“I want to be the Irish Nietzsche”: what the Übermensch meant to Bernard Shaw

“The difficulty now is to get rid of me,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his friend Georg Brandes in the late 1880s. And Shaw would have agreed. In Shavian style, he liked to use Nietzsche’s name but to distance himself from the one or two translations of Nietzsche’s books he had read.
After he wrote his “comedy and philosophy” Man and Superman early in the 20th century, a number of critics, including his friend William Archer and also G K Chesterton, assumed that Shaw was a disciple of Nietzsche. It is true that in his letters and prefaces he was using Nietzsche’s name quite freely. He did so partly because he believed that British culture was becoming too backward and inward-looking. To change this internal focus he championed what was new and foreign in philosophy and the arts. In his art criticism he praised Whistler; in his theatre criticism he blew the trumpet for Ibsen, Chekhov and later Strindberg. And he devoted much of his music criticism to Wagner, with whom Nietzsche had quarrelled.
Shaw enjoyed making lists of American, Scandinavian, German and Russian writers. In the preface to Man and Superman he introduces readers to a series of authors whose thinking could be taken as somewhat similar to his own: “Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche”. We do not think of Shaw being heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Goethe (who also used the superman for Faust) or Shelley. But Nietzsche’s name has stuck to him partly because he used the word “Superman”, a translation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” from Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a “good cry”, Shaw thought – which was to say, a good piece of advertisement, which would contribute nicely to the title of his new “comedy and philosophy” for the stage.
People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw’s plays for their comedy. In the dream sequence of Man and Superman Shaw mentions Nietzsche as having found himself in hell. The Devil, who represents Shaw’s hidden pessimism and speaks in Shavian parodies, believes Nietzsche’s loss of “wits” in his final years on earth had been inevitable. His career became a cautionary tale. He had been led into pessimism by a lifetime of searching for an optimistic philosophy while ignoring the lessons that human nature and human history could have taught him. But after a period in Shaw’s hell, he regains his wits and his confidence, and takes the escalator up to heaven as if he were happily entering a university again. After which we hear no more of him.
This short, somewhat misleading, discussion by the Devil about Nietzsche in the dream scene was cut from the recent production of Man and Supermanat the National Theatre, with the result that there is very little to connect Nietzsche with Shaw. It is a hundred years since the play was first produced in its prodigious entirety (at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh on 11 June 1915) and cuts were essential – a reading of it all took over five hours.
Nietzsche lived “Beyond Space, Beyond Time”, far from Shaw’s world. In contemporary political life, Shaw was a committed socialist who, in 1912, gave £1,000 (equivalent to £50,000 today) to help start the New Statesmanand also bought shares, becoming one of its original proprietors and directors. “I won’t write,” he promised. But he could not help himself and soon became a prolific contributor to the paper – in none of whose articles and reviews is there any mention of Nietzsche.
What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche’s belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche’s “brethren” who is urged to see “the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman”.
The first of Shaw’s writings said to have been influenced by Nietzsche was his essay “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”. But this was written at the beginning of the 1890s, before he had read any Nietzsche. In 1896 he read “Nietzsche contra Wagner”, translated by Thomas Common, and reviewed it in the Saturday Review. His review paints an unattractive pen portrait of Nietzsche, certainly not of someone who would become a great influence on his thinking. “Such a philosopher is as dull and dry as you please: it is he who brings his profession into disrepute,” he wrote. “Nietzsche is the champion of privilege, of power and of inequality.” He described the philosophy as a “fictitious hypothesis”, by which he meant that nothing came to Nietzsche as the result of actual experience. It was all put together by “a mere dead piece of brain machinery . . . Never was there a deafer, blinder, socially and politically inepter academician.”
There were obvious differences between the two writers. Nietzsche was an academic; Shaw never went to a university. Nietz­sche it seems came to believe in the usefulness of war, while Shaw was continually trying to take power away from men with guns and hand it to men and women of imagination and intellect. Nietzsche believed that “convictions are prisons” while Shaw gloried in his convictions – one of them being his belief in the equality of income. He pointed to “suggestive combinations of ideas” that were “pregnant with vitality” in Nietzsche’s writings. But many of these sallies seemed “petulant and impossible” and his epigrams appeared to have been “written with phosphorus on brimstone”. Some critics may see the well-known epigram in Human, All Too Human – “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling” – as tailor-made for GBS, with his many jokes and his apparent poverty of emotion. But Shaw himself maintained that an essential ingredient of truth was humour.
“I must really read some of his stuff,” Shaw teased William Archer soon after the publication of Man and Superman. But the more he learned about Nietzsche, the more disapproval he felt for what would be his growing authority on modern literary criticism. “Not for a moment will I suffer anyone to compare me to him as a critic,” he concluded. In a letter to his American biographer Archibald Henderson some four months after Man and Superman had opened at the Court Theatre in London, he wrote that “Nietzsche’s notions of art, his admiration of the Romans &c, are very unlike any view of mine . . . and his erudition I believe to be all nonsense: I think he was an academic in the sense of having a great deal of secondhand booklearning about him . . .”
Whereas Shaw travelled widely and was a public and political figure, Nietzsche nursed his genius in a hothouse, creating powerful ideas that were remote from life outside. Brought up in a clerical background, he had no belief in Christianity, which he considered a trick that disarmed people of the courage they needed to deal with the suffering in life. But with God dead what was the purpose of human beings? Were they part of an unknown experiment or was everything meaningless? He saw the possibility of men and women retreating into animals. Or might they progress in positive ways that he could inspire, transforming them into superhumans to take the place of gods? Nietzschean philosophers have made ingenious attempts to reassemble his queries and contradictions into an equation pointing to a solution that removes meaning from intention and changes even nihilism into a positive doctrine.
Shaw’s hope lay in the children of mixed marriages and, in Back to Methuselah, an ever longer span of life changing our focus on what is necessary and desirable. He believed in the life everlasting – but not necessarily for the individual. When he looked back on our history he was overtaken by a dark pessimism that animated the speeches of the Devil inMan and Superman. But when Nietzsche looked back, he saw some hope in the Roman empire, suggesting that slavery was a necessity for a mentally aristocratic life. “Men shall be trained for war,” he wrote, “and woman for the recreation of the warrior . . .” Shaw believed that women should have as many children as they wanted – but each one preferably by a different man so we could break through our social and tribal barriers. When Nietzsche looked into the future and beyond the sinking sun he imagined a paradise full of light and logic, a distant utopia of which he was the prophet. Within universities, Nietzsche’s language is peculiarly stimulating, the word “warfare” meaning little more than a tense intellectual debate. But carry that language into the streets and it becomes dangerously aggressive. Early in 1889, shortly before the birth of Hitler, Nietzsche went mad.
What Shaw may have envied was Nietz­sche’s posthumous fame and authority. Occasionally he would call himself a Nietz­schean but this should not be taken too literally. For example, he wrote to his German translator while at work on Man and Superman: “I want the Germans to know me as a philosopher; as an English (or Irish) Nietz­sche (only ten times cleverer) . . .”
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