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Back to Methuselah por George Bernard Shaw
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Back to Methuselah (edição 2011)

por George Bernard Shaw (Autor)

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Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch) is a 1921 series of five plays and a preface by George Bernard Shaw. The five plays are: In the Beginning: B.C. 4004 (In the Garden of Eden); The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: Present Day; The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170; Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman: A.D. 3000; As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920 The plays were published with a preface titled The Infidel Half Century, and first performed in 1922 by the New York Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre.… (mais)
Membro:JaGra2004
Título:Back to Methuselah
Autores:George Bernard Shaw (Autor)
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Back to Methuselah por Bernard Shaw

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September 1928 catalogue, 32 pages, at rear of text, first page listing latest volumes , nos. 4813-4846. This issue found its way to the library of the Universidad de Chile, Instituto Pedagogico, in Santiago.
  jon1lambert | Nov 5, 2020 |
Bernard Shaw

Back to Methuselah:
A Metabiological Pentateuch

Penguin, Paperback, n.d.

8vo. 319 pp. Definitive text edited by Dan H. Laurence. Shaw’s Preface, 1921, rev. 1944 [7-62], and Postscript, 1944 [307-19].

First published, 1921.
This text first published by The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with their Prefaces, 1970-74, 7 vols.
Reprinted by Penguin, n.d.

Contents

Preface: The Infidel Half Century
The Dawn of Darwinism
The Advent of the Neo-Darwinians
Political Inadequacy of the Human Animal
Cowardice of the Irreligious
Is there any Hope in Education?
Homeopathic Education
The Diabolical Efficiency of Technical Education
Flimsiness of Civilization
Creative Evolution
Voluntary Longevity
The Early Evolutionists
The Advent of the Neo-Lamarckians
How Acquirements are Inherited
The Miracle of Condensed Recapitulation
Heredity an Old Story
Discovery Anticipated by Divination
Corrected Dates for the Discovery of Evolution
Defying the Lightning: a Frustrated Experiment
In Quest of the First Cause
Paley’s Watch
The Irresistible Cry of Order, Order!
The Moment and the Man
The Brink of the Bottomless Pit
Why Darwin Converted the Crowd
How we Rushed Down a Steep Place
Darwinism not Finally Refutable
Traumatic Selection
The Greatest of These is Self-Control
The Humanitarians and the Problem of Evil
Why Darwin Pleased the Socialists
Darwin and Karl Marx
Why Darwin Pleased the Profiteers also
The Poetry and Purity of Materialism
The Viceroys of the King of Kings
Political Opportunism in Excelsis
The Betrayal of Western Civilization
The Homeopathic Reaction against Darwinism
Religion and Romance
The Danger of Reaction
A Touchstone for Dogma
What to do with the Legends
A Lesson from Science to the Churches
The Religious Art of the Twentieth Century
The Artist-Prophets
Evolution in the Theatre
My Own Part in the Matter

Back to Methuselah
In the Beginning: B.C. 4004 (In the Garden of Eden)
The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: Present Day
The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170
Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman: A.D. 3000
As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920

Postscript: After Twentyfive Years

================================================

I haven’t read the complete works of Bernard Shaw (has anybody ever?), but I am pretty sure this one is the most bizarre of them all. According to the infinite wisdom of the back cover, this “Metabiological Pentateuch” in five parts, stretching in time from the 41st century BC to the 320th century AD, displays “to the full [Shaw’s] dialectical power and dramatic genius”. Believe this at your own peril.

“The Infidel Half Century” is one of Shaw’s longest, wittiest and most entertaining prefaces. It is also one of his most misguided, most wrongheaded and most absurd. The so-called “Creative Evolution” was one of Shaw’s favourite pet theories for most of his life. This Preface is by far his most extensive non-dramatic treatment of the subject.

To begin with, it is not clear to me what Shaw means by “Neo-Darwinists”. If he means simply those who accept the Theory of Evolution, his term contains an irrelevant prefix. If he means the social Darwinists, he merely uses Darwin’s name in vain. For Darwin’s theory refers to the natural world, not to human affairs.

It cannot be repeated too often that applying Darwinian principles to human society is not science but pseudoscience. It is fundamentally wrong. The difference between the natural world and the human civilisation is like the difference between living and dead matter: they operate in completely different, indeed opposite, directions. Each species in the natural world adapts as best as it can to the changing environment in order to survive and, if possible, flourish. If it cannot adapt, it disappears. No species on this planet deliberately and systemically destroys its own environment and thus, indirectly, itself. None, that is to say, except us. Our species is also the only one which increases in numbers without actually flourishing.

In the very beginning, when the human race was a bunch of apes hardly different than any other species, then and only then could Darwin’s theory be applied to it. Once the human animal developed speech, writing, art, religion, history, science, cities, states and culture, it became conscious of itself and consciously controlling, however haltingly, its own destiny. At this moment, which cannot be defined precisely but is no less a fact for that, the human race ceased to obey the Darwinian principle. Barring an epic natural disaster, a rational species is solely responsible for its fate. This is artificial selection – or extinction.

Man as a young species, formed a million or two years ago, is a product of natural selection. Man as a social animal, a product of the last ten thousand years at most, is not. Some people still can’t understand that. Bernard Shaw certainly never could. It’s a remarkable example of gross intellectual error by an otherwise highly intelligent person:

What hope is there then of human improvement? According to the Neo-Darwinists, to the Mechanists, no hope whatever, because improvement can come only through some senseless accident which must, on the statistical average of accidents, be presently wiped out by some other equally senseless accident.

This is a typical example. Shaw consistently uses “Darwin” and “Darwinian” when he actually means people who perverted Darwin and his ideas for their own purposes. Thus he blames Darwin and “Circumstantial Selection” (for him there is nothing natural in it) for everything in the last half a century. And I mean everything. The evils of capitalism, the failure of socialism, political opportunism, personal cynicism, the First World War, the imminent collapse of Western Civilisation, the death of God: you name it, Shaw blames it on “Darwin”. I guess social Darwinism was all the rage at the time and Shaw’s rant was at least partly a reaction against that. Even so, in addition to being hopelessly unscientific, it is absurdly overdone.

Either way, Shaw was evidently angry with Darwin for robbing life on this planet of any purpose whatsoever. In the memorable but meaningless phrase of Samuel Butler, with whom Shaw heartily agreed, Darwin “banished mind from the universe”. Shaw nevertheless retains some admiration for Darwin’s industry and even some affection for Darwin’s amiable personality. Charles was no metaphysical philosopher, that is Bernard’s only objection to him. No wonder. Darwin was one of the supreme scientists in history. If evidence and observation didn’t support his theory, he discarded the theory, no matter how alluring it might have been. Shaw was the exact opposite. He twisted evidence and observation in every possible way to support his theory – or simply discarded them and went for an overdose of (admittedly magnificent and highly entertaining) rhetorical effusions.

So, Shaw assumed, on absolutely no grounds but his wishful thinking, that Creative Evolution, Vitalism, Neo-Lamarckism, the Life Force, the Holy Ghost (call if what you will, but mind the capitals!) consciously guides the human race to higher ends such as omniscience, omnipresence and the production of the Superman. The mainspring of this theory is immense vanity. Evolution as metaphysics, Shaw tells us, grandly and smugly, “can be apprehended only by a trained, apt, and comprehensive thinker.” If you can’t see the cosmic purpose behind Evolution, he continues, you must be “the stupidest muckraker”. But calling “stupid” people who disagree with you will not make your opinion more acceptable. Only solid arguments can do that.

All this has really nothing to do with Darwin, not even with those who misused his ideas. Nor is there a shred of proof to support its existence. If there is a mind behind the universe, the chances are that it cares nothing about life on Earth. If our existence is guided by a higher power, its purpose is most obscure. We might as well assume this higher power doesn’t exist.

Many of Shaw’s arguments are too naive to be worth refuting. For instance, he has no patience with atheism because it doesn’t explain anything, not even Paley’s watch. Quite so. Then again, Paley’s watch explains the Watchmaker in the Sky merely as a hypothesis. It does nothing to confirm His existence. Shaw generously admits that Darwin’s theory is not disprovable, but he challenges evolutionists to disprove Vitalism. Well, let’s see what we can prove. Neither theory can be proved by experiment and observation, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution. Shaw is at pains to explain that Darwin was by far not the first to imagine common ancestors and descent with modification. We all know that. So did Darwin. For the third edition of The Origin (1861), he prepared “An Historical Sketch” in which he summarised evolutionary thought before him.

Shaw is awed by the idea, then rather more fashionable than today, that the embryonic development of the individual repeats in a nutshell the evolutionary development of the species. But from this he draws the entirely unwarranted assumption that human evolution can be sped up just like that. Likewise Shaw is impressed with child prodigies and other naturally talented people, but then he assumes we might be able to engineer such skills at will. Even today, with genetic techniques beyond the wildest dreams of anybody in 1920, we are still centuries away from doing that. But in this case, unwittingly, Shaw was on the right track. In many others he was way wide of the mark.

Towards the end of the Preface, Shaw goes completely off the rails. He sees himself as one of the first artist-prophets of a new religion, the modest spark to light a twentieth-century renaissance of new religious art. He is hardly convincing that all great art from the past has been religious, but he may have a slight point there. What is one to make of his lumping together Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Wagner Ring as “reachings-forward to the Vitalist art”?! If that is not wacky enough, there is the finale of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata representing “electrons dancing in vortices of inconceivable energy”. Beethoven, of course, was completely unaware that the Life Force had inspired him with the subtleties of quantum dynamics.

To be fair to Shaw, he does have a few good points. To be absolutely fair, they are not easy to find in the anti-Darwinian rant and, even when you do find them, they are offset by something very much like nonsense. Still, let me try to give you at least one.

“The Danger of Reaction” is an example that comes immediately to mind. Shaw made a profound and prescient point there. Man is a credulous animal. He must believe something, no matter how ridiculous. Religion may be dead or dying today, but conspiracy theories even more stupid than the most fanciful Christian myths flourish. Shaw warned us back in 1921 that when the exultation of the godless freedom brought by Darwinism subsides, as it must sooner or later, we are likely to fall back on the old superstitions. If anything, he underestimated the gullibility of the human animal in this splendid example of Shavian rhetoric:

It must therefore be said very precisely and clearly that the bankruptcy of Darwinism does not mean that Nobodaddy was Somebodaddy with ‘body, parts, and passions’ after all; that the world was made in the year 4004 B.C.; that damnation means an eternity of blazing brimstone; that the Immaculate Conception means that sex is sinful and that Christ was parthenogenetically brought forth by a virgin descended in like manner from a line of virgins right back to Eve; that the Trinity is an anthropomorphic monster with three heads which are yet only one head; that in Rome the bread and wine on the altar become flesh and blood, and in England, in a still more mystical manner, they do and they do not; that the Bible is an infallible scientific manual, an accurate historical chronicle, and a complete guide to conduct; that we may lie and cheat and murder and then wash ourselves innocent in the blood of the Lamb on Sunday at the cost of a credo and a penny in the plate, and so on and so forth. Civilization cannot be saved by people not only crude enough to believe these things, but irreligious enough to believe that such belief constitutes a religion.

That quoted, I disagree with Shaw that “civilization needs a religion as a matter of life or death”. Religion thrives on dogma, and dogma hinders scientific inquiry and thus progress. Maybe in its early stages, yes, religion can be useful. But if not discarded soon after that, it becomes more and more harmful. Our species is in the process of proving this theory beyond reasonable doubt.

Shaw’s ultimate purpose is noble and amounts to nothing less than the perfectibility of man. However fanciful his ideas, he really believed our species was capable of much more than it had hitherto achieved. This is indeed a worthy end. But I do question Creative Evolution as a means. A century later, I am rather glad Shaw’s religion is profoundly obscure. To be sure, it is more sensible and less dogmatic than the monotheistic monsters. But it’s not much of an improvement! It is a childish fairy tale capable of infinite perversion. Despite bold claims like “revival of religion on a scientific basis”, Shaw had no idea what science is, and his pet religion is scientifically untenable.

Back to Methuselah is, in a way, a sequel to Man and Superman (1903), Shaw’s previous most extensive dramatic sermon on the subject. As he is the first to admit in the Preface, the earlier play was so crowded with matter and art “that nobody noticed the new religion in the centre of the intellectual whirlpool”. Now he tried again with this “cycle of plays that keep to the point all through”. As a rule, Shaw was reluctant to describe the workings of the Life Force in detail and, when he did attempt something like that, he was rather vague. The Preface is almost completely silent on the matter. An effort was made in Chapter XXXVI from Everybody’s Political What’s What? (1944), but it was not very successful. The “Metabiological Pentateuch” doesn’t really clarify the matter, either.

The title of the whole cycle refers to its main subject, especially prominent in the second and the third play, namely the elongation of human life to 300 years. This is less than one third of Methuselah’s magnificent age, but it’s still more than three times longer than the average human life then as now. Why 300 exactly? Because there must be some upper limit and this one seems to be the right one. How are we going to achieve such longevity? Well, we are just going to will it and, sooner or later, it’s going to happen because the Higher Power that watches over our destinies is bound to approve. When we have three centuries at our disposal, we’ll have enough time to fully outgrow the first century of our childhood. Imagine the heaven on earth then!

It boggles the mind that a man of Shaw’s intellectual abilities seriously believed that stuff, yet he did. Literally. It was no metaphorical tittle-tattle. I have little doubt Shaw himself half-expected to live 300 years. He managed only 94, but that was because of that nasty fall in his garden. Had he been more careful with the pruning of his trees, Bernard Shaw might have been with us today. I reckon he would have been busy with our follies, and sharper, funnier, deadlier than ever with the whole arsenal of his wit (anything from daggers to H-bombs).

The whole concept is, of course, complete rubbish. It is not even science fiction yet. It makes no biological sense whatsoever. All the same, to Shaw it made perfect “metabiological” sense back in 1920. But even if such longevity were to be achieved one day, would it be of any use? Why would people learn from their own experience in the past century when they have conclusively shown themselves incapable of learning from others (i.e. from history)?

This is a relatively mild contradiction. There are plenty of much graver logical errors. Consider the gospel according to the brothers Barnabas, Franklyn the preacher and Conrad the biologist, presumably the best prophets of Creative Evolution the mind of Bernard Shaw could devise. They are prone to preaching childish stuff like that:

The Book of Genesis is a part of nature like any other part of nature. The fact that the tale of the Garden of Eden has survived and held the imagination of men spellbound for centuries, whilst hundreds of much more plausible and amusing stories have gone out of fashion and perished like last year’s popular song, is a scientific fact; and Science is bound to explain it.

Is it necessary to explain the obvious falsehood and to refute the even more obvious intellectual dishonesty of this passage? The Book of Genesis is not, of course, part of nature. It is part of human history. Historical science has long since explained it as a work of fiction. The story of Adam and Eve has survived better than many others for the simple reason that it was taken by two of the most widespread and durable religions in the world. Many Greek myths, for different but equally obvious reasons, are hardly less popular with the general public. Does that make them scientific facts?

The brothers Barnabas are no strangers to contradicting even the gospel of Brother Bernard. Their version of God is not omniscient and omnipresent but works by “the method of Trial and Error”. Man is just the current stage of the experiment. Should it prove incapable of handling the Supreme Program, then all of us “shall go the way of the mastodon and the megatherium and all the other scrapped experiments.” This sounds very much like natural selection (without capitals) – which brings Shaw back to the social Darwinists whom he demolishes with gusto in his Preface.

Shaw seems to think that willpower is enough to achieve anything you want because, if I understand correctly, the Life Force would not have endowed you with a yearning that cannot be fulfilled. This is not only poor logic, again, but also poor knowledge of history and human nature. You may want with all your heart to play like Horowitz, conduct like Karajan or sing like Boris Christoff. You may will it with your whole being and work hard for it all your life. All the same, it’s never going to happen even if you have exceptional musical talent. These unique artistic personalities were the products of innate genius and specific zeitgeist. They can never arise again in a natural way, nor can we reproduce them artificially. You needn’t know anything about heredity to realise that. It’s enough to know a little history.

Many of Shaw’s ideas are highly progressive for his time and too advanced even for our own. Words like “negress” and “Chink” are enough to make potty the modern Prophets of Political Correctness, but Asian and black characters, including women, come off better in this “Pentateuch” than they usually did in those times. This is an inspiring message, an offshoot from Shaw’s utopian socialism perhaps, but timelessly relevant all the same. If we are any good, we must be so as a species. Petty distinctions like races, not to mention nationalities, can no longer survive in a world where “splendid isolation” is impossible.

On the other hand, there is some unpleasant chauvinism, such as the claim (by a Chinese character predictably named Confucius) that the English – please note, not the British, certainly not the Irish – are “potentially the most highly developed race on earth, and would be actually the greatest if you could live long enough to attain to maturity.” Perhaps Shaw included this parochial joke as a consolation for otherwise completely demolishing the English character.

The plays on the whole are as preachy and didactic as they come, but also surprisingly tiresome and even tedious. Shaw was almost incapable of writing dialogue which is not sharp and amusing, easy on the eye as well as on the ear – but here he somehow did. The last two plays are especially dire. Shaw leaves not only every notion of plot and characters, but also his main theme. Rants about science and random satire of his contemporaries are indulged in without much rhyme or reason. Creative Evolution is pushed in the background and all but reduced to conventional clash between generations. I expected a glorious coda with humanity brought to its apex by the Life Force, but the tone is more dystopian than utopian. I never thought Shaw could be such a slog to finish.

To conclude, Shaw’s ends are mostly admirable, but his means are completely nonsensical. Back to Methuselah can be recommended to the most curious Shavian enthusiasts – and to no one else. It is indifferent drama designed to propagate idiotic ideas. Then again, the book can be recommended to everybody as a cautionary tale. If Bernard Shaw could go that wrong in his intellectual and emotional pursuits, how well would we do if we had the courage to put down on paper (or a file) our most cherished beliefs?

PS. The 1944 Postscript is merely an extension of the Preface. It was apparently written for the elevation of Back to Methuselah to the status of an Oxford World Classic. It is permeated with the same ludicrous propensity for seeing Creative Evolution everywhere. Do you know why Faust is a classic? Why, because Goethe’s Eternal Feminine is “the first modern manifesto of the mysterious force in creative evolution”. Mysterious, indeed! Shaw modestly puts himself in Goethe’s league, or not:

This is what makes Faust a world classic. If it does not do the same for this attempt of mine, throw the book into the fire; for Back to Methuselah is a world classic or it is nothing.

I’m afraid it is nothing. ( )
  Waldstein | May 1, 2020 |
One aspect of this edition is typical Shaw. Asked to choose something to be the 500th volume in "The World's Classics" series, he chose this play but added a 'preface' of no less than 283 pages - somewhat longer than the text of the play itself! His preface is a prolonged diatribe against the evils of the day (from Shaw's perspective) under headings such as "The Miracle of Condensed Recapitulation" and "The Humanitarians and the Problem of Evil". All good (and bad) stuff - you can read it on Wikisource. ( )
  NaggedMan | Jan 10, 2018 |
This play is my favourite Bernard Shaw play next to Pygmalion, and having been written in the early twenties, it not only shows some more maturity in the playwriting, but also explores a topic that was believed to be dead after World War I: the concept of Human Enlightenment.
The concept, popular in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century was that after almost a century of peace that the human race was on the doorstep of a new golden age. After the European wide devastation of the Napoleonic Wars it was believed that we had grown out of our barbarous past where we would constantly war with each other and had come to a point where all of Europe could live at peace. There are a lot of flaws in that belief, particularly since it views the European race as the only race worth mentioning and did not take into account the wars of conquest against our darker skinned brethren. However, this theory collapsed after the beginning of one of the most violent and deadly wars in history, and was then exceeded almost twenty years later with a war that was not only unprecedented in its ferocity and barbarity but also in its global reach.
But back to Bernard Shaw. At the beginning of the 1920's, an era of unprecedented prosperity at the time, Shaw produces this play which in its breadth endeavours to encompass all of human history from the Garden of Eden through to our ascension to godhood. However, this is not a Christian play, far from it. One of its main characters, Lilith, is a Jewish myth about Adam's first wife who refused to be his wife and was thus cursed by God. It was only after Lilith's betrayal that God raised up Eve for Adam. However, this has nothing to do with the play and everything to do with human development.
It is act 2 that is probably the centerpiece of the play. It is set in England in the 1920's where two gentlemen discuss the future of humanity. It is emphasised at the beginning that it does occur shortly after the Great War, and as such this is kept in mind as we move through the play. They are still speaking of the evolution of humanity, and then when we jump into the future in the next scene, we see that this evolution has come about, however it has arrived through the most unlikely of people: the chambermaid (who has not aged over the years that have passed between the acts).
The final scene we see humanity at their apex. They have done away with love, sex, and emotion, and are now purely logical beings. However something is wrong. While they live extra-ordinary long lives they only experience life for three years and then evolve. It appears that despite the desire to evolve, there is also a desire to maintain that which makes us truly us: our emotions. Many sci-fi books and shows treat emotion as something that needs to be done away with, but this undermines something that that God created as an essential part of us: an ability to love, to sing praises, to mourn for a loved one, or to be fuelled in anger at injustice. While our emotions can get carried away at times (and there are quite a few of those times), it is also something to hold onto and cherish as a gift of God. ( )
1 vote David.Alfred.Sarkies | Mar 21, 2014 |
I purchased this abridged version when seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2000 or 2001 in London. It is one of Shaw's less effective plays, but interesting as a curiosity. ( )
  antiquary |
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Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch) is a 1921 series of five plays and a preface by George Bernard Shaw. The five plays are: In the Beginning: B.C. 4004 (In the Garden of Eden); The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: Present Day; The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170; Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman: A.D. 3000; As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920 The plays were published with a preface titled The Infidel Half Century, and first performed in 1922 by the New York Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre.

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