Saturday, 22 April 2017

Gabriel Tarde "Underground Man" (1896/1905)

A curio, this, and only obliquely Wellsian, but interesting nonetheless. Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) is most famous today as an influential early social theorist, whose work on the mentality of crowds, and on criminology, proved particularly important during the second half of the twentieth-century. John Clute praises his ‘prescient sense of the nature of a twentieth century world consumed by “progress” ... eloquently manifest in La Psychologie économique [“Economic Psychology”] (1902)’ and quotes him:
The end of the world, this great terror of the Middle Ages, is destined to become a source of anguish again in another sense. It is no longer in time but in space that this terrestrial globe reveals itself as inextensible; and the deluge of civilized humanity already hurls itself at [insurmountable] limits.... What are we going to do when soon we will no longer be able to count on external markets, Asian, African, to serve as a palliative or derivative for our discords, as outlets for our merchandise, for our instincts of cruelty, of pillage and of prey, for our criminality as well as for our overflowing birthrate? How will we manage to reestablish among ourselves a relative peace which has had as its condition for so long our conquering projection outside ourselves, far from ourselves?
Tarde wrote one science-fiction novel: Fragment d'Histoire Future (1896), an interesting two-step of near-future utopian satire that shifts key into a more heartfelt post-apocalyptic subterranean utopian fantasia.

In the first phase of this novel worldwide utopia is achieved by liberating human labour via new wind-and-wave technologies of power generation (‘the waterfalls, the winds and the tides had become the slaves of man’ [35]—I'm quoting the 1905 English translation by Cloudesley Brereton, whose cover is pictured above) freeing up the whole of humanity to become a monoglot Greek-speaking unity (why Greek becomes the lingua franca is not very convincingly explained) dedicated to art, poetry, music, dressing in fancy clothes and parading about.

Tarde is gently mocking about the vanity of all this, and then abruptly shakes his story up by extinguishing the sun. This catastrophe is rendered rather thinly, I must say: the sun first changes colour: first to read red, then ‘from orange to yellow, from yellow to green, and from green at length to indigo and pale blue’ [53]. ‘The entire population of Norway, Northern Russia, and Siberia perished, frozen to death in a single night,’ we're told; ‘the temperate zone was decimated, and what was left of its inhabitants fled before the enormous drifts of snow and ice, and emigrated by hundreds of millions towards the tropics, crowding into the panting trains, several of which, overtaken by tornadoes of snow, disappeared for ever.’ Finally the sun winks-out. Darkness! From here the novel changes tone from satire to a more earnest spiritualism. The survivors burrow underground, digging towards the inner heat to stay alive; and then re-organise human society on a new principle of spiritual love and mutuality, a revolutionary collective purity upon which principle the novel dilates at great, and rather tiresome, length. Eventually humanity hollows out the whole Earth and Tarde leaves them contented, though ‘compelled to hide themselves in the bosom of their earth’ nonetheless ‘there in peace to pursue the happy course of their destiny under unique conditions of absolute independence and purity’ [193-94].

So what's the Wells connection with this novel? I'll tell you: in 1905 the English translation of Tarde's novel was published by Duckworth in London, translated by the aforementioned and wonderfully-monikered Cloudesley Brereton. To this edition Wells contributed a 20-page preface. He summarises Tarde's approach, is a little unsure of the satirical first portion (‘One does not quite know how far M. Tarde is in this first part of his story jesting at his common countrymen's precisions and finalities and unenterprising, exact arrangements, and how far he is sharing them’ [9]) and then, in effect, laments the missed opportunity of the catastrophe itself.  And that's what is interesting: the sketch the preface provides us of how Wells himself would have tackled the toothsome imaginative premise of a world in which the sun abruptly goes dark.

How would Wells have written such a story? Well, I can tell you what he wouldn't have done. He wouldn't have been satisfied with a traffic-light scheme of solar colours followed the brisk massacre of billions and an improbable renascence underground. How do I know? Because he says so. This is how a Wellsian Death of the Sun would go:
In the idea of that solar extinction there are extraordinary imaginative possibilities, and M. Tarde must have exercised considerable restraint to prevent their running away with him and so jarring with the ironical lightness of his earlier passages, The conception of the sun seized in a mysterious, chill grip and flickering from hue to hue in the skies of a darkened, amazed and terrified world, could be presented in images of stupendous majesty and splendour. There arise visions of darkened cities and indistinct, multitudinous, fleeing crowds, of wide country-sides of chill dismay, of beasts silent with the fear of this last eclipse, and bats and night-birds abroad amidst the lost daylight creatures and fluttering perplexed on noiseless wings. Then the abrupt sight of the countless stars made visible by this great abdication, the thickening of the sky to stormy masses of cloud so that these are hidden again, the soughing of a World-wide wind, and then first little flakes and then the drift and driving of the multiplying snow into the dim illumination of lamps, of Windows, of street lights lit untimely. Then again, the shiver of the cold, the clutching of hands at coats and wraps, the blind hurrying to shelter and the comfort of a fire—the blaze of fires. One sees the red-lit faces about the fires, sees the furtive glances at the wind-tormented windows, hears the furious knocking of those other strangers barred out, for, ‘we cannot have everyone in here.’ The darkness deepens, the cries without die away, and nothing is left but the shift and falling of the incessant snow from roof to ground. Every now and then the disjointed talk would cease altogether, and in the stillness one would hear the faint yet insistent creeping sound of the snowfall. ‘There is a little food down-stairs,’ one would say. ‘The servants must not eat it. We had better lock it upstairs. We may be here—for days.’

Grim stuff, indeed, one might make of it all, if one dealt with it in realistic fashion, and great and increasing toil one would find to carry on the tale. M. Tarde was well advised to let his hand pass lightly over this episode, to give us a simply pyrotechnic effect of red, yellow, green and pale blue, to let his people flee and die like marionettes beneath the paper snows of a shop window dressed for Christmas, and to emerge after the change with his urbanity unimpaired. [Wells, ‘Preface’, Underground Man, 10-12]
Which is to say: Wells was a better SF writer than Tarde. Hold the front page. And how would Wells have continued this story? Into a hollow-earth utopia of spiritual communion? Not at all.
Directly one thinks at all seriously of such a thing as this solar extinction, one perceives how preposterously hopeless it is to imagine that mankind would make any headway against so swift and absolute a fate. Our race would behave just as any single man behaves when death takes him suddenly through some cardiac failure. It would feel very queer, it would want to sit down and alleviate its strange discomfort, it would say something stupid or inarticulate, make an odd gesture or so, and flicker out. [13-14]
I'd rather read that novel, if I'm honest. It's the kind of thing Steve Baxter, in his more Wellsian moments, might give us.

1 comment:

  1. One sidebar. At the end of this preface Wells notes the parallel between Tarde's quasi-telepathic hollow-earth community of utopian future humans and his own hollow-moon collective Utopian Selenites in The First Men in the Moon. He adds “I remember coming upon the same idea in a book by Merejkovsky, the title of which I am now totally unable to recall”. That intrigued me: presumably it's a reference to Merezhkovsky's The Death of the Gods (1895), which in turn must mean that Wells read that book, which he can only have done in Herbert Trench's 1901 English translation. This work is a historical quasi-fantasia, in which the cosmic dialectical principles of Christ and anti-Chirst (here Julian the apostate, in the other two volumes of Merezhkovsky's Christ and Antichrist trilogy this latter figure is Leonardo da Vinci and Peter the Great respectively) battle it out. The imperial Rome of The Death of the Gods exists over a huge subterranean space, an extrapolation of the Roman Christian catacombs, although vastly more ambitious than the historical actuality. In this underground realm the attempt to synthesise Christian and pagan lore will lead, the implication is, to the sort of community that must have struck Wells's.