Monday, March 6, 2017


Sometimes one gets carried away when browsing the Internet, and you end up reading an article published eight years ago. In this case, the alleged Shaw quotation is one of those that, to quote the Italian dictum, "se non è vero è ben trovato." A truly Shavian turn of phrase. 

Unknown painter - The Torture of St Victor - WGA23584

Indeed, it doesn't take long to confirm that the sentence in question appears in one of Shaw's plays. Well, actually, it is from the preface to one of them. Misalliance to be precise. You can either read the preface (and the whole play) here. Or you may choose to listen to the preface in the voice of Robert Shaw here

Whatever the case, you'll soon come across the relevant passage: 

Art Teaching
"By art teaching I hasten to say that I do not mean giving children lessons in freehand drawing and perspective. I am simply calling attention to the fact that fine art is the only teacher except torture. I have already pointed out that nobody, except under threat of torture, can read a school book. The reason is that a school book is not a work of art. Similarly, you cannot listen to a lesson or a sermon unless the teacher or the preacher is an artist."

It should come as no surprise that Shaw compares education to torture, given his personal experience with formal schooling and his success as a self-taught genius. 

But being the avid linguist I am, I was more interested in finding out whether Shaw resorted to drawing parallels with torture with any frequency. I wanted to shed some light on what things or issues Shaw (or his characters) compares to torture. The answer (below) may surprise you - although I hope it is more bearable than its subject matter. 

DOYLE [...]. If you want to interest him in Ireland you've got to call the unfortunate island Kathleen ni Hoolihan and pretend she's a little old woman. It saves thinking. It saves working. It saves everything except imagination, imagination, imagination; and imagination's such a torture that you can't bear it without whisky. [With fierce shivering self-contempt] At last you get that you can bear nothing real at all: you'd rather starve than cook a meal; you'd rather go shabby and dirty than set your mind to take care of your clothes and wash yourself; you nag and squabble at home because your wife isn't an angel, and she despises you because you're not a hero; and you hate the whole lot round you because they're only poor slovenly useless devils like yourself...

Of course, it should not be forgotten that in the very preface to this play ("Preface for Politicians") Shaw argues that hanging "is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts."

For precisely "blood and torture" can help us gauge a man of true military disposition, but with a classic Shavian twist. As Shaw explains in a letter to Frank Harris (20 October 1916):

"There is an old story, told sometimes about Mazarin, sometimes about Richelieu, of a minister's antechamber hung with pictures: those on one side being all idyllic landscapes and scenes of domestic sentiment: those on the other scenes of battle and blood and torture. The minister, when he wanted to size up a new man, watched how he took the pictures. If he clung to the battle pictures, the minister knew that he was a timid man of peace, for whom action and daring were full of romantic fascination. If he wallowed in cottage senti­ment and the Maiden's Prayer, he was immediately marked down for military preferment and [a] dangerous job."

But once again Shaw returns to art as the ultimate form of torture. His letter to Arnold Bennett (20 October 1921) begins thus: 

"My dear Bennett
The art of pleasing an audience is a very easy one compared to the art of torturing it. Last Tuesday night the artistic torture which was the object of the style of execution adopted was inevitably mixed up with the non-artistic torture of a terrible strain of nervousness, of the mental indigestion of half assimilated parts, of bewilderment, of voices that could be steady at first only by forcing them, and of the excitement and terror of parts that felt wonderful but were quite incomprehensible. That alloy of non-artistic terror will, I hope, presently disappear, and make the difficult parts as smooth and certain as the easy parts were last night. But the artistic torture will be all the more poignant; for none of the difficulties are shirked. Strictly between ourselves, the production was hurried under finan­cial pressure."

THE DEVIL. [...] Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture.

"...we have been judging and punishing ever since Jesus told us not to; and I defy anyone to make out a convincing case for believing that the world has been any better than it would have been if there had never been a judge, a prison, or a gallows in it all that time. We have simply added the misery of punishment to the misery of crime, and the cruelty of the judge to the cruelty of the criminal. We have taken the bad man, and made him worse by torture and degradation, incidentally making ourselves worse in the process. It does not seem very sensible, does it?"

No, it doesn't.