Religion and the Rebel, Part 18

Religion and the Rebel, Part 18


In one of his finest plays, Bernard Shaw unabashedly presents his Outsider philosophy in Man and Superman. Shaw initially planned to write a play about the legend of Don Juan, except that he switches things around and makes the woman, Ann Whitefield, the seducer. Wilson makes an interesting point about this:

. . . the truth is that the higher form of life will always be chased by the lower. The woman with elements of greatness will always be chased by men; the man with elements of greatness will always be chased by women. And the man or woman who becomes great in a public as well as a private sense will always be chased by people of both sexes who hope that by contact with him they can escape from their own insufficiency.1

I am glad to see that Wilson finally mentions the greatness of women. Throughout The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel, this is the first instance I can remember seeing him do so. I realize that in 1957, and still now to a certain extent, one used the word, “man,” many times to refer to human beings in general. It was a different climate, I am aware. Throughout these essays, I have assumed Wilson was not omitting women from the category of Outsiders, and it seems I was correct. This statement verifies it for me. There are just as many Outsider geniuses who happen to be women as there are men. Wilson does not claim that the “higher form of life” is men or women, but Outsiders, in general, which I agree with. A higher form of life has nothing to do with genetics. It has everything to with the will to power, the strength of courage, moral heroism, the quest for greater consciousness and self-realization.

Man and Superman tells the story of a “socialist intellectual”2 named John Tanner, who is manipulated into becoming guardian for Ann, the daughter of a deceased friend. The truth is that Ann is in love with Tanner. In the play, he is known as “Jack,” amongst his friends and acquaintances. Tanner is the type of Outsider and artist-philosopher who believes that his art takes precedence over all else. In an exchange with his friend, Octavius, concerning being in a relationship with a woman, he states this plainly:

The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art. To women he is half vivisector, half vampire. He gets into intimate relations with them to study them, to strip the mask of convention from them, to surprise their inmost secrets, knowing that they have the power to rouse his deepest creative energies, to rescue him from his cold reason, to make him see visions and dream dreams, to inspire him, as he calls it. He persuades women that they may do this for their own purpose whilst he really means them to do it for his. He steals the mother’s milk and blackens it to make printer’s ink to scoff at her and glorify ideal women with. He pretends to spare her the pangs of childbearing so that he may have for himself the tenderness and fostering that belong of right to her children. Since marriage began, the great artist has been known as a bad husband. But he is worse: he is a child-robber, a bloodsucker, a hypocrite and a cheat. Perish the race and wither a thousand women if only the sacrifice of them enable him to act Hamlet better, to paint a finer picture, to write a deeper poem, a greater play, a profounder philosophy! For mark you, Tavy, the artist’s work is to show us ourselves as we really are. Our minds are nothing but this knowledge of ourselves; and he who adds a jot to such knowledge creates new mind as surely as any woman creates new men. In the rage of that creation he is as ruthless as the woman, as dangerous to her as she to him, and as horribly fascinating. Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? that is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love one another.3

This is a good portrait of Jack Tanner, the Outsider, who wants nothing to do with Ann Whitefield because he thinks she will cause him to compromise his art. This also speaks to Shaw’s personality, according to Wilson, who says that Shaw is “uninterested in human weaknesses for the same reason that all Outsiders are: through a passionate desire to create, to strive for greatness. It is a heartlessness of which the Outsider can passionately approve.”4

I understand the Outsider requires solitude in which to create effectively, but I have a difficult time believing every relationship brings about the kind as described by Shaw (via Tanner) in the above statement. I am certain that every man or woman does not have this motive toward their partner, as Tanner describes. This kind of heartlessness seems contradictory in the light that the Outsider has a spiritual motivation in all that he does.

When Tanner finally discovers that Ann is in love with him, he escapes to Spain to get away from the situation. He is promptly captured and held for ransom by a brigand named Mendoza, chief of the brigands. That night, as Tanner sleeps, he dreams he is none other than his ancestor, Don Juan, and that he is in hell. But, as Wilson writes,

. . . hell is not a place of fire and torment: it is an Outsider’s hell of triviality and endless pettiness. Hell is the home of Insiders. Shaw does not divide the race into the good and the wicked: he divides it into Outsiders and Insiders, and the Outsiders go to heaven, the Insiders to hell. Hell is a place of eternal pleasure, eternal frivolity, eternal silliness – everything to revolt an Outsider with a lust for seriousness of purpose. Don Juan has been sent there by mistake.5

In the dream, Dona Ana de Ulloa (resembling Ann Whitefield) comes to converse with him, and is soon joined by the Statue from Mozart (symbolizing Ann’s deceased father), and Mendoza as the Devil. The conversation that ensues, Wilson says, is “the greatest scene in Shaw, and one of the pinnacles of English literature.” As this is a very involved conversation, I will deal with it in the entirety of Part 19. Until, then…




Shaw, George Bernard. Man and Superman. Project Gutenberg: March 21, 2006 [EBook #3328].

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

  1. Religion and the Rebel, 261
  2. ibid.
  3. Man and Superman, Act I
  4. Religion and the Rebel, 263
  5. Religion and the Rebel, 262

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