Wednesday, 30 August 2017

An Englishman Looks at the World (1914)

A compendium of Wells's choice 1909-1914 journalism, this: twenty-six pieces, some shorter, a couple (‘The American Population’ is over sixty pages long) more substantial. There's the cover: Wells, undeniably an Englishman, looking. Presumably The World is just off to the left of the spine.
1. The Coming Of Blériot
2. My First Flight
3. Off The Chain
4. Of The New Reign
5. Will The Empire Live?
6. The Labour Unrest
7. The Great State
8. The Common Sense Of Warfare
9. The Contemporary Novel
10. The Philosopher's Public Library
11. About Chesterton And Belloc
12. About Sir Thomas More
13. Traffic And Rebuilding
14. The So-Called Science Of Sociology
15. Divorce
16. The Schoolmaster And The Empire
17. The Endowment Of Motherhood
18. Doctors
19. An Age Of Specialisation
20. Is There A People?
21. The Disease Of Parliaments
22. The American Population
23. The Possible Collapse Of Civilisation
24. The Ideal Citizen
25. Some Possible Discoveries
26. The Human Adventure
The first piece opens with Wells running up from his garden to take a phone call from the Daily Mail informing him that Blériot has just flown the Channel and asking him for ‘an Article ... about what it means’, which he then goes on to provide. From there he speculates on the future of the Empire, the coming war, comes out against military Conscription, opines on the limitations of parliamentary democracy and many things. He reacts to the contemporary literary scene, denies that sociology is a science (since ‘counting, classification, measurement, the whole fabric of mathematics, is subjective and deceitful, and that the uniqueness of individuals is the objective truth’ [14]) and looks into the future.

A preface attached to the collection ties the above-listed twenty-six pieces into an odd little sort-of narrative: ‘Blériot arrives and sets him thinking. (1) He flies, (2) And deduces certain consequences of cheap travel. (3) He considers the King, and speculates on the New Epoch; (4) He thinks Imperially, (5) And then, coming to details, about Labour, (6) Socialism, (7) And Modern Warfare, (8) He discourses on the Modern Novel, (9) And the Public Library; (10) Criticises Chesterton, Belloc, (11) And Sir Thomas More, (12) And deals with the London Traffic Problem as a Socialist should. (13) He doubts the existence of Sociology, (14) Discusses Divorce, (15) Schoolmasters, (16) Motherhood, (17) Doctors, (18) And Specialisation; (19) Questions if there is a People, (20) And diagnoses the Political Disease of our Times. (21) He then speculates upon the future of the American Population, (22) Considers a possible set-back to civilisation, (23) The Ideal Citizen, (24) The still undeveloped possibilities of Science, (25), and—in the broadest spirit— The Human Adventure. (26)’

There's not much mileage, I think, in a detailed close-reading of all these essays. Some have aged badly in terms of argument (the anti-Conscription one, for instance, looks especially shortsighted: difficult to see how Britain could have prevailed in the First World War without that strategy) and some in terms of tone. There's a prevailing jauntiness of voice that becomes rather grating in large doses. For example, this is how Wells starts his essay on Chesterton and Belloc:
It has been one of the less possible dreams of my life to be a painted Pagan God and live upon a ceiling. I crown myself becomingly in stars or tendrils or with electric coruscations (as the mood takes me), and wear an easy costume free from complications and appropriate to the climate of those agreeable spaces. The company about me on the clouds varies greatly with the mood of the vision, but always it is in some way, if not always a very obvious way, beautiful. One frequent presence is G.K. Chesterton, a joyous whirl of brush work, appropriately garmented and crowned. When he is there, I remark, the whole ceiling is by a sort of radiation convivial. We drink limitless old October from handsome flagons, and we argue mightily about Pride (his weak point) and the nature of Deity ... Chesterton often—but never by any chance Belloc. Belloc I admire beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan viciousness about Belloc that bars him from my celestial dreams. [11]
Which is fairly jolly, although probably a little too effortfully conceited to really work (I mean, we get it: Chesterton made for a jollier drinking companion than Belloc). The rest of the essay is peculiar, too: hard to know if its, well, obtuseness is Wells being dim, or is instead some kind of three-dimensional-chess move of irony. What I mean is: Wells purports not to understand why Chesterton and Belloc and he don't get on, since they all patently want the same thing, at the same time as saying that he doesn't know what the other two want.
In many ways we three are closely akin; we diverge not by necessity but accident ... These two say Socialism is a thing they do not want for men, and I say Socialism is above all what I want for men. We shall go on saying that now to the end of our days. But what we do all three want is something very alike. Our different roads are parallel. I aim at a growing collective life, a perpetually enhanced inheritance for our race, through the fullest, freest development of the individual life. What they aim at ultimately I do not understand, but it is manifest that its immediate form is the fullest and freest development of the individual life. [11]
Does what they aim at ultimately I do not understand mean ‘I know, as religious people, they see God and faith as fundamental to human flourishing, but these are things I as a materialist literally do not comprehend’? Or does it actually mean what, on its face, it says: ‘who knows what these strange people want for mankind? It's a riddle wrapped inside an enigma’—Because if it is the latter then the whole essay becomes an exercise in point-missing on a really quite impressive scale.

Otherwise the essays in this volume cover a variety of topics to various degrees of edification and entertainment. That's a pretty wishywashy assessment, I appreciate; but there you are. Towards its end the volume reverts several times to Wells's idea (previously fictionalised as Remington's big idea in New Machiavelli) of ‘the Endowment of Motherhood’: Wells mocks the Fabians for not endorsing this notion, and praises Teddy Roosevelt for supporting it, with words if not with actions. Still: it is an idea that combines a more-or-less Feminist commitment to giving women financial security and freedom with an unashamed eugenicist agenda that is really pretty racist. ‘The birth-rate, and particularly the good-class birth-rate, falls steadily below the needs of our future’ Wells warns [17], and ‘good-class’ is really code for ‘white, middle-class, healthy’. He admonishes his readership that ‘every civilised community’—every white community, that presumably means—‘is drifting towards “race-suicide”.’ Nor are speeches alone enough, without the practical policies Wells is proposing: ‘I doubt if all the eloquence of Mr. Roosevelt and its myriad echoes has added a thousand babies to the eugenic wealth of the English-speaking world.’ Eugenic wealth is a queasy-making sort of phrase, though, isn't it?

So: yes, it's the eve of World War 1 and Wells is still banging on about eugenics:
The modern State has got to pay for its children if it really wants them—and more particularly it has to pay for the children of good homes. The alternative to that is racial replacement and social decay. That is the essential idea conveyed by this phrase, the Endowment of Motherhood. [17]
The oddity here is that the collection also includes perorations to the longue durée history of humankind precisely as a mode of strength through racial intermixing:
Every age is an age of transition, of minglings, of the breaking up of old, narrow cultures, and the breaking down of barriers, of spiritual and often of actual interbreeding. Not only is the physical but the moral and intellectual ancestry of everyone more mixed than ever it was before. We blend in our blood, everyone of us, and we blend in our ideas and purposes, craftsmen, warriors, savages, peasants, and a score of races, and an endless multitude of social expedients and rules. [24]
But make no mistake: the future to which Wells is looking—as in that cover photo, at the top of the post—belongs in his imagination to strong-limbed Anglo-Saxon people. Here's the very last paragraph in the collection:
And this Man, this wonderful child of old earth, who is ourselves in the measure of our hearts and minds, does but begin his adventure now. Through all time henceforth he does but begin his adventure. This planet and its subjugation is but the dawn of his existence. In a little while he will reach out to the other planets, and take that greater fire, the sun, into his service. He will bring his solvent intelligence to bear upon the riddles of his individual interaction, transmute jealousy and every passion, control his own increase, select and breed for his embodiment a continually finer and stronger and wiser race ... Sometimes in the dark sleepless solitudes of night, one ceases to be so-and-so, one ceases to bear a proper name, forgets one's quarrels and vanities, forgives and understands one's enemies and oneself, as one forgives and understands the quarrels of little children, knowing oneself indeed to be a being greater than one's personal accidents, knowing oneself for Man on his planet, flying swiftly to unmeasured destinies through the starry stillnesses of space. [26]
Those starry stillnesses are all very sublime, and so on, but ‘mankind must control his own increase, select and breed for his embodiment a continually finer and stronger and wiser race’ could hardly be a harder-core eugenicist expression.


  1. Tangentially, "old October" was a type of strong beer traditionally brewed in October and associated with John Bull, roast beef and so forth (Punch, 1877). In its 18th-century heyday, at least, it was seriously strong - 10% or so. I'm not sure how much of it there was around by 1914, but that whole passage sounds a bit Merrie England.

    As for "what they aim at ultimately I do not understand", I read it as "I understand it perfectly well and I think they're insane, but for present purposes let's give them the benefit of the doubt".

    1. I'm up to share a pint of that, if you're free, and have a time-machine handy. Or maybe a half pint: 10%? Phew.

  2. A note: I’ve been reading Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine’s The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (OUP 2010) to give myself some context on these larger questions. Its broader thesis: eugenics as a movement starts in the 1880s and reaches a ‘high point’, as it were, in the 1920s, when it was being seriously discussed by serious people. But ‘science’ (speaking broadly) increasingly discredited it through the later 1920s and 1930s, and its cultural logic shifts from being scientific or pseudo-scientific towards being more straightforwardly political and ideological in that later decade. ‘Eugenics … came under considerable scientific criticism in the 1930s and suffered more disabling political criticism after World War 2’ [11] is how they put it.

    Another interesting thing I have learned from this book is that most eugenic intervention was directed at ‘degenerates’ who already ‘belonged’ to the dominant race or ethnicity rather than at racial otherness: ‘in the Third Reich, the prime target for sterilisation and euthanasia was the disabled or “feebleminded” German rather than the foreigner. For Australian lawmakers it was the English insane who were to be excluded through immigration statues and their eugenic clauses. In twentieth-century South Africa, as Saul Dobow shows, eugenics was often a battle over whiteness. In some American states, sterilization of whites was a critical procedure, a means of stabilizing respectable visions of whiteness in a changing demographic environment.’

    Another thing I've learned from this book is the large role Catholicism played in limiting the spread of eugenics: Pius XI's 1930 encyclical "Casta connubii" specifically repudiates eugenics (it's also the pronouncement that prevented pious Catholics from using contraception). This encyclical was, they suggest, one of the reasons why Mussolini's Italy didn't embrace eugenics the way Hitler's Germany did; and it acted as a break on the spread of the idea across Mediterranean Europe and France.