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  • "Considering the Alternatives . . .":Shaw and the Death of the Intellectual
  • Vanessa L. Ryan (bio)

In his 1894 essay "How to Become a Man of Genius," Shaw proclaims, "The secret at the bottom of the whole business is simply this: there is no such thing as a man of genius. I am a man of genius myself, and ought to know."1 He tells us that after a production in New York of Arms and the Man there appeared in the New York papers

a host of brilliant critical and biographical studies of a remarkable person called Bernard Shaw. I am supposed to be that person; but I am not. There is no such person; there never was any such person; there never will or can be any such person. You may take my word for this, because I invented him, floated him, advertised him, impersonated him, and am now sitting here in my dingy second floor lodging in a decaying London Square, breakfasting off two-penn'orth of porridge and giving this additional touch to his makeup with my typewriter. My exposure of him will not shake the faith of the public in the least.2

In the 1890s, "Bernard Shaw," despite his protestations, was not quite the famous personage that he suggests: though he was known through such writings as The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), it was not until the following decade that Shaw became the dominant radical voice of the age and one of its most public celebrities. As Leon Hugo writes (with some Shavian overstatement himself, to be sure) "effectually a Nobody in 1901, [Shaw] was emphatically a Somebody in 1910."3

"How to Become a Man of Genius" is one of a series of early essays by Shaw deserving of greater critical attention and central to understanding [End Page 175] Shaw's role in his dramatic rise to fame. Ostensibly, the essay is a clever piece of self-praise in the guise of humorous self-deprecation, while (with an egalitarian streak) it is also a mock exhortation to its readers to fashion themselves as geniuses. Yet it also engages with a contemporary dismay over the disappearance of the intellectual, namely, a sense of crisis over intellectual authority and over a notable "absence" of the types of public voices that had marked the era of the Victorian sage. Articles such as "The Dearth of Genius" in the London weekly The Nation (1908) note a dramatic decline in the quality of intellectuals, complaining that the "geniuses" and "prophets" of the Victorian age had left the arena; "such oracles are now dumb, and it is their trumpet notes we miss."4 As early as 1833, critic and editor R. H. Horne, famous for a time for his poem Orion, was concerned with the difficulties faced by what he also called "men of genius." He laments not that there are fewer geniuses but that they are having an increasingly difficult time surviving and coming to the public's attention, with negative effects on the progress and the life of intellectual culture. In Exposition, or the False Medium and Barriers Excluding Men of Genius from the Public (1833), he writes, "The March of Intellect is a glorious advent, upon which the world gazes with admiration: we hope it will at last think of doing something for itself."5 By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such fears regarding a decline of authentic intellectual life in England had become widespread.6 With his use of the phrase "man of genius," Shaw signals his engagement with this tradition of debate. His tongue-in-cheek answer seems to be that anyone can invent himself as a genius and prophet—in other words, that one can do something for oneself (as Horne suggests). In fact, Shaw uses his essay to achieve just that: to invent himself as a man of genius.

We might compare the late-Victorian and turn-of the-century view that the era of the sage had passed with today's sense that the public intellectual has vanished from the scene. Recently, British sociologist Frank Furedi, in Where Have the Intellectuals Gone? (2004), and judge Richard Posner, in Public Intellectuals: A...


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