SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 7-16
[Access article in PDF]
Back to Methuselah:
a "Grand Precurser" [sic] to Finnegans Wake
Martha F. Black
Shaw's Back to Methuselah is a "grand precurser"—with an "e", not an "o"—of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The younger Irishman believed, indeed, that before he wrote the Wake, the playwright had cursed him. Despite the many Shaw plays in his library, the impecunious novelist was convinced that G.B.S. had wronged him on several occasions—the chief being Shaw's criticism of Ulysses for its preoccupation with sex and his disapproval of Joyce's avowed belief in art for art's sake. On the basis of his reading of part of Joyce's infamous novel in the Little Review, Shaw acknowledged his fellow Dubliner's literary power but criticized him for his use of "blackguardly language," admitting that he himself was "old fashioned and squeamish" and could not "write the words Mr. Joyce uses" (Ellmann 588). In the Wake, Shem admits to "lowdown blackguardism" (180.32), no doubt because of Shaw's accusation. He avers that his "Grand Precurser . . . coild him a crawler [like the snake in "In the Beginning"] of the dupest dye and thundered at him to flatch down off that erection and be aslimed of himself for the bellance of hissh leif" (506.5-8). In critizing Ulysses, the old dramatist declared his lack of interest in "infantile clinical incontinences, or the flatulation which he [Joyce] thinks worth mentioning." In Methuselah, his Ancients think the body is a "bore."
But as a fellow Dubliner, G.B.S. recognized the veracity of Ulysses as a social "document of remarkable accuracy" (Ellmann 588). Nevertheless, when Joyce organized an international protest against the plagiarizing of his salacious novel in the United States, Shaw did not sign the petition, probably because Joyce had pirated two of his plays—The Dark Lady of the Sonnets and Mrs Warren's Profession—for production in Zurich. Believing that Shaw thought Exiles "obscene," Joyce blamed Shaw for the London Stage Society's failure to produce his play. In fact, Shaw had written that Exiles was "just the thing" for the Stage Society. [End Page 7]
However, in a letter debate with Ezra Pound, prompted by Joyce's attempts to get money from Shaw to support the publication of Ulysses, Shaw dismissed the novelist as a "coterie" artist. Joyce relished the "letter battle" in which Shaw argued that his fellow Dubliner's "serious" Irish talent should belong to "the big world" (Letters 767). In the last play of his Pentateuch, "As Far as Thought Can Reach," Shaw seems to have remembered his objections, for one of the young males in Shaw's brave new world, Acis, criticizes the artists Martellus and Arjillax: "O stop squabbling. That is the worst of you artists. You are always in little squabbling cliques; and the worst cliques are those which consist of one man" (270). An Ancient criticizes a young man named Strephon for his juvenile infatuation with art and sex. The brash Shavian adolescent retorts, "You old fish! I believe you don't know the difference between a man and a woman" (251). When a Maiden chides Strephon for "provoking" the old man, Strephon retorts, "I thought it was understood that we are always to cheek the ancients on principle" (253).
Quick to pick up on such an incentive, Joyce, whose alias was Stephen Dedalus, made minced salmon of Shaw in an "epical forged cheque" (181.16) written to Shaw. Noting the epithet "fish" for the self-proclaimed hero redeemer and comic Christ, Joyce wrote a footnote: "Gee each owe tea eye smells fish. That's U (299 n. 3). Ghoti spells "fish" in Shaw's phonetic alphabet. The note playfully taunts Shaun, the paternal brother whom Shem often debates in the Wake. In the opening pages of Joyce's "Work in Progress," published in TRANSITION in 1927, Joyce called Shem's antagonist "oldparr." "Parr" is a synonym for a young salmon and for Methuselah...