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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 291-293

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Poststructural Shaw

Peter Gahan. Shaw Shadows: Rereading the Texts of Bernard Shaw. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. xxiv + 316 pp. Index. $59.95.

Readers familiar with "shadow" as a psychological term might assume—wrongly—that this book explores Shaw's psyche in the manner of Carl Jung. Actually Peter Gahan has accomplished something far more complex and interesting: an examination of Shavian language in the context of poststructuralist theory. This intriguing analysis of Shaw's writings focuses on what Gahan calls the "mutable, shifting space called Shaw" seen in "different lights" that cast "different shadows" (p. xiii). Applying insights from Saussure, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida and others to Shaw's plays and essays, Gahan has made an important, even necessary, contribution to continuing Shavian scholarship.

Shaw often had difficulty gaining understanding and acceptance from his contemporaries because, as Gahan demonstrates, the Shavian world-view was so far ahead of its time. As Shaw struggled to enlarge the consciousness of his readers, he found himself pushing language to the limit, using familiar words in unfamiliar ways to express new ideas and a new outlook. Gahan's book demonstrates that poststructuralist theory can cast new light on some of the language issues that both intrigued and bedeviled Shaw. For example, the English language sometimes did not have words for concepts important to Shaw, prompting him to coin words of his own, such as "Listerics," an adjective describing people who overreacted to Lister's [End Page 291] scientific pronouncements, and "bardolatry," which signified excessive reverence for Shakespeare and his works. Shaw's campaign for a reassessment of Shakespeare points to another language problem that Shaw never successfully resolved: how to use his wit and rhetorical skill to catch public attention without damaging his reputation as a serious thinker. Instead of reassessing Shakespeare, many readers decided that Shaw was the one who needed to learn humility and moderation.

Shaw Shadows, applying poststructuralist ideas to Shaw's writings, clearly deserves a wide readership. And therein lies a conundrum. Reading Shaw Shadows requires somewhat more than average patience and persistence, for Gahan has brought together two complex sets of ideas: the depth and breadth of Shavian thought, and the thorny philosophical concepts and arguments of poststructuralism. In poststructural fashion, emphasizing multiple and multilevel approaches to our understanding of literature, this review will offer strategies for "using" Gahan's book to explore Shaw's writings and ideas more deeply.

One useful feature of Gahan's book is its poststructuralist design and methodology. Instead of simply defining such terms as "shadow" and "margin," Gahan has put them to work in his book. Shaw Shadows has ten chapters divided into two parts, with Part I focusing on Shaw's prose, Part II on the plays. However, the book is organized so that chapters in Part I "shadow" those in Part II: Both Chapters 1 and 6 focus on criticism, 2 and 7 examine subjectivity and authorial identity, and so on. As a further aid to readers, Gahan explains this "shadow" structure twice—once at the beginning of Part I and again at the beginning of Part II, giving readers a useful map of the book and its methodology. The result, for me at least, is a deeper understanding of the "shadow" concept that is central to Gahan's book. In Chapter 1, for example, Gahan shows how Shaw the critic used words to create two kinds of shadows: his authorial identity and the larger world he is critiquing. In Chapter 6, the "shadow" for Chapter 1, Gahan explains how Shaw applies the same concepts to his drama. Playing off each other, the two chapters offer remarkable insight into Shaw's methods of thinking and writing.

Another useful feature of Shaw Shadows is its interest in margins and their uses. Jacques Derrida famously explored margins and often-overlooked details in order to "deconstruct" the surface unity of literary and philosophical works, thereby exposing linguistic problems formerly hidden from view. Employing a similar technique in Shaw Shadows, Gahan uncovers new ways of...


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pp. 291-293
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