Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Holy Terror (1939)




:1:

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.



:2:

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.


:3:



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.


:4:

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment