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!
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.''
Shaw always saw things intellectually; hence he was always catching up. Of Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp established in 1943 as a POW camp and Jewish transit camp (Anne Frank died there), he wrote in 1945, ``Belsen was obviously produced by the incompetence and breakdown of the military command.'' As Shaw wrote in 1946, ``The truth is sometimes the funniest joke in the world until it is throughly found out.'' He was an apostle of happiness who approached the opposite sex the way he approached everything: experimentally, with faith in his ability to think it through. He once claimed he was the first playwright to put sexual intercourse on the stage. He believed in exercise and vegetarianism as much as sex. He loved beautiful actresses and married a homely Irish woman who appeared to share with him little more than his aversions to tobacco and marriage. Unlike the actresses, Charlotte Payne-Townsend would not be molded, she had to be married. Besides, she was rich. After 20 years of living hand to mouth, Shaw had money.
BUT it's Shaw's fictive women (Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Saint Joan) that absorbed him - and absorb us. I've argued that the greatness of Shaw's correspondence springs from his deep need to continually refashion himself as things change. Perhaps this insight into art, even more than their beauty, is why he loved actresses.
Here's his eulogy of Ellen Terry, the great Shakespearean actress, and one of the ``born philanderer's'' great preoccupations. Shaw was 84 when, in 1940, he wrote:
The ancient Pagans, who had a much keener sense of public decency than we have, used to close all their civilized temples when they went to war, and keep only the Barbarian ones open. I am not at all sure that you ought not to close the Barn Theatre, Ellen's temple, for the duration. Possibly the military authorities will close it under the Emergency Act. They would if they had any sense; for no matter how often and how loudly we recite the warlike slogans from Richard the Second and Henry the Fifth, those of us who are old enough to have heard Ellen telling us that ``the quality of mercy is not strained'' have only to recall her voice to become incapable of killing the Germans or anyone else. The worse we can wish even for Mr Hitler himself is to hear him told off by Ellen, not in a railway carriage, but in the court of the Doge of Venice.
Intimacy and history, past and present, fantasy, memory, and headlined reality mix here in eloquent - but never merely elegant - proportions.
Art and life become one; the unity of truth and beauty re-veal a form that verges on revelation.
LETTERS survive their occasions, but only by being true to them. Much praise is due Dan H. Laurence, Shaw's editor. He's been at it for 27 years. (He has also produced a Shaw bibliography and editions of Shaw's Music and Collected Plays and has promoted Shaw in the theater through Canada's Shaw Festival Company.)
Previous volumes have been rightly named models of discreet, reader-friendly editing. Laurence has avoided ``bibliographical mania'' and given us a monument worthy of Shavianism, whose ``intelligence, honesty, astonishing zest, and vast good humour'' is at present threatened, he says, by ``biographical paparazzi and frenetic Freudians.'' (Laurence doesn't footnote his own prose; a paparazzo is a free-lance photographer of the sort that makes life exciting for Jackie Onassis and Sean Penn.)
Writing his letters nearly exhausted Shaw. We can only be glad he found the strength. They bear witness to the modern man of letters as hero, as someone who, having disavowed the possibility of grace, thinks things through. Finally, they warn of the dangers of excessive clarity.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.