Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Shaw on Ibsenism

The second edition of The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913) by George Bernard Shaw can easily be found on Google books, e.g. via the link provided here.

However, this is not the most up-to-date edition, so I have provided the Preface to 3rd edition.

I have a few scattered memories from reading this book thirty years ago, most vividly, Shaw's derision of idealism. This cynical remark I remembered comes straight out of this preface.
"He might have thought the demolition of three monstrous idealist empires cheap at the cost of fifteen million idealists' lives."
The second chapter especially, on "Ideals and Idealists," is quite scathing about idealism, i.e. self-deceiving devotion to ideal values contradicted by reality in every instance, with respect to the institution of marriage. In a thought experiment Shaw postulates a community of 1000, out of which there will be 700 Philistines, 299 idealists (domestic failures), and one realist. The realist will be the object of opprobrium of all the rest. The following chapter, on "The Womanly Woman," could not be more scathing in its expose of the reality of gender relations and the social role allocated to women on contrast to the commonly accepted ideological obfuscation of same. Now Shaw is ready to embark on his explication of Ibsen's plays.

I suppose I remember this book as well as I do because I was impressed by Shaw's hard-hitting down-to-earth realism. While he never lost his edge in this respect, Shaw also diluted the realism of some of his plays with mystical nonsense about the "life force". Unless I'm forgetting something, you won't see that in his treatment of Ibsenism. Enjoy.

No comments: