March 06, 2008

Two good bits...

...from G.K. Chesterton. The first is a line with a wonderfully oxymoron:

Only those who have stooped to be in advance of their time will ever find themselves behind it.

The second I'm not quite as sure about; certainly it's true of some of Shaw's plays, but not all (Man and Superman springs immediately to mind):

Shaw wrote Csar and Cleopatra; Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra and also Julius Csar. And exactly what annoys Bernard Shaw about Shakespeare's version is this: that Shakespeare has an open mind or, in other words, that Shakespeare has really written a problem play. Shakespeare sees quite as clearly as Shaw that Brutus is unpractical and ineffectual; but he also sees, what is quite as plain and practical a fact, that these ineffectual men do capture the hearts and influence the policies of mankind. Shaw would have nothing said in favour of Brutus; because Brutus is on the wrong side in politics. Of the actual problem of public and private morality, as it was presented to Brutus, he takes actually no notice at all. He can write the most energetic and outspoken of propaganda plays; but he cannot rise to a problem play. He cannot really divide his mind and let the two parts speak independently to each other. He has never, so to speak, actually split his head in two; though I daresay there are many other people who are willing to do it for him.

I think this last bit is wrong -- it seems to me that John Tanner and Ann Whitefield would split a mind in two; it also seems to me that Shaw's characters, whether Cleopatra or Captain Bluntschli, the intensely pragmatic professional mercenary, in Arms and the Man require a certain amount of schizophrenia. Shaw's problems may all work out the way he intends (I would argue that they just as often don't), but he also breathes so much life into each of his characters that it is fairer to say that Shaw splits himself not in half, but into a thousand splinters, each with its own motives and character.

Borges wrote of Shaw:

The biography of Bernard Shaw by Frank Harris contains an admirable letter by the former, from which I copy the following words: "I understand everything and everyone and thus I am nothing and no one." From this nothingness (so comparable to that of God before creating the world, so comparable to that primordial divinity which another Irishman, Johannes Scotus Erigena, called Nihil), Bernard Shaw educed almost innumerable persons or dramatis personae: the most ephemeral of these is, I suspect, that G. B. S. who represented him in public and who lavished in the newspaper columns so many facile witticisms.
Posted by Ideofact at March 6, 2008 11:32 PM