Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Conquest of Time (1942)

‘In 1908,when I was still mentally adolescent,’ the present volume opens, ‘I wrote a book called First and Last Things. It was an attempt to get my ideas about the world and myself into some sort of order. It was published, criticized, revised, and revised, and now for a number of reasons I propose to reprint it no more, but to replace it by the present volume’ [1]. The original 1908 edition was indeed comprehensively revised to make it more conventionally religious in 1917, and then re-revised and republished taking a lot of the religion out again in 1927. This new version is a slim 86-pages, looking especially trim in wartime paper-shortage slender-paperstock issue

He claims he was too much under the influence of William James when he wrote the original version (I'd say it was too under the influence of Wells's Amber-Reeve-inflamed libido, but let's not quarrel), and that when he wrote it ‘my world was still innocent of psycho-analysis and I had never heard of Pavlov’ [1]. Throw in some J W Dunne (a personal friend of Wells's), and we're set to go.

First and Last Things had proceded from a common-sense ontology to statements about how to best live in the world. This new volume is more interested by time. ‘What precisely,’ Wells asks, ‘do we mean by now?’ [1]  That the volume's guiding principle is J W Dunne rather than, say, Einstein should tell us that we're going to get a experiential rather than philosopher's or physicist's answer to the question. Time is speeding up, says Wells, in this our busy-busy new world: ‘the intervals between events’ are ‘dwindling to nothing’; no matter what we do ‘that crowding together of events goes on’ (‘the Thebiad is no longer a safe hiding place; the monks of Mount Athos are ousted by anti-aircraft guns’ [1]). Wells quotes Ovid's tempus edax rerum, although he's not sure he entirely agrees:
But now Time swallows with less assurance, looks doubtful, stops eating, and turns green. Not only do events go on record and stay on record, but Time begins to disgorge. Every year we win back more of the past history of the universe and know its particulars more surely. [Conquest, 1]
Now that he's older, Wells finds Being reclaiming some of the territory lost by Doing. He quotes a letter from Dunne noting ‘the unevenness of the flow of time related to one's consciousness’ (‘what a flash in one's life is the period between the ages of say sixty to sixty-four!’), and wonders about the possibility of ‘escaping from the urgency of activity towards a conclusion in contemplation’ [1].

Not that there's a great deal of cop to Wells's contemplations here. He notes that foolish people believe that they'll still be conscious after their own death—‘they conceive death as a conscious paralysis ... but no man will ever know that he is dead’ [4]—without conceding that such foolish people are Mr and Mrs Strawman. There's quite a lot of late-Wells's anti-Catholicism, including a mammoth 5-page footnote, in small print, in which he twits Christians for not reading their Bibles closely enough, and complains that he had always been told Jesus was ‘the son of Mary and the Holy Ghost’ which renders the lengthy and ‘fantastic’ genealogy of Joseph irrelevant. (There are various other pseudo-‘gotcha!’ moments in this footnote, including that the gospels were written ‘some years’ after the event, and that Jesus must have been ‘an exceptionally weak man’ to die after only six hours of crucifixion. It's all pretty feeble stuff).

Individuals die but the species carries on, and ‘the individual and the species return into one another in a fashion that has been the chief concern of philosophical inquiry since philosophy began—the relation of the One to the Many’ [6]. Life's meaning derives from that, not from the material world as such (Nature is not interested in questions of good or evil, meaning or meaninglessness, because ‘whether the new difference has immediate survival value is her sole criterion’ [7]). Human thought, though, can transcend individual mortality and bring about a kind of transcendence in what Wells calls ‘the After Man’. ‘I am convinced that the species we call so prematurely Homo sapiens is bound to extinguish itself unless it now sets about adapting itself at a great rate to the stresses it has brought down upon itself’ [9]. This new man will have a new religion—‘the subordination of the self, of the aggressive personality, to the common creative task, which is the conquest and animation of the universe by life’ [10]—and a final appendix offers ‘A Summary of Modern Ideas about Space and Time’, which puzzles at our fixedness in time. We can walk about three dimensions of space, but not the one of time.
What follows if we recognize that we are living in a four-dimensional universe? The question revives the difficulty which I have already broached in my opening remarks about Dunne. I return to that. Where I repeat, are those missing angles, North by Past, North by Future, Future by West, Future by the Tropic of Capricorn? Why are they practically imperceptible? [Conquest, ‘Appendix’]
Some good titles for SF stories, there. Wells's answer to his own question, is that whilst we are relatively free-floating where space is concerned, we are all ‘flying through the time axis at this terrific speed of 299,796 kilometers a chronometer second’:
Our flight along that past and future axis is as if we were travelling at that incredible pace on some Coney Island Speed Railway, or sitting in some equally superlative dive bomber. We cannot get off and stretch out legs and pick flowers and get in again.
It's an idea, I guess; though Wells provides no evidence beyond assertion.

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