Birthdays and Mr. Shaw

Years ago, when Mr. Bernard Shaw wrote on drama in the Saturday Review, he was only prevented from saying of every play that it was the worst in the world by the desire to say that at any rate it was better than Shakespeare.  The high-water mark of his extraordinary hatred was reached, I remember, when somebody (with singular innocence) asked him to contribute to the celebration of a Shakespeare anniversary.  He said — “I no longer celebrate my own birthday, and I do not see why I should celebrate his.”  And I remember that when I read the words — years ago, when I was very young — I leapt up in my seat (since I was more agile in those days), and cried out — “Now I understand why he does not appreciate Shakespeare.  It is because he does not appreciate birthdays.”  […] Shakespeare was very plausibly presented by Shaw as a mere sullen sentimentalist, weeping over his own weakness and hanging the world with black in anticipation of his own funeral.  It was all very ingenious, and you can quote a great deal in support of it.  But, all the same, I am pretty sure that Shakespeare celebrated his birthday — and celebrated it with the utmost regularity.  That is to say, I am sure there was strict punctuality about the time when the festival should begin, though there may, perhaps, have been some degree of vagueness or irregularity about the time when it should end.

There are some modern optimists who announce that the universe is magnificent or that life is worth living, as if they had just discovered some ingenious and unexpected circumstance which the world had never heard of before.  But, if people had not regarded this human life of ours as wonderful and worthy, they would never have celebrated their birthdays at all.  If you give Mr. Jones a box of cigars on his birthday the act cannot be consistent with the statement that you wish he had never been born.  If you give Mr. Smith a dozen of sherry it cannot mean in theory that you wish him dead, whatever effects it may have in practice.  Birthdays are a glorification of the idea of life, and it exactly hits the weak point in the Shaw type of optimism (or vitalism, which would be the better word) that it does not instinctively side with such religious celebrations of life.  Mr. Shaw is ready to praise the Life-force, but he is not willing to keep his birthday, which would be the best of all ways to praise it.  And the reason is that the modern people will do anything whatever for their religion except play the fool for it.  They will be martyred, but they will not be chaffed.  Mr. Shaw is quite clearly aware that it is a very good thing for him and for everyone else that he is alive.  But to be told so in the symbolic form of brown-paper parcels containing slippers or cigarettes makes him feel a fool; which is exactly what he ought to feel.  On many high occasions of life it is the only alternative to being one.  A birthday does not come merely to remind a man that he has been born.  It comes that he may be born again.  And if a man is born again he must be as clumsy and comic as a baby.

The Illustrated London News, 28 November 1908.

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 3:52 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Typical Chesterton – a close student of human nature! Excellent, as usual.


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