Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1205

Sex
Man and Superman expounds Shaw’s pointed view of humanity’s sexual nature. In this play, Ann Whitefield woos her newly appointed guardian, John Tanner, and he, in spite of his anti-romantic persona, falls for her. He does not love her in the conventional sense, but falls prey to the ‘‘Life Force’’ that she exudes. It is more a matter of sexual attraction than it is of romanic love. Shaw’s idea of this Life Force derives from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Olan vital, or spirit of life.

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Bergson’s concept proposed that intellect was an advanced form of instinct, and that intellect and instinct together constituted the source of vitality shared between all creatures and God. Social niceties, such as the conventions of marriage and courting, merely mask the underlying drive toward life and procreation. The Life Force is the creative urge toward self-preservation and regeneration, the drive to evolve, adapt, and actualize. Bergson’s philosophy parallels French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s biological concept of the organism’s tendency to adapt to environment, to survive through self-transformation. Lamarck predated Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which Shaw opposes by going back to the idea of Lamarckian determinism in the form of an unconscious will towards life.

Shaw draws on both philosophy and biological theory for his Life Force theory, which became a common theme in his work, especially in his prefaces. Nowhere else, however, is it so fully explored as in the Don Juan in Hell segment found in Act III, where Ann Whitefield transposes into Dona Ana de Ulloa and Tanner becomes Don Juan Tenario. They debate the relative merits of heaven and earth with the devil and ‘‘the statue,’’ Ana’s dead father. Don Juan insists that, ‘‘Life is a force which has made innumerable experiments in organizing itself . . . the mammoth and the man, the mouse and the megatherium, the files and the fleas and the Fathers of the Church . . . all more or less successful attempts to build up that raw force into higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in short, a god.’’

The purpose of the Life Force is to create a superior being, the Superman. In Man and Superman, Life Force flows through female intuition, whose sole purpose is to achieve union with a male of intellectual superiority. An exceptional woman, who has a strong and irresistible Life Force, scoffs at weaker intellects, such as Octavius, who, though not unintelligent, lacks charisma. She seeks instead someone like Tanner, whose intellect makes him surly and offensive to other men but irresistible to strong women like Ann.

Intellect may seem an odd property to combine with the Life Force, but Don Juan explains that ‘‘brains’’ are needed to avoid death, thus the woman seeks a mate whose offspring have a good chance of survival.

Ubermensch (Superman)
The German term Ubermensch first appeared in Goethe’s Faust (1808) and later in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1892). Nietzsche meant the term to indicate the universal human goal that could only be achieved when man suppresses his natural passions and commits himself to intellectual creativity. This, according to Nietzsche, is the overarching goal of humanity, the one that transcends individual goals or those of a cultural group. The Superman would be morally and intellectually superior to the average man.

Nietzsche was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who proposed that a single all-encompassing ‘‘Will’’ was the cosmic force that drives nature and individuals to act as they do. The Nietzschian concept of a Superman contributed to Hitler’s drive for a superior Aryan race, and Shaw himself proposes that the Superman might be bred from humans of the highest intellectual and moral standards.

The Superman in Man and Superman has the potential to be forged through a union between Jack Tanner, due to his intellectual superiority, and Ann Whitefield, who embodies the Life Force. The Superman is explicitly mentioned in the play, when the devil calls Nietzsche’s Superman ‘‘the latest in fashion among Life Force fanatics’’ in Act III. Shaw’s Don Juan explains that the Life Force seeks to create a Superman, and that humanity’s highest goal is to serve that purpose as well as to gain a philosophical mind in order to understand its purpose.

The intellect is needed because without it, man ‘‘blunders into death.’’ The philosophic man ‘‘seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will, and in action that will by the sodiscovered means.’’ In other words, each human should seek its highest ability to comprehend its ultimate purpose and then bend willingly to the Life Force’s urge to create the Superman.

Moral Corruption
The Don Juan story is an age-old tale of an obsessive lover and adventurer who is carried off by the devil after a lifetime of chasing women. It is probably best told by Mozart in his opera Don Giovanni (1787). In Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni (Don Juan) woos Donna Anna, who rejects him and whose father, the Commander, he kills in a duel over her honor. Later Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello see a statue of the dead Commander in a cemetery and Don Giovanni jokingly asks it to dinner. The statue nods its head and later appears at dinner, whereupon it chastises Don Giovanni for his reckless life. Then the Devil appears to carry him off, while the police arrive too late to arrest him for the murder of Donna Anna’s father.

The origin of the Don Juan story is unknown, having first appeared in Spanish literature in 1630 as Don Juan of Seville. Moliere also wrote a version in the eighteenth century, and Lord Byron, in the early-nineteenth century, takes Don Juan from Spain to a Greek island, to Turkey and Russia, and then to England as a garrulous adventurer who intersperses his love affairs with philosophical musings on power, politics, and poets. Shaw’s play is a kind of modernized and inverted comedic adaptation of Mozart’s work, which Shaw knew intimately from his mother’s participation in opera and which he learned to love.

In Shaw’s Don Juan story, the woman, Ann Whitefield, plays the pursuer and the Don Juan figure of John Tanner is a reluctant lover. The commander/statue becomes Roebuck Ramsden, who threatens not with a sword but by throwing Tanner’s book, The Revolutionist’s Handbook, at him. Rather than fight over her virtue, they duel verbally over whether Ann should be allowed to read Tanner’s book and how to share her joint guardianship. In a distinct role reversal, the theme of moral corruption in Don Juan is, in Shaw’s work, cast aside in favor of a theme of moral passion (a term borrowed from Hegel)—a passion, on Tanner’s part, to be moral in the face of Ann’s seduction. Naturally, he loses, because Ann is without morals and because she is driven by the Life Force—as is Tanner—to procreate. In Shaw’s Don Juan, moral corruption is portrayed as simply a side effect of the basic biological drive to preserve the species.

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