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At the Feet of The Mother

Correspondence 1932, February (I)

February 3, 1932

I do not think Harris’ attack on Shaw as you describe it can be taken very seriously any more than can Wells’ jest about his pronunciation of English being the sole astonishing thing about him. Wells, Chesterton, Shaw and others joust at each other like the kabiwalas[1] of old Calcutta, though with more refined weapons, and you cannot take their humorous sparrings as considered appreciations; if you do, you turn exquisite jests into solemn nonsense. Mark that their method in these sparrings, the turn of phrase, the style of their wit is borrowed from Shaw himself with personal modifications; for this kind of humour, light as air and sharp as a razor-blade, epigrammatic, paradoxical, often flavoured with burlesque seriousness and urbane hyperbole, good-humoured and cutting at once, is not English in origin; it was brought in by two Irishmen, Shaw and Wilde. Harris’ stroke about the Rodin bust and Wells’ sally are entirely in the Shavian turn and manner, they are showing their cleverness by spiking their Guru in swordsmanship with his own rapier. Harris’ attack on Shaw’s literary reputation may have been serious, there was a sombre and violent brutality about him which makes it possible; but his main motive was to prolong his own notoriety by a clever and vigorous assault on the mammoth of the hour. Shaw himself supplied materials for his critic, knowing well what he would write, and edited this damaging assault on his own fame, a typical Irish act at once of chivalry, shrewd calculation of effect and whimsical humour. I should not think Harris had much understanding of Shaw the man as apart from the writer; the Anglo-Saxon is not usually capable of understanding either Irish character or Irish humour, it is so different from his own. And Shaw is Irish through and through; there is nothing English about him except the language he writes and even that he has changed into the Irish ease, flow, edge and clarity — though not bringing into it, as Wilde did, Irish poetry and colour.

Shaw’s seriousness and his humour, real seriousness and mock seriousness, run into each other in a baffling inextricable mélange, thoroughly Irish in its character, — for it is the native Irish turn to speak lightly when in deadly earnest and to utter the most extravagant jests with a profound air of seriousness, — and it so puzzled the British public that they could not for a long time make up their mind how to take him. At first they took him for a jester dancing with cap and bells, then for a new kind of mocking Hebrew Prophet or Puritan reformer! Needless to say, both judgments were entirely out of focus. The Irishman is, on one side of him, the vital side, a passionné, imaginative and romantic, intensely emotional, violently impulsive, easily inspired to poetry or rhetoric, moved by indignation and suffering to a mixture of aggressive militancy, wistful dreaming and sardonic extravagant humour; on the other side, he is keen in intellect, positive, downright, hating all loose foggy sentimentalism and solemn pretence and prone, in order to avoid the appearance of them in himself, to cover himself with a jest at every step; it is at once his mask and his defence. At bottom he has the possibility in him of a modern Curtius leaping into the yawning pit for a cause, a Utopist or a Don Quixote, — according to occasions a fighter for dreams, an idealistic pugilist, a knight-errant, a pugnacious rebel or a reckless but often shrewd and successful adventurer. Shaw has all that in him, but with it a cool intellectual clearness, also Irish, but not often put to such use, which dominates it all and tones it down, subdues it into measure and balance, gives an even harmonising colour. There is as a result a brilliant tempered edge of flame, lambent, lighting up what it attacks and destroys, and destroying it by the light it throws upon it, not fiercely but trenchantly — though with a trenchant playfulness — aggressive and corrosive. An ostentation of humour and parade covers up the attack and puts the opponent off his defence. That is why the English mind never understood Shaw and yet allowed itself to be captured by him, and its old established ideas, “moral” positions, impenetrable armour of commercialised Puritanism and self-righteous Victorian assurance to be ravaged and burned out of existence by Shaw and his allies. Anyone who knew Victorian England and sees the difference now cannot but be struck by it, and Shaw’s part in it, at least in preparing and making it possible, is undeniable. That is why I call him devastating, — not in any ostentatiously catastrophic sense, for there is a quietly trenchant type of devastatingness, — because he has helped to lay low all these things with his scythe of sarcastic mockery and lightly, humorously penetrating seriousness — effective, as you call it, but too deadly in its effects to be called merely effective.

That is Shaw as I have seen him and I don’t believe there is anything seriously wrong in my estimate. I don’t think we can complain of his seriousness about pacifism, Socialism and the rest of it; it was simply the form in which he put his dream, the dream he needed to fight for, needed by his Irish nature. Shaw’s bugbear was unreason and disorder, his dream was a humanity delivered from vital illusions and deceptions, organising the life-force in obedience to reason, casting out waste and folly as much as possible. It is not likely to happen in the way he hoped; reason has its own illusions and, though he strove against imprisonment in his own rationalistic ideals, trying to escape from them by the issue of his mocking critical humour, he could not help being their prisoner. As for his pose of self-praise, no doubt he valued himself, — the public fighter like the man of action needs to do so in order to act or to fight. Most, though not all, try to veil it under an affectation of modesty; Shaw, on the contrary, took the course of raising it to a humorous pitch of burlesque and extravagance. It was at once part of his strategy in commanding attention and a means of mocking at himself — I was not speaking of analytical self-mockery, but of the whimsical Irish kind — so as to keep himself straight and at the same time mocking his audience. It is a peculiarly Irish kind of humour to say extravagant things with a calm convinced tone as if announcing a perfectly serious proposition — the Irish exaggeration of the humour called by the French pince-sans-rire [dead pan]; his hyperboles of self-praise actually reek with this humorous savour. If his extravagant comparison of himself with Shakespeare had to be taken in dull earnest without any smile in it, he would be either a witless ass or a giant of humourless arrogance, — and Bernard Shaw could be neither.

As to his position in literature, I have given my opinion; but more precisely, I imagine he will take some place but not a very large place, once the drums have ceased beating and the fighting is over. He has given too much to the battles of the hour perhaps to claim a large share of the future. I suppose some of his plays will survive for their wit and humour and cleverness more than for any higher dramatic quality, like those of three other Irishmen: Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde. His prefaces may be saved by their style and force, but it is not sure. At any rate, as a personality he is not likely to be forgotten, even if his writings fade. To compare him with Anatole France is futile — they were minds too different and moving in too different domains for comparison to be possible.

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February, 1932

I have been unable to progress with the Lawrence books for sheer want of time and till I have gone through them I can write nothing worth saying about Lawrence. You must wait till I have got through them. On the other hand, I seized a few minutes to run through Russell — a few minutes were enough. It is just as I expected it to be. I have no doubt that Russell is a competent philosophic thinker, but this might have been written by an ordinary tract-writer of the [?] Publication (I don’t remember its proper name any longer). The arguments of the ordinary Christian apologists to prove the existence of God are futile drivel and Russell in answering them has descended to their level. He was appealing to the mass mind, I suppose, but that is enough to deprive the book of any real thought-value. And yet the questions raised are interesting enough if treated with true philosophic insight or from the standpoint of true spiritual experience. It is queer that the European mind, capable enough in other directions should sink to so much puerility when it begins to deal with religion and spiritual experience. All the same I shall see if there is anything that can be said in the matter.

You expect some sort of conversion of Toku Mama? Nothing is impossible — for miracles do happen and curiously considered, the existence of this world and of Toku Mama in it is itself a miracle. Let us then wait and see the result of the thunder.

By the way your proposal about the servant would involve another miracle. It is true he reaches you with your tiffin carrier in one hand, but he starts with three, I hear, in all his hands and unless he imitates Shaw’s Methuselah and finds some more arms, your proposal is impracticable. If the food is so bad, it is surprising: they have all the materials to give it taste except the more palate-exploding spices — and these we can’t put because there are so many livers and stomachs that go wrong with these spices [?].

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February 11, 1932

This poem [“Warning” by A. E. or George Russell] I liked so much because it tallied so surprisingly with yogic aspiration. I have perhaps been forced to make it a little free in consequence? But hope not too free?

It is a good translation reproducing the spirit and movement and manner of the original — exact correspondence of the words does not matter.

The substance of A. E.’s poetry is always very good — he is one of the two or three whose poetry comes nearest to spiritual knowledge and experience. He has too a very fine and subtle perception of things — a little more vital élan (of what he seems to have had abundance in his life but not so much in his poetry) and he would have been not only a fine but a very great poet.

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[1] Kabiwalas: Bengali debaters who used to compete with each other through poems; their debates were eagerly followed by the common people.

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To be spontaneous means not to think, organise, decide and make an effort to realise with the personal will.