Life Belongs to the Whole Community; It Is A Sort of Splendid Torch

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. “

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

The first paragraph is from the play Man and Superman (1903) by Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It appears in the eloquent, thought-provoking (and lengthy: more than 11,400 words!) dedication, “Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley,” of the play. The second paragraph comes from one of his speeches (found in George Bernard Shaw: His Life and His Works by Archibald Henderson). Interestingly, as the Internet has a tendency to do, the first and second paragraphs are erroneously combined, as if they were one thought written by Shaw. This cobbled-together quotation, taken from two completely separate works, appears in dozens of books, all — of course — without proper attribution. American actor Jeff Goldblum is quite fond of this quote and often recites it (most recently, for example, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, February 15, 2019) as if it were one long paragraph, perpetuating the mistake.

The “brief candle” that appears in the second paragraph is an allusion to the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) spoken by Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /  and is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

Incidentally, the complete paragraph, from which the first sentence is taken, reads as follows: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is at worst mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pandar, buffoon, beauty monger, sentimentalizer and the like.”

Shaw wrote Man and Superman because Arthur Bingham Walkley, who was the respected theatre critic for The Times, suggested that he write a play based on the theme of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, the archetypical womanizer. Shaw wrote: “My dear Walkley: You once asked me why I did not write a Don Juan play. The levity with which you assumed this frightful responsibility has probably by this time enabled you to forget it; but the day of reckoning has arrived: here is your play! I say your play, because qui facit per alium facit per se [from Latin: “He who acts through another does the act himself”]. Its profits, like its labor, belong to me: its morals, its manners, its philosophy, its influence on the young, are for you to justify. You were of mature age when you made the suggestion; and you knew your man. It is hardly fifteen years since, as twin pioneers of the New Journalism of that time, we two, cradled in the same new sheets, made an epoch in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it a pretext for a propaganda of our own views of life. So you cannot plead ignorance of the character of the force you set in motion. You meant me to épater le bourgeois [from French, “to shock the bourgeoisie”, a rallying cry for French Decadent poets of the late 19th century]; and if he protests, I hereby refer him to you as the accountable party.” The dedication continues for 31 more paragraphs.

Shaw was a prolific playwright — he wrote 60 plays during his lifetime. His best-known works in addition to Man and Superman (1903) are Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Some literary critics believe that Shaw was the second most important playwright after Shakespeare in the British theatrical tradition. Shaw created the “intelligent” theatre that required theatergoers to think deeply about the meaning of a play, setting the stage, as it were, for modern playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

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One thought on “Life Belongs to the Whole Community; It Is A Sort of Splendid Torch

  1. The two old chestnuts remain a problem, usually unacknowledged, for those without a religious belief in the after-life: What is the meaning of life? How best to live one’s life?
    These lines are as good as anything anyone else has come up with – as far as I know, anyway.

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