Religion and the Rebel, Part 16

Religion and the Rebel, Part 16

George Bernard Shaw (1942), by Laura Knight

Wilson’s comments, so far, have been merely a prelude to discussing Bernard Shaw. He wants us to understand what he means by an “existentialist,” who is “the artist-philosopher,” the one who has the ability to “use his will power in analysis, and yet at a moment’s notice to become completely negative, transparent, and receptive.”1 The literary climate of the existentialist is the “Bildungsroman,” the so-called coming-of-age novel or play, where the protagonist’s psychological and moral development is the focus. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and Hesse’s Demian are all good examples of this style. Wilson tells us, “In the twentieth century the only serious form of literary art is the Bildungsroman.2

It is Wilson’s claim that “half of Shaw’s greatness is symbolised by his love of Mozart.” Shaw picked up on the gaiety found in such works as The Magic Flute, where “it is life that is glorified, life as such, without distinction between its surface and its depth.” Mozart’s work is absent of “self conscious explorations of the tortured mind, and for all his vision, it never overwhelms the listener with a sudden and startling revelation.” The Magic Flute was the last opera written by Mozart just before his death, after having suffered for years with financial problems and bouts of depression. Wilson says that, in it, Mozart “makes life seem transient and permanent; it would seem almost as if he were saying: Life needs no deeper meanings to make it beautiful and eternal; for all its torture and uncertainty, it is divine.”3

The vision of life portrayed in The Magic Flute, Wilson says, “is the poet’s true vision…it glorifies life without any attempt to find ‘reasons.'” This is the vision found in Bernard Shaw, Wilson tells us. He includes H.G. Wells in this estimation, as well, and he states that these two authors are the “greatest writers of the early part of our century” (the twentieth century, of course). He says it is the “sheer vital energy, the love of life in all its manifestations, which makes Shaw and Wells so attractive.”4 This is not what you would expect from the ideal existentialist, at least in my former understanding of the term. I have always thought the opening lines from Notes from Underground were the prototypical existentialist’s plight, but apparently those pertain to the Outsider at the beginning of his discovery that he is an Outsider. The truly mature Outsider is better characterized by Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Alyosha Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, who espouses the sheer enjoyment of life. I like the idea that the true existentialist arrives at a vision of life as being beautiful and divine, even though one may be in the midst of terrible suffering. It is the attitude of Jesus, or the Buddha.

According to Wilson, Shaw did not reveal much about his childhood, but we do know a few things about him as a young man. For example, we know he loved the opera, Don Giovanni, and he took this as a model of “what adulthood ought to be.”5 Don Giovanni is based on the legendary seducer and profligate, Don Juan, who serves as a common metaphor in our day for “womanizer.” Shaw, as a boy, was “romantic and imaginative,” so this made a great impression on him.

The Don is represented as having all the romantic virtues except fidelity: courage, wit, courtliness, and an irresistible attraction to women. The philosophy of Don Giovanni is the philosophy of Kierkegaard’s seducer; but it also has elements of the philosophy of Plato and the Upanishads: that the fullest enjoyment of life demands complete non-attachment.6

When still living in Dublin as a young man, Shaw was known to frequent art galleries, theaters, and the opera. He loved Don Giovanni, of course, and Faust. Wilson says he “detested Dublin as much as the young James Joyce was to detest it thirty years later.”7 Shaw left his native Dublin at age twenty and moved to London where he lived a solitude existence, and became an Outsider. Wilson quotes Shaw as saying:

When I had to come out of the realm of imagination into that of actuality I was still uncomfortable. I was outside society, outside politics, outside sport, outside the Church. If the term had been invented then I should have been called the Complete Outsider.8

So, you now know where Colin Wilson derived the name for his first book. He said it “crept into my vocabulary at about the age of sixteen.” 9

The type of revulsion the Outsider feels toward the shortsighted and witless buffoons with whom he must dwell, those of his city or town, who have not taken the journey to the land of imagination where life is abundant and joyful, creates “a distaste for the dilute, gritty soup which gets fed to us under the name of ‘living’ in the modern world.”10 This is yet another reason for the Outsider’s solitude. One has difficulty finding someone with whom to interact, someone with which to discuss ideas about literature, philosophy, and art. Once one has tasted “a higher intensity of living, he now longs for the heroic and detests the trivial.”11 This has always been the Outsider’s plight.

It is a longing for the heroic, for a greater seriousness of life than ordinary human beings know about. And when a man has this appetite for seriousness, and cannot see it reflected in any of the human beings he knows, he must either submit to their standards and forget his dreams, or deliberately cut himself off from them – make himself an Outsider – until he has found a way of thinking and living that gives him scope for his deeper seriousness. . . .It is this longing for the heroic that makes the Outsider; and his greatest enemy is ‘nausea’: discouragement, boredom, and the pettiness of so much modern life.12

Yes, Virginia, there are ordinary human beings. Not all humans are the same. They may have the same potential within them, but most never develop it and choose the mundane life, the life of the witless buffoon. This is why Shaw left Dublin (not to disparage Dublin. I’m sure it is a very interesting city).

I continue in the next article. Take heart, Reader. We are almost to the end.



Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.

  1. Religion and the Rebel, 244
  2. Religion and the Rebel, 246
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. Religion and the Rebel, 247
  6. ibid.
  7. Religion and the Rebel, 248
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. Religion and the Rebel, 249
  11. ibid.
  12. Religion and the Rebel, 250

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