Peer review: Shaw “crowded his pages with writers’ names to show he was no solitary eccentric, but part of an international zeitgeist”. Photo: AKG-Images
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“I want to be the Irish Nietzsche”: what the Übermensch meant to Bernard Shaw

What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose.

“The difficulty now is to get rid of me,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his friend Georg Brandes in the late 1880s. And Shaw would have agreed. In Shavian style, he liked to use Nietzsche’s name but to distance himself from the one or two translations of Nietzsche’s books he had read.

After he wrote his “comedy and philosophy” Man and Superman early in the 20th century, a number of critics, including his friend William Archer and also G K Chesterton, assumed that Shaw was a disciple of Nietzsche. It is true that in his letters and prefaces he was using Nietzsche’s name quite freely. He did so partly because he believed that British culture was becoming too backward and inward-looking. To change this internal focus he championed what was new and foreign in philosophy and the arts. In his art criticism he praised Whistler; in his theatre criticism he blew the trumpet for Ibsen, Chekhov and later Strindberg. And he devoted much of his music criticism to Wagner, with whom Nietzsche had quarrelled.

Shaw enjoyed making lists of American, Scandinavian, German and Russian writers. In the preface to Man and Superman he introduces readers to a series of authors whose thinking could be taken as somewhat similar to his own: “Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche”. We do not think of Shaw being heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Goethe (who also used the superman for Faust) or Shelley. But Nietzsche’s name has stuck to him partly because he used the word “Superman”, a translation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” from Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a “good cry”, Shaw thought – which was to say, a good piece of advertisement, which would contribute nicely to the title of his new “comedy and philosophy” for the stage.

People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw’s plays for their comedy. In the dream sequence of Man and Superman Shaw mentions Nietzsche as having found himself in hell. The Devil, who represents Shaw’s hidden pessimism and speaks in Shavian parodies, believes Nietzsche’s loss of “wits” in his final years on earth had been inevitable. His career became a cautionary tale. He had been led into pessimism by a lifetime of searching for an optimistic philosophy while ignoring the lessons that human nature and human history could have taught him. But after a period in Shaw’s hell, he regains his wits and his confidence, and takes the escalator up to heaven as if he were happily entering a university again. After which we hear no more of him.

This short, somewhat misleading, discussion by the Devil about Nietzsche in the dream scene was cut from the recent production of Man and Superman at the National Theatre, with the result that there is very little to connect Nietzsche with Shaw. It is a hundred years since the play was first produced in its prodigious entirety (at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh on 11 June 1915) and cuts were essential – a reading of it all took over five hours.

Nietzsche lived “Beyond Space, Beyond Time”, far from Shaw’s world. In contemporary political life, Shaw was a committed socialist who, in 1912, gave £1,000 (equivalent to £50,000 today) to help start the New Statesman and also bought shares, becoming one of its original proprietors and directors. “I won’t write,” he promised. But he could not help himself and soon became a prolific contributor to the paper – in none of whose articles and reviews is there any mention of Nietzsche.

What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche’s belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche’s “brethren” who is urged to see “the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman”.

The first of Shaw’s writings said to have been influenced by Nietzsche was his essay “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”. But this was written at the beginning of the 1890s, before he had read any Nietzsche. In 1896 he read “Nietzsche contra Wagner”, translated by Thomas Common, and reviewed it in the Saturday Review. His review paints an unattractive pen portrait of Nietzsche, certainly not of someone who would become a great influence on his thinking. “Such a philosopher is as dull and dry as you please: it is he who brings his profession into disrepute,” he wrote. “Nietzsche is the champion of privilege, of power and of inequality.” He described the philosophy as a “fictitious hypothesis”, by which he meant that nothing came to Nietzsche as the result of actual experience. It was all put together by “a mere dead piece of brain machinery . . . Never was there a deafer, blinder, socially and politically inepter academician.”

There were obvious differences between the two writers. Nietzsche was an academic; Shaw never went to a university. Nietz­sche it seems came to believe in the usefulness of war, while Shaw was continually trying to take power away from men with guns and hand it to men and women of imagination and intellect. Nietzsche believed that “convictions are prisons” while Shaw gloried in his convictions – one of them being his belief in the equality of income. He pointed to “suggestive combinations of ideas” that were “pregnant with vitality” in Nietzsche’s writings. But many of these sallies seemed “petulant and impossible” and his epigrams appeared to have been “written with phosphorus on brimstone”. Some critics may see the well-known epigram in Human, All Too Human – “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling” – as tailor-made for GBS, with his many jokes and his apparent poverty of emotion. But Shaw himself maintained that an essential ingredient of truth was humour.

“I must really read some of his stuff,” Shaw teased William Archer soon after the publication of Man and Superman. But the more he learned about Nietzsche, the more disapproval he felt for what would be his growing authority on modern literary criticism. “Not for a moment will I suffer anyone to compare me to him as a critic,” he concluded. In a letter to his American biographer Archibald Henderson some four months after Man and Superman had opened at the Court Theatre in London, he wrote that “Nietzsche’s notions of art, his admiration of the Romans &c, are very unlike any view of mine . . . and his erudition I believe to be all nonsense: I think he was an academic in the sense of having a great deal of secondhand booklearning about him . . .”

Whereas Shaw travelled widely and was a public and political figure, Nietzsche nursed his genius in a hothouse, creating powerful ideas that were remote from life outside. Brought up in a clerical background, he had no belief in Christianity, which he considered a trick that disarmed people of the courage they needed to deal with the suffering in life. But with God dead what was the purpose of human beings? Were they part of an unknown experiment or was everything meaningless? He saw the possibility of men and women retreating into animals. Or might they progress in positive ways that he could inspire, transforming them into superhumans to take the place of gods? Nietzschean philosophers have made ingenious attempts to reassemble his queries and contradictions into an equation pointing to a solution that removes meaning from intention and changes even nihilism into a positive doctrine.

Shaw’s hope lay in the children of mixed marriages and, in Back to Methuselah, an ever longer span of life changing our focus on what is necessary and desirable. He believed in the life everlasting – but not necessarily for the individual. When he looked back on our history he was overtaken by a dark pessimism that animated the speeches of the Devil in Man and Superman. But when Nietzsche looked back, he saw some hope in the Roman empire, suggesting that slavery was a necessity for a mentally aristocratic life. “Men shall be trained for war,” he wrote, “and woman for the recreation of the warrior . . .” Shaw believed that women should have as many children as they wanted – but each one preferably by a different man so we could break through our social and tribal barriers. When Nietzsche looked into the future and beyond the sinking sun he imagined a paradise full of light and logic, a distant utopia of which he was the prophet. Within universities, Nietzsche’s language is peculiarly stimulating, the word “warfare” meaning little more than a tense intellectual debate. But carry that language into the streets and it becomes dangerously aggressive. Early in 1889, shortly before the birth of Hitler, Nietzsche went mad.

What Shaw may have envied was Nietz­sche’s posthumous fame and authority. Occasionally he would call himself a Nietz­schean but this should not be taken too literally. For example, he wrote to his German translator while at work on Man and Superman: “I want the Germans to know me as a philosopher; as an English (or Irish) Nietz­sche (only ten times cleverer) . . .”

In his essays Shaw crowded his pages with writers’ names to show he was no solitary eccentric, but part of an international zeitgeist. The poets, playwrights and philosophers he refers to are mostlyattempting to solve a similar problem of how to advance human beings to the next stage of evolution. None of them necessarily influenced the other, but all were working along roughly parallel lines to discover an individual answer to a general question – as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had done.

The latest edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature assembles diverse literary figures, including Shaw, who “felt the impact of Nietzsche’s thought”. In a similar vein the Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson has suggested that Shaw was one of the writers who were “avid readers of Nietzsche” and “inspired by his ideas”. Yet, after seeing Act III of Man and Superman at the National Theatre this year, he concluded that this was not a version of Nietzsche but much closer to the Creative Evolution of Henri Bergson. Shaw would have endorsed this. For though insisting that Bergson’s and his writings were “totally independent of one another”, he added that his scene in hell turned out to be “a dramatisation” of Bergson’s philosophy.

There are no characters in Shaw’s plays that have their origins in Nietzsche’s “self-effacing self-advancement”. But something of his spirit and influence can perhaps be detected in Geneva, Shaw’s political extravaganza written in the late 1930s. Here the European dictators – Bardo Bombardone of Italy, Ernest Battler of Germany and General Flanco de Fortinbras of Spain – are summoned to the Court of International Justice at The Hague. It is Bombardone the bumptious actor-politician who delivers a flight of words in praise of willpower and war. This is a doctrine that, forty years after his death, might have been familiar to Nietzsche – if only as a parody. “My time has not yet come . . .” he had written in Ecce Homo, “some are born posthumously.” But a pantomime version of Mussolini in Shaw’s theatrical extravaganza was far from the posthumous destination of Nietzsche’s dreams.

Shaw himself was to choose a very different modern Superman, a far-seeing realist who changed our understanding of the world, giving us a new focus on time and the future: Einstein. “I rejoice at the new universe to which he has introduced us,” Shaw declared. “I rejoice in the fact that he has destroyed all our old sermons, all the old absolutes, all the old cut and dried conceptions, even of time and space, which were so discouraging . . .” But neither Shaw nor Nietzsche could have foreseen the reinvention today of so many gods, all armed with their warring sermons and absolutes.

Michael Holroyd’s biography of Bernard Shaw is published by Pimlico, and as an ebook by Head of Zeus

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times