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faithfully yours - G. Bernard Shaw

By Thomas D'Evelyn / July 20, 1988

Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 1926-1950, Volume 4, edited by Dan H. Laurence. New York: Viking. 946 pp. $45. All my heroes - Cicero, St. Paul, Erasmus - had epistlitis, the compulsion to write letters. Their weakness was their strength. The republic, the early church, Christian humanism - these live in their letters. And perhaps they are heroes to me because they have done what I cannot seem to do: keep up with my correspondence!

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From the evidence of four big volumes of letters, Bernard Shaw had it, too. With the appearance of Volume 4, the project of publishing his enormous correspondence is complete. The moment to size up Shaw has arrived.

AT his death in 1950, Shaw had become ``GBS'' - a cultural quantity known the world over. The elements that went into this character were complex. A confessed ``born philanderer'' and iconoclast, Shaw was also idealistic. Explaining his attitudes toward ``relics'' - the GBS manuscripts - he said, ``I am an Irish Protestant in the marrow of my bones.'' On most occasions, though, he was an outspoken atheist.

A socialist, he attacked communists who attacked fascism, believing that what the British parliamentary system lacked could be supplied in part by lessons from Mussolini and Stalin. He apparently believed in a revolution of the intellectual, not the proletariat.

In brief, Shaw was the quintessence of something that never quite came into focus. Paul Johnson wrote in ``Modern Times'' that ``the evaporation of religious faith among the educated left a vacuum in the minds of Western intellectuals easily filled by secular superstition.... They needed to believe; they wanted to be duped.''

Perhaps. If Shaw needed to believe and wanted to be duped, he also needed to write about it. In any event, Volume 4 of the letters shows him doing what he does best: writing.

However absurd his opinions, Shaw's style puts him up there with Cicero and Erasmus. However tedious and silly the man, the style is wise. Shaw's candor saved him from being a crank. Compulsively composed, his letters are compulsively readable.

Shaw's low opinion of Christianity is well known. He attacked the gospel of suffering in what he called ``crosstianity.'' He did not deny Jesus' goodness. He thought St. Paul ``a rather mad writer,'' but only a degree madder than ``a rather sane one like Voltaire.'' He wrote wonderful letters to the Abbess Laurentia McLachlan, once asking her rhetorically, ``Why in the name of all the saints does she fly out at me when I devoutly insist that the Godhead must contain the Mother as well as the Father?''

He's as interesting on politics as on religion. During the Spanish Civil War, Shaw was asked to sign an appeal urging republican and nationalist Spain to forgo bombing civilians. He would not. He wrote, ``The notion that the killing of civilians, women & children is worse than the killing of soldiers can be held only by horrified people who have not thought out the subject.''

Shaw thought out subjects, trivial and sublime. After attending a Paramount Picture staring Gary Cooper, he wrote in 1937, ``The affair was in effect a movie, not a talkie: a movie without the qualities derived from the speechlessness.'' His dramatist's ear was not satisfied with the screenplay by Clifford Odets.

SHAW's socialism was thought through. He wrote to Harold Laski, the political scientist and author, in 1945: ``None of us foresaw then that the revolution would be achieved in Russia (of all places!) by a minority of excessively sophisticated Marxists; and that they would make every possible catastrophic mistake until they were driven by sheer force of facts to establish the present Russo-Fabian state.''