To quote myself:
The structure of [Widowers’ Houses, George Bernard Shaw’s first play] . . . falls into the classic romantic comedy pattern [boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl], ending with all the characters leaving the stage arm-in-arm to join in a pre-marriage feast, celebrating boy getting girl. . . . However, Widowers’ Houses does not allow its audience to savor the romantic reconciliation and comic resolution. As the audience celebrates the triumph of love, it must, at the same time, acknowledge the defeat of its own morality. The hero and heroine, after all, are going to set up housekeeping on the profits of a land swindle. . . .In allowing love to triumph at the expense of morality, Shaw gives the audience at the same time what it wants and what it does not want. He gives it a happy ending—and a continuing state of corruption. He gives it boy getting girl—and swindles moving forward. He gives the audience—in short—comedy and satire.*
I had occasion recently to talk to someone about Widowers’ Houses, and when I got home I had an epiphanic moment. “Cognitive dissonance,” I exclaimed aloud (and since there was no-one around to witness my talking to myself, I escaped being sent to the loony bin this time). “Why weren’t you in my ken when I wrote my dissertation in 1975?”
I immediately began an internet search of all things (OK, several things) cognitive dissonance-ish. Now it’s all around us, but when, I wanted to know, did the term pop up into our culture. It reminded me of several other words—tofu, cholesterol, tapas, fajitas**—that seemed suddenly to appear before me like rabbits magically out of a conjurer’s hat and to begin multiplying like you-know-whats.
The term “cognitive dissonance” was introduced by the social psychologist Leon Festinger (who, I’m proud to say, shared the same alma mater with me) in his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. My American Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991) includes the term and dates it to 1957 (“psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously”). However, neither my American Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: Second College Edition (1980) nor my British The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1993) contains an entry for the term. Perhaps this is not really surprising. Although the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows the sudden explosion onto the scene of “cognitive dissonance,” the term itself seems to have taken a good while to move from the specialized realm of psychology into general usage.
For example, the first use of the term by the New Yorker was in 1988; there were 14 uses during the 1990s, the other 27 uses (so far) coming in the 2000s.
For the New York Times, the 1960s saw 4 uses; the 1970s had 5. It was in the 1980s that the term began to find its way into more general use—20 mentions. And in the 1990s it exploded to 52.
So with this historical research under my belt I could feel better about not having that useful term available when writing my magnum opus (though it really would have helped).
Besides using it to explain the satirical implications of the effect the denouement of Widowers’ Houses should have had on its audience, I would have called the term into action in the chapter on Man and Superman. That play concludes not with boy getting girl, but with girl snaring boy. To quote myself again:
Jack Tanner, M.I.R.C. (Member of the Idle Rich Class, as he calls himself), author of “The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion” . . . , socialist, and creative evolutionist, is the ironic exposer of the fatuous and false values of others.
Fall of radical talk on politics and morals, he skewers the conventional values of the other characters. But while he can rightly describe the landscape, he is blind to his own place in it. He expounds at length on the Life Force (that scheme of nature by which the female ensnares her prey to further the human species), casting his poet-romantic friend Octavius as Ann Whitefield’s love object—without realizing all the while that he himself is her target:
[H]is philosophical insight does not compensate for his inability to escape [the Life Force’s] entrapment. The laughter at the end of the play is directed at Tanner, who is allowed by Ann Whitefield, his captor, to “Go on talking.”
The conventional-minded members of the audience can join in the laughter at the iconoclastic radical—but Tanner’s downfall (if we can call it that) only comes about because he is proved right. Right about men’s and women’s roles in the larger drama of life. But wrong about the not-so-small detail of knowing his own part in it.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” lamented W.H. Auden. Alas, that’s also true of Shaw’s satire in this play. The conventional audience should experience cognitive dissonance as the object of its derision is brought down only by the correct working out of ideas he has proclaimed. But “should” doesn’t mean “did.”
And Shaw’s beautiful subtlety didn’t even have a name at the time.
*Normalvision: A Study of Bernard Shaw’s Satire