There is one more play that needs to be dealt with, in light of the Outsider philosophy: Back to Methuselah. For a general summary of the play, see Wilson’s commentary on pages 279-283 of Religion and the Rebel, or read the Wikipedia article here. Wilson does not view every act of the play as valuable. He sees the last act, As Far as Thought Can Reach, as one of Shaw’s masterpieces. We will concentrate on it.
This part of Shaw’s play takes place thirty thousand years in the future, where, Wilson says, “the world has regained the simplicity of Ancient Greek civilisation.”1 A glade sits beneath a wooded hill, wherein there are several young people dancing to flute music. On the west side of the glade, there is a small temple. There is a marble altar in the center of the glade. A birthing ceremony is about to take place, where a girl will be born from an egg. This event will be followed by a Festival of the Artists. A She-Ancient carefully supervises the opening of the egg and Amaryllis emerges, apparently appearing about seventeen to twenty years old.
Prior to this, while the youths are dancing, an old man, hundreds of centuries old, walks by them. They begin to taunt him because he spends all his time in contemplation and doesn’t enjoy dancing or merrymaking. In this era, the people are as children until around age four. Even though, they look around seventeen years old when they are born from the egg, they are considered newborn. At age four, they begin to desire a life of meditation and intense thought, and are considered old. After being accused of being miserable because of his lifestyle, The Ancient says, “one moment of the ecstasy of life as we live it would strike you dead.”2
The viewpoint of the youths in this play is very much like that of the inhabitants of hell in Man and Superman. They live for endless pleasure and frivolity, while the acts of contemplation and meditation are frowned upon as leading to boredom and misery. The old man is referring to meditation and contemplation as “the ecstasy of life as we live it,” meaning the Ancients. Just as Don Juan desired heaven over hell because one could spend an eternity in contemplation, the Ancients in this play consider their lives much superior to a life of frivolous and meaningless pursuits.
Then, the Festival of the Artists begins. All the youths are upset because the sculptor, Arjillax, has created busts of the Ancients instead of beautiful nymphs and youths. Of course, the Insider desires aesthetic pleasure at all cost. To the consternation of the youths, Arjillax begins to tell the story of Michaelangelo, or, as he calls him, “the Archangel Michael.” He tells it as a legend in language they can comprehend. The “newly born” are the ones who have just emerged from the egg.
The Archangel Michael was a mighty sculptor and painter. He found in the centre of the world a temple erected to the goddess of the centre, called Mediterranea. This temple was full of silly pictures of pretty children. . . . He began by painting on the ceiling the newly born in all their childish beauty. But when he had done this he was not satisfied; for the temple was no more impressive than it had been before, except that there was a strength and promise of greater things about his newly born ones than any other artist had attained to. So he painted all round these newly born a company of ancients, who were in those days called prophets and sybils, whose majesty was that of the mind alone at its intensest. And this painting was acknowledged through ages and ages to be the summit and masterpiece of art. Of course we cannot believe such a tale literally. It is only a legend. We do not believe in archangels; and the notion that thirty thousand years ago sculpture and painting existed, and had even reached the glorious perfection they have reached with us, is absurd. But what men cannot realize they can at least aspire to. They please themselves by pretending that it was realized in a golden age of the past. This splendid legend endured because it lived as a desire in the hearts of the greatest artists. . . . 3
Through this “legend,” Arjillax describes the process of the maturation of consciousness through the figure of what Michaelangelo accomplished on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Is Shaw trying to paint a picture of mankind, eventually maturing into creatures who truly appreciate the contemplative life? The “newly born” seem to be very similar to Insiders, as described earlier by Shaw. They want to experience nothing but pleasure and beauty. To the Outsider, this is a life of triviality and frivolity.
Martellus, the other sculptor, has already tried sculpting the Ancients, but he eventually smashed them to pieces because he is of the opinion that “a live ancient is better than a dead statue.” He does not believe you can create art that is as real, as good, and as authentic as the actual subject. “Anything alive is better than anything that is only pretending to be alive.”4This appears to be the same sort of trend that led to the denigration of all images during the Protestant Reformation. Iconoclasm has occurred several times throughout history, most notably in the Byzantine era, and during the Reformation. Martellus tells Arjillax, “Your disillusion with your works of beauty is only the beginning of your disillusion with images of all sorts.”5 Those who reject the imagination will always impugn art that attempts to mirror the soul.
Martellus, instead of sculptures, offers to the group an artist he considers greater than himself, Pygmalion. Wilson writes,
Pygmalion, a scientific prodigy, has manufactured a pair of human beings. He explains that life, like electricity, is conducted by certain kinds of matter of fine organisation. The only difficulty about making life in the laboratory is therefore simply that of making highly organised organic matter. Once the matter is made, it lives automatically. Pygmalion’s prodigies get out of hand and accidentally kill their creator; but when the Ancient lays his hand on their heads and tries to raise them to a higher level of life, they die of spiritual exhaustion. Like the human beings of our own age, they lack the will power for self-change.6
The Ancients end up trying to explain the maturation process to the youths, with little success. The Ancients believe “you can create nothing but yourself,” and this what they attempt to do continually. Wilson says, “Their purpose can be expressed in a single sentence: Make perfect your will.”7
George Bernard Shaw. Back to Methuselah. A Metabiological Pentateuch. Brentano’s: New York, 1922.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
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