A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 3 - Winter 2011/12

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“Thoughts Die Sooner Than Languages”: The Vitalism of the Literal in Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah

Such is the growth of a legend, originally a mere word, a mythos, probably one of those many words which have but a local currency, and lose their value if they are taken to distant places, words useless for the daily interchange of thought, spurious coins in the hands of the many—yet not thrown away, but preserved as curiosities and ornaments and deciphered at last by the antiquarian, after the lapse of many centuries.
                                                            F. Max Müller, “Comparative Mythology”

In his Preface to Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw criticized the English for clinging to absurd spelling that made their language unspeakable.  The allegedly proper phonetic spelling of “fish” as “ghoti” is frequently attributed to him.  He hoped, therefore, for an “energetic phonetic enthusiast” to help supplant the “noble but ill-dressed language,” and to liberate speech from its obsolete linguistic history (Shaw, Works 14 199; 201).  But the reformist spirit of his earlier works, such as The Quintessence of Ibsenism, The Perfect Wagnerite, and Man and Superman, eventually gave way to Shaw’s Creative Evolution, with agency reassigned to a blind Life Force rather than any individual anarchist.  Departing from his publically professed anarchism and atheism (Corbin 409), Shaw asserts, in the Preface to Back to Methuselah, that Creative Evolution is “the genuinely scientific religion for which all wise men are now anxiously looking” (15).

Despite this shift in thinking, Shaw remained committed to language reform, as we see specifically in Part 4 of Methuselah, entitled “Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman.”  Shaw acknowledges there the impact of inexorable evolutionary forces we find also in the work of Charles Darwin, his ideological opponent in the Vitalist/Mechanist debate, and in the linguistic research of F. Max Müller.  Shaw redefines these forces, however, vitalistically and following Henri Bergson, to usher in a spiritual, not merely a material, evolution which, contrary to Darwinian determinism, also provides for freedom.  When interpreted in light of his philosophical Vitalism—influenced by Bergson as well as the Neo-Lamarckian Samuel Butler—language instantiates the broader evolutionary impulsion, with concrete terms proving more adept than abstract thought, because they are commonsensical, clear, and thus more intimately linked with the reality to which they refer.  Because language not only describes but also creates reality, on this argument, outdated vestigial abstractions end up preserving outdated, vestigial institutions thereby unnecessarily thwarting social evolution. 

The “Tragedy” is set in the year 3000.  Baghdad is the capital of the British Commonwealth.  The Elderly Gentleman comes to the shore of Galway Bay in Ireland “on a pious pilgrimage” to visit the land of his ancestors, becoming the only member of the Travellers’ Club to set foot there; he realizes, however, that to the long-livers who inhabit Galway, he is as much of a fossil as is his language: a repository of obsolete social, linguistic, and cultural knowledge (Shaw, Methuselah 195).  Shaw envisions “a country where nobody understands civilized institutions,” and the dismantling of these so-called pillars of civilization (polite forms of address and general propriety; private property; expectations for women to enter into marriage and motherhood; blushing upon embarrassment when mores of this sort are breached) forces the titular character, who is an epitome of nineteenth-century gentlemanly species, to “die of discouragement” (195, 249).

Shaw makes it clear in Pygmalion that people are, at least nominally, defined by their language, as is the Cockney-speaking Eliza Doolittle.  This is manifested in his preferred genre, the philosophical play, in which ideas, rather than plot, do the talking.  But the Elderly Gentleman is less akin to Eliza, who ultimately sees through and rejects Henry Higgins’ pretentions, than to Higgins himself: unable to make his “dead thought” comprehensible to the long-livers and equally uninterested in making their thought comprehensible to him, he prefers to die along with his language rather than evolve without it.

Shaw brings language into focus by juxtaposing the Elderly Gentleman, who represents the minority of short-livers, with Zoo, a young female long-liver and an embodiment of Vitalist energy, as her name—the Greek for “life”—suggests.   Even its brevity, in contrast to the Gentleman’s sesquipedalian “Joseph Popham Bolge Bluebin Barlow, O. M.,” marks Zoo’s evolved state, whereas his name, composed of those of all the liberal thinkers from the play-cycle’s preceding parts, is precisely the kind of historical vestige Shaw was so eager to see extinct.  Curious about her interlocutor’s constant use of “poetic expressions,” Zoo attempts to understand these phrases thereby exposing his underlying “dead thought.”  The latter thinks he is speaking “plain English,” but no one seems to understand him; while the language may be alive, the institutions to which it refers have long been superseded: “thoughts die sooner than languages,” he is told, and to understand such “dead thought,” a “special study must be undertaken” (Methuselah 200).

Shaw’s views on language in Methuselah are informed by his understanding of contemporary evolutionary science, but they also reflect his commitment to Vitalism and opposition to the prevalent ideas of what Thomas Carlyle famously called “the Mechanical Age” (Carlyle 100). 

The presence of the “rudiments” of older forms of pronunciation in the spelling of words confirmed for Darwin the evolutionary development of language (Darwin 58).  As Gillian Beer has shown, because the study of language had been more developed by the time he began to explore geological questions, Darwin borrowed metaphors from the linguists and described “the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect” (Origin,qtd. in Beer 164).  Nor did Darwin, in The Descent of Man, deny the possibility that single words and even entire languages, as organic entities susceptible to evolutionary forces—that is to say, not deliberately invented or “specially created,” but evolving from lower forms through the perfection of human vocal chords—could, like the mighty mammoths that terrified our distant ancestors, become extinct.  And once extinct, “[a] language, like a species,…never…reappears” (Darwin 58). 

The ideas that “[a] struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language” and that “[t]he better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand” (over longer complicated ones) belong to Müller, whom Darwin quotes (Darwin 58).  The German-born Müller became a British citizen, traveled with the East India Company, and studied Sanskrit in hopes of familiarizing the English with their colonial subjects with a shared Aryan origin.  According to his theory, the proto-Indo-European Aryas lacked the necessary abstractions to express their emotions and spoke in metaphors, such as “the burning one sits down on his golden throne” instead of the prosaic “the sun sets.”  With time, however, the meaning of these expressions was lost, so later generations had to invent stories to explain them; in fact, so many of those metaphoric relics dealt with the sun that it came to dominate primeval poetry and religion (Csapo 19-24).  That Müller’s name should be absent from Shaw’s Preface to Methuselah only confirms the scholar’s relevance: his ideas were so popular they needed no attribution.  “The Victorians gobbled up [his] solar myths with insatiable appetites”; in 1909 Otto Rank complained that scholarship on myth still bore the imprint of “the young sun rising from the waters” (Csapo 27). 

Müller’s notion of the “disease of language” means, essentially, that metaphors carry ideas which are no longer tenable or even intelligible, and that the meanings of Aryan expressions the thought of which has “died” are lost, while the expressions themselves remain in circulation, “preserved as curiosities and ornaments and deciphered at last by the antiquarian, after the lapse of many centuries” (Müller 80; Csapo 23).  In the same way, the Elderly Gentleman’s “dead thought” requires a “special study.” 

As an artist and self-proclaimed Vitalist, Shaw would have disagreed with Müller’s materialist approach to myth, which shows condescension to the myth-making imagination (seeing it as limited by its linguistic shortage) and thus incompatible with Shaw’s project of rewriting the Pentateuch as well as “revitalizing” biblical mythology;1 still, so compelling was the force of his ideas that Shaw adapted Müller’s evolution of mythology to his own understanding of social evolution: like the Aryas’ metaphors, the Gentleman’s language, with his liberal aspirations and ideals, remains a meaningless vestige in the absence of the institutions to which it refers.  The source of his frustration lies not in that he speaks a different language, but that he speaks the same words as the long-livers and is yet utterly misunderstood, because his idioms have been replaced with “[t]he better, the shorter, the easier forms,” to quote Müller.  Through this linguistic and cultural confusion, Shaw suggests that language, with its evolving historicity, is analogous to the Earth’s geological record; in other words, just as erosion, the evolution of thought is gradually undermining linguistic strata, leaving our present institutions, with their biases and ramifications, a mere curiosity for the mental archaeologist.

Seeing language as part of the broader evolutionary impetus, Shaw makes its development the basis of a satirical mechanism to attack outdated social conventions, bringing the evolutionary and the Socialist aims together; but the latter are no longer rooted in economics (alone): they are couched in terms of natural evolution, with the Life Force rather than individual socialists ushering in meaningful change.  The objects of his satire are marked by words that have no meaning for the long-livers, although the Elderly Gentleman is convinced that he is “speaking the plainest English.”  The Woman whom he encounters does not know what “pauper” means, since the long-livers differentiate on the basis of lifespan, not that of economics, with the two options being “the shortlived and the normal.”  Moreover, she is baffled by terms, such as “trespassing,” “private property,” “claim,” “satisfaction of damage,” and “landlord,” the latter of which is known to her only as the name of “an animal [that] used to be hunted and shot in the barbarous ages [but] is quite extinct now” (Methuselah 193-5).  What the Woman considers an extinct biological entity is, for the titular character, a prerequisite of civilization.  “It is a dreadful thing to be in a country where nobody understands civilized institutions,” he laments, inviting us to speculate whether “civilized” and “institutions,” given their meaning for his generation, might not deserve to be declared “dead” after all.  It comes as no surprise that “gross impertinence,” “insult,” and “sneer” also mean nothing to the long-liver—the Gentleman’s conviction that the Woman is exercising the meaning of these very terms upon his person notwithstanding (191-6).

Such rethinking of the role and evolution of language follows from Shaw’s Vitalism and, while influenced by contemporary evolutionary theories, departs from them in significant and illuminating ways.  Vitalism was an “eighteenth-century neologism created to distinguish its goals from that of mechanism”—namely, the view that all natural phenomena, including life, can be explained by observable physical causes (Reill 11).  Due to its emphasis on material causation, Mechanism is connected to empiricism, which privileges experience and regular observation, and Positivism, particularly the application of the scientific method beyond the natural world.  Unlike their opponents, Vitalist scientists insisted that there was more to life than physico-chemical processes; life demanded a special cause: Bergson’s élan vital or the Shavian Life Force.  In the nineteenth century, Vitalism became the only source of hope for thinkers like Shaw, who were committed to deeper questions of being and found it morally objectionable to turn to mechanistic science for answers, because it framed our connection to the world as that of a subject observing dead nature, and reducing agency to reflex action, denied purpose and freedom.  Most, however, were equally dissatisfied with the institutionalized religion of the Blakean Nobodaddy, the dogmatic strictures of which were just as deterministic and too limiting for the evolving human spirit.

In his search for explanations that “involve consciousness, will, design, [and] purpose,” Shaw turned to the zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who “really held as his fundamental proposition that living organisms change because they want to” (Methuselah 31, 16).  He also turned to Bergson, whose 1907 L’Evolution créatrice provided both the name and the substance of Shaw’s metabiological religion, because his philosophy of life embraced freedom and purpose, combining Leibnizian finalism with a Romantic view of “becoming,” along with a notion of Lamarckian “effort.”  Insofar as an act is a realized intention, there is Mechanism; however, what is produced through this evolutionary process is “a present and new reality,” which is inaccessible to reason bound to the relative and so incapable of intuiting the absolute (Bergson, Creative 54).  Seeing life as “the continuation of one and the same impetus, divided into divergent lines of evolution,” Bergson was able to explain the presence of identical organs, a similarity for which mechanistic evolution, based on accidents and divergences, could not account.  Bergson saw the world as “a harmonious whole,” with “harmony” in principle, not in fact, so as to leave space for adaptation (Creative 57-61).  Evolution was not, for him, a “series of adaptations,” which would “explai[n] the sinuosities of the movement of evolution, but not its general direction”; nor was it the “the realization of a plan,” because the evolutionary force was “unceasingly renewed”: “it creates as it goes on” (113-4).  It was something in-between that had direction but, while possibly impeded and diverted by inflexible matter, was not predetermined.

Similarly, in his Essay on Laughter, Bergson describes language in evolutionary terms, as “a human product, modelled as exactly as possible on the forms of the human mind.”  It may be seen as “an absolutely unified organism incapable of being split up into independent organisms,” yet it is not “perfect” or “complete”: like any living pool, language can have “some dead leaves floating on its surface,” and like any “human soul,” it can “settle [upon] habits that make it rigid against itself by making it rigid against others” (Bergson, Laughter 128-9).  The Elderly Gentleman’s “dead thought” is an example of such “rigid[ity],” which makes his specific idioms vestigial “dead leaves.”

In the same vein, Butler provided for Shaw a notion of the literal which was not killed by either materialism or metaphysical dogmatism, and was well-suited to individual growth.  Butler was, to Shaw, “a man of genius” and a “prophet” (Methuselah 36).  Despite his critique of religion (in The Way of All Flesh, e.g.), Butler sided with Bishop Wilberforce against the Darwinians in the 1860 Oxford evolution debate following the publication of The Origin of Species.2  Although Darwin was a family friend, Butler disagreed with him radically when it came to evolution: the latter, Butler insisted, did not proceed by “senseless accident,” but was purposeful and amenable to Neo-Lamarckian “effort”; thus, meaningful change was not only possible but could be attuned to one’s natural capabilities.  Butler adopted William Paley’s finalism, but stopped short of projecting the existence of a Supreme Designer, thereby restoring purpose without giving up the possibility of individually motivated variations.  Although Darwin opposed any notion of “design,” the term he was most famously associated with—Natural Selection—was clearly misleading, and critics like Butler saw the irony of denying nature any agency to “select” its fittest organic specimens (Culler 245).3 

Butler was generally skeptical of contemporary scientists, and challenged their language by taking it au pied de la lettre.  “When people talk of atoms obeying fixed laws,” he writes in the Note-Books, “they are either ascribing some kind of intelligence and free will to atoms or they are talking nonsense.  There is no obedience unless there is at any rate potentiality of disobeying.”  If they talk about these presumably inanimate things as though they were alive, namely, by locating the activity of those atoms somewhere between “individual caprice” (“free will”) and “stiffneckedness” (“necessity”), then, Butler concludes, “it would be most convenient to endow all atoms with something of a consciousness and volition,” though on a more miniscule scale (Note-Books 72).  The point for Butler was to provide “common-sense” explanations which we could all understand, since, he believed, we were instinctually linked to the universe no matter how alienating it had been made by abstract scientific or academic discourse.

Though Shaw’s Gentleman never figures strictly as a scientist or academic, he speaks the sort of abstracted, metaphorical language that Butler had in mind.  Shaw’s criticism of contemporary civilization represented by the short-lived minority in the “Tragedy” is aimed not just at its reliance on “poetic expression,” which the Gentleman insists is “plain English,” but the deeper rift of which this language is a manifestation: namely, the failure to see things for what they are, even when they are presented in the plainest of terms.  This is, essentially, a defect of vision and interpretation, a tendency to cling to “dead thought” in spite of evolution and to see the world through a fixed set of goggles.  The Elderly Gentleman is confronted with a new generation that declares to him his own intellectual “stiffness”—and we hear in this an echo of Butler’s much criticized “stiffneckedness” and Bergson’s “rigid[ity],” which refer to  philosophical determinism as well as intellectual inflexibility.  Early in the play, the Woman asks the Gentleman whether he has been “sent here to make [his] mind flexible,” and the latter replies, “What an extraordinary question!  Do you find my mind noticeably stiff?” (Methuselah 194)4 

The problem is, however, that plain, commonsensical explanations backfire if our preference for the literal is limited strictly to the physiological and not accompanied by a deeper moral understanding.  For example, when the Gentleman tells a long-liver that “the remedy is in [her] hands,” the Woman’s immediate reaction is to “loo[k] at her hands, and then…inquiringly at him,” and ask “Where?” (Methuselah 192)  When he tries to appease the Oracle, and wants to “throw [him]self upon [her] indulgence,” he is warned by Zoo not to “throw [him]self on anything belonging to her or [he] will go right through her and break [his] neck.”  The Gentleman’s excuse is, appropriately, that he “was speaking figuratively” (243).5 

There are many such instances of wordplay in the “Tragedy,” which are informed by Shaw’s Vitalist appropriation of Butler’s and Bergson’s ideas, and contain an implicit critique of materialism, the philosophical counterpart to mechanism.  “Once our attention is fixed on the material aspect of a metaphor, the idea expressed becomes comic,” Bergson observes describing the “comic effect” on the level of language.  This is a variation on his general law of the comic, which tells us that laughter might come as a result of a diversion “to the physical in a person when it is the moral that is in question”: “Most words might be said to have a physical and a moral meaning, according as they are interpreted literally or figuratively,” with such ambivalence provided by the evolution of meaning from originally “denoting a concrete object of material action” to becoming increasingly more “refined into an abstract relation or a pure idea” (Laughter 113-4). 

By calling language back from its abstracted state through Bergsonian humor, Shaw is also building on Butler’s call for simpler explanations.  Additionally, the resulting confusion between the concrete and the abstract allows both Butler and Shaw to interrogate our reluctance to see inanimate things as purposive, even as we constantly speak about them in these very terms.  And if they can help us see atoms and hands in a purposive light, then the special status of life, the origin of all action and purpose, should follow.  But the line that we are invited to straddle is a thin one, and just as Vitalism itself, it is meant to balance the dead(ly) metaphorical expressions with those which are literal and equally dead(ly).

The tragedy of the Elderly Gentleman originates, then, in the fact that his ossified metaphorical language must yield to one that is only nominally superior, but which falls at the other extreme end of the spectrum.  A language that would combine simpler forms with clarity of vision but without a purely mechanistic meaning is, as the potential race of Shavian “Supermen,” yet to be conceived.  Accordingly, the message of Methuselah, as rooted as the play-cycle may be in contemporary ideas, remains largely utopian and points back if not to Plato, then at least to Hegel’s reimagining of the platonic ascent. 

As much as he flirts with contemporary ideas, Shaw ultimately echoes and reconfirms what Hegel mapped out in The Phenomenology of Mind, albeit also anticipating the logical structure of the evolutionary movement described by later nineteenth-century thinkers.  Tracing the progress of the historical stages of the spirit on the way to self-comprehension, Hegel claimed in the Preface to the work that older stages remained in recollection to provide general intelligibility (Verstand), with such intelligibility as well as that which was intelligible (Verständige) being accessible to both scientific and unscientific minds.6  To put this differently, the older inert forms remained not because they were more valid, but because the development of science produced this side-effect, as it was not yet complete—with the mind not yet evolved from primitive “sense-consciousness” or “know[ing] itself to be mind” (Hegel 77, 86-91). 

Although Shaw’s imaginative vision of creation in Methuselah may not fully support Hegel’s rationalist celebration of science as “the crowning glory of a spiritual world” (Hegel 76), he does envision this as a progression towards what the philosopher described as “[t]rue knowledge,” the ultimate state in which there would no longer be any opposition between being and knowing, substance and subject (Hegel 97).  This movement originates, in the opening to Methuselah, in Lilith, the first mother as well as the first poem (in the etymological sense of “creation”), and culminates in her reappearance in the concluding scene to suggest, as Peter Gahan correctly observes, the possibility that Shaw’s own mythic thinking, like Lilith, may one day become “only a legend and a lay that has lost its meaning” (Methuselah 305), clearing the way for “a new level of reality…in which our language, our mental fabric, will have been transcended” (Gahan  233).7  

Only Life—which Shaw conceives vitalistically as a perpetual flux—is flexible enough to transcend all limitations: “growing-from within, by its own inexplicable energy, into ever higher and higher forms of organization, the strengths and the needs of which are continually superseding the institutions which were made to fit our former requirements.”  In hisearlier book on Wagner,Shaw advised the governing classes not to panic each time another “ideal” was shattered, “since the apparent growth of anarchy is only the measure of the rate of improvement” provided “the energy of life is still carrying human nature to higher and higher levels.”  For the Vitalist, only life is boundless, Shaw adds, reminding us that even Siegfried’s “Anarchism” or “neo-Protestantism” is transitory and “just as hopeless as any other panacea,” and it, too, will be superseded by some higher form as “an inevitable condition of progressive evolution” (Perfect 249-50). 

Contrary to critics who see the “Tragedy” as an expression of Shaw’s post-war pessimism,8 however, I see it rather optimistically: while we may be speaking in Bergsonian “dead leaves” informed by Shavian “dead thought,” we should not necessarily lament our place in the overall plan—particularly since, without a determined trajectory, the blind Life Force can take now this path, now that.  At no point does Shaw attempt to sugarcoat the difficult path to linguistic and social evolution; he acknowledges that some degree of compromise, even sacrifice, is inevitable.  Long-livers are not particularly admirable, but like the Elderly Gentleman, Shaw, and us, they, too, are but a link in the evolutionary chain and will be replaced by a superior form as the Life Force spirals up to Godhead.  Yet, this change is ultimately beyond our control, and all we can do is wait for our thought to die.


Works Cited
Beer, Gillian. “Darwin and the Growth of Language Theory.” Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature 1700-1900. Ed. John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989. 152-170. Print.
Bentley, Eric R.  “The Theory and Practice of Shavian Drama.” Critical Essays on George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Elsie B. Adams. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991. Print.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: The Modern Library, 1944. Print.
-----. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. London: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1913. Print.
Carlyle, Thomas. “Signs of the Times.” Edinburgh Review, rpt. in Vol. 3 of The Collected Works of Thomas Carlyle. 16 vols. London Chapman and Hall, 1858. The Victorian Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2011.
Corbin, John. “Play-Going in London.” Scribner’s Magazine 35, edited by Edward Livermore Burlingame. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904: 395-410. Google Books. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.
Csapo, Eric.  Theories of Mythology.  Malden, MA/Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2005. Print.
Culler, Dwight. “The Darwinian Revolution and Literary Form.” The Art of Victorian Prose. Eds. George Levine and William Madden. London: Oxford UP, 1968. 224-246. Print.
Darwin, Charles.  The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.  Print.
Gahan, Peter. “Back to Methuselah: An Exercise of Imagination.” SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 17. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2003. Print.
Hegel, G. W. F. Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind.  Trans. J. B. Baillie.  New York: Humanities Press, 1971. Print.
Leary, Daniel J., and Richard Foster. “Adam and Eve: Evolving Archetypes in Back to Methuselah.Critical Essays on George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Elsie B. Adams. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991. Print.
Martin, Wallace. “Formalist and Semiotic Theories of Narrative Kinds.” Recent Theories of Narrative.  Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.
Müller, F. M. “Classical Mythology.” Chips from a German Workshop II. New York, 1867: 1-141.
Reill, Peter Hanns. Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment. Berkeley/London: U of California P, 2005. Print.
Reynolds, Jean. Pygmalion’s Wordplay: The Postmodern Shaw. Gainesville: Florida UP, 1999. Print.
Shaw, Bernard.  Back to Methuselah. Penguin Books Ltd.: New Impression Edition, 1971. Print.
-----.  “Preface.” Pygmalion. The Works of Bernard Shaw 14. London: Constable & Co Ltd., 1930. Print.
-----. “The Revolutionist’s Handbook.” Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy.
Penguin Books, 1959. Print.
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1 It is these stories that Müller associates with the first myths, products of “uncomprehending rationalizing mind[s] responding to words whose meanings have been lost in a degenerative process which [he] referred to as the ‘disease of language’”; for all of his fascination with the Aryas, Müller saw their myths as products of childlike minds (Csapo 26).

2 The conflict between the “machinists” and the “anti-machinists” in the so-called “Book of the Machines” in Butler’s first novel Erewhon is clearly meant to evoke the Vitalist/Mechanist debate; these chapters were, in fact, seen by reviewers as satire on The Origin, though Butler himself protested the charges in a letter to Darwin.  That the latter was unaware of the implications is doubtful, however; he wrote in his Memoirs, some thirty years after Erewhon’s publication, that “Charles Darwin smelt danger from afar…He knew very well that the machine chapters in Erewhon would not end there” (Butler, Erewhon 186-7; n1).

3 Butler “declared with penetrating accuracy that Darwin had ‘banished mind from the universe’.”  Building on this insight, Shaw defines Natural Selection as a creed of those “for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter,” which operates “by blindly starving and murdering everything that is not lucky enough to survive in the universal struggle for hogwash” (Methuselah 36, 32).

4 Shaw uses “stiffness” to signify both metaphysical and physical death.  The word appears twice more in the cycle: in Adam and Eve’s original encounter with death even before they have a word to describe it (“It is stiff and cold,” Eve observes looking at the dead fawn); and at the very end, as the Elderly Gentleman “stiffens” right before “he falls dead” (Methuselah 63, 249). 

5 We may also think of the Elderly Gentleman’s “dead thought” in terms of Viktor Shklovsky’s “de-familiarization.”  Writing at the same time as Shaw (1914-25), Shklovsky argued that when audiences became “familiar with estranged forms [which] los[t] their shock value” and began to sound formulaic, artists had to “deform them, so as to make us see anew” (Martin 47-8). 

6 Similarly, in Hegel’s three phases of the dialectic, as presented in Logic, §79-82,the difference between the category and its other is preserved when the opposition of categories is overcome by reason and unified in a higher synthesis (Hegel 113-21).

7 Peter Gahan sees the overall movement of the play-cycle from metaphorical imaging to literalism as one of “platonic ascent” at the apex of which the creative imagination’s power to create images becomes “redundant” and is replaced with “‘a direct sense of life’.” “Shaw,” Gahan adds, “and Back to Methuselah is eloquent testimony to this, is a fully paid-up subscriber to the philosophy of the logos,” with thought preceding writing and ultimately transcending it—as “thought without language”; and although Gahan claims that Shaw foresaw some of the deconstructionists’ objections to logocentrism, “[b]y taking…image out of the concept of imagination, by stripping metaphor from language, Shaw is left with Platonic thought contemplating reality” (230-1).

8 According to Eric Bentley, Back To Methuselah must be read in the context of post-WWI pessimism, as one of the later “fantasias or extravaganzas in which the disappointment of many liberal hopes is announced and the apartness of Shaw from the new generation is implied” (50).  Echoing Bentley, Edmund Wilson also sensed in the “Tragedy” Shaw’s personal despair, with “[t]he fate of the Elderly Gentleman...evidently intended by Shaw to have some sort of application to himself”; Wilson connected this despair to the failure of Socialism, which “was plausible enough to pass before the war” but “[had] taken a terrible blow” (28-9).  Daniel J. Leary and Richard Foster similarly underscore Shaw’s identification with the Gentleman, who was tragically forced to admit that “mankind’s development” demanded “that his own class with its charm, its eloquence, its art, its Bernard Shaws, must be make room for a classless society even more fully dedicated to the idea of mankind’s development” (114-5).