Monday, August 14, 2006

Shaw versus Shakespeare; or, what's the weltanschuang, Kenneth?

"While my province burns,
I sing of love,
giving that fiery wheel a shove."
--John Montague

The recently revised world narrative of conflict, death, and suffering (for this triad has always been with us; pace Hegel, history doesn't repeat itself, it just publishes added editions) has turned the American populace into doomsday prophets,neurotic despondents, and cynical experts on international affairs. Oh yes, the cult of post-millennialism also runs rampant--at least in the NYC area-- in the form of proselytizers and ranters. Jews for Jesus (probably a front for the Christian Right), Jehovahs, Latter Day Saints, and numerous Hispanic pentecostal groups proclaim that the end is near and repentance and atonement should be seriously pursued before God or Moloch pour soul-snuffing lighter fluid on us all.
Of course, hysteria has been our kith and kin since the Witchcraft Trials. But hardly on this scale. We have decided to pursue, by and large, a policy of collective confusion with a dash of know-it-all-itis, a speck of crisis-mongering, and, most appallingly, a streak of retributive justice for people we would rather kill off than understand. Yes, the US is becoming a breeding ground for fanatics. As Freud notes, "...devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risks of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neuroses spares them the task of constructing a personal one." Amen. I mean, goddman. If cooler heads won't prevail, an outside perspective is needed. I know just the man.
George Bernard Shaw is seldom read now-- a shame, really, because he could save us all. This Irish dramatist, essayist, socialist, and vegetarian wrote enough text to paper over a continent and most of the content of his words dealt with the major social issues of the day (any day), including war, suffering, and justice. It was Shaw, a contrarian of the first order, who wrote that "Any victory at all is a victory for war." Not only did he write and dramatize a world even our current crop of naysayers, hatemongers, and handwringers would recognize, they might also learn to remedy their sad prognoses and misguided attempts to criticize the world. And the man is damn funny. Humor has political power--let all heed this truth--and Shaw wielded humor like a tomahawk missile. But unlike said weapon, he never missed his mark.
I was reminded of Shaw after reading Michael Holroyd's appreciation in the Times Literary Supplement a few weeks ago. In a piece entitled, "Dionysos, Do the Right Thing," Holroyd, Shaw's official biographer, claims that Shaw, much more than Shakespeare, illuminates our world and casts a sensibility that is artistically and politically more tenable. Holroyd watched an adaptation of The Bacchae in which Euripides needs to decide whether Shakespeare or Shaw should be rescued from the underworld to lead us back into right thinking. Apparently, the treatment ultimately decided on Shakespeare. Holroyd reveres Shakespeare but condemns the decision: Willy glamorized war and validated nationalism; Shaw excoriated war and loathed patriotism
and critiqued them both. As long as patriotism is with us, to paraphrase GBS, the human race will never live in peace. How true. But no more justification is needed here: the proof is in the plays and many essays. Read them and see what you think. If you agree that Shaw is a writer for our times, recite some lines to your neighborhood fanatics: perhaps they will see the real light or else shrivel up and disappear altogether. He is truly a man to meet.
Oh, yes: he also had red facial hair, a trait shared by this correspondent and a shade of Shaw on one's face can't be a bad thing. Not in these days.