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Bertrand Russell: George Bernard Shaw,1953

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Bertrand Russell Quotes 366
BERNARD SHAW'S long life could be divided into three phases. In the first, which lasted till he was about forty, he was known to a fairly wide circle as a musical critic, and to a much more restricted circle as a Fabian controversialist, an admirable novelist, and a dangerously witty enemy of humbug. Then came his second phase, as a writer of comedies. At first he could not get his plays performed, because they were not exactly like those of Pinero, but at last even theatrical managers realized that they were amusing, and he achieved a very well-deserved success. He had, I believe, cherished throughout his earlier life the hope that, when he had acquired an audience as a joker, he would be able effectively to deliver his serious message. Accordingly, in his third and last phase, he appeared as a prophet demanding equal admiration for St. Joan of Orleans and St. Joseph of Moscow. I knew him in all three phases, and in his first two I thought him both delightful and useful. In his third phase, however, I found that my admiration had limits.
I heard of him first in 1890, when I, as a freshman, met another freshman who admired his Quintessence of Ibsenism, but I did not meet him until 1896 when he took part in an International Socialist Congress in London. I knew a great many of the German delegates, as I had been studying German Social Democracy. They regarded Shaw as an incarnation of Satan, because he could not resist the pleasure of fanning the flames whenever there was a dispute. I, however, derived my view of him from the Webbs, and admired his Fabian essay in which he set to work to lead British Socialism away from Marx, He was at this time still shy. Indeed, I think that his wit, like that of many famous humorists, was developed as a defense against expected hostile ridicule. At this time he was just beginning to write plays, and he came to my flat to read one of them to a small gathering of friends. He was white and trembling with nervousness, and not at all the formidable figure that he became later. Shortly afterward, he and I stayed with the Webbs in Monmouthshire while he was learning the technique of the drama. He would write the names of all his characters on little squares of paper, and, when he was doing a scene, he would put on a chess board in front of him the names of the characters who were on the stage in that scene.
At this time he and I were involved in a bicycle accident, which I feared for a moment might have brought his career to a premature close. He was only just learning to ride a bicycle, and he ran into my machine with such force that he was hurled through the air and landed on his back twenty feet from the place of the collision. However, he got up completely unhurt and continued his ride; whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train. It was a very slow train, and at every station Shaw with his bicycle appeared on the platform, put his head into the carriage and jeered. I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism.
Lunching with Mr. and Mrs. Shaw in Adelphi Terrace was a somewhat curious experience. Mrs. Shaw was a very able manager and used to provide Shaw with such a delicious vegetarian meal that the guests all regretted their more conventional menu. But he could not resist a somewhat frequent repetition of his favorite anecdotes. Whenever he came to his uncle who committed suicide by putting his head in a carpetbag and then shutting it, a look of unutterable boredom used to appear on Mrs. Shaw's face, and if one were sitting next her one had to take care not to listen to Shaw. This, however, did not prevent her from solicitude for him. I remember a luncheon at which a young and lovely poetess was present in the hopes of reading her poems to Shaw. As we said good-by, Shaw informed us that she was staying behind for this purpose. Nevertheless, when we departed we found her on the mat, Mrs. Shaw having maneuvered her there by methods that I was not privileged to observe. When I learned, not long afterward, that this same lady had cut her throat at Wells because he refused to make love to her, I conceived an even higher respect than before for Mrs. Shaw.
Wifely solicitude toward Shaw was no sinecure. When they and the Webbs were all nearing eighty, they came to see me at my house on the South Downs. The house had a tower from which there was a very fine view, and all of them climbed the stairs. Shaw was first and Mrs. Shaw last. All the time that he was climbing, her voice came up from below, calling out, "GBS, don't talk while you're going up the stairs!" But her advice was totally ineffective, and his sentences flowed on quite uninterruptedly.
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. It was a part of Victorian humbug to endeavor to conceal vanity. When I was young, we all made a show of thinking no better of ourselves than of our neighbors. Shaw found this effort wearisome, and had already given it up when he first burst upon the world. It used to be the custom among clever people to say that Shaw was not unusually vain, but only unusually candid. I came to think later on that this was a mistake. Two incidents at which I was present convinced me of this. The first was a luncheon in London in honor of Bergson, to which Shaw had been invited as an admirer, along with a number of professional philosophers whose attitude to Bergson was more critical. Shaw set to work to expound Bergson's philosophy in the style of the preface to Methuselah. In this version, the philosophy was hardly one to recommend itself to professionals, and Bergson mildly interjected, "Ah, no-o! it is not qvite zat!" But Shaw was quite unabashed, and replied, "Oh, my dear fellow, I understand your philosophy much better than you do." Bergson clenched his fists and nearly exploded with rage; but, with a great effort, he controlled himself, and Shaw's expository monologue continued.
The second incident was an encounter with the elder Masaryk, who was in London officially, and intimated through his secretary that there were certain people whom he would like to see at ro:oo A.M. before his official duties began. I was one of them, and when I arrived I discovered that the only others were Shaw and Wells and Swinnerton. The rest of us arrived punctually, but Shaw was late. He marched straight up to the Great Man and said: "Masaryk, the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia is all wrong." He expounded this theme for about ten minutes, and left without waiting to hear Masaryk's reply.
Shaw, like many witty men, considered wit an adequate substitute for wisdom. He could defend any idea, however silly, so cleverly as to make those who did not accept it look like fools. 1 met him once at an "Erewhon Dinner" in honor of Samuel Butler and I learned with surprise that he accepted as gospel every word uttered by that sage, and even theories that were only intended as jokes, as, for example, that the Odyssey was written by a woman. Butler's influence on Shaw was much greater than most people realized. It was from him that Shaw acquired his antipathy to Darwin, which afterward made him an admirer of Bergson. It is a curious fact that the views which Butler adopted, in order to have an excuse for quarreling with Darwin, became part of officially enforced orthodoxy in the U.S.S.R.
Shaw's contempt for science was indefensible. Like Tolstoy, he couldn't believe in the importance of anything he didn't know. He was passionate against vivisection. I think the reason was, not any sympathy for animals, but a disbelief in the scientific knowledge which vivisection is held to provide. His vegetarianism also, I think, was not due to humanitarian motives, but rather to his ascetic impulses, to which he gave full expression in the last act of Methuselah.
Shaw was at his best as a controversialist. If there was anything silly or anything insincere about his opponent, Shaw would seize on it unerringly to the delight of all those who were on his side in the controversy. At the beginning of the First World War he published his Common Sense about the War. Although he did not write as a Pacifist, he infuriated most patriotic people by refusing to acquiesce in the hypocritical high moral tone of the Government and its followers. He was entirely praiseworthy in this sort of way, until he fell a victim to adulation of the Soviet Government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing through humbug if it came from Moscow. Excellent as he was in controversy, he was not nearly so good when it came to setting forth his own opinions, which were somewhat chaotic until in his last years he acquiesced in systematic Marxism. Shaw had many qualities which deserve great admiration. He was completely fearless. He expressed his opinions with equal vigor whether they were popular or unpopular. He was merciless toward those who deserve no mercy but sometimes, also, to those who did not deserve to be his victims. In sum, one may say that he did much good and some harm. As an iconoclast he was admirable, but as an icon rather less so.