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Revisiting GBS.

A.M. GIBBS Bernard Shaw: A Life University Press of Florida, 2005, $39.95

Bernard Shaw: A Life, by A. M. Gibbs of Macquarie University in Australia, has received quite a few reviews by now, generally favorable, some quite favorable, with Stanley Weintraub, a biographer of Shaw himself, even declaring Gibbs's biography to be "the most authoritative yet and ... likely to remain so for a long time to come." A moderate demurring has come from some British reviewers loyal to Michael Holroyd's biography, but even these have compliments to give. Regardless, they all show how Gibbs has provoked a welcome and generally thoughtful revisiting of GBS. But none has quite gotten to the heart of why Gibbs felt impelled to write this biography now, a point crucial to his mission, which is to make today's world more welcoming of GBS, a goal he shares with Holroyd but with differing methods of approaching it.

After Holroyd's monumental, multi-volume biography came out, starting in the late 80s, one might have thought there would be no need for another biography for quite a bit longer; but, on second thought, Holroyd's thesis, which has Freudian overtones that not everyone welcomes, and his tendency to support it selectively probably made it inevitable that some would take exception. One who definitely did was Gibbs, for reasons having to do with his differing view of the best way to get Shaw back into circulation.

To begin with, Anthony Gibbs has devoted a lifetime to getting the facts about Shaw straight, publishing in 2001 the astonishingly detailed A Bernard Shaw Chronology, which strongly suggested that he had the most intimate and factual knowledge of Shaw's life of anyone on this planet. He must have felt that he could thus write more inductively than anyone had done, more from the facts to generalizations supported by the facts, and more considering of all the facts, not just preferred facts. And so his differences from Holroyd start with his assumption that a more inductively factual presentation of Shaw's case and less theory-driven would do Shaw more good.

There are more crucial differences. Although admiring of Holroyd's biography in many ways, Gibbs thought that, at a time when Shaw and his plays were being seriously misrepresented and increasingly ignored, this biography did added damage to Shaw, unintentionally, by its essentially reductive method, which, in its central argument, cut the Olympian Shaw down to a paradoxically very lengthy case study of quotidian humanness. Now Shaw himself, in his own campaign to humanize genius, said that 99% of any genius is indeed quotidian; but he didn't think that part worth much study, for that 99% is not what creates "the work." To put the focus back on the other 1%, the part that somehow transcends the limitations of the quotidian and thus matters most in the creative process, Gibbs thought he had to redress what he saw as a contradiction at the heart of the Holroyd biography, as it simultaneously championed Shaw as worthy of such an immense biography while arguing that much of Shaw's creative life could be accounted for as the reflex of a rather mundane emotional crippling received in childhood (most notably, from a lack of parental love). That is, Shaw was just like the rest of us in spending his life tending to and compensating for his childhood wounds, however more clever he was in addressing them. Well, maybe those who wanted to drop Shaw from school curriculums and major stages were right, if talky sell-therapy was principally what his works had to offer (especially in the "no-nonsense" Age of Thatcher!). Now this is overstatement, of course, and thus unfair to Holroyd, but it's what a multi-volume biography gets boiled down to, fair or not, and the damage to the biographical subject is done, fair or not. So Gibbs felt compelled to act.

After looking closely at documents given short shrift or overlooked by or unknown to others, Gibbs concluded that Shaw was partly to blame for such reductive characterization. Gibbs believes the facts show that a typically strategizing Shaw, first saying that skeletons in the family closet should be brought out and made to dance, then made great illustrative fun of his family at the expense of accuracy, for which he's since paid a heavy biographical price. Gibbs thus begins by questioning the impression Shaw left of having been raised in a largely dysfunctional family of eccentrics, with no love lost among its members, and presents surprising evidence that "the Shaws" of Dublin were a good deal "nicer" and more normal and sober and less scarring of his young psyche than Shaw liked to say, for it made them less entertaining anecdotally and less morally instructive! And if he was less love-starved as a child than he said, then that calls into question the notion that the adult Shaw's impelling motive was a "search for love" (as the title of Holroyd's first volume implies). Even if true for the quotidian 99%, was it true for the 1% that mattered, the 1% for which most of us read such biographies? No doubt some read biographies "just to get the dirt," but of course it does the subject more good if the biography focuses more on how dross was made into gold.

One could counter that Shaw's mythologizing of his childhood was factual in the way that great myth is factual Knot taken literally. Shaw's family stories were strategic fictions true to a certain emotional reality, necessary to his sense of himself as self-fashioned after heroically overcoming family inheritance and conditioning. For it's true that Shaw attempted autogenesis long before Joyce did, leaving a record of that in his five early novels, which constitute a sort of "portrait of the artist as a young superman." Gibbs's point, however, is that the biographer misleads when he presents mythic reality as literal reality, especially if he bases psychological evaluations on a literal reading of the former.

Because he is concerned to address the most destructive of the many misinformed ideas about Shaw that have contributed to his falling out of favor in recent decades, Gibbs questions not only Shaw's mythologizing of his life but also the mythologizing of him by others that has plagued our understanding of Shaw. Among Gibbs's many examples of critics carefully avoiding or twisting facts, noteworthy is the exasperating logic, favored by Yeats, that because Shaw was a socialist, ergo he must be a propagandist in his art. Gibbs shows instead how open-ended and problematic and "subjective" (as Yeats understood that term) Shaw's plays are. In writing problem plays, regardless of what spin he put on this for his friends in the Fabian Society, Shaw was "teaching the conflicts," as we say nowadays, initially to resolve inner debates, not selling socialism. "Out of the quarrel with ourselves," said Yeats, "we make poetry." Precisely. And one of the more interesting quarrels Shaw had with himself was reflected in the criticism leveled at the socialist preacher in Candida by the rather Yeats-like poet Marchbanks, two sides of the Shavian self.

With his famous nightmare of Shaw as a smiling "sewing machine," Yeats is responsible, too, for the dismissive notion that Shaw was a rationalist (an inferior sort of person in the Celtic Twilight who, Yeats imagined, thought mechanically rather than organically), which Gibbs overturns by showing the high value placed in Shaw's comic universe on a certain "intelligence of the hem characterized not by mental pyrotechnics or logic but by sensitivity, warmth, and friendliness of feeling, coupled with psychological shrewdness." In this as throughout the biography, Gibbs counters a theoretical Shaw with a more factual Shaw, citing here Shaw's crushing critique of rationalism from The Irrational Knot on and characteristic anything-but-machinelike behavior, as in the Shaw who saw his calling in opposing "system" with "vital genius" and who thus attacked the life-denying machinery of government and society. The famous Shavian maxim, "All progress depends upon the unreasonable man," was self-justification.

But Gibbs scrupulously concedes ambiguity where "the facts" warrant, as in Shaw's sex life, always uppermost, it seems, in the minds of our tabloid age, who suspect him of being either sexless or closet gay. Gibbs himself has little doubt that Shaw was heterosexual, especially when the overwhelmingly heterosexual matrix of the plays is factored in (and he finds no credible evidence that, like Wilde, Shaw was writing in code), and, to counter the "sexless Shaw" argument, presents a convincing case that Shaw was, periodically, sexually active and enjoyed being so. Yet there's no gainsaying that Shaw's prodigious and busy brain seems to have drained off a lot of sexual energy in classic sublimation, and that no doubt "paper love" (today it would be "e-love") was this literary man's forte and, often, in constraining circumstances, preference. Still, Gibbs finds in the scandalous possibility that a Shaw child may have been aborted by more than one woman a plausible explanation for Shaw's flat statement, in Sixteen Self-Sketches, that he was not infertile and a strong argument against a sexless Shaw.

Gibbs is sensible too in wending his way through the contradictory evidence of Shaw's "flirtation with the dictators" of the pre-World War II period, which seems to have done him more damage than any other single thing. Conceding that this was "not ... Shaw's finest hour as a critic of society," and finding in Shaw's exasperated critique of the failing, corrupt democracies of his day "a man displaying the impatience of age and an atypical and disquieting recklessness," yet Gibbs looks carefully too at the evidence that there was misreporting and misinterpretation of Shaw's commentary on the dictators and that a lot of characteristic jesting was taken out of context or taken literally. And he reminds us that Shaw proclaimed Hitler mad when he learned of his "Judophobia," and in Geneva arranged for all the dictators to be judged as culpable. But notably left out of that play was Joseph Stalin, as Shaw gave a lot more rope to fellow socialist Stalin than to the fascist dictators. Shaw's desperate hope for reform simply misled him when the dictators first appeared as reformers, and with Stalin he regrettably didn't pull back as soon as he did with the others when he found them fraudulent. And so Gibbs, here and throughout, balances the scales, but usually to the end of making even the errors of the great man more understandable in the context of the times and showing how, if mistakes were made, they were excesses of an uncommon civic virtue and a passion for improving the lot of man. And the mistakes don't even come close in weight or magnitude to the overwhelmingly positive contributions Shaw made.

These samplings give only a suggestion of why Gibbs's Bernard Shaw. A Life, if not read first of all the Shaw biographies, should at least be read as counterpoint to the Holroyd biography for its presenting us with a Shaw who was a freer agent, less imprisoned by family history. Actually, it will be difficult henceforth to dispense with either, as the amplitude and coverage of Holroyd's nicely complements the more succinct and perhaps less fanciful biography of Gibbs. And if Gibbs's biography helps to reclaim for Shaw the prophetic role he took in his own time, as one who saw our age coming and all its potential for comedy and horror, then all the better, for no one is providing as telling a critique of Western civilization as Shaw did or projecting the consequences of its folly as accurately, and doing this in such a heart-wise, civil, and entertaining manner.

Gibbs recognizes that the passage of time inevitably takes its toll on all authors, so he doesn't expect Shaw to ever again be the force in the world he was at the peak of his international renown, but he feels strongly that Shaw still has much to say to us if we would only let him speak. Recently (see the TLS of July 21, 2006), in agreement with this at least, Michael Holroyd has written very cogently about our need in today's world for Shaw's "stimulating incorrectitudes, ... his ability to show where dishonour truly lies and ... his power to ridicule such absurdities out of court," which comes at an apt time to combine with the Gibbs biography to make an eloquent case for reappraisal of a rare spirit. The mystery is why the Irish as they become the internationalists and cosmopolitans Shaw wanted for them don't reclaim him.
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Title Annotation:Bernard Shaw: A Life
Author:Dietrich, Richard F.
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:2082
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