Rajhashekher BC - Raj
Embodying the essence of humanism – By Shashi Tharoor
That has ideas still resonate today, a century and a half after his birth, is a measure of Bernard Shaw's lasting impact.
A SUMMER of almost incessant travel meant that, as I dashed off my offerings for this space from assorted corners of the globe, I managed to miss a column-worthy landmark — the 150th anniversary, on July 26, of the birth of one of my favourite writers, George Bernard Shaw. I really have no excuse for this, because having been born in his centenary year had long led me to assume a special affinity for the cantankerous Irish genius, an affinity underscored by the vegetarianism we share, and by the fact that I have never found a better answer to the question of authorial motivation than Shaw's blunt line, "I write for the same reason a cow gives milk." He is one writer I quote incessantly, so this overdue tribute is better than none.
Dislike of Capitalism
"GBS", as most knew him, was born in Dublin to poor Irish Protestant parents (his mother was a singing teacher who instilled in him a lifelong love of music). Like his near-contemporary Tagore, he hated (and fared badly at) school, dropping out at the age of 15. He tried office work unsuccessfully, then turned to the life of the pen — his first published work, at age 19, being a letter to the editor, a mode of expression that was to become a lifelong passion. He wrote five failed novels in his 20s, and his years of penury may well have caused what he called his "kindly dislike" of capitalist society, leading to his activism in the Fabian Society, a small but highly influential group of socialist intellectuals. In his 30s, newly married to a heiress, he embarked on the career that would make him world-famous — that of the most illustrious playwright in the English-speaking world.
Not a good beginning
It didn't begin well — seven of his first 10 plays were box-office disasters. But he then published them in one volume as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, achieved great popularity with the reading public — and that brought the plays back to the stage, where success followed. Shaw wrote one triumphant play after another, each concerned with fundamental social ills, none more controversial than his sympathetic portrayal of prostitution ("Mrs. Warren's Profession"), few more remarkable in its portrayal of women than "Candida", none more deft than "Arms and the Man". His basic concern in each of his works was the need for society to move from outmoded ways of thinking, discarding the sterile habits of routine and ritual, to a creative vitality anchored in respect for human potential — self-improvement, he argued, notably in his play "Man and Superman", was the basis for the betterment of the world. Only Shaw's fierce intelligence could illuminate plays as different as the anti-romantic "Caesar and Cleopatra" and the touching "Pygmalion" (the basis for the musical "My Fair Lady"). In the latter, his Professor Higgins teaches the guttersnipe Eliza about the importance of "behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another." It was not a line that survived to Broadway, but it was vintage Shaw.
A long career
Soon after the global success of his play about Joan of Arc, "Saint Joan", Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He continued to write plays and pamphlets for another 25 years, expounding his personal philosophy of individual responsibility and self-improvement, stern self-discipline and personal integrity, and a Bhagavad Gita inspired belief in right action without expectation of reward. ("The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.") His wit was legendary ("England and America are two countries divided by a common language") but his opinions were strong and not always popular. Shaw was proud to declare himself "immoralist and heretic" in his advocacy for complete freedom of expression and tolerance of non-conformist views on politics and religion. ("All great truths," he wrote, "begin as blasphemies.") His Common Sense About the War was a courageous pacifist tract during the First World War, and his The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism remains perhaps the most stimulatingly lucid introduction to political thought in the early decades of the last century. Unlike many creative writers, GBS was a critic as well, authoring reviews of books, plays and music — striving, in a sense, to help create the taste that would help his own works to be appreciated. (But he subverted some of his own lessons by his marvellous adage, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.")
His plays — many bearing lengthy introductions and stage directions that are arguments in themselves rather than aids to stagecraft — have not all worn well, but his robust intelligence still shines from the printed page. "When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares it is his duty." Or "there are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." His socialism was embedded in a distinctly unMarxian spiritualism: "We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it," he wrote, "than to consume wealth without producing it." In a thought later echoed by the Jewish humanist Elie Wiesel, Shaw declared that "the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity."
It is a measure of his lasting impact that Shaw's ideas still resonate, a century and a half after his birth. "One man that has a mind and knows it, can always beat ten men who haven't and don't" he wrote in a 1930 play, "The Apple Cart". That could well be his epitaph.