Zen and the Art of Shaw
There are several philosophies that run throughout Buoyant Billions, but the two conflicting philosophies of existentialism and creative evolution create a unique tension in the play. Shaw’s attempt to reconcile these two philosophies results in the theme of balance. A part of this balance is the presence of many opposites. While Shaw does not borrow specifically from any one philosopher, he does latch on to a few key philosophical concepts such as the idea of emptiness/nothingness, the notion of the god-within, and the concept of the Life-Force. These elements wind through the dialogue and set up an existential dilemma that is countered by the Life-Force.
This existential dilemma first presents itself in Act 3 as a mythical allegory that turns the characters more into representations of abstract ideas then into solid well-rounded characters. 1 The dilemma then appears only to be a subtext to the plot, but it is actually a part of the overarching theme. The Buoyant family’s plight, as revealed in conversation, is that their experience of life is senseless and without purpose. They have nothing to make them happy or even make them want to be happy, as Secondborn explains, “I am never happy. I don’t want to be happy. I want to be alive and active. Bothering about happiness is the worst unhappiness” (BB 40). Secondborn points out that there is no point in thinking about happiness because it will work itself out. This is something that the Buoyant family is just realizing as they examine their lives that are filled with disillusions and failures. The widower, for example, is not a widower at all. He is divorced. Love turns into hate and his marriage turns into divorce. The rest of the family provide similar stories. Any success or happiness seems to be impossible for them. The only thing that they can do is try to keep involved in some activities and to live life as it comes. If they seek happiness then they will continue to find only disappointment and emptiness. The sense of disillusionment and loss of spirituality is often associated with the existential dilemma. In existentialism there comes a point where there is nothing to structure a person’s being or world. The existentialist is looking into the emptiness and the void, hovering over the abyss in fear and trembling and living a life of dread.2 Things change and the Buoyant family begins to question the meaning of their lives and their existence but they find only emptiness. They are filled with dread because once Bill Buoyant is gone they will have no money. They have become attached to their comfortable bourgeois life style and yet they don’t know how to make the money for themselves to keep up this lifestyle. The family dreads the day when they will have to learn how to be responsible for themselves. When Sir Ferdinand, the solicitor, asks the family what they know of their father’s business he discovers helplessness and dread.
Darkie: …Business means money; and none of us
knows anything about money because our father
knows everything about it. But I know all about
housekeeping because I our mother knew
nothing about it and cared less. She preferred
painting. We had extraordinarily clever parents;
and the result is that we are a family of helpless
Secondborn: That is true. So much has been done for us we
have hardly learnt to do anything for ourselves.
Darkie expresses the idea that the only things that got done in the Buoyant household were the things that needed to get done. The Buoyant family only learns to do something when it is absolutely necessary. Darkie would never have learned to do the housework if her mother had done it. Now the family needs to learn how to make money because their father will not be around forever. Bill Buoyant does not know how he makes the money so he can’t teach them how to support themselves. The family doesn’t really care to know how anyway, as long as they have the money somehow. To the Buoyant family money is not just material wealth, but security. It is the one thing that was certain in their lives. Although this problem seems simple enough, it is a sign of a much larger problem. Without anyone to take care of them they don’t have structure and this makes them free. This freedom paralyzes them though because with freedom there is uncertainty, dread and emptiness. This dreaded freedom, emptiness and confusion are at the very heart of the existential dilemma which the Buoyant family symbolizes
Bill Buoyant is the existential/Shavian hero who makes his own destiny. He is the family’s leader, and the only one who has escaped the pain and confusion that his family suffers from. Bill Buoyant doesn’t try to find happiness, instead he simply accepts the emptiness of life and this makes him an existential hero. As the existential hero he is able to find purpose in an otherwise meaningless life, which is to make money “by instinct, as beavers build dams” (BB 32). This ability allows him to live life well, not to sink or drift through life, but to float buoyantly. The whole idea of Bill Buoyant making these billions of dollars that could never make him happy is typically existential and absurd. Shaw takes this existential “curse” even farther because Bill Buoyant’s dearest wish was to become a teacher, but no one would ever listen to him. This “curse” is Shaw’s way of showing that it is learning, not teaching, that is the hope of the future. So Bill Buoyant gives up trying to help the world to continue making billions of dollars for nothing. In doing this he becomes much like Sisyphus. Sisyphus escapes his “absurd” fate by choosing to accept it and Bill Buoyant accepts that his lot in life is to be able to make money easily. Camus’s myth of Sisyphus was meant to be dead serious, but Shaw is using the myth with a sense of humor. Bill Bouyant’s fate of making money is not one that is all that dreadful nor is his fate one that he gives much thought to. Unlike the typical existential hero who reflects on life and makes a conscious decision to make the make the best out of the situation, Bill Buoyant does not set out to be an existential hero. Rather he assumes this role without considering what it really means. By having him fall into this role of hero and leader Shaw seems to be saying that this kind of hero is not quite good enough, and moreover he seems to say that the existential hero is not complete. The role is still lacking because Bill Buoyant can do nothing to help his family once he is gone.
As the Buoyant family discusses what to do in Act 3, it becomes apparent that nothing will get done. Each of the family members has a different approach to the problem at hand. The widower takes the rational and logical approach to life, while Mrs.Thirdborn represents the romantic and religious approach. Mr. and Mrs. Secondborn represent the stoic and illusionless approach. (Joyce 23) All of these approaches to life are not coming together in order to reach any sort of solution though. Shaw tries to make the point that all of these approaches by themselves are incomplete. Science and religion must work together in order to provide any real solutions. Junius and Clementina are the only ones who are flexible enough to accept both approaches as a solution. They are optimistic, yet unsure of the answers. Whitman notes that, “It is often the self-assured characters in the play who are drifting with no sense of purpose, no desire to reach, for there is no need to reach and nothing to reach for. The are drifting and drifting is death…The uncertain ones seek a way and are at least trying to steer” (Whitman 189). So, while Junius and Clementina do not have any specific answers as to how to live life happily, they are at least willing and able to learn how to change and evolve. The rest of the Buoyant family tries to get rid of the problem at hand without any real work. It is due to this approach that they remain locked in their existential “hell.” 3 At the one end of the extreme the Buoyant family is trapped in an existential emptiness and then on the other end of the extreme Junius and Clementina escape this spiritual emptiness into creative evolution. As the Native points out, the Buoyant family can teach but they cannot learn. The priest concludes Act 3 by saying, “Freaks. Dangerous freaks. The future is with the learners” (BB 47). Shaw says that it is only the ones who let go of their prejudices and are open to new ideas that will change the world. The learners, in this case, are Junius and Clementina. They are the ones moving toward creative evolution.
Creative evolution asserts that human beings can change their childish and barbaric ways and evolve into superman. Sidhu clarifies this by saying, “…his [Shaw’s] faith is still in the humans who can outgrow the infancy of their civilization by conscious will and effort” (Sidhu 60). The Human will to change and grow becomes the creative force in the world. This collective will is similar to the idea of the will of God. The collective will of humans in creative evolution is given the name of the Life-Force, which becomes an overpowering energy that works to continue the world evolution that has little to do with chance, but is part of an ultimate plan. This idea does not reject Dawin’s theory, but gives it a Shavian twist. Holroyd observes that, “By making external a division he felt to exist within himself Shaw was able to use an intellectual method–the Hegelian triad which he had picked up from the British socialist philosopher Belfort Bax–of reconciling opposites and bringing harmony to his life” (Holroyd 298). The Hegelian triad consists of the thesis or idea, the antithesis or the conflicting idea and the synthesis or the new idea that results from it. In the play existentialism is the thesis, creative evolution the antithesis and the synthesis the balance or harmony between the two.
The ultimate plan in creative evolution relates specifically to the relationship of Junius and Clementina. Clementina leaves London for Panama because she is discontented with society. The setting of Panama brings to light the dichotomy of primitive culture versus civilized culture, and reaffirms the tension between opposites. While in Panama Clementina meets her own opposite, Junius. Clementina is independent, self-supporting, out-spoken, and wild while Junius is dependent, supported, conservative and civilized. These differences become apparent in the antagonistic dialogue between Clementina and Junius in the jungle. Junius illustrates this when he says, “My hands are those of a philosopher: yours a charwoman. Oh, why, WHY am I infatuated with you? I know so many apparently superior women” (BB 53). Clementina agrees that their match does not appear to be a good one, but despite these differences she finds herself in “love” with Junius, the self-proclaimed world-betterer. She then leaves the jungle trying to get away from this “terrible illness” that she has come down with. Junius finds her in London and she reluctantly agrees to marry him. It would seem that they are no good for each other, but they give in to this Life-Force that brings them together. Being no good for each other makes their relationship existentially absurd, but it is the Life-Force that brings them together in the first place and that echoes a hope for the future. In doing this Shaw creates a unique philosophical tension within the characters and within the structure of the play.
Shaw juxtaposes this positive outlook of the future with a decidedly dismal existential outlook. This paradox is not without purpose. Whitman explains that, “Shavian paradoxes, in their various forms, were not mere topsyturveyism, they had as a common element the yoking together of implicit or explicit contradictions with the purpose of forcing the mind to move, if not toward something as absolute truth–at least toward seeing things more clearly” (Whitman 168). The contradictions in Clementina and Junius’s relationship are there in order to make a point. There is mix of skepticism and hope in the play that exemplifies Junius and Clementina’s relationship. When Junius asks if she will marry him she replies, “I suppose I must take my chances. Yes.” (BB 60). There is both anxiety and hope in her statement because she is unsure if this marriage will be successful, yet she can only venture in to it and hope it will work out. By refusing to choose between the existentialist or the creative evolution aspect of Junius and Clementina’s relationship, Shaw creates a tension between the two philosophies that leads to the idea of balance. Eric Bentley explains that Shaw saw life as “an interaction of opposites” (Bentley 180). He was fascinated by the tension created by contradictions and how they sometimes create a balance. Embodied in the relationship between Junius and Clementina and aided by the idea of the god-within, the Life-Force and existentialism find their balance.
The concept of the god-within is both a part of the Life-Force and existential philosophy. “The Life-Force,” Shaw says, “ is struggling toward its goal of Godhead by incarnating itself in creatures with knowledge and power enough to control nature and circumstances” (Whitman 137). It is obvious that Clementina is very much in touch with this Life-Force because she has the power to charm the alligators and snakes with her saxophone. This ability is the reason she earns the title of the local goddess or holy woman. Although Shaw uses Clementina’s saxophone ability to portray her as a goddess he also uses it as a source of satiric humor. Clementina has found that inner deity and is free from the suffering that comes from relying on other people. She takes this to the extreme and abandons society in order to live a simple life alone. Clementina does not seek to make the world better like Junius nor does she try to find happiness in getting married and having children like the rest of her family. She is quite a surprised when she finds herself confronted with the prospect of falling in love. Clementina confesses to her family:
“I found myself what is called falling in love. I had illusions, infatuations,
impulses that were utterly unreasonable and irresistible…My reason tells me this
cannot possible be real; that the day will come when it will vanish and leave me
face to face with reality; perhaps tied to a husband who may be anything from a
criminal to an intolerable bore” (BB 37).
Clementina is unhappy with Junius because she knows that the decision to marry him could eventually leave her alone and empty. She knows that her marriage could be disappointing and does not want to venture in to it. On the other hand she knows that it is something beyond her control and necessary. As Joyce explains, “Although she intellectually realizes the folly, illusion, and disappointment inherent in the love venture, she too is unable to resist the importunate yearnings of the Life-Force” (Joyce 20). Her marriage, unlike the rest of her family’s marriages, has a chance at success because she has found her goddess-within and at the same time she is able to be flexible and evolve. She can accept the negative and positive aspects of her marriage and her life and she will be able to change and adjust according to whatever life brings her.
Clementina’s father, Bill Buoyant, has also gotten in touch with his “god-within,” which allows him to reach his existential hero status. Camus says that there is no god above himself and Shaw affirms this view when he states, “Beware of the man whose god is in the skies” (CP. 191). To rely on a god in the skies is to give up the belief in a power within one’s self. Bill Buoyant echoes Shaw’s discontent with organized religion, which teaches this kind of dependence on something outside of one’s self.4 This god-within is also similar to Hegel’s idea that God is self-consciousness and that the spiritual self wants to attain this light of consciousness in order to evolve. Hegel thought that conflict came from an incompleteness, that moves a person to try and resolve the conflict through reasoning, which moves one toward the absolute, or God.5 Bill Buoyant has come to rationalize the world enough to see he can only rely on himself to be complete. To rely on himself is to be free from being dependent on anyone else and that allows him to be free from the kind of confusion and suffering that his family experiences. He also realizes that he is empty, empty in the eastern sense because he is open, ready and accepts this state without struggle. This inadvertently makes him a hero.
The idea of finding the god-within is also found in eastern philosophy. Finding the god-within in eastern philosophy creates the freedom of independence. In Zen it is said that all suffering arises from the attachment to an impermanent world and Bill Buoyant knows this. This very practical way of thinking is evident when he tells Sir Ferdinand, “Money guarantees comfort and what you call culture. Love guarantees nothing” (BB 55). Eastern philosophy finds its way into the picture through the backdrop of the Buoyant’s drawing room, which is decorated like a Chinese temple. This odd setting seems to add to the element of the absurd at first, but its presence is significant. It first shows the obvious opposites of east and west and the theme of their balance. Shaw then draws a parallel between the emptiness of Zen Buddhism and Bill Buoyant. Bill Buoyant demonstrates this in Act 4 when he tells the priest, “…my speculations turn out well when I spend an hour here and just empty my mind.” (BB 48). In Zen Buddhist’s focus is on empting the mind completely in order to focus on the simple state of existing. The existentialist’s focus is also on the state of existing. The difference between these two is Zen Buddhism embraces the dualities of life, while existentialism only focuses on the negative of the two intertwined halves. The focus in existentialism is the idea of the meaningless void of nothingness, whereas nothingness in Zen means something is open. This openness allows for flexibility and growth. Zen shows that emptiness can result in spiritual evolution.
It is this concept of growth and spiritual evolution that makes Zen, not only like existentialism, but also like creative evolution. Sidhu explains, “To the creative evolutionist, the world is not yet perfect, it must go on evolving into a better place” (Sidhu 88). The Creative evolutionist, like a Zen Buddhist, believes that the world is in a constant state of change or “becoming.” Zen, unlike western religion, does not think of the world in terms of beginning and endings. Instead, the ideal state is one of maturity and enlightenment or evolution. Enlightenment is something that takes discipline, patience, kindness and balance. The goal is to enlighten or awaken and be open to both the positive and negative experience in life. The Zen idea of accepting the dark nothingness and the light of enlightenment as all a part of the same world parallels the two separate philosophies of existentialism and creative evolution.
The resulting theme of balance in Buoyant Billions was apparently not Shaw’s original concept, but developed through several revisions. In earlier drafts there are references to an ice age and the atomic bomb.6 These references made the tone of the play more serious and more in line with existentialism. It also makes Junius and Clementina’s relationship less important. The balance brought by their marriage is outweighed by the impending feeling of doom. By deleting these references the union of Junius and Clementina becomes not only relevant, but vital to the theme. When Shaw then alludes to Zen Buddhism he ends up pulling the two conflicting philosophies of existentialism and creative evolution together under one concept of opposites and their balance.
Junius continues pulling the two diverse ideas together. He begins as the typical Shavian hero, the disillusioned idealist seeking to redeem mankind. He is the self-proclaimed world betterer who seeks to change the world through revolution. In Act 1 he declares that he wants to make the world a better place, for the sake of the world and for his own benefit. In Act 2 he begins on this path of world bettering only to take a completely different path. When he arrives in Panama and meets up with Clementina, the power of the Life-Force takes over. He finds himself helpless against it. “Nature has struck a blow at me. I can neither explain it or resist” (BB 42), he tells Bill Buoyant. Through love the Life-Force has chosen him for some ultimate plan and Junius can only surrender to it. Although Junius’s path has taken a different turn his world bettering is not forgotten. His marriage serves the Life-Force, but it also has a more practical side to it. When he marries Clementina, he will receive the money to continue his world bettering if he wants. However, Junius’s world-bettering may take on a different form. It may be his very marriage that will better the world instead of any revolution because it will create a necessary balance between the two conflicting forces in the world.
Shaw’s combination of practicality and spirituality makes Junius a very important and complex character. He ties the play together. Without Junius, existentialism and this creative evolution can never completely come together. Junius is the key character in the play because he is the only one who is able to be flexible in a world full of fixed ideas. Junius knows that this is important and declares this to Mr. Secondborn, “I am a mathematician enough to know nothing is stationary: everything is moving and changing (BB 43). Recognizing this fact shows that he understands the idea of the Life-Force and that he is spiritually mature. According to Buddhist and psychiatrist Jack Kornfield, “To mature spiritually is to let go of rigid and idealistic ways and discover flexibility and joy in our life” (Kornfield 309). Junius, unlike the Buoyant family, is not suffering because he is attached to any one belief. His ability to accept whatever happens to him rather it makes sense or not keeps him from becoming disappointed or disillusioned. He is Shaw’s symbolic and philosophical vehicle of embracing the world’s dualities.
The conversation between Junius and the Native at the end of Act 2 about Hoochlipoochli reinforces the idea of the god-within as well as embracing dualities. Shaw’s attitude toward the situation in the play comes through in the Native. It is almost as if the Native is another one of Shaw’s masks, and that he has stepped into his own complex world to guide and give direction to Junius. The Native enlightens Junius when he explains:
Sir: you have lost your faith; but do not throw the hatchet after the handle .
The Native tells Junius that he is getting ahead of himself and getting things backward when he tells him not to “throw the handle before the hatchet”. He tells him not to be so hasty in making judgments about spiritual matters. The tendency of western civilization is to reject a religion or belief completely instead of picking and choosing different aspects of it and creating our own belief systems. The Native expresses that Shaw sees truth in both existentialism and creative evolution and is able to accept both of them. Then the Native goes on to say that there is often a need to create conflict outside of ourselves where there is none. There doesn’t have to be two separate powers in the universe, merely one that is combination of both forces that lies inside. Shaw continues to describe and further clarify the idea of the god-within. By using the abstract idea of Hoochlipoochli he is able to bridge the gap that has been created between despair and hope.
The Aztec god Huitzlopochtli, who was called “the left-handed humming bird,” appears to be the inspiration for Hoochlipoochli.7 The Aztec god was the god of the sun and the god of war as well as the god of fertility and crops. Huitzlopochli demanded violent human sacrifice, but in return he would protect the Aztec people from an eternal night and death. He was both negative and positive combined. When the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico they did not understand this. The conquistadors had to make Huitzilopotchli into a messianic figure or a devil instead of someone who embodied both. Huitzilopotchli was a man-god who was born of a virgin like Jesus, but he also demanded bloody and violent human sacrifices in order to survive. It was difficult for them to reconcile this good and evil. Shaw reconciles them by saying that both of these conflicting characteristics coexist within human beings as a part of this god-within. Junius, like the Spanish conquistadors, have a hard time with this and the Native tells him, “…His kingdom is within us; but it is for us to administer it. Something within me makes me hunger and thirst for righteousness. That something must be Hoochlipoochli” (BB 26). The Native clarifies the idea that existentialism and creative evolution can coexist in society because they can coexist inside of us. This god-within is the key to understanding these conflicting ideas. This conversation shows most precisely how the two opposite philosophies combine into the theme of balance.
Hoochlipoochli and the idea of the Life-Force also combine with common element of sacrifice. This sacrifice then ties into the balance of dread and hope found in Zen. When Junius and Clementina give themselves over to this Life-Force it is as if they are sacrificing themselves. If they resist and are closed minded or inflexible then the Life-Force will simply choose someone else to do its will. As Whitman points out, “The Life-Force has higher ends then mere human welfare” (Whitman 177). Their own personal happiness does not matter. They do not have a say in the matter. Junius says to Bill Buoyant that the Life-Force has got him and he can make no conditions. Clementina comments that she feels as if she is committing suicide by getting married, to which Junius replies, “In a sense, you are. So am I. The chrysalis dies when the dragonfly is born” (BB 51). This feeling of committing suicide is also a feeling of sacrificing herself. It is a metaphorical death and rebirth. They are required personally to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, just like the Aztecs sacrificed themselves to Huitzilopochtli. This will keep the world from metaphorical eternal night. Just as night must come, so must the dread of existentialism. And just as the day comes, so does the hope of creative evolution. Junius and Clementina’s marriage is the sacrifice that must be made in order insure a balance of these two remains.
The allegory of existentialism is set up in Act 3 shifts from the existential hero Bill Buoyant onto Junius, who represents both Bill Buoyant’s world and the evolution of a new one. Junius’s marriage to Bill Buoyant’s daughter completes this philosophical transposition and transformation. With Junius and Clementina’s pending marriage the play is left open. Their marriage may ultimately fail, and nothing, might come of their lives, or they may break free from disillusionment. No one will ever know for sure. This type of open-ended play is typical of Shaw and moreover it also underlines the Zen concept that nothing ever ends, everything just keeps changing. The play’s purpose is not to solve the world’s problems but to present a set of ideas. As Shaw said, “The curtain no longer comes down on hero slain or married: it comes down when the audience has seen enough of the life presented to draw the moral, and must either leave the theater or miss the train” (CP. 200). Shaw creates the conflict and ideas in Buoyant Billions, but refuses to end with either existentialism or creative evolution as a solution. In fact, Junius and Clementina’s marriage illustrates not one or the other, but finds a natural balance between the two.
Aztec Student Research Guide 1997-98, Aztec Religion—Huitzilopochli
Bentley, Eric ,Bernard Shaw, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1975.
Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw: The One Volume Definitive Edition Random
House New York, 1997.
Joyce, Steven, Transformation and Texts: G.B. Shaw’s Buoyant Billions.
Camden House South Carolina, 1992.
Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart Bantam Books 1993.
Lawrence, Dan H. and Leary, Daniel J., The Complete Prefaces of George Bernard
Shaw London: Allen Lane: Penguin Press.
Shaw, George Bernard Buoyant Billions, Farfetched Fables and Shakes Versus Shav
Constable and Company Ltd, London 1950.
Whitman, Robert F, Shaw and the Play of Ideas Cornell University Press, London 1977.
1. The idea of mythical allegories are described in detail in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
2. For more details on existentialism see Martin Heidegger’s Existence and Being (Chicago, Illinois: Henry Renynery Company, 1967) or for an overview of existentialism see What is Existentialism by William Barret (New York: Grover Press, 1964).
3. Shaw describes this existential hell as a place where the soul is tormented, a world filled with confusion, enslavement, pain and emptiness. This hell is not a part of an afterlife, but a metaphor for the negative extreme within two opposing philosophies. C.D. Sidhu, Patterns of Tragicomedy in Bernard Shaw (Bahari Publications Pvt Ltd. 1978).
4. See Shaw and Religion by Charles A. Berst (Penn State, 1981).
5. See The Philosophy of Hegel , Ed. Carl J. Fredrich (New York: Random House, 1954).
6 Earlier drafts of Buoyant Billions describe an apocalyptic ice age and the atomic bomb, which make the tone of the play much darker. When Shaw cut the passages out containing these ideas the tone of the play changed. These earlier drafts are a part of Archibald Henderson Collection at University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill and are discussed in depth in Steven Joyce’s Transformation and Texts (Camden House 1992).
7. For more information on the god Huitzilopochtli see Ancient Mexico by Frederick Patterson (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962), The Aztecs of Mexico by Suzanah B. Vaillant (New York: Doubleday, 1962) and The Aztec image in Western thought by Benjamin Keen (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1971).