Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

George Bernard Shaw

by Henry S. Salt

I HAVE sometimes thought that, in addition to the many forcible arguments on which vegetarians rely—humane, aesthetic, hygienic, economic, and the rest—there is one which has not hitherto been sufficiently appreciated, and that is Mr. George Bernard Shaw. Just the mere undeniable fact of him. There he is—a personality worth the consideration of those “practical” people who regard all humanitarians as “idealists” and “visionaries,” without shrewdness and without humour. To such critics, if worth answering at all, Mr. George Bernard Shaw is the readiest and most compendious answer.

In this world of conventionality, half choked as it is with the dust and ashes of the commonplace, there is no more fruitful cause of exceeding great joy than an original mind, and the very rarity of that spectacle is the measure of our delight in “G.B.S.” It is the original that saves the soul in us, the traditional that kills; and even at our dullest we all have enough inkling of originality to enable us, if we will, to recognise and respond to it in others. But here, unfortunately, we are hampered by lack of opportunity and practice; for though there are nowadays so many “distinguished” persons in every branch of society—in art, in literature, in politics, in religion—there are somehow very few who have real “distinction,” so that one is sometimes fain to cry, with Landor:—

“Ah, what avails the sceptred race,
Ah, what the form divine,
What every virtue, every grace "—

if the possessor happens to be a dullard? From this reflection, at any rate, “G.B.S.” is exempt. Whatever we may think of him in other respects, we are all agreed in this (and we have his own authority for it), that he is original, unaccountable, unique. Naturally the appalling dulness of our age shows itself most unmistakably in its “humour;” the professional jester of the dinner-table or of the comic journal is perhaps of all men the most saddening. It is recorded that when Emerson once took his little boy to see a circus clown, the child looked up with troubled eyes and said, “Papa, the funny man makes me want to go home.” I trust a good many of us feel that sensation when we hear or read some of the gruesome banalities which are conscientiously uttered, and conscientiously accepted, in distinguished circles as “humorous.” It is here that Mr. Shaw stands out in wholesome and refreshing contrast; there is not a man living who has a richer gift of humour, innate, genuine, and spontaneous. “His fine wit,” as Shelley sang of the novelist Peacock, “Makes such a wound the knife is lost in it;” and it is difficult to overestimate the value of such a weapon in the cause of social reform. For the point I wish particularly to make is this—that in Mr. Shaw’s case humour and humanity go hand in hand; the most keen and implacable satirist of social hypocrisies is at the same time the most consistent and outspoken enemy of cruelty in every form. Will the shrewd critics who see in humanitarianism nothing but a sentimental illusion kindly explain? Here is the most hard-headed man of his time, who would be about as easily gulled by an appeal to “sentiment” as, let us say, Mr. Henry Labouchere; and, strange to relate, he is, among other things, a socialist, an anti-vivisectionist, and a vegetarian. Confronted with this problem, the only explanation ever vouchsafed by our “practical” censors is that Mr. Shaw’s opinions are “not to be taken seriously.” So incredible does it seem to some worthy people, accustomed as they are to an atmosphere of profound dulness, that it is possible to be serious without being dull. Yet surely a truth is not the less a truth because it is conveyed to us in a humorous or even a paradoxical form!

Herein, however, originates the very common misapprehension of Mr. Shaw's utterances, that he happens not to speak the same language as his fellow-citizens. Let a man talk or write in French, German, Russian, Norwegian, or even Chinese, and he may be interpreted or translated; but for him who speaks in paradoxes neither translator nor interpreter is available. He will perforce be misunderstood and misrepresented by the majority of his audience, who being themselves devoid of the humour by which he is inspired, may diligently read, mark, learn—but digest him never. For this reason a “Shawism” is too often a cause of trouble and perplexity to well-meaning readers among whom it has dropped like a bomb—a thing to be placed, so to speak, in a mental bucket, pending the due arrival of policeman and analyst. And the worst of it is that Mr. Shaw, even when most grievously misconstrued, will never condescend to explain himself. “Jesting Pilate” was nothing to him; for he at least made a show of asking about the truth though he did not wait for the answer, whereas Mr. Shaw, who knows the truth, will not wait to tell it. What wonder, then, if a bewildered public jumps to the conclusion that he is “cynical?”

Yet this charge of cynicism—how comical it is, when one considers by whom it is usually made and against whom! The society journalist and man-about-town, to whom self-gratification and “getting on” are the chief aims of existence, is troubled, in the large humanity of his spirit, at the “cynicism” of Mr. Shaw, who for the last fifteen years has probably done as much disinterested and devoted work, by voice and pen, as any dweller in London. With regard to such critics, one is inclined to exclaim to “G.B.S.” what George Meredith wrote to “B.V.,” that “the humour of a situation which allots the pulpit to them, and the part of Devil to you, will not fail of consolation.” And as a matter of fact, there is nothing cynical about Mr. Shaw’s writings. To be paradoxical, sarcastic, scathing even, is not necessary to be cynical. A man may laugh as sharply as he will at the illusions of his fellows, and yet believe sincerely in their ultimate progress; indeed his satire may be designed to hasten this very movement—to goad them, as Thoreau said, “like oxen into a trot.” The cynic, on the other hand, is one who disbelieves in all possibility of progress; to him life itself, and not merely the obsessions and impediments of life, is a subject for mockery and derision.

It is much to be regretted that even among social reformers and labour-men a “Shawism” should often prove to be a stumbling-block, and that they should take refuge in the utterly mistaken notion that its author is merely “poking fun” at them. As well might the sick man accuse the doctor of levity because he gilds the pill. In reality Mr. Shaw is one of the most serious and painstaking of thinkers; his frivolity is all in the manner, his seriousness in the intent, whereas, unhappily, with most people, it is the intent that is so deadly frivolous, and the manner that is so deadly dull. The “egotism,” again, that is a trial to some of his readers, who think it a breach of the proprieties that he should write so much “about himself”—what is it? There is egotism and egotism, the tolerable and he intolerable variety. The objection, I take it, which one feels to the egotist in general is not that he should attempt to show us his own personality, but that he should have no personality to show; just as we are indignant with the exhibitor of the “live mermaid” at a fair, not because we should not like to see a mermaid, but because we have so many times been put off with some lifeless and fishy substitute. Where there is a genuine ego, we shall not quarrel with the egotist. The men who can talk naturally and frankly about themselves, and have real selves to talk about, are rare enough, but Mr. Shaw is one of them; and those who can read between the lines of his autobiographical confidences will probably have discovered that, so far from being what is vulgarly meant by an “egotist,” he in truth veils under a thin garb of assurance a native sensibility which might not otherwise find expression.

Let it be admitted, however, that we may not be suspected of idealising “G.B.S.,” that with much of the insight of genius, he has also somewhat of its perverseness. Owing to his hatred of false sentiment, he is apt to apply the knife in a somewhat indiscriminating manner to every class of “ideals,” domestic, social, and religious; and there is an almost savage frankness in some of his moods which reminds the reader of Bazaroff, in Turgeneff's “'Fathers and Sons,” a character by whom the otherwise unique “G.B.S.” is in some respects curiously anticipated. There have been times, perhaps, when he has played the role of the candid friend with more zeal than discretion, and in his righteous abhorrence of crying peace when there is no peace, has himself precipitated warfare.

His characteristic passage of arms with Dr. Anna Kingsford, at a vegetarian meeting, may be in the memory of some of my readers. At the close of a very idealistic address by that high-priestess of idealism, an insidious question was put by Mr. Shaw, which from its suspiciously matter-of-fact import, might be supposed to emanate from the enemy. “Sir,” said the lecturer, drawing herself up with dignity, “I am a Vegetarian.” “And so am I,” was the answer; whereat the audience laughed, and idealism was for the moment discomfited.

I have left myself no space to speak of “G.B.S.” as author, but that is of the less consequence because, unlike so many distinguished men of letters, he is not the book-man only, but emphatically “the man behind the book;” his life is the best practical embodiment of his theories. And here again, it should be observed, the idea that he is lacking in “seriousness” is ludicrously wide of the mark, for no more conscientious writer ever handled pen. Whether we study his early novels, “Cashel Byron” and “The Unsocial Socialist,” works which have never quite hit the taste of the public, though their day may be yet to come; or his later dramas, of which, it is safe to say, a great deal will be heard at no distant period; or the mass of his miscellaneous criticism, musical, dramatic, literary, political, and what not—we find not only the same brilliant fancy throughout, but an unusually high level of what even a brilliant fancy cannot afford to dispense with, hard unsparing workmanship. If the literary gentlemen who affect to regard Mr. Shaw as the spoilt child of their profession could put into their own productions some of the “grit” and backbone that characterize all he writes, I venture to think it would be better for themselves and none the worse for their readers.

To return to the point from which we started—that aspect of Mr. Shaw's character which, though only one of many aspects, is the one that most closely concerns us here—his vegetarianism. No propagandist cause can afford to omit any legitimate method of advocating itself, and a personal argument (even where the eating of our fellow-creatures is concerned) is often of greater weight than an appeal to principle. Let us therefore make the most of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, for we are justly proud of him. He is our proof positive that what are called heart and brain, feeling and intellect, humour and humanity, are not merely compatible, but are then only at their best and brightest when united and working harmoniously in the same person.

Published: Vegetarian Review, February 1897