Friday, May 25, 2018

Remembering-or Not Remembering-George Bernard Shaw

People still like to quote George Bernard Shaw, but as is usually the case with those who throw around words attributed to Famous People in the hopes of borrowing their prestige and authority, it's usually a matter of people quoting things they haven't actually read, things that they know at best secondhand.1 In fact, I suspect that Shaw would not be remembered as anything but an epigram-generating machine were it not for one of his plays having been turned into a popular musical (Pygmalion, turned into My Fair Lady).

It seems to me that much of this is due to the same reason that H.G. Wells is remembered principally as a science fiction writer. He was a socially critical philosopher-artist, inclined to rationalism, leftishness, socialism. And both those writers were more interested in writing about something, and "ventilating the point at issue," even at the price of explicit dialogues where the characters explained themselves and the world, than in abiding by the canons of "good form" as propounded by the conventionally minded, who insist on "Show, don't tell" and a firewall between art and "politics" (and especially, those politics that discomfit the genteel, those sorts that don't discomfit them not noticed by them as politics at all).

This means, basically, tose who worship at the altar of Henry James and the Modernists. Who have dominated "highbrow" opinion for the last century, and have not been very well-disposed to the Wells' and Shaws. And the standing of these two writers has suffered for it.

Very, very badly. (If unfamiliar with this, I suggest you check out Mark Schorer's classic of the New criticism, "Technique as Discovery," the damage from which Wells' reputation is still reeling.)

Still, if Wells and Shaw were much alike, there were noteworthy differences. Reading Shaw I at times get the sense of a guest at a polite salon trying to impress his hosts--and, when trying too hard, serving up irony for irony's sake. Not unlike Oscar Wilde that way. Still, if I find this irksome, both those writers did have more substantive things to say, and said them well enough that they deserve to still be read today--in Shaw's case, rather more than he is now.

1. In case you're curious about where the little epigrams come from, my impression is that most of the quotation seems to be derived from the play Man and Superman.

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