The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: cultural prophecy

H.G. Wells, In Search of Hot Water (1939)

I came across a copy of this book for a few euro in the second-hand section of Chapters bookshop in Dublin. A nice find: a seemingly first edition (paperback) from 1939 of a book I had never heard of by an author I like. Looking the book up on WorldCat, it seems that it has only been republished once since 1939, and that was back in 1949. It made Hot Water more interesting to me to know this: that I was holding the first and almost only edition; and it surprised me that such a famous name as Wells could have a book – a collection of essays – that has been so long out of print. A good deal of the explanation is in the fact that Wells published a lot, and so much of his lesser work has been weeded out from the “selective tradition” (as Raymond Williams would say). And further, these essays are occasional, specifically about affairs of the times, and not for the ages.

H.g. Wells' "New Book", In Search of Hot Water (1939)

Wells’ In Search of Hot Water (1939), in the classic Penguin sleeve, scuffed edges and all.

The full title on the flyleaf is Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water, but the front has only In Search of Hot Water. Note the clever double meaning in the title: Wells, as a noted polemicist, is forever finding himself in metaphorical “Hot Water”, and each essay is written in expectation that he will find find himself there again; and, secondly, the traveller to out-of-the-way places Wells visits in the course of these essays (e.g. Burma) is often, presumably without the conveniences of Western living, such as physical “Hot Water”. The full title also sees Wells define himself politically, “A Republican Radical”, of which more anon.

These essays were written in 1938-39, when Wells was over seventy, and had been a prominent intellectual for almost 40 years. The time itself is significant, as it was just before the outbreak of World War II. This was a war which Wells, along with many others, saw coming, and it haunts the pages of Hot Water. There’s an essay in the book called “Prophecy of 1939”. Cultural prophecy was of course one of Wells’ long-standing specialities (witness Anticipations, A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come). However, he opens “Prophecy” with a characteristically blunt warning:

Let me be perfectly frank about what this Forecast amounts to. I know no more than you about what is coming. I have no magic crystal. All this sort of thing is guessing; an estimate of trends and possibilities. (17)

Disclaimer issued, he gets down to business. He predicts, accurately, that the greatest threat to the world order is coming from Germany. He postulates that “The German people are an orderly, vain, deeply sentimental and rather insensitive people.” Wells was rather fond of making huge generalizations about national character; which is odd, because he wanted nothing more than a single World State and constantly and effectively ridiculed provincialism and insularity among his compatriots. But his problem is not with the German people, but their leaders, “a triumvirate of lunatics”. He is loudly against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy:

[Hitler] and his chief friends ought to now be rendered harmless and put away as soon as possible. I appeal to his open record, his published speeches, his role in the present pogrom, to establish the fact that he and his two friends are suffering from delusions of grandeur and a contagious form of homicidal mania. (19)

The fence on which Chamberlain wishes to sit, in Wells’ metaphor, is becoming more and more a knife-edge. What is needed is…

 [A] Radical-minded union of the English-speaking states. Such a consolidation could say effectively “Stop the fighting”. It has to be said, arms in hand. Peace is not a foolish, faceless thing; it is not the retreating aspect of humanity. It is something more difficult than war, more exacting of human energy. (27)

It’s typical of Wells to frame peace in such warlike terms, though perhaps in this case justified. But it was a passing swipe at royalty in the essay which earned the author a rebuke in the pages of the Sunday Dispatch. Hot Water reprints said rebuke appended to “Prophecy”, further appending Wells’ own response – a response which, he wrote, “I have found impossible to reprint in any British or American periodical” (32). In this response he reiterates yet again his rejection of monarchism, preferring “the high republican and intensely English tradition of Cromwell, Milton, George Washington and so forth” (35). The invocation of Cromwell is interesting to the writer of this blog – undoubtedly the Carlylean construction of Cromwell was somewhere in the mix. “Prophecy” starts with a critique of Great Man politics in general and Hitler in particular, but the appeal to Cromwell shows Wells’ loyalties were never really to the democratic tradition, but to the tradition of rule of the best, the class identified as the Samurai in A Modern Utopia. His writings mix a scrupulous rationalism with a contempt for mediocrity and a love of conquest and good old Hero-worship, though not in the unequivocal Carlylean manner. Equivocality is part of Wells’ manner at all times, expressed in his humour, often at his own expense. In the descriptions of himself and his literary avatars (see, for example, “the whitish plump man” at the beginning of A Modern Utopia), it is always clear that Wells finds himself a little ridiculous, both in his person and in the strength of his opinions – but still, he can’t help but have very strong opinions.

Taken in isolation, some of Wells’ formulations of his opinions may be objectionable to modern sensibilities. Taken together, they show a writer who never stopped going over the problems of his society, who was never happy with formulae or with the received opinions of his time, and who always maintained a measure of open-mindedness, even if prone to excesses. Reading Wells remains bracing; there is an everyman quality to his indignant reactions to the stupidity and self-servingness of those in power, his deeply ingrained hatred of cant and hypocrisy; but it is allied to an intelligence and breadth of knowledge beyond most and an unerring dedication to ameliorating the muddle of worldly affairs, with the final end of bringing all of humanity together in one harmonious World State. His prose style is brisk and lively in this late book, he ‘s still hopeful and still spoiling for a fight. But now, almost seventy years after  his death, the Wellsian Utopia is as far away as ever, so perhaps he was an imperfect prophet, or perhaps the world hasn’t caught up with him yet.

Sherlock Holmes’ Favourite Book: The Martyrdom of Man

Diving once again into the archives of free Kindle books, I came across Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872). Amazon searches indicate this book hasn’t been given a proper new edition in a long time – these 19th-century theorists of everything, predating disciplinary academicism, are out of fashion – but it’s a fascinating insight into the optimistic views of human progress that predominated in Victorian times, as well as one of the classics in the cultural prophecy mode: shades of Carlyle and Arnold, pre-empting H.G. Wells (who was indeed a fan). Furthermore, it was Sherlock Holmes’ favourite book, or one of them anyway, being strongly endorsed by that character in conversation with Dr. Watson.

Let me recommend this book,—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s ‘Martyrdom of Man.’ (The Sign of the Four, Chapter 2)

Holmes himself is something of an embodiment of the new type of person Reade envisaged, a harbinger of a new age. For Reade’s schema of history sees four ages: war, religion, liberty and intellect. These four concepts were successively the primary drivers of human progress. First: simple war, might is right; progress was assured through conquest. Then, the relative enlightenment of the religious age, the rise of monotheism and its instalment as the central dynamic symbol by which men and women lived and worked; then, liberty, as an ideal, took over, leading to revolutions of various sorts and a new world order; fourth, and apparently final, was to be the age of intellect, which Reade saw coming over the horizon. The days of wars and of faiths were over; Reade found that these had in earlier times served a purpose, having been the vehicles by which man raised himself from cultural animality.

War, despotism, slavery and superstition are now injurious to the progress of Europe, but they were once the agents by which progress was produced. By means of war the animated life was raised slowly upward in the scale, and quadrupeds passed into man. (loc 5859)

But by the application of the law of growth of all living things (and by extension, for Reade, the agglomeration of living things that is human society), these agents had outlived their uses. The idea that war is not a thing to be recommended is one most wouldn’t argue with, but Reade gave perhaps the most outspoken critique of established religion then in print. He could hardly have been more explicit: “I undertake to show that the destruction of Christianity is essential to the interests of civilization; and also that man will never attain his full powers as a moral being until he has ceased to believe in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul.” (loc 6112)

It is as though Reade was answering the challenge set by John Stuart Mill in his at the time still-unpublished autobiography:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come when it is the duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, and to make their dissent known […] The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete sceptics in religion. (Autobiography [Seven Treasures Publications], loc 544)

Reade was as open a sceptic as could be imagined. He used, among others, the familiar if-there’s-a-god-then-why-do-people-suffer argument to combat Christianity. He has a nice line on this:

[W]e shall state as an incontrovertible maxim in morality that a god has no right to create men except for their own good. (loc 6042)

Now that religion had passed its sell-by date, Reade expected the “spirit of Science” to take hold of the human mind. From scientific investigations, “will proceed discoveries by which human nature will be elevated, purified and finally transformed.” (loc 5177). Unfortunately (in my opinion), Reade, having discarded religion, proceeds to reintroduce the concept of God in the latter part of the book:

[T]he God of Light, the Spirit of Knowledge, the Divine Intellect, is gradually spreading over the planet and upwards to the skies. (loc 5979)

This is not the God of the monotheistic religions, rather a very vague notion not necessarily denoting anything supernatural, but used by Reade at times to indicate some sort of life force impelling mankind to better himself and assuring us that all is for the best, validating Reade’s optimistic reading of human history. Later again, Reade returns to his discussion of God:

We teach that there is a God, but not a God of the anthropoid variety [.] […] God is so great that he cannot be defined by us. God is so great that he does not deign to have personal relations with us human atoms that are called men. (loc 6265)

A God so great he cannot be defined is in itself a definition that seems to open the door for any conception, even a Christian one, of the great deity. In this ultimate back-pedalling manoeuvre, Reade is very typical of Victorian post-Christian intellects. But it is his general tendency towards elevation of the scientific principle that allies him to the Holmesian stance, as well as marking Holmes as a figure beyond religion, and opposed to the old forms of faith. Reading The Martyrdom of Man gives a good sense of how important Holmes was to his time and as a representative of a philosophically new way of being; although one must admit that the age of intellect has probably not yet quite gotten underway, nor is Religion (or War) as dead as Reade prophecied.

Wells and Cultural Prophecy: “The Shape of Things to Come” (1933)

H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), isn’t really a novel, whatever the blurb of the recent Penguin edition (2005) might say. Its closest predecessor thematically may be a work of cultural prophecy such as Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843), but within a frame structure similar to Sartor Resartus (1833-34). What Wells calls it is “a history of the future”.

The main body of the text is from the files of one Dr Philip Raven, recently deceased. He presents it as based on his own dreams or visions of the future. The dreams don’t constitute an action-based narrative, but a very long and detailed historico-sociological textbook. Later, the editor (identified as HGW – Wells himself, or a version of him) whose comments frame Dr Raven’s writings, suggests they should be read as a “general thesis […] about the condition of things to come” (447).

The framework, then, is very similar to that of the thesis on “things in general” by Prof Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, as presented in Sartor. Both books are offering a thesis on the grandest and most important of subjects, but within a slightly fictionalized framework, which allows the authors to play with ideas and put forward ideas they do not quite wish to take full responsibility for. For Wells, this means he can provide for the regeneration/ rebirth of society through the instrument of a totalitarian Modern State, whose aim is “to rule not only the planet but the human will” (346), and who thus impose themselves by martial law and precisely 47, 066 executions! (see page 358) But while this may appear draconian, Wells creates a scenario where the end is seen to justify the means, because crime is ultimately abolished, as well as “hunger, fear and other primary stresses” (439). This is achieved through Discipline, Education, and the jettisoning of Democracy, Monarchy, Capitalism, Nationalism and Religion, the five great bugbears of 20th century society, as Wells saw it. There isn’t even any need for medical eugenics, just selective breeding (along with its corollary, selective sterilization) and right education, et viola:

[I]t is particularly evident in Bengal and Central China. There we find the direct descendants of shrill, unhappy, swarming, degenerate, undernourished, undereducated, underbred, and short-lived populations among the finest, handsomest, longest-lived and ablest of contemporary humanity. (430)

Things to Come demonstrates in one sense a very optimistic view of the human condition, a limitless faith in the powers of good education to eradicate “abberant motives” (413) and unite all the world as one race. But to reach that state, a couple of things have to happen: there’s the whole totalitarian bit, but even before that, to create the conditions for Wells’ Aristocracy of Talent to create their World State, the majority of the world’s population had to be wiped out by a Great Pestilence. This questionable deus ex machina is characterized as “not the disease but the harvest of a weakness already prepared” (226). It is the Carlylean schema of the phoenix death-birth of society in Sartor. As the early 19th century for Carlyle, the 1930s was the period for Wells in which society had become exhausted; caught in a stranglehold of old, worn out beliefs, customs and institutions, unable to extricate itself, unable to work up the will to extricate itself, unable to appreciate the need for extrication. What was needed was the descent into chaos, in which shams could finally be burned up, and men could realize their true standing with regard to nature and Things That Are. This was a workers’ revolution for Carlyle, for Wells it was this pestilence.

The pestilence, though, is a big stumbling block for Things to Come as a prescriptive – and, if we want to call it a work of cultural prophecy, it has to be prescriptive. It’s a deus ex machina, a fictional device. Either Wells is suggesting that something of this kind should be arranged, or all the detail of his plan for a new society is worthless, because the conditions under which it can be implemented are, more or less, impossible. Yet it’s only really as cultural prophecy the book makes sense – it sure as hell isn’t a novel. Still, there’s  a lot to appreciate about The Shape of Things to Come: there’s breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment, and a basically disinterested attempt to ameliorate the lot of mankind. Despite the impression that this post might have given, Wells’ approach is still fundamentally humane – his description of the horrors of WWI is powerful, for example. Yet in his impatience with his society, he went rather over the top, and his cultural prophecy, like Carlyle’s (which he had read as a teen/ 20-something), is based on an idealistic view of leadership. If he had been writing a few years later, maybe he could have taken Orwell’s Animal Farm (1944) into account. That book now seems a much more realistic account of how power is obtained and maintained. But Wells was no Orwellian, or indeed Foucauldian, and believed that power would fade when its job was done – and, who knows, maybe it will.

H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Penguin, 2005)

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