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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Why Prince’s wife ate other people’s room service (and other Paisley Park tales)

She couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

 I’m on the phone to Prince’s first wife and I’m trying to picture the wrestling. He had a very strong upper body, Mayte Garcia says brightly – but she had very powerful legs.

“When he knocked me down, I would take my legs around his body and squeeze really hard. So he stopped tackling me down to the floor.” She doesn’t know why they wrestled – couples do weird things, don’t they? Like the hypnosis. In her new book, she says she loved the hypnosis because it was the only time he’d let her talk without interrupting her.

Garcia could not have imagined at 16 – shortly before her parents gave Prince legal guardianship over her, and three years before he put her on birth control – that they would scale such philosophical heights together: the Third Eye, the migration of souls. Seventeen years after their marriage ended, she still sometimes hears the click click click of his spurs down the hall.

What was in Prince’s bathroom? Oil of Olay, fancy soaps and distinctly feminine perfumes. His kitchen? Tostitos, teas by Celestial Seasonings, and honey that comes in those little plastic bears.

They met after her “Puerto Rican supermom” insisted that Garcia get a videotape of herself bellydancing to him backstage. Her note said, PS: I am 16 years old.

During their getting-to-know you sessions, he liked to get a bowl of popcorn and tip a whole bag of Goobers (chocolate peanuts) into it. Once Garcia had joined the New Power Generation as his dancer, her relationship with food became less enjoyable. She couldn’t go to the gym because she was indoors most of the day waiting for his phone calls (Prince’s girlfriends didn’t have his number) – so, in order to keep her dancer’s body, she would eat salad standing up, while he ate fettuccine Alfredo.

She took leftover bread and Thousand Island dressing from other people’s room service trolleys in hotel corridors, because she couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

Then one day, he saw her standing next to a bowl of whipped cream; so he docked her wages. “He could be mean,” she writes. “But it made him human, and he seemed to like and respect me more when I checked him on it.”

Prince rarely touched people (germs), so when you saw him shaking another girl’s hand you knew you were on the way out. He wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for Garcia but she knows three other women who think it’s about them. She says she wants every girl to think it’s about them. She quotes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, I go high.” She calls him her dear friend.

The couple broke up a while after their child died. Prince didn’t allow an amniocentesis test and the baby was born severely disabled. Garcia says they decided together to let him die. He invited Oprah into their house and showed her the nursery, as though the baby was alive. Mayte was taken from the bed where she slept with his ashes, made up, put on camera and told not to mention the nasty business.

“Oprah was planned months ahead of time,” she tells me now, breezily. “He had this album coming out. He was like, ‘It’s Oprah.’ I’m like, ‘I get it!’”

There’s the facts, and then there’s the way she chooses to talk about them. Who is to say how you should deal with memories of years of abuse?

“People say that forgiving is my flaw, but I really believe that holding grudges and anger is a waste of energy,” she says. “We are all going to die. We are all evolving, trying to become better people, so let it go.”

Prince died a year ago. With The Passing, as she calls it, her desire to write a book increased. “I wanted to honour him,” she tells me. “He was a great friend. He listened, he cared, and he always treated me like a princess. Yes, he was a tyrant. We all knew that.”

I ask her what she would do if she could have him back for one night. She says she’d tackle him again. She misses the popcorn. “They don’t make Goobers any more.” 

“The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince” by Mayte Garcia is published by Trapeze
 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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