Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)



‘The enterprise of Messrs. T. Nelson & Sons,’ says Wells in the introduction to this volume ‘and the friendly accommodation of Messrs. Macmillan render possible this collection in one cover of all the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.’ A Best Of, then. ‘Except for the two series of linked incidents that make up the bulk of the book called Tales of Space and Time,’ Wells clarifies ‘no short story of mine of the slightest merit is excluded from this volume’. What, no ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’? Bertie, are you mad? Anyway: here, for reference (my reference I mean: of course you don't care) are the stories making up the collection, together with their places and dates of original publication.
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (Pall Mall Budget, 12 July 1894)
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 18 September 1895)
‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (The New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896)
‘The Obliterated Man’ (New Budget, 15 August 1895 as ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’)
‘The Plattner Story’ (The New Review, April 1896)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, December 1896)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
‘A Vision of Judgment’ (Butterfly, September 1899)
‘Jimmy Goggles the God’ (The Graphic, December 1898)
‘Miss Winchelsea's Heart’ (The Queen, October 1898)
‘A Dream of Armageddon’ (Black and White, May/June 1901)
‘The Valley of Spiders’ (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
‘The New Accelerator’ (The Strand, December 1901)
‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (The Strand, April 1903)
‘The Magic Shop’ (The Strand, June 1903)
‘The Empire of the Ants’ (The Strand, December 1905)
‘The Door in the Wall’ (The Daily Chronicle, 14 July 1906)
‘The Country of the Blind’ (The Strand, April 1904)
‘The Beautiful Suit’ (Colliers, 10 April 1909)
Because I've already discussed most of these stories in the posts dedicated to the collections in which they first appeared (here, here and here) I shall limit myself to a few brief observations on the title story, which made its first collected-in-a-book appearance in this vol. Then I'll say something more general about Wells and the form.



The frontispiece, there, illustrates a scene from ‘The Country of the Blind’. I'm sure you know the tale. Nuñez, attempting the ascent of the hitherto unconquered (and fictional) Mount Parascotopetl in Ecuador, falls down the far side in to an inaccessible though fertile valley entirely populated by blind people. Wells provides back-story rationalisation as to how this blind community came to be, although he really doesn't need to. The fable runs beautifully along its lines without all that sort of scaffolding.

Anyway: Nuñez goes about reciting the old Erasmian proverb ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’ and assumes he will rule this place. But the locals not only refuse to acknowledge that he is sensorially superior to them, they have no concept of sight at all and assume he is mad. Nuñez,though frustrated, realises he has to make the best of his situation, since the surrounding mountains render escape impossible. So he tries to fit in, whilst continuing to insist to the people there that he can see.

He falls in love with a girl, Medina-Saroté, but the village elders disapprove of his marriage because they consider his obsession with sight idiotic and delusional. The village doctor proposes removing Nuñez's eyes, reasoning they are diseased in some way that is affecting his brain, and, because he loves Medina-Saroté, Nuñez agrees; but on the morning of the operation he sneaks off, hoping to find a way over the impassable mountains to the outside world.

Wells published two versions of this ending: in the original version (as printed in this volume) Wells leaves his protagonist high in the mountains at nightfall, his fate uncertain, but, as I read it, probably dying. A revised and augmented 1939 version of the story alters this: Nuñez sees an impending rock slide, cannot convince the villagers of the danger they are in, and flees the valley together with Medina-Saroté in tow just before the avalanche wipes the whole place out. They make it to the outside world, marry and have four children, all sighted, but Medina-Saroté refuses the medical attention that might restore her sight. She believes her husband's insistence that the world around her is wonderful, but insists that it would be terrible to see it.

It's one of Wells's best known, and best, stories, all spun out of a premise both simple to the point of obviousness and elegantly wonderful in its novelty: ‘in the Country of the Blind would the One-Eyed Man really be king? Wouldn't an entire country of blind people have adapted to their blindness, such that sight wouldn't be such a biggie? Maybe they wouldn't even believe there was such a thing as sight’ and so on.  Not that it's a flawless piece. The ending's ambiguity speaks to a degree of uncertainty about the dramatic conception (Patrick Parrinder's analysis of the MS reveals a buried third ending, where Nuñez simply returns to the valley, which points to a writer barely able to make up his mind) and the worldbuilding of the story has never struck me as watertight. So for instance: the inhabitants of the valley think the birds are angels, since they can hear them flying about but can't touch them—but surely they'd get their hands on dead and injured birds from time to time, trap them in their homes and apprehend them, and realise they were just another sort of animal, no? But it wouldn't do to be too nitpicky here. This isn't realism, after all. This is a fictional version of Plato's allegory of the cave. As such it works well, although I'd say which of the two endings Wells came up with for this story you prefer will tell us something about your attitude to Plato's famous myth.

What I mean is: the way Plato tells it, the prisoner who escapes the cave, sees real sunlight and returns to tell his other encaved captives, has seen something both real and manifestly superior to everybody else. And in real life it sometimes is true that the person who insists s/he has seen truth and is shunned by the mass consensus for his/her pains has indeed seen truth. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred that person is not a visionary who has pierced the veil of maya, but is rather a nutter, somebody the balance of whose mind is disturbed. A hallucinator, attention-seeker or major loon. It seems to me the population of Blind Country are right to shun Nuñez's tyrannical ambitions, and certainly are better suited to their niche living that he. The original version of the story implies as much. But the avalanche conclusion steps back to the original Platonic notion: in the later version of the story Nuñez does have something the Blind Countrypeople lack, a true vision, and Wells bends the story to prove his point. Me, I prefer the latter of my two readings of Plato's allegory, and therefore the earlier ending. Your mileage may vary.



In the preface to the 1911 Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells notes that ‘the task of selection and revision’ entailed by this volume brought home to him ‘with something of the effect of discovery’ that
I was once an industrious writer of short stories, and that I am no longer anything of the kind. I have not written one now for quite a long time, and in the past five or six years I have made scarcely one a year. The bulk of the fifty or sixty tales from which this present three-and-thirty have been chosen dates from the last century. This edition is more definitive than I supposed when first I arranged for it. In the presence of so conclusive an ebb and cessation an almost obituary manner seems justifiable.
He goes on to speculate as to why he has, in effect, stopped writing short stories. Such writing used to come to him as easily as leaves to the tree:
I find it a little difficult to disentangle the causes that have restricted the flow of these inventions. It has happened, I remark, to others as well as to myself, and in spite of the kindliest encouragement to continue from editors and readers. There was a time when life bubbled with short stories; they were always coming to the surface of my mind, and it is no deliberate change of will that has thus restricted my production. ... I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.
he inserts a potted recent history of the form: the 1890s were ‘a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer’ with great work being produced almost continually by a whole tribe of short-story writers (‘Barrie, Stevenson, Frank-Harris; Max Beerbohm; Henry James; George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d'Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Marriott Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs and Joseph Conrad’), all led by Kipling: ‘Mr. Kipling had made his astonishing advent with a series of little blue-grey books, whose covers opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East’. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted. At any rate, Wells thinks that's all passed away now:
I do not think the present decade can produce any parallel to this list, or what is more remarkable, that the later achievements in this field of any of the survivors from that time, with the sole exception of Joseph Conrad, can compare with the work they did before 1900.
There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to whether Wells is right in his larger literary-historical diagnosis; but it can't be denied that it describes his own career as a short story writer. Despite being one of the true masters of the form, the inspiration of Borges and generations of SF authors, and despite the fact that some of his most enduring literary achievements are to be found amongst his shorts, he wrote no more of them. Why not?

It's not a question that admits of straightforward answer, I fear. He himself blames the figure he calls ‘the à priori critic’:
Just as nowadays he goes about declaring that the work of such-and-such a dramatist is all very amusing and delightful, but “it isn't a Play,” so we' had a great deal of talk about the short story, and found ourselves measured by all kinds of arbitrary standards. There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so. It was either Mr. Edward Garnett or Mr. George Moore in a violently anti-Kipling mood who invented the distinction between the short story and the anecdote. The short story was Maupassant; the anecdote was damnable. It was a quite infernal comment in its way, because it permitted no defence. Fools caught it up and used it freely. Nothing is so destructive in a field of artistic effort as a stock term of abuse. Anyone could say of any short story, “A mere anecdote,” just as anyone can say “Incoherent!” of any novel or of any sonata that isn't studiously monotonous. The recession of enthusiasm for this compact, amusing form is closely associated in my mind with that discouraging imputation. One felt hopelessly open to a paralysing and unanswerable charge, and one's ease and happiness in the garden of one's fancies was more and more marred by the dread of it. It crept into one's mind, a distress as vague and inexpugnable as a sea fog on a spring morning.
In comes the fog, it seems.

Still: fog, though Wells deplores it, may be part of the unique strength of the short story as a distinct form. In saying so I'm drawing on Timothy Clark's rather brilliant essay ‘Not Seeing the Short Story: A Blind Phenomenology of Reading’, which appeared as part of the Oxford Literary Review's special issue on ‘The Blind Short Story’ in 2004. Clark makes the case for the short story as a specifically blind mode of art, arguing that ‘what I propose to call, non-pejoratively, the “blindness” of the short-story revisits the issue of the form's relation to realism’. A long quotation from Middlemarch demonstrates George Eliot's commitment to as whole a sight as possible. The short story, by contrast, is necessarily determined by its pseudo-poetic brevity:
[Eliot's] passage of character analysis lasts several pages. However, were such a series of paragraphs as that about Lydgate to appear in a short story, might the mechanics of its realism not be more likely to echo back on itself, revealing its tautological basis? This element of the literary, that it actually conjures up what it seems merely to re-present as already there, is something this forms mere brevity—its lack of concretizing context—makes less ignorable. The short story, as they say, is more ‘poetic’. Eliot's effect of subtlety seems to escape this merely self-validating quality through its integration into earlier and later passages of the text. Without that, the kinship between the general ‘human truths’ of such a realist text and the kind of effects of ‘truth’ at work in a horoscope would be clearer. This lack of the trompe-l'oeil effects of a lengthy context constitutes what may be called the relative blindness of the short story. [Clark, ‘Not Seeing the Short StoryOxford Literary Review 26 (2004), 8]
Clark goes on to develop a larger phenomenology of blindness and reading, and whilst there's not space to get into all that here, it is, I think, worth drawing out one other point he makes. Metaphors of seeing, according to Clark, pervade short story theory. He finds a remarkable ‘predominance of countervailing metaphors of sight, of the striving to “see” a text whole, the flash of revelation etc’ in the way critics write about the short story form, and quotes one such critic:
‘Visual metaphors’, writes Dominic Head, ‘abound in short story theory, a fact which underlies the “spatial” aspect of the genre, but which also obscures the illusory nature of this aspect.’ The illusion lies in the fact that the visual pattern is constructed from out of the necessarily temporal movement of reading, its working through both memory and anticipation to achieve a seeming ‘overview’ of the text as a whole. Visual metaphors, he argues, often focusing the whole text through some crucial epiphanic moment of ‘insight’—itself usually described as if it were an instance of the miracle of the restoration of sight—repress the heterogeneity and ‘openness’ of a story. [Clark, 9; he is quoting Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10]
This all seems to me interesting in several ways, and although Clark doesn't might have some bearing on Wells's own praxis. Blindness either as a total state, as in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (or cast by the individual out upon the community in the short novel The Invisible Man), or else as a partial restriction or limitation of vision is a recurring theme in Wells's short stories: ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, ‘The Crystal Egg’ and many others. Conceivably Wells's increasing dissatisfaction with the short story mode correlated to that belief, which increasingly gripped him as the 1920s and 1920s went on, that he ought to be aiming at a kind of whole sight. His next novel, Marriage (1912), is a positively Eliotian exercise in comprehensive vision, in concretizing context and sheer length—getting on for 600 pages in the first edition (Joan and Peter from 1918 is nearly 800).

No question but it's a shame. Wells blindness was prodigiously more eloquent and resonant than his attempts as clear-sightedness. But he didn't think so, and drew a line under his short story writing. The short story form is the enclosed valley of ‘The Country of the Blind’; it is the sightless but blessed inhabitants of that valley. And the truth of Wells's later career is that he could not rest content in that place, but had to engineer a gigantic rock-fall and the opening of a new breach in the surrounding mountains to be able to scramble back to Realism.

1 comment:

  1. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted.

    Nor I to distract you, but you've just reminded me of the almost physical shock "Dayspring Mishandled" gave me. Despite an apparently yarning, 'anecdotal' style, that story has the concision of Chekhov, and a pitiless eye for spoiled and broken people that reminds me of much later writers - M John Harrison, say, or your good self in certain moods ("S-Bomb" and the present-day narrative of TTI). Beyond Wells, I think. Must read some more Kipling.

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