Tuesday, August 26, 2014


While looking for the source of another Shaw quotation (to no avail), I came across this other gem. It is to be found in the "Preface on Doctors" to The Doctor's Dilemma. The quotation is often rephrased as in the title of this post, but it was originally written as two separate clauses in two consecutive sentences, as follows (my emphasis): 

"…no doctor dare accuse another of malpractice. He is not sure enough of his own opinion to ruin another man by it. He knows that if such conduct were tolerated in his profession no doctor's livelihood or reputation would be worth a year's purchase. I do not blame him: I would do the same myself. But the effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity; and I do not suggest that the medical conspiracy is either better or worse than the military conspiracy, the legal conspiracy, the sacerdotal conspiracy, the pedagogic conspiracy, the royal and aristocratic conspiracy, the literary and artistic conspiracy, and the innumerable industrial, commercial, and financial conspiracies, from the trade unions to the great exchanges, which make up the huge conflict which we call society. But it is less suspected."

Jo Mielziner Doctor's Dilemma
Photograph of scene designed by Jo Mielziner for George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma.

Some suggest that "conspiracies against the laities" is a common phrase in the English language and can be directly attributed to Bernard Shaw - although he may have been influenced by Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations

If we start off with the latter claim, Smith's words are certainly similar to Shaw's general argument about the corporativism of all professions: 

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends is a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Although no definitive claims can be made as to the intertextual connection between Shaw's quotation and the passage in The Wealth of Nations, an economics expert like Shaw no wonder read Adam Smith's magnum opus thoroughly. In fact, we know he was very familiar with this treatise because, for example, in The Perfect Wagnerite, Shaw takes his ideal for a dramatic hero partially from The Wealth of Nations

"The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth century, is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion, law and order in all directions, and establishing in their place the unfettered action of Humanity doing exactly what it likes, and producing order instead of confusion thereby because it likes to do what is necessary for the good of the race. This conception, already incipient in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was certain at last to reach some great artist, and be embodied by him in a masterpiece."

Also, Shaw reviewed some editions of The Wealth of Nations during his prolific career as a critic, so there's a chance at least the philosophical connection is there. 

Regarding the status of "conspiracies against the laity" as a common phrase in relatively wide currency, we must take that with a pinch of salt. If, for example, we search for "conspiracy/ies against the laity" in any of the well-established text corpora available online, evidence of use of the phrase is scanty and almost always with a explicit mention to Bernard Shaw as the source. The GlowBe Corpus, for instance, retrieves 8 cases of the phrase - whether singular or plural - and all of them include Bernard Shaw in one way or another. Other corpora, like WebCorp, retrieve a few more occurrences, but many of them are collections of quotations. Once in a while, though, you find interesting articles like this one.

But the real question remains, why isn't this blog on the first page of Google for Bernard Shaw quotations? Is this some sort of "conspiracy against the laity?" 

Saturday, August 23, 2014


After my previous post, Richard Dietrich emailed me (yet again!) saying that he "would have bet his last dollar" (sic.) that that quotation was to be found in The Quintessence of Ibsenism.

While all ISS members are keeping their fingers crossed that Dick's gambling problem is just a question of understanding figurative language - given that he is also de treasurer of the ISS - it is also true that he is not entirely wrong. 

Indeed, there are a couple of passages in The Quintessence that stress how often people mistake blunt sincerity for cynicism. Actually, the question is that the exceptional person will be the one who can see the truth in everything - no matter how unpleasant it is. Thus, the following paragraph sums up the idea that 

"We then have our society classified as 700 Philistines and 299 idealists, leaving one man unclassified. He is the man who is strong enough to face the truth that the idealists are shirking. He says flatly of marriage, "This thing is a failure for many of us. It is insufferable that two human beings, having entered into relations which only warm affection can render tolerable, should be forced to maintain them after such affections have ceased to exist, or in spite of the fact that they have never arisen. The alleged natural attractions and repulsions upon which the family ideal is based do not exist; and it is historically false that the family was founded for the purpose of satisfying them. Let us provide otherwise for the social ends which the family subserves, and then abolish its compulsory character altogether." What will be the attitude of the rest to this outspoken man? The Philistines will simply think him mad. But the idealists will be terrified beyond measure at the proclamation of their hidden thought — at the presence of the traitor among the conspirators of silence — at the rending of the beautiful veil they and their poets have woven to hide the unbearable face of the truth. They will crucify him, burn him, violate their own ideals of family affection by taking his children away from him, ostracize him, brand him as immoral, profligate, filthy, and appeal against him to the despised Philistines, specially idealized for the occasion as SOCIETY. How far they will proceed against him depends on how far his courage exceeds theirs. At his worst, they call him cynic and paradoxer: at his best they do their utmost to ruin him if not to take his life. Thus, purblindly courageous moralists like Mandeville and Larochefoucauld, who merely state unpleasant facts without denying the validity of current ideals, and who indeed depend on those ideals to make their statements piquant, get off with nothing worse than this name of cynic, the free use of which is a familiar mark of the zealous idealist. But take the case of the man who has already served us as an example — Shelley. The idealists did not call Shelley a cynic: they called him a fiend until they invented a new illusion to enable them to enjoy the beauty of his lyrics — said illusion being nothing less than the pretence that since he was at bottom an idealist himself, his ideals must be identical with those of Tennyson and Longfellow, neither of whom ever wrote a line in which some highly respectable ideal was not implicit."

George Bernard Shaw by Edmund S. Valtman ppmsc.07950

When I read this passage, there was another one that inmediately came to my mind because of its identical theme and its strikingly metaphorical mode of expression. Specifically, I recalled the anecdote Shaw recounts about when he had an argument with an artist who 

"…lectured me for not consulting my eyes instead of my knowledge of facts. "You don't see the divisions in a set of teeth when you look at a person's mouth," he said: "all you see is a strip of white, or yellow, or pearl, as the case may be. But because you know, as a matter of anatomic fact, that there are divisions there, you want to have them represented by strokes in a drawing. That is just like you art critics &c, &c. "I do not think he believed me when I told him that when I looked at a row of teeth, I saw, not only the divisions between them, but their exact shape, both in contour and in modelling, just as well as I saw their general color."

This story is quoted in several secondary sources, but I believe Shaw included it in print for the first time in The Sanity of Art

At any rate, whether in the plastic arts, in drama, or in sociology, I guess many of my readers agree that Shaw had an exceptional eyesight - sometimes even foresight and second sight, if you ask me. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014


A recent facebook update by ShawChicago reminded me of one of my favourite Shaw quotations of all time. 

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

Be it because I'm a bit of a cynic myself, or because a great deal of what I like about Shaw has to do with what others call "his cynical way of looking at things," the fact is that I've always liked to drop this line here and there. 
Ulica Bernarda Shawa, Dubrovnik
Bernard Shaw Street. Dubrovnik, Croatia. 
However, until today, I had never bothered to look it up and find out a little more about when and where it was written. I must confess I was very surprised. 

This quotation - slightly altered in its original syntax - was first published as part of one of Shaw's pieces of music criticism. Specifically, in an article dated 18 July 1894 about "the production of Der Freischütz and Fidelio at die German Opera," which was included in the third volume of his Music in London (1890-1894).

As you can see from the expanded quotation in context, Shaw was criticizing the ostentation and "tackiness" of certain outdated props:

"To appeal to our extinct sense of the supernatural by means that outrage our heightened sense of the natural is to court ridi­cule. Pasteboard pies and paper flowers are being banished from the stage by the growth of that power of accurate observation which is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it; and impossible bats and owls must be banished with them. Der Freischütz may be depended on to suggest plenty of phan­tasmagoria without help from out-of-date stage-machinists and property-masters."

Frankly, I am sometimes amazed by how Shaw's ideas and interestes changed or evolved throughout his life, but that uncanny knack for writing wittily and precisely was always with him. Perhaps it has to do with his self-imposed training when he still thought he would become a novelist

Celebrities in Soong Ching-ling's home
Celebrities (including Shaw, unmistakeable) at Soong Ching-ling's home.
As was to be expected, this quotation has made its way into countless books and articles worldwide. For example, in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (p. 1022) as a means to introduce the topic of food on stage, since "pasteboard pies" were no longer in vogue, according to Shaw. 

Well, one more Shaw quotation sourced, a million more to go. Wait, am I being cynical? 

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Another email from my dear friend Richard Dietrich - known for his proverbial zeal for work - contains the following Shaw quotation, embellished with a not-very-Shavian background picture:

What really drew my attention - because I need no-one to remind me that leisure is the mother of virtue - is the source of the quotation. I must admit I'm not all that familiar with Shaw's political writings, so the title of this essay? book? escaped me. 

After a little research I found out that the above quotation was initially part of a lecture originally entitled "The Climate and Soil for Labour Culture." It was part of a series of three lectures presented by the Fabian Society in the spring of 1918. The other two speakers were Arthur Henderson and Sidney Webb

The lecture was later published in 1971 as part of Louis Crompton's (ed.) The Road to Equality. Ten Unpublished Lectures and Essays by Bernard Shaw. In this book, the title of the lecture was changed to "Socialism and Culture," and it contains several quotable gems, but not the above fragment. At least, not verbatim. In fact, it is an abridgement of a longer paragraph that reads as follows (the highlighted phrases being those in the picture above): 

"Now no thoughtful person will say that the country is altogether the poorer for this tendency. Leisure, though the propertied classes give its name to their own idleness, is not idleness. It is not even a luxury: it is a necessity, and a necessity of the first importance. Some of the most valuable work done in the world has been done at leisure, and never paid for in cash or kind. Leisure may be described as free activity, labor as compulsory activity. Leisure does what it likes: labor does what it must, the compulsion being that of Nature, which in these latitudes leaves men no choice between labor and starvation."

I think I must agree with Shaw's views on leisure. After all, that's how this blog came into being. However, some may argue there's a contradiction between this vindication of leisure and Shaw's zeal for work. The synthesis of both notions can perhaps be found in the preface to Misalliance ("A Treatise on Parents and Children"): 

"The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation, because occupation means pre-occupation; and the pre-occupied person is neither happy nor unhappy, but simply alive and active, which is pleasanter than any happiness until you are tired of it. That is why it is necessary to happiness that one should be tired. Music after dinner is pleasant: music before breakfast is so unpleasant as to be clearly unnatural. To people who are not overworked holidays are a nuisance. To people who are, and who can afford them, they are a troublesome necessity. A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell."


A few days ago, while I was dozing off in the heat of a summer afternoon, I got a message from ISS treasurer and compulsive emailer Richard Dietrich. In it, he challenged me to find the source for the following oft-quoted "Shawism": 

The first time these words were printed was in an article entitled 'Art and Public Money', published in the Sussex Daily News (7 March 1907). 

This quotation is an all-time favourite among Shavians. For instance, Michael Holroyd used it as the heading for the second part of Chapter XII in his Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition. It also populates play programmes and biographical summaries. 

So far, this is as straightforward a post as it can be. But I pride in what some call "added value," so I'll give you a little more information on the occasion.

To begin with, the article in the Sussex Daily News was a printed version of a talk Shaw delivered at the prize-giving of the Brighton School of Art, as explained in another article from The Press dated three months later. By the way, it should come as no surprise that the Shaws toured New Zealand a few years later, given the amount of media attention Bernard was getting. 

Apart from the bibliographical record of these words, the first things that strikes the eye is perhaps the negation of the famous Shakespearean line from Macbeth's monologue. Well, apart from the infamous "Better than Shakespear?" controversy, Shaw seems to have some sort of fixation with the "brief candle" metaphor, for he uses it far too often when he "sticks pins into Shakespeare". 

For instance, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (B.B) is one of the most risible characters in The Doctor's Dilemma, especially because "his speech is a perpetual anthem; and he never tires of the sound of it." His pretentious scholarship when quoting different authors is less than perfect, as in the case when he mixes up a series of Shakespearean lines in a hilarious monologue: 

B. B. Ah, well, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Still, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. He died extremely well, remarkably well. He has set us an example: let us endeavor to follow it rather than harp on the weaknesses that have perished with him. I think it is Shakespear whosays that the good that most men do lives after them: the evil lies interredwith their bones. Yes: interred with their bones. Believe me, Paddy, we are all mortal. It is the common lot, Ridgeon. Say what you will, Walpole, Nature's debt must be paid. If tis not to-day, twill be to-morrow.
[Walpole is about to speak, but B. B., suddenly and vehemently proceeding, extinguishes him.]

Nothing to do, of course, with Patrick Stewart's rendering of the same monologue in an acclaimed production of Macbeth:

Similar humorous uses of the "brief candle" can be found in Shake Versus Shav, when the puppet Shakespeare ends the play and Shaw's "glimmering light" by puffing out the candle between them while he quotes himself.

The brief candle was also employed to describe the existence of the "shortlived" in Back to Methuselah. Cain's offspring, who "invented killing and conquest and mastery and the winnowing out of the weak by the strong," are no longer the leaders of mankind. Accordingly, Cain acknowledges his defeat: 

CAIN. There is no place for me on earth any longer. You cannot deny that mine was a splendid game while it lasted. But now! Out, out, brief candle! [He vanishes].

So, where was I? Oh, yes. Life's no brief candle. Well, just in case I'll stop wasting my holiday time on these digressions and hit the pool right away. Have fun!