We might call this book Philosophical Inwellstigations. What's that? No?
The book's four sections—‘Metaphysics’, ‘Of Belief’, ‘Of General Conduct’ and ‘Some Personal Things’—run through a number of theological and philosophical positions, saying nothing very new but at least providing us with a broad sketch of Wells's worldview in 1908. Indeed, as his views changed so did this book. During the First World War Wells experienced a muted sort of quasi-religious conversion, something recorded fictionally in Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916) and non-fictionally in God the Invisible King (1917). He rewrote portions of First and Last Things to reflect his new hospitality to the divine, publishing this revised edition in 1917:
This ‘Conversion’ didn't last very long, though; and in 1929 Wells put out a new edition of First and Last Things that reverted, more or less, to the 1908 edition.
But you can at least tell from this how close the book sails, even in its original version, to a non-denominational and vaguely socialist-deist religiosity.
This enables Wells to say some engaging and even moving things about faith, loss and love; but the book as a whole is a strange mishmash. As an intervention into metaphysical debates around skepticism and knowledge, epistemology, theology and ethics, First and Last Things is a pretty ropey confection: the sort of thing a clever, widely- but not expertly-read mind might pull together without over-straining itself. There are various holes and fuzzinesses, and overall a distinct tendentiousness of argument.
It looks like I'm criticising Wells when I say that, I know, but I'm really not. The book's tendenz, as it were, is straightforwardly stated: ‘necessarily when one begins an inquiry into the fundamental nature of oneself and one’s mind and its processes,’ Wells says, ‘one is forced into autobiography’ [1:3]. And it is as autobiography, or more specifically as a particular sort of coded autobiography, that First and Last Things makes its most plausible claim upon readers today. Indeed, there's something attractively bonkers about a man styling his own life neither as external narrative nor psychoanalytic inwardness, but instead as a mode of philosophical hermeneutics. Hard to think of anyone else who tried that experiment, certainly.
The resulting memoir is presided over not by Sophia, the Muse of philosophy, but by another female presence. The impetus for the whole project, and its guiding spirit, was Amber Reeves, the brilliant and beautiful young woman (twenty-one years Wells's junior) with whom he had recently started an affair. This is how First and Last Things opens:
Recently I set myself to put down what I believe. I did this with no idea of making a book, but at the suggestion of a friend and to interest a number of friends with whom I was associated. We were all, we found, extremely uncertain in our outlook upon life, about our religious feelings and in our ideas of right and wrong. And yet we reckoned ourselves people of the educated class and some of us talk and lecture and write with considerable confidence. We thought it would be of very great interest to ourselves and each other if we made some sort of frank mutual confession. We arranged to hold a series of meetings in which first one and then another explained the faith, so far as he understood it, that was in him. [First and Last Things, 1:1]The ‘friend’ mentioned in that second sentence was Reeves, and however much Wells seeks to create the impression of group discussion it was intercourse, verbal and sexual, with Reeves that prompted the writing of this book.
Now, Reeves is a fascinating individual, and one to whom this blog will return, since she was (famously) the prototype for the character of Ann Veronica in the novel of that name, and also (less famously) for Amanda The Research Magnificent. Her affair with Wells was a scandal in its day: her parents, Wells's fellow Fabians, were outraged that he had used the organisation as a front for seducing their daughter. Amber bore him an illegitimate child, named Anna-Jane, a name presumably recording both her mother's fictional identity and Wells's peculiar fondness for the name Jane (remembering he had already persuaded his second wife Amy Catherine to change her name to Jane), then married a man devoted to her called Blanco White, who was for a time complaisant with his wife's continuing adultery with Wells. There was a storm of disapproval, from all sides. In less than two years the affair had flared out.
Margaret Drabble has interesting things to say about the larger lineaments of Reeves' life and career in an essay that is keen, for obvious reasons, to portray her as more than just a girl who had an affair with Wells. That's an understandable, and indeed necessary project, of course, although I'm going to run the risk of reverting to the older masculinist perspective by concentrating on Wells's side of the whole business, and therefore shrinking Reeves back into ‘the woman who slept with H.G.’ But there is, I think, an important point worth making.
Wells had many love affairs, and many more sexual encounters, but Amber Reeves was something unique in his life: an intelligent, vivacious, pretty and sexually-eager younger woman who evidently flattered Wells's middle-age self-esteem. He certainly fell badly for her. On the one hand this is the stuff of the merest cliché, yet another example of male mid-life-crisis shaggery that, by its very commonplaceness, invites ridicule. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie (‘Amber Reeves was now the focus for Wells's dreams and desires’) lay out the obvious stuff:
H.G. was now at an age when he could either come to terms with the fact of middle age or defy it by embracing the fantasy of youth. All through his writings he had revealed a profound anxiety about decay and death, and now—in the magic of his relationship with Amber—he hoped to find a means of cheating fate. [The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (Weidenfeld 1973), 250]On the other hand, there is something particular about this specific Wellsian dalliance that takes it at least a little out of the ordinary. Anthony West's biography of his father (H G Wells: Aspects of a Life) opens with a detailed account of Wells and Reeves together 1908-09, premised on the notion that Wells ‘loved Amber Reeves as fully as he was capable of loving anyone’ and putting significant Wellsian creative store by Wells's ‘pain of losing her’. But what strikes me, in addition to the personal distress which I'm sure Wells suffered (something it's easy to overlook, I think, distracted as we are by the comic-pathetic figure of the middle-aged man yearning after the no-longer-attainable young girl) is the larger quotient of a more social humiliation. His affair with Reeves exposed Wells to a range of personal and public shamings: he was blackballed at his London club, shunned by many in the Fabian Society, and had to sign an ignominious affidavit drawn up by the lawyers of Blanco White (who adopted Wells' and Reeve's daughter as his own) in which he agreed to cease all contact with Reeves and their child. Beatrice Webb sent poisoned pen-letters to prominent Fabians and others saying ‘that the liaison had been a sordid intrigue in which a lecherous married man had exploited the innocence of an inexperienced and badly brought up girl’ and advising people she knew ‘as had daughters between fifteen and twenty’, to keep their girls out of Wells's way [West, 11]. It was all very public and evidently very humiliating. That said, there's a part of me that wonders if, rather than being the price Wells paid for his time with Reeves, all that might not have been the point.
I'll come back to that later. My purpose here is to advance a critical reading of First and Last Things, but I'm well aware that my approach here—which is to read Wells notionally objective account of metaphysics as actually a study of the ontology of self-esteem via sexual satisfaction—might itself be judged merely tendentious. Still, I'm going to give it a go.
Wells grounds his self-styled ‘metaphysics’ in what he calls ‘the world of fact’, something he is disinclined to interrogate too closely.
I do not attempt to define this word fact. Fact expresses for me something in its nature primary and unanalyzable. I start from that. I take as a typical statement of fact that I sit here at my desk writing with a fountain pen on a pad of ruled scribbling paper, that the sunlight falls upon me and throws the shadow of my window mullion across the page, that Peter, my cat, sleeps on the window-seat close at hand. [First and Last Things, 1:3]So: fact is something as to-hand and graspable as Wells's penis. Sorry, I meant to type pen. As to-hand and graspable as his pen. Later Wells insists: ‘the forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it’ [1:5]—so now the mind is something that goes into the symbolic vagina and extracts the truth, howesoever roughly.
This is grounded in a sense of Wells's own Being, factual and intimate to him, but also important to the cosmos. What is this Being of his? It is physical, and committed to beauty (he dismisses those who spend their lives ‘crushing the impulses and evading the complications that arise out of sex and flying to devotions and simple duties in nunneries and monasteries’ [2:7]). It is ‘strong’ and capable of ‘movement’ [1:9]. It ‘hangs’ between two circular quantities (compared to spotlights) ‘the inner world and the outer world’ [2:4]. It is perhaps ‘a mere tentacle’ but it ‘grows beautiful and powerful’ [2:8]. I think we're beginning to get the idea of what ‘it’ is.
Wells finds himself unimpressed with symbolic logic, denying that ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ exhaust the possibilities of entities.
Hardly original, but fair enough. And we get closer to the nub with this citation of his young lover by name:
There is another infirmity of the mind to which my attention has been called by an able paper read this spring to the Cambridge Moral Science Club by my friend Miss Amber Reeves. ... The current syllogistic logic rests on the assumption that either A is B or it is not B. The practical reality, she contends, is that nothing is permanent; A is always becoming more or less B or ceasing to be more or less B. But it would seem the human mind cannot manage with that. [First and Last Things, 1:8]Seems a little hard to blame ‘the human mind’ for rejecting the notion that the sun is always becoming more or less the moon, or that this real horse in this-here field is always becoming more or less that unicorn in that old legend, since both propositions are so eminently rejectable. I suppose it's possible we might think this almost modish of Wells. Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols had repudiated ‘being’ in favour of Heraclitean ‘becoming’ as far back as 1888, and Henri Bergson was contemporaneously making a whole career out of just that shift. But this passage is nothing so defensible as Bergsonianism. The real giveaway is the mention of Reeves's name. Wells doesn't mean that A and not-A are always blurring into one another; he means that he and Amber Reeves, when they have sex, are always blurring into one another, and that he approves of this.
I know, I know. I'm being crass. In First and Last Things Wells builds on this foundation of a sort of facticity of becoming (though he doesn't put it in those terms) a broadly Providential ethics: we're all part of something larger, all interconnected with one another, acceptance of our failures as well as our successes the royal road to happiness. He repeats that he can't prove his grounds, and that therefore these are acts of faith. His ‘primary act of faith’, he says, is that the Universe not only has a plan but that he, and I, and you, are all crucial to that plan: ‘I believe in the scheme, in the Project of all things, in the significance of myself and all life’ [2:8]; ‘I assert therefore that I am important in a scheme, that we are all important in that scheme’ [2:1]. He assents to the existence of a sort-of God, though not an anthropomorphic one, so he avoids the conventional divine nomenclature.
From here the book moves into its lengthy third section, sketching out Wellsian ideas of right behaviour, influenced of course by, and in large part developed in terms of, his socialism. This tends more or less interesting, more or less windily digressive; but the moments when Amber Reeves intervenes into Wells's thought are the moments that bring Well back to this sensual and somatic underpinning. For example: he downgrades Justice and Mercy from his account of social interaction (‘Justice and Mercy are indeed not ultimately different in their nature from such other conventions as the rules of a game, the rules of etiquette, forms of address, cab tariffs and standards of all sorts’ [3:24]) preferring to ground social ethics in ‘Modesty and self-submission, love and service [as], in the right system of my beliefs, far more fundamental rightnesses and duties’. This bring Reeves back in to his account:
Now here the friend who has read the first draft of this book falls into something like a dispute with me. She does not, I think, like this dismissal of Justice from a primary place in my scheme of conduct.Wells responds with an intruguing argument. It's true, he thinks, that talk of loving the whole human race is vapid because impossible (‘to love everybody is not to love at all’). But it is nonetheless the ideal to which we should all strive, and a person who loves two people rather than one person is closer numerically to that ideal: ‘to love two people is surely to love more than to love just one person, and so by way of three and four to a very large number.’ [3:25] As if a man should say: sure, I sleep with my wife and also with my mistress, and from time to time with this or that third or fourth other woman, but them's just my stepping-stones towards total love for all humanity, baby. Who could doubt his reasoning? Well indeed.
“Justice,” she asserts, “is an instinctive craving very nearly akin to the physical craving for equilibrium. Its social importance corresponds. It seeks to keep the individual’s claims in such a position as to conflict as little as possible with those of others. Justice is the root instinct of all social feeling, of all feeling which does not take account of whether we like or dislike individuals, it is the feeling of an orderly position of our Ego towards others, merely considered as others, and of all the Egos merely as Egos towards each other. love cannot be felt towards others as others. Love is the expression of individual suitability and preference, its positive existence in some cases implies its absolute negation in others. Hence Love can never be the essential and root of social feeling, and hence the necessity for the instinct of abstract justice which takes no account of preferences or aversions. And here I may say that all application of the word love to unknown, distant creatures, to mere others, is a perversion and a wasting of the word love, which, taking its origin in sexual and parental preference, always implies a preference of one object to the other. To love everybody is simply not to love at all. And it is just because of the passionate preference instinctively felt for some individuals, that mankind requires the self-regarding and self-respecting passion of justice.” [First and Last Things, 3:25]
This leads me back, as a sort of coda to this post, to the affair out of which First and Last Things was written. Reading the book straight through I was struck that there's something oddly flattening about the vision of social harmony Wells develops. It's not just the lack of dramatic or novelistic specifics, which perhaps limits the force with which Wells can make his points; it's something more, a valorisation of balanced, loving and serviceable connections that we might, almost, call rhizomatic. The words ‘hierarchy’, ‘rank’ and ‘status’ nowhere appear in the book. The ideal world is figured as an equalised collective. Was the relationship between fortysomething Wells and Amber Reeves only a few years out of her teenagerdom really so equal? Could any relationship be so, on such terms? Jane Lewis, in a thoughtful account of the affair, notes that ‘while contemporaries had no trouble in condemning Wells, Reeves posed greater difficulty’ since ‘there is no reason to believe that Reeves did not reach out with gusto for Wells. The affair was one of great passion on both sides.’ She discusses Beatrice Webb's havering over whether to include Reeves in her condemnation of Wells's actions:
Beatrice Webb oscillated between condemnation of Reeves—she described her as a ‘terrible little pagan—vain, egotistical and careless of other people's happiness’ (on the occasion of the 1908 Fabian Summer School), and, after the affair was confirmed, ‘a little heathen’, ‘a little liar . . . superlatively vain’, ‘unscrupulous’—on the one hand, and pity for a young woman seduced on the other. In the end she settled for Amber-as-victim, blaming Wells for having ‘Amber as his demoralized mistress at a time when he was on intimate terms of friendship with her parents.’ [Jane Lewis, ‘Intimate Relations between Men and Women: The Case of H. G. Wells and Amber Pember Reeves’, History Workshop 37 (Spring, 1994), 84-85]The problem, in other words, is not being sure how the power dynamic ran inside the relationship:
Reeves was young and H. G. Wells could undoubtedly have stopped the affair if he had chosen to do so; instead he apparently relished Reeves treating him as her mentor and calling him ‘Master’ (Ann Veronica treats Capes similarly). But this is insufficient to render Reeves a victim.I daresay it's possible to overthink this sort of thing, and doubtless Wells, as a, well, man was flattered and excited to have the opportunity to sleep with a woman at once beautiful, young, intelligent and prepared to play at this sort of submission (‘Master’ and so on). It was presumably only a game; certainly it's impossible, reading up on her, to miss how forceful and driven Amber Reeves was in every other aspect of her life. But of course people are entitled to play whatever consensual sexual games they like. Still: the thing that strikes me is how far Wells pushed the public performance of this affair, despite the fact that he must have known—for how could he not?—this would result in scandal and shame. There was after all a traditional template for the conduct of extra-marital dalliances, and it stressed secrecy; Wells and Reeves flouted those conventions, presumably telling themselves they refused to collaborate with hypocrisy. ‘Their relationship,’ in the words of the Mackenzies, ‘was brazenly indiscreet’. And so it followed, as the night the day, that Wells was shunned, expelled, rebuked, threatened with legal action. ‘Some people,’ the Mackenzies note drily, ‘were becoming reluctant about mixing socially with Wells’ [Mackenzies, Life, 255]. The publication of Ann Veronica in October 1909, and the immediate scandal that created, only intensified the situation. In a letter to his friend Violet Paget (who wrote as Vernon Lee) Wells onrunningly gushed: ‘I was & am in love with a girl half my age, we have a quite peculiar & intense mental intimacy, which is the finest & best thing we have had or can have in our lives again—& we have loved one another physically and she is going to bear me a child’. The formless on-rush of this rather foregrounds the sense of just how threatened the relationship was by what the letter acknowledges was the ‘scandal’ it had created. It's as if Wells is in a hurry, here: as if he has to get it all out at once before his feelings are interdicted by society or fate. Wells's past-and-future formulations, especially ‘the finest & best thing we have had or can have in our lives again’, express a sort of quondam et futuris sense that what the two lovers cannot have is, precisely, now.
Writing to Arnold Bennett in July 1909 Wells said that he had tried to give up Reeves, but that he had ‘under estimated the web of affections and memories that held them together’. His account of the relationship to Bennett is especially interesting, actually: ‘I am extremely happy’ Wells insists, despite ‘violent emotional storms’. We might wonder if he was happy not despite but because of the violent emotional storms; and might even wonder if the public humiliation the affair brought upon Wells might not have been part of the point of the whole thing.
In saying so I may, of course, simply be overthinking things. The motivation could have been much simpler than I'm making out: maybe Wells enjoyed having sex with a willing and beautiful young partner, and in the headrush of the affair he thought he could somehow carry conventional society with him. In wondering about a more counter-intuitive explanation I'm drawing on William Ian Miller's Humiliation and Other Essays on Honour, Social Discomfort and Violence (Cornell Univ Press 1993), a book I think that deserves to be better known. Miller thinks humiliation, shame and embarrassment are ‘the central emotions of everyday social existence’, and that all three are tangled up in complicated ways in our sense of self, of our place in the social nexus and hierarchy. ‘I seek’, says Miller
to carve out a domain for humiliation which is distinct from shame on one side and embarrassment on the other … There is an intimate connection between pretension and humiliation. Humiliation is the emotion we feel when our pretensions are discovered. By taking this view of humiliation I reject masochism or torture as providing the paradigm for humiliation, as some have done. Humiliation inheres in every nook and cranny of the normal. We know it in the myriad little humiliations we frequently suffer or risk suffering in every face-to-face interaction. The humiliation of the perverse, of extremis, of death camps and interrogation rooms, is parasitical on the usual and the familiar, not the other way around. [Miller, 10]I think this is right. Certainly I don't believe Wells was prompted by masochism in pushing this scandal into the face of the public in the way he did; but I do wonder if he wasn't aware, on some level, with some degree of self-knowledge or other, that his pretensions with regard to Amber Reeves, the idea that he was the ‘Master’, were always already uncovered. Say Reeves was using Wells to gain sexual experience, to make her point in the face of the world, to spend time with one of the world's most famous writers and develop her own writerly ambitions, to establish herself as a woman. Say Wells was conscious of his helplessness in the face of her allure. The public shame, then, becomes an everting of the private humiliation: he is, in a way, boasting about something that flatters his esteem, and attempting to get behind the shame of it on a point of free love principle. This going public, as well as this writing-into-the-world, of his private life is very Wells (Miller argues that ‘how we go about avoiding humiliation is us, is our very character’). There's a common sense aspect to this, I think.
I suppose there is a certain kind of old, rich, ugly man, who, having sex with a young, poor, beautiful girl, thinks nothing more than this is great or hey she must be really into me. But most men, even in the grip of sexual obsession, surely have a touch more self-awareness than that, and Wells was certainly imaginative and insightful enough to make such self-deception untenable. Because, obviously, one of the adjectives in the triad old, rich, ugly is rather more pertinent to the situation our man finds himself in than the other two, such that without it the liaison wouldn't be happening in the first place. I don't mean to hate-on Wells, who by all accounts was charming, not bad-looking (though not markedly handsome, and also short, weak and with a high-pitched cockney voice) and attentive. But presumably he understood that Amber Reeves was with him because he was a celebrity and a wealthy man, in the sense that it's hard to see she would have gone with him if he'd been poor and obscure. Because: well, of course not. And that realisation cannot help but be a little humiliating to the man concerned.
We have, I know, strayed far from a specific reading of First and Last Things, which book has nothing to say about humiliation. That, I think, is my point, or the rump of one: the oddly flattened texture of Wells's personal and (more to the point) interpersonal metaphysics strikes me as a reaction against the actuality of sexual hierarchical game-playing.