[Note: This is taken From John Kelman's Among Famous Books.]
In the last lecture we began the study of the modern aspects of our subject with Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. Now, in a rapid sketch, we shall look at some of the writings which followed that great book; and, with it as background, we shall see them in stronger relief. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the influence which was wielded by Carlyle, and especially by his Sartor Resartus. His was a gigantic power, both in literature and in morals. At first, as we have already noted, he met with neglect and ridicule in abundance, but afterwards these passed into sheer wonder, and then into a wide and devoted worship. Everybody felt his power, and all earnest thinkers were seized in the strong grip of reality with which he laid hold upon his time.
The religious thought and faith both of England and of Scotland felt him, but his mark was deepest upon Scotland, because of two interesting facts. First of all, Carlyle represented that old Calvinism which had always fitted so exactly the national character and spirit; and second, there were in Scotland many people who, while retaining the Calvinistic spirit, had lost touch with the old definite creed. Nothing could be more characteristic of Carlyle than this Calvinism of the spirit which had passed beyond the letter of the old faith. He stands like an old Covenanter in the mist; and yet a Covenanter grasping his father's iron sword. It is because of these two facts Sartor Resartus has taken so prominent a place in our literature. It stands for a kind of conscience behind the manifold modern life of our day. Beneath the shrieks and the laughter of the time we hear in it the boom of great breakers. Never again can we forget, amidst the gaieties of any island paradise, the solemn ocean that surrounds it. Carlyle's teaching sounds and recurs again and again like the Pilgrims' March in Tannhäuser breaking through the overture, and rivalling until it vanquishes the music of the Venusberg.
Yet it was quite inevitable that there should be strong reaction from any such work as this. To the warm blood and the poignant sense of the beauty of the world it brought a sense of chill, a forbidding sombreness and austerity. Carlyle's conception of Christianity was that of the worship of sorrow; and, while the essence of his gospel was labour, yet to many minds self-denial seemed to be no longer presented, as in the teaching of Jesus, as a means towards the attainment of further spiritual ends. It had become an end in itself, and one that few would desire or feel to be justified. In the reaction it was felt that self-development had claims upon the human spirit as well as self-denial, and indeed that the happy instincts of life had no right to be so winsome unless they were meant to be obeyed. The beauty of the world could not be regarded as a mere trap for the tempting of people, if one were to retain any worthy conception of the Powers that govern the world. From this point of view the Carlylians appeared to enter into life maimed. That, indeed, we all must do, as Christ told us; but they seemed to do it like the beggars of Colombo, with a deliberate and somewhat indecent exhibition of their wounds.
Carlyle found many men around him pagan, worshipping the earth without any spiritual light in them. He feared that many others were about to go in the same direction, so he cried aloud that the earth was too small, and that they must find a larger object of worship. For the earth he substituted the universe, and led men's eyes out among the immensities and eternities. Professor James tells a story of Margaret Fuller, the American transcendentalist, having said with folded hands, "I accept the universe," and how Carlyle, hearing this, had answered, "Gad, she'd better!" It was this insistence upon the universe, as distinguished from the earth, which was the note of Sartor Resartus.
The reactionaries took Carlyle at his word. They said, "Yes, we shall worship the universe"; but they went on to add that Carlyle's universe is not universal. It is at once too vague and too austere. There are other elements in life besides those to which he called attention—elements very definite and not at all austere—and they too have a place in the universe and a claim upon our acceptance. Many of these are in every way more desirable to the type of mind that rebelled than the aspects of the universe on which Carlyle had insisted, and so they went out freely among these neglected elements, set them over against his kind of idealism, and became themselves idealists of other sorts.
Matthew Arnold, the apostle of culture, found his idealism in the purely mental region. Rossetti was the idealist of the heart, with its whole world of emotions, and that subtle and far-reaching interplay between soul and body for which Carlyle had always made too little allowance. Mr. H.G. Wells and Mr. Bernard Shaw, proclaiming themselves idealists of the social order, have been reaching conclusions and teaching doctrines at which Carlyle would have stood aghast. These are but random examples, but they are one in this, that each has protested against that one-sidedness for which Carlyle stood. Yet each is a one-sided protest, and falls again into the snare of setting the affections upon things which are not eternal, and so wedding man to the green earth again.
Thus we find paganism—in some quarters paganism quite openly confessed—occupying a prominent place in our literature to-day. Before we examine some of its aspects in detail a word or two of preliminary warning may be permissible. It is a mistake to take the extremer forms of this reaction too seriously, although at the present time this is very frequently done. One must remember that such a spirit as this is to be found in every age, and that it always creates an ephemeral literature which imagines itself to be a lasting one. It is nothing new. It is as old and as perennial as the complex play of the human mind and human society.
Another reason for not taking this phase too seriously is that it was quite inevitable that some such reaction should follow upon the huge solemnities of Carlyle. Just as in literature, after the classic formality of Johnson and his contemporaries, there must come the reaction of the Romantic School, which includes Sir Walter Scott, Byron, and Burns; so here there must be an inevitable reaction from austerity to a daring freedom which will take many various forms. From Carlyle's solemnising liturgy we were bound to pass to the slang and colloquialism of the man in the street and the woman in the modern novel. Body and spirit are always in unstable equilibrium, and an excess of either at once swings the fashion back to the other extreme. Carlyle had his day largely in consequence of what one may call the eighteenth-century glut—the Georgian society and its economics, and the Byronic element in literature. The later swing back was as inevitable as Carlyle had been. Perhaps it was most clearly noticed after the deaths of Browning and Tennyson, in the late eighties and the early nineties. But both before and since that time it has been very manifest in England.
But beyond all these things there is the general fact that before any literature becomes pagan the land must first have been paganised. Of course there is always here again a reaction of mutual cause and effect between literature and national spirit. Carlyle himself, in his doctrine of heroes, was continually telling us that it is the personality which produces the zeitgeist, and not vice versa. On the other hand it is equally certain that no personality is independent of his age and the backing he finds in it, or the response which he may enlist for his revolt from it. Both of these are true statements of the case; as to which is ultimate, that is the old and rather academic question of whether the oak or the acorn comes first. We repeat that it is impossible, in this double play of cause and effect, to say which is the ultimate cause and which the effect. The controversy which was waged in the nineteenth century between the schools of Buckle and Carlyle is likely to go on indefinitely through the future. But what concerns us at present is this, that all paganism which finds expression in a literature has existed in the age before it found that expression. The literature is indeed to some extent the creator of the age, but to a far greater extent it is the expression of the age, whose creation is due to a vast multiplicity of causes.
Among these causes one of the foremost was political advance and freedom—the political doctrines, and the beginnings of Socialistic thought, which had appeared about the time when Sartor Resartus was written. The Reform Bill of 1832 tended to concentrate men's attention upon questions of material welfare. Commercial and industrial prosperity followed, keeping the nation busy with the earth. In very striking language Lord Morley describes this fact, in language specially striking as coming from so eminently progressive a man. "Far the most penetrating of all the influences that are impairing the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation, remain still to be mentioned. The first of them is the immense increase of material prosperity, and the second is the immense decline in sincerity of spiritual interest. The evil wrought by the one fills up the measure of the evil wrought by the other. We have been, in spite of momentary declensions, on a flood-tide of high profits and a roaring trade, and there is nothing like a roaring trade for engendering latitudinarians. The effect of many possessions, especially if they be newly acquired, in slackening moral vigour, is a proverb. Our new wealth is hardly leavened by any tradition of public duty such as lingers among the English nobles, nor as yet by any common custom of devotion to public causes, such as seems to live and grow in the United States. Under such conditions, with new wealth come luxury and love of ease and that fatal readiness to believe that God has placed us in the best of possible worlds, which so lowers men's aims and unstrings their firmness of purpose. Pleasure saps high interests, and the weakening of high interests leaves more undisputed room for pleasure." "The political spirit has grown to be the strongest element in our national life; the dominant force, extending its influence over all our ways of thinking in matters that have least to do with politics, or even nothing at all to do with them. There has thus been engendered among us the real sense of political responsibility. In a corresponding degree has been discouraged ... the sense of intellectual responsibility.... Practically, and as a matter of history, a society is seldom at the same time successfully energetic both in temporals and spirituals; seldom prosperous alike in seeking abstract truth and nursing the political spirit."
The result of the new phase of English life was, on the one hand, industrialism with its material values, and on the other hand the beginnings of a Socialism equally pagan. The motto of both schools was that a man's life consisteth in the abundance of the things that he possesseth, that you should seek first all these things, and that the Kingdom of God and His righteousness may be added unto you, if you have any room for them. Make yourself secure of all these other things; seek comfort whether you be rich or poor; make this world as agreeable to yourself as your means will allow, and seek to increase your means of making it still more agreeable. After you have done all that, anything that is left over will do for your idealism. Your God can be seen to after you have abundantly provided for the needs of your body. Nothing could be more characteristic paganism than this, which makes material comfort the real end of life, and all spiritual things a residual element. It is the story which Isaiah tells, with such sublimity of sarcasm, of the huntsman and craftsman who warms his hands and cries to himself, "Aha! I am warm. I have seen the fire." He bakes bread and roasts flesh, and, with the residue of the same log which he has used for kindling his fire, he maketh a god. So this modern god of England, when England had become materialised, was just that ancient fire-worship and comfort-worship in its nineteenth-century phase. In the first demand of life there is no thought of God or of idealism of any kind. These, if they appear at all, have to be made out of what is left. "Of the residue he maketh a god."
It is by insidious degrees that materialism invades a nation's life. At first it attacks the externals, appearing mainly in the region of work, wealth, and comfort. But, unless some check is put upon its progress, it steadily works its way to the central depths, attacking love and sorrow, and changing them to sensuality and cynicism. Then the nation's day is over, and its men and women are lost souls. Many instances might be quoted in which this progress has actually been made in the literature of England. At present we are only pointing to the undoubted fact that the forces of materialism have been at work among us. If proof of this were needed, nothing could afford it more clearly than our loss of peace and dignity in modern society. Many costly luxuries have become necessities, and they have increased the pace of life to a rush and fury which makes business a turmoil and social life a fever. A symbolic embodiment of this spirit may be seen in the motor car and the aeroplane as they are often used. These indeed need not be ministers of paganism. The glory of swift motion and the mounting up on wings as eagles reach very near to the spiritual, if not indeed across its borderland, as exhilarating and splendid stimuli to the human spirit. But, on the other hand, they may be merely instruments for gratifying that insane human restlessness which is but the craving for new sensations. Along the whole line of our commercial and industrial prosperity there runs one great division. There are some who, in the midst of all change, have preserved their old spiritual loyalties, and there are others who have substituted novelty for loyalty. These are the idealists and the pagans of the twentieth century.
Another potent factor in the making of the new times was the scientific advance which has made so remarkable a difference to the whole outlook of man upon the earth. Darwin's great discovery is perhaps the most epoch-making fact in science that has yet appeared upon the earth. The first apparent trend of evolution seemed to be an entirely materialistic reaction. This was due to the fact that believers in the spiritual had identified with their spirituality a great deal that was unnecessary and merely casual. If the balloon on which people mount up above the earth is any such theory as that of the six days' creation, it is easy to see how when that balloon is pricked the spiritual flight of the time appears to have ended on the ground.
Of course all that has long passed by. Of late years Haeckel has been crying out that all his old friends have deserted him and have gone over to the spiritual side—a cry which reminds one of the familiar juryman who finds his fellows the eleven most obstinate men he has ever known. The conception of evolution has long since been taken over by the idealists, and has become perhaps the most splendidly Christian and idealistic idea of the new age. When Darwin published his Origin of Species, Hegel cried out in Germany, "Darwin has destroyed design." To-day Darwin and Hegel stand together as the prophets of the unconquerable conviction of the reality of spirit. From the days of Huxley and Haeckel we have passed over to the days of Bergson and Sir Oliver Lodge.
The effect of all this upon individuals is a very interesting phenomenon to watch. Every one of us has been touched by the pagan spirit which has invaded our times at so many different points of entrance. It has become an atmosphere which we have all breathed more or less. If some one were to say to any company of British people, one by one, that they were pagans, doubtless many of them would resent it, and yet more or less it would be true. We all are pagans; we cannot help ourselves, for every one of us is necessarily affected by the spirit of his generation. Nobody indeed says, "Go to, I will be a pagan"; but the old story of Aaron's golden calf repeats itself continually. Aaron, when Moses rebuked him, said naïvely, "There came out this calf." That exactly describes the situation. That calf is the only really authentic example of spontaneous generation, of effect without cause. Nobody expected it. Nobody wanted it. Everybody was surprised to see it when it came. It was the Melchizedek among cattle — without father, without mother, without descent. Unfortunately it seems also to have been without beginning of days or end of life. Every generation simply puts in its gold and there comes out this calf—it is a way such calves have.
Thus it is with our modern paganism. We all of us want to be idealists, and we sometimes try, but there are hidden causes which draw us back again to the earth. These causes lie in the opportunities that occur one by one: in politics, in industrial and commercial matters, in scientific theories, or by mere reaction. The earth is more habitable than once it was, and we all desire it. It masters us, and so the golden calf appears.
We shall now glance very rapidly at a few out of the many literary forces of our day in which we may see the various reactions from Carlyle. First, there was the Early Victorian time, the eighteenth century in homespun. It was not great and pompous like that century, but it lived by formality, propriety, and conventionality. It was horribly shocked when George Eliot published Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede in 1858 and 1859. Outwardly it was eminently respectable, and its respectability was its particular method of lapsing into paganism. It was afraid of ideals, and for those who cherish this fear the worship of respectability comes to be a very dangerous kind of worship, and its idol is perhaps the most formidable of all the gods.
Meanwhile that glorious band of idealists, whose chief representatives were Tennyson, Browning, and Ruskin, to be joined later by George Meredith, were fighting paganism in the spirit of Arthur's knights, keen to drive the heathen from the land. Tennyson, the most popular of them all, probably achieved more than any other in this conflict. Ruskin was too contradictory and bewildering, and so failed of much of his effect. Browning and Meredith at first were reckoned unintelligible, and had to wait their day for a later understanding. Still, all these, and many others of lesser power than theirs, were knights of the ideal, warring against the domination of dead and unthinking respectability.
Matthew Arnold came upon the scene, with his great protest against the preponderance of single elements in life, and his plea for wholeness. In this demand for whole and not one-sided views of the world, he is more nearly akin to Goethe than perhaps any other writer of our time. His great protest was against the worship of machinery, which he believed to be taking the place of its own productions in England. He conceived of the English people as being under a general delusion which led them to mistake means for ends. He spoke of them as "Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace," according to the rank in life they held; and accused them of living for such ends as field sports, the disestablishment of the Church of England, and the drinking of beer. He pointed out that, so far as real culture is concerned, these can at best be but means towards other ends, and can never be in themselves sufficient to satisfy the human soul. He protested against Carlyle, although in the main thesis the two are entirely at one. "I never liked Carlyle," he said; "he always seemed to me to be carrying coals to Newcastle." He took Carlyle for the representative of what he called "Hebraism," and he desired to balance the undue preponderance of that by insisting upon the necessity of the Hellenistic element in culture. Both of these are methods of idealism, but Arnold protested that the human spirit is greater than any of the forces that bear it onwards; and that after you have said all that Carlyle has to say, there still remains on the other side the intellect, with rights of its own. He did not exclude conscience, for he held that conduct made up three-fourths of life. He was the idealist of a whole culture as against all one-sidedness; but curiously, by flinging himself upon the opposite side from Carlyle, he became identified in the popular mind with what it imagined to be Hellenic paganism. This was partly due to his personal idiosyncrasies, his fastidiousness of taste, and the somewhat cold style of the exquisite in expression. These deceived many of his readers, and kept them from seeing how great and prophetic a message it was that came to England beneath Arnold's mannerisms.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti appeared, and many more in his train. He, more perfectly than any other, expressed the marriage of sense and soul in modern English poetry. He was the idealist of emotion, who, in the far-off dim borderlands between sense and spirit, still preserved the spiritual search, nor ever allowed himself to be completely drugged with the vapours of the region. There were others, however, who tended towards decadence. Some of Rossetti's readers, whose sole interest lay in the lower world, claimed him as well as the rest for their guides, and set a fashion which is not yet obsolete. There is no lack of solemnity among these. The scent of sandalwood and of incense is upon their work, and you feel as you read them that you are worshipping in some sort of a temple with strange and solemnising rites. Indeed they insist upon this, and assiduously cultivate a kind of lethargic and quasi-religious manner which is supposed to be very impressive. But their temple is a pagan temple, and their worship, however much they may borrow for it the language of a more spiritual cult, is of the earth, earthy.
Mr. Thomas Hardy was the inevitable sequel to George Eliot. Everybody knows how beautiful and how full of charm his lighter writings can be; and in his more tragic work there is much that is true, terrifically expressed. Yet he has got upon the wrong side of the world, and can never see beyond the horror of its tragedy. Consequently in him we have another form of paganism, not this time that which the seductive earth with its charms is suggesting, but the hopeless paganism which sees the earth only in its bitterness. In The Return of the Native he says: "What the Greeks only suspected we know well; what their Aeschylus imagined our nursery children feel. That old-fashioned revelling in the general situation grows less and less possible as we uncover the defects of natural laws, and see the quandary man is in by their operation." It is no wonder that he who expressed the spirit of the modern age in these words should have closed his well-known novel with the bitter saying that the upper powers had finished their sport with Tess. "To have lost the God-like conceit that we may do what we will, and not to have acquired a homely zest for doing what we can, shows a grandeur of temper which cannot be objected to in the abstract, for it denotes a mind that, though disappointed, forswears compromise." Here is obviously a man who would love the highest if he saw it, who would fain welcome and proclaim the ideals if he could only find them on the earth; but who has found instead the bitterness of darkness, the sarcasm and the sensationalism of an age that the gods have left. He is too honest to shout pour encourager les autres when his own heart has no hope in it; and his greater books express the wail and despair of our modern paganism.
Breaking away from him and all such pessimistic voices came the glad soul of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose old-fashioned revelling in the situation is the exact counter-blast to Hardy's modernism, and is one of those perennial human things which are ever both new and old. It is not that Stevenson has not seen the other side of life. He has seen it and he has suffered from it deeply, both in himself and in others; yet still indomitably he "clings to his paddle." "I believe," he says, "in an ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it."
Then there came the extraordinary spirit of Mr. Rudyard Kipling. At first sight some things that he has written appear pagan enough, and have been regarded as such. The God of Christians seems to inhabit and preside over an amazing Valhalla of pagan divinities; and indeed throughout Mr. Kipling's work the heavens and the earth are mingled in a most inextricable and astonishing fashion. It is said that not long ago, during the launch of a Chinese battleship at one of our British yards, they were burning papers to the gods in a small joss-house upon the pier, while the great vessel, fitted with all the most modern machinery, was leaving the stocks. There is something about the tale that reminds us of Mr. Kipling. Now he is the prophet of Jehovah, now the Corybantic pagan priest, now the interpreter of the soul of machines. He is everything and everybody. He knows the heart of the unborn, and, telling of days far in the future, can make them as living and real as the hours of to-day. It was the late Professor James who said of him, "Kipling is elemental; he is down among the roots of all things. He is universal like the sun. He is at home everywhere. When he dies they won't be able to get any grave to hold him. They will have to bury him under a pyramid." In our reckoning such a man hardly counts. It would be most interesting, if it were as yet possible, to speculate as to whether his permanent influence has been more on the side of a kind of a wild Titanic paganism, or of that ancient Calvinistic God whom Macandrew worships in the temple of his engine-room.
We now come to a later phase, for which we may take as representative writers the names of Mr. H.G. Wells and Mr. Bernard Shaw. Science, for the meantime at least, has disentangled herself from her former materialism, and a nobly ideal and spiritual view of science has come again. It may even be hoped that the pagan view will never be able again to assert itself with the same impressiveness as in the past. But social conditions are to-day in the throes of their strife, and from that quarter of the stage there appear such writers as those we are now to consider. They both present themselves as idealists. Mr. Wells has published a long volume about his religion, and Mr. Shaw prefaces his plays with essays as long or even longer than the plays themselves, dealing with all manner of the most serious subjects. The surface flippancy both of prefaces and plays has repelled some readers in spite of all their cleverness, and tended towards an unjust judgment that he is upsetting the universe with his tongue in his cheek all the time. Later one comes to realise that this is not the case, that Mr. Shaw does really take himself and his message seriously, and from first to last conceives himself as the apostle of a tremendous creed. Among many other things which they have in common, these writers have manifested the tendency to regard all who ever went before them as, in a certain sense, thieves and robbers; at least they give one the impression that the present has little need for long lingering over the past. Mr. Wells, for instance, cannot find words strong enough to describe the emancipation of the modern young man from Mr. Kipling with his old-fashioned injunction, "Keep ye the law." There are certain laws which Mr. Wells proclaims on the housetops that he sees no necessity for keeping, and so Mr. Kipling is buried under piles of opprobrium—"the tumult and the bullying, the hysteria and the impatience, the incoherence and the inconsistency," and so on. As for Mr. Bernard Shaw, we all know his own view of the relation in which he stands to William Shakespeare.
Mr. Wells has written many interesting books, and much could be said of him from the point of view of science, or of style, or of social theory. That, however, is not our present concern, either with him or with Mr. Shaw. It is as idealist or pagan influences that we are discussing them and the others. Mr. Wells boasts a new morality in his books, and Mr. Shaw in his plays. One feels the same startling sense of a volte face in morality as a young recruit is said to do when he finds all the precepts of his childhood reversed by the ethics of his first battlefield. Each in his own way falls back upon crude and primitive instincts and justifies them.
Mr. Wells takes the change with zest, and seems to treat the adoption of a new morality in the same light-hearted spirit as he might consider the buying of a new hat. From the first he has a terrifying way of dealing familiarly with vast things. Somehow he reminds one of those jugglers who, for a time, toss heavy balls about, and then suddenly astonish the audience by introducing a handkerchief, which flies lightly among its ponderous companions. So Mr. Wells began to juggle with worlds. He has latterly introduced that delicate thing, the human soul and conscience, into the play, and you see it precariously fluttering among the immensities of leaping planets. He persuades himself that the common morality has not gripped people, and that they really don't believe in it at all. He aims at a way of thinking which will be so great as to be free from all commonplace and convention. Honesty is to be practically the only virtue in the new world. If you say what you mean, you will earn the right to do anything else that you please. Mr. Wells in this is the counterpart of those plain men in private life so well known to us all, who perpetually remind us that they are people who call a spade a spade. Such men are apt to interpret this dictum as a kind of charter which enables a man to say anything foolish, or rude, or bad that may occur to him, and earn praise for it instead of blame. Some of us fail to find the greatness of this way of thinking, however much we may be impressed by its audacity. Indeed there seems to be much smallness in it which masquerades as immensity.
This smallness is due first of all to sheer ignorance. When a man tells us that he prefers Oliver Goldsmith to Jesus Christ, he merely shows that upon the subject he is discussing he is not educated, and does not know what he is talking about. A second source of pettiness is to be found in the mistake of imagining that mere smartness of diction and agility of mind are signs of intellectual keenness. The mistake is as obvious as it is unfortunate. Smartness can be learned with perhaps the least expenditure of intellect that is demanded by any literary exercise of the present day. It is a temptation which a certain kind of clever man always has to face, and it only assumes a serious aspect when it leads the unthinking to mistake it for a new and formidable element of opposition to things which he has counted sacred.
The whole method is not so very subtle after all. Pick out a vice or a deformity. Do not trouble to acquaint yourself too intimately with the history of morals in the past, but boldly canonise your vice or your deformity with ritual of epigram and paradox. Proclaim loudly and eloquently that this is your faith, and give it a pathetic aspect by dwelling tenderly upon any trouble which it may be likely to cost those who venture to adopt it. It is not perhaps a very admirable way to deal with such subjects. The whole world of tradition and the whole constitution of human nature are against you. Men have wrestled with these things for thousands of years, and they have come to certain conclusions which the experience of all time has enforced upon them. By a dash of bold imagination you may discount all that laborious past, and leave an irrevocable stain upon the purity of the mind of a generation. Doubtless you will have a following—such teachers have ever had those who followed them—and yet time is always on the side of great traditions. If enlightened thought has in any respect to change them, it changes them reverently, and knowing what their worth has been. Sooner or later all easy ignoring of them is condemned as sheer impertinence. There is singularly little reason for being impressed by this hasty, romantic, and loud-sounding crusade against Christian morality and its Ideal.
In Mr. George Bernard Shaw we have a very different man. Nobody denies Mr. Shaw's cleverness, least of all Mr. Shaw himself. He is depressingly clever. He exhibits the spectacle of a man trying to address his audience while standing on his head—and succeeding.
He has been singularly fortunate in his biographer, Mr. Chesterton, and one of the things that make this biography such pleasing reading is the personal element that runs through it all. The introduction is characteristic and delightful: "Most people either say that they agree with Bernard Shaw, or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him." It is not unnatural that he should take his friend a little more seriously than most of us will be prepared to do. It really is a big thing to stand on the shoulders of William Shakespeare, and we shall need time to consider it before we subscribe to the statue.
For there is here an absolutely colossal egotism. There are certain newspapers which usually begin with a note of the hours of sunrise and sunset. During the recent coal strike, some of these newspapers inserted first of all a notice that they would not be sent out so early as usual, and then cheered our desponding hearts by assuring us that the sun rises at 5.37 notwithstanding—as if by permission of the newspaper. Mr. Shaw somehow gives us a similar impression. Most things in the universe seem to go on by his permission, and some of them he is not going to allow to go on much longer. He will tilt without the slightest vestige of humility against any existing institution, and the tourney is certainly one of the most entertaining and most extraordinary of our time.
No one can help admiring Mr. Shaw. The dogged persistence which has carried him, unflinching, through adversity into his present fame, without a single compromise or hesitation, is, apart altogether from the question of the truth of his opinions, an admirable quality in a man. We cannot but admire his immense forcefulness and agility, the fertility of his mind, and the swiftness of its play. But we utterly refuse to fall down and worship him on account of these. Indeed the kind of awe with which he is regarded in some quarters seems to be due rather to the eccentricities of his expression than to the greatness of his message or the brilliance of his achievements.
There is no question of his earnestness. The Puritan is deep in Mr. Shaw, in his very blood. He has indeed given to the term Puritan a number of unexpected meanings, and yet no one can justly question his right to it. His Plays for Puritans are not exceptional in this matter, for all his work is done in the same spirit. His favourite author is John Bunyan, about whom he tells us that he claims him as the precursor of Nietzsche, and that in his estimation John Bunyan's life was one long tilt against morality and respectability. The claim is sufficiently grotesque, yet there is a sense in which he has a right to John Bunyan, and is in the same line as Thomas Carlyle. He is trying sincerely to speak the truth and get it spoken. He appears as another of the destroyers of shams, the breakers of idols. He may indeed be claimed as a pagan, and his influence will certainly preponderate in that direction; and yet there is a strain of high idealism which runs perplexingly through it all.
The explanation seems to be, as Mr. Chesterton suggests, that the man is incomplete. There are certain elementary things which, if he had ever seen them as other people do, would have made many of his positions impossible. "Shaw is wrong," says Mr. Chesterton, "about nearly all the things one learns early in life while one is still simple." Among those things which he has never seen are the loyalties involved in love, country, and religion. The most familiar proof of this in regard to religion is his extraordinary tirade against the Cross of Calvary. It is one of the most amazing passages in print, so far as either taste or judgment is concerned. It is significant that in this very passage he actually refers to the "stable at Bethany," and the slip seems to indicate from what a distance he is discussing Christianity. It is possible for any of us to measure himself against the Cross and Him who hung upon it, only when we have travelled very far away from them. When we are sufficiently near, we know ourselves to be infinitesimal in comparison. Nor in regard to home, and all that sanctifies and defends it, does Mr. Shaw seem ever to have understood the real morality that is in the heart of the average man. The nauseating thing which he quotes as morality is a mere caricature of that vital sense of honour and imperative conscience of righteousness which, thank God, are still alive among us. "My dear," he says, "you are the incarnation of morality, your conscience is clear and your duty done when you have called everybody names." Similar, and no less unfortunate, is his perversion of that instinct of patriotism which, however mistaken in some of its expressions, has yet proved its moral and practical worth during many a century of British history. There is the less need to dwell upon this, because those who discard patriotism have only to state their case clearly in order to discredit it.
We do not fear greatly the permanent influence of these fundamental errors. The great heart of the civilised world still beats true, and is healthy enough to disown so maimed an account of human nature. Yet there is danger in any such element in literature as this. Mr. Shaw's biographer has virtually told us that in these matters he is but a child in whom "Irish innocence is peculiar and fundamental." The pleadings of the nurse for the precocious and yet defective infant are certainly very touching. He may be the innocent creature that Mr. Chesterton takes him for, but he has said things which will exactly suit the views of libertines who read him. Such pleadings are quite unavailing to excuse any such child if he does too much innocent mischief. His puritanism and his childlikeness only make his teaching more dangerous because more piquant. It has the air of proceeding from the same source as the ten commandments, and the effect of this upon the unreflecting is always considerable. If a child is playing in a powder magazine, the more childish and innocent he is the more dangerous he will prove; and the explosion, remember, will be just as violent if lit by a child's hand as if it had been lit by an anarchist's. We have in England borne long enough with people trifling with the best intentions among explosives, moral and social, and we must consider our own safety and that of society when we are judging them.
As to the relation in which Mr. Shaw stands to paganism, his relations to anything are so "extensive and peculiar" that they are always difficult to define. But the later phase of his work, which has become famous in connection with the word "Superman," is due in large part to Nietzsche, whose strange influence has reversed the Christian ideals for many disciples on both sides of the North Sea. So this idealist, who, in Major Barbara, protests so vigorously against paganism, has become one of its chief advocates and expositors. One of his characters somewhere says, "I wish I could get a country to live in where the facts were not brutal and the dreams were not unreal." It may be admitted that there are many brutal facts and perhaps more unreal dreams; but, for our part, that which keeps us from becoming pagans is that we have found facts that are not brutal and dreams which are the realest things in life.