A Conversation Between George Bernard Shaw and the Dictionary

By Benjamin de Casseres

SCENE: The Interior of Shaw’s Ego

G. B. S.—Yes, my dear Dictionary, you are my real paramour. Through you I have been enabled to take the written thoughts of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and turn them into mere words, which people buy.

THE DICTIONARY.—Yes, George, you rearrange me very good. I feel quite “sloppy” after you use me.

G. B. S.—Words! Words are the secret of thought and action. In the world there is nothing but words. Without words life could not be. Men only die when speech gives out and because the power of speech gives out. Sound exists to be incarnated in words. Look at the Speech from the Throne. Ideals rove around the brain only for the purpose of finding their verbal bodies and getting born through the mouth. There is no deeper meaning to a thing than the definition of the word that expresses that thing. From Plato to Me what we call literature has been nothing but a rearrangement of words. Hamlet, Falstaff, Lear and Faust were invented by their authors for getting rid of the words that obsessed them. D’Annunzio says that he reads nothing but dictionaries. So did Gautier and Hugo.

Words are cesspools of whole cycles. Words are Louvres, Alhambras, Pantheons, Catacombs, Mammoth Caves and mausoleums. Words embody the genius of races and the aspirations of the dead. If I knew by heart all the dictionaries of all languages I could write all the masterpieces of prose and poetry that are to come for the next two million years. We all have the vision, but few have the words. There are very stupid persons that are geniuses for one minute or ten minutes in their whole lives. In those ten minutes, had they the words ready, they might write “The Hound of Heaven” or “Kubla Khan.”

THE DICTIONARY.—Go to it, kid!

G. B. S.—Thrice blessed be abracadabra! The ancient forest incantations were full of meaning. The modern political and religious incantations are as meaty. From all time we have lived in a logocracy. With words I can summon ghosts, devils or overturn the established church. “It sounds fine, but means nothing”—that was uttered by Commonsense, never by a poet. Words have no higher use than to sound fine, create music or evoke the absurd. As to the last, look at me, my dear Dic. The greatest short poem in the English language—in my way of thinking—is Poe’s “Ulalume.” A divine jingle! The poem is the esoteric X of music. Why spoil the hallucinating grandeur of the English language by writing the obvious in hundreds of pages as Milton did when one can write that word Ulalume? Since that “blessed word Mesopotamia” was invented in order to force somebody to give it a local residence has there been such a word born in any language as Ulalume?

Stéphane Mallarmé knew, like Poe, [168] the secret properties in words. His poems mean nothing to the lettered collegiate ear. It is only the American nation that can read them. They are not words, but palimpsests; sound laid over sound; evocation buried under evocation. To understand one of Mallarmé’s poems would take the average intelligent mind a hundred years. Each word is a giant retort wherein the average mind can see nothing. Mallarmé’s volatilized Littré, Larousse and the Dictionary of the Academy. He began where the French language ended. Symphonies were in his raw material. Victor Hugo was only one of his ingredients. He was the Hegel of poetry.

It is only second- and third-rate men who rack their brains, as they call it, for plots, situations, poems, thoughts. When I want to think I empty my head and open the dictionary. When I desire to fly, I wing myself with a few magic words that I keep hidden like a precious amulet—presto! I am away with the gods, on Olympus; or threading my way through the Zodiac of Ideas still uncreate, or perched on the eyrie of the static. Now gayly contemplating the whirlpools and eddies on the time-ocean and the comic antics of the waterflies in pantaloons and hobble skirts.

Words, my dear Dic., words—they are the real time-machine. And there are no ideas; there are only words. The use of words should be a privilege of genius only. The herd should be taught to think, but should never be allowed to speak or write. I have written whole acts in order to frame a beautiful epigram or a word, each syllable of which was a ravine of marvelous etymological shadows or luminous stalactite or a raw dig.

It sometimes makes me weep, Dic., when I think of all the words in you that I cannot use because I have not the time to enshrine them in someone else’s ideas. Our ideas we hold in common, but in the selection of words we publish our individuality. I am a logocrat and a logolept.

How I love those concatennated and cadenced sonorities of Hugo, the subliminal etymological morgues of Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Herrick, the voluptuous sentences of Renan and Barrès, the jewelled and luminous pavilions of Gautier, the frosty heavens of Stendhal, the cutthroat style of Nietzsche, the succulent poisons of Baudelaire and Maeterlinck, the secret panels of Henry James, the stupendous vortices of Ibsen’s monosyllables, the Gothic miracles of Lafcadio Hearn, the musical, mystical reticence of Arthur Symons.

THE DICTIONARY.—Du hast Recht, Georg!

Source: The Smart Set, Dec. 1914, Vol. XLIV No. 4, pp. 167 – 168