Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wells at the World's Index

Between February 2017 and February 2018 I read through the whole of Wells's published output, blogging my reactions as I did so. Now that I've finished I'm going to leave this index to the posts I wrote at the head of the blog.

It's in three parts. First are my accounts of Wells's various publications. Second, a much shorter list, are reviews I wrote of a number of paratexts: biographies, spin-off novels by other writers and so on. Thirdly: original writing. On occasion, by way of tabulating some aspect of my personal reaction to a Wellsian work, I wrote a piece original fiction, and I list these in the final section. They're short stories, but they are also ways of engaging critically with aspects of the works upon which they riff. Not all literary criticism has to take the form of the conventional lit-crit analytic essay, after all.

As I've noted at various points on ths blog, I've been reading all this Wells because I've been commissioned to write a ‘Literary Biography’ of the man. Not an actual biography, which would entail years of my life, long stretches in archives all over the world rifling through unpublished letters, invoices, catalogues and so on; but an account of his life that foregrounds his writing, his fiction and non-fiction. The image at the head of this post is by the mighty Edward Gorey, and comes from his illustrated edition of War of the Worlds.

1: Wells's works

Select Conversations with an Uncle (1895)
The Time Machine (1895)
The Wonderful Visit (1895)
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895) [short stories]
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The Wheels of Chance (1896)
The Plattner Story and Others (1897) [short stories]
The Invisible Man (1897)
Certain Personal Matters (1897)
The War of the Worlds (1898)
When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
Tales of Space and Time (1899) [short stories]

Love and Mr Lewisham (1900)
The First Men in the Moon (1901)
Anticipations (1901) [non-fiction]
The Sea Lady (1902)
Mankind in the Making (1903) [non-fiction]
The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)
A Modern Utopia (1905)
Kipps (1905)
In the Days of the Comet (1906)
The Future in America (1906) [non-fiction]
This Misery of Boots (1907) [non-fiction]
Will Socialism Destroy the Home? (1907) [non-fiction]
The War in the Air (1908)
New Worlds for Old (1908) [non-fiction]
First and Last Things (1908) [non-fiction]
Tono-Bungay (1909)
Ann Veronica (1909)
The History of Mr Polly (1910)
The Sleeper Awakes (1910) [revised edition of When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)]

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)
Floor Games (1911) [non-fiction]
The Great State (1912) [non-fiction]
Marriage (1912)
Little Wars (1913) [non-fiction]
The Passionate Friends (1913)
An Englishman Looks at the World (1914) [non-fiction]
The War and Socialism (1914) [non-fiction]
The War That Will End War (1914) [non-fiction]
Boon (1915)
Bealby: A Holiday (1915)
The Research Magnificent (1915)
The Peace of the World (1915) [non-fiction]
What is Coming? (1916) [non-fiction]
Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916)
The Elements of Reconstruction (1916) [non-fiction]
God the Invisible King (1917) [non-fiction]
The Soul of a Bishop (1917)
War and the Future (a.k.a. Italy, France and Britain at War) (1917) [non-fiction]
Introduction to Swinnerton's ‘Nocturne’ (1917) [non-fiction]
In the Fourth Year (1918) [non-fiction]
Joan and Peter: The Story of an Education (1918)
The Undying Fire (1919)

The Outline of History (1920) [non-fiction]
Russia in the Shadows (1921) [non-fiction]
The Salvaging of Civilization (1921) [non-fiction]
The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)
A Short History of the World (1922) (New and Rev Ed. 1946) [non-fiction]
Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922) [non-fiction]
Men Like Gods (1923)
Tales of Wonder (1923) [short stories]
Tales of Life and Adventure (1923) [short stories]
Socialism and the Scientific Motive (1923) [non-fiction]
The Dream (1924)
A Year of Prophesying (1925) [non-fiction]
The Story of a Great Schoolmaster: Being a Plain Account of the Life and Ideas of Sanderson of Oundle (1924) [non-fiction]
Christina Alberta's Father (1925)
The World of William Clissold (1926)
Meanwhile (1927)
Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
The Way the World is Going (1928) [non-fiction]
The Book of Catherine Wells (1928) [non-fiction]
The Open Conspiracy (1928) [non-fiction]

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930)
The Science of Life (1930) – with Julian S. Huxley and G. P. Wells [non-fiction]
The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) [non-fiction]
The Bulpington of Blup (1932)
After Democracy (1932) [non-fiction]
The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Experiment in Autobiography (1934) [non-fiction]
The New America: The New World (1935) [non-fiction]
The Croquet Player (1936)
The Anatomy of Frustration (1936) [non-fiction]
Star Begotten (1937)
Brynhild (1937)
The Camford Visitation (1937)
The Brothers (1938)
Apropos of Dolores (1938)
World Brain (1938) [non-fiction]
The Holy Terror (1939)
The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939) [non-fiction]
Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939) [non-fiction]

The New World Order (1940) [non-fiction]
Babes in the Darkling Wood (1940)
All Aboard for Ararat (1940)
The Rights of Man (1940) [non-fiction]
The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940) [non-fiction]
You Can't Be Too Careful (1941)
The Conquest of Time (1942) [non-fiction]
Modern Russian and English Revolutionaries (1942) – with Lev Uspensky [non-fiction]
Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (1943) [non-fiction]
'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir (1944) [non-fiction]
Reshaping Man's Heritage (1944) – with J. B. S. Haldane, Julian S. Huxley [non-fiction]
The Happy Turning (1945) [non-fiction]
Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) [non-fiction]

2. Wellsian paratexts

Brian Aldiss, Moreau's Other Island (1980)
Gabriel Tarde, Underground Man (1896/1905) [with an introduction by Wells]
Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997)
Frank Swinnerton, Nocturne (1917) [with an introduction by Wells]
Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)
A.B. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet: A Tale of H.G. Wells, Plagiarism and the History of the World (2001)
Goddard, Chaplin, Wells. (1935) [photograph]
David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. A Biography (1986). Some Errata

3. Original writing on Wellsian themes

The Second Men in the Moon (2017) [a sequel to The First Men in the Moon (1901)]
‘The Imposter: a Tale of the Modern Utopia’ (2017)
In the Night of the Comet: A Sequel to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet’ (2017)
‘This Joy of Boots’ (2017) [sequel to This Misery of Boots, 1907]
World Again Enchained: A Sequel to The World Set Free’ (2017)
Esau Common: the Cyclist Soldier (2017)
‘Mors Solis’ (2017) [expansion of an unwritten Wells story from 1905]
‘The Edinburgh Masks’ (2017) [inspired by Wells's ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ 1895]
Beyond the End of Mind's Tether’ (2018) [a sequel to Mind at the End of its Tether, 1945]

Friday, 9 February 2018

David C. Smith, “H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal” (1986). Some Errata

I have been reading through the whole of Wells, and recording my reactions on this blog; and I've been doing that because I've been commissioned to write a ‘Literary Biography’ of the man. Not an actual biography, which would entail years of my life, long stretches in archives all over the world rifling through unpublished letters, invoices, catalogues and so on; but an account of his life that foregrounds his writing, his fiction and non-fiction. That's a big enough task in its own right, because he wrote so very much, but at least it means I can lean, in all decency, on the proper Wells biographies written by proper biographers. There are a dozen or so of these, including one by his son, Anthony West, a fascinating but extremely partial volume called H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (London: Hutchinson 1984). There's also Vincent Brome's forceful but broad-brush and swiss-cheese H G Wells: A Biography (London: Longmans 1952) and the best Wellsian biography I know, Norman and Jean Mackenzie's The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (London: Weidenfeld, 1973).

The Mackenzies' Life is both the best written and (I think) most psychologically acute account of Wells there is, but David C. Smith's H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), imaged at the head of this post, occupies a special place in Wellsian scholarship, simply by virtue of its scope and capaciousness: 496 pages of dense text are followed by a whopping 140 pages of tiny-font endnotes, recording and summarising the prodigies of reading Smith undertook in Wellsian archives from Bromley to Illinois, Boston to the LSE. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of unpublished letters, many recording the intricate to-and-fro of Wells's contract and business dealings. For me Smith's volume has proved, and certainly will continue to prove, absolutely invaluable, as I navigate Wells's literary output.

But although it is an amazing resource, Smith's is not actually a very good biography. It's flatly descriptive, piles up large amounts of data without offering very much by way of steer, is disposed into parallel sections that treat aspects of Wells life in ways that necessitate quite a bit of repetition (‘Student’, ‘Author’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Prophet’, with his relations with women folded away into two discrete chapters ‘Women and Fiction I’ and ‘Women and Fiction II’) rather than simply narrating it all chronologically, and is weakest on the very thing that makes Wells worthy of biography in the first place, his writing. Smith mostly limits himself to brief summaries of the various books Wells published, analyses very little, and reads critically or theorizes not at all. An historian rather than a literary critic by training, perhaps he felt more comfortable with just the facts. But it makes his book something of a Fact Pudding.

Which is fine: there are a lot of facts here, and that's useful to any scholar of Wells. But there are various errors too, and that's a bit more worrying. Below I list a few of those errors, particularly those places where (since it's my brief) Smith's accounts of Wells's books go wrong. Some of these are noted by David Y. Hughes in his (largely positive) review for Science Fiction Studies [14:3 (Nov. 1987), 392-399]; some of them are howlers I spotted myself as I worked through

[9] Wells was at Byatt's school for one year, not (as Smith says) two.

[65] The War of the Worlds (1898). ‘Martians land near London .... the insect-like being  buried in the top layers of the earth, now begin to construct machines in which they can travel in their desire for conquest’. But the Martians are not ‘insect-like’ (Smith is perhaps confusing this novel with First Men in the Moon). They are octopus-like, ‘the size of a bear’ and they glisten ‘like wet leather’.

[68] Smith thinks the descriptions of ‘weightlessness in space’ in First Men in the Moon (1901) are ‘a good description of what travellers later experienced’. They're not, though. When Cavor and Bedford close all the anti-gravity shutters they float, but if they open the one facing Earth they drift down to that window and if they open the one facing the Moon they drift in that direction. Wells has not grasped that the capsule is in free fall and its passengers with it, and that they would be weightless the whole way (as the Apollo astronauts were). I don't much blame Wells for getting this wrong, but I do blame Smith, a little, for thinking he got it right.

[152] Gissing can't have read the proofs of The War of the Worlds, since he stayed with Wells and his sister in Spring 1897 (not 1898 as Smith says) when there were no such proofs to read.

[163] ‘Conrad read The Time Machine in translation while travelling in Turkey’. David Y. Hughes points out that the neither the time and the place for this assertion are correct.

[170] Smith thinks Boon (1915) is ‘clearly set in [Henry] James's garden’. But the novel is very particular as to its setting. It is set in the “Classical Villa” in which Mallock’s New Republic (1877) is also set. Quiet a lot of the early part of this book is given over to the party locating and renting this specific villa. Has Smith not read the book?

[205] ‘The Wonderful Visit (1898) describes the descent to earth of an angel with whom a curate falls in love’. Wrong on two counts: Hilyer is a Vicar, not a curate, and he doesn't fall in love with the (male) angel—in fact the angel falls in love with Delia, the maid.

[247] Smith thinks that Joan and Peter, in Joan and Peter (1918), study science in ‘the South Kensington laboratories’. Not so: they both go to Cambridge.

[301] Of The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930), Smith says that the character Bussy is a portrait of Winston Churchill. But Bussy, a press baron, is a portrait of Lord Beaverbook. The Winston Churchill character in the novel is called ‘Mr Brimstone Burchell’

[328] Of Star-Begotten (1937), Smith says ‘Joseph, and his wife Mary (although her name is not revealed until the end of the book) ...’ But she is named in the very first chapter!

[329] The Camford Visitation (1937) ‘opens in a common-room’. Not so: it opens in a dining room. Only later does the action move to a common-room.

[355] ‘In the little allegory All Aboard for Ararat (1940), the ark, symbolic of the world at war ...’ But this makes no sense: the flood is the war, the ark is Wells's fragile dreams for a better future (that, really, is the whole point of the novella)

[358] At the end of my blogpost on You Can't Be Too Careful (1943) I note, and give reasons for, my suspicion that Smith has not read this novel with any care.

[397] The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) ‘begins with the leading character, Sir Richmond Hardy, taking a three-week trip with his alienist (the usual word of the period for psychiatrist) ...’ The word alienist is not used in the novel; Dr. Martineau is simply Sir Richmond's regular doctor.

[397] ... and talking of The Secret Places of the Heart: Smith says Sir Richmond goes away ‘to work out his relationship with his wife (Rebecca) ... the book ends with the wife beating on the coffin of her dead husband ...’ This is all wrong: the Rebecca West character in the novel is Miss Martin Leeds, a famous cartoonist (unmentioned by Smith) with whom Sir Richmond is having an affair. Lady Hardy, Sir Richmond's wife, is a portrait of Wells's wife, Jane. And it is Miss Martin Leeds who beats on the coffin at the novel's end, not the wife.

[479] Smith says A. Morley Davies attended Wells's cremation at Golders Green in 1946, which, since Davies himself had died in 1943, must have been quite a shock for the other mourners.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Beyond the End of Mind's Tether (2018)

[Note: this short piece is a sequel to H G Wells's last published book, the 30-page Mind at the End of its Tether (1945). The date at the head of this post does not reflect the date of composition, for this story was written on the last day of March 2018, but so as not to rob the index-post that currently stands at the head of the blog of its place I have retrospectively dated it to fit it into the main body of the blog.]

It was dark. It was not a comfortable dark. It contained within it no incipience of dawn. Where was he? Who was he? Was he?

There was an answer to this last question: ‘yes’, said a voice.

The darkness did not abate, but Bertie felt, or intuited, the presence of others. It was, he thought, as when you apply pressure to your closed eyes in the middle of the night, and rub retinal effects of unearthly mauve and dark blue and sparks of glinting black-purple into your vision. ‘Where am I?’ he asked.

Where is not the best way of talking about your presence in the present,’ said the voice, or all the voices in near unison, it was hard to tell.

‘Am I dead? I was certainly dying. Far from pleasant, physically speaking. Physically. Am I beyond such material suffering now?’ Some fretful twist of the old Bertie returned to him. ‘But if I'm dead, then what is doing this thinking? My physical brain has ceased function, and is even now deliquescing into a puddle of rotting proteins and fats. And that's what I've been using for my mentation for ...’

‘For the best part of a century,’ agreed the voice. ‘But that's not it. Your residual consciousness is attuned now to such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or the efflorescence of a shower of meteors as they scarf brightness through the night sky. Your mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because it evolved as part and parcel of it. But all that is over now.’

Something shifted in Bertie's perceptions: a sense of horizontally-vertiginous scale, of gliding without motion towards some dim chasm of illumination, antarctic grey, razory blues, some great ravine of catchment. ‘Are you God?’

Bertie wasn't expecting the laughter. It did not last long, and there was no echo in this place, and it did not strike an unkind or mocking tone. ‘You wrote books.’

‘I did’

‘Many books.’

‘I have written books on many different subjects,’ said Bertie, a little flourish of pride lifting his spirits. ‘Including several fables of the afterlife. But I never imagined anything so ... murky.’

‘Many a murkle,’ said the voice, ‘makes a mickle. Or, wait: should that be the other way around?’

‘I have sinned grievously, I know,’ said Bertie, ‘and perhaps most grievously with my words. So I daresay it would be fitting if my eternal damnation will be an endless conversation that goes nowhere and communicates nothing.’

‘Sick burn!’ said the voice, and Bertie shuddered momently at the thought that this was, perhaps, a diabolic command to ignite at last the furnaces of a fully medieval Hell. Odd how hard it is to banish these childhood superstitions from even the most rational and mature of minds. But the voice was saying something else now: ‘truth hour, Bertie. Time to come clean.’

If he had still possessed lungs, Bertie would have drawn a deep breath. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘Our truth, not yours. We know all yours. The thing is .. well let me put it like this. Your very last published book? Mind at the End of its Tether?’


‘You were getting an inkling, there. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded, you said. Extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! People read it, and said to themselves: oh, he's just projecting his own imminent death onto the cosmos as a whole. But you weren't, were you? You were, right at the end of your life, starting to get a sense of how things really stood.’

‘And I was right? Reality—human reality, all of it, for all of us, has ended?’

‘Sure,’ said the voice. ‘Though that all of us is a little misleading, maybe. The truth, Bertie, is that we were running a simulation.’

Bertie pondered this. ‘Please explain further,’ he said.

‘It wasn't real. The environments you inhabited, the houses and hills and sky and sea, the seasons and everything. It was, if you like, written. We coded it, as we like to say. We made it, and put you in it.’

‘And now,’ said Bertie, peering again into the darkness, ‘you have unmade it, and taken me out?’

‘You dying unmade it. It was just you, in there.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Bertie, reflexly. ‘I have been fortunate to meet many brilliant and wonderful people.’

‘You certainly did that!’ agreed the voice. ‘You had sex with quite a few of them’

Bertie would not have blushed at this, even had he a face and blood vessels with which to perform such an action. ‘I make no apology for being true to my passions, and to the passions of others. Indeed, if I ...’

‘There were no others.’

‘You'll pardon me,’ said Bertie, stiffly, ‘if the vividness and force of my personal friendships, teh intensity of my love affairs, means that I cannot concur with ...’

‘Nah, nah, Bertie. No, we tried it. Believe me, we did. We have tried multi-party simulations, parallel-sync and combi-player versions. But what we found was: introduce multiple agents into the simulation and they interact in chaotic ways. Chaotic in the mathematical sense of the—actually I guess you don't know. But there you go. We ran up against Chung Wang's law. You're too proud to admit you don't know what Chung Wang's law is, or who Chung Wang even was, but there's no shame in your ignorance. It wasn't part of your sim. And, and, in a nutshell, you know: the more actual people you have sharing your sim, the more rapidly the hyperbolic chaosm crashes your sim. It's the unpredictability of the real. You can build a sim of the entire world around a single consciousness—a fully realistic and immersive sim, I mean: one whose pixels are planck length—you can do that with a couple thousand yottabytes of processing. Add in a second consciousness to your sim and you need not to double your processing capacity, but cube it. There are reasons why, and their complicated, but that's how it is. I mean if your two consciousnesses never meet in the sim, then the amount of processing you need goes down, but if that's how your coding things then why not just build it for one? Add a third real player, and the processing requirement goes up by x to the nine, and so on. Add a fourth and ... well, you see what I'm saying?’

‘Not entirely,’ said Bertie.

‘No, you got it,’ said the voice. ‘You got it. You grasped it intuitively in your End of Tether book. You knew you were dying, personally, and you've never been a philosophical solipsist, so you didn't want to write that because you were dying the world was coming to its end. But it was true. The world we created, and in which you lived, surrounded by ciphers, was coming to and end. Because there's no point in running the programme once you checked out.’

‘A whole world?’ said Bertie. ‘Just for me? Some manner of playground, erected purely for me? But why?’

‘Well,’ the voice said, ‘it isn't cheap, if that's what you mean. So: yeah. Why is a good question. We only put one kind of person in the programme, generally speaking. Writers. By which I mean: science fiction writers, of course. There are other companies who experiment with other kinds of people, physicists, inventors, prophets and seers, but we have a good record, harvest-wise, so we don't see why we should change our approach. We've tried different sorts of mind, and different life shapes, and different world-history-environment frames, but this one works. Take a science fiction writer. Give him or her an unhappy childhood—happy childhoods followed by unhappy adulthoods don't seem to work as well, for some reason—to build up a kind of psychic momentum in them. Then vary the mix in adulthood: give them some, or most or as in your case all that they ever dreamed they might have. Then we sit back! Simple as that. Takes time, but time is one thing we got, here.’


‘Sure. Return on our investment. You wouldn't expect us to be doing this for the sheer fun of it, would you? I mean, I know you spent much of your life as a, what's the phrase? Socianist. Socialist? Socialist. But out here in the real world its dog eat dog. Or it would be, if there were any dogs left. Omega-point-consciousness eat omega-point-consciousness, let's say.’

‘Harvest what?’

‘Let's have a look,’ said the voice. ‘So, we did pretty well out of you, all told. The main one is, let me check the phrasing, time machine. Yes: time machine. That was a real bonus. We could have cashed you out of the sim when you were thirty and we would have been well ahead. But we let the sim run on, to see what else you might come up with. And you did come up with some other stuff, some useful stuff. Especially after we had you live through that big war, that world war thing. Indeed, that was so productive we bodged up a second one, when you were old, for you to live through. But the elasticity of your inventiveness had mostly gone by then, so we ended up with nothing much to show for it. Still time machine, and the other stuff, and this has been a pretty profitable run for us.’

‘I don't understand,’ said Bertie. ‘I only wrote about the idea of a time machine. I'm no inventor, or temporal physicist. I only thought of the idea!’

‘That's the whole game, Bertie my beaut. The whole game. Cool ideas. Cool and original ideas. Not every consciousness is capable of coming up with them, and you do need the whole entablature of a life lived in order for men or women to generate them. In our experience science fiction writers have the best ideas. Fiction writers generally are too wedded to the particular contours of the reality in which they find themselves. Scientists, ditto, for slightly different reasons, and with a different focus. But the overlap, the venn-diagram overlap, between those two groups and now you're talking ...’

‘But what use ...?’ Bertie began to say. ‘What possible use ...?’ Slowly, and very slowly, his environment was coming into some kind of focus. It was not a sensory focus, exactly, but some other mode of apprehension.

‘Use? All the use in the universe! Making the universe a useiverse! We're in trouble, Bertie, and that's the truth. The aperture of reality is closing down, shrinking to its final point, and eventually it will squish us out of existence altogether, like thumbnails pressing together hard on a tick. Do we not like that. We've assembled all the computing power that remains in the cosmos, and all the energy we can generate, and are trying to—skew that shrinkage, just enough, to generate more imbalance, and so more energy and more computing power, and postpone ... look: you're not interested in our problems. But we can say, thank you. Thank you! The idea of a time machine. That's a very cool idea, and nobody had had it before you did.’


‘Nobody in our reality. Which is the real reality. Sorry, Bertie. But it's a very cool idea. We don't know if an actual machine can be constructed, but just the idea of moving spatially through time has opened up new possibilities for us in the manipulation of the shrinking cosmos. So that's good.’

‘And it was in the hope of garnering such ideas that you put my consciousness, my real consciousness, in the world I have just experienced? For eighty years of joy and disappointment, triumph and pain?’

‘Bingo,’ said the voice. ‘And now you're done.’

‘But I'm not,’ said Bertie, a slyness entering into his voice. ‘Am I? You clearly need me for something else. If what you say is true, then my consciousness should end when the simulation, as you style is, ended. The fact that I'm still thinking means that I am still of use to you. And that gives me leverage. Because whatever it is that you need from me, I shall deny it you, unless you meet my demands. My demands! I require a body, for one thing. A young and vigorous body. And an environment that is not this ... murkiness. Sunlight, and good food, and the companionship of clever and attractive people, or at any rate copies of such folk good enough to pass as real.’

‘No can do, Bertie,’ said the voice. ‘Although you are right. There was one last thing we needed from you, after the sim was over. But we've got it now.’

‘Last thing?’ Bertie asked, The dread he had felt when composing Mind at the End of its Tether came back to him now, a vice fixed around his very consciousness. ‘What?’

‘We're gathering the materials for a new sim, or have gathered the materials. This little exchange is part of it. Somewhere a science fiction writer will stumble across it—stumble across this conversation which we have been having. And it will spark something in her mind. At least, we hope it will, because our very existence depends upon it. She'll be in a sim so real she'll mistake it for reality, and will have myriad experiences, good and bad, and what we're interested in are the cool new ideas she concocts that nobody has concocted before. SF writers are the best for that. This little exchange might, we hope, spark one such idea. Maybe. And who knows, that could be the idea that redeems the final destiny of consciousness in the universe as such! We can but hope. But the conversation is over now, Bertie, and that means this can ...’

‘... end’, said Wells, resignedly.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945)

This is the end, beaut-i-ful friend. The end. ‘This little book,’ Wells declares in his preface, ‘brings to a conclusive end the series of essays, memoranda, pamphlets, through which the writer has experimented, challenged discussion, and assembled material bearing upon the fundamental nature of life and time. So far as fundamentals go, he has nothing more and never will have anything more to say.’ So it proved.

Mind at the End of its Tether is a mere slip of a book: 34 pages, and eight short chapters:
1. The End Closes in upon Mind
2. Mind is Retrospective to the End
3. There is no “Pattern of Things to Come”
4. Recent Realisations of the Nature of Life.
5. Race Suicide by Giganticism
6. Precocious Maturity, a Method of Survival
7. The Antagonism of Age and Youth
8. New Light on the Record of the Rocks
With a title like that, we expect pessimism; and Wells does not disappoint. Indeed, pessimism is piled on pessimism, to the point where this short work starts to feel endless, a TARDIS-book longer on the inside than its external page-count can allow. On and on it goes, repeating the same obscure and doom-clanging point over and over. Wells has had, he says, an intimation that things are approaching an end ‘within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons’. Something profound has changed about the cosmos: ‘there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning’. Wells explains, referring to himself in a distancing third-person:
This is a very startling persuasion to find establishing itself in one’s mind, and he puts forward his conclusions in the certainty that they will be entirely inacceptable to the ordinary rational man. If his thinking has been sound, then this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded. [Mind, 1]
For Wells to write this only a few months ahead of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima looks prescient indeed; but Wells is not talking about nuclear weapons—even though he anticipated (more or less) the immense destructive properties of that ordnance all the way back in 1914. No: he's thinking about something else. Not a super-weapon invented by the world, but something existentially prior to the world itself.

He insists that ‘the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life’; that ‘the secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order’ [1] By ‘secular process’ he means the physical world outside humanity, something he here call, a little confusingly, ‘Eternity’. Wells used to believe that human consciousness and the external world run together, in intertwined ways, and now he no longer believes that:
That congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process ... is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it.
In other words, it's not, or not just, Wells's mind that's at its tether's-end in the title to the book; it's consciousness as such. Exactly how that works is not explained.

Indeed, it's not just the how of this coming apocalypse that is not explicated; it's the what. The book is surprisingly elusive of exactly what is going on: it is ‘the Pattern of Things to Come fading away’; it is ‘extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt!’ (although Wells immediately contradicts this assertion: ‘it never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?”’ [1]). It is ‘chaos’ and ‘a harsh queerness come over things’. It is a kind of cinematic illusion:
We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty ... The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, them- selves as unsubstantial as a dream. [Mind, 1]
There is some kind of menace out there, lurking in the darkness, in the supracosmic spaces. Wells, channeling Shelley (though the poet isn't named) calls it “Power”, although he isn't happy with the nomenclature (‘“Power” is unsatisfactory. We need to express something entirely outside our “universe”, and “Power” suggests something within that universe and fighting against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness’). His alternatives won't serve though: ‘“Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”, all carry unsound implications’.

This is all in chapter 1, which comprises almost half the whole book. Subsequent chapters ring changes upon this theme without, really, explicating it. ‘Our universe is not merely bankrupt,’ he says; ‘it has not simply liquidated; it is going clean out of existence, leaving not a wrack behind. The attempt to trace a pattern of any sort is absolutely futile’ [3]; Homo sapiens is ‘played out’, ‘the stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal’ [4]. What animal?
Ordinary man is at the end of his tether. Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive. The rest will not trouble about it, finding such opiates and consolations as they have a mind for. [Mind, 8]
But Wells gives us no hints as to what this adaptable minority will look like, or how even this sliver of future possibility might unfold. On the contrary, he ends the books as gloomy as he started it, : ‘doubt[ing] that there will not be that small minority which will succeed in seeing life out to its inevitable end.’

So what's going on here? At the end of the lengthy first chapter, Wells says:
Hitherto, recurrence has seemed a primary law of life. Night has followed day and day night. But in this strange new phase of existence into which our universe is passing, it becomes evident that no longer recur. They go on and on to an impenetrable mystery, into a voiceless limitless darkness.
It's hard to avoid the sense that he is here merely projecting his imminent individual extinction onto the cosmos as a whole. We mortals are prone to that, I suppose. And indeed it soon did follow that H G Wells's personal nights no longer followed his personal days.

Still: the rest of us have survived pretty well past the months-, nay weeks-long, deadline of doom with which Mind at the End of Its Tether opens. Indeed, there's something ironic in a book that insists the old existential repetitions are coming to an end being, in itself, so very repetitious. But perhaps that's not irony; perhaps that's the point. This is Wells's cope-stone work, slender though it is. It self-consciously repudiates the very fact of ‘the future’, which looks like it is denying the very grounds on which Wells's fame as a writer rests: an anti-prophetic work that denies there will even be a future to be prophetic about. But this doesn't seem to me quite right. I think what Wells is confronting here is not the death of the future, but the death of uncertainty, that quantity which enacts not only the distinction between fact and fiction, but precisely the prophet's distinction between past and future. Wells at the end of his life has lost faith in uncertainty. Without it into which to expand, Being simply butts its head on the inevitable, over and over, until the particular iteration of Being doing the butting finally stops, as happened with Wells on 13 August 1946.

That said, I'm not sure this is the best context in which to read Wells's final published work. It contains, for example, nothing of the personal in it (beyond some references to previous books Wells has published; but nothing on Wells's failing health or imminent death). Rather it takes its place, although it is rarely discussed in these terms, in a whole series of works generated by the war and its immediate aftermath that discussed the end of history, or of time itself. Most famously now, perhaps, though certainly unknown to Wells in 1945, is Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ written in 1940. Having bought himself a copy of Klee's Angelus Novus, Benjamin crowned her-him as history itself:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

That piled-up wreckage has some consonance with Wells's pessimistic assessment in this book, although Benjamin means (insofar as there's any consensus about what Benjamin means) something different:—that the future is not visible to us, even to us supposedly forward-looking Marxists, except as a kind of backward intuition predicated upon the past. Revolutionaries are not inspired by the possibilities of their grandchildren so much as outraged into activity by the injustices suffered by their grandparents. Although there's also a mystic sense of Eternity intersecting temporality, that draws on Jewish eschatological, or Christian apocalyptic, traditions: Benajmin's slippery like that. The important thing in this context is that he was far from alone. Back in the early 1990s, in those innocent pre-9-11 days when Francis Fukuyama could proclaim the end of history as if the notion was his own discovery, Lutz Niethammer published a history of the end-of-history (the English translation, by Patrick Camiller, appeared as Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End? in timely fashion in 1993, although the German original was first published in 1989).

Niethammer identifies a knot of thinkers and writers who were moved by the end of the Second World War to theorise history's ending—he doesn't discuss Wells, but easily could have done—as a reaction to a broader sense of intellectual exhaustion. Malcolm Bull summarises:
European theorists of posthistoire [consistsed] most notably of Kojève on the Left, Arnold Gehlen (who first deployed the term) and the novelist Ernst Jünger on the Right and (moving between the two extremes) the political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel and the Belgian politician Hendrik de Man. By finding the connections between the ideas of this seemingly heterogeneous group of (mostly) mid-century writers, Niethammer evokes the mood of historical exhaustion that enveloped radical intellectuals at the end of the Second World War when their political expectations were disappointed and American-style capitalism became dominant in the Western world. [Bull, ‘The End’, LRB 15:5 (11 March 1993), 23]
Niethammer diagnoses in these diverse thinkers ‘the fantasy of a meaningless, but ever continuing course of events’, which is exactly what Wells is complaining of in Mind at the End of Its Tether. Niethammer notes what he calls ‘this characteristic mixture of ideas’ which ‘equates bourgeois society with history, defines the contemporary world in terms of systemic dangers, and maintains hope in the future mainly at the level of individuality’. The ending of history, in this case, means the collapse of bourgeois individualism, which is quite a fruitful way of reading late Wells, I think. He worries about species death as a ‘systemic’ transference of the ego-individuality of Wells’s own mind, and he cannot project a new species to supersede the exhausted strain of Homo Sapiens. One of the things that has surprised me, as I have worked through Wells's entire oeuvre, is how often his socialist and revolutionary non-fiction plays peek-a-boo with a kind of constitutive bourgeois sensibility.

It's hard to avoid the temptation (although succumbing to it exposes me to the charge of imposing an egregious neatness of pattern on a book that specifically repudiates meaningful pattern) to link this last publication of H G Wells back to his first, to thread the needle that links Mind at the End of Its Tether to 1893's The Time Machine. That's also a book about the end of all things, the terminal beach to which the nameless traveller ventures and from which he flinches back in horror, or despair. That story, of course, is presided over by the Sphinx, a relative of some kind to Benjamin's angel of history, who poses the riddle what is this monster? to which the answer is: us, it is we ourselves. The monster is man. We are the ones who violate the incest taboo, who murder our fathers and sleep with our mothers, who are compelled to blind ourselves in self-disgust, who range out as far as we can only to feel the tether fastened around our necks go taut. Mind at the End of its Tether discusses the fossil record; but The Time Machine actually dramatizes those petrific sheaves of deep time. The human traveller encounters Morlocks eating Eloi, and both are his descendants, as are the strange crab creatures and the black eyeball-like blobs under the dying sun. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless.

It's a repetition, rather than a pattern, I think: this parallel between Wells's first and last work; a psychopathological going over and over the same ground, like Lady Macbeth endlessly washing her own hands. Mind at the End of Its Tether offers neither evidence for Wells's strange presentiment that everything was coming to and end, and develops nothing that looks like a conventional argument. Instead it just states and restates that the nameless something (“Power”, “Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”) is bringing doom. That, it seems to me, is the final twist in Wells's twisted final book. He is not predicting an apocalypse, because, as Frank Kermode so eloquently shows in The Sense of an Ending, it has always been the role of apocalypse to shape the story of our collective existence, to transform the tick-tick of chronological time into the gleaming wonder of kairos, the right time, the special time. Rather Mind at the End of its Tether is predicting the radical absence of apocalypse, the trapped tick-tick of an endlessly existential cul de sac, the impossibility of shape or meaning as such. Pessimism had never been so pessimistic before. Credit, at least, to Wells for that.

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.’

Reshaping Man's Heritage (1944)

A collection of pieces by various individuals, all originally delivered as BBC radio talks. Authors include Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells, J. B. S Haldane, J. C. Drummond and L. J. Witts, among others.

Huxley had collaborated closely with Wells on The Science of Life, and had remained friends with him in the early 1930s; but the two had a falling-out in 1941. ‘I was chairing a meeting of the British Association,’ Huxley recalled in his autobiography; ‘and had been instructed to allow only twenty minutes to each speaker, so providing time for general discussion at the end.’ H.G. submitted a paper that would take forty minutes to read, and when Huxley told him this wasn't fair to the other speakers ‘an angry correspondence and protest followed.’ ‘When the time came, I had to ask him to cut short his discourse. He never forgave me’ [Julian Huxley, Memories (Penguin 1972), 165]. Huxley didn't see Wells again after this, but when the BBC asked him to convene a series of radio broadcasts on the theme of ‘Reshaping Man's Heritage’ he suggested they contact him, which resulted in this letter from H.G.

An interesting glimpse into Wells's working habits, I'd say; and a summary of his contribution to this volume.

One more quotation from Huxley's memoirs. Though he never healed his estrangement with Wells, his wife Juliette remained friends with H.G.:
I never saw him again—but during the last years of his life, when he became too ill to do more than sit in his armchair, Juliette often dropped in to visit. He looked shrunk, she said, his face curiously altered, concentrated around an elongated and pensive nose. Visitors were not encouraged, as they tired him out, and he seemed very lonely. His tea was carefully measured and a piece of cake weighed, to balance his diabetes. A tall Buddha, extending his blessing, stood on the mantlepiece. ‘He knows a thing or two,’ murmured H.G. [Huxley, Memories, 166]
The improbably deep-thinking nose aside, this is a mournfully affecting little pen-portrait.

You can hear Wells's talk, if you're interested, over on the BBC Archive.

'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir Upon Human Behaviour (1944)

This is a collection of 35 essays disposed into two sections, ‘the Heritage of the Past’ and ‘How We Face the Future’. Nothing new in that, although Wells didn’t intend this volume for wide distribution, and instructed his publisher to limit the print-run to 2000 copies. In the preface Wells says ‘I have issued it deliberately as an expensive library book, and I intend it to remain an expensive library book. There will be no cheaper edition issued at any time and I doubt if second hand copies will ever become abundant.’ Wells hurried his publishers into print because his doctors had told him he had only months to live, although in fact he lived for almost another two years. The volumes includes journalism on the prosecution of the war, some pieces on the necessity of orienting the coming peace towards a Wellsian transnationality, and various other pieces (such as Wells’s obituary of his old frenemey Beatrice Webb).

The volume also includes, as an appendix, the dissertation elderly Wells wrote and submitted to the Royal Society. It became one of the odd ideés fixes of Wells’s dotage that he ought to be elected a fellow of this august institution. His friends tended to agree and blamed political bias amongst those fellows voting ‘no’ on his election, although it’s just as likely that the Society's disinclination to elect him has to do with Wells’s lack of significant scientific discovery or invention. At any rate, the elderly Wells forced the issue by submitting a D.Sci dissertation to the extra-mural department of the University of London. Its title was ‘A thesis on the quality of illusion in the continuity of the individual life in the higher metazoa, with particular reference to the species homo sapiens ... accepted by the University of London for the doctorate of science’. Julian Huxley gave him feedback on the dissertation draft, the University awarded him the degree, he published it in this vol, but the Royal Society remained unimpressed. Wells never was elected a fellow. Shame, really.

Crux Ansata (1943)

English anti-Catholicism has deep roots, and a tangled history. So far as Wells was concerned, as he grew older, this strain of prejudice came more prominently to the surface (as is often the way with people getting older) and in this book it bursts out with startling intensity. Anti-Catholicism is there in some of his earlier writing, not least in Outline of History—that book provoked outraged reactions by Hilaire Belloc and other prominent Catholics. But this late volume, though only 96 pages long, is the most sustained and poisonous expression of Wells's prejudices. I speak neither as a Catholic nor a Christian, but it's an uncomfortable read. The title's Latin means ‘cross with handles’, which is to say ‘crooked cross’ (which is to say ‘swastika’), and the moral equivalence between Catholicism and Nazism is the keynote here.

You get a sense of the tenor with the opening chapter: ‘why do we not bomb Rome?’
On June 1st, 1942, the enemy bombed Canterbury and as near as possible got the Archbishop of Canterbury. But what is a mere Protestant Archbishop against His Holiness the Pope?

In March 1943 Rome was still unbombed.

Now consider the following facts.

We are at war with the Kingdom of Italy, which made a particularly cruel and stupid attack upon our allies Greece and France; which is the homeland of Fascism; and whose ‘Duce’ Mussolini begged particularly for the privilege of assisting in the bombing of London.

There are also Italian troops fighting against our allies the Russians. A thorough bombing (a la Berlin) of the Italian capital seems not simply desirable, but necessary. [Crux, 1]
I've visited Rome, as millions of tourists do annually, and I have to say I am, on balance, glad it wasn't flattened by the RAF in 1943 and rebuilt in concrete as Slough-su-Tevere. But Wells wants blood.

Most of the book is Wells's potted history of the Church. He notes that the Council of Nicea as a stormy meeting (‘when old Arius rose to speak, one, Nicholas of Myra, struck him in the face’ [2]) as if this refutes the entire Nicean creed—presumably had Huxley slapped Darwin on the schnoz Wells would have presented this fact as invalidating Evolution. He claims that the church was distracted by the establishment of the City of God on Earth by internal schism and an obsession with heresy:
By the thirteenth century the Church had become morbidly anxious about the gnawing doubts that might presently lay the whole structure of its pretensions in ruins. It was hunting everywhere for heretics, as timid old ladies are said to look under beds and in cupboards, before retiring for the night. [Crux, 3]
Ooh, sick burn! Wells feels an affinity with the heretics, and spends some time defending them: ‘heretics are experiments in man's unsatisfied search for truth’ [4]. There are potted histories of Charlemagne, the crusades (during which, according to Wells, the church managed ‘to defeat every ostensible purpose of this great eastward drive—every ostensible purpose’, which lead directly to ‘the disintegration of Christendom’ through the Black Death and Protestant Reformation). There's an odd digression into English literature, and the assertion that ‘the broad stream of creative literature in England from Chaucer to the present day unites in making loud rude skeptical noises’ [13] where organised religion and spirituality (especially, for some reason, Eastern spirituality) is concerned.

Wells is surprisingly positive as regards the Jesuits (a group founded, he says, by ‘tough and gallant young Spaniard named Inigo Lopez de Recalde of Loyola’) perhaps because he sees something of his own Samurai caste in the early history of the order: ‘the Jesuit had no home; the whole world was his parish. Mobility and cosmopolitanism were of the very essence of the Society’ [15]. But, says Wells, politics has poisoned the Jesuits: ‘it is impossible to acquit them of extreme political provocation [and] their obdurate persistence in evil-doing continues to this day’. He strikes an uncharacteristic note of British patriotism when he surveys a world otherwise overwhelmed by religious zealotry:
None of the British mixture of peoples can be described as passionately religious. None of them indeed seem to be passionate in any respect. They have as little liking and sympathy for the crime passionel as they have for the wild-eyed devotee in a manifest hair shirt ... Maybe it is the Gulf Stream or something geographical that makes them like this, maybe it is the fact that living, so to speak, at the end of Europe, so that for centuries, until America came into the world, every sort o.f man came to England and nobody wet away, they are o so mixed a strain that they believe nothing decidedly. Compromise and lack of emphasis is in their nature.

If I wanted to brag about the English people; if I were briefed for that purpose and had no way of evading so uncongenial a task, I should certainly associate this disposition to indifference in religious and social dogmas with the very exceptional share they have had in the inspiration and early organisation of scientific research. [Crux, 17]
He ends by confidently asserting ‘there will be no Roman Catholic Church at all in the fifth millennium A.D.’ [18] and, as a kind of afterthought, denying that he is attacking the religious impulse as such:
I am deriding organised High Church and Catholic Christianity, and I would like to make it plain that in doing so I am not disregarding what I might call the necessity of many minds, perhaps most young minds, feel for something one can express by such phrases as "the fatherhood of God" and ‘the kingdom of heaven within us’. That is the need the Roman Catholic Church trades upon and betrays. [Crux, 20]
Yeah. Right. This is, in the final analysis, an unpleasant book. It's attack on Catholicism as having added handles, or swastika crooks, to its cross results in a crooked sort of book: it is, in fact, liber ansato.

Modern Russian and English Revolutionaries (1942)

‘A Frank Exchange of Ideas Between Commander Lev Uspensky, Soviet Writer, and H. G. Wells, D. Lit’: a 16-page privately printed pamphlet, this, in which Uspensky—a philologist and science-fiction writer, but also a Commander in the Red Army—writes with vigour to Wells: ‘you cannot carry on a real struggle against Fascism if you do not render all possible assistance in strengthening the most important buttress of this struggle, namely the Soviet Union. You cannot carry on a serious struggle against the Fascist instigators of a new world-blood-bath if you do not render undivided support to the U.S.S.R’. Wells replies that the real aim is grander than just nationalism and guns to knock-over Germany. It is to establish the World State. As you would expect.

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.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

You Can't Be Too Careful (1941)

Since in its last few pages this novel extends itself ten years past its publication date (the novel's subtitle is ‘A Sample of Life—1901-1951’), we might argue that it is science fiction. I suppose it is, in some quasi-homeopathic sense of the term. Most of it, though, is backward-looking, both in terms of content and, I'm sorry to say, aesthetic ambition. This is a novel that harks back to Kipps and Polly, although it doesn't manage the eloquence, gliding comedy and structural complexity of those books. It is, in point of fact, a rather dreary read, the grim counterpart to the optimistic visions of utopian possibility that are so prominent a feature of Wells's bibliography. It's 1924's The Dream reworked, but with only the pinched and horrible early twentieth century part, the hopeful bright future having been entirely excised. The thing is, such a novel might function as a bracing but effective counterweight to the standard Wellsian schtick. But somehow You Can't Be Too Careful is just a grind, a book that simply tries too hard to make its point that sexual repression and undereducation have dire consequences. It's a repetitive, wearying read and the longer it goes on the more unbalanced, one-note and hectoring it becomes. Since it is the very last piece of fiction Wells published, that's more of a shame than it might otherwise have been.

It's the story of lower-middle-class Edward Albert Tewler, unlikely recipient of the GC, and of his son, although this latter figure remains too shadowy a character to ever come alive. It opens in 1951 with the father rebuking his son over the latter's reading books and filling his head with ‘ideers’. Tewler senior never needed ideers when he was growing up.

The narrator then announces he will tell the man's life just so: ‘you shall have him unadorned; you shall have his plain unvarnished record .... No dissertations, no arguments, above all no projects nor incitements nor propaganda, shall break the flow of our narrative; no more of these damned “ideers” shall there be’ [‘Introduction’].

The story rewinds to 1901, and Tewler as a baby in Camden Town. His father Richard works as a repair man at Messrs Colebrook and Mahogany, a glass and porcelain emporium (Tewler's father came ‘up in a green baize apron from somewhere below and considered the case carefully and gave his advice with discretion, and cemented invisibly and filled up gaps and, when necessary, riveted with the utmost skill’) and Wells strikes his titular keynote often and early. Tewler's parents wonder about having more children, but worry about the cost and the chances of them dying, and since ‘you can't be too careful’ Edward Albert remains an only child. When he is four his father is killed:
Mr Richard Tewler was crossing the road from Camden Town Tube Station and had just passed behind an omnibus, when he discovered another bearing down upon him from the opposite direction and close upon him. He might have dashed across in front of that, but suddenly he stopped dead. It would have been wiser to recoil. You cannot be too careful, and in that instant while he stood uncertain as to the best course to pursue, the big vehicle, which was swerving to pass behind him, skidded and killed him. [Careful, 1.1]
This level of existential timidity is such an easy target that Wells never really has to stretch himself, and the result is a novel of unusual flatness and uninterest.

Edward Albert's widowed mother raises her son Baptist, with an almost pathological solicitude and caution, especially in the matter of his sexual education. Then (in 1914) she too dies, of newspaper adverts. Which is to say, Mrs Tewler is persuaded to buy patent medicines for myriad non-existent illnesses until, her system weakened by these poisons, she dies of pleurisy. Fourteen-year-old Edward Albert passes into the care of a guardian, one of his mother's fellow Baptists, Mr Myame, who runs Myame's Commercial Academy, which Edward Albert now attends. Here he is an indifferent student, but thanks to a lucky couple of balls at a school cricket match, he acquires an undeserved reputation as a wizard sportsman, a reputation he is canny enough not to endanger by ever actually playing any subsequent sport of any kind.

Wells moves, in no hurry, into Edward's adolescence, which period is dominated (we are told) by two issues: ‘that he had to do certain things called earning a living’ and ‘simultaneously that complex of impulses, taboos, terrors and repressions, that onset of sex and sex education, which his mother had apprehended so anxiously, gathered about him and closed in upon him’ [2.3].

On the former score, Edward Albert gets it into his head that he wants to be a Clerk, and aspires to the Imperial College of Commercial Science's Course of Training in Business Methods. But that requires him to be proficient in French and Myame's schooling has not provided him with this. There follows a mildly amusing scene plagiarised, I think, from Dickens: as when Podsnap interrogates the French gentleman in Our Mutual Friend, or old Lillyvick, a collector of the water-rate, asks Nicholas Nickleby what the French for water is (‘What’s the water in French, sir?’ ‘L’eau,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Ah!’ said Mr. Lillyvick, shaking his head mournfully, ‘I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don’t think anything of that language—nothing at all.’). In You Can't Be Too Careful we get creaky comedy of this sort:
"What is the French, Tewler, for “the”?’

That was easy. ‘Ler Lar Lay,’ sang Edward Albert.

‘Elementary French,’ said Mr Myame, ‘that is all he will ever have to study. Advanced French has an amount of innuendo in it.... I don't admire it. There is something un-English about it ...’

‘Masculine, Ler; feminine, Lar.’

‘And neuter, dear?’ said Mrs Tewler encouragingly.

Mr Myame smiled gravely. ‘I am afraid there is no neuter in French. None whatever. “Lay”, the third word you heard, is simply the plural. The French language brings sex into everything ... Nothing is neuter in French—nothing.’

‘Extraordinary!’ said Mrs Tewler.

‘A table, oone table, is feminine, believe it or not. Oone shays, feminine also, is a chair. But a knife, oon canif, is masculine. Oon, you observe, not Oone.’

‘A male knife! A female chair! It makes me feel—quite uncomfortable,’ said Mrs Tewler. [Careful, 2.6]
Ho ho. Without French it looks like Edward Albert is going nowhere, but then members of his father's old firm discover that Myame, having received Edward Albert's inheritance in trust, fraudulently kept his ward from all knowledge of the cash and instead invested it in his own school. They pressure him, and Edward Albert is permitted to leave Myame's school and enlist in the Imperial College of Commercial Science in Kentish Town (they act less out of altruism, and more because ‘the Firm had always rather underpaid old Tewler and it had to do its duty by his son, whether it liked him or not’ [2.10]).

Edward Albert moves into lodgings, and is perfectly gullible concerning the stories told by other lodgers (‘nor did our hero ever realise that the quiet genteel widow who was constantly referring to “my friend Lady Tweedman”—that Lady Tweedman who “used to say” so many authoritative and quenching things about social behaviour—disappeared so suddenly from Doober's because, after repeated warnings, she had been caught red-handed shoplifting’ [2.15]—another Dickens steal, that: Sairey Gamp's Mrs Harris. You can even see the chain of association in Wells's brain, harris, tweed ...) Wells digresses upon Homo Tewler (not so far removed from ‘the ancestral Tewler (Pithecanthropus Tewler)’ who ‘found himself coming down from his nice safe tree nests to the agoraphobia of the ground level’.

Edward Albert drifts along, unable to obtain a clerkship because he never actually does learn French. It doesn't matter, though, because he happens to inherit £10,000 from a distant relative who was involved in Edinburgh slum properties. This Kipps development is a mere plot-point, and is not utilized by Wells as a fully psychodramatic opportunity, as he did in Kipps.

Rich now, Tewler wanders London. He lurks unpleasantly, observing the house opposite (‘a young woman who, with a certain disregard of her possible visibility, undressed completely in front of a small mirror. By putting out his own light and standing in the dark, he could see her bright pink illuminated body gradually emerging from her clothes’ [3.3]). When he registers that he is sexually attracted to an old friend from his lodging days, Miss Pooley, his reaction is: ‘he wanted to kill Miss Pooley, he wanted to leap upon her and beat her about and kill her’. Wells's point is
even if the breed of Homo Tewler rises presently to a point where it may indeed merit this name it has usurped so prematurely, Homo sapiens, this conflict, the moral conflict, the need for education, for being trimmed to fit into social life which is the cause of all religion, will still be in it. [Careful, 3.4]
The seedy consequences of a society that represses the sex instinct is spun-out for a while, as with Blond Bert Bloxham, who offers Tewker pornographic photos and who boasts: ‘“ever 'ad a woman yet, Tewler? Yes, I 'ave.” (Description.) “And I don't care 'ow many more I 'ave. But them street walkers. You can't be too careful. You know they don't wash themselves. They smell. Puts you off it.”’ [3.7]. Tewler eventually marries respectable Evangeline Birkenhead, but, through mutual ignorance, their first sexual experience does not go well:
He hardly waited to kiss her. There was a rapid struggle. She felt herself gripped and assailed with insane energy.

‘Oh! oh! oh!’ she groaned in crescendo. ‘Stop! Ow-woo-woohoo. Oooh!’ The climax of the unendurable passed. Her body went limp.

Then Edward Albert was sitting up with an expression of horror on his face. ‘Gaw!’ he was saying. ‘You got some disease? It's blood!’

He dashed for the bathroom.

He came back to discover Evangeline sitting up in a storm of pain, disappointment and fear.

‘You pig,’ she said. ‘You fool. You selfish young fool. You ignoramus! ... Get out of my way.’ ... She dressed swiftly, going to and fro and flinging insults at him. He sat on the soiled and devastated bed considering the situation. [Careful, 3.11]
They couple try, and fail, to make the best of things. Through the new bride's mind runs ‘a pageant of beautiful women down the ages who had had to give their bodies to dwarfed kings and ugly feudal lords’ [3.15]. ‘Was this after all what wifehood amounted to? For most women perhaps—yes.’ After the birth of their only child, Henry Tewler, she refuses all further sexual activity. At first her husband is disbelieving (‘you got to do your juty by me ... you're flying in the face of the laws of Gord and man’ [3.18]) but when she insists that ‘my body belongs to me and I do what I like with it’ he grows wrathful, and blames the suffragettes. Soon enough Tewler is kicking at his wife's locked bedroom door (‘“Let me in, you bitch,” he was shouting. “I want my rights.”’ [3.19]) and she moves out.

Tewler consults a solicitor concerning divorce proceedings, and vents his rage and despair. In reply the lawyer tells him ‘“the-e-e”—he prolonged the word into a neigh—“prostitute is the safety-valve of the respectable Christian life. That is all I can tell you”’ [3.20]. Instead of this, though, Tewler finds carnal comfort with his  housekeeper, a widow called Mrs Butter, whom he afterwards marries.

As young Henry grows to adulthood, Tewler senior becomes increasingly right wing: expatiating about the Soviet menace and telling his neighbours ‘these here Jews seem to be doing a lot of mischief in the world, one way and another’ [5.1]. He approves the rise of Hitler, as do his golfing partners, and he listens to these latter as they warn him that the French army, by recruiting Black soldiers, is risking the mass rape of white women. As he tees off he fantasizes about ‘himself as Sir Galahad clearing Soudanese niggers off the links and comforting their victims by a kind word or so before starting his round’ [5.2].

World War 2 breaks out, and Germany comes close to winning in 1940, before ‘striking hysterically at Russia’, and for the first time encountering a people unencumbered by the sheet-anchor of respectability: a people ‘united in their dislike to the German Herrenvolk’ who ‘fought with an undivided mind. They had discovered that in warfare you cannot be too careless. “Safety last!” said the Russians’ [5.2]. Just in case we hadn't grasped Wells's thesis.

Tewler senior is initially shocked into complete inaction by the advent of war, but eventually he joins the Brighthampton Home Guard.

The novel is in its last stretches now, and moves into a speculative near-future. The Germans raid the southern English coast, and Tewler, who happens to be on duty, and in an access of startled recklessness, bayonet-charges a patrol, killing four men, until Polish volunteers come up and complete the rout. For this he is given the G.C. Then his wife is fatally injured in a Luftwaffe raid; on her deathbed she urges him to do the right thing by his son, but he can only talk about Buckingham Palace, still starry-eyed at having met the Queen when he received his medal.

‘That,’ says Wells, in the novel's coda, ‘completes all that is essential in the life of Edward Albert Tewler, his Deeds and Significant Sayings’ The novel ends on a lengthy Wellsian lecture, in which, among sideswipes at Communism and Catholicism (‘to-day the most evil thing in the whole world is the Roman Catholic Church. The Communist Party is the identical twin of Catholicism’ [6.1]) he concedes that his hero is horrible: ‘my loyal but anxious publishers,’ Wells confides protest that Tewler is ‘detestable’, and ‘there is not really a nice human being in the book Couldn't you put in some flash of real nobility in him?’ [6.3] But Wells insists he feels only pity.
I have told his poor sordid story and that of the people whose lives he helped to spoil; I have mocked at his absurdities and misfortunes and invincible conceit; but all the way along as I wrote it something has protested, ‘This is not fair. Given a broader education, given air, light and opportunity, would he have been anything like this?’ He is what our civilisation made of him, and this is all it made of him. I have told the complete truth about a contemporary specimen man. [Careful, 6.3]
Tewler senior is still alive in 1951, Wells tells us: remarried for comfort and as set in his ways as ever. His son, after being discharged from the army, has ignored his father's advice about avoiding ‘ideers’ and reads as widely as he can before going off to agitate for revolution. Tewler senior puts this down to jealousy at his George Cross. Wells concludes: ‘we are not yet Homo sapiens,’ but looks to the future, ‘when at last our intermingled and selected offspring, carrying on the life that is now in us ... have established their claim to that title—can we doubt that they will be facing things at present unimaginable, weighing pros and cons altogether beyond our scope? They will see far and wide in an ever-growing light while we see as in a glass darkly.’ [6.5]

This last touch, I have to say, is too little, too late. When Wells wrote Kipps and Mr Polly he was close enough to having been Kipps and Mr Polly to infuse his comedy with a kind of tenderness. That's all gone, by this late stage. It's not the unlikeability of Tewler than sinks this novel (I'm all in favour of unlikeable protagonists); its the sense that the novel is repeatedly sneering at him. This kind of fundamentally class-based condescension makes its first, and last, appearance in Wells's output.

It is, certainly, a bracing novel, and often startlingly explicit in its portrayal of sex. In fact one of the most interesting things about this novel is the way it shifts tonally from the earlier Dickensian comedy of Mrs Tewler's well-bred shock at discovering that the French gender forks as masculine and chairs as feminine, through to a sort of Lawrentian passionate fury of sexual blockage, Edward Albert screaming bitch at his wife, fantasising about sexual violence and ultimately achieving a grisly kind of ecstatic-erotic consummation when his phallic bayonet penetrates and kills four Germans on the beach. Society being so constituted, Wells is saying, he of course receives the George Cross for this action. You Can't Be Too Careful traces the sea-change in literature as such, from Dickensian sexual politeness and discretion to Modernist explicitness and melancholy, a Prussian Officer-style thesis that all this sexual repression will have catastrophic social consequences. But as a catch-all analysis of all the world's ills, from personal frustration, to grubby men selling dirty postcards on street corners, to unhappy marriages, to the rise of fascism and world war, this is so facile as to be, almost, ridiculous. It's a shame: there are sparks here and there of the old Wellsian genius, occasional flare-ups of autumnal fire, but as a whole this novel is a misfire.

It's a novel critics have almost entirely neglected. David C Smith seems to have read a different novel to the one I did, describing it as ‘a comic arraignment of the lives of ordinary London people’, praising its ‘magnificent depiction’ of life in lodgings, and singling out its ‘marvellous picture of cricket as well’ [Smith, H G Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 351, 588]. Smith thinks the name Tewler is ‘evocative of a worker without brains or energy, the tool of anyone who wishes’. I have to say that seems to me quite wrong. Tewler isn't especially passive, and he is never put to any social use at all. I think Wells is being more ribald: Tewler is tooler in the penile sense of ‘tool’; his evolutionary primitiveness manifest in his domination by a regressive, violent phallic sexuality, which is sublimated into his life's single notable action, when he bayonet-charges the invading Germans. It's not clear to me why he gets the George Cross for this (that medal is specifically awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy’: Tewler a member of the Home Guard, is indeed engaging the enemy when he stabs those Germans. A Military Cross would be more likely), except that George is the more fitting rebus for Tewler's actions. There he is, that old Turkish knight, stabbing his phallic lance into the plump body of that dragon, whilst a toothsome maiden languishes nearby. Maybe the hidden truth of the St George legend is that he'd rather be lance-stabbing his enemies than actually engaging, emotionally.