Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939)

This Penguin original, published November 1939, is a kind of travel memoir, although as you'd expect from Wells there's less description of the countryside through which he passes and more political analysis and future-speculation. Several of the pieces collected here were occasioned by his first (and last) visit to Australia, a five week trip from December 1938 to January 1939. He was invited as guest speaker at the 1939 Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) conference, and to this engagement he added various public appearances, radio broadcasts (recordings of two of these survive), lectures, dinners and interviews.

Australia, not to put too fine a point on it, went wild for Wells; and he did not disappoint, shocking what was, in 1939, still a pretty conservative Australian establishment by speaking against censorship, for abortion, and mocking Hitler as insane, incurring thereby two very public rebukes by the Australian Prime Minster Joseph Lyons. Lyons died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, shortly after Wells left the country. I'm not suggesting cause-and-effect where that mournful circumstance is concerned. Only ... well, you know.

In Search of Hot Water contains Wells's own account of the Lyons ‘incident’ in chapter 3: ‘Mr Lyons Protects Hitler, the Head of a Great Friendly Power, From My “Insults”’, which is pleasantly droll. Otherwise the book gives us various neatly-written descriptions of the Australia trip: the voyage out on the ‘SS Pukka Sahib’ (chapter 1), a vivid description of a bush fire (chapter 4) and so on. Other chapters speculate about the future, revisit the ‘Jewish Question’ (chapter 3), or survey the current UK political scene ( ‘the shattering of what are called progressive political groupings throughout the British system and the search for some working formula for their effective reorganisation, have been the most striking facts of the past six months’ [chapter 7, ‘Democracy in Patches’]—that's the six months up to March 1939). Wells insists he is still ‘Pro-World-Pax’, but he is not a fool. He understands that appeasement was a bad strategy. Mid-1939 is, I daresay, late in the day to press that point, but it doesn't make it any less valid. ‘Should we resist collectively,’ Wells asks, ‘or appease severally?’ adding, ‘no one has yet discovered where appeasement ends’ [7].

He blames the failure of the League of Nations on ‘sentimental nationalism’ [9] and makes some bold proposals for educational reform:
I propose that the present division of historical teaching into the chiefly political history of localities, of countries, of selected peoples, of periods, should be absolutely and completely scrapped. I propose that the teaching of Greek History, Latin History, Jewish or Bible History, English History, French History, Medieval History, German History, Chinese History, our Island Story, the Empire and so on and so on, as separate subjects, shall be entirely abandoned. [In Search of Hot Water, 9]
Wells position, here, has hardened. This is more than pedagogical reform, this is a new ferocity aimed at history as such—everything from the rise of fascism and the ‘Jewish problem’ and the new war is a consequence of what he, vividly but unhelpfully, calls ‘the poison of history’. This is, I really think, a problematic position to take. I've noted before on this blog that Wells's fiction often takes a frankly cavalier attitude to history, sweeping it away as if it were mere chaff and ashes. But history possesses a determining inertia quite beyond human powers to overcome: the more strenuous the effort to dispatch it, as with Pol Pot's ‘Year Zero’, the more disastrous and criminal the consequences for ordinary human beings. We can only understand present, and so influence the future, by situating it, historically. Always historicize, as somebody once said.

Wells was booked to address the Annual Congress of the International P.E.N. Association in Stockholm on the 4th September 1939. In the event the Congress was cancelled (it seems something had happened in Europe, or something, that made the organizers rethink the conference. I’m not sure of the details), but Wells includes his talk here as the book's tenth and final chapter: ‘The Honour and Dignity of the Free Mind’. It’s a shame the talk was never delivered, because it contains what today I understand are called ‘sick burns’ at the expense of Mussolini. Wells lists some of the atrocities committed by Italian fascists, and then says, since he is addressing a group of writers: ‘I propose to strip off all these disagreeable associations from Signor Mussolini, and to consider him simply as one of ourselves, a playwright, a journalist, an autobiographer’, before sticking the knife right in. Mussolini’s play about Napoleon, which Wells saw when it played in London, is ‘tawdry’, ‘silly’, ‘simple-minded’; his autobiography is ‘a foolish, undignified performance’ that reveals its author as ‘a snob, pretentious and disingenuous’ and so on. Never mind his demerits as a politician, Mussolini is a very bad writer. Speaking as a writer myself, let me assure you: the same chin-jutting Benito who would have remained wholly unmoved by criticisms of his politics would have been absolutely cut to the quick by this line of attack, if (as I assume he was) he was made aware of it. So full marks to HG, there.

The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939)

This brisk book consists of 26 short chapters, surveying the world and pointing the way forward as Wells saw it. Published in August 1939, it went through three editions in its first fortnight, so it clearly found an audience. Beatrice Webb, who had long since become reconciled with Wells after their Fabian falling-out, recorded in her diary: ‘it is the work of genius in its indictment of western civilisation’. She wrote to Wells that she and her husband Sidney, who was recovering from a stroke, had read the book ‘with unlimited admiration’.
§ 1. Preliminary Statement
§ 2. Biology Invades History
§ 3. How Species Survive
§ 4. History Becomes Ecology
§ 5. Union Now?
§ 6. What Is Democracy?
§ 7. Where Is Democracy?
§ 8. What Man Has To Learn
§ 9. Sample Of A Generation
§ 10. Estimating Hope
§ 11. Survey Of Existing Forces
§ 12. The Jewish Influence
§ 13. Christendom
§ 14. What Is Protestantism?
§ 15. The Nazi Religion
§ 16. Totalitarianism
§ 17. The British Oligarchy
§ 18. Shintoism
§ 19. The Chinese Outlook
§ 20. Subject Peoples
§ 21. Communism And Russia
§ 22. American Mentality
§ 23. Three Factors In Everyone
§ 24. Summary
§ 25. Impossibility Of Utopianism
§ 26. Decadent World
I wonder (though I can find no evidence to support the supposition) whether the American edition was renamed The Fate of Man because its publishers were worried US readers would neither know nor care who Homer Sapiens was, much as the sixteenth James Bond movie had its title changed from Licence Revoked to Licence to Kill, because American test audiences didn't know what ‘revoked’ meant. I daresay I'm being unfair.

It's a compact and readable book: short chapters, direct journalistic prose and some pithy and memorable turns of phrase. Of course, the dedicated reader of Wells through the 1930s will find nothing new in it, but it's a handy summary work. And to cut to the chase: Wells thinks our fate will probably be dire, although he also thinks it's still not to late to avert catastrophe and build towards a global future.

The books starts by describing war as a consequence of the evolutionary and biological success of our species: ‘primitive war was a necessity forced upon the human community by biological success through the production of a surplus of young males ... You can write human history in a variety of ways, but one way of writing it would be to consider how, age after age, humanity has met the problem of What to do with out sons’ [4].

History, according to Wells's slogan, is ecology. The future has become a general issue for the world, in a way that didn't use to be the case (‘the intelligence of the 1890s attached much more importance to the past and much less to the probabilities of the days to come, than do any contemporary minds now’ [9]), and the best possibility for the future is not the partial democracy currently signified by the word, but the full democracy of the egalitarian World State.
If democracy means economic justice and the attainment of that universal sufficiency that science assures us is possible today; if democracy means the intensest possible fullness of knowledge for everyone who desires to know and the greatest possible freedom of criticism and individual self-expression for anyone who desires to object; if democracy means a community saturated with the conception of a common social objective and with an educated will like the will of a team of football players to co-operate willingly and understandingly upon that objective; if democracy means a complete and unified police control throughout the world, to repress the financial scramble and gangster violence which constitute the closing phase of the sovereign state and private ownership system; then we have in democracy a conception of life for which every intelligent man and woman on earth may well be prepared to live, fight or die, as circumstances may require. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 6]
Wells thinks youth and (in a stirring little chapter) hope are on the side of the angels, where this future is concerned; but then he lists a variety of forces liable to block his much-wished-for consummation. This where things get tricky.

The main obstacle, he thinks, is religion, expanding the term to encompass both traditional faiths and political fanaticism. He starts with the Jews, and the reader's heart sinks just a little bit. Because, although Wells declares himself broadly sympathetic to the difficulties Judaism faces, he can't seem to shake his belief that the Jews themselves are at root to blame for their own persecution by the stubbornness with which they refuse to assimilate to Gentile society. He quotes a Reform Rabbi, Lewis Browne, to the effect that ‘Gentile intolerance makes the Jews and keeps them together’ in order to contradict him: ‘I argue that the Jews make themselves and that Gentile intolerance is a response to the cult of the Chosen People’, and he adds with a breeziness that has aged very badly indeed, ‘the hostile reaction to the cult of the Chosen People is spreading about the entire world today. ’
No country wants them on such conditions. Why should any country want these inassimilable aliens bent on preserving their distinctness? Palestine is an object lesson. Until they are prepared to assimilate and abandon the Chosen People idea altogether, their troubles are bound to intensify. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 12]
Wells can fuck off with this sort of ‘analysis’, he really can. Although he's harder, in one sense, on Christianity, sketching its evolution as a faith in terms of a vast higgled-piggled accumulation of often incompatible elements (‘century by century, the great fabric of the faith goes on accumulating. It has become a sort of Cumberland Market of religious notions’) and asking, in exasperated mode: ‘why do intelligent people accept this strange heap of mental corruption as a religion and a rule of life?’ [13]. From here it's on to Nazism as a quasi-religion, and Wells's analysis becomes, shall we say, spicier:
It is plain that the Fuehrer is insane; he shows all the symptoms of a recognized form of sex mania, the jealous fear and hate of the great raping black man—who in his case becomes the Jew. Since in his case his obsession endangers the lives of people about him, he should be certified and put under restraint. ... Hitler's insanity would have had little effect upon the world if it had not slotted very easily into certain essential needs of the German situation. But for that he might be shouting, frothing and orating in a madhouse at the present time. But it happened that he supplied just the inflexible spearhead, the inhuman pertinacity, required to give extreme expression to the feelings of a humiliated and outrageously treated people. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 15]
No less a person than Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons took official exception to Wells's comments, rebuking him that talking thus about a sitting Head of State was outrageous, insulting and counter-productive. Not a good look, I must say, defending Hitler only months before Hitler invades Poland and sets-off the most catastrophic war humanity has yet seen. But hindsight is easy, of course. On the bright side: Wells's comments here and elsewhere earned him a prominent place in Hitler's notorious Black Book: he was listed to be eliminated by not one but three branches of the German military machine, Amtsgruppen VIG, IIB4 and IIIA5, which is quite the achievement.

In Chapter 17, ‘The British Oligarchy’, the English aristocracy is treated as a kind of cult, which is an interesting perspective. Then the book jumps via a summary of Shintoism, and some startling anti-Japanese racism (‘their lapses into moody murderousness ... an unintelligent blood-thirstiness is in their nature and tradition’ [17]) to China, Buddhism and Taoism. Wells is grandly dismissive of these ancient, widely-followed religions, paths that many millions have found wise and sustaining, and whilst he's at it, he manages to insert a sideswipe at Aldous Huxley. So that's all good:
Essentially these religions are behavior systems—or misbehavior systems. Taoism is frankly anti-social, an imaginative dissipation of the mind and will, and Buddhism is at least a withdrawal from life. They are both what it is now fashionable to call escape systems. Their teaching finds its Western equivalent in the ‘detachment’ of Mr. Aldous Huxley. Both foster religious orders and inflict a great multitude of monks and nuns upon the community, and neither has anything of importance to contribute to that intelligent reconditioning of the human mind which the present world situation demands. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 19]
On the subject of Black Africans, Wells is less racist than in some of his earlier works, and trades only in positive stereotypes (although such things are, of course, still stereotypes):
His bitterest detractors are unable to deny the Negro an enviable sense of rhythm, natural good-humor and an instinct for civility, a sense of fun, brilliant mimicry, rich artistic aptitudes. And more than that. In the United States, in spite of the severest handicaps, black men have been able to struggle up to do distinguished scientific and literary work, and in South Africa it has been found necessary to protect skilled white labor from the competition of able colored people by discriminating against the apprenticing of natives to skilled trades and restricting ‘certificates of competency’ in various mechanical employments to whites. Obviously you cannot put up barriers to protect yourself from the colored man and at the same time declare that he is incurably your inferior. [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 20]
A good point. The book ends on a downbeat note: Wells's earlier optimism has deserted him. Utopia is unachievable, western civilisation is in a state of decadence, ‘actual warfare, red war, on a planetary scale’ [26] is about to engulf the globe, and this in turn could bring back ‘the Dark Ages over again, a planetary instead of a merely European Dark Ages’. Even if it doesn't, Wells, with unusual accuracy of prophesy, thinks that the coming war will lead to greater global divisions, and less chance of a World State.
The world emerging from the next great war, then, will be a tougher world, more disunited than ever, abounding still more in concealed aims and secret preparations and the fears and suspicions they engender. What else can it be? [Fate of Homo Sapiens, 26]
Cold War, here we come.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Holy Terror (1939)


The Holy Terror is really rather an astonishing novel: at once a restatement of Wells's perennial fantasy of the coming World State and a critique of that fantasy, an exploration of the violence and intrinsic irrationality of those ideas. This latter element is something quite new in Wells's career. Considering that HG was in his mid 70s by the time he wrote this, it's remarkable. In essence, this novel is the life-story of a petty-minded, aggressive little man without imagination, empathy or (particularly) intelligence, who manages by sheer force of personal charisma to become dictator of the whole world.

Our anti-hero is Rudolf Whitlow, a physically small man with a large, white, round, ugly face. He is, in point of fact, a particularly un-self-forgiving portrait of Wells himself, the small lower-middle-class man who devotes his life to realising the World State. Unforgiving, because this novel is a Wellsian anatomy of the 1930s dictator figure, the Hitler-Mussolini-Franco type, subjected to some broad-brush analysis of character and some nitty-gritty with respect to the practicalities of how such a figure gets to the top of the political tree. It is is novel that understands that demagogues win power using the same fundamental strategies, talking to a mass audience in a way that wins them over, that writers use to become successful and influential. And few writers of the 1890-1940 era had been as successful and influential as Wells.

So it's not over-fanciful, I think, to read the name ‘Whitlow’ as a bodged (‘low’) mash-up of ‘W(ells)’ and ‘Hitler’ (the shift from Adolf to Rudolf is softened by Whitlow's preference for being called ‘Rud’; later in the novel people come to assume this is short for Rudyard, a gesture at intertextualty to which I'll return). Rud comes from nowhere to seize power in Britain and then rides the tumultuous international tide of global war to become world-leader (very much not-pretend) and this new world shapes itself into exactly the kind of utopian ideal we're familiar with from a raft of earlier novels, from A Modern Utopia (1905) and In The Days of the Comet (1906) through Men Like Gods (1923) to The Shape of Things to Come (1933). All of these, and Days of the the Comet most patently, handwave the transition from desperate now to gleaming utopian future. It happens magically, vaguely, by a process hidden under a cloud of unknowing. But in The Holy Terror Wells spells out a rather hideously plausible route from Now to Utopia. He shows us, in other words, how the sausage gets made: Rud bullying his way to power, eliminating his opposition, orchestrating war and global misery merely to advance his own ends.

In other words, this novel suggests Wells's awareness that the transition to his longed-for World State will be an ugly business, which is by way of tacitly acknowledging the ugliness inherent in his own ideological fantasy. This ‘shape’ of the future is the same as The Shape of Things to Come's, of course: we need to pass through a backward step into barbarism in order to motivate ourselves to improve the world into utopia. The difference, here, is that the step into barbarism is integral to the move to improve the world—not an arbitrary catastrophe, but a structural element in the process of refashioning. You can't make omelette, as noted chef d'oeuf Heinrich Himmler once said, without shooting a few million eggs in the back of the head.


The Holy Terror is a long novel,divided into four books, and since it is both entirely unread nowadays and quite intricately put-together I'm afraid I'll need to start this blog with some fairly extended summary. So: Book 1 gives us a deep-dive into Rudolf's childhood. When he is born  he screams so lustily at birth than the midwife calls him a ‘holy terror’ [1.1.1]. As he grows up he responds to the mockery of his stouter brothers and his schoolfellows (they call him ‘The Stink’) with violence: ‘he was a natural born kicker; he went straight for the shins. He was also a wrist-twister’; ‘he was a great smasher of the cherished possessions of those who annoyed him, and particularly the possessions of his brothers Samuel and Alf’; ‘he wept very little, but when he wept he howled aloud, and jabbered wild abuse, threats and recriminations through the wet torrent of his howling’ [1.1.2].

Attempts to reform him fail. At school he is bullied, and fights back violently; only the intervention of the head boy, a handsome doctor's son called Dick Cartstall, does any good. Dick uses his influence with the other boys to tone the bullying down in the interests of fairness. Rud is conscious of rather hero-worshipping tall, good-looking Carstall after this.

Rud decides he wants to go to university, and though his father ridicules this notion (‘“Edjicated proletariat—and what good's that?” Rud, regarding his father, looked still capable of knife-throwing’ [1.2.1]) he bullies his mother into stumping up the money by cashing-in her insurance policy. At Camford Rud begins haranguing his fellows students, and political meetings, and discovers his demagogue talent. Carstall, who is also there, training to be a doctor, is impressed.

Rud, ambitious, decides he needs to understand the country he plans one day to rule, and so goes on a walking tour during the summer vacation. On this he meets Chiffan, an old hand at radical politics who has grown disillusioned with the existent political parties and sees Rud's potential.

Book Two follows Rud's entry into practical politics. He has no particular political views of his own, beyond a belief that the most efficient route to his own empowerment is ipso facto the right ideology. But by testing his speechifying before various different audiences, he develops a core platform, and it's one stingingly (and deliberately) close to Wells's own beliefs. So: he presents himself as the Common Man, and prophesies the coming of a world in which hierarchies and localisms have been subsumed into a global unity, beginning with a world-conquering alliance of Britain and America. He sets himself against both Communism and Fascism, and proclaims a Common Sense dogma.

He gathers a core group of followers around him: the wealthy American, Steenhold, who stumps up the money Rud needs; an ex-boxer enforcer called Rogers who handles security, and Bodisham, a graduate of the LSE who provides intellectual substance to Rud's purely instinctual political positions. Later he attracts the martial-minded Reedly (the book describes him as ‘a disgruntled military genius and expert, with a gathering animus against all constituted authority, based on some personal grievance of his own against what he called the “privileged set”’ [3.1.16]) and various others. But his beginnings remain small beer for quite a long time. As his reputation as a speaker spreads he gets his share of cranks coming to visit: ‘middle-class Fabians, those painless permeators’ and ‘various leftists, Stalinists, Trotskyites and so forth’:
And also he had a call from two oafish, unprepossessing, young men in purple vests who talked against the Jews. Their indictment of the Jews was a little flimsy, but there could be no question of the earnest gusto with which they advocated the ancient sport of Jew-baiting. They wore broad leather belts and their jersey sleeves were rolled up as if on the off-chance of finding a pogrom round the corner. They told him Judaism was a wicked conspiracy to rob, corrupt and enslave Gentile mankind. He did not believe them for a moment. But he was quite polite to them because they were so very hefty. [Holy Terror, 1.2.5]
These ‘purple shirts’ are representatives of the ‘Popular Socialist Party’, a group lead by the suavely aristocratic Lord Horatio Bohun. This preening, sneering individual is the novel's far-from-flattering version of Oswald Mosley, whom Wells knew a little and did not like. Rud is not anti-Semitic (not on principle, but because he doesn't see that such a position would be of use to him) and he dismisses these Purple Shirts. They grow angry
“You aren't by any chance a Jew yourself?” said the smaller (but still considerable) purple-shirt, and his eye roved about the room as if in search for convenient breakables.

Rudie had a nasty moment and then decided upon a virile line. “If I was about four stone heavier,” he said, “I'd smash your blasted jaw for that.”

It got a laugh, and the situation eased.

“Come along, Colin,” said the big one. “He's not even a Pacifist. But you ought to read the Protocols of Zion, you really ought, Mister—”
I love that the British Fascist here is called Colin. Wells hasn't entirely lost his comic edge. Anyway, once these two have ‘louted off down the staircase’ Rud gets to thinking that it might be more efficient to infiltrate and take-over the ‘Popular Socialist Party’ rather than start a new party from scratch. Book 2 details this process, in rather painstaking detail. Rud and his cadre join up. Lord Horatio underestimates Rud because he's lower-class and ugly, and whilst his lordship is off addressing followers in Liverpool Whitlow grabs power: whipping up a large crowd in Hyde Park with his rhetoric, seizing control of the party's London headquarters, the Purple House, and forcing Bohun out.

The background to all this is an increasingly desperate economic situation. If we treat The Holy Terror as alt-history (and it certainly traces a radically different version of world history through the 1940s and 1950s), then its jonbar point comes somewhere in the middle of the 30s. Much of the history of the novel is the same as the actual history of this decade: the Nazis have consolidated their hold on Germany; in Britain the peaceable mood of the Peace Ballot of 1934-35 (which the novel mentions) swings round to warmongering jingoism by 1938 and so on. But the economic situation is worse than the actual state of affairs ever was. The economy has collapsed, a ‘National Nutrition Emergency Committee’ has appropriated all food supplies in order to ration them out, and when war does break out—at the end of the 1940s, in Wells's timeline—it is a much less decisive, and much longer-drawn-out business than the actual 1939-45.

In this environment Rud thrives. He purges the party of Bohunists, and remakes it in his image, renaming it ‘The Common-Sense Movement’, advocating the ethos of the Common Man, efficiency and scientific advance towards a global utopia. Soon enough Rud is dominating British politics and has added a ruthless and loyal head of secret police named Thirp to his team. Rud's oldest disciple, Chiffan, has faded rather in influence, and is diverting himself with  affairs and sexual dalliances. Several other members of Rud's intimate circle are starting to nurse ambitions of their own: Steenhold spends a lot of time in America and Canada, notionally canvassing support for Rud, but actually establishing his own power-base; and Reedly, his chief of military staff, is plotting directly to overthrow him. During what Wells calls ‘The Second War To End War’, and which becomes known in the future-history books as ‘The Ideological War’ [3.2.4] matters come to a head.

We're now into Book 3, and the most interesting portions of the novel. In some respects, Wells's ideas of how WW2 would pan-out were well off the mark (he thinks that the navies of the world will simply be rendered null by the air forces, and that naval crews would mutiny rather than go to sea under such a threat: ‘for nearly a week the battleships of the world, those magnificent pieces of lethal engineering, careered about the seas, greatly afflicted by aeroplanes and submarines, and a bent and battered remnant got back to shelter again. And there it became manifest to the horrified captains that that was where their men intended to remain until the war was over’ [3.2.5]).

In other ways, though, he is strikingly penetrating. I was several times struck reading the latter sections of Holy Terror not only that Orwell clearly read this book, but that he owes it an immense amount. Rud grasps that whilst the world war is being prosecuted he has extraordinary powers to remake things as he chooses. After many years of fighting, with the enemy exhausted, his main general, Reedly, urges him and the council to authorise a final assault, force ‘a general capitulation’ of the enemy: ‘the Japanese- Brazilian army here has its back to the Andes.With that we could force a capitulation in a month and then we could concentrate all the air power on this Levantine-Persian-Danube-Elbe complex’. But Rud doesn't want the war to end:
“We don't want a capitulation,” said Rud. “You see, Reedly, we don't want any excuse for an assembly of the old governments on our side. ... From our point of view the war to end war can have no formal end. We've got controlled shipping, amalgamated air forces, pooled finance, consolidated news-services, a common uniform. We want to keep them common for evermore. But the day we proclaim Victory and Peace the diplomatists and nationalists will come creeping out of their funk-holes again with their flags and claims and bills on each other and all that sort of thing. Versailles all over again.” [3.2.7]
Nineteen Eighty-Four draws on this idea, and pushes it to its logical conclusion. Because, eventually—when he has remade the world to suit his will—Wells's Rud does allow the war to be wound-up. Orwell is less illusioned: there would be no reason for the truly post-historical dictatorship ever to put an end to war. They'd just constantly shuffle alliances and enemies in an endless state of emergency. We have always been at war with Eastasia, and so on.

In Holy Terror what happens is that Reedly, baulked of the military victory he yearns for, stages a coup. Rud and his allies anticipate this, and plan an attack on the airfield where Reedly is gathering his forces; but Reedly anticipates that, and sends assassins to Rud's airfield to stop him. It's a tensely written episode, this, worthy of the best thrillers.
A sound as though someone had snapped a brittle metallic rod and a shiver in the air.

Then a shout from among the planes and revolver shots. Three or four men were moving about very quickly there.

Rud was holding up his hand as if to forbid some action. Sabotage among the planes? Steenhold ran towards the scuffle, pulling out his revolver as he ran, and signalling to the knot of world police who were standing or sitting in front of the main building. There was no further shooting, and two of the pilots seemed to be holding a man, the man, no doubt, who had fired the shot at Rud. A man in pilot's uniform dodged round the head of the nearest machine, and he had something in either hand like a cricket ball. He threw one of these objects under the plane, and seemed to hesitate about the other. Steenhold was running at an angle to the disturbance so that he alone saw this man clearly. He was evidently unobserved by either the spray of police who were running towards the plane or by the men actually about the machines. Steenhold shouted to confuse his attention and fired his revolver. A pilot's face appeared in the cabin of the machine.

The bomb under the machine burst loudly and the machine came tilting over towards Steenhold in a deliberate, drunken fashion as if to meet and welcome him. The pilot behind the glass seemed an inactive, an indifferent spectator of these events. The spinning propeller caught the bomb-thrower's head as he turned and stepped back to confront Steenhold, and the bomb he held dropped from his hand and rolled and burst six yards in front of Steenhold's feet.

Steenhold had an extraordinary sense of being struck back and front at once, as though vast aerial hands clapped themselves upon him, and that he had lost his balance as he had never lost his balance before. His feet were off the ground. The plane, with its propeller whirling up the red-brown trophy it had slashed from his scalped antagonist, waved and sank down out of sight and he was staring at the sky. [Holy Terror, 3.3.4]
Though Steenhold dies, the assassination attempt itself fails. Rud annihilates Reedly from the air and takes total control. When he visits the bombed airfield and sees Reedly's corpse, he is so upset he is physically sick, and the image haunts his nightmares for years. But that doesn't stop him acting with dispatch, ordering that the officers of the thirteenth army, ‘acting under Marshal Reedly's orders’ though they were, all be shot. ‘Every one of them,’ he says. ‘Now. Once you start shooting—you have to go on’ [3.3.8].

So global war continues, for at least another two years, during which time Rud styles himself the Master Director of the World and labours tirelessly ‘to secure the absolute dominance of the Common World State against a vast complex of antagonisms, insubordinations, inertias, apathies, unanticipated administrative difficulties, physical difficulties imperfectly foreseen and sheer exhausting intricacies’. Things start to come together: ‘gradually things began to fall into place as the idea that the Common World State had come to stay prevailed over the belief that it was merely a provisional arrangement, pending a satisfactory restoration and adjustment of old claims’ [3.3.9].

And, mirabile, this artificially prolonged, catastrophic war leads to a genuine renascence of mankind. ‘Without a break the world war passed into world adjustment’:
All the world was busy then rebuilding or building anew or irrigating or planting or restoring soil. For centuries men had developed the art of resurfacing their cities and roads, but now they were blending and manufacturing soils as they needed them and distributing them where they could be cultivated most conveniently and agreeably. None too soon had world afforestation been taken in hand. The old competitive order of little nations and private finance had already stripped the world of half its forests and a third of its soil and exterminated seals, whales and a thousand once-abundant resources. But now with the establishment of a real Common Ownership, a tremendous recuperation had begun. [Holy Terror, 3.3.10]
And so we're into Book 4. Rud's staff pull hard on all the propaganda levers to manufacture a world-wide cult of personality centered on Rud himself, or on a santised, depersonalised and (as we would now say) photoshopped version of Rud.  Democracy is entirely a thing of the past (‘a crude return to electoral politics would give every mischievous rascal in the world an opportunity’ Rud insists [4.1.5]). Governance happens via a scientifically-inflected ‘Fundamental Law’, steered by Rud and his immediate deputies. A world flag is designed: white saltire on blue ground, which is, er, the Scottish flag, actually, but never mind (other nations are permitted to keep their flags for the time being, but only on condition they have the World State white saltire imposed over their specific design, like a mark of erasure).

Education is radically reformed, and so—another idea, evidently, that Orwell lifted wholesale for Nineteen Eighty-Four—is language. Rud decrees English as the world language, although a programmatically revised and simplified English. One of Rud's deputies notes ‘it is remarkable how patriotism still lingers in the blood, I like to think that the coming world language will be English’ and is rebuked: ‘It will be almost as much English as Middle Saxon is the English in use to-day. Less like. It will have dropped a thousand ambiguous and deflated terms’ [4.1.7]. No more linguistic ambiguity? So long poetry, humour and fun, hello an ideological procrustean bed in which to shape the minds of the future!

The ruling council discuss the role of women in the new world, and even debate whether some women should be included in this debate, but Rud vetos that notion: ‘“We don't want any women here,” said Rud. “They would take sides where we differed, but they would contribute nothing”’ [4.1.8]. Girls? Ew! Eugenics, it seems, follows naturally from the Fundamental Law, although Rud's council leaves the specifics vague for now. The months are rationalised so that they all have exactly 30 days, with the extra days disposed in intercalary fashion. His council suggest renaming the days of the week to ‘Rud-day’, ‘Darwin-day’, ‘Lenin-day’ and the like. Rud dismisses this idea, which is a shame, if only because it denies the in-universe equivalent of The Bangles from releasing their hit-single ‘Manic Rud-day’, or indeed the Wellsian Elton John from rousing us all with
Leninday night's alright for fighting
Get a little action in.
But the discussion about women proves to have a disturbing effect on Rud. He has hitherto lived a celibate life, sublimating all his erotic energies into his political career. This notion of a leader wedded not to any individual woman but to his mission has been a large part of his global appeal. His oldest disciple Chiffan considers him neither homosexual nor heterosexual but ‘autosexual’: ‘he is afraid of women. He dare not risk an approach to them. He is afraid of humiliation, he is darkened by a dread of them ... and so he has trained himself not to attempt, not to betray a flicker of desire’ [4.1.11].

Still, now that he has established the World State Rud is conscious of feeling lonely and isolated, and from there it is a short step to paranoia. When Bodisham, his intellectual deputy, dies unexpectedly of disease, Rud believes that he was poisoned and has all the doctors who attended him shot. The World State's attitude to religious belief switches from indifference to outright hostility (‘Rud's instinctive hatred of religion was becoming more and more marked. He had learnt at his mother's knee to resent the existence of another being more important than himself’ [4.2.3]). A round of persecutions begins. Rud is shown some Donald Duck cartoons and flares out in rage:
“Who is this Walt Disney? He seems to me to be a very dangerous revolutionary. This—all of this—is underhand sedition. I'm not such a fool—. I see his point. This Donald Duck! It's subtle but I get him. I get him. The busybody who interferes and tangles up everything. That's the suggestion. That's how I'm lied about. That's what they want to say of me —if they dared. He's even got the sailor's cap I wear at times. The way the forehead is shaped! Exactly the same! The grave look he gives people before he does something decisive. It is insidious. It is abominable. It is deliberate. This Disney ought to be shot. Where does he work? Where is he to be found?”

“These films were made before the Group existed,” said Norvel, recovering slowly from his amazement. “I don't know where Disney is. Probably he is quite old by now. He was doing his work before the Last War. I don't know if he is still alive. Maybe he is still making films, happily unconscious.”

Autocracy was making Norvel a facile liar. He had as a matter of fact been talking to Disney three days before, and discussing a scheme for a great series of operas with him. But he saw no reason why Rud should intervene in these matters. [Holy Terror, 4.2.4]
Chiffan decides it's his responsibility, as Rud's oldest friend, to talk sense into him. The conversation does not go well. Rud bursts out with decades-worth of repressed sexual resentment, focused on the other man's success with women, and then has Chiffan marched away and shot. So much for him. Thirp is assassinated. Rud becomes even more paranoid and, belatedly enough, wakes up to anti-Semitism: ‘he could not get the Jewish question out of his head. It became an obsession. It became the nucleus of a tangle of fear-born impulses to extravagant violence. Assuredly there was something wrong about the persistent separateness of these people’ [4.2.9].

Wells presents this as an index of Rud's derangement and paranoia, although he treads a little on his own toes in doing so. According to this novel, ‘most Gentiles’ dislike Jews ‘because it is not reasonable for a modern intelligence to be interested in Jewish particularism without a resentful irritation’ [4.2.9]. Say what?
So in the brain of the World Trustee the potentiality of an ultimate pogrom accumulated. And Jews themselves supplied all the food that was necessary for his conspiracy mania to grow. As ever, there were Jews demanding differential treatment and preparing themselves for that perennial surprise which has pursued them through the ages, of finding that this differential treatment, when it comes, is not preferential. The more intelligent Jews were assimilating rapidly to common mankind, but an obstinate remnant persisted, and the more it became a remnant the more it felt it fulfilled its destiny.
 [Holy Terror, 4.2.9]
So, the novel is saying, this planned genocide is an over-reaction, but not an entirely unprovoked one? So ... the Jews (the ones who refuse to assimilate) are at least in part to blame for it? Fuck that, frankly.
So far Rud was following in the footsteps of his German precursor, Hitler, in his attack on the Jewish riddle, but it is to be remarked that, quite unlike Hitler, he never betrayed any traces of that physical race mania which is so frequent an aspect of the pogrom complex. He regarded the Jews as a conspiracy. Hitler felt them as a biological pressure, multiplying around him and his kind. He bore a personal sexual hate for them. But Rud had no sense of race. It was not the Jewish race he hated, it was the Jewish idea. [Holy Terror, 4.2.9]
This is, I think, a pretty serious misreading of the grounds of Nazi anti-Semitism, actually: but worse than that it functions as at least a small portion of exculpation of Rud's animosity. Not a total one, I concede: but at the very least a call-back to the ideas expressed so unpleasantly back in Anticipations (1901): this profoundly toxic notion that the ‘problem’ with the Jews is not their Jewishness as such, so much as their refusal to surrender that Jewishness in a larger conformity of assimilated identity. If the Jew agrees to enter into what Wells, there, calls the ‘efficient citizenship’ of the New Republic, then ‘let him come—the efficiency will be the test’. If not though, says young Wells, then ‘we shall abolish the Jew’ [Anticipations, 316]. The tenor has changed: the actual pogrom being planned here is the symptom of power-craziness and has lost the pseudo-rational calm of Anticipations. But I can't, in all honesty, say that Wells has shifted his ground all that far.

At any rate, before the pogrom can be actualised, matters come to a head. Rud senses his subordinates are plotting against him, and becomes, as Stalin later did, immensely suspicious of all doctors. He remembers his childhood association with Dick Carstall, how he more-or-less hero worshipped him at school, and, discovering that Carstall is working now in medicine, recruits him as his personal physician.
Carstall regarded the Master of the World, and behold he was still the Stink and the sickly-faced orator in the Camford Union, exalted but the same. That little tadpole of a boy with the large head had simply grown to cosmic proportions ... He affected a stern dignity and it did not suit his fragile smallness. His looks hadn't improved, his eyes were bright with mania and bloodshot, they seemed to have sunken deeper into their sockets, and his voice was harsher. Master of the world! [Holy Terror, 4.2.11]
Carstall doesn't muck about. Rud recites his symptoms of ill-health, and Casrtall gives him an injection which he promises will cure him. It's strychnine, and Rud is killed.

The last book of the novel is a post-mortem. The irony, or at least the closest The Holy Terror approaches to irony, is that Rud's revolution has worked. The world is a vastly better place now than it was at the novel's beginning. Rud's successors cover-up his later insanity, embalm his body and place it (the comparison to Lenin is specifically made) in a huge temple to serve as a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. The myth of the wise guardianship of Rud is more important than the truth. That truth is, says Carstall, he was ‘just a nasty, frightened kid, greedy but frightened, horribly afraid of violence, always in a panic, living in an age of panic and expanded a million, a billion times. Until in a world of utter cowardice, he filled the sky.’ But on the other hand, ‘he killed a multitude of people, he destroyed institutions, traditions, boundaries, in his terror’. Which was good, because ‘they were institutions that had to be destroyed ... social classes, private property, religious cant, patriotism! They had become shelters for every slinking meanness in the human make-up.’ [4.3.3] So the posthumous cult of personality is actively encouraged.


There's the US first edition cover, rather more effective, I think, than the UK one at the head of this post. It catches the element of melodrama, almost of pulp, about the novel. Earlier I mentioned that Whitlow's name, the Hitlerish re-Adolph-y Rudolf, shortened to Rud, is misread by his followers:
Chiffan had assumed from the outset that Rud stood for Rudyard. When he had used ‘Rudyard’ for the third time, Rud reflected upon the matter and decided not to correct him. He had always had a faint dislike to the foreign romantic flavour about Rudolf, and he felt now that for a potential demagogue in the great English-speaking community, it would be a serious handicap. He began to think of himself as Rudyard. A time was to come when he would not even recognise himself as Rudolf Whitlow. [Holy Terror, 1.3.2]
We take the hint: The Holy Terror is a lengthy expansion of, and updated reworking of, Kipling's ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1888). As in that story, a lower-class Englishman manages, against the odds and by sheer force of will, to become a great ruler; and as in that story he is undone by sex. Kipling's Daniel Dravot is undone when he decides, against the vow he swore to his co-conspirator Carnehan, to give way to sexual desire and marry a beautiful Kafir girl (she bites him on their wedding day, and when the Kafirs realise Dravot is merely a man, and not a god, they kill him). For Rud Whitlow the situation is a little more complex. He doesn't indulge his sexual desires, despite having all the opportunity in the world, because he has too effectively repressed and sublimated those libidinal energies; but the repressed always returns, in murderous and destructive form, and it leads to Rud's death.

In Wells's earlier novel of delusional grandeur, The Bulpington of Blup (1932), the in-his-head-only ‘great man’ Bulpington falls ‘officially’ in love with the beautiful and virtuous English girl Margaret, a relationship he does not consummate; but he does have a sexual affair with Rachel Bernstein, described in the novel as an ‘untidy, eager little Jewess’. The Jew figures as the object of sexual desire, the ‘other’ onto which the unacceptable, repressed desire that ‘ought’ to focus on Catherine is cathected. It's not an attractive notion, this, but it is, I think, a well-observed one. And in The Holy Terror it is projected out in a much more alarming manner: Rud libidinally invests not in actual sex with an actual person, but in a larger-scale thanatic megalomania, the ‘clean’ World State balanced against the genocidal destruction of the ‘dirty’ Jew-other.

And that's, it seems to me, a problem. This is a novel that concedes that power probably does corrupt, and that absolute power will tend to corrupt absolutely, but at the same time it resolutely individualises that state of affairs. The urge to murder all the world's Jews is only a personal aberration of the ruler, and extends no further down the chain-of-command, such that the hygienic removal of that leader cauterises anti-Semitic hatred completely. Put like that, you can see how naïve The Holy Terror's approach to this grievous subject is. For Wells, no in-universe Daniel Goldhagen could ever write a Whitlow's Willing Executioners.

Once Rud is removed (once he's an ex-Rud, once he has ceased to be, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible) everything in the World State garden is rosy. The last chapter of the novel is literally set in a sunlit garden, as Carstall—inexplicably unpunished for his act of homicide—is spending time with his little kid, Bunny. Bunny is reading a child's History of the Revolution that styles Rud as a hero and a secular god. Was it really like that, Daddy? asks Bunny. And Carstall responds: ‘This book exaggerates here and there—and it simplifies things. It simplifies a lot ... Broadly anyhow it is the truth. The condensed truth about the World Revolution’ [4.3.5]. So there we are.


Wells published three more novels, and various other non-fiction titles, between 1939 and his death in 1946, and if I call The Holy Terror his last major novel I am at least conceding that it is a major novel. And I think it is. Its reception was mixed, but this in part reflects the fact that the outbreak of World War 2 overtook the novel's hypotheticated future so very abruptly, and made it seem irrelevant. It looks better from a longer hindsight. I mean, I say that: later critics have either wholly ignored, or else have not been kind—David Punter says ‘Wells wrote The Holy Terror in 1939. It is a bad novel. Indeed, it is a paradigm of the several bad novels Wells wrote’ [in C. C. Barfoot, Theo D’haen (eds), Tropes of Revolution: Writers’ Reaction to Real and Imagined Revolutions 1780-1980 (Amsterdam: Rodopi 1991), 373] which seems to me excessively harsh—but I wonder if The Holy Terror doesn't work in a more interestingly self-reflexive manner. By kicking off the novel with Rud new-born and already screaming irrational hatred, already dubbed ‘The Holy Terror’ by the midwife, Wells is inter alia repudiating psychoanalysis as such. Nothing ‘makes’ Rud into a monster. He's effectively born a monster, an anti-social object of persecution who bullies back harder to avoid being destroyed. He is the thing itself, unaccommodated ego, individuality raised to a secular apotheosis of resentment, isolation and rage.

Is it a flaw, I wonder? I wonder if we might come at this novel less as a critique of fascist figures such as Hitler and Stalin (both of whom, of course, feed into Wells's portraiture) specifically, and more a critique of Modernity as such, and more specifically Modernity's pathological investment in heroic individualism. We still see it, of course: left-wing animus focuses itself on Trump, as if (like Wells's Rud) Trump could be neatly excised by impeachment, or a timely heart attack, and the USA return blithely to the status quo ante—as if, that is, Trump were in some sense a cause, or sole agent of the present state of affairs—a sacrificial king out of Fraser's Golden Bough (a work mentioned several times in The Holy Terror, incidentally) rather than being a perfectly in-himself vacuous symptom of a structural evil in that Republic. Perhaps instead of merely replicating that error in this novel, Wells pushes the consequences of fascist coup and lengthy global war into the broad sunlit uplands of improbable utopia precisely to challenge it.

This would, I think, make the book ‘Modernist’ in a specific, Jamesonian sense. In ‘The Four Maxims of Modernity’ Jameson points up the proximity of ‘The Modern’ to ‘that other chronological or historicizing narrative trope’ of ‘“for the first time”’ What interests Jameson is that he considers for the first time ‘individual’ and the modern ‘collective’. This apparent contradiction, for Jameson, actually explains, or at least underlies, the prevalence of fascism in the Modern period, in which a figure like Hitler (‘the agent and the fulfilment of a specifically German modernity’) collapses together individual figurehead ‘for the first time’ upheaval with the historically-rooted collective identity of the national Geist. This, argues Jameson,
posits the ‘final solution’ of the problem of feudalism, and the sweeping away of all those feudal and aristocratic or Junker survivals that characterized Germany's uneven development in ‘modern’ times ... Hitler is then here a kind of ‘vanishing mediator’ which includes both the Nazi politics as such and the immense devastation of war, which clears the slate of anything ‘residual’ (in Raymond Williams's expression). Indeed, it might well be suggested that the trope of modernity in this sense always has the structure of a vanishing mediator. [Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London: Verso 2012), 36-37]
By this reading. Rud symptomises and individualises modernity as such, and literalises his role as vanishing mediator by bridging the destruction of the past and the birth of the future—by actually vanishing. Perhaps this is too facile a reading; but I would, I think, stick to the notion that, rarely in his art, Wells is at least attempting something properly dialectical in The Holy Terror: the Wells (as author, genial and humane architect of the World State utopia) and the anti-Wells (as character, ugly and hate-filled dictator) sublate one another into a sunlit garden containing neither, but filled with the laughter of a happy, handsome father and his blithe child.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

World Brain (1939)

So here's another collection of Wellsian public speechifying and occasional journalism, this time summing up his various views on education and world unity 1936-38. Below, with the original publications or venues of the various pieces added, is the table of contents:
1. World Encyclopaedia
(Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, November 20th, 1936)
2. The Brain Organisation of the Modern World
(Lecture delivered at several places in America, October-November, 1937)
3. The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia
(Contribution to the Encyclopédie Française, August 1937)
4. Passage from a Speech to the Congrès Mondial de la Documentation Universelle, Paris, August 20th, 1937
5. The Informative Content of Education
(Presidential Address to the Education Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, September 2nd, 1937)

Appendix I. Ruffled Teachers
(Sunday Chronicle, September 12th, 1937)
Appendix II. Palestine in Proportion
(Sunday Chronicle, October 3rd, 1937)
Appendix III. The Fall in America, 1937
(Collier's, January 28th, 1938)
Appendix IV. Transatlantic Misunderstandings
(Liberty, January 15th, 1938)
Appendix V. — The English-Speaking World: ‘As I See It’
(Broadcast talk delivered December 1st, 1937)
What comes most clearly from reading through these piece is Wells's increasingly baffled frustration that things are going so manifestly wrong all around him, when he has, on so many occasions, explained carefully how to make things come right. The problem, he thinks, is not a lack of utopian ambition among his fellow humans but, on the contrary, an excess of it, provoking hastiness of execution that in turn leads to failure. He is sure we all agree, more or less, that ‘all men are brothers’, but he also notes that ‘Spain and China are poor evidence of that fraternity’. ‘We know we want these things quite clearly, but we have still to learn how they are to be got’:
Man reflects before he acts, but not very much; he is still by nature intellectually impatient. No sooner does he apprehend, in whole or in part, the need of a new world, than, without further plans or estimates, he gem into a state of passionate aggressiveness and suspicion and sets about trying to change the present order. There and then, he sets about it, with anything that comes handy, violently, disastrously, making the discordances worse instead of better, and quarrelling bitterly with any one who is not in complete accordance with his particular spasmodic conception of the change needful. He is unable to realise that when the time comes to act, that also is the time to think fast and hard. He will not think enough. [World Brain, ‘Preface’]
It's a question of a panicked world scrabbling desperately for guidance:
‘Right’ dictators there are and ‘Left’ dictators, and in effect there is hardly a pin to choose between them. The important thing about them from our present point of view, is that fear-saturated impatience for guidance, which renders dictatorships possible. First there comes a terrifying realisation of the limitless uncontrolled changes now in progress, then wild stampedes, suspicions, mass murders and finally mus ridiculus the Hero emerges, a poor single, silly, little human cranium held high and adorned usually with something preposterous in the way of hats.
Hats is nice, although, if I wanted to be super-critical, I might note that Wells doesn't give us any more specific reason to trust the worthiness of the nostrums he peddles than do these behatted strutted autocrats. At least he's not running for political office, I guess.

‘The missing factor in human affairs,’ Wells insists, ‘is a gigantic and many-sided educational renascence’, and much of World Brain is given over to this topic. ‘It is science and not men of science that we want to enlighten and animate our politics and rule the world,’ [1] he insists, and to that end we need a World Brain (he is pleasantly imprecise about the actual physiology of this global cortex ‘something—a new social organ, a new institution—a World Encyclopedia’; later he specifically says ‘for the present it is desirable to leave this project of a World Encyclopedic organisation vague’ [2]). The purpose will be to ‘bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding, and into effective reaction upon our vulgar everyday political, social and economic life’ [1].

The specific demand for a World Encyclopedia is as old as 1913's The Passionate Friends, and was variously restated by Wells through the 1920s and 1930s (Wells even satirises excessive, pedantic enthusiasm for the idea in the character of Preeder in The Camford Visitation). I'm not sure I can see a way past the condescension of hindsight when it comes to noting that we, more or less, possess such an Encyclopedia today, in the Wikipedia/Google Books/Project Gutenberg annex of ‘The Internet’ and that this seems to have promoted neither world peace nor any general brother/sisterhood. So for now all I'll do is register my sense that there's something, well ... quaint about Wells insistence than an authoritative statement of the facts of things will put an end to all dissension. True, he notes, it is sometimes claimed that ‘no two people think alike’, ‘that science is always contradicting itself, that theologians and economists can never agree’. But Wells insists it is only ‘mental laziness on the defensive that makes people say this kind of thing’ (‘they don't want their intimate convictions turned over and examined’) and that a properly constituted World Encyclopedia would function as ‘an organ of adjustment and adjudication, a clearing house of misunderstandings’ [2] and so banish all human disagreement.


On education he boils down school-age childhood to ‘a maximum of 240 hours in the year’ arguing that we are therefore ‘given 2,400 hours as all that we can hope for as our time allowance for building up a coherent picture of the world, the essential foundation of knowledge and ideas, in the minds of our people’ [5]. He goes on to break this down, with the help of charts, to suggest we should teach more science and less history (‘I do not see either the charm or the educational benefit of making an important subject of and throwing a sort of halo of prestige and glory about the criminal history of royalty, the murder of the Princes in the Tower, the wives of Henry VIII, the families of Edward I and James I, the mistresses of Charles II, Sweet Nell of Old Drury, and all the rest of it’), and to make a variety of other suggestions.

The appendices have their fun moments. In the first, ‘Ruffled Teachers’, Wells responds to a complaint occasioned by his ‘2,400 hours’ Address to the Education Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, just mentioned. In that talk, he says, he observed that teachers ‘were going along much as they did in 1900’. This was reported in the press as him saying teachers were ‘drooling along much as they did in 1900’, which phrase caused offence to actual teachers. He apologizes here, though he blames sloppy reporting for the misunderstanding.

The ‘Palestine’ appendix is just a kind of expression of Wellsian bafflement that so many people in so many religions get so worked up about this small portion of land bordering the eastern cul-de-sac of the Mediterranean: he says he wants to get ‘Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses’ and Palestine itself ‘out of the way so that our children shall start with a better perspective of the world’. Good luck with that. Appendix III supplies the surprising diagnosis of the Great Depression in America as a problem of inadequate education; and the last appendix insists that, though a World Encyclopedia might seem like an expensive item, it ought not to be:
You may think an Encyclopedia is something only rich people can afford to buy. It ought not to be. If you can afford a radio set, if you can afford a motor-car, surely you can afford a summary of human thought and knowledge. Encyclopedias need not be as dear as they are, any more than books or bibliographies. Cheaper books, handy bibliographies, a great encyclopedia, our English-speaking world needs all these things. When automobiles first came along, they seemed likely to become a rich man's monopoly. They cost upwards of £1,000. Henry Ford altered all that. He put the poor man on the road. We want a Henry Ford today to modernise the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours. Which might be the greatest power on earth for the consolidation of humanity and the establishing of an enduring creative Pax for all mankind. [World Brain, Appendix V]
Again, the internet has certainly lowered the bar of accessing All The Knowledge In The World well below £1,000. Not that it's brought about creative Pax for all mankind. But then one can't have everything.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Apropos of Dolores (1938)

Unusually for Wells, the first first edition of his 1938 novel Apropos of Dolores is the American one, published by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. There's its rather over-orange cover art.

The titular Dolores is an extremely unflattering pen-portrait of Odette Keun, whose nine-year relationship with Wells had ended acrimoniously in 1932-33. Keun, aggrieved at her treatment, had certainly not spared Wells in her post-break-up 1930s journalism; and Wells here, entertainingly if rather caddishly, hits back by portraying her as dangerously unhinged.

There's a reason the US edition came out first. Methuen initially agreed to publish the novel in England, but they had second thoughts when their editorial director, E V Lucas, who knew Keun personally, apprised the board she was exactly the sort of person likely to sue. Methuen solicited from Wells (or else Wells sent them, unsolicited) a letter declaring that Dolores had nothing to do with Keun, and he added a preface denying any resemblance to any person living or dead. But they still hesitated; and eventually Wells withdrew the novel from them. At this point, with the positive reactions to the American edition and the general buzz of publicity, Methuen decided they were ready to publish it after all. But it was too late. Wells had agreed terms with Jonathan Cape, whose British edition emerged at the end of the year. Here's the UK cover:


It is a good novel. Or at least, it is a good read: vivid and droll and, in its central pen-portrait, the compellingly ghastly-charismatic Dolores herself, very memorable indeed. The pages fly by, there's an intriguing central mystery, or ambiguity, and the final sections resist any too easy tying-up of loose ends. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing.

The narrator-protagonist is Stephen Wilbeck, a English publisher with distinguished war-service and one failed marriage (to Alice, who bore him a daughter and then fell in love with ‘the brooding presence of a tall stooping spectacled figure, George Hoopler’ [72]) under his belt. Wilbeck has inherited his publishing house of Bradfield, Clews and Wilbeck from his father, and has made an international success of it by running a series of educational titles under the collective moniker ‘The Way of the World’.

The novel is constituted from his journal entries, dated to 1934, during which time he has been married to Dolores for thirteen years. It starts with Wilbeck driving from Paris to Normandy, looking for a house he can rent for Dolores and himself. In these opening chapters there's a quantity of charming and vivid descriptive writing of the contryside and its people. Wilbeck ends up in a small town called Torquèstol where, after some false starts, he rents the sort of house Dolores would be prepared to occupy.

He also takes the opportunity to call on his friend Foxfield, who lives nearby and who ‘is writing a book for my firm upon the biology of insects’ [25]. The two men have a chat about happiness: whether insects and animals are capable of it, or its obverse, or whether true happiness requires an ability to live in time, with a remembered past and projected possible futures, that only human beings possess.

Then the story flashes back to Wilbeck's first meeting with the beautiful, half-Armenian, half-Scottish Dolores. On the rebound from his divorce, soon after the war, Wilbeck has an affair with her. She then hooks him into marriage by telling him she is pregnant. After he has done the decent thing, this pregnancy morphs into a cancer, and a great deal more melodramatic posturing, before devolving into non-specific pains that come-on when convenient for Dolores (the doctor he consults tells Wilbeck: ‘“Madame is of a highly nervous type.” He half closed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side’ [105]). They are, however, married now. Wilbeck has made his bed, and must lie in it.

We're about a third of the way through the novel at this point. The next third provides a series of vignettes of Dolores' often hilariously awful behaviour. Wilbeck has gotten into the habit of, if not taking the coward's way out, then at least tiptoing down the coward's side-staircase:
It must have been after four or five years of this sort of life that my disposition to get away from Dolores began to dominate my resolve to establish some sort of modus vivendi with her. It must have been round about nineteen twenty-six or twenty-seven that I began to scheme temporary escapes from her of a more elaborate sort than my little business trips of a fortnight or three weeks to London and Durthing. It was impossible for me to see people in Paris without her, but gradually I developed a private life of my own in London into which she did not enter.. [Apropos of Dolores, 120-21]
This doesn't help the relationship prosper: ‘the more I was away from her and rested from her, the more alien and uninteresting and uncongenial I found her on my return,’ Wilbeck. ‘Whatever else she did when I was away she certainly acquired no new ideas and no new tricks. She seemed to be becoming less lively and more implacably quarrelsome.’ [124]

The meat of the novel is what happens when Dolores (accompanied by her Pekinese, and Alphonse her blue-liveried and personally-objectionable manservant) joins Wilbeck in Torquèstol. ‘At first things did not go so badly. But after two or three days of amative intensity Dolores passed into her malignant phase’ [130]. There are various misadventures, and Wilbeck's life becomes increasingly unbearable. She treats everyone with contempt. Egged on by its mistress, the Pekinese mounts the well-bred lap-dog of an elderly bourgeois matron in a tea room. Dolores persecutes the servants for no good reason. She decides, on a whim, that a fellow diner in a restaurant is a leper and loudly refuses to share their space. She grows increasingly jealous, in increasingly improbable ways. She believes her husband is having an affair with his typist, then with every woman in London, then that he is ‘indulg[ing] for a change in homo-sexuality’ [158] (Wells's awkward little hyphen, there) and finally that he is having an incestuous affair with his own daughter (who is being raised by Alice, Wilbeck's first wife). She makes scenes. When Wilbeck warns that she ‘might go too far with me’ she retorts that, if he leaves her, ‘I would take such a revenge upon you. You think I am powerless ... No jury would convict me when they heard my story. It would be a tremendous trial.’ [146]

Just as you start to think that Wells's thumb is too obviously in the balance, and his portrait too one-dimensionally Cruella de Vil, he mixes it up. First we're given Dolores' own perspective. ‘I wonder why I love you,’ she tells her husband:
There you sit, solemn, dull, a bourgeois bookseller, English, male—as stupid as a bull. You are like a heavy unteachable boy. Your only merit is a sort of uncritical sense of obligation. Once I was one of the most brilliant women on the Riviera, accustomed to gentlemen—to men of title, to princes, to men of the world, to unquestioning gallantry. What am I now? What have you done to me? Everyone says that since our marriage I have become almost as dull as you are. You have robbed me of animation, of élan. [Apropos of Dolores, 190-91]
You see her point. We discover Dolores' ‘pains’ are no mere figments of her imagination; and indeed are so severe that she is incapable of going to sleep without a powerful analgesic sleeping draft called Semondyle. Wilbeck acknowledges he is as guilty of egoism, in his more repressed and English way, as his egoist wife. In a bravura passage the novel revisits its own opening chapters, and all the gay travelogue is reappraised as the shallow condescension of a fundamentally selfish and disengaged man:
I have been reading over the opening chapters of this manuscript, the part about the high road, the sunshine and Rennes and all that, and I remark how pleasantly he chuckles over and tickles and caresses every human being he meets as though he loved them. He observes their rather petty activities, how lovably petty they are, he weaves quaint belittling fancies round them, notes their human absurdities. He does not obtrude himself at all, but he remains from first to last in his private imagination floating over them like a kindly divinity. The sense of triumphant existence—at least of successful existence—is the end sought in both cases. He gets it more subtly and skilfully and successfully than Dolores, that is all the difference. He does not try to rend it out of these others, he steals away with it. And instead of screams, threats, dismissals and so on towards servants, he gets the upper hand of them by creating a sense of obligation. Is there really a passion for fair play in him? Or does he merely like the people about him to feel that he is fair and trustworthy? Does he care for them as people or minions? [Apropos of Dolores, 199]
‘In the scales of a real divinity sitting among the stars,’ he concludes ‘I doubt whether even on the score of ego-centredness the beam of the moral balance would kick against Dolores.’

The novel works to its climax. One evening Wilbeck discovers that Dolores has torn-up a photograph of Wilbeck's daughter in a jealous rage. He goes up to her room to confront her over this, but instead she rails at him, rebuking him with his many inadequacies as a husband, lover and man, insisting over and over that she hates him, promising to ruin his life, to make public that he is sleeping with his own daughter and otherwise to destroy his reputation. After many pages of this she stops suddenly, disconcerted by Wilbeck's reaction (‘She caught some new quality of menace in my stillness, and suddenly I saw she was afraid’).
She changed her expression to one of acute anguish. She clutched her side. ‘“My pain!” she cried. “My pain! Always you give me pain. I can’t bear it. Oo! Oooh! If only you had it. If only I could give you a taste of it. You give me black blood, you poison my blood. ... Give me some Semondyle, you brute. Don’t stand gloating there! You Sadist!” [Apropos of Dolores, 242]
He holds the cup containing the drug to her mouth and tips it for her to drink. In the morning she is dead. She has overdosed.

The question, of course, is whether Wilbeck murdered her. How much Semondyle did he give her? Did she get up on the night and dose herself with more? The novel has almost a hundred pages left at this point, and many of those pages are given over to Wilbeck agonising over the situation. He is both immensely relieved his wife has gone, and simultaneously surprised at how heartbroken he is at her absence. He misses her.

Did he poison her? He claims not to know. The official line is that she took an accidental overdose. Lonely in Torquèstol, Wilbeck invites his daughter Lettice to come and stay with him, but although he has romanticised the possibilities of this father-daughter reunion it is mostly an anticlimax. He tries to make conversation, and gets nowhere. He lectures her about the Normandy world, and she is uninterested. It is striking, in a novel published in 1938, to read so modern-sounding an account of what it is like trying to engage with what would not for a couple of decades yet be officially called a ‘teenager’.
Never in my life have I had to do with such a recessive conversationalist as Lettice. At any time when she is not actually being called upon for response, she seems to lapse into reverie. When she is talked to directly, she has a way of looking thoughtful and uttering a remarkably useful word, quite new to me, ‘Urm’. [Apropos of Dolores, 290]
After much effort he manages to extract from her that she has a boyfriend, that said boyfriend works ‘in a shipping office’, that he ‘adores’ her and that she ‘keeps him in his place’ [295].

Wilbeck develops a crush on a woman he sees at the Brittany seaside, but nothing comes of it—indeed, he never so much as learns her name. The book ends when Lettice goes home and Wilbeck heads off to Paris, a lonely widower. The ambiguity about Dolores' death is never resolved:
I have, I realize, no sorrow and no remorse whatever about the death of Dolores. It has an effect of being not so much a fact as the sudden removal of a fact. Even if my curious suspicion about that Semondyle is justified, still I have neither regret nor remorse. If I were to be put back to the moment ... and went along to the corridor to her, would I do it—if I did do it—again?’

I would.

Yes. Even if I did not do it then; now after reflection I should certainly do it quite deliberately. [Apropos of Dolores, 350]


‘This,’ says Wells in his preface to Apropos of Dolores, ‘is a story about happiness, and about loneliness of spirit, told in good faith.’ The novel's opening sentence is: ‘I find myself happy, and I have an impression I have been quite happy for two days’ [1]. This opening is pitched before Dolores' death, and its English ambiguity (is quite, here, a superlative, or a dialing-down qualifier?) is the whole point of the novel. Of course we're not surprised that a novel about being happy spends so much of its bulk on describing a state of intense, frustrated unhappiness. Only in dark, the light, as somebody once said. Quite apart from anything else, the corollary to that whole all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way thing is that stories can only be properly told about the latter group. Stories need drama and drama needs conflict and contentment doesn't supply enough of this last quality. Or so we are told.

Nonetheless, it is quite a striking thing just how far Wells goes down this counter-intuitive route of portraying happiness almost wholly in terms of misery. It reminds me, a little, of Fredric Jameson's thesis on the 21st-century vogue for dystopia—all these portraits of societal misery—are our fallen, late capitalist era's version of utopia, sketching the possibility of a perfected society by, like a photographic negative, exaggerating those elements that need to be reformed. As it we might say all happy families are only imaginable in art through the lens of each unhappy family.

And perhaps that's less counter-intuitive than I'm suggesting. After all, one of the things that tends to make us happy are our sex lives, and good sex can be sufficient to keep us in otherwise boring or malignant relations. Wells's novel addresses sex at length and in detail, and it's clear enough that sex was one of the things that tied Wells to Keun, even as she otherwise embarrassed, infuriated and exhausted him. I'd say that Apropos of Dolores handles this topic well, navigating the tricky waters of those restrictive 1930s cultural codes of sexual expression—the Chatterley trial is a quarter of a century in the future, after all—with some aplomb. Indeed, Wells manages to do something Lawrence himself never managed, to express how sexual desire and masculine sexual activity can be both wonderfully sustaining of one's self-esteem at the same time as laying bare one's foolishly preening self-regard.

For Lawrence male sexual desire is always an ennobling, darkly heroising thing. Wells knows better: a man in the grip of a sexual passion is, fundamentally, a ludicrous figure. ‘I thought at the time that this affair would be just an exotic version of various other kindred interludes in my bachelor life,’ says Wells's Wilbeck, when he first gets together with Dolores. ‘I had still to grasp the fact that Dolores was a remarkable as well as a conspicuous woman and that she had formed a swift but very tenacious resolution to devote her life to me or, to be more precise, to assimilate my life to herself. For me she was an adventure but for her I was an acquisition. It was only gradually I realized how thoroughly I was being embraced when I was being embraced.’ [92-3]
There are times when I find myself as amusing to watch as anybody or anything. I perceive a little chap who is still clinging to the assurance that he was something exceptional as a lover. It is nature’s way with us. Few men, I suspect, can resist that dear delusion that the commonest of God’s gifts is an outstanding distinction. Yet it is lavished upon the ordinary monkey far beyond our human portion. The facts of the case necessarily remain in a decent obscurity, but I think that in that particular respect my head was rather turned by Dolores. I was, I found for the first time in my life, a tremendous dog. I was a great fellow. I was an outstanding specialist. Casanova certainly wasn’t in it with me. ...

These are subtle matters. Even setting them down makes them glare atrociously. But they are a necessary part of the story. Perhaps if one could tint the paper of a book grey, deepening in tone until at last the text quivered on the verge of the absolutely illegible ...

A lot better than a line of stars. [Apropos of Dolores, 94-5]
That deepening grey tone is quite a clever mode of representing sexual congress by refusing the represent it. Better than waves on a beach or, as he says, than a line of asterisks. What it understands is that sexual explicitness is, in the erotic sense, absolutely a contradiction in terms. It can only have meaning in a biological or medical sense. Desire, beyond anything but the most trivial and superficial sense of the word, is always a form of obliquity. Usually, whatever our rationalisations, we don't actually comprehend why we desire so intensely (sometimes we don't even properly grasp what we desire intensely). Desire is not something that can be illuminated by the light of reason; it is, on the contrary, the sweetly monstrous manifestation of reason's sleep.

The point, I think, is not that Wilbeck's miserable life is relieved from time to time with bouts of good sex. It is a more radical, and more unsettling, idea: that genuinely good sex is only really possible with somebody who makes you miserable, or perhaps it would be closer to the point to say: you have the best sex with somebody you hate (even if only temporarily: after all, according to the popular prejudice, isn't it that case that make-up sex after a flaming row has a spice regular couplings lack?)

Wilbeck's abortive first marriage, to the nice English girl Alice, is doomed even before Alice falls for gloomy-faced George Hoopler. Alice's affair is a symptom, not the cause, of the break up. Respectable bourgeois she and her respectable bourgeois husband bore one another. The novel doesn't dilate upon Wilbeck's sex-life with Alice, but it doesn't have to. It produces Lettice, but it is otherwise inert, passionless, unexciting. The later episode with teenage Lettice coming to stay with her father and proving to be just as bland and ‘urm’ as her mother shows, I think, this unsexiness or anti-eroticism passing into the next generation. That's the English for you. And Dolores's unhinged intensity of living is not the price Wilbeck pays for a spiced-up sex-life, it is the very ground of his sexual satisfaction as such.

There's something insightful in this, even, perhaps, something that approaches profundity—not least because Wells is prepared to push this animosity all the way to its extremest iteration, with Wilbeck's did-he-didn't-he ‘murder’ of Dolores. That a sufficiently titanic sexual desire broaches murderousness is neither a rational not a very comfortable consideration, but perhaps that's the novel's point: happiness in the sense of desire is not correlative to rationality or comfort. You might take a work like Elvis Costello's ‘I Want You’ (1986), with its folding together of intense erotic affect and murderous impotence, as a portrait of aberrant desire. Or you might take it as the dark truth of desire as such. Apropos of Dolores, in effect, develops the latter line. We're entitled to disagree, but Wells might say: it's fine to settle for a cosy and combobulating version of sexual pleasure, the sorts of routine and habitual ‘happiness’ enjoyed by animals, of the kind Wilbeck discusses with Foxfield in the early sections of the novel. But, Wells is also saying, to settle for that is to miss a pleasure more intense, if more death-threaded, than is available to the beasts of the field.

Wells draws all this as a kind of moral from his nine-year relationship with Keun. In doing so he invokes a common enough stereotype: Northern European women may be fair, but they are chilly and unerotic; Latin women may be swarthy, but they are passionate, tempestuous and sexy as all get-out. Like all stereotypes it needs to be handled with extreme care and many, many pinches of salt, but it's hard to ignore it altogether, since it is quite widely believed. Keun herself was of mixed Dutch and Italian heritage, and grew up in Constantinople.

Many of the things Dolores does in this novel were lifted directly from life, and like Dolores Keun delighted in outraging and upsetting her lover: she talked loudly and coarsely of sex in front of Wells's most strait-laced and respectable dinner-guests, she threw constant tantrums, she made repeated impossible demands, she bullied the servants, she threatened and shouted and stormed.

Wells had written her into his fiction before, as Clementina in The World of William Clissold (1926), where he suggests that the problem was her particular blend of Northern European and Mediterranean heritages: ‘they make a sort of human Macedonia, a melange of hostile and incompatible districts in the soul. Clementina is in streaks beautifully logical and clear-headed, and in streaks incoherently but all too expressively passionate; she is acutely artistic and rigidly Philistine’ [William Clissold, 4:14]. In his autobiographical supplement, H G Wells in Love (published, according to Wells's instructions only posthumously, in 1984), written in the immediate aftermath of their stormy break-up, he is unforgiving: ‘she was crazy with vanity, with the cruelest vindictiveness if ever her vanity was bruised. Periodically she was mad, I think; certifiably mad. I did my best for her—though it was a clumsy best—as I realized this. I believed that if anyone could save her from ending in entire loneliness it was I. But as the evil in her grew stronger, I could endure her no more’ [H G Wells in Love, 117].

Vain, Mad, Evil: these are strong terms, and one effect of using them is to make the reader wonder: then why were you with her in the first place, mate? But the answer, evidently, is that the sex was amazing. And though the account in H G Wells in Love was written too close to the hurt of break-up to acknowledge this, Apropos of Dolores, written later and, evidently in cooler temper, is honest enough to acknowledge the ingredient X: Dolores is obviously fantastic in bed. Wilbeck's first warning that she is going too far is greeted by her outraged riposte ‘And this is the man I have held in my arms a thousand times!’ (‘Possibly more’, Welbeck concedes. ‘But all the same you may go too far’ [145]).

What's worrying is how racist Wells's conception is. Apropos of Dolores comes at the  mix-of-heredity point in a much more offensively orientalist and (though Dolores is not Jewish) anti-Semitic manner:
Ignoring her Scotch father I find myself inclined to call her ‘Oriental’, insist on the predominance of her Armenian genes and find analogies for her conduct in the known and alleged qualities of these acquisitive marketing people from the Near East. Who remember so precisely and abundantly and think so meanly. I admit—I have no grounds for the hypothesis—a considerable streak of something which I call in a pejorative sense ‘Jewish’ in her make-up. I mean nothing racial in that, I mean something simply and blankly prejudicial. I use these terms as loosely as anyone does, yet under this loose, unjustifiable terminology, I can almost persuade myself that I am groping towards a perceptible reality. [Apropos of Dolores, 212]
I mean nothing racial in that is a staggering sort of self-justification: Jew has become a free-floating signifier of monstrous otherness, a perceptible reality of, well, vanity, madness and evil? Really?

In his, I assume, unthinking way, what Wells is self-declaredly groping towards here is some kind of unpalatable understanding of the deadly interconnectedness of lust and hatred, of the necessity of othering one's sexual obsession. It's one of the themes of Howard Jacobson's oddly unsatisfying (though Booker-prize shortlisted) novel J (2014) that the murderous hatred society nurses for Jews, and which is only ever a few moments away from breaking out as a genocidal orgy of killing, is somehow also a twisted sexual desire for the Jew. When I read Jacobson's novel I found its thesis unconvincing; and in a similar vein I'm not sure I can get all my ducks in a row where Apropos of Dolores is concerned. Isn't this a simply false syllogism? ‘Sexual passion is irrational; murderous hatred is irrational; therefore sexual passion is a kind of murderous hatred’ ...? But perhaps that sells Wells's novel short. Perhaps it is saying something truer, that eros in its strongest manifestation is more darkly joyful, less life-affirming, less in-the-moment and altogether more human than most versions of it concede. Dolor and desire turn out to be versions of one another.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Goddard, Chaplin, Wells. 1935

This image is Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin and H G Wells at a dinner in LA in 1935. I can't strip out the "Associated Press" watermark I'm afraid (not without paying a large sum of money, that is).

I especially love the expression on the face of the waiter behind Wells. He looks like he's going to brain him.