I enjoyed bringing out Shaw’s humour, his hidden generosity and outstanding deficiency in mechanical matters – such as controlling his typewriter, his bicycle and his cars – all of which humanised the public figure who had come to exist in many people’s imagination as a remote Superman. It was impossible not to warm to someone who replied to an actress claiming that since she had the most beautiful body and he the most brilliant mind they should produce a child of genius: “But what if the child inherits my body – and your brain?”
Yes, that’s certainly witty. But, as John Gray once put it:
Throughout his life, the great playwright argued in favor of mass extermination as an alternative to imprisonment. It was better to kill the socially useless, he urged, than to waste public money locking them up. This was not just a Shavian jest. At a party in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday held in Moscow during his visit to the USSR in August 1930, Shaw told his half-famished audience that when they learnt he was going to Russia his friends had loaded him up with tinned food; but – he joked – he threw it all out the window in Poland before he reached the Soviet frontier. Shaw taunted his audience in full knowledge of their circumstances. He knew the Soviet famines were artificial. But he turned a jovial eye on their victims from the considered conviction that mass extermination was justified if it advanced the cause of progress.
Speaking of which, his criteria for determining the socially useless sounds indistinguishable from that of my teabagger relatives:
You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.
Lysenkoism. Anti-vaccination. He had the intellectual’s unfortunate tendency to follow a trail of convoluted abstract thinking to absurd conclusions that would have been apparent to the straightforward common sense of the simpletons he derided so much, as well as the inclination toward becoming a True Believer according to Eric Hoffer’s taxonomy: a zealot by nature jumping from cause to cause, never letting failure or embarrassment temper his enthusiasm for the sort of moral crusading that his attention to Nietzsche should have helped him see as a lingering inheritance of Christianity (along with his fervent wish for teleological redemption to come in some glorious future); instead, he superficially rebelled by insisting on treating Christmas as just another workday, which, of course, was the official position of the actual Puritans, thus bringing us around full circle in a neat illustration of John Calvin’s malignant influence. O irony!
Make no mistake, I’d like to read the biography. The most interesting people do tend to contain multitudes. But even when I agree with him, as on vegetarianism, he strikes me as a tiresome prig with a thorny stick wedged in his nether regions. Fascinating to know, perhaps, but exceedingly difficult to “warm to”.