s death in 1945 and that is now published in full under the admirably clear, informative and sympathetic editorship of the present owner of the letters, whom I take to be a North American since she calls a cheque a ‘check’ and describes Sir Shane Leslie as a ‘graduate’ of Eton.

With his opening letter in 1931 Douglas enclosed a photograph of himself as he had been in 1895. That is, in epitome, the tragedy of Douglas. Shaw responded to the tragedy, as he did to Douglas’s turn for composing sonnets of more than competence though less than originality. (Shaw had, after all, a little before he met Douglas, invented Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old poet whose uncle is an earl.) Douglas’s letter was forwarded to Shaw, who was staying in Venice, without, in fact, the accompanying photograph, but in replying to the letter Shaw commented: ‘That flowerlike beauty must have been a horrible handicap to you: it was probably Nature’s reaction against the ultra-hickory type of your father.’

A male beauty must expect a shorter career than a female beauty or an athlete. Indeed, for sheer flowerlike evanescence his match is probably to be found only among choirboys, who have, however, the hope of going on to lower things, or the Elizabethan boy-actors of female roles, a class of persons on whom Wilde’s imagination played compulsively. Wilde and Douglas were not, finally, put asunder by the savagery of society, the brutality of prison or the bitterness those traumata left in themselves, their families and their friends: they drifted apart. After Wilde’s release they lived together for two or three months at Posilipo on the outskirts of Naples, but by then (1897) ‘I was,’ Douglas later recorded in his autobiography, ‘no longer quite so attractive in appearance as when he first met me.’ In 1938 Douglas promised to find Shaw a recent photograph of himself, reminded him he already had one ‘of me in my youth’ (which is, incidentally, reproduced in this well-illustrated book) and added: ‘I wish I still looked like that or, better still, that I had died thirty years ago.’

It was, presumably, the searingly disastrous results of Wilde’s libel action that turned Douglas into a libel addict. Scarcely a line could be published on the subject of Wilde without provocation to Douglas’s obdurate and obtuse pedantry about the facts and his obsessive insistence that the result would have been different had he, Douglas, been called to give evidence on Wilde’s side. As though he could remake the outcome of the original case by rushing into further cases, Douglas made himself a specialist in libel and its subalterns, taking actions, threatening actions (a method by which he managed to suppress more books than many an official totalitarian censor) and, by the intemperate expression of his personal hatreds and his extremist ‘patriotic’ (antidemocratic and anti-Jewish) views, provoking actions, which he made a habit of resisting. Shaw advised him not to waste money in fighting a publisher who, having taken on a book by Douglas, found it too dangerous to publish, but Douglas proudly replied: ‘Bitter constraint and sad occasion have taught me how to fight cases on the cheap.’ He hadn’t, however, got off cheaply in 1923, when he was sentenced to six months in prison for saying in a libellous pamphlet that Winston Churchill had, by putting out false reports on the Battle of Jutland, enabled Jewish speculators to make a profit on the Stock Exchange. By 1941 Douglas’s ‘patriotism’ had realigned him as a supporter of Churchill, and he published a sonnet to Churchill in the Daily Mail. Shaw, hearing of the enterprise but not yet having seen the poem, speculated that it might begin:

Churchill: both blessed Jude and Christian God
Bid me forgive you for putting me in quod.

Wilde found Douglas impossible to live with. So, presently, did Douglas’s wife (Olive Custance, also a poet), who remained on good terms with him, though her family didn’t, and remained married to him, but refused to share a home with him. Only by deep forbearance did Shaw find him possible to correspond with. Not taking up Douglas’s invitation to address him as Bosie, Shaw chose to write to ‘Dear Childe Alfred’ or sometimes ‘Dear Childe’ tout court, in which Shakespearean-Byronic conceit it would not, I think, be wrong to read the wistfulness of a man who never had the opportunity to exercise the forbearance of a parent. Douglas addressed Shaw as ‘St Christopher’. To his credit, he recognised Shaw’s secular saintliness, though, a Catholic convert himself, he was never reconciled to its secular character. He told Shaw, ‘You are quite wrong about darling Jesus,’ and was inept enough to try to convert Shaw to Catholicism by sending him, of all things, a copy of Franz Werfel’s The Song of Bernadette.

Shaw was generous to Douglas in practical ways, guaranteeing an overdraft of £100 for him, though, like all effective relief agencies, he preferred to give help by putting the recipient in the way of earning money for himself. For Douglas he did that by permitting Douglas to quote him, by urging Douglas to sell the letters he had had from Shaw and by returning Douglas’s own letters in order to increase the value of the collection (which in the event, however, was not sold until both men were dead). The help Shaw gave to Frank Harris’s destitute widow consisted of editing a version of Harris’s life of Wilde that could be published without incurring threats of libel actions from Douglas, a labour of charity that embroiled Shaw in Douglas’s recriminations and rehearsals of the past.

Shaw’s help and his sound counsel on what Douglas dismissively called ‘mundane affairs’ were given with a gentle regard for Douglas’s self-esteem. Even his rebukes were disguised as boisterousness between equals. Shaw was trying to perform a delicate act of restoration, glueing back on the chips that had been battered off what Wilde (incautiously, as it turned out when the passage was used against him at his trial, but with a descriptive flair for a certain smart-cigarette-case-like vulgarity in Douglas) had called Douglas’s ‘slim gilt soul’. That soul was, however, accident-prone to the verge of self-destruction. ‘I can protect you,’ Shaw wrote to Douglas in the weary cadence of a Hamlet, ‘against everyone except yourself, except yourself, except yourself.’ Shaw made barely a dint on Douglas’s passion for litigation. Perhaps his obstinacy was reiterating that he had, despite everything, been right to remove Wilde when Shaw was trying to deter him from going to law. Marginally, Shaw managed to restrain Douglas’s secondary passion, which was for sending rude letters to newspapers. At least, Douglas submitted the draft of one such letter to vetting by Shaw. Shaw returned it with the intemperate phrases underlined for excision, and this time it was in the pure epigrammatic cadence of Oscar Wilde that he began his covering letter: ‘Dear Childe, You really must not be insolent. It gives away your class.’

The Alfred Douglas who emerges from this correspondence was either a semi-lunatic (probably through heredity) or in almost every respect an absolutely awful little man. Yet when Shaw’s wife died it was to Douglas that Shaw wrote, ‘When I come across something intimate of her belongings I have a welling of emotion and quite automatically say something endearing to her,’ and he added: ‘I could not write so to many people; so there must be something sympathetic between us after all.’ Love is a testimony, and Douglas had, in emphatically different modes and with a high admixture of exasperation in each case, the love of both Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw.