Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Happy Turning: a Dream of Life (1945)

This short work, Wells’s penultimate, describes his daily walk from his home in Hanover Terrace, beside Regent’s Park, round the corner to his club in Mayfair. The real walk is not the thing, though. It is how Wells takes that walk in his dreams (‘I am dreaming,’ is how the story opens, ‘far more than I did before this chaotic war invaded my waking hours’). In his dreams, he says he can turn off at hitherto unnoticed ‘happy turnings’ into a pleasant, cheering dimension where he can stroll, explore and chat with—for instance—Jesus (who is critical of Saint Paul for twisting his original teachings). The conceit is rather like his earlier short-story ‘The Door in the Wall’, though Wells doesn’t make this comparison explicitly, and although this door doesn’t elude the narrator the way the earlier portal does

 It is, of course, a place of wish-fulfillment for a chronically sick, and actually dying, man:
Beyond the Happy Turning I leap gulfs unerringly, scale precipices, shin up trees and am indefatigable. There are no infections here; no coughs, no colds; to cough or sneeze would be to wake up and tumble back headlong into those unhygienic present-day realities where dirt-begotten epidemics have their way with us. [Happy Place, 1]
It’s not just wish-fulfillment of course. It would be a one-dimensional sort of book if it were. Or more precisely, it is a book aware how tricky dream-wishes and dream-fulfilment can be. Wells brings in a little Freud (‘the subliminal self is never straightforward’ [2]) and reflects on his own dreams.
In the past I do not recall dreams as a frequent factor in my existence, though some affected me very importantly. As a child I used to have a sort of geometrical nightmare as if a mad kaleidoscope charged down upon me, and this was accompanied by intense distress. I may have been very young then, because I cannot remember now how I awakened or whether I conveyed my distress to anyone. Nor have I ever come upon a description of that dream as happening to any other child. [Happy Turning, 2]
That's quite a striking nightmare! To me it says something about the angular inhospitability of the reality principle as it imposes itself on the desires of the id. Your mileage, as the phrase goes, may vary.

This final iteration of utopia in Wells's oeuvre is largely rural, and although there is a lot of architecture, but ‘the architects of Dreamland lay out a whole new world’ [6] every time they build. Which is as if to say, geometry is not imposed onto the pliable material of the world, like a mad kaleidoscope, but is instead coeval with it, integral in its eutopic disposition. But it's also to say that the architecture is a matter of wish rather than labour, of plenitude rather than lack.

Christ takes the central role in two chapters ‘Jesus of Nazareth discusses his failure’ and ‘Miracles, Devils and the Gadarene Swine’, and the proximity dreams to religion, or more precisely the tension between the dream-fulfilment of faith and the kaleidoscopic horrors of dogma and creed, are part of the point of the book. ‘Religions are such stuff as dreams are made of’ says Wells, adding:
The Athanasian Creed is severely logical in dreamland, Isis is transfigured into Hathor, a cow, Quannon, the crescent moon and Murillo’s Queen of Heaven, and still the dream flows on. Osiris becomes his own son Horus, who becomes again Osiris and the Virgin Mother, in incessant rotation. [Happy Turning, 2]
Young Wells was, of course, very close to his devout mother, a woman who believed absolutely in the Athanasian Creed. Lay out your imaginary H G on your imaginary psychiatrist's couch, and it won't take you long to unearth a core reason for his constant love affairs and sexual promiscuity in his relationship with the mother he adored and who was so hard to please, that objet a, here populating the religion of Dreamland with metamorphosing female deities. This, incidentally, is what Murillo’s Queen of Heaven (1660) looks like:

We don't have any photographs of Sarah Wells as a young woman, so you'll have to take this one of her in old age and extrapolate backwards towards her brunette, fine-faced youth.

Yes? No? Maybe I'm over-reaching. The problem with this level of ‘explanation’ for Wells’s (or any man’s) sexual promiscuity is not that it isn’t convincing, but rather the opposite: it’s too facile, too obvious. Too much an absolute horizon within which a series of much more particularised and localised behaviours and misbehaviours, fetishes and loves and griefs, flourish and wither. Its explanatory power is too broad-brush. On the other hand, Wells's Dreamland also contains Osiris becoming Horus becoming again Osiris, this brief glimpse of a son who begets himself bypassing the maternal altogether, is interesting. Wells was a self-made man in the material and financial sense of the phrase, but his real desire (this dream suggests) is to be what nobody can be, self-made in an ontological sense.

Wells began writing The Happy Turning in 1943, but dropped it, along with various other unfinished projects as the year went on and his health deteriorated. He took it up again in the summer of 1944, when he experienced a final burst of productivity: finishing this short book, writing Mind At The End of its Tether, and fifteen newspaper and journal articles, together with a quantity of other unpublished bits and pieces which, for a while, he was thinking of pulling together into one volume under the title Exasperations. It is these latter that inform what the artist does, of course: not art but the obstacles to art, not expression but the obstacles to expression. Wells's entire career involved him moving from fiction to reality, and finding in the latter exasperating refusal to bend to his will. And it is to the real world, Wells finally addresses himself in this little book, with something like defiance: ‘you have no existence apart from mind, and so I shall make an end to you now.’

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