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.

Mr. Bernard Shaw and his Critics

by H. S. S.

In one of George Meredith’s letters to James Thomson, which has reference to the critics’ misapprehension of anything new and audacious in literature, there is the suggestive remark that “to publish is to have a dreadful illumination of the natures of one’s countrymen.” It may be surmised that Mr. Bernard Shaw, after his recent experience of the results of interpreting Ibsen to an English audience, has found that to lecture, no less than to publish, has this illuminative quality. If he had any lingering doubts on the subject they must have been finally dispelled by “A Fabian’s” article on “Individualism in Masquerade,” which appeared in the October number of Seed-Time, for we have there a signal instance of a critic’s inability to understand the meaning of the lecturer, side by side with a quite remarkable assurance in explaining to Mr. Shaw and others what Mr. Shaw said—the well-known controversial habit of setting up a dummy of one’s own creation, and then complacently knocking it down.

“Mr. Shaw’s position, as I understand it,” says ‘A Fabian,’ “is one of pure, unadulterated individualism”; and he then proceeds to lecture this individualist in masquerade on the perils of remaining in the phase of mere “negation and rebellion,” the awfulness of regarding the universe as nothing but “a number of unrelated, self-contained monads,” and a great deal more which is very true and wise and excellent, and would really be very interesting, but for the fact that it happens to have no bearing whatever on the subject under discussion. Mr. Shaw is not an individualist (in the sense intended) either in masquerade or out of it, but an avowed and particularly out-spoken socialist. Nor is he “better than his dismal creed,” as his critic condescendingly expresses it’ for, in the first place, his creed is not a dismal one, being nowise identical with the lugubrious doctrines which are thus gratuitously attributed to him, and secondly, he chances to be one of those rather rare personalities who consistently live their opinions instead of philosophically “holding” them.

And first a word about this somewhat ambiguous term, individualist. The organ of the New Fellowship is of all places one where we should least have expected to find any confusion between the higher intellectual individualism—the claim for free development of distinctive character—which socialists, no less than any other class of thinkers, admit to be the utmost importance, and the lower commercial individualism, the gospel of “getting on,” which is the precise antipodes of Socialism. “A Fabian” entirely confuses the two, and denounces an open profession of the former as an advocacy of the latter “in masquerade.”

The doctrine advanced by Mr. Shaw (how far it is identical with Ibsen’s need not here be discussed) is simply this: That an enlightened self-interest, a fearless development of one’s true natural instincts, is a far surer guide than the conventional “ideals” of so-called “morality,” “virtue,” “self-sacrifice,” and the like, which generally prove to be will-o’-the-wisps and lead into a slough of cant and hypocrisy. He said nothing which could possibly be construed into the monstrous denial of all social feeling and humane consideration for others, which “A Fabian” attributes to him; indeed, it is obvious that the man who rightly studies his own interests (why should we be afraid of the word?) will be the very last person to trample on those of his neighbours, since it is only by self-knowledge that we can acquire the imaginative sympathy which enables us to know others, and individual happiness is powerfully affected by social surroundings. But it seems that while Mr. Shaw was alluding to men of enlightenment and sensibility, “A Fabian’s” thoughts were running on Liveseys, and blacklegs, and every sort of anti-social desperado, hence a slight misunderstanding, in which Mr. Shaw is perhaps not the party to be commiserated.

I do not in the least mean to imply that Mr. Shaw’s lecture was not open on some points to damaging criticism. It might well be urged, I think, that in his definition of “ideals” as nothing more than stereotyped conventionalisms, he did a wrong to the larger concept of idealism, as commonly applied to the views of such a man, for instance, as Shelley, whom he mentioned with approbation in this very lecture. Was Shelley an idealist or not? He was undoubtedly in constant collision with the conventional “morality” and “virtue” which Mr. Shaw denounces; so that it is evident that either these are not ideals, or men of Shelley’s type are not idealists. There seems here to be need of a readjustment of terms, and I cannot acquit Mr. Shaw of a lack of precision on this point. But to accuse him of advocating “the most naked individualism, destructive to household, state, and society,” and of presenting us “with a clever apotheosis of the blackleg,” is really not criticism but misrepresentation.

It is rather the fashion among those who find themselves in controversy with Mr. Shaw (I am not now alluding to “A Fabian”), to hint in a significant and superior manner that he is probably “not quite in earnest” in the views he puts forward—so incredible does it seems to a good many worthy people that a social reformer can 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 paradoxical form, instead of in a ponderous platitude! For my own part, I have long felt that it is Mr. Shaw’s censors, and not Mr. Shaw himself, who stand convicted of flippancy; for whereas their criticisms, when examined, are usually found to be of about the same calibre as those of “A Fabian,” it is not too much to say that Mr. Shaw’s views, however, whimsically expressed, have always a sound basis of truth underlying and suggesting them. Indeed, it is this very conjunction of seriousness and humour which is the secret of the brilliancy that even his detractors are forced to admire, and distinguishes him toto cælo from the professional jester of the dinner-table or comic journal, who is perhaps of all men the most saddening. It is said that when Emerson 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.” That is too often the effect produced by funny men of the present day—it is not the effect produced by Mr. Shaw. Among the many dangers that beset didactic societies like the Fabian and the New Fellowship, not the least considerable is the danger of growing dull; we should be a little more grateful for a true humorist when we have got one, and not mistake our own deficiency in that respect for a lack of social feeling on his part. Real humour is always a mark of sensibility, not of frivolity; is always the outcome of a large-minded and humane view of life and its lessons. It is of priceless value not only to its individual possessor, but to the society of which he forms a part.

Published: Seed-Time, January 1891