WAGNER, NIETZSCHE, SHAW: PROPHETS OF THE SUPERMAN
Larry A. Brown, professor of theater
In the same year that Hitler’s forces invaded Poland, a colorful comic book character entered the public imagination, and ever since, the name “Superman” has either connoted the fearful threat of a superior race or a fantastic hero from another planet. However, the origins of the term go back to the latter half of the 19th century when Europe was witnessing the last embers of Romanticism dying out as the fires of a new faith in science, technology, and progress raged across the world. At the International Exposition held in London in 1850, visitors marveled at the latest inventions promising a more efficient and productive way of life. Within another decade everyone was discussing the revolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, who had provided a workable thesis to explain life on this planet without resorting to a divine being behind the process. Men of science, letters, philosophy, and even some theologians reveled in humanity’s newly won freedom and looked forward to a brighter future.
Not all who observed these events, however, found reason to rejoice. There were among the jubilant throngs a few prophets whose cries of woe can still be heard long after the optimistic ovations have faded. With visions of artistic foresight these seers placed their hopes not on the accomplishments of their generation but on one who is to come.
As Jacques Barzun argued, Darwin and Marx with their scientific and political revolutions were not the only ones to reshape the 19th century. In similar fashion Richard Wagner altered the way his contemporaries thought about the arts. Wagner has a decidedly mixed reputation, being either praised as the champion of German music and culture or blamed as the inspiration for decadent art and the grandfather of Nazism. These conflicting evaluations stem partly from Wagner’s complex ambitions. Not satisfied with composing music, he wanted to change the world through his artwork of the future. In 1849 Wagner wrote, “My task is this: to bring revolution wherever I go” as he felt that “the hope of a regenerated state is linked with a cultural revolution effected through the popular art of the theater” (Barzun 232). In his music-dramas he depicted inspiring tales of heroism and valor taken from German myth and legend in order to awaken in the German people an awareness of their potential greatness.
Although it took him 25 years to realize his dream on the stage, early in his career Wagner discovered his ideal vision of the Aryan race in the figure of Siegfried from Norse and Germanic mythology. For him Siegfried represented “the true human being,” not a conventional figure of history who interests us more for the details of his life but someone “purely human” (McCreless 55). This perfect being did not as yet exist; as Wagner explained, “Siegfried is the man of the future whom we long for but cannot ourselves bring into being, who must create himself by our destruction.” He will herald a new heroic faith to succeed the old Christianity: at Wotan’s words, “The god gives place to the eternally young [Siegfried],” Wagner told the singer, “It should sound like the announcement of a new religion” (Bentley 1, 58).
Originally Wagner planned to portray the protagonist’s tragedy in one music-drama, The Death of Siegfried, the first sketch completed in 1848. Wagner then decided to preface this drama with an heroic comedy about the exploits of young Siegfried who kills a dragon and awakens a sleeping damsel with a kiss. In Young Siegfried (as part 3 was originally called) Siegfried grows up in the forest as a rowdy, boisterous, naive innocent of immense strength and prowess who thinks of bears and dragons as no more than playmates. He is loud, violent, and arrogant, a man of impulsive action rather than thought. He knows nothing of the ways of gods or men and little about the world outside of the forest. Siegfried defeats representatives of the three older races – Fafner the stupid giant, Mime the crafty Nibelung, and Wotan the ruler of the gods – without realizing the significance of his deeds. In Bentley’s words he is “a crude emanation of the Vital Energy” or Life Force, as yet undeveloped (153).
Only in the final scene with Brunnhilde is Siegfried transformed into the mature romantic hero, and only then does he take on the stature to fulfill the lofty role Wotan has set for him. With Brunnhilde at his side Siegfried can now establish a new world order, one ruled by the natural bonds of love and not the unnatural restrictions of law and power. In The Death of Siegfried, the promise of the superior Walsung race is cut short by Hagen’s treachery, but in the original ending even death does not defeat Siegfried. In her role as Valkyrie, Brunnhilde brings him back to life and takes him in triumph to Valhalla (not destroyed by fire in the 1848 version) to be welcomed by the gods as their new ruler (McCreless 9).
The final tragedy of Siegfried follows Aristotelian guidelines to some degree. When he first learns the fateful history of the ring from the Rhinedaughters, Siegfried scorns the danger of its curse and refuses to give it back (error, hamartia), for it represents a symbol of his conquests in battle and in love. This show of pride and possessiveness places him for the first time under the power of the ring’s curse, opening the way for his first and only defeat (reversal, peripeteia) in the form of Hagen’s spear. Just before his death, the spell of forgetfulness leaves Siegfried and he remembers his true love for Brunnhilde; he dies recognizing (cognitio) that he betrayed her and seems to envision their reunion beyond the grave.
However much Wagner conforms to the tradition that the hero must be aware of the cause of his destruction, a much more significant criterion for him is that he must above all follow his most human, his most natural instincts regardless of the consequences (McCreless 7). In Opera and Drama (1851) Wagner praised Antigone as the greatest of tragic figures because she upheld natural law in opposition to the unnatural laws of the state. Conversely, Wagner criticized Sophocles’ treatment of Oedipus because in breaking the incest taboo, Oedipus violated no natural law, only the social norm. In Wagner’s opinion we should be repulsed at Oedipus’ punishment for a wrong he committed in ignorance and which nature does not condemn.
In this analysis, which applies to his own dramas as well, Wagner contrasts two systems of morality: the old, life-frustrating, restrictive law code enforced by the state and church, and the spontaneous, life-affirming ethic of a fully aware human being. The representatives of the former, Creon and Wotan, can function only by means of the arbitrary exercise of power. Representing the latter, Antigone and Siegfried are free to follow the leading of inner necessity. Both these children of incestuous unions were born to be taboo-breakers who challenge conventional morality (Rather 55). However, as Nietzsche and Shaw both echo later, Wagner warned that society will condemn and put to death these defenders of “the free self-determination of the individual,” branding them immoral without recognizing that they are living according to a higher, more human standard of morality.
Wagner’s concept of this natural law of love was influenced by the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach to whom the composer dedicated his 1849 essay “The Artwork of the Future.” For Feuerbach a philosophy based on metaphysical speculation or theological symbolism (i.e. the abstract religious idealism of Hegel) did not satisfy the needs of daily human existence. He proposed a more immediate, sensuous philosophy based on love, defining both epistemology and existence in terms of love: “What is not loved, what cannot be loved, is nothing. . . . Where there is no love there is also no truth. And only something that loves something exists; not to be and not to love is the same thing” (in Rather 66).
For Wagner the ultimate form of love was eros, sexual love: “Love in its fullest actuality is possible only between the sexes . . . all other love is only derived from that love, flows from it, relates itself to it or artificially imitates it” (in Rather 65). In Wagner’s mythical universe Alberich’s renunciation of love is the original sin that spoils the garden of Eden, and only the uniting of perfect lovers in supreme passion can bring redemption. In fact, Wagner cannot conceive of his savior Siegfried without Brunnhilde: “Siegfried alone (man by himself) is not the complete human being; he is merely the half. It is only along with Brunnhilde that he becomes the redeemer. To the isolated being not all things are possible; there is need of more than one, and it is woman, suffering and willing to sacrifice herself, who becomes at last the real, conscious redeemer” (in McCreless 5). The superman is not complete without the superwoman. In fact, it is Brunnhilde’s supreme love, willing to reunite with Siegfried in death, that proves worthy to redeem their sins of mutual betrayal and to restore the natural order by returning the ring.
This philosophy of love which Wagner expounded to his friends as an answer to the Ring Cycle’s mysteries did not satisfy all their criticism, nor was Wagner himself pleased with it for long. By the time it reached completion in 1852, the text of the four-night saga had taken on a dark, pessimistic tone. The conjoining of the Siegfried story with the fall of the gods, an element not found in any of the sources but of Wagner’s own conception, placed on the entire work a somber shadow of nihilism and despair. It was not until he read the works of Arthur Schopenhauer in 1854 that Wagner found a philosophical system to explain his artistic intuition.
The keystone of Schopenhauer’s thought is the concept of the denial of the will. The individual is not free but is at the mercy of the will, the ultimate primeval force underlying all existence. As the individual manifestation of the will exerts itself in the world, it comes into conflict with other individual wills, causing suffering and unhappiness. The only escape from this cruel but necessary state of struggle is the individual’s denial of the will in deference to others. One must live the life of an ascetic or saint, denying all personal pleasures and desires, until the release of death, the ultimate renunciation of will and the only true good. (Schopenhauer rejected suicide as an ultimately selfish act.) Even sexual love becomes a means of asserting one’s will by treating the beloved as a possession for one’s own gratification. Agape, self-sacrificing universal compassion, replaces eros as the supreme form of love.
To his astonishment Wagner felt that Schopenhauer understood his masterwork more deeply than he himself did. He now realized that Wotan, not Siegfried, was the main tragic figure of the Ring, that it was his act of renunciation in atonement for his ruthless greed that formed the core of the legend and explained the significance of the fall of the gods. The climax of the entire work comes in Siegfried act 3 when Wotan acknowledges to Erda that he willingly accepts his inevitable doom (cognitio) and then loses to Siegfried in combat (peripeteia). The will that once ruled the world now wills to renounce its claims, relinquishing them to another race. Furthermore, the deaths of Siegfried and Brunnhilde are now seen as earthly images of Wotan’s renunciation, their funeral pyre reflecting the conflagration of Valhalla. Their supreme love cannot save them, for by refusing initially to surrender the ring, symbol of their erotic love, for the universal good, they place selfish eros above selfless agape. One must renounce not only greed for power but sexual love as well if it conflicts with the needs of others.
It was this idea, the heroic resignation of the will, that turned Wagner’s greatest disciple into his harshest critic. When he first met the composer, Friedrich Nietzsche believed he had found the paragon of all his dreams: a man of genius, strength of will, and the desire to rule. Here was proof that the possibility of greatness still existed in human nature. For the awestruck Nietzsche, Wagner was “the highest of higher men, holding the key to a new epoch of art and life. . . a premonition of the superman” (Bentley 75). Concerning the master’s heroic creation Siegfried, Nietzsche praised him as the truly free human being beyond good and evil, man on his own as he must be after the death of God (Wotan). However, with time Nietzsche began to see cracks in his living idol, disapproving of Wagner’s bourgeois, hedonistic lifestyle, his petty, temperamental egomania, his fanatical German nationalism, his anti-Semitism. Likewise, the character of Siegfried became for him less than superhuman, in fact all too human: an ignorant brute driven by blind instinct, a descendant of Rousseau’s natural man whom Nietzsche considered a regressive failure, not a superior being. Rather than return to nature, man needs to conquer his own nature, to ascend above, not descend below his present state.
Nietzsche’s break with Wagner parallels his dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer. Once a disciple himself, Nietzsche turned against the philosopher’s pessimism about the will. He called Schopenhauer the philosopher of decadence and Wagner the artist of decadence, citing the composer’s predilection for associating eroticism with religion (Parsifal) and death (Tristan). Unlike Siegfried the hero of renunciation, Nietzsche’s man of the future would redeem humanity “not only from the prevailing [inadequate] ideal but also from what it was bound to lead to – from the great loathing, from the will to nothingness, from nihilism. . . . This antichrist and anti-nihilist, this conqueror of God and nothingness – some day he must come” (Hollinrake 44-7, 71, Nietzsche’s emphasis). After the death of God, Schopenhauer had allowed himself to become enslaved again, this time to the all-powerful will. Nietzsche, however, refused to believe that the will was evil or uncontrollable. He accepted Schopenhauer’s basic premise of the will as the fundamental, driving force of all existence but applied Fichte’s evaluation of this force as positive and good (Bentley 75). Against the denial of the will, he offered his philosophy of the will-to-power.
In many of his ideas Nietzsche was preceded by Thomas Carlyle in his 1840 lectures “On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History.” Carlyle’s basic tenet, “That great men should rule and that others should revere them,” is supported by a complex faith in history and evolutionary progress. Societies, like organisms, evolve throughout history, thrive for a time, but inevitably become weak and die out, giving place to a stronger, superior breed. Heroes are those who affirm this life process, accepting its cruelty as necessary and thus good. For them courage is a more valuable virtue than love; heroes are noblemen, not saints. The hero functions first as a pattern for others to imitate, and second as a creator, moving history forwards not backwards (history being the biography of great men). Carlyle was among the first of his age to recognize that the death of God is in itself nothing to be happy about, unless man steps in and creates new values to replace the old. For Carlyle the hero should become the object of worship, the center of a new religion proclaiming humanity as “the miracle of miracles. . . the only divinity we can know.” For Carlyle’s creed Bentley proposes the name Heroic Vitalism, a term embracing both a political theory, Aristocratic Radicalism, and a metaphysic, Supernatural Naturalism. The Heroic Vitalists feared that the recent trends toward democracy would hand over power to the ill-bred, uneducated, and immoral, whereas their belief in a transcendent force in nature directing itself onward and upward gave some hope that this force would overrule in favor of the strong, intelligent, and noble (Bentley 17-18, 49-58).
Nietzsche agreed with much of Carlyle’s hero worship, transferring many qualities of the hero to his concept of the superman. He believed that the hero should be revered, not for the good he has done for the people, but simply out of admiration for the marvelous. The hero justifies himself as a man chosen by destiny to be great. In the life struggle he is a conqueror, growing stronger through conflict. The hero is not ashamed of his strength; instead of the Christian virtues of meekness, humility and compassion, he abides by the beatitudes of Heroic Vitalism: courage, nobility, pride, and the right to rule. His slogan: “The good old rule, the simple plan, that he should keep who has the power, and he should take who can” (Bentley 52).
With such a philosophy one might think that Nietzsche would have embraced wholeheartedly the views of Charles Darwin, especially his thesis of the survival of the fittest. However, like Carlyle before him and Shaw after him, Nietzsche saw the dark side of Darwin’s removal of the metaphysical dimension from the universe. The idea of God had given meaning and purpose to human existence. Without God man was no longer made in His image, no divine spark dwelt in him, and his life had no higher significance than that of the animals. Nietzsche did not argue with the scientific truth of this thesis, but he dreaded the consequences if human beings did not take it on themselves to make their lives significant and meaningful. He criticized the inconsistency of those who rejoiced in their new freedom from God but continued to cling to Christian morality as if nothing had changed. Nietzsche grasped the fact that everything had changed, and that it was time for man to accept his new responsibilities as the only divinity in the universe.
Although he saw this new reality as a reason for hope, he became bitterly discouraged at the evidence around him that the current race of homosapiens was woefully unfit for the challenge. To those who boasted that man had reached the pinnacle of evolution, Nietzsche protested, “OverproudEuropeans of the 19th century, you are raving mad!” (Hollingdale 123) Eventually he abandoned his search for the new man in the present, turning to the future to his vision of the superman.
Nietzsche’s philosophy stands on three main pillars: the superman, the will-to-power, and eternal recurrence. These beliefs replace the Christian doctrines of God, divine salvation, and eternal life (Hollingdale 198). As substitutes for religious concepts, all three ideas defy definition, remaining in the realm of the poetic, the emotive, and the mysterious. As Bentley says, “Without mystery the superman would evaporate” (122). Nietzsche’s spokesman Zarathustra usually describes the superman in contrasting images: man is only a rope stretched over an abyss between beast and superman: as man is to ape, so superman will be to man: man is a lake rising higher and higher now that he does not drain away into a God. In a more comprehensive metaphor Zarathustra explains that man is a polluted stream. The Christian solution has been to remove the pollution, but when this is done, very little remains. The superman, however, will be so large a sea that he can accommodate the pollution without harm. Christianity has told men to abstain from evil, for one who touches pitch becomes defiled. The superman knows that there is no defilement in pitch, no such thing as evil, for all that exists is necessary.
Nietzsche had no conception of a super-race; he spoke only of the individual. He did not share Wagner’s interest in the Volk or his belief in a race soul. Hitler’s idea of a pure race would have been absurd to Nietzsche, for only through conflict between the races does advancement occur. For Nietzsche the “lesson of existence” is that only great individuals matter, those who raise themselves above their animal nature, their baser instincts for mere pleasure: “Mankind must work continually to produce great individuals – this and nothing else is its task” (Hollingdale 127).
The human being separates himself from the animal kingdom through the exercise of the will-to-power. This concept means more than the natural desire for self-preservation. Nietzsche believed that human beings have a psychological need for power, a need to vent their strength, to assert themselves, to dominate. Such a view would seem an excuse for tyranny and sadism except that Nietzsche posits self-mastery, power over self, as the ultimate goal of the will-to-power. The superman is the one strong enough to overcome himself. This feat restores the distinction between man and animal that Darwin had eliminated, without the help of metaphysics.
It is true, however, that Nietzsche desired men to encourage the passions that lead to evil, for they are also the source of strength needed to achieve the most difficult of tasks, the mastery of self. He felt great wickedness was preferable to weakness, for it gives ground for hope: “Where there is great crime there is also great energy, great will-to-power, consequently the possibility of self-overcoming” (Hollingdale 195). The will can be controlled. but it takes the strength of a superman to do it.
Once he reaches this level, the superman can accept himself as he is and all that brought him to this point, saying Yes to his pain and suffering as well as his joys and triumphs. He attains to the supreme moment of existence when he would be content to relive his entire life with its good and its evil; this is the idea of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche speculated that if space and energy are limited but time infinite, then a point would eventually be reached when all possible combinations of events would exhaust themselves and the process would begin again. Whether or not the theory is true, Nietzsche felt men had an ethical imperative to live as if it were true, to live in such a way that they would will to live the same life again and again for eternity (in contrast to Schopenhauer’s Buddhist desire for redemption from rebirth). For the superman this affirmation of life is the highest achievement of the will-to-power.
Nietzsche is often accused of being a pessimist, an anarchist, and a nihilist. He was pessimistic about the man of the 19th century but not about life itself. He did exalt the individual who lives beyond good and evil but only after he has achieved mastery of himself. He recognized the loss of all values and meaning but only as a presupposition, the beginning not the end of his philosophy. In place of God he put the superman, a superior being but still one of us, who says Yes to life and the possibility of human greatness.
Bernard Shaw is probably the man most responsible for transferring Nietzsche’s ubermensch into English and into the minds of English-speaking audiences with his play Man and Superman. This connection should not mislead one to assume that Shaw borrowed anything more of Nietzsche’s philosophy than the name, as Shaw makes clear in his preface to Major Barbara. Bentley claims that Shaw was not a Heroic Vitalist himself but had some leanings in their direction (164). He shared with Carlyle, Wagner, and Nietzsche their evaluation that the common man of the 19th century was pitifully unfit to rule, a factor the voices of democracy had not reckoned with, and frankly declared, “The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive” (Wagnerite 215; cf. Nietzsche’s sentiments, “I don’t find it easy to believe that little people are necessary” Bentley 68). Out of this deep sense of contemporary political failure, Shaw could only hope for the appearance of great individuals of genius, presently produced by chance but perhaps someday by design through eugenics. He appreciated as did Nietzsche the iconoclastic free spirit of those who rise above conventional morality to do what is necessary.
Shaw was too much of a humanitarian, however, to approve of Nietzsche’s praise of cruelty. He believed that the superman should benefit others, not live solely for himself. In Back to Methuselah Shaw seems to parody the Nietzschean hero in his depiction of Cain, the first murderer. When Cain claims for himself the title of superman, Eve retorts, “Superman! You are no superman; you are Anti-man. . . . You despise your father, but when he dies the world will be richer because he lived. When you die, men will say, ‘He was a great warrior, but it would have been better for the world if he had never been born'” (365).
Shaw and Nietzsche parted on political theory, for however much he admired great men, Shaw continued to support socialism and the rights of the many over the few. In Our Theater of the Nineties Shaw described Nietzsche as “the champion of privilege, of power, of inequality,” and summarized the German’s views: “To him modern democracy, Pauline Christianity, Socialism, and so on are deliberate plots hatched by malignant philosophers to frustrate the evolution of the human race and mass the stupidity and brute force of the many weak against the beneficial tyranny of the few strong.” In Shaw’s opinion this was “an absolutely fictitious hypothesis. . . not worth reading were it not that there is almost as much evidence for it as if it were true” (95). He sympathized with the analysis of the situation but supported a different solution.
In The Perfect Wagnerite Shaw made use of Ring mythology as allegory to catalog the socio-political problems of his day. He saw three categories of men: the “moral dwarves” whose greed drives them to enslave others and whose craftiness allows them to get away with it; the industrious but stupid giants who supply the work force; and the administrative gods who because of the giants’ deficient mentalities must rule by mechanical exercise of law and threat of punishment rather than by reason (189). Eventually Wotan realizes that, to create a better form of government, what the world needs are not new laws but new men, not one individual Siegfried but a race of heroes (215), or in the words of John Tanner’s “Revolutionist’s Handbook,” a democracy of supermen (Man and Superman 755). The Shavian superman wants not to rule over others but to raise all humanity to his level. Only when all people are so evolved as to desire naturally to do what is best for the entire race will Shaw have any confidence in man as a political being.
Shaw’s concept of the superman was influenced less by Nietzsche than by his admiration for Ibsen and Wagner (Mills, “Superman” 52). In Ibsen’s Brand Shaw found two qualities which apply to his superman: heroic energy and a willingness to serve a higher force – be it God or Creative Evolution. The hero by nature possesses a strong self-will but recognizes the existence of a world-will, older than and superior to his own, and desires to align his will with its cause. Brand is such a hero, and none of Ibsen’s later “realistic” male characters demonstrates the intensity and dedication of this Norwegian man of God. However, in Shaw’s view Brand fails (as do Peer Gynt and Julian) because he is an idealist. He acts as if he were the new Adam in a perfect world where it is possible to live without compromise (Ibsenism 48). Finally, he and all he loves are crushed under the weight of his grand ideals.
Wagner’s Siegfried received a similar, provisionally favorable critique from Shaw. He admired Siegfried’s complete freedom from the old world’s greed and lust for power and his independence from the gods’ decrepit system of laws that no longer apply to him. The young hero “knows no law but his own humor. . . and is, in short, a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist . . . an anticipation of the ‘overman’ of Nietzsche” (Wagnerite 200). Siegfried typifies “the healthy man raised to perfect confidence in his own impulses by an intense and joyous vitality which is above fear, sickliness of conscience, malice, and the makeshifts and moral crutches of law and order which accompany them” (21).
People have always been fascinated by the individualist “delivered from conscience” but usually are hesitant to condone his actions for fear of heavenly disapproval. Now, however, with no God to strike him down, this “New Protestant” rejects not only the church’s authority to direct his life but heaven’s as well. Eventually this trend leads to anarchism – no rule but self rule – and at this point Shaw abandons Wagner’s heroic prototype. Anarchy, like love and self-renunciation, was one of several idealistic panaceas to which Wagner succumbed toward the end of his career. Shaw concluded that “the only faith which any reasonable disciple can gain from the Ring is not in love, but in life itself as a tireless power which is continually driving onward and upward. . . growing from within, by its own inexplicable energy, into ever higher and higher forms of organization” (221), a summary less of Wagner’s creation than of Shaw’s own religion of the Life-Force.
In the end we must turn to the dramatic creations of Shaw’s own fertile imagination to find the true models for the Shavian superman. Shaw never clearly defines him; on purpose he keeps his man of the future enshrouded in mystery, for as John Tanner says, “The proof of the superman will be in the living” (Man and Superman 741). Nevertheless, we do know something of what Shaw admired in his heroes and heroines. Above all else, the greatest quality of the Shavian protagonist is his or her ability to get things done. His men are practical, straightforward, and know the way the world works (a trait Siegfried entirely lacks). His women efficiently manage both their households and their husbands. His historical characters, Napoleon and Caesar, may appear less grand than the legends about them, but they are more human, more in touch with the day-to-day matters of governing. They have no heroic illusions about themselves or others, and because of this, they accomplish the things only dreamt of by idealists. Their strength comes not from pride or courage, the traits Nietzsche admired, but from their common sense.
Alongside the men of action are the contemplative spirits, those artist-philosophers who inhabit Don Juan’s heaven and those who represent advanced humanity in 31,920 AD. Shaw does not contrast these realms of thought and action; Don Juan insists, “In Heaven, as I picture it, dear lady, you live and work instead of playing and pretending. You face things as they are” (651). Contemplation is not an escape from reality into some metaphysical dimension of ideas, but the goal of the Life-Force itself. Instead of indulging in hedonistic pleasures, the contemplative mind seeks purpose and direction: “To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer” (685). Shaw’s Ancients in his vision of the future do seem removed from physical reality, showing no interest in the arts and dances of the “children,” but this apathy toward the world comes from Shaw’s neo-Platonic idea that ultimate Mind seeks to escape the limitation of matter. The Ancients are “active” in contemplation; the subject of their thoughts is never revealed, but the point is that no one living today could understand or appreciate them anyway.
The Shavian hero lives by a higher ethic unencumbered by traditional values and outdated moral codes. John Tanner enjoys his reputation as a shameless anarchist, author of the “most blackguardly book that ever escaped burning,” partly because it draws attention to his progressive views and partly because he delights in exposing would-be liberal thinkers. However, for the true superman the transition period to the advanced state will not be so easy. In his preface to The Sanity of Art, Shaw remarked, “We cannot ask the superman simply to add a higher set of virtues to bend respectable morals, for he is undoubtedly going to empty a good deal of respectable morality out like so much dirty water and replace it by new and strange customs, shedding old obligations and accepting new and heavier ones.” The superman who appears early, before the rest of the race has evolved to his level, will be called a madman whose conscience does not correspond to that of the majority: “The superman will certainly come as a thief in the night, and be shot accordingly” (288). Man can no more understand the ways of the superman than the short-livers can comprehend the Ancient Ones in Shaw’s future history.
In his two major dramatic works concerning the superman, Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah, Shaw prophesied of his coming in different ways but always by the prompting of the Life-Force. Shaw’s doctrine of the Life-Force, the god of his only religion, was his response to Darwin’s act of “banishing Mind from the universe” as Samuel Butler aptly put it (Methuselah 696). Darwin’s contribution to the theory of evolution, the hypothesis of natural selection, provided a means to explain away the apparent sense of purpose and direction behind the life process formerly attributed to God. Instead of by a mysterious teleological force, evolution functions completely by chance. In an act of faith Shaw rejected this view of a mindless universe, choosing to believe in an impersonal but creative will that directs the development of all living things toward higher forms. Thus he promoted the earlier theory developed by Lamarck of Creative Evolution in which organisms change because they will to change. Shaw admitted to being a mystic in this matter, that the Life-Force is “a metaphysical hypothesis,” a “miracle” and a “mystery,” but it was the only way he could explain the difference between a live body and a dead one, something materialism cannot do (Agitations 119, 339).
In Shaw’s version of Creative Evolution, for millions of years the Life-Force experimented blindly by trial and error until it became sentient with the arrival of the human being. Now it seeks higher levels of consciousness by developing human mental capacity. According to Don Juan, “[Life] needs a brain … lest in its ignorance it should resist itself” (Man and Superman 652). A true disciple of the Life-Force, Don Juan explains to the devil how it uses the games of love for its own purposes. Each sex has its role: man incarnates the philosophic consciousness of Life, woman incarnates its fecundity. She is the primary player, doing all she can to get a husband and to continue the race. After doing his part, the man is free for intellectual pursuits which in turn increase the collective consciousness of the Life-Force. Rather than fighting it as Tanner tries to do, men and women should readily submit to this process. “This is the true joy in life,” Shaw writes in the preface, “the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one” (523). To cooperate fully with the Life-Force, Tanner in his handbook promotes a government sponsored program of eugenic breeding to accelerate the grand experiment toward producing the superman.
In Back to Methuselah the solution for Life’s success is somewhat different. This monumental work chronicles the entire history of the human race from Adam to the Ancients of 30,000 AD. It presents Shaw’s attempt at a utopia based on spiritual and mental evolution rather than the typical 19th century utopias based on technological advancement (Cole 89). According to the gospel of the Barnabas brothers (part three), mankind’s salvation depends on increasing the average lifespan to somewhere around 300 years. They believe death is merely an acquired habit, an inconvenience which cuts off men and women before they can reach true maturity; at present “Life is too short for men to take it seriously” (381). However, the brothers propose no eugenics program or any secret formula to achieve this temporary immortality. Life will accomplish its mysterious goals without the cooperation of men, even against their wills if necessary (433). As Franklyn states, “If [Life] cannot [solve its problems] through us, it will produce more capable agents. You and I are not God’s last word” (430). Moreover, in this later play the superman has been replaced or superseded by the ideal of pure Mind itself. Even after 30,000 years Life is not content to rest in its labors toward creating God.
In this brief history of ideas we have seen three comparable but distinct versions of the superman. Wagner’s Siegfried liberated himself from divine jurisdiction but remained too much of a mindless brute to please Nietzsche. Zarathustra’s ubermensch won the freedom to live beyond good and evil, but his acceptance of cruelty as a viable means to that goal made him a candidate for supreme tyrant, a possibility which Shaw abhorred. Shaw’s vision of ultimate humanity elevated Mind so far above the level of sensuous reality as to leave most readers quite cold to his view of the future. In all three cases, however, the superman was a projection of the hope that these authors still held for the human race despite the evidence that the present specimen was unprepared to survive in a Godless universe. These latter-day romantics (and Shaw was, in this respect, as much an idealist as the others) provided a much needed counterbalance to the unquestioning faith in scientific and technological progress which from the perspective of the nuclear age seems fearfully misplaced. We may not believe in their prophecies of the superman, but in order to survive in the future, we need their belief in humanity.
Writings by Bernard Shaw:
Agitations: Letters to the Press. 1875-1950. Ungar, 1985.
Back to Methuselah. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw. vol. 5. Max Reinhardt, 1972.
“Giving the Devil His Due.” Pen Portraits and Reviews. vol. 2. Constable, 1932.
Man and Superman. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw. vol. 2. Max Reinhardt, 1971.
Our Theater in the Nineties. vol. 2. Constable, 1932.
The Perfect Wagnerite. Major Critical Essays. Constable, 1932.
“Preface.” Major Barbara. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw. vol. 3. Max Reinhardt, 1971.
The Quintessence of Ibsenism. Major Critical Essays. Constable, 1932.
The Sanity of Art. Major Critical Essays. Constable, 1932.
Bailey, J. O. “Shaw’s Life Force and Science Fiction. ” Shaw Review 16 (May 1973): 48-58.
Barzun, Jacques. Darwin. Marx. Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. 2nd ed. Doubleday, 1958.
Bentley, Eric. The Cult of the Superman. Peter Smith, 1969.
Cole, Susan A. “The Evolutionary Fantasy: Shaw and Utopian Fiction.” Shaw Review 16 (May 1973): 89-97.
Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy. Routledge, 1965.
Hollinrake, Roger. Nietzsche, Wagner. and the Philosophy of Pessimism. Allen, 1982.
McCreless, Patrick. Wagner’s Siegfried: Its Drama, History, and Music. UKI Research, 1982.
Mills. Carl Henry. “Shaw’s Superman: A Be-evaluation.” Shaw Review 13 (May 1970): 48-58.
Mills. Carl Henry. “Shaw’s Theory of Creative Evolution.” Shaw Review 16 (Sept. 1973): 123-32.
Rather, L. J. The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s Ring and the Modern World. LSU Press, 1979.
Wisenthal, J. L. “The Underside of Undershaft: A Wagnerian Motif in Major Barbara.” Shaw Review 15 (May 1972): 56-64.