R. Palme Dutt
Labour Monthly, July 1921, Vol. I, No. 1.
Back to Methusela: A Metaphysical Pentateuch, by Bernard Shaw.
IN their old age men turn to religion. The alarming parallelism between the later Shaw and the later Wells in the freedom with which they scatter the name of God about their pages is an interesting example of the pietism of the post-war period. Not that Shaw ever sinks to the level of Wells; his style, far from being less brilliant as he pretends, is more packed and incisive than ever; but there is in both, whether translated through the commonplaceness of the one mind or the fineness of the other, the same air of intensive and slightly inhuman ethical preoccupation.
The explanation may be found by a little closer study of the social philosopher, Marx, whom Shaw appears to confuse with the materialist, Buckle, and to remember only as the author of a work on Capital. All post-war literature needs to be studied pathologically. Horror and the breakdown of all visible order makes men seek for comfort. Some find it in animalism, some in spiritualism, and some in mysticism. On the intense and trained perception of Shaw the war has produced a reaction more intense than on any other living writer. Nowhere, save in the manifestoes of the Third International, is there anything so nearly adequate to its significance as in "Heartbreak House " and the present volume. Far more than the direct war-studies and war poems these books will stand out as a measure of the horror reached. It is this vivid, unforgetting consciousness of contemporary fact, and not his rather thin philosophising, that gives to Shaw his pre-eminent position and makes other writers appear as children besides him.
The actual basic conception may be dull. In the present volume he proposes that human beings by a great effort of will (like John Stuart Mill overcoming his natural bonhomie to write on political economy) should live for 300 years. There is nothing very striking or convincing in this. The notion that length of years gives a wider outlook hardly seems justified by experience. But the real point of the suggestion is in the demonstration that men to-day are children, unfit to live or look after themselves, and yet armed with powers that would make the ancient gods look small.
One must be excused for not treating the long discourses on "Creative Evolution" too seriously. They are very inspiring and uplifting to those who like an inspiration and uplift that is at any rate sensible and not palpably dishonest. But the scientific jargon is just juggling. Shaw is always good at getting up the technicalities of a trade, witness his splendid stuff on boxing. But the real argument is purely and simply ethical. He objects to mind being driven out of the universe. The alternative theory of chance, or rather "circumstantial selection," he describes successively as coarse, shallow, sickening, and inhuman. In other words, he does not like it. Now it is very creditable to prefer that mind and will should be given first place, if a theory is to have vital value. But someone else may prefer that a personal God should be introduced as essential to the scheme of things from the point of view of good living. And someone else may prefer heaven, purgatory, and hell, or the divine mission of the State. And so on without end. That is the worst of teleology. It always leads you to fit reality to your desires, instead of learning to subordinate your desires to reality. The only real alternative is dialectic. But the Marxian dialectic is unknown and unguessed at to the bourgeois and intellectual world, as the writings of their most distinguished representatives continually betray. And after all Shaw is simply a first-class old-school teleological philosopher.
R. P. D.