BERNARD SHAW by Sally Peters


The Ascent of the Superman
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 A tendentious, trendy reading of Shaw, with an entirely speculative theory of secret homosexuality. Examining Shaw's literary ambitions, his passionate yet finally celibate romanticism, and his ostentatiously ascetic lifestyle, Peters (a visiting scholar at Wesleyan Univ.) ostensibly disavows Freudianism but nonetheless takes up its assumptions of suppressed meanings and motives--which only a critic can decipher. Suspicious of the mercurial Shaw, Peters is rightly skeptical about his evasions concerning his shabby-genteel childhood and drunken father, and his protestations of his mother's virtue despite her affair with a Dublin musical impresario. Peters finds in Shaw an ambitious personality given early on to self-deception and dissimulation: a pathologically deluding figure as an embryonic artistic genius in need of a corroborative ideology. The author scrutinizes Shaw's interest in evolution and eugenics in his formulation of his theory of the Life Force and the Superman. She claims the influence on him of sexologists of the period--such as Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis--trying to trap Shaw in the paradox that he could not be either artist or degenerate without being both; thus he had to write in code and to adopt eccentrically austere habits, such as vegetarianism and celibacy, to keep himself in check. Although Peters selectively cites Shaw's diaries and correspondence as reflections of his interior struggle, she renders her argument in either windy rhetoric--Shaw's ``ethereal'' vs. his ``fiery'' natures, his masculine/dynamic vs. his feminine/passive aspects--or gender-criticism jargon, e.g., her critique of his epistolary love affair with Ellen Terry. Riding the current academic hobbyhorses, including gender reversal and ``the gaze,'' Peters offers a rhetorically overloaded version of Shaw's life and work. (29 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-300-06097-1
Page count: 335pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1996