IF BIOGRAPHIES of writers are justifiable—and there is much to be said for the view that their own works contain all that is relevant—it is because, in their case, the ways in which they accept and revolt against their immediate situation are peculiarly easy to watch, and the acceptance of and revolt against the immediate is the central human problem of free will.
The sin of the popular writer is an accidie that accepts the social values of his day as absolute; the sin of most good modern writers is a pride that perceives their imperfections in these values and revolts against them, but in so doing, adopts as final values which are opposite but also partial, the mirror image of what it attacks. A writer is great—there are no perfect writers—in the degree to which he transcends both simple acceptance and simple revolt, so that later generations are conscious in reading him less of his relevance to his age and more of his relevance to themselves. In the speech of the Inquisitor in "Saint Joan," for example, Shaw is a great writer; in "As Far as Thought Can Reach" he is only an interesting example of liberal thought at the beginning of the twentieth century. In both cases he is concerned with religion and politics, which he has declared to be the two proper concerns for an adult (his deliberate omission of love makes his adult religion and politics a little strange), and his success in the one and his failure in the other may serve as a starting point from which to consider his life and work.
If we do not know it already, Mr. Hesketh Pearson's account* of his childhood would make it very clear that what was presented to Shaw as the Christian faith was not Christian but unitarian, the eternal religion of this world. The greater the social prestige and political and economic power of the Church, the greater must always be her temptation to "confound the Persons and divide the Substance," i.e., to make God the purely transcendant First Cause of the Greek philosophers, the absentee landlord of the universe, and herself His bailiff. The Word made Flesh must then be either safely imprisoned, like the Emperor of Japan, within the ecclesiastical organization—the danger for Catholicism—or safely "humanized" and turned into a good boy scout—the danger for Protestantism. In either case the Christian faith has been abandoned for a political religion, more agreeable to the bourgeois Haves in society. Unfortunately, in attacking this heresy, the bohemian Have-nots are tempted to make God purely immanent, in a Great Man, a race, or a class, to deny the Father in the name of the Son.
But this too is a political religion and, moreover, only tenable so long as one is the opposition and therefore without positive political responsibility for human suffering, so long as one is not in a position to make good one's promise of creating a heaven on and out of earth.
As the leader of the English opposition from a time when Darwin was still shocking until Hitler's Blitzkrieg over London, Shaw as a man and as a writer, his highly personal formulation of the Have-not religion, his quirks and biases, his insights and blind spots, deserve the closest consideration.
The Fairy Godmother never bestows her favors singly but always in contrasted pairs: if she gives a power, she also gives a weakness; if she provides a source of happiness, she never fails to add a source of suffering. This has led some psychologists to diagnose the weakness as the cause, and the power as its neurotic effect. This, of course, is rubbish. Suffering is not the cause of genius but its guardian angel, the means by which its possessor is compelled to make the use of his talent a serious matter, the limits which make his freedom a reality.
The fact that Shaw's father was a poor, conscience-stricken drunk and that his genteel mother showed him little affection did not make him imaginative, but they certainly, helped to turn his imagination into a moral passion. On the other hand the same situation might have driven a child with a different hereditary make-up in quite other directions. The young Shaw was lucky enough to have the inclination to make the family skeleton dance and not in despair to seek all his life for someone to care for him. Yet the very intense vitality, intellectual curiosity and freedom from the common temptations of sex, money and a Good Time, which have been his greatest strength, have at the same time been his greatest danger.