Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (Preface)

Reading a Preface to a play seems odd. The author not only gives you a stage drama, but also tells you what to think about it. This would be presumptuous for some authors, but not for George Bernard Shaw. He feels it’s his duty to set us all straight on what the story of Saint Joan really means. If it was Joan’s duty to relay God’s message to medieval France, it’s Shaw’s duty to translate Joan’s message for the modern world. Like Joan, Shaw was not a timid person. He did not lack for self-confidence and he’s not afraid to speak what’s on his mind.

Early in the Preface he chides the bourgeois class for being too much “alive and prosperous and respectable and safe and happy in the middle station in life”. By these standards a good many of us are bourgeois. What’s wrong with being alive and prosperous and all that other stuff? Isn’t the whole point of living in a community to be safe and happy? Besides, a stable social order provides both the leisure time and the material means for non-productive activities such as attending plays and reading about Saint Joan. What’s wrong with that? Why is Shaw picking on folks who occupy the middle station in life, and are even thankful for it?

But Shaw doesn’t just pick on the conservative bourgeoisie. He also takes aim at progressive thinkers. Pointing out the difference between the medieval and modern intellectual milieus, Shaw poses this question: “…which is the healthier mind? The saintly mind, or the monkey gland mind?” Good question. Is it healthier to believe we’re just a little lower than angels, or that we’re just a step above apes? Many people prefer being closer to angels than apes. Even if it’s not true, it makes us feel better. Kind of prosperous and respectable and safe. Call it a bourgeois preference. And Shaw thinks it’s just as reasonable to believe in angels as it is to believe in electrons. Take that, you progressive, pro-science, anti-religion pagans.

So, where does that leave us? With both sides perplexed and irritated. Then Shaw starts in with a broadside attack on Shakespeare, of all people. He reveals the Bard’s deficiencies in understanding the medieval mind: “His (Shakespeare’s) kings are not statesmen: his cardinals have no religion…” And Shaw thinks this is the reason Shakespeare tends to be popular with the modern middle class. Shakespeare’s characters seem natural to us because our own middle classes are “comfortable and irresponsible at other people’s expense, and are neither ashamed of that condition nor even conscious of it.” It may be true that bourgeois, middle-class folk prefer comfort and may even be irresponsible sometimes. But does it follow that they do so “at other people’s expense”? How so? I agree with Shaw that many people like comfort and pleasure. So what? In fact, some people like it so much that they’re willing to work hard and pay good money to obtain it. How is that at someone else’s expense? And why does that bother Shaw?

But to quibble over the details of domestic economics is to nip at Shaw’s heels. The man was by most accounts a towering intellect. That doesn’t mean he was right about St. Joan, although in the bigger picture I believe he was essentially correct. As a civilized society we should be more tolerant of others, especially those with eccentric personalities. We should care that our system of justice is fair and impartial to everyone, especially the unpopular. And we shouldn’t assume that modern sensibilities are superior to medieval ones.

Joan was extraordinary. So was Shaw. But most of us don’t want to be either a St. Joan or a George Bernard Shaw. We just want a nice comfortable home and a little extra money and leisure time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Maybe a copy of Shakespeare on the shelf in the den. Not to gain any wisdom from reading his plays of course, but just for the sheer comfort of knowing that there sits a fellow bourgeois homeowner. Probably a beer drinker too, and just as shallow as the rest of us. Such are the pleasures (and the perils) of the middle-class mind.

-- RDP


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