After Joan and Peter's longueurs, The Undying Fire (1919) was a pleasure to read: a brisk, modern-day version of the Book of Job full of arresting moments. It was serialised in The International Review, March-June 1919, and then published as a book by Cassell & Co. in the UK and Macmillan in the US. We start in the cosmic spaces outside earthly concerns, where God and Satan are playing chess:
The chess they play is not the little ingenious game that originated in India; it is on an altogether different scale. The Ruler of the Universe creates the board, the pieces, and the rules; he makes all the moves; he may make as many moves as he likes whenever he likes; his antagonist, however, is permitted to introduce a slight inexplicable inaccuracy into each move, which necessitates further moves in correction. The Creator determines and conceals the aim of the game, and it is never clear whether the purpose of the adversary is to defeat or assist him in his unfathomable project. Apparently the adversary cannot win, but also he cannot lose so long as he can keep the game going. But he is concerned, it would seem, in preventing the development of any reasoned scheme in the game. [Undying Fire, 1.1]The two immortals have a second go at their celebrated wager, picking a representative human, and Satan hurries down to Earth to set-up the trial. One little detail from early on that I love: we discover Satan can travel faster than light (‘Satan smote down through the quivering universe and left the toiling light waves behind’ [1.4]). FTL, the FaTher of Lies. Warp drive in more than one sense.
Anyway: the protagonist of Wells's novel is Job Huss, a character based on one of Wells's friends, the educator Frederick William Sanderson, of whom, following his death in 1922, Wells would write a biography, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, claiming ‘I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy’. Sanderson's fictional avatar, Huss, is ‘the headmaster of the great modern public school at Woldingstanton in Norfolk’ [2.2]; but, through no delinquency of his, fire kills two pupils and an assistant master is killed ‘by an explosion in the chemical laboratory’ that sprays him with acid (Huss was the first to come to the teacher’s aid: ‘still alive and struggling, [he] was blinded, nearly faceless, and hopelessly mangled. The poor fellow died before he could be extricated’). Worse follows: Huss’s lawyer, having embezzled and lost all Huss’s money, commits suicide. Huss falls ill, and his wife insists they spend time at the seaside, in dingy and depressing lodgings at‘Sundering-on-Sea’. Huss's sickness is diagnosed as cancer, and he is given only a short time to live. Finally Huss learns that his beloved only son, a pilot in the RFC, has been shot down over enemy lines and killed. All very Jōby.
His comforters—in the Biblical original, as of course you know, these are Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite—are in Wells's version: Sir Eliphaz Burrows (‘the patentee and manufacturer of those Temanite building blocks which have revolutionized the construction of army hutments’), William Dad (‘one of the chief contractors for aeroplanes in England’) and Joseph Farr, the head of the technical section of Woldingstanton School, who wants to depose Huss and take over as headmaster. Huss knows how sneaky Farr is, but has been unable to replace him because of a shortage of technically skilled teachers. When his ‘comforters’ arrive he immediately understands their purpose: ‘I know perfectly well the task you have set yourselves. You have come to make an end of me as headmaster of Woldingstanton’ [3.4]—this, he insists, would be the final blow that will sink him. Nonetheless, they harangue him: he must step down.
Wells sticks, with varying degrees of ingenuity, to the structure of the Biblical fable. Huss's wife encourages him, though not in so many words, to curse God and die. His comforters needle him in ways paralleling the Tanakhan original. The role of Elihu is played by Huss's physician, Dr. Elihu Barrack, who urges Huss to undertake a potentially fatal operation to remove his cancerous lump, and who discusses Huss's existential concerns with him, agreeing and disagreeing by turns. The two of them talk about Evolution, though they consider the term tendentious and prefer to speak of the ‘Process’, and though Elihu describes himself, with some vehemence as Agnostic about God, the discussion tends towards Huss's view of the divine as both imminent and immanent in humankind, which potential is the ground for the high calling of the world's educators.
What is the task of the teacher in the world? It is the greatest of all human tasks. It is to ensure that Man, Man the Divine, grows in the souls of men. For what is a man without instruction? He is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears. He can regard nothing except in relation to himself. Even his love is a bargain; and his utmost effort is vanity because he has to die. And it is we teachers alone who can lift him out of that self-preoccupation. We teachers .... We can release him into a wider circle of ideas beyond himself in which he can at length forget himself and his meagre personal ends altogether. We can open his eyes to the past and to the future and to the undying life of Man. So through us and through us only, he escapes from death and futility. [Undying Fire, 3.4. Ellipses in original]Huss, strikingly, makes his own ill-health the ground of his vision of a world that surpasses pain: ‘I see deeper because I am not blinded by health.’ [5.4]. But we're near the end of the book, and it's time for his operation. Under anaesthetic he has visions, first of a mocking Satan, and then of God himself who issues a divine promise that mankind shall conquer the stars ‘so long as your courage endures.’ [6.1] Then there is a rather striking visualisation, and indeed unconscious anticipation, of the cosmic Big Crunch:
it seemed to him that the whole universe began to move inward upon itself, faster and faster, until at last with an incredible haste it rushed together. He resisted this collapse in vain, and with a sense of overwhelmed effort. The white light of God and the whirling colours of the universe, the spaces between the stars—it was as if an unseen fist gripped them together. They rushed to one point as water in a clepsydra rushes to its hole. The whole universe became small, became a little thing, diminished to the size of a coin, of a spot, of a pinpoint, of one intense black mathematical point, and— vanished. He heard his own voice crying in the void like a little thing blown before the wind: ‘But will my courage endure?’ The question went unanswered. Not only the things of space but the things of time swept together into nothingness. [Undying Fire, 6.1]He wakes. The operation is over. The novel's coda is what you'd expect: the removed cancer is revealed to be non-malignant; Huss's financial affairs are restored when a distant relative dies leaving him a fortune; the boys at Woldingstanton school form a committee to prevent him from being sacked and finally news comes that Huss's son is a prisoner of war, and not dead after all.
As a reading of Job, Wells's little fable leans heavily on the final term in the celebrated Biblical verse (quoted several times by Wells): ‘who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ [Job 38:2]. We need to know more, Wells says, and know better. He dedicates the book to ‘All Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses and Every Teacher in the World’. Some of the to-and-fro of the dialogue bloviates, just a little, and there is no real sense of any argumentative progression or development (though that's true of the original Biblical book too, I think). But it's a surprisingly rich text: with many little inset anecdotes, observations and mini-arguments, any one of which could be developed and elaborated.
Lacking time and unwilling to expand into the space necessary to analyse all of these, I want to close this blogpost by looking at one such ‘episode’. I don't select it at random. David C. Smith [H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986), 248] has high praise for one extended passage in particular, located towards the end of the fable, in which a pre-op Huss evokes the life of a German U-boat seaman. At the beginning, Huss says, this lad imagines himself to be a hero, ‘fighting for his half-divine Kaiser, for dear Germany’; and on going down into a submarine for the first time he is struck that ‘it is a little cold, but wonderful; a marvellous machine. How can such a nest of inventions, ingenuities, beautiful metal-work, wonderful craftsmanship, be anything but right?’ [5.4]. But soon enough he begins to doubt the rightness of what he is doing:
He stands by one of the guns of the submarine in an attack upon some wretched ocean tramp. He realizes that the war he wages is no heroic attack on pride or predominance, but a mere murdering of traffic. He sees the little ship shelled, the wretched men killed and wounded, no tyrants of the seas but sailormen like himself; he sees their boats smashed to pieces. Mostly such sinkings are done at dawn or sundown, under a level light which displays a world of black lines and black silhouettes asway with the slow heaving and falling of coldly shining water. [Undying Fire, 5.4]This is nicely done, I think. The cold dawn swell, which is death: monumental and a little queasy, cold, an absolutely swallowing emptiness.
Life on board proves cramped for the imaginary submariner: he is always cold and continually damp (‘the apparatus and the furniture sweat continually; a clammy chill pervades the whole contrivance’). He lives under the continual strain of death's imminence: ‘our destroyers will follow up a U-boat sometimes for sixty or seventy hours, following her sounds as a hound follows the scent of its quarry’. Huss thinks death the ‘inevitable end of the U-boat sailor, unless he is lucky enough to get captured’, adding that ‘the average life of a U-boat is less than five voyages’ (in fact death wasn't quite so inevitable: 178 of the German navy's 351 U-Boats—50%—were sunk in combat, with another ten percent or so being lost in other ways. But it certainly wasn't fun). Finally Huss relates a recent sinking from which only a couple of men escaped:
I was given some particulars of the fate of one U-boat that were told by two prisoners who died at Harwich the other day. This particular boat was got by a mine which tore a hole in her aft. She was too disabled to come to the surface, and she began to sink tail down. Now the immediate effect of a hole in a U-boat is of course to bring the air pressure within her to the same level as the pressure of the water outside. For every ten yards of depth this means an addition of fourteen pounds to the square inch. The ears and blood vessels are suddenly subjected to this enormous pressure. There is at once a violent pain in the ears and a weight on the chest. Cotton wool has to be stuffed into ears and nostrils to save the ear drum. Then the boat is no longer on an even keel. The men stand and slip about on the sides of things. They clamber up the floor out of the way of the slowly rising water. For the water does not come rushing in to drown them speedily. It cannot do that because there is no escape for the air; the water creeps in steadily and stealthily as the U-boat goes deeper and deeper. It is a process of slow and crushing submergence that has the cruel deliberation of some story by Edgar Allan Poe; it may last for hours. A time comes when the lights go out and the rising waters stop the apparatus for keeping up the supply of oxygen and absorbing the carbonic acid. Suffocation begins. Think of what must happen in the minds of the doomed men crowded together amidst the machinery. In the particular case these prisoners described, several of the men drowned themselves deliberately in the rising waters inside the boat. And in another case where the boat was recovered full of dead men, they had all put their heads under the water inside the boat. People say the U-boat men carry poison against such mischances as this. They don't. It would be too tempting.‘So it was,’ Huss concludes, ‘that our German youngster who dreamt dreams, who had ambitions, who wished to serve and do brave and honourable things, died.’ This is indeed, as Smith notes, a well-written episode, although it seems to me that Wells's attempt to generalise the experience (‘I tell you all the world is a submarine, and every one of us is something of a U-boat man’) is a little dilute. Surely there's more to the striking affect this episode generates?
When it becomes evident that the U-boat can never recover the surface, there is usually an attempt to escape by the hatches. The hatches can be opened when at last the pressure inside is equal to that of the water without. The water of course rushes in and sinks the U-boat to the bottom like a stone, but the men who are nearest to the hatch have a chance of escaping with the rush of air to the surface. There is of course a violent struggle to get nearest to the hatch. This is what happened in the case of the particular U-boat from which these prisoners came. The forward hatch was opened. Our patrol boat cruising above saw the waters thrown up by the air-burst and then the heads of the men struggling on the surface. Most of these men were screaming with pain. All of them went under before they could be picked up except two. And these two died in a day or so. They died because coming suddenly up to the ordinary atmosphere out of the compressed air of the sinking submarine had burst the tissues of their lungs. They were choked with blood.
Wells extrapolates this, I suppose, from God's rebuke to Job, ‘canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?’ [Job 41:1]. The U-boat is the modern oceanic leviathan, and though marvellous it is a vanity compared to the sublime vastness and indifference of the sea through which it moves.
He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.It does make me wonder about Wells's imaginative attitude to the deeps as such. Wells was never a Freudian (though he corresponded with him, and worked hard, and successfully, through PEN, to get Freud out of Nazi Germany towards the end of the 1930s), but the temptation to put him on the couch can sometimes be overwhelming. We could say, broadly, that Wells is unpersuaded by the subconscious, or at least that he is happy more-or-less to disregard it. The idea that consciousness, subjectivity and rational human thought is radically compromised by something irrational, libidinal and fathomable would dissolve his hopes for a humanitarian world state run on rational lines. He wasn't, we are likely to say, an individual particularly repressed about sex, but repression and its monstrous return is a slippery and unpredictable matter.
He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. [Job 41:31-32]
Two things in particular stand out in terms of the personal context of The Undying Fire. One is that he had sketched out the prospectus for his Outline of History in 1918 and had begun the monumental work of researching and collaborating towards its completion. And two: his extra-marital relationship with Rebecca West was in its latter stages. This had begun in 1913, and had resulted in a son (Anthony West) born in 1914. They broke up in 1923, though they remained in contact and managed to maintain a friendship until the end of Wells life. In some senses his affair with West was the most important in Wells's life. It was certainly complicated, and although an oversimplification it's close to the truth to say that the two of them were sexually infatuated with one another without actually liking one another very much. Two gifted writers tangling physically and emotionally: hardly a recipe for smooth living. And West, unlike Wells, was quite strongly influenced by her reading of Freud.
So what do we make of these dangerous, fatal, monstrous depths (as here) or of their remarkable absence (as in, almost, everything else Wells wrote)? Chatteris drowns at the end of The Sea Lady (1902), and it is a symbolic iteration of the choking, breathtaking potency of sexual desire. But apart from that, and one rather under-developed short story (‘In the Abyss’, Pearson's Magazine, August 1896) I don't think Wells had, by 1920, written anything else set undersea. It's conventional to link his name with Verne's, but there's simply no Wellsian equivalent to Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. Stories and novels about flying in the sky and through space are legion. Under the water, though, seems to have repelled him: ‘I must confess,’ he wrote in Anticipations (1900) ‘that my imagination, in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.’
That foundering and suffocating valence is chillingly evoked in The Undying Fire, as a rebus for existential angst: but we're entitled to wonder if it's not actually a subconsciously-prompted metanightmare about the subconscious itself: Of the inner tidal irrationality that hems in the Wellsian starry-eyed future of rational world-statehood and human expansion across the stars. Conceivably I over-stretch my argument in suggesting an erotic component to this awestruck terror at descending into the depths. Like Ballard's car crashes, there is a counter-intuitive rightness in the way drowning carries an erotic charge: all those siren mermaids luring mariners to their deaths.
Alain Corbin's Le Territoire du vide: L’Occident et le désir du rivage, 1750-1840 (Paris, 1988), his influential cultural history of the sea, stresses the uncanny erotic charge marine emptiness has so often carried in human affairs (the book was translated into English in 1994, by Jocelyn Phelps, as The Lure of the Sea). Corbin's thesis is, broadly, that humanity, or at least the Christian West, has tended to regard the sea—the consequence, after all, of the Biblical Flood—as a rebuke to human sinfulness (there was, he points out, no sea in Eden, and would be no sea, according to Revelation, after Apocalypse). But this attitude shifted around over the period specified in Corbin's subtitle. Now the sea became, politically, the means of western imperial expansion and, personally, a repository of healthful bathing and therapeutic possibilities that were also strongly eroticised.
Some of this is common-sensical: partially-undressed young people frolicking in the water, and the like. Corbin notes that when the vogue for women bathing in the sea at Brighton began men lined the promenade watching them through binoculars. Some of Corbin's theorising is more fanciful: he likens ‘the mere contact of a bare foot on the sand’ to ‘a sensual invitation and a barely conscious substitute for masturbation,’ and thinks ‘the virile exaltation ... a man experienced just before jumping into the water was like that of an erection.’ But we don't need to follow him all the way down his pelago-erotic rabbit hole to agree that the sea semiotically links the medical and the sexual in a distinctively Victorian/Edwardian way. And it is at least worth pondering whether drowning doesn't figure, for a highly-sexed and sexually expressive yet, in ways, oddly repressed figure like Wells, with all his interpersonal terror of being emotionally trapped and suffocated in his relationships, as a straightforwardly erotic release. It's being drawn back to the surface that kills the German U-Boat sailors, after all: it's only contact with the air that allows them to scream in pain. In the tight embrace of the ocean depths, frighteningly but excitingly, there can be no screaming. Frank Kermode summarises Corbin's larger argument:
The ocean offered to some images of the fashionable sublime, and to others, with whom Corbin amiably sympathises, erotic satisfaction (‘the dream of vanishing into the waves like an act of slow penetration’). The beach was now both an ‘erotic site’ and a mothering one, at any rate for francophones (‘la mère’ = ‘la mer’). ... For the most part evidence is abundantly provided, as for the peculiar pleasure to be had from watching sailors drowning as their ships sank near the shore. This gratification might be supplied by paintings, but with a bit of luck a holidaymaker might be in just the right place to enjoy the real thing, perhaps with the aid of a lorgnette. The chance of a good wreck within view of the beach was regarded as ‘one of the tourist attractions of a coast’. Corbin mentions several shipwrecks known to have given keen pleasure at Ostend and Weymouth. [Frank Kermode, ‘With the Aid of a Lorgnette’, LRB 16:8 (28 April 1994), 15]Venus rises from the ocean depths. The, not-to-put-too-fine-a-point-on-it, scrotumtightening sea. Indeed, and since we're on the subject of Modernism more broadly, I did wonder whether T S Eliot, who certainly read Wells, and who may have taken one detail in one of his poems from an earlier Wells title, had The Undying Fire's account of death by drowning at the back of his mind when he composed his Waste Land (a terre, rather than a mer, vide, we might say): another text about the surprising and alarming interrelations between drowning, social and interpersonal suffocation, and erotic intensity.