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  • Aesthetic Irritations
  • Sally Peters (bio)
Charles A. Carpenter. Bernard Shaw as Artist-Fabian, foreword by R. F. Dietrich. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 144 pp. $65.00 cloth.

On 5 September 1884, Bernard Shaw became a member of the Fabian Society, thereby officially launching his career as a devoted Fabian Socialist—a noisy and often-noted bond. Indeed no account of Shaw could be complete without noting his commitment to the basic tenets of the Fabian cause over some seventy years. Shaw, the supreme individualist, might have had compelling psychological and personal reasons to advocate for a utopian society, but whatever his reasons, the particular form his Fabian politics assumed is of interest in itself. It is the special nature of Shaw’s Fabianism that concerns Charles A. Carpenter.

In his “small book,” an expansion of a study conceived as a talk for the 2009 International Shaw Conference in Washington, D.C., Carpenter writes for those familiar with both the Fabian Society and Shaw. His treatment is spare and his prose is to the point. Carpenter proceeds from his belief that Shaw was “above all an artist in temperament, outlook, and vocation,” so that his methods to promote a democratic socialism were highly distinctive and unlike those used by other Fabians. Carpenter first charts the emergence of Shaw’s Fabianism and then examines the special nature of his contribution. [End Page 269]

The Fabians were influenced by the outlook of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, whose motto was “Educate, Agitate, Organize.” However, the Fabians, who subscribed to agitation by intellectual means, chose a more gradual road to reform. Rejecting the violent revolutionary implications of “agitate,” they substituted “permeate,” as they worked toward evolutionary change. Fabians like Sidney and Beatrice Webb worked tirelessly gathering information and presenting their research in careful rational fashion. But from the beginning, Shaw’s exuberant method diverged from such a learned nonconfrontational approach. For Shaw believed that “if you do not say a thing in an irritating way, you may as well not say it at all, since nobody will trouble themselves about anything that does not trouble them.” Carpenter suggests that for Shaw, the artist and anticollectivist socialist, the motto might as well have been “Educate, Permeate, Irritate.” Irritation was “one of his chief rhetorical weapons,” meant to provoke his audience into thinking.

As the Fabians sought to educate and to permeate, there were both open and obvious attempts to explain Fabian doctrine, as well as concealed implicit attempts. Shaw took on the lion’s share of educational efforts, writing or editing many of the Fabian Society’s publications and delivering an astounding number of lectures—more than a thousand. Meanwhile, his plays served the goal of permeation, which Shaw defined as “the policy of propagating Fabian ideas outside the Society wherever there was a human brain for them to lodge in. Our idea has not been to reform the world ourselves, but to persuade the world to take our ideas into account in reforming itself.” Carpenter discusses permeation in several plays—Widowers’ Houses, Mrs Warren’s Profession, John Bull’s Other Island, Major Barbara, and Man and Superman—finding permeative strategies in deliberately unresolved endings.

Carpenter’s view of the artist as Fabian is consistent with his own book of forty years earlier, Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals. In a way the book at hand could be viewed as a “prequel” to the earlier book, since both are concerned with how Shaw’s sensibility as an artist informed his didactic and propagandistic purpose, what he called his “worldbetter-mentcraze.” Indeed Carpenter revisits his arguments concerning some of the early plays. He proceeds from Eric Bentley’s assertions that Shaw was “a special sort of propagandist: an artist in propaganda,” and that Shaw’s function “was to prod, to irritate, to enliven.” It is worth noting that the pioneering scholarship of decades past continues to be relevant, even as it is absorbed into new ways of approaching Shaw.

Carpenter defends Shaw from the charge of being a mere political propagandist, maintaining that he was always driven by an artist’s temperament and approach, one that marshaled his individualistic bent without [End...


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pp. 269-271
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