Saturday, March 14, 2009

Debate between James and Shaw

In his autobiography on Henry James, Leon Edel gives not a little space to the debate in letters between James and George Bernard Shaw over the purpose of art. The trigger was James's play The Saloon, a dramatization of his short story "Owen Wingrave," in which a young pacifist from a military family died bravely like a soldier for his pacifism. Shaw objected to the play's determinism and hopelessness.

It is really a damnable sin to draw with such consummate art a houseful of rubbish, and a dead incubus of a father waiting to be scrapped; to bring on for us the hero with his torch and his scrapping shovel; and then, when the audience is saturated with interest and elated with hope, waiting for the triumph and the victory, calmly announce that the rubbish has choked the hero. and that the incubus is the really strong master of all our souls. Why have you done this? If it were true to nature--if it were scientific--if it were common sense, I should say let us face it, let us say Amen. But it isn't. Every man who really wants his latchkey gets it. No man who doesn't believe in ghosts ever sees one. Families like these are smashed very day and their members delivered from bondage, not by heroic young men, but by one girl who goes out and earns her living or takes a degree somewhere. Why do you preach cowardice to an army which has victory always and easily within its reach?

I do such things because I happen to be a man of imagination and taste, extremely interested in life, and because the imagination thus, from the moment direction and motive play upon it from all sides, absolutely enjoys and insists on and incurably leads a life of its own, for which just this vivacity itself is its warrant. . . . Half the beautiful things that the benefactors of the human species have produced would surely be wiped out if you don't allow this adventurous and speculative imagination its rights.

James went on to say that the only way in which The Saloon could be "scientific" would be that it be done "with all the knowledge and intelligence relevant to its motive." As for people wanting not works of art but "encouragement," James could only reply that works were "capable of saying more things to man about himself than any other 'works' whatever are capable of doing." The Master concluded that he viewed with suspicion the "encouraging" representational work. It would be necessary to determine "what it is we have to be encouraged or discouraged about." 

Me: My sympathies are entirely with James on this matter, but I am also stirred (who would not be?) by Shaw's passionate words. 

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