Shaw and the Dictionary

SCENE: The Interior of Shaw’s Ego

THE DICTIONARY—You seem then to be convinced that life was made to look at as one ogles an opera singer through a lorgnette—a kind of Roman holiday perpetually revived for the delectation of aesthetic and intellectual Neros.

G.B.S.—Indeed, just that. Life was created by an artist for artists. And as you have mentioned Nero, I wish to give to him what the world has so long withheld. He was neither crazy nor cruel. He was a supreme genius, and when I say genius I mean ironist, for genius is nothing but the perception of the absurd.

In fact, I should say that all hearty laughter is a form of genius, just as all real genius is a form of laughter. If I should be asked who were the greatest humorists that ever lived I should say Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Emerson, Ibsen, Hugo, Whitman, Napoleon, Machiavelli, Nero. These men, in their several ways, travestied existence. They mimicked nature in an inimitable manner and satirized the illusions of men. Probably of all these geniuses Nero was the greatest and profoundest. He was besides, I believe, an intensely religious man.

THE DICTIONARY—Nero a religious man! You are joking.

G.B.S.—Of course, my dear Dic., I am joking—but in the manner of the gods; and that, you know, is a serious matter to mortals. Nero was religious in that he of all men—Napoleon excepted, if you like—incarnated in himself Fate and Destiny. Conceiving himself to be super-being—as do all intensely religious minds—he attempted to reorganize life. His fetes, his celebrations, his orgies, his cruelties, admirable as they were, fell far short of the orgies, cruelties and deviltries that nature invents for us.

Nero sought, like Napoleon, to drive home to the superficial mind the imminence of death, the dastardliness of nature, the hideous possibilities that the future hides for each one of us. To do this he required living subjects, and he used them for his purpose with the same carelessness and nonchalance as does nature. And above the orgies, the shrieks of pain, the groans of the dying, the wails of the lost, and the flames of Rome, he sat like a god—imperturbable, smiling, eye-dry.

Had ever mortal such an exquisite sense of humor! Had ever mortal such a gift of irony! He satirized literature by mocking it with his own pen. He satirized his sex by dressing as a woman. He satirized the stage by acting. And he satirized life by destroying it at will. He was the Prospero of diabolism. Among the great Nero is the Sphinx.

THE DICTIONARY—You tangle me all up; you run away from me; your reasoning, if it is such, is all ellipses. I do not understand you.

G.B.S.—My dear fellow, it isn’t necessary. I do not understand myself. I haven’t the slightest knowledge of what I am talking about. No one who can think or talk at all has. I follow my genius, my demon, my spontaneous feelings. I am not analyzing anything—I am turning somersaults. I am tying you up, my dear Dictionary. If you are seeking unity read John Stuart Mill’s “Logic.” It is all Abracadabra to me. I only understand the illogical, the contradictory, the irrational, the unreasoned, the absurd. To understand one’s self! What a blasphemy!

The absurd, the illogical, the irrational is the law of life. Reasoning is the lowest of mental faculties, next to memory; and reasoning is only the logic of memory. Reasoning is middle-class and is a matter that concerns drummers, counter-jumpers, mechanics, inventors, and that class of people.

Is there anything more tiresome than a logical person? I would rather be insane than be understood.

If it were not that the Fantastic, the Grotesque, the Absurd, took on a body every little while and called itself Heine, Wilde, Rabelais, Nietzsche, Poe, Mark Twain, we would be reduced to Edisons, Wrights, Morses, and those other nobodies whom everyone understands and patronizes. Reason, logic, rationality, have no perspectives. They define, limit, suffocate all that they touch. Reason destroys sight, imagination and beyondness. It is a blind alley.

THE DICTIONARY—Wait! Wait! Until I turn over some more pages and help you out.

G.B.S.—It isn’t necessary, my dear Dic. When my breath gives out I can no longer think. Good night!

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Puck, May 23, 1914, p. 9