David Sarkies's Reviews > Man and Superman

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
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Mar 26, 14

bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended to David by: Bernard Shaw himself
Recommended for: Christians
Read in June, 2006 — I own a copy, read count: 2

Shaw's first attempt to explore the concept of evolution
23 June 2012

We admit that when the divinity we worshipped made itself visible
and comprehensible, we crucified it.

This phrase above, which appears in the epilogue, pretty much sums up the theme of the entire play, and that is that it is impossible for man to evolve simply because we do not want to evolve, and everytime somebody comes along to show us how to evolve we either kill them, or completely corrupt their teachings so as to bring us back to the position that we were in prior to this person coming along. I will discuss examples of this later on in this commentary (which will actually be quite long because there is quite a lot in this play) and I will also how Shaw's philosophy, as I see it, applies to the teachings of the Bible.
One of the things that I really like about Shaw's plays is that he begins a lot of them with a commentary on the play, thus (unlike many other authors) he will actually tells us what he intends to demonstrate in the play in these commentaries. In some cases he also has a epilogue at the end (as he does in this one) which ties up all of the ideas that he has explored and outlines his conclusions. Now, this is one of Shaw's earlier plays so we see more immature thought and insight into his philosophy here, and in fact the play, while playing an important role in his philosophy, is only a part of the bigger picture, which only comes out at the end.
His opening (or dare I call is a prologue) is a letter to a fellow named Arthur Walkely (I am unsure if this person existed or not, but I will assume that he does, and the main reason I say this is because his conclusion is a 'handbook' written by the play's protagonist) and he appears to be about writing a Don Juan play. Now, we have probably all heard of Don Juan and how he attacked windmills (actually I think that is Don Quioxte), but that is not the purpose of the play or the character. Shaw indicates that Don Juan was originally conceived by a monk who wanted to write a story about the futility of putting off one's salvation. The idea was that Don Juan rejected the church, wanting instead to live a wild life, and then become Christian later on in life when he is no longer old enough to have fun. However he does not get to live to an old age as he dies young, and in sin. While the story was supposed to be a warning, it had the opposite effect in that the story was not received as a warning but as the romaticised idea of a rebellious hero, one that everybody wanted to be, but did not have the courage to do so for fear of going to hell.
Much of the letter involves sexuality and sexual coupling and one may wonder what this has to do with evolution, but this will be explained later as we move through the play. He discusses how the modern theatre of his day explored sexual attraction, but only to a certain point. Victorian England saw itself as civilised and above these base ideas of sexual pleasure. It was not a concept of lust but a concept of romantic love, and unfortunately sex does not play a part in Victorian romantic love (it is too disgusting). He explores the impossibility of writing such a play in this era as ideas have changed, but in many cases nothing has actually changed. He points out that in Shakespeare pretty much all of the lovers are naturally lovers and no pushing needs to occur to bring them together, however it is still done so as to add depth to the play. The only play in which a character goes out to win a wife is in The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petrucchio pursues Katerina, however there is no love involved in this, rather it is purely a commercial choice, and if it was not for the fact that Katerina had money, then Petruchio would not have been interested.
Unrequited love, as he explored in Shakespeare, is dangerous and leads to madness, as he points out in Hamlet. It is natural for Ophelia and Hamlet to come together and couple, there is that natural attraction there, however, ignoring the intrusion by Polonius, Hamlet rebuff's Ophelia's advances, and continues to do so with tragic consequences (namely her suicide). We must remember that at this stage Hamlet was feigning madness to learn if Claudius really is a murderer, and while he may have loved Ophelia, he did not trust her, and as such did not bring her into his plans. Thus Ophelia sees a man whom she loves descending into madness, and in turn she herself also descends into madness. This unrequited love ends very badly as the action moves pretty much straight from the funeral to the throne room, which results in a fencing match in which everybody dies.
Now, remembering that this is a play about the philosophy of evolution, I will continue exploring Shaw's ideas as I encountered them in this book. As we know England at this time was undergoing a period of great change. The industrial revolution was behind them and through pressure many reforms to the social network had been made including universal education and the universal male voting franchise. However Shaw is concerned as to whether this would actually raise the working class and the poor into the bourgeoisie. He says that it does not and in fact it dilutes the voting power by giving it to people that have no understanding of the nature of government and governing a country. In fact he does not seem to believe that it is possible to raise such a person out of their class, not due to the lack of mobility, but rather due to a lack of willpower to actually want to move out of that class. I disagree as John Wesley had proven otherwise in that when he established his church he went out among the poor and the dispossessed and preached to them, and built a church from them. Within at least one generation it was discovered that the poor were no longer poor and had entered the middle class. Mind you, during this time the theatre was still portrayed the wealthy as the upper class elite as the main characters while the poor were portrayed as comical and ignorant. This has always been the case, and in many ways, still is the case today.
As a side note, Shaw also discusses what he considers a good writer and what he doesn't. Dickens and Shakespeare, as far as he is concerned, are not good writers as they have no overarching philosophy which they explore, while others, such as Shelly, Goethe, Nietzsche, Blake, Bunyan, and Tolstoy, do, and he would prefer to be influenced by somebody who has a philosophy rather than somebody who does not. I agree with him to an extent on this, but I feel that because we know so little about Shakespeare as a person, as opposed to Shakespeare the legend, I feel that it is not possible to comment on his philosophy or not.
Now, I should get onto the play, and as he indicates at the opening to the play, it is a philosophy and a comedy. The first part of the play is very difficult to follow, but once we get to act three, everything begins to come to light. In a way this is a romantic comedy, but he indicates at the beginning is that it is not the man who initiates the romantic relationship, but the woman. While it is traditional for the man to approach the woman, it is the woman who has the power to say yes or no. One quote of his, in relation to polygamy, is that a woman would rather have a tenth of a first rate man than a whole of a third rate man. We see this in the play with Ann because at the beginning of the play it is implied that her relationship will form with Octavian, however we suddenly discover at the end that this was never her intention, and it was Tanner that she wanted, and while he resists, she continues to push and persist until he capitulates.
Shaw uses the concept of a play within a play in Man and Superman, in a sense because by moving the main philosophy out of the immediate play, he takes it out of his mouth and puts in into the mouth of the protagonist, Tanner. He does the same at the end where the handbook is written not by himself but by Tanner, and he even uses the idea of a socialist meeting to push through the idea of Tanner's revolutionary nature. The play within a play could be termed as 'The Devil and Don Juan' or 'Don Juan in Hell'. The characters in the main play also take roles in this play, and we see a continual movement in action from the home to Spain, to the play within a play, and out again.
Shaw's concept of hell, as outlined in the play, is that while it is a place for those who reject God, it is not necessarily bad. Don Juan, who never wanted to go to hell in the first play, suffers, however Ann, who had resigned herself to being a denizen of hell, does not. They ask about the gulf, and Shaw (as taken up by Lewis later) indicates that the idea of the gulf is a parable, and that the gulf exists not in reality but in our mind. While it is possible to move between heaven and hell, and to connect with the denizens of hell, it is the mindset of the denizens that create the gap. He uses the example of the philosophy class and the bull ring, or the concert hall and the race track. People who go to one, do not go to the other, and if they do, they dislike it intensely and want to escape. Therefore, in their mind, they create a gulf, and to be trapped in the place where their mind is not set creates for them a hell.
While people have written about hell, Shaw indicates the impossibility of actually truly understanding its nature, as he writes 'the Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire … this ass, when he was not lying about me (the devil is speaking) was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton thinks this jolly story is in the Bible'.
Now, I have written quite a lot so far and I still have not got to the main theme of evolution. Now, when we speak of evolution we are not talking about a physical process that moves us from an ape (if we believe that) to our current form. Nietzsche was not talking about that either, and Hitler's idea that the German people were more highly evolved was taking Nietzsche completely out of context. The problem with Nietzsche though was that he was insane. It seemed that the idea of the superman, and the fact that he could never attain that ideal was too much for him. Fortunately Shaw is very compus mentus, and unlike Nietzsche, is easy to read. The idea is that we do not evolve physically but rather socially and spiritually. Unfortunately we do not want to evolve that way, we want to become like the X-men, namely superheroes. However this is not the Shaw's (and Nietzsche's) idea of evolution.
It appears that Shaw's idea is that the first step towards us becoming further evolved, is to shed these ridiculous ideas of civilisation. The fact that we have telephones, motor cars, planes, televisions (and the list goes on) does not necessarily mean that we have become evolved, in fact it is quite the opposite. As Shaw says, the gentleman relies on his servants more than the servants rely upon the gentleman. Our pursuit of wealth and luxury has not made us more evolved, but rather more dependant on our current lifestyle (as is evidenced by 'Lifestyle Packages' offered by insurance companies, so that wealthy people can maintain their lifestyle in the event of a tragedy). It is much easier to go from being poor to being rich than the other way around (and just look at the number of suicides that occur whenever there is a massive economic downturn).
As I indicated at the beginning, the reason we are not evolving is because we do not want to evolve. Take the idea of coupling again and how Shaw indicates that it is not the man's choice but the woman's. The man puts himself out to stud and the woman says either yes or no. However, you have probably heard the saying 'nice guys finish last' and that women would prefer a jerk than a decent guy. Look, I am not saying that it is true (there are a lot of nice married guys out there), but if the case is that bad men get the girls while the good men miss out, then is it not the case that the decent, evolved, people are dying out to pretty much be replaced by jerks.
Let us also consider what happens whenever somebody comes along to try to move us towards evolving. Basically it is human nature to silence anybody who preaches a message of evolution that does not involve us becoming powerful beings, but rather evolving by becoming more socially orientated and ethical beings. The classic case is Jesus Christ: he was crucified (though biblically that was always going to happen, and while he died, he rose again from the dead). Other examples include Martin Luther King, who was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, but the idea of treating people as equals was repugnant. Let us also consider a movement towards socialism. It is rejected and attacked at every turn, and not just in the United States. Take Russia for example. Russia was supposed to be turned into a 'worker's democracy' however the pure ideal never even had the option to bud before the seed was destroyed by Stalin. This is the same with the church, for Christ's moving humanity to evolve was first viciously attacked by the Roman State, and when that failed, the church was infiltrated and taken back full circle to where it begun.
I suspect this idea is biblical, and remember Shaw nowhere in this play attacks the teachings of Christ or the Bible, but rather the way humanity teaches from the Bible. The concept of the Bible is that humanity was created perfect, but something happened that caused us to degenerate. Thus the entire Bible (or at least the first part) demonstrates the downward spiral of degeneration (spiritual and social) that we have been afflicted with. The second part is not only a biography of Jesus Christ, but also an indication of how we can cease that degeneration, and then move back onto the path of evolution, however we cannot do it on our own, we need God's help (and that is where Christ came in, and why he died) to cease degenerating and to return to the path of evolution.
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