Tuesday, 31 October 2017

War and the Future (1917)

‘An account of a short tour of the war fronts made by the author in 1916,’ War and the Future is evidence of Wells's national prominence, after two decades of writing and the sudden uptick in commercial success of his war journalism and Mr Britling. That he was invited at all, and given such access to the allied military enterprise, up to and including the front line, is one mark of this. But even more notable is the way he felt confident enough to ignore government attempts to censor his criticisms of aspects of the war's prosecution, in particular the way the war was turning the common soldier into what he calls ‘the Resentful Employee’. Wells told his publisher the white lie that the work had been officially approved for publication when it hadn't (if the potential commission of high treason can be considered a white lie).

Anyhow: the book reprints articles originally published in the press: Part 1 was first printed in Cassell's Magazine (Dec. 1916), and most of Parts 3 and 4 appeared in The Daily Chronicle (Nov. 1916) and The Daily News (Dec. 1916-Jan. 1917) respectively. The book was capped off with two previously unpublished essays:

1. The Passing of the Effigy

2. The War in Italy (August, 1916)
I. The Isonzo Front
II. The Mountain War
III. Behind the Front

3. The Western War (September, 1916)
I. Ruins
II. The Grades of War
III. The War Landscape
IV. New Arms For Old Ones
V. Tanks

4. How People Think About the War
I. Do They Really Think At All?
II. The Yielding Pacifist And The Conscientious Objector
III. The Religious Revival
IV. The Riddle of the British

5. The Social Changes In Progress

6. The Ending of the War
What War and the Future is, fundamentally, is a work of travel literature, full of compelling detail and vivid observations about the places and people the narrator has seen, with this, perhaps for-the-first-time-in-literature wrinkle: the land into which the traveller is venturing is called Total War.
My earlier rides in Venetia began always with the level roads of the plain, roads frequently edged by watercourses, with plentiful willows beside the road, vines and fields of Indian corn and suchlike lush crops ... Upon the roads and beside them [now] was the enormous equipment of a modern army advancing. Everywhere I saw new roads being made, railways pushed up, vast store dumps, hospitals; everywhere the villages swarmed with grey soldiers; everywhere our automobile was threading its way and taking astonishing risks among interminable processions of motor lorries, strings of ambulances or of mule carts, waggons with timber, waggons with wire, waggons with men’s gear, waggons with casks, waggons discreetly veiled, columns of infantry, cavalry, batteries en route. Every waggon that goes up full comes back empty, and many wounded were coming down and prisoners and troops returning to rest ... One travelled through a choking dust under the blue sky, and above the steady incessant dusty succession of lorry, lorry, lorry, lorry that passed one by, one saw, looking up, the tree tops, house roofs, or the solid Venetian campanile of this or that wayside village. [2.1]
He's particularly good on the ruined landscapes of the Western front. At Fricourt he's shown round a captured German trench: ‘like the work of some horrible badger’. At Dompierre ‘the German trenches skirted the cemetery, and they turned the dead out of their vaults and made lurking places of the tombs’ (‘Dureresque’, Wells calls this). Wells concludes: ‘this war is, indeed, a troglodytic propaganda.’ [3.1] There are many lovely little turns of phrase: the way ‘a weary man is doing the toilet of a machine gun’ [3.3]; how, after loading a shell in a big gun, the breech ‘closes like a safe door’ [4.3].

His account of the situation at Arras has a wonderful Absurdist quality to it: ‘the British hold the town, the Germans hold a northern suburb; at one point near the river the trenches are just four metres apart.’ ‘This state of tension,’ Wells notes, ‘has lasted for long months’:
There is no advantage in an assault; across that narrow interval we should only get into trenches that might be costly or impossible to hold, and so it would be for the Germans on our side. But there is a kind of etiquette observed; loud vulgar talking on either side of the four-metre gap leads at once to bomb throwing. And meanwhile on both sides guns of various calibre keep up an intermittent fire, the German guns register—I think that is the right term—on the cross of Arras cathedral, the British guns search lovingly for the German batteries. As one walks about the silent streets one hears, “Bang—Pheeee—woooo” and then far away “dump.” One of ours. Then presently back comes “Pheeee—woooo—Bang!” One of theirs. Amidst these pleasantries, the life of the town goes on. [3.2]
I love the idea that it is loud or vulgar chatter that provokes potentially lethal assault. ‘Overnight,’ Wells says of the day he visited, ‘[the Germans] had killed a gendarme. There is to be a public funeral and much ceremony. It is rare for anyone now to get killed; everything is so systematised.’ Arras functions pretty much like a regular town: business and shops, its own local newspaper, and a profitable, if rather grisly, new tourist trade. At the same time, Wells notes, ‘there is an effect of waiting stillness like nothing else I have ever experienced’. It would be a great setting for a novel, actually.

Wells praises the developments in military aircraft, and his essay on the tank is simply splendid. It's almost sweet to see how diffidently proud he is that his story “The Land Ironclads” (The Strand Magazine 1903) was the main inspiration to the British government to put money into research and development of this weapon of war: ‘they were my grandchildren—I felt a little like King Lear when first I read about them.’ [3.5] He's spot-on about the early models' jolie laide quality: ‘never has any such thing so completely masked its wickedness under an appearance of genial silliness. The Tank is a creature to which one naturally flings a pet name; the five or six I was shown wandering, rooting and climbing over obstacles were as amusing and disarming as a litter of lively young pigs.’
They are like jokes by Heath Robinson. One forgets that these things have already saved the lives of many hundreds of our soldiers and smashed and defeated thousands of Germans. Said one soldier to me: “In the old attacks you used to see the British dead lying outside the machine-gun emplacements like birds outside a butt with a good shot inside. Now, these things walk through.”
The second half of the book contains observations of a more general sort. Most people, Wells, argues, don't think through what the war means, because they are ‘swamped by the spectacular side of the business’ (‘it was very largely my fear of being so swamped myself that made me reluctant to go as a spectator to the front,’ he says. ‘I knew that my chances of being hit by a bullet were infinitesimal, but I was extremely afraid of being hit by some too vivid impression.’) Wells thinks the real war is a war of ideas, and those ideas are about the future organisation of humankind. He speaks several times to the decay of individualism he is certain the war represents:
One of the larger singularities of the great war is its failure to produce great and imposing personalities, mighty leaders, Napoleons, Caesars. I would indeed make that the essential thing in my reckoning of the war. It is a drama without a hero; without countless incidental heroes no doubt, but no star part. Even the Germans, with a national predisposition for hero-cults and living still in an atmosphere of Victorian humbug, can produce nothing better than that timber image, Hindenburg. [1.3]
There is something in this, isn't there? Certainly, warmaking over the last fifty years (say) has rather reinforced the notion that the logic of modern mechanised war calls for managers rather than generals: people skilled at coordinating large quantities of men and materiel. But if that's true, then it makes me wonder whether WW2, with its pantomime villains and heroes, its Hitlers and Stalins and Churchills, its Rommells and Montys and Pattons, was a kind of blip? Or was there something distinctive about that war that led to that resurgence of the Wellington/Napoleon, Caesar/Pompey style of personality narratives? To ask this, though, is of course to stray from Wells's main point, which is not that the nature of war has changed to propel faceless bureaucrats to key high command roles. It is that humanity itself has passed through a sea-change away from notable individualism and towards a mode of religiously-inflected communalism:
In the last few years I have developed a religious belief that has become now to me as real as any commonplace fact. I think that mankind is still as it were collectively dreaming and hardly more awakened to reality than a very young child. It has these dreams that we express by the flags of nationalities and by strange loyalties and by irrational creeds and ceremonies, and its dreams at times become such nightmares as this war. But the time draws near when mankind will awake and the dreams will fade away, and then there will be no nationality in all the world but humanity, and no kind, no emperor, nor leader but the one God of mankind. This is my faith. I am as certain of this as I was in 1900 that men would presently fly. To me it is as if it must be so. [1.4]
So, it must be so, must it? OK then. It's the old, old fault-line in Wells's writing, this: because however earnestly the duller later sections argue this thesis, it is the very spectacularism that Wells disavows that tickles his writerly imagination and leads to the most memorable sections in the book. As (to close) this account—again, I think the first such widescreen visual SFX representation of such a thing—of the Death Star exploding at the end of Return of the Jedi a German Zeppelin intercepted on a bombing raid over Essex:
The Zeppelins of Billericay and Potter’s Bar are—heroic things. (The Cuffley one came down too quickly, and the fourth one which came down for its crew to surrender is despised.) I have heard people describe the two former with eyes shining with enthusiasm.

“First,” they say, “you saw a little round red glow that spread. Then you saw the whole Zeppelin glowing. Oh, it was beautiful! Then it began to turn over and come down, and it flames and pieces began to break away. And then down it came, leaving flaming pieces all up the sky. At last it was a pillar of fire eight thousand feet high. Everyone said, ‘Ooooo!’ And then someone pointed out the little aeroplane lit up by the flare—such a leetle thing up there in the night! It is the greatest thing I have ever seen. Oh! the most wonderful—most wonderful!”

There is a feeling that the Germans really must after all be a splendid people to provide such magnificent pyrotechnics. [4.1]
Evoking this filmic quality is where Wells is, often, at his best. Everyone said, ‘Ooooo!’ indeed

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Soul of a Bishop (1917)

A pendant to God the Invisible King, this short novel recasts Wells's new-found (and in the event, briefly-held-to) religious revelation as fiction. We start with Edward Scrope, Bishop of Princhester, waking, angst-struck, from a feverish dream about the Council of Nicaea—the point, according to Wells's argument in God the Invisible King, at which the rot set in with Christianity.

The highly-strung and insomniac Scrope has become a ‘belated doubter’ [2.1] since promotion from the old rectory of Otteringham to the episcopal throne of Princhester, a place which ‘made one think that recently there had been a second and much more serious Fall’: ‘industrial and unashamed’, ‘a countryside savagely invaded by forges and mine shafts and gaunt black things ... scarred and impeded and discoloured’, a landscape in which the human scale is ‘jostled and elbowed and overshadowed by horrible iron cylinders belching smoke and flame.’ [2.2] In case we miss the point of the cylinders reference, Wells reinforces it: Scrope chats with a local union official:
“There’s an incurable misunderstanding between the modern employer and the modern employed,” the chief labour spokesman said, speaking in a broad accent that completely hid from him and the bishop and every one the fact that he was by far the best-read man of the party. “Disraeli called them the Two Nations, but that was long ago. Now it’s a case of two species. Machinery has made them into different species. The employer lives away from his work-people, marries a wife foreign, out of a county family or suchlike, trains his children from their very birth in a different manner. Why, the growth curve is different for the two species. They haven’t even a common speech between them. One looks east and the other looks west. How can you expect them to agree? Of course they won’t agree. We’ve got to fight it out. They say we’re their slaves for ever ... We say, No! It’s our sort and not your sort. We’ll do without you. We’ll get a little more education and then we’ll do without you. We’re pressing for all we can get, and when we’ve got that we’ll take breath and press for more. We’re the Morlocks. Coming up. It isn’t our fault that we’ve differentiated.” [Soul of a Bishop, 2.5]
Morlocks. We take the point.

So: Scrope's wife has grown cold, his Votes-for-Women oldest daughter wants to go (horrors!) to University and he himself is losing his faith. He discusses this latter situation with an extremely wealthy American widow, Lady Sunderbund, whose American accent Wells renders in a near-incomprehensible series of abbreviations and apostrophisations (‘Mist’ Pat’ick O’Go’man. He is a Kelt and all that. Spells Pat’ick with eva so many letters. They say he spends ouas and ouas lea’ning E’se. They all t’y to lea’n E’se, and it wo’ies them and makes them hate England moa and moa’—there really is an interminable amount of this sort of stuff). Still, however orthographically awkward she is in this novel, Lady Sunderbund is rich, attractive and devoted to the Bishop.

Since Scrope's regular doctor is on holiday, he goes to see a new physician called Dr Dale. Dale diagnoses neurasthenia, and suggests treating it with a new kind of hallucinogenic drug. This potion has an immediate effect: ‘his doubts glowed into assurance. Suddenly he perceived that he was sure of God’ [5.4]. Whilst on this (not Wells's word, but still) trip Scrope meets an Angel who, in effect, summarises God the Invisible King for him:
“Your creed is full of Levantine phrases and images, full of the patched contradictions of the human intelligence utterly puzzled. It is about those two Gods, the God beyond the stars and the God in your heart. It says that they are the same God, but different. It says that they have existed together for all time, and that one is the Son of the other. It has added a third Person—but we won’t go into that.” [Soul of a Bishop, 5.9]
Finally, in the library of the Athenaeum Club, Scrope sees God Himself. Not bad going for a first toke of psilocybin, or whatever it is that Dale has given him.

Scrope's takeaway from his druggy mystic experience is that he must leave the established Church. He is talked into staying by his old friend and mentor Bishop Likeman, and for a while continues as before, not even confiding that he has had this vision to his wife and daughters. A second dose of Dr Dale's drug gives him a different vision: the whole world in torment.
“It is very wonderful,” said the bishop, and stood for a moment marvelling at the compass of his vision. For here was India, here was Samarkand, in the light of the late afternoon; and China and the swarming cities upon her silvery rivers sinking through twilight to the night and throwing a spray and tracery of lantern spots upon the dark; here was Russia under the noontide, and so great a battle of artillery raging on the Dunajec as no man had ever seen before; whole lines of trenches dissolved into clouds of dust and heaps of blood-streaked earth; here close to the waiting streets of Constantinople were the hills of Gallipoli, the grave of British Imperialism, streaming to heaven with the dust and smoke of bursting shells and rifle fire and the smoke and flame of burning brushwood. In the sea of Marmora a big ship crowded with Turkish troops was sinking; and, purple under the clear water, he could see the shape of the British submarine which had torpedoed her and had submerged and was going away. Berlin prepared its frugal meals, still far from famine. He saw the war in Europe as if he saw it on a map, yet every human detail showed. Over hundreds of miles of trenches east and west of Germany he could see shells bursting and the men below dropping, and the stretcher-bearers going back with the wounded. The roads to every front were crowded with reserves and munitions. For a moment a little group of men indifferent to all this struggle, who were landing amidst the Antarctic wilderness, held his attention; and then his eyes went westward to the dark rolling Atlantic across which, as the edge of the night was drawn like a curtain, more and still more ships became visible beating upon their courses eastward or westward under the overtaking day. The wonder increased; the wonder of the single and infinitely multitudinous adventure of mankind. [Soul of a Bishop, 7.6]
Realising that the priesthood is failing in its duty to minister to this afflicted globe, Scrope resolves to take the fortune Lady Sunderbund has blithely offered him, to found a new church—she, impressed by his accounts of his visions, has become his acolyte.

Scrope repudiates his previous faith during one of his sermons, before a shocked congregation, and to the horror of his peers (Bishop Likeman writes to him: ‘this sensational declaration of infidelity to our mother church, made under the most damning and distressing circumstances in the presence of young and tender minds entrusted to your ministrations, and in defiance of the honourable engagements implied in the confirmation service, confirms my worst apprehensions of the weaknesses of your character’ [8.2]). His new Church, however, does not come into being. After viewing architectural plans for a grandiose new church building, to be financed by Lady Sunderbund (“It’s young Venable’s wo’k. It’s his fl’st g’ate oppo’tunity.” “But—is this to go on that little site in Aldwych?” “He says the’ isn’t ’oom the’!” she explained. “He wants to put it out at Golda’s G’een” [9.6]) the Bishop has a third vision, this one unmediated by Dr Dale's peculiar drug, which reveals to him that ‘there must be no idea of any pulpit’ in the new religion.
Had God any need of organized priests at all? Wasn’t that just what had been the matter with religion for the last three thousand years? His vision and his sense of access to God had given a new courage to his mind; in these moods of enlightenment he could see the world as a comprehensible ball, he could see history as an understandable drama. He had always been on the verge of realizing before, he realized now, the two entirely different and antagonistic strands that interweave in the twisted rope of contemporary religion; the old strand of the priest, the fetishistic element of the blood sacrifice and the obscene rite, the element of ritual and tradition, of the cult, the caste, the consecrated tribe; and interwoven with this so closely as to be scarcely separable in any existing religion was the new strand, the religion of the prophets, the unidolatrous universal worship of the one true God. Priest religion is the antithesis to prophet religion. [Soul of a Bishop, 9.2]
The novel ends with the Bishop happy, reconciled to his family, and resolved, on his own, to spread the word regarding his new understanding of God.

Wells sets his protagonist in a fairly well-realised world: his relationship with his family, and with the eager Lady Sunderbund, are pretty well drawn, and there's something compellingly, we might say ingenuously, bonkers about his visions (at times it's a very psychedelic, 1960s sort of novel, anachronistically enough). What he doesn't manage to do here is create any sense of Scrope's episcopal, or more broadly his ecclesiastical, context: he doesn't, that is, do what (say) Trollope's Barchester novels do so well.

Wells's Bishop has what proves a purely notional attachment to his Anglicanism, and (as a church-outsider himself) Wells conveys no sense that being part of a particular community, a long-term context of social and interpersonal praxis, is as much what it means to be a Christian as subscribing to a tick-list of conceptual affirmations (like the issue that so winds Wells up, and which he blames on the Nicaean synod: the consubstantiality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). As in God the Invisible King, Wells spends a lot of time on the latter aspect of belief and almost entirely ignores the former. That's a shame, because it is inevitably distorting. Faith is not just a set of propositions in a believer's head; it is a lived experience as part of a particular community, and the disappointment of The Soul of a Bishop is that Wells doesn't really take the opportunity fiction provides him to evoke that latter aspect.

Then again, maybe that's not what's going on here. Consider the chief labour spokesman's proud identification of his proletarian class with the Morlocks. Look again at the substance of the Bishop's second vision, quoted (at some length) above: the passage beginning ‘“It is very wonderful,” said the bishop...’ It is as much a panegyric to the panoptic possibilities of the novel itself as it is a passage about the torment of the world: the way the writer's imagination can, diable-boiteux style, lift the roofs on all the houses in the world. Dr Dale's strange pharmakon becomes, in this reading, less a specific agent of religious revelation and more an actualisation of the process of the novelistic imagination as such. Take a gander at the specific ways Wells specifies in which Scrope's new enlightenment falls short:
“The achievement of the Kingdom of God;” this was his calling. Henceforth this was his business in life.

For a time he indulged in vague dreams of that kingdom of God on earth of which he would be one of the makers; it was a dream of a shadowy splendour of cities, of great scientific achievements, of a universal beauty, of beautiful people living in the light of God, of a splendid adventure, thrusting out at last among the stars. But neither his natural bent nor his mental training inclined him to mechanical or administrative explicitness. [Soul of a Bishop, 9.18]
That's science fiction. I mean, isn't it? A vision of a gleaming SF future. And this is what Dale's visionary drug, administered as a phial of golden fluid, provides: the sciencefictional imaginary. Or, I suppose we might say: Wells conceives of the religious vision as a broader, more spacious version of the SF vision—just as Dale, the supplier of the drug, has a name that means a wide but shallow valley, and Wells, the supplier of the novel The Soul of a Bishop, has a name that means a narrow but deep indentation in the land. (And just as Scrope, whose name sounds like a variant of scrape, is narrow and shallow). I appreciate that SF tends to be my Casaubonian key to all mythologies: but, after all, this is H G Wells we are talking about here.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

God the Invisible King (1917)


God the Invisible King is a very strange book. Its early chapters consist of amateur theological speculation, an interrogation of the nature of the deity unencumbered by the rich and lengthy traditions of thought on this topic by many many prior philosophers and theologians. William James (Wells's personal friends) aside, Wells just isn't interested in any of that. He is interested in God, though, and his assertions about the divine nature pivot, in the later chapters, into a scarily authoritarian vision of coming theocracy, a programme of such fundamentalist severity that I started to doubt that Wells could be being serious. Alas, I think he was. This was where his new-found faith in God took him.

Previously atheist and materialist, Wells's ‘turn to God’ was provoked in large part by the ongoing horrors of war. It is fictionalised, more or less, in the last portion of Mr Britling Sees It Through. But where that novel still has admirers and adherents, God the Invisible King is a book almost entirely without profile today. Critics and Wellsians have no kind words for it, and Wells himself later repudiated it. In the Experiment in Autobiography he belittled it as ‘a falling back of the mind towards immaturity under the stress of dismay and anxiety’:
Everywhere in those first years of disaster men were looking for some lodestar for their loyalty. I thought it was pitiful that they should pin their minds to ‘King and Country’ and suchlike claptrap, when they might live and die for greater ends, and I did my utmost to personify and animate a greater, remoter objective in God the Invisible King. So by a sort of coup d'état I turned my New Republic for a time into a divine monarchy ... In What Are We to Do with Our Lives? (1932) I make the most explicit renunciation and apology for this phase of terminological disingenuousness. [Experiment in Autobiography, 575-78]
Disingenuousness seems an unfair charge to level at himself, I must say. God the Invisible King comes across as a deeply ingenuous project: a wide-eyed and at times painfully naif exercise in seeing how far a notion of ‘God’ might be constructed given Wells more-or-less materialist and worldly conceptual constraints.

So what kind of God emerges? According to Wells ‘the leading idea of this book’ is that there are two ‘antagonistic’ conceptions of God: ‘God-as-Nature or the Creator’ and ‘God-as-Christ or the Redeemer’.
One is the great Outward God; the other is the Inmost God. The first idea was perhaps developed most highly and completely in the God of Spinoza. It is a conception of God tending to pantheism, to an idea of a comprehensive God as ruling with justice rather than affection, to a conception of aloofness and awestriking worshipfulness. The second idea, which is opposed to this idea of an absolute God, is the God of the human heart.
Wells lays his cards on the table in the preface:
The writer’s position here in this book is, firstly, complete Agnosticism in the matter of God the Creator, and secondly, entire faith in the matter of God the Redeemer. That, so to speak, is the key of his book. He cannot bring the two ideas under the same term God. He uses the word God therefore for the God in our hearts only, and he uses the term the Veiled Being for the ultimate mysteries of the universe
So there you have it. The remainder of this post consists of me reacting to specific bits and pieces from Wells's book itself, because these are questions that interest me. But they probably don't interest you, and in this opening summary you have the nub of the book. Which means you don't need to read any further. Nice for you, I think.


So, yes: most Wells' scholars treat Wells's later recantation as evidence that the whole of this book can be swept into the dustbin. For example: Lovat Dickson’s H G Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times (Macmillan, 1969) styles Wells’s life as a passage through a series of governing myths: the myth of evolutionary and scientific advance which informs his early SF, the ‘myth of sexual and social revaluation’ in The New MacchiavelliAnn Veronica and other novels of that period, and then the ‘myth of God the Leader’ of Mr Britling Sees It Through and God the Invisible King:
The world was passing through a phase when any goal seemed within reach of mankind. But myths dissolve in the face of harsh experience, and the world woke up to reality, leaving the mythmaker frustrated and angry, forced to turn to fresh sources for inspiration. The whole history of man as he saw it had been a series of false starts. Perhaps it was possible for God and man to make a fresh beginning that would not end again in frustration and catastrophe. But the religious myth failed him, as the scientific and sexual ones had done, and he was left unhappy at the end. [Dickson, Wells: Turbulent Life, 307]
This is a pretty convincing account, although there are obvious dangers in reading any author (as it were) teleologically in this way. We are not obliged to agree with Wells when, in moving from one stage of his life to another, he denies his earlier beliefs, something that says more about his desire for an interior sense of his own consistency than it does about the beliefs themselves. After all, people do not necessarily grow wiser as we grow older. Often, the reverse.

What about those ideas, then? Wells considers the notion that God is in any sense ‘infinite’ self-evidently ludicrous, and so the first tenet of his ‘Modern Religion’ concerns the finitude of God:
The fact that God is finite is one upon which those who think clearly among the new believers are very insistent. He is, above everything else, a personality, and to be a personality is to have characteristics, to be limited by characteristics; he is a Being, not us but dealing with us and through us, he has an aim and that means he has a past and future; he is within time and not outside it. And they point out that this is really what everyone who prays sincerely to God or gets help from God, feels and believes. Our practice with God is better than our theory. None of us really pray to that fantastic, unqualified danse a trois, the Trinity, which the wranglings and disputes of the worthies of Alexandria and Syria declared to be God. We pray to one single understanding person. [God the Invisible King, 1.2]
That God has a personality, then, is crucial to Wells's theology. That said, in the very next paragraph he mocks the traditional Biblical God for having, in effect, too much personality (‘his jealousy, his strange preferences, his vindictive Old Testament past ... do not even make a caricature of the True God; they compose an altogether different and antagonistic figure’) so I remain a little confused.

I don't mean to overstate my confusion. Of course it's true to say that people don't, on the whole, pray to an abstracted mathematical unsigned limit x → ∞; but perhaps the beef here is with terminology rather than ways of conceiving the divine. To make God finite is necessarily to make God an entity ‘in’ the world, and therefore liable to all the critiques of Dawkins and his hostile et al. We might want to think of God not as ‘in’ the word so much as the ground of the world. We might, as the old saw has it, consider religious faith not as a mode of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, so much as believing, in a crucial sense, that the garden is in the fairy. As to whether such a transfinity, or such predicate of finitude as such, could also possess the characteristics of personality is a question I leave up to the reader to answer for her- or himself.

Wells, though, is repelled by the radical unknowability of infinitude: ‘the veil of the unknown is set with the stars,’ he says, waxing uncharacteristically poetical: ‘its outer texture is ether and atom and crystal. The Veiled Being, enigmatical and incomprehensible, broods over the mirror upon which the busy shapes of life are moving. Our lives do not deal with it, and cannot deal with it. It may be that they may never be able to deal with it’ [1.3]. His God is not this infinity, but rather an inwardness, and therefore something vouched-for by individual experiential encounters with the divine.

Though Wells insists his God is a God of inwardness, this doesn't make Him a God of quiet contemplation. On the contrary: ‘the true God goes through the world like fifes and drums and flags,’ Wells says, ‘calling for recruits along the street. We must go out to him. We must accept his discipline and fight his battle.’ [2.5]  I start to imagine God leaning forward like Lord Kitchener in the recruiting poster, pointing His finger accusingly. But I shouldn't, for Wells insists that, though God is an individual, He is not bodily:
His nature is of the nature of thought and will. Not only has he, in his essence, nothing to do with matter, but nothing to do with space. He is not of matter nor of space. He comes into them. ... Our modern psychology is alive to the possibility of Being that has no extension in space at all, even as our speculative geometry can entertain the possibility of dimensions—fourth, fifth, Nth dimensions—outside the three-dimensional universe of our experience. And God being non-spatial is not thereby banished to an infinite remoteness, but brought nearer to us; he is everywhere immediately at hand, even as a fourth dimension would be everywhere immediately at hand. He is a Being of the minds and in the minds of men. He is in immediate contact with all who apprehend him. [God the Invisible King, 3.2]
The notion that thought might proceed without something (a brain, a hard-drive, whatever) to do the thinking strikes me precisely as nonsensical as the notion that speed might be measurable without some object travelling at velocity. And I honestly don't know what Wells means by saying ‘our modern psychology is alive to the possibility of Being that has no extension in space at all’: which psychologist is this? Does he have a particular name in mind? And the last part of this passage seems to suggest that God is, in a sense, parasitical upon the material processes of thought of people such as us, which seems a strange thing to argue.

In chapter 3 Wells lists a number of attributes of his God: ‘God is Courage’, ‘God is a Person’ and ‘God is Youth’. On this latter we're told:
The third thing to be told of the true God is that God is youth. God, we hold, began and is always beginning. He looks forever into the future.

Most of the old religions derive from a patriarchal phase. God is in those systems the Ancient of Days. I know of no Christian attempt to represent or symbolise God the Father which is not a bearded, aged man. White hair, beard, bearing, wrinkles, a hundred such symptoms of senile decay are there. These marks of senility do not astonish our modern minds in the picture of God, only because tradition and usage have blinded our eyes to the absurdity of a time-worn immortal. Jove too and Wotan are figures far past the prime of their vigour. These are gods after the ancient habit of the human mind, that turned perpetually backward for causes and reasons and saw all things to come as no more than the working out of Fate,—
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe.”
But the God of this new age, we repeat, looks not to our past but our future, and if a figure may represent him it must be the figure of a beautiful youth, already brave and wise, but hardly come to his strength. [God the Invisible King, 3.3]
This seems solidly wrongheaded to me. Spend any time with children and you realise they have only the most foreshortened and nebulous sense of the future: they live in the present and the recent past. It's the old who look to the future, make plans, write wills and so on; and as against the Biblical fascination with past origins we might set the equally weighted Biblical fascination with prophesy and the Revelation of Saint John. What Wells means is that it is Youth that fights wars, and his theology is of heroic combat (I mean, it's old men who actually fight wars, using young men as their tools: like the Judge says in Blood Meridian, war endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. But you see what Wells is getting at).

This in turn leads so some rather odd assertions about God's love of humankind.
The love God bears for man in the individual believer. Now this is not an indulgent, instinctive, and sacrificing love like the love of a woman for her baby. It is the love of the captain for his men; God must love his followers as a great captain loves his men, who are so foolish, so helpless in themselves, so confiding, and yet whose faith alone makes him possible. It is an austere love. The spirit of God will not hesitate to send us to torment and bodily death. [God the Invisible King, 4.1]
Once again, a very World War One sentiment. Perhaps a military captain ‘loves’ his men for who they are, but over and above that he must love them primarily for what they can do: as a resource which, whilst not to be foolishly squandered, is to be spent in the achievement of certain battlefield goals. Is that really how God loves us? I find it hard to get my head around the notion. Over the top of which trench, and towards which enemy, is this Captain leading us? Wells is not clear:
What can this “religion of the future” be but that devotion to the racial adventure under the captaincy of God which we have already found, like gold in the bottom of the vessel, when we have washed away the confusions and impurities of dogmatic religion? ... This altar to the Future of his, we can claim as an altar to our God—an altar rather indistinctly inscribed. [God the Invisible King, 4.2]
Wait ... racial adventure? What?
Those whose acquiescence in the idea of God is merely intellectual are in no better case than those who deny God altogether. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
An affective, and not a rational, deity then. A global faith that harnesses our passions, joys and fears, and does not admit of rational or intellectual critique. What could possibly go wrong?

Wells pooh-poohs those who may think his ‘new religion’ is just the old religion decanted into new bottles: that ‘he, who is called in this book God, they would call God-the-Son or Christ, or the Logos; and what is here called the Darkness or the Veiled Being, they would call God-the-Father’. He's not having that:
We do not recognise any consistent sympathetic possibilities between these outer beings and our God. Our God is, we feel, like Prometheus, a rebel. He is unfilial. And the accepted figure of Jesus, instinct with meek submission, is not in the tone of our worship. It is not by suffering that God conquers death, but by fighting. Incidentally our God dies a million deaths, but the thing that matters is not the deaths but the immortality. It may be he cannot escape in this person or that person being nailed to a cross or chained to be torn by vultures on a rock. These may be necessary sufferings, like hunger and thirst in a campaign; they do not in themselves bring victory. They may be necessary, but they are not glorious. The symbol of the crucifixion, the drooping, pain-drenched figure of Christ, the sorrowful cry to his Father, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” these things jar with our spirit. We little men may well fail and repent, but it is our faith that our God does not fail us nor himself. We cannot accept the Christian’s crucifix, or pray to a pitiful God. We cannot accept the Resurrection as though it were an after-thought to a bitterly felt death. Our crucifix, if you must have a crucifix, would show God with a hand or a foot already torn away from its nail, and with eyes not downcast but resolute against the sky. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
We can't call this a fundamental misprison of Christianity, since Wells isn't setting out to interpret Christianity so much as to supersede it. But of course there are people who call themselves Christians whose faith runs along these lines. In North America there are, I suspect, quite a few such people.

It's hardly the place of an infidel to suggest that this kind of thing entirely misses the point both of the passion of Christ and of the logic of Christianity as such. That's how it seems to me, though; and it also seems to me that clothing Christ's willing sacrifice in this brittle armour of aggression and domination leads us, in short order, to some very unsavoury political places. ‘We of the new faith repudiate the teaching of non-resistance,’ brays Wells. ‘We are the militant followers of and participators in a militant God ... submission is the remotest quality of all from our God, and a moribund figure is the completest inversion of his likeness as we know him. A Christianity which shows, for its daily symbol, Christ risen and trampling victoriously upon a broken cross, would be far more in the spirit of our worship’. From here it's a short step to Wells calling for an actual theocracy:
This transfiguration of the world into a theocracy may seem a merely fantastic idea to anyone who comes to it freshly without such general theological preparation as the preceding pages have made. But to anyone who has been at the pains to clear his mind even a little from the obsession of existing but transitory things, it ceases to be a mere suggestion and becomes more and more manifestly the real future of mankind. From the phase of “so things should be,” the mind will pass very rapidly to the realisation that “so things will be.” Towards this the directive wills among men have been drifting more and more steadily and perceptibly and with fewer eddyings and retardations, for many centuries. The purpose of mankind will not be always thus confused and fragmentary. This dissemination of will-power is a phase. The age of the warring tribes and kingdoms and empires that began a hundred centuries or so ago, draws to its close. The kingdom of God on earth is not a metaphor, not a mere spiritual state, not a dream, not an uncertain project; it is the thing before us, it is the close and inevitable destiny of mankind. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
This divinely sanctioned hostility to diversity strikes so illiberal, so caliphatic a note, you almost start to wonder if Wells is being satirical. But I don't think so: his enthusiasm for service to God as the way to leverage diversity into unity, and thus achieve his longed-for World State, is perfectly genuine. Bogglingly naïve, but genuine.

In Wells's vision, every aspect of social praxis and order will be subordinated to this new order: the entire legal system, for instance, will give up petty bickering over torts and rights and become a branch of the church: ‘when the world is openly and confessedly the kingdom of God, the law court will exist only to adjust the differing views of men as to the manner of their service to God’ [4.9]. What about the existing churches? Wells is clear that all such priests, vicars, rabbis and mullahs must stand up before their congregations and speak the new truth of his religion, the coming of which ‘will impose the renunciation of his temporalities and a complete cessation of services upon every ordained priest and minister as his first act of faith.’
Once that he has truly realised God, it becomes impossible for him ever to repeat his creed again. His course seems plain and clear. It becomes him to stand up before the flock he has led in error, and to proclaim the being and nature of the one true God. He must be explicit to the utmost of his powers. Then he may await his expulsion. [4.10]
Right. That'll happen.

The thing is, Wells seems to think it really will. There's a passage when he considers the kind of people likely to deny the truth of his New Religion. There are the stubbornly base, he says, ‘and besides these base people there are the stupid people and the people with minds so poor in texture that they cannot even grasp the few broad and simple ideas that seem necessary to the salvation we experience’. But otherwise he takes the view that the Wellsian God is so self-evidently true that everybody will fall into line behind Him. How will Wells ensure that his theocracy doesn't become a mere ecclesiocracy? Well, frankly, he doesn't: the book's last chapter suggests that there will be no need for churches and priests and the paraphernalia of organised religion in the new dispensation, since everyone will have individual access to God, and, organisationally speaking, ‘the State is God's instrument’. He does walk this back a little, noting that some people may want to gather together to praise God after the old rites. ‘Let them express all that they desire to express in their own fashion by themselves or grouped with their friends as they will,’ he says, condescendingly, adding that his new religion ‘does not preclude infinite possibilities of organisation and collective action under God and within the compass of religion ... the objection lies not against subsidiary organisations for service but against organisations that may claim to be comprehensive.’ For example? ‘Many people feel the need of prayer to resist the evil in themselves and to keep them in mind of divine emotion. And many want not merely prayer but formal prayer and the support of others, praying in unison. The writer does not understand this desire or need for collective prayer very well, but there are people who appear to do so and there is no reason why they should not assemble for that purpose ... I do not see why there should not be, under God, associations for building cathedrals and suchlike great still places urgent with beauty.’ And the book closes with the metaphor of Wells's new faith as a gigantic crystal forming spontaneously:
This metaphor of crystallisation is perhaps the best symbol of the advent and growth of the new understanding. It has no church, no authorities, no teachers, no orthodoxy. It does not even thrust and struggle among the other things; simply it grows clear. There will be no putting an end to it. It arrives inevitably, and it will continue to separate itself out from confusing ideas. It becomes, as it were the Koh-i-noor; it is a Mountain of Light, growing and increasing. It is an all-pervading lucidity, a brightness and clearness. It has no head to smite, no body you can destroy; it overleaps all barriers; it breaks out in despite of every enclosure. It will compel all things to orient themselves to it. [God the Invisible King, ‘Envoy’]
There will be no putting an end to it. It will compel all things to orient themselves to it. [Shudder]


One oddity struck me in reading this book: the way little sideways repudiations of the penis keep creeping into it. Rather (as one might, perhaps, think, knowing as we do Wells's fondness for the old in-out, in-out) than finding something Lawrentian or holy in the sexual act, this book several times brackets it away from the divine. In 2.1 Wells attacks ‘errors of emotion’, arguing that ‘fear and feebleness go straight to the Heresies that God is Magic or that God is Providence’ and deploring that ‘the stormy emotions of sex gave mankind the Phallic God’. A little later he critiques the notion of the Trinity in these terms:
No one who really seeks God thinks of the Trinity ... any more than one thinks of those theories made stone, those gods with three heads and seven hands, who sit on lotus leaves and flourish lingams and what not, in the temples of India. [God the Invisible King, 2.2]
Did Wells know what lingam means? Was he deliberately putting-in this image of the old gods waggling their willies at us? Because, having read God the Invisible King, with all its martial posturing, its God-the-Recruiting-Sergeant and theocratic certainties, I can't quite shake the sense that this is what Wells is doing: sitting on his lotus-leaf in Essex and waving his willy at us.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Elements of Reconstruction (1916)

‘D.P.’ stands for ‘Dominating Personality’, which pseudonym was intended as a piece of whimsy between Wells and his friend Lord Northcliffe but which has, when you think about it, something of the sinister about it. I'll come back to that.

Through 1916 Wells and Northcliffe would meet for occasional lunches, during which Northcliffe, acting as Lloyd George's director of propaganda, liked to sound-out Wells to discover what people ‘outside the Establishment’ were thinking, especially with respect to national negativity towards the war effort. Wells, a man who lacked neither opinions nor the vehemence to express them, argued forcefully that various changes were needful, and Northcliffe persuaded him to write his thoughts up as a series of articles for one of this (many) papers, the Times (at 25 guineas a pop! Wells earned £157. 10s from the whole run. Pretty sizeable sums for 1916). Wells agreed on condition of anonymity—hence ‘D.P.’—presumably because he wanted the liberty to express himself without the constraint of his considerable public profile. Since one of the things these articles do is, effectively, to repudiate Socialism, it's conceivable he may also have wanted to protect himself from backlash. Many of friends were still loyal to the movement, after all. At any rate, the articles created considerable buzz, word got out as to their authorship and Wells was compelled to acknowledge them as his in the volume in which they were collected: as above.

This anonymous/famous problem threads the book, actually. So, The Elements of Reconstruction opens with a preface by Viscount Milner that begins ‘I know nothing about the authors except what can be gathered from their own writing.’ Since Milner was a friend of Northcliffe, and knew Wells from the Coefficient Club, and elsewhere, this can't have been true. And the articles themselves refer to the writer's longstanding and published interest in questions of education, political reorganisation, technological advance and so on, which must have put original readers in mind of Wells.

Anyway: under the following chapter titles three broad areas are discussed: political, economic and educational reform:
1. Science in Education and Industry
2. Scientific Agriculture And The Nation's Food
3. The Long View And Labour
4. Problems Of Political Adaptation
5. An Imperial Constitution
6. Higher Education In The Empire
The book begins by arguing that Germany proved able to capitalise on scientific ideas (the example Wells gives is the production of dyes) more effectively than Britain because it was organised along more centralised and efficient lines. Rather than copying pre-war Germany, though, Wells proposes a more comprehensive nationalisation: ‘replanning of scientific education and research, concurrently with, and as a part of, a systematic amalgamation and co- ordination of industries’ [1]. This, however, is not Socialism. He himself used to be a Socialist, it's true. But no longer:
It is probable that historians will mark the year 1914 as the end of the Socialist movement; it was an ailing movement before that time, and after the war we shall find new oppositions and new formulae replacing the obsolete ‘-isms’ of the former age. This is not to say that Socialism will be counted to have failed. No movement can be said to have failed which has sat so triumphantly on the grave of its antagonists as Socialism has sat upon the grave of laissez faire. But the movement combined general ideas of the utmost sanity with methods of utter impracticability, and, while the sounder elements of the Socialistic proposal have so passed into the general consciousness as to be no longer distinctive, its rejected factors shrivel and perish as things completely judged, and its name becomes a shelter for ‘rebels’ and faddists. [Elements of Reconstruction, 2]
That looks like a pretty wholehearted break, doesn't it? According to Wells, ‘the deadest part of Socialism now is all that centred about the idea of “expropriation”.’ There will be none of that in his to-be-Reconstructed future: landowners and capitalists, farmers and factory owners can all hang on to their stuff, although the Government will buy all their produce from them and distribute it to the population: ‘Syndication Without Confiscation’ is Wells's slogan.

Other proposals: an altogether more thorough and focused scientific education will become the norm, the electoral system will change to proportional representation the better to reflect the will of the people, and a global Peace League and ‘Imperial Parliament’ will unify and grow Britain's Empire. There's quite a lot of detail (considering these are short-ish newspaper pieces aimed at the general reader) on things like tariffs, voting systems and a proposed world court system, but the overall effect is a little wearying. The book, mostly, lacks rhetorical flourish or punch, and so reads rather dully.

A more interesting approach to all this, I think, is to consider The Elements of Reconstruction as indicative of the stresses that were pulling the early twentieth-century socialist movement in two different directions. On the one hand there is the line of descent that the present Labour Party (for instance) likes to stress: a majority genealogy, adapting the Marxian demand for revolution into a democratic ameliorist political programme working to close the gap between rich and poor, building a welfare state and addressing systematic modes of oppression like sexism and racism. That is to say: the history of the actual Labour Party and the Fabians. But there is another line of descent: those socialists who veered rightward, incorporating a tribal nationalism, authoritarianism, the cult of the leader, unashamed Imperialism and militarism and in so doing morphed into the fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Oswald Mosley was a dedicated Fabian in the 1920s, and was a minister in Ramsay McDonald's Labour Government before leaving to form his own 'New Party', and thence, when that didn't work out, to the foundation of the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Mussolini was a member of the Partito Socialista Italiano for several years, before they kicked him out in 1914 for his repudiation of egalitarianism and his support for the war. He went on to found the Partito Nazionale Fascista in 1921, and we all know what happened after that.

We need to be careful, here, of course. There exists a crudely polemical line of ideological argument, particularly popular in some quarters of the US, advanced for instance by Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (2008), that socialism and fascism are interchangeable terms. They're not. This is a tactic used to demonise soft-left politics, to bracket the Democrats with the Nazi party and claim the Republican right as the only torchbearer for liberty. (Torchbearer! Did you see what I did there?) You can tell from my tone here in what contempt I hold this opinion; and Liberal Fascism happens to be a very bad book. Goldberg has taken a small piece of truth (that a few European fascist parties budded off from the larger tradition of European socialism in the earlier twentieth century) and around it has accrued a huge pseudo-pearl of compressed shit, in which the prime heuristic is coincidence-treated-as-absolute-correlation—reasoning of the ‘Hitler was a vegetarian, Gandhi was a vegetarian, therefore Gandhi was a Nazi’ sort. But, the grit of truth at the centre of the poohpearl remains true: various undeniably fascist parties and groups started life as undeniably socialist parties or groups. You know who actually coined the phrase ‘liberal fascism’? H G Wells, in 1932

So, yes: the relevant question for this blog, of course, is how far Wells travelled along this Mosleyan path. Luckily, the answer is: not very far. But it's hard to shake the sense, reading The Elements of Reconstruction, that the atmosphere of wartime ruthlessness was nudging him in that direction. One salient is Empire. Although he doesn't say it in so many words, there's a pervasive sense that he is here tempted to consider the British Empire (it covered a third of the globe at this point, after all) as a halfway house to his wished-for World State. So he considers ‘the loyalty of our workers under the test of war’ to be ‘the most hopeful augury for the future of the Empire’ [3], hopes that ‘Empire is to wax and not wane in the new era’ [3], and spells out specific stepping stones to help that happen: ‘an Imperial Council’ leading to ‘an Imperial Parliament’ and a widespread programme of high-level education across all British colonial holdings. This book doesn't use the phrase ‘World State’, but we see where Wells's arguments are heading.

And it's worth being aware of the company he's keeping in this volume. Viscount Milner, who writes the preface, made his reputation in colonial administration. He served in Lloyd George's War Cabinet and bankrolled the British Workers National League after it split from the Socialist Party over the latter's insufficient (as they saw it) support for the war effort (Wells himself served on the executive of this new organisation, actually). Renamed the British Workers League this group soon swung sharply to the right, defining themselves as an anti-socialist, Imperialist party for ‘patriotic workers’, fascist in all but name. Milner himself died in 1925, and his ‘Credo’, published in the Times after his death, was widely praised at the time, speaking with particular clarity to the nascent British fascist movement:
I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan .... I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world. My patriotism knows no geographical but only racial limits. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander because I am a British Race Patriot ... The British State must follow the race, must comprehend it, wherever it settles in appreciable numbers as an independent community. If the swarms constantly being thrown off by the parent hive are lost to the State, the State is irreparably weakened. We cannot afford to part with so much of our best blood.
Dominating Personality indeed. Not for the first time on this blog I am moved to gloss this with: ugh.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916)


Wells's masterpiece of First World War fiction remains, a hundred years later, little short of astonishing. It is a vividly realised, involving, thought-provoking and by the end genuinely moving work of art. And it was, in its day, an extraordinary success. After a string of books that had managed only poor sales and snippy reviews (Wells's last really successful title, commercially speaking, had been 1910's Mr PollyMr Britling swept all before it. In the UK it was 1916's bestselling novel (released late in the season it nonetheless went through thirteen editions before year's end). In the US it was the fourth bestselling title of 1916 and, following the US's entry into the war, the number one American bestseller of 1917. [Michael Korda, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller (NY Barnes & Nobel 2001), 16]—Wells's Autobiography informs us that he earned £20,000 from US sales alone. Reviews were dithyrambic, and no less a figure than Maxim Gorky called it ‘the finest, most courageous, truthful, and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war’ [quoted in David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, 224]. This was a novel that touched people. It still has that power today. You should read it.

I say ‘you should read it’ because, very likely, you haven't. I'll come back in a little while to why a novel that had such a stellar success in its day, one of the undeniable masterpieces by a writer who is, broadly, still being read, has so comprehensively dropped off the radar. What became of Britling? But for now the fact that you likely haven't read it necessitates a little summary.

Britling is a character based quite closely on Wells himself: an internationally successful writer, living a comfortable life in his Essex home, Matching's Easy; married to his second wife, raising a son (Hugh) and two step-children, conducting a discrete affair (his eighth, we're told) with an attractive neighbour. The novel is disposed into three parts. Book the First, entitled ‘Matching's Easy At Ease,’ is a leisurely, immersive and compelling account of the long Edwardian pre-war summer of 1914. A young American, Mr. Direck, visits Mr. Britling to invite him to go on a talking tour of the USA; but he breaks his wrist (Britling, a rubbish driver, crashes his car when Direck is a passenger), ends up staying for several months, and falls in love with Cissie, the sister of the wife of Mr. Britling's secretary, a young man called Teddy. Also in the company is a visiting German student, the young, hyper-correct ultra-Deutsch Herr Heinrich. But even Heinrich has his human side: he takes a squirrel as a pet and sticks loyally by the creature even though it does nothing but bite him; and he falls in love with a local barmaid.

Book the Second, ‘Matching's Easy at War,’ describes the advent of war from the Home-Front perspective. Heinrich, obviously, has to return to Germany; he goes in such a hurry that he leaves many of his possessions in the Britling domicile. Britling's secretary, Teddy, joins up, and though Britling himself is frustrated that he's too old wear a uniform, he is secretly grateful that his beloved son Hugh is too young to conscript. The narrative follows through 1914 and into 1915 with a good deal of specific detail. Teddy is reported missing. Hugh, without consulting his father, lies about his age and joins the army. Britling's elderly Aunt is fatally injured by a bomb dropped by a German Zeppelin: Britling drives to the coast, where she lives, and is present at her rather pitiful death. Then news comes that Teddy is dead (though, in a later twist, this proves mistaken: Teddy comes home again, minus one hand). Hugh writes lengthy, vivid letters home from the trenches. Direck, in an attempt to impress the patriotic Cissie, joins the Canadian army. And finally, in a heartbreaking section of writing, Britling learns that his son Hugh has been killed at the Front. This fatality happens on p.365 of the 433-page novel, and it needs the accumulation of those prior 364 pages to build the necessary momentum to make Hugh's death really tell. It's very affecting, and Britling's grief is written in a convincingly heartfelt manner.

The novel's final book, ‘The Testament of Matching's Easy’, is its shortest. Learning that Herr Heinrich has also been killed, Britling writes a disconnected but emotionally eloquent letter to the dead boy's parents. This testament grows as he writes it, until it has traced out an unforced and, I would say, genuinely touching evolution—out of the deepest despair of grief, towards a religiously-tinted acceptance of his personal loss, and of the catastrophe of the war: ‘until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end ... Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning’ [3.2.11]. After being up all night writing what started as a letter but ended up as his personal and spiritual testimony, the novel ends with Britling getting up from his desk and looking out through his window:
His lamp was still burning, but for some time he had not been writing by the light of his lamp. Insensibly the day had come and abolished his need for that individual circle of yellow light. Colour had returned to the world, clean pearly colour, clear and definite like the glance of a child or the voice of a girl, and a golden wisp of cloud hung in the sky over the tower of the church. There was a mist upon the pond, a soft grey mist not a yard high. A covey of partridges ran and halted and ran again in the dewy grass outside his garden railings. The partridges were very numerous this year because there had been so little shooting. Beyond in the meadow a hare sat up as still as a stone. A horse neighed. Wave after wave of warmth and light came sweeping before the sunrise across the world of Matching's Easy. It was as if there was nothing but morning and sunrise in the world. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 3.2.12]
The highest praise I can give the novel is to say it actually earns this epiphany: that, read in its place, all this comes over as neither cheap nor sentimental.


Mr Britling, the little Briton, the little representative of a little Britain, ‘sees it through’ in the sense that he endures, he survives the trauma and disruption the war throws at him (Look!, as D H Lawrence's end-of-war poetry collection title famously exclaimed, We Have Come Through!)—but in another sense the title means that Britling sees through ‘it’, the mess and pain of phenomenal existence, to something transcendent. The novel, after all, ends on an affirmation of human connection to God. So perhaps we should take the title as asserting the insight bumbling comical Britling finally achieves: as it were, Mr Britling Sees It, Through-And-Through.

Not everyone would agree that Wells manages to pull this off. In Hemingway's first-world-war-set A Farewell to Arms (1929), the 94-year-old Count Greffi is entertaining the novel's protagonist, Frederic Henry, at dinner. You remember the scene:

‘No he doesn't ... he doesn't see through it’ is in part Henry's way of saying: you've got that title wrong, you know. But it's also his say of saying: Wells's novel doesn't provide the through-vision it pretends to. ‘Are you Croyant?’ means ‘are you a believer? Do you have religious faith?’ and Henry's answer is a deliberate deflection. In Hemingway's fiction there is nothing so comforting behind the suffering and the death as a loving God. His characters live by the Hemingway code which is existentially stoic in a way that would disdain the spiritual comfort of a pseudo-Christian deus ex fabula. [Sidebar: why does Count Greffi get the title wrong? So far as I can see Mr Britling has never been translated into Italian, but a French translation appeared in 1917 under the title Monsieur Britling commence à voir clair, ‘Mr Britling begins to see things clearly’; presumably that's the version Greffi read, and the cause of his titular confusion.]

Walter Allen intends nothing disrespectful or diminishing when he describes the Hemingway ethos, his novels's ‘code’, as a style: ‘the code is as much aesthetic as it is ethical,’ according to Allen: ‘insisting upon nothingness Hemingway asserts violently man's dignity in the face of nothingness. Man dies: it is intolerable he should die less than well, with a sense of style; and as a man dies so should he live’ [Allen, Tradition and Dream (1964), 118]. Allen summarises A Farewell To Arms as ‘an attempt to get down to some kind of bedrock in a world that has been stripped of all meaning’ (adding ‘it is Hemingway's triumph that ... he learnt a style from despair’).

But the contrast in the way these two, very different, writers tackle the question of war is instructive, I think. Both are alive to the physical and psychological costs of war, but for Hemingway war is something to be actively engaged, as a test of (there's no way round this, I think) a specific mode of existential, stoical manliness. As against Hemingway's agency, Wells writes about patience. For Wells, war is broadly something to be passively endured, and it is through this endurance, by observation, and then only in a tentative, starting-point way (‘commencer à voir clair’) that insight is achieved. Wells writes a kind of canny anti-style, concealing a good deal of artistry behind his seeming urbanity and discursiveness; and he avoids anything so stoically forbidding as an ethical style. He is more interested in humans as compromised and soft, as messy and struggling to get by. I have to say, that seems to me the less mendacious vision of homo sapiens.

This larger Hemingway/Wells contrast is important, I think, not just where this novel is concerned, but in terms of the literature of war as a whole. In the Iliad and Henry V and The Red Badge of Courage war is the arena of individual and collective action. Even so sophisticated a representation as War and Peace takes it for granted that war is the environment in which the agency of the characters succeeds or is thwarted. Wells's focus on the domestic front enables him to swap that entirely about. There is nothing the characters he is writing about can do: Britling's desire to act is frustrated by his age. Here he is at his London club, grumbling among his friends that the War Office won't even consider them for service.
The prevailing topic in the smoking-room upstairs was the inability of the War Office to deal with the flood of recruits that was pouring in, and its hostility to any such volunteering as Mr. Britling had in mind. Quite a number of members wanted to volunteer; there was much talk of their fitness; ‘I'm fifty-four,’ said one, ‘and I could do my twenty-five miles in marching kit far better than half those boys of nineteen.’ ... Afterwards in other conversations Mr. Britling reverted to more modest ambitions.

‘Is there no clerical work, no minor administrative work, a man might be used for?’ he asked.

‘Any old dug-out,’ said the man with the thin face, ‘any old doddering Colonel Newcome, is preferred to you in that matter...’

Mr. Britling emerged from his club about half-past three with his mind rather dishevelled and with his private determination to do something promptly for his country's needs blunted by a perplexing ‘How?’ His search for doors and ways where no doors and ways existed went on with a gathering sense of futility. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 2.2.1]
The novel's second half expertly details a situation in which there is nothing to be done, and everything to be endured, and the only way ‘through’ is patience and spiritual openness. One of the potentially most interesting things about the book is the portrait of the western front it gives us, through Hugh's lengthy letters to his father, in which war itself becomes wholly characterised by the passivity of the soldiers waging it. That reflects the nature of trench warfare itself, of course; and after the First World War it became one of the tropes of the representation of war. But I'm trying to think of another work earlier than Wells's that does the same thing. I'm not sure there is one.

At one point, Wells portrays PTSD, or something like it (again, surely this is the first novel to include such a thing). Britling's friend Captain Carmine returns home on leave. Britling is shocked to see that ‘Carmine's face showed nothing of the excitement and patriotic satisfaction that would have seemed natural to Mr. Britling. He was white and jaded, as if he had not slept for many nights’ [2.2.4]. It is only after a while that Carmine is able to explain himself to his friend:
It was only when they sat together in the barn court out of the way of Mrs. Britling and the children that Captain Carmine was able to explain his listless bearing and jaded appearance. He was suffering from a bad nervous shock. He had hardly taken over his command before one of his men had been killed—and killed in a manner that had left a scar upon his mind.

The man had been guarding a tunnel, and he had been knocked down by one train when crossing the line behind another. So it was that the bomb of Sarajevo killed its first victim in Essex. Captain Carmine had found the body. He had found the body in a cloudy moonlight; he had almost fallen over it; and his sensations and emotions had been eminently disagreeable. He had had to drag the body—it was very dreadfully mangled—off the permanent way, the damaged, almost severed head had twisted about very horribly in the uncertain light, and afterwards he had found his sleeves saturated with blood. He had not noted this at the time, and when he had discovered it he had been sick. He had thought the whole thing more horrible and hateful than any nightmare, but he had succeeded in behaving with a sufficient practicality to set an example to his men. Since this had happened he had not had an hour of dreamless sleep. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 2.2.4]
This focus on passivity as the tenor of war runs, I'd argue, through the whole novel: reaction is prioritised over action, waiting and enduring trump doing and overcoming, the passions of the historical moment, the patriotism and urgency and mania for analysis and so on (Britling shocks himself by the unexpected ‘strength and passion of his own belligerent opinions’ [1.5.13] once war starts), are revealed as iterations of the root of the word passion:—that is, passivity. Wells is especially skilful in the way he inverts the valences of character-in-action. Mr Britling is a writer, but as the war gets going he spends all his time not actively writing but passively reading (reading the newspapers, reading the letters he gets from Hugh). He is engaged in an affair, but rather than actively pursuing Mrs. Harrowdean or, as he thinks he ought, actively breaking it off, he just passively lets it fizzle out. He is rich enough to own a car, and drives it around, but the comedy of these scenes stress his incompetence as diriger; in a sense he doesn't drive the car, the car drives him.

More grandly, he goes from a person full of self-importance, speaking bombastically about what England ‘must’ do, the ways in which Germany must be fought and how the continent must be rearranged after England has won its victory, to an individual whose self-importance has been completely scooped out, struggling to express himself on a purely individual level. I could take it further: the novel moves Britling from thesis, his pompous (active) certainty that he knows the answer to everything, through the antithesis of his heartbroken (passive) belief that he knows nothing, to a kind of synthesis, very specifically rendered in the novel in fragmentary form, that he is at the shattered beginning of a new comprehension. That fragmentariness becomes an increasingly prominent part of the book in its third portion. Indeed, two pages from the end the printed novel gives way (‘the last sheet of Mr. Britling's manuscript,’ says the narrator, ‘may be more conveniently given in facsimile than described’) and we get:

This characterisation of Britling is, of course, central to the project as a whole. John Batchelor argues that ‘written with more detachment, this novel would be a study of a figure whose self-centredness verges on the brutal, but by tricking Mr Britling out with comic attributes—his odd clothes and general untidiness, the games he invents, the rather heavily conscious unconventionality of his household’s manners, his hair-raising inability to drive his car—Wells works hard to enlist the reader’s sympathy.’ He goes on to note that this this strategy failed to convince one John Batchelor, announcing with a rather splendid high-handedness: ‘personally, I withhold my sympathy’ (he does add an at least: ‘ … until Hugh Britling is killed in the war’) [John Batchelor, H G Wells (Cambridge Univ Press 1985), 110]. Whilst this doesn't actively misrepresent the lineaments of the novel, I suppose, although it does seem to me to miss something very important about what Wells is doing.

The petty ludicrousness of Britling (based on an impressive un-self-forgiving, clear-sighting assessment by Wells of his own various petty ludicrousnesses) is not just a strategy to nudge the reader into liking the character despite his egoism. More importantly it's a calculated inversion of the traditional attributes of the warrior. Instead of tragic dignity and nobility Wells stresses how contingent and quotidian and more importantly how silly ordinary life actually is. Silly is the quality of existence in war or peace, with the difference that silliness is broadly funny in peacetime and broadly heartbreaking in war. Nobody in this novel dies a heroic warrior's death: Hugh's best friend at the front, known as ‘Ortheris’, gets his legs blown off by a shell, and then sits (of necessity, since he now has no legs on which to stand) laughing and joking with Hugh about his predicament. He says he's thirsty, and as Hugh gets out his water bottle, he dies: ‘“And I'm done!” And then—then he just looked discontented and miserable and died—right off’ (Hugh's letter goes on: ‘I couldn't believe he was dead ... I began to cry. Like a baby. I kept on with the water-bottle at his teeth long after I was convinced he was dead’). Hugh himself is shot in the head by a freak shot that happens to pass through a tiny ‘loop’ in the trench defences. Herr Heinrich is taken prisoner on the (German) Eastern front, and dies when a fight breaks out between some German and some Croatian prisoners. Captain Carmine's man, as we've seen, is knocked over by a train. It's all deliberately inconsequential, and all the more affecting for that. War, Wells is saying, is not a plan, or a purpose, or any kind of agency. It is randomness and endurance and passivity.

From passivity to passion and back again. Passion has a Christian-religious meaning, of course, although it's not one people nowadays necessarily realise. We talk of Christ's passion not because the experience of being crucified was one of intense feelings or strong beliefs, but because it involved God's willing acceptance of an agonizing passivity. Theologically speaking there is no force in the whole cosmos capable of compelling God to endure torture and death; theologically speaking, God is not just an agent, he is the agent, he embodies the primary and complete agency. And yet God accepted the passivity of being nailed to the cross, and the redemption entailed by that sacrifice is the chief mystery of the Christian faith.

The willing acceptance of enforced passivity is the wisdom that Britling learns; and the novel's climactic reference—addressed by Britling to Herr Heinrich's parents—to ‘Our sons who have shown us God ...’ [3.2.11; ellipses in original] is an open-ended gesture towards Christ's filial passion and sacrifice as the medium of divine revelation. In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells describes Mr Britling Sees It Through as a novel about ‘the passionate desire to find some immediate reassurance amidst that whirlwind of disaster’ [Wells, Autobiography, 573]; and that use of ‘passionate’ is not, I think, merely adventitious.

I wonder if the thoroughness as well as the scope of Wells's anatomy of passivity (of passion) in this novel is one reason why it has fallen off the larger radar. There's an interesting essay by James Campbell [‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’, New Literary History, 30:1 (1999), 203-215] that discusses the critical culture that has grown up, especially after the impact of Paul Fussell's very influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), by which so many subsequent ‘readings’ of First World War literature have oriented themselves. By way of a critique, in point of fact, of Fussell. Campbell argues that ‘an aesthetic criterion of realism and an ethical criterion of a humanism of passivity’ combine in the critical discourse ‘to create an ideology of what I term “combat gnosticism”’. Campbell is, I think, correct when he argues that ‘such an ideology has served both to limit severely the canon of texts that mainstream First World War criticism has seen as legitimate war writing and has simultaneously promoted war literature's status as a discrete body of work with almost no relation to non-war writing’.
The critical tradition that I identify as mainstream and dominant is one that equates the term “war” with the term “combat.” As a result, what it legitimates as war literature is produced exclusively by combat experience; the knowledge of combat is a prerequisite for the production of a literary text that adequately deals with war. This is what I mean by combat gnosticism: a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledge which only an initiated elite knows. Only men (there is, of course, a tacit gender exclusion operating here) who have actively engaged in combat have access to certain experiences that are productive of, perhaps even constitutive of, an arcane knowledge. Furthermore, mere military status does not signify initiation, but only status as a combatant. It is not the label of “soldier” that is privileged so much as the label of “warrior” [Campbell, 203-04]
Campbell is well aware of the limitations of this approach, and although his essay is concerned with war poets we could extend it to devise a reading of the reception of Britling: a text that falls foul of the tacit critical consensus by, very specifically, not being a combat novel, or more precisely by extending the definition of combat, and combat trauma, far beyond the front line. It is, we could say, a resolutely non-gnostic novel.

And there is perhaps a larger point, too. We are, I suspect, broadly out of favour with passion in the sense Wells's novel so artfully construes it. Nowadays we're more likely to say: ‘let's see action’. Today's favoured mode of narrative art is cinema and TV, and these two prize agency, motion, engagement, characters doing things. ‘Action!’ cry its directors as they initiate yet another scene. They don't cry ‘passion!’. Hemingway is a great and unflinching writer of action; and that is both his glory and the ground of his limitation. Wells's openness to passion enables him to go further, at least in this book. In this (alas, overlong) post on Endo's great novel Silence I discuss this question in some detail. And it seems to me a great strength of Wells's novel that, like Endo (which is to say, of course, long before Endo) it can explore in such depth, and with such emotional sophistication and penetration, how passivity is actually our existential idiom. I don't mean to split hairs, but I'd argue this is not a novel about ‘the pity of war’ so much as it is a novel about war as an arena for compassion. Our sons die for us, but the paradox of that passion is that such dying leads back to life, hope and redemption. That quality, in its complexly inwoven senses of fellow-feeling and charity grounded in a shared sense of passivity, is what Mr Britling, ultimately, sees, through the fog of war. It's what ultimately comes clear.

Friday, 6 October 2017

What Is Coming? (1916)

295 pages of speculation and prophecy, disposed into the following twelve chapters:

 ‘Prophecy may vary,’ Wells says, ‘between being an intellectual amusement and a serious occupation,’ adding that ‘it is the lot of prophets who frighten or disappoint to be stoned’. What was it Dylan sang? Everybody. Must. Get. Stoned. Wells, though, opens this volume with quiet confidence in his unstoneability, a certain pride in his previous prophetic successes:

‘What is really being examined here,’ we are told, ‘is the power of human reason to prevail over passion’ [9]. Wells thinks the nation state unsupportable, going forward, and predicts that either his looked-for World State will be established or else states will agglomerate into three blocks, European, Chinese and Pan-American, adding: ‘I leave it to the mathematician to work out exactly how much the chances of conflict are diminished when there are practically only three Powers in the world instead of some scores’ [25]. He means to imply that there would be a greatly reduced chance of conflict, but I can't be the only person who, reading this, found myself thinking: fewer permutations, but much greater chance of any war that happens taking on catastrophic proportions. Makes me wonder if Orwell read this book. Presumably he did.

Anyway: Wells thinks there’s a good chance, postwar, of ‘an immediate World State and Pax Mundi’ [26]. He thinks the war will end not through any great military breakthrough, but by a process of exhaustion: ‘exhaustion is likely to be a very long and very thorough process, extending over years. A “war of attrition” may last into 1918 or 1919’ [40]. That proved spot-on, of course; although Wells’s predictions in chapter 3 of complete financial reorganisation necessitated by the enormousness of war debt was less on-the-nose. He argues reconstruction of smashed infrastructure will prove easier than generally assumed (broadly right); and insists the postwar world will be a socialist one. As evidence for this belief he notes that modern war can only be fought on anti-individualistic, fundamentally socialist lines, and this war has radically altered the social fabric: ‘it will be as impossible to put back British industrialism into the factories and forms of the pre-war era as it would be to restore the Carthaginian Empire’ [113]. This is an interesting guess, actually. It wasn't really true of 1920s Britain, of course, but it does describe the coming of the Welfare State in the post-1945 settlement. Wells also predicts the coming of proportional representation, and the comprehensive reordering of education.

The chapter on ‘The War and Women’ makes some sensible points, in amongst some essentialist weirdness that comes close to actual barking nonsense:
There have always been two extreme aspects of the sexual debate. There have always been oversexed women who wanted to be treated primarily as women, and the women who were irritated and bored by being treated primarily as women. There have always been those women who wanted to get, like Joan of Arc, into masculine attire and the school of ‘mystical darlings’. … Of course the mass of women lies between these extremes. But it is possible, nevertheless, to discuss the question as though it were a conflict of two sharply opposed ideals. The ordinary woman fluctuates between the two, turns now to the Western ideal of citizenship and now to the Eastern of submission. [168-9]
This chapter also contains a little peek-a-boo reference to Wells's current affaire de coeur:
Compare, say, the dark coquettings of Miss Elizabeth Robins’ “Woman’s Secret” with the virile common sense of that most brilliant young writer, Miss Rebecca West, in her bitter onslaiught on feminine limitations in the opening chapters of “The World’s Worse Failure.” The former is an extravagance of sexual mysticism. Man can never understand women. Women always hide deep and wonderful things away beyond masculine discovery. Some day perhaps—— It is someone peeping from behind a curtain and inviting men in provocative tones to come and play catch in a darkened harem. The latter is like some gallant soldier cursing his silly accoutrements. [171]
Can you guess which of these two women Wells is having sex with, I wonder?

Chapter 9 speculates on how the postwar map of Europe might be redrawn, and Chapter 10 goes into more detail on the possible futures of the USA, Britain, France and Russia. Since he does not foresee Bolshevik revolution in the latter state, he gets plenty of things wrong there; and he goes off on a weird rant about the Cyrillic alphabet (he insists Russian must be converted to ‘a Western phonetic type … The Frenchman or Englishman is confronted with COP!; the sound of that is SAR! For those who learn languages there will always be an undercurrent towards saying “COP.” The mind plunges hopelessly through that tangle to the elements of a speech which is yet unknown’ [234-5]). More perceptively he predicts a coming end to the age of European empire, and the last chapter pleads for a mindset of clemency to handle the question of what shall become of the Germans after they have been defeated. Overall, What Is Coming is what you would expect it to be: a mix of hit and miss.