July 28, 2006

Seeking Shaw's Return: "A victory for anybody is a victory for war"

Michael Holroyd offers a provocative and wonderfully informative meditation about Bernard Shaw, and concerning what Shaw might have to say to us today, were we graced with his frequently unsettling presence again. Holroyd is the writer of the authorized biography of Shaw, which he began in the 1970s; you can now purchase a slimmed-down one-volume version of the original four-volume work.

I think you will find the entire article worth the few minutes it takes to read it. Here are a few excerpts:
Shaw believed that the only revolutions which would not lead to counter-revolutions, landing us back to approximately where we had begun, were bloodless revolutions, revolutions that arose through changing the mind of a country by its writers, philosophers, thinkers, men and women of imagination. If you are bombed, for heaven’s sake, do not go blindly bombing back – unless you actually want more bombing, more deaths, indiscriminately all over the place. The way to judge people’s motives is to look at the results of their actions: that is the pragmatist’s philosophy. One of the ironies of history is that in most wars both sides eventually come to resemble each other and impose defeat on themselves. Or as Shaw succinctly put it: "A victory for anybody is a victory for war".

What would Shaw be telling us today? Would he, for example, have supported suicide bombing? I hear him answer this with a resounding No! But then he would never have been so stupid, so uncomprehending, as to label suicide bombers "cowardly" – that really is the voice of terror. Early in the twentieth century, Shaw proposed giving all Irishmen guns so that they could enjoy the privilege of a civil war without the intervention of the English. Such a man would not have hesitated to advocate the elimination of suicide bombing by giving Palestine an army equal in strength to that of Israel. He would, however, have castigated a Palestinian culture that encouraged young people to throw away their lives and be applauded for doing so by their parents and grandparents. It would have been far more honourable, I hear him saying, for old people to volunteer – indeed he had recommended calling up seventy- and eighty-year-olds for military service before turning to the young in time of war. In short: send Shaw out to the Middle East and he would unite all enemies in opposition to himself. Send Shaw today round the world and he would be called mad for recommending publishers in every country to put all sacred texts, from the Bible to the Koran, on their backlists and find new sacred works from contemporary writing.


So where are we now? In December 2004, the dramatist Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had her play called Behzti (meaning dishonour), which was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre as an alternative to the season of pantomimes, removed from the stage because of fears for her safety and that of the cast and theatre staff after violent protests by members of the Sikh community. The Arts Minister at that time, Estelle Morris, was reported as having issued a surprising statement. "Although today is a sad day for freedom of speech," she said, "I think the Rep has done the right thing." It is certainly a sad day when a government minister, appointed to represent the art of drama, can so easily turn back the clock more than one hundred years by supporting the removal of a play that, like Hall Caine’s The Prophet, might "give offence to many of Her Majesty’s subjects".

In such a climate of terrified legislation, we have need of Bernard Shaw – need of his stimulating incorrectitudes, need of his ability to show where dishonour truly lies and of his power to ridicule such absurdities out of court. It is time for Dionysos to go back and find him for us.
I had forgotten Shaw's very wise recommendation for "calling up seventy- and eighty-year-olds for military service before turning to the young in time of war" -- a thought that I view as especially just, particularly in light of the theme of the Wilfred Owen poem I just mentioned yet again, and Alice Miller's observations about the Abraham and Isaac story.

If, to employ Miller's words, the "prosperous and prominent old men [who] have been preparing for war for a long time" actually had to fight their own wars, I think we would all agree that history would have developed altogether differently. And the world might finally be free to enjoy a lengthy period of peace, after centuries of endless war.

I think it's an idea perhaps most desperately needed at this particular moment, just as we would all benefit in countless other ways from further advice from the always fascinating and often discomfiting Mr. Shaw.

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