Corno di Bassetto Unmasked

Here are some answers to the questions arising, in the previous post, from a quoted paragraph which started with pugilism and ended with vivisection, and which was written by the music critic calling himself Corno di Bassetto.

Firstly, the person: Corno di Bassetto was the pen-name used by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote music criticism for the Star newspaper from 1888 to 1890. Although Shaw was then a relatively young man, and had not yet written any of the plays for which he is now mainly known, his personality as a writer and thinker is already recognisable even in that short extract (reproduced below) – notably in its contempt for merely conventional and unthinking social attitudes, and its unapologetic egotism. Corno di BThis last trait often appears in Shaw’s dramatic heroes and heroines as a mark of the mature and independent character – the sort of character that decides for itself what is right or wrong, rather than inheriting the decision from its surroundings.

That leads on to the second question I asked (and now wish I hadn’t, because it’s very difficult to provide a lucid and concise answer): what is the moral logic that takes him in that fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to denouncing vivisection? That there is such a logic in Shaw’s mind, the last sentence clearly implies. Here is the paragraph again (for its Christmas-related context, see the previous blog):

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.   [The Star, 27 December 1889]

At the time of writing, prize-fighting seems to have been one of those discretionary illegalities which might be prosecuted or not according to the zeal of local magistrates. The objection was mainly to the professional element (i.e. literally to prize-fighting), and to the gambling which was associated with that. Shaw reminds his readers that there are many other sorts of gambling which are quite acceptable to the law, including that which goes on daily in the Stock Exchange. Two of his earliest plays (Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in the next decade) expose exactly that sort of anomaly: the polite classes living ignorantly or at least negligently on the proceeds of practices which they condemn as vicious in their inferiors. Pugilism itself was certainly associated with lawlessness of various kinds. But, just as the stocks and shares, however conventionally respectable, are still a variety of gambling, so Shaw regarded vivisection as a polite variety of lawlessness: as he was later to write (in his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma), “the exemption of the pursuit of knowledge from the laws of honor is the most hideous conceivable enlargement of anarchy.” The vivisector and his apologists, then, are as proper a “subject for police surveillance” as the pugilist and his low-life entourage.

But what about the other varieties of animal abuse which he denounces in between: the hare coursing and the rest; how do they fit in?

We have to return for a moment to prize-fighting. Shaw knew quite a lot about the sport, having been friends with an enthusiast (a poet, so he says), who showed him round. He had even written a novel about a prize-fighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession, published in 1886; later on he turned it into a short play, in blank verse, titled The Admirable Bashville. So he was well aware of the new ‘Queensbury Rules’, and the changes which they had introduced, including the rule that gloves should be worn. This rule in particular was aimed at making the sport less luridly violent and therefore more acceptable to the law. But Shaw argued (I won’t explain how) that it had in fact put a premium upon the knockout blow, and thereby made fighting less scientific and more sensational – just as appealing to the taste for cruelty, therefore, as the former bare-knuckle style had been.

Now, Shaw was always convinced that the practice of vivisection could only be explained at source by that same human taste for cruelty. Once established, of course, the practice would be followed merely as professional orthodoxy by the unthinking “routineers”, as he called them. It would be accepted likewise by the biddable lay public who would wish to know as little as possible about what was implied in it. But cruelty was its primary inducement. So when The Admirable Bashville was published in 1901, and Shaw appended to it a ‘Note on Modern Prizefighting’, he made a rather sensational comparison between the two professions, much as Corno di Bassetto had put stocks and shares provocatively alongside gambling on prize-fights:

The legalization of cruelty to domestic animals under cover of the anaesthetic is only the extreme instance of the same social phenomenon as the legalization of prizefighting under cover of the boxing glove. The same passion explains the fascination of both practices; and in both, the professors – pugilists and physiologists alike – have to persuade the Home Office that their pursuits are painless and beneficial.

However, the boxer wants his profession to seem “thrillingly dangerous and destructive”, but to be in fact as harmless as possible, whereas the physiologist wants the opposite: a free hand to cause injury, but the appearance or reputation of harmlessness. “Consequently,” says Shaw, “the vivisector is not only crueller than the prizefighter, but, through the pressure of public opinion, a much more resolute and uncompromising liar.”

When Cashel Byron, in this stage version of the story, is chided by the romantic Lydia Carew for practising a cruel profession, he defends himself by saying he has at least “slain no creature for my sport”. And if fighting is ungentlemanly (Lydia is distinctly a ‘lady’), it at least compares favourably with “Groping for cures in the tormented entrails of friendly dogs”. In short, the moral logic that carries Corno di Bassetto from prize-fighting to vivisection, via hunting, coursing, meat-eating, etc., is this: cruelty and violence may be easier to notice and dislike in the forms which we ourselves don’t get anything out of, but they’re sordid and shameful wherever they occur, and whoever it is that’s practising them. Or as Shaw says in that preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma, where he attacks vivisection over many pages, “We are, as a matter of fact, a cruel nation; and our habit of disguising our vices by giving polite names to the offences we are determined to commit does not, unfortunately for my own comfort, impose on me.”