Bernard Shaw’s Superman

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Sep 271993

The Defining Servant of the Life Force and Its Evolution

The search for the ideal man is pervasive in literature, beginning with the epic hero in the Western tradition and descending through history under various names, with even more varied ideals. The Modern period in British literature was not divorced from this tradition any more than other periods of crisis in history. The Romantic ideal was struggling under the sooty wheel of industrialism, and English imperialism was in its decline as their righteous self-justification wavered. On the island itself, internal strife, swelling poverty, and an unstable world balance of power contributed to a weakened national identity for the British, and produced in its intelligencia a craving for evolution. Bernard Shaw, an Irishman and a Socialist, in his play Man and Superman takes up this theme and addresses the evolution of man as a whole as a means to the ideal man of legend; his egalitarian sentiments find mankind’s savior not in an individual, but in the individual. He borrows, for his model of the “New Man,” the idea of the ubermenshen from Nietzsche’s existential ‘philosophy.’ In the mouth of Jack Tanner, M.I.R.C., (and his parallel, Don Juan) Shaw expresses his own version of Nietzsche’s “superman,” defining, in the process, the Life Force which exerts its evolutionary will to this end. An understanding, however, of this process of evolution is best begun at its end; by first elucidating the superman, his role as servant of the Life Force can be better understood and its ‘motives’ better illustrated.

In many ways, Shaw explicates the nature of the superman in the persona of Jack Tanner; and what is not illustrated by the character of Tanner is put in his mouth. In his description in the stage direction, he is “carefully dressed… from a sense of the importance of everything he does.” (p.47) This “sense” is the first glimmerings of the awareness that is the hallmark of the superman. This attention to significance is the passion of “moral sense,” and it is “the birth of that passion that turns a child into a man.” (p.73) Now this is not to say that paying attention to the mores of fashionable dress is the mark of the superman; rather, the superman’s general attention to all of Man’s acts is the initial step in his evolution through awareness. In the late-Victorian era, such perception is bound to lead to iconoclasm, as it does in Man and Superman. When Tanner declares, “I didn’t choose to be cut to your measure. And I wont be cut to it,” he expresses the freedom of thought of the ubermenshen and its desire to be judged in its own right, by its own values, not those imposed upon it through some moral heritage. (p.76-77) Tanner expresses contempt for his contemporaries’ “silly superstitions about morality and propriety and so forth;” “honor, duty, justice, and the rest [are] the seven deadly virtues” in Don Juan’s eyes. (p.82, p.127) His disgust with these ‘respectable’ Victorian ideals comes from the gross travesties to which they lead. His principle example of these moral failures is marriage of the period; it is but a social edifice which is a “means of escape” from jealous aging parents, where a woman is sold “to the highest bidder” and becomes a “slave:” unpropertied property. (p.97, p.96) But even more heinous to Shaw than the “Trade Unionism” of marital servitude is the appeal to love that is its vindication. (p.156) This ideal, out of all of them, is the most wrongly defined and undeservingly exemplified for its role in cementing the union of man and woman. For Tanner (and, therefore, Shaw) bread-winning is all that is ‘loved’ of man in woman; and it is the inexorable attraction in men to the goal of reproduction that carries that romantic tag in them. Shaw is thus calling for a transvaluation of values for mankind. He is disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the Victorians and rejects their servility to shame. The New Man is a proud, self-defining man; “the philosophic man: he who seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will, and in action to do that will by the so-discovered means.” (p.151) This man does not ask his ancestors for the truth, his father for the means, nor his servant to do the job; he is empowered with purpose.

It is this purpose that is the first elucidation of the Life Force, “the inner will of the world.” Life is “the force that ever strives to attain greater power of contemplating itself.” (p.141) With this in mind, the superman then becomes one of Life’s “innumerable experiments in organizing itself:

“that the mammoth and the man, the mouse and the
megatherium, the flies and the fleas and the Fathers
of the Church, are all more or less successful
attempts to build up that raw force [Life] into
higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual
being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and
withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in
short, a god?” (p.149)

This ideal individual is a superman, one who has risen above the petty hypocrisies of mankind to a higher awareness of himself; and, by association with this, its vessel, the Life Force completes its own evolution. Note that this is no apocalypse, as the Devil would have one believe: a need “for a more efficient engine of destruction.” (p.144) Life instead is “evolving today a mind’s eye that shall see, not the physical world, but the purpose of Life, and thereby enable the individual to work for that purpose instead of thwarting and baffling it by setting up shortsighted personal aims as at present.” (p.151)

So the superman is forged by Life to serve its evolutionary ends, and yet there still remains the actions of the New Man to this purpose. How are we to begin our service to evolution? The answer Shaw provides is quite simple:

“the first duty of manhood and womanhood is a
Declaration of Independence: the man who pleads his
father’s authority is no man: the woman who pleads her
mother’s authority is unfit to bear citizens to a free
people.” (p.97)

This freedom from the worn past leaves, in turn, the superman free for correction of society, elevation of their fellows. Ultimately, though, the superman is also a tool of “the world’s will,” serving its ends through proliferation and self-consciousness. (p.203) The individual who is to serve well, then, must “break their chains” and “go their way according to their own conscience.” (p.97) Now, it could be said that the Victorians are doing just that, and after all, Shaw himself confesses that the will of the Life Force will have its way no matter what devastation or degradation should come to mankind. Nevertheless, there are actions and beliefs which are expressly counter-productive; their damnation has been explained above, yet it should again be emphasized that the great banes of Life are blind servility and hypocrisy, the former because it shuts the mind’s eye, the latter because it discourages inward reflection by the mind’s eye (who, after all, will contemplate their own weakness?). Awareness, first and last, is critical for the superman; in all other things he is but a tool of evolution and should spawn and rear and die.

In concluding, it could be further said that to be a superman is only to open your eyes to your own puppet strings; this is in fact the common argument leveled against existential worldviews. The very last scene of the play verifies, in effect, this argument; however, its final meaning, however, is quite contrary. Tanner is ensnared by Life’s webbing, fired from Ann, and “solemnly” says that he “is not a happy man.” (p.208) But he is prepared, planning, acting already on their union; he is no longer “talking.” (p.209) There is certainly a pun in the final stage direction of “[Universal laughter].” It should laugh; it just won. But it also must mean that all among the company laugh—unqualitatively no less, unlike so much of the active direction—thus affirming the joy in realizing Life’s purpose in one’s self.

March 21, 1993