Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?

By John Hertz:  In the course of reading and re-reading this and that I came across these two remarks I thought worth attention.  They touch points we often talk of.

Here’s Bernard Shaw in a 1930 preface to a reprint of his play The Philanderer. I found it in Plays Unpleasant (Penguin Bks. 1978, p. 98; I haven’t compared any of the more recent printings).

There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years.  In men it is called doting, in plays dating.  The more topical the play the more it dates.  The Philanderer suffers from this complaint.  In the eighteen-nineties, when it was written, not only dramatic literature but life itself was staggering from the impact of Ibsen’s plays, which reached us in 1889.  The state of mind represented by the Ibsen Club in this play was familiar then to our Intelligentsia.  That far more numerous body which may be called the Unintelligentsia was as unconscious of Ibsen as of any other political influence….

I make no attempt to bring the play up to date.  I should as soon think of bringing Ben Jonson’s  Bartholomew Fair up to date by changing the fair into a Woolworth store.  The human nature in it is still in the latest fashion: indeed I am far from sure that its ideas, instead of being 36 years behind the times, are not for a considerable section of the community 36 years ahead of them.  My picture of the past may be for many people a picture of the future.  At all events I shall leave the play as it is; for all the attempts within my experience to modernize ancient plays have only produced worse anachronisms than those they aimed at remedying.

Now here’s Vladimir Nabokov. He’s writing in 1949 about Afanasy Fet. I found it in the posthumous collection Verses and Versions (pp. 300-01).

Literary criticism in Russia, or at least that part of literary criticism that swayed the reader, was mainly a social force, occupied with social civic problems, and to such critics, to critics immensely celebrated in Russia as champions of liberty, civilization, commonsense, popular science, and the rest … a poet who spent his time inventing new methods of making poems out of landscapes, or love, was a ridiculous freak, a heretic, a sinner against mankind….  Fet was harried, spat at, spanked, mocked, insulted in such a thorough fashion that it is a wonder he never lost his head, never so much as replied to those attacks, ignoring absolutely his furious critics who in the long run made dreadful fools of themselves by raving at things they did not understand.  And so it happened that up to the present day it is a good way to test whether a Russian understands poetry or not by finding out whether he appreciates Fet….

The matter-of-fact critics who cursed Fet because he did not describe the sufferings of the Russian peasant in blunt manly measures, those critics were particularly maddened by Fet’s verse slipping as it were between their fingers, verse which became intangible when placed in a coarse medium of their own world, for in their world mental curves were as illegal as the roundness of the world was in the days of the flat-footed logicians who were firmly planted on a flat beach, where every grain of sand voiced, unheeded, the claim of its circular shape.  A poem by Fet seemed to them meaningless, because for them the meaning of things was limited by the square angles of their immediate use – city squares where crowds gather with square flags, square shoes, square prison cells, square tombstones.  But Fet looped his loop and was suddenly somewhere in the Milky Way just when he was expected to come home with some reasonable explanation of his behavior.

Among much else I was struck by how pertinent these seemed, written ninety and seventy years ago – about things written a hundred twenty and a hundred thirty years ago.  But so are Shakespeare and Lady Murasaki. They are also of course impertinent.

Do Shaw and Nabokov contradict each other?  Very well then they contradict each other.  They are large, they contain multitudes.

One thought on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?

  1. A collection of Shaw’s introductions would probably find a place on my shelves, even though I have most of the plays they are with. When the time comes to purge my collection, though, the things of his that will stay longest will be his music criticism (much of it written under a pseudonym). Wonderful stuff, and a model of its type.

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