Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922)



Wells sailed to the USA to write-up the Washington Naval Conference on disarmament (12 November 1921 to 6 February 1922) as weekly reports for the New York World newspaper. The London Daily Mail also carried his pieces, or at least the first fourteen—they took exception to his criticism of the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, whom Wells judged a backslider on the question of international disarmament, and discontinued running the articles. I quote some of the things Wells wrote about Briand below. You'll be able to see why the Mail pulled their plug.

Eventually all twenty-nine of his reports were collected in one volume, called Washington and the Hope of Peace in its British edition and Washington and the Riddle of Peace in its American. Interesting distinction, don't you think? War-shattered Europe hopes, but for the more distantly engaged America peace is a riddle. But perhaps the two titles aren't so far apart. Hope is a riddle, after all; and riddles, by virtue of not containing their own answers, look to the future, and so are, even if only in some small way, hopeful.

The book, though, is a strange and rather unsatisfactory thing. Wells doesn't pretend fair or balanced reportage: he is using these essays as platforms to agitate for global disarmament and a World State, and has no interest in even trying to understand any contrary view. So, for instance: his repeated attacks on Briand. The French premier's disinclination to disband his nation's army and navy are, for Wells, evidence of sheer wickedness. France (a nation only a few short years earlier subjected to an unprovoked and four-year-long attempted invasion that killed five percent of its total, and ten percent of its adult male, population, 1.4 million men, leaving many more maimed and invalid) might be forgiven for wanting to retain some degree of defensive military capacity. But for Wells anything short of total disarmament is betrayal. Briand's fears of future aggression are  ‘alarmist’ [13] and ‘humbug’ [15]. Or, worse, they are deliberate distractions. If France be allowed to keep ‘her submarines and Senegalese’, Wells says, she would be in a position to ‘do as she pleased in Europe’ [17].  He accuses France of wanting ‘an awful army to over-awe Europe’ [12] and calls Briand ‘a warlike orator, empty and mischievous, leading France and all Europe to destruction’ [16].

It goes on. Wells refers several times to his frankly paranoid (and wholly evidence-free) theory that France is gearing up specifically to attack Britain: ‘France is maintaining a vast army in the face of a disarmed world and she is preparing energetically for fresh warlike operations in Europe and for war under sea against Great Britain’ [11]. You start to see why the Daily Mail asked him to tone it down and, when he refused, why they stopped publishing his reports. It can't have done any favours for Anglo-French diplomatic relations.

Otherwise the pieces themselves suffer from not being revised out of their chatty progress-report contingency (chapter 12 begins: ‘How are we getting on in Washington? The general mood is hopefulness tempered by congestion, mental and physical’) into something more formed and structured. There's a lot of day-to-day, and a fair amount of repetition between sections, although from time to time Wells does dilate upon ideas. After Wells attends the ceremony dedicating the Tomb to the Unknown American Soldier, he ponders the generic human unknown soldier:
A time will come when these vast personifications of conflict, the Unknown British Soldier, the Unknown American Soldier, the Unknown French Soldier, etc., will merge into the thought of a still greater personality, the embodiment of 20,000,000 separate bodies and of many million broken lives, the Unknown Soldier of the great war ... We could average figures and estimates that would fix such matters within a very narrow range of uncertainty. In race and complexion, I suppose he would be mainly North European; North Russian, German, Frankish, North Italian, British and American elements would all have the same trend toward a tallish, fairish, possibly blue-eyed type; but also there would be a strong Mediterranean streak in him, Indian and Turkish elements, a fraction of Mongolian and an infusion of African blood—brought in not only through the American colored troops but by the free use by the French of their Senegalese.

None of these factors would be strong enough to prevent his being mainly Northern and much the same mixture altogether as the American citizen of 1950 is likely to be. He would be a white man with a touch of Asia and a touch of color. [4]
This, I think, blurs the line between simple fact (that the large majority of military casualties in WWI were White Europeans) and something far more dubious, an unemphatic racism that sees non-White races as barbaric and to-be-controlled, and tacitly places the levers of the World State in white hands. In another of his many francophobic outbursts, Wells insists that France ‘is training great masses of barbaric Senegalese for war, with the view of using them to police white populations and sustain their millennium in Europe. They can have no other use now’ [10]. Indeed, he is not sure whether France itself might not come under control of ‘a black Pretorian Guard ... French-speaking and ultra-patriotic, keeping French Socialists and pacifists and Bolsheviks in their proper place’. [15].

I'm not suggesting that Wells is straightforwardly or crudely racist. He is proud of his friendship with Booker T Washington and insists that ‘educated, highly intelligent colored people’ win his ‘interest and sympathy’ (‘I cannot get up any race feeling about them’). But at the same time he insists ‘Negro Africa is mainly still in a state of tribal barbarism’ [15] and must be governed by Whites, for the benefit of everyone, for the foreseeable future.

Where the Pacific rim is concerned he's a little more nuanced. He concedes that Japan is now a world power, adding ‘our Western world, I am convinced, can work with the Japanese and understand and trust them’ [18] (‘the idea of them as of a people insanely patriotic, patriotically subtle and treacherous, mysterious and mentally inaccessible has been largely dispelled. I myself have tried that view over in my mind and dismissed it’). Japan, he says, should join Britain, America and some other major countries as ‘participating’ members of what he here calls ‘the Association of Nations’, with all other countries being granted ‘non-participating’ status, a kind of observer partnership. But he is optimistic: ‘I think first of a recovered Russia and then of a unified and educated China and a freed and reconstructed India and of many other states which can claim to be of a civilized quality, such as Egypt, gradually winning their way from a non-participating to a participating level’ [18].

He's prescient about the way advances in aerial warfare will bring destruction raining down upon civilian populations as well as the military, and even manages an ahead-of-its-time jab in at the idiocy of Mutually Assured Destruction (‘the citizen of Los Angeles, as he blew to pieces, or coughed up his lungs and choked to death or was crushed under the falling, burning buildings, could at least console himself by the thought that America was so thoroughly prepared that his fellow man in Tokio was certainly getting it worse’ [21]). But there's something flimsily unrealistic, in the end, about his dreaming. His hopefulness cracks its head against the granite impediment of human nature.
Think of a morning when the newspaper has mainly good news, of things discovered, of fine things done; think of the common day of a common citizen in a world where debt is no longer a universal burthen, where there is constant progress and no retrogression, where it is the normal thing to walk out of a beautiful house into a clean and splendid street, to pass and meet happy and interesting adults instead of aged children obsessed by neglected spites and jealousies and mean anxieties, to go to some honorable occupation that helps the world forward to a still greater and finer life. You may say that a world may be prosperous and men and women healthy and free and yet there will still be spites and jealousies and all the bitterness of disputation, but that is no more true than that there will still be toothache. A mind educated and cared for, quite as well as a body, can be healed and kept clean and sweet and free from these maddening humiliations and suppressions that now fester in so many souls. There is no real necessity about either physical or mental miserableness in human life. Given, that is, a sufficient release of human energy to bring a proper care within the reach of all.

This is not idle prophecy, this is no dream. Such a world is ours today if we could but turn the minds of men to realize that it is here for the having. [29]
‘... if we could but turn the minds of men ...’ Yeah. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)


From the hindsight of 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells judged that the prodigious success of The Outline of History (1920) completely eclipsed him as a novelist so far as the reading public was concerned. I think he overstates things, although there's probably a germ of truth in his self-assessment. And here is The Secret Places of the Heart: the first work of fiction he published after the enormous commercial and reputational success of his History, and it's fair to say a novel wholly forgotten today. I, for one, had not so much as heard the title, let alone read it, before cracking the covers for this read-through.

It is, in essence, a road-trip novel. Sir Richmond Hardy, a government bigwig and head of The Fuel Commission, is close to a nervous breakdown, partly because of the strain of his job and the pressures of reconstruction, partly a delayed reaction to the horrors of the war, but mostly because of the stresses of his love life. Hardy is married to the watery Lady Hardy, but has not been faithful to her. He comes, with some reluctance, to the offices of a Harley Street doctor, the dapper little Dr. Martineau. ‘Face the accepted facts,’ admonishes the doctor:
‘Here is a creature not ten thousand generations from the ape, his ancestor. Not ten thousand. And that ape again, not a score of thousands from the monkey, his forebear. A man’s body, his bodily powers, are just the body and powers of an ape, a little improved, a little adapted to novel needs. That brings me to my point. Can his mind and will be anything better? For a few generations, a few hundreds at most, knowledge and wide thought have flared out on the darknesses of life.... But the substance of man is ape still. He may carry a light in his brain, but his instincts move in the darkness. Out of that darkness he draws his motives.’ [Secret Places, 1.4; ellipsis in original]
Dr Martineau dilates upon this idea, a version of the subconscious closer to the Jungian species-memory than the Freudian personal cellar (though in the novel neither figure is name-checked):
‘You are like someone who awakens out of an immemorial sleep to find himself in a vast chamber, in a great and ancient house, a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe. You are not alone in it. You are not lord of all you survey. Your leadership is disputed. The darkness even of the room you are in is full of ancient and discarded but quite unsubjugated powers and purposes. They thrust ambiguous limbs and claws suddenly out of the darkness into the light of your attention. They snatch things out of your hand, they trip your feet and jog your elbow. They crowd and cluster behind you. Wherever your shadow falls, they creep right up to you, creep upon you and struggle to take possession of you. The souls of apes, monkeys, reptiles and creeping things haunt the passages and attics and cellars of this living house in which your consciousness has awakened’ [1.4]
At the doctor's suggestion, the two men agree to take a three-week holiday together to get to the bottom of Sir Richmond's problems. They drive first to Maidenhead in Hardy's car. It breaks down at Taplow and, unable to restart it, Hardy resorts to beating the dumb machine with a Basil Fawlty-esque fury. Whilst they wait for the R.A.C man to tow them the rest of the way Hardy expatiates to Martineau on the closeness of anger to the human essence: ‘“Isn’t that after all what we really are?” he asked the doctor. “Essentially—Rage. A rage in dead matter, making it alive.”’ [3.2] He's presumably excusing his behaviour in smashing the car's bonnet with a hammer; but that doesn't mean we have to find his exculpation convincing.

In Maidenhead the two book into a hotel and begin the business of attempting to excvate the subterranean spaces of the Hardy's neuroses. As we might expect, sex proves to be the nub of the matter. Hardy talks the doctor through his vie sexuellle: his first erotic attachment as a boy to ‘Britannia as depicted by Tenniel in the cartoons in Punch’ [4.2]; then a young girl in a bathing costume seen on the beach at Dymchurch one day and never seen since (‘my first human love. And I love that girl still. I doubt sometimes whether I have ever loved anyone else’). Hardy married ‘a wonderfully intelligent and understanding woman’ who ‘has made a home for me—a delightful home ... I owe my home and all the comfort and dignity of my life to her ability’. They had three children and Hardy built a glittering career. But he has not known sexual satisfaction: ‘all the time, I’ve been—about women—like a thirsty beast looking for water ... I was unfaithful to my wife within four years of my marriage.’ Since then he has been a philanderer: ‘all the time, hidden away from the public eye, my life has been laced by the thread of these—what can one call them?—love adventures’ [4.3.] The rest of the novel is, really, Hardy trying to work out why he is like this.

It's Wells, of course: wife Jane the expert homemaker, Wells himself off philandering like a thirsty beast looking for water. Hardy's specific troubles are connected to the fact that a breach has occurred between him and his current mistress, the novel's Rebecca West, with whom he has a son. This individual is a cartoonist for the newspapers, her art ‘a peculiar sort of humorous illustrations’ of ‘considerable genius’ [5.2], who works under the name Martin Leeds (the novel doesn't disclose her actual name). As with Wells and West, Hardy and this Miss Martin Leeds are in the grip of mutual sexual fascination despite the fact that ‘they jarred upon and annoyed each other extremely’ [5.3].

Once Hardy's car is repaired the two men motor west, staying first at Avebury and then visiting Stonehenge where they discuss the vanished civilisation that raised the monumental circle. In case we miss the point of the digression Wells knocks it home (‘“Archaeology is very like remembering,” said Sir Richmond’ [5.4]). At Stonehenge they pick-up two young American tourists, ‘V.V.’ Grammont and Belinda Seyffert—Grammont is based on the birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, with whom, in real life, Wells had an affair—and the four of them drive on to Salisbury together. When it becomes unmistakable that Hardy is planning a relationship with the free-spirited Miss Grammont, Dr Martineau (a more sexually conventional man) bails on their road-trip, and takes the train to Bournemouth to stay with friends. Pretty soon Hardy is smitten with V.V.: ‘I am head over heels in love with her. I have never been so much in love or so truly in love with anyone before’ [7:10]. It is a passion Grammont reciprocates. They have sex on a hill overlooking the moonlit ruins of Tintern Abbey (of all places). Meanwhile, Grammont's father and her fiancé are travelling to England, from different directions, to put an end to her gallivanting.

After the flush of consummation, Hardy changes his mind. He decides that, after all, he loves Martin Leeds and wants to return to her. By way of breaking things off, he urges Grammont to ‘sublimate’ their affair: ‘put this relationship upon a Higher Plane’ [8.2.]. She's not happy about this, but there's nothing she can do, so he takes her to Falmouth, where her father is disembarking, and they part forever.

Back in London Hardy discovers a new vigour. He dominates the Fuel Commission by sheer force of personality. And then, abruptly, Wells kills him off, of pneumonia. His widow thanks Doctor Martineau for the trip the two men had taken (‘“That holiday did him a world of good,” she said. “He came back to his work like a giant. I feel very grateful to you”’ [9.1]). Dead, though, as a door-nail.

The novel's final scene involves Miss Martin Leeds outing herself to Hardy's widow as her late husband's mistress, and asking permission to see his body one last time. Lady Hardy allows this: and Leeds, accompanied by Dr Martineau, is let into the drawing room where the coffin is.
“But all my days now I shall mourn for him and long for him....”

She turned back to the coffin. Suddenly she lost every vestige of self-control. She sank down on her knees beside the trestle. “Why have you left me!” she cried.

“Oh! Speak to me, my darling! Speak to me, I tell you! Speak to me!”

It was a storm of passion, monstrously childish and dreadful. She beat her hands upon the coffin. She wept loudly and fiercely as a child does....

Dr. Martineau drifted feebly to the window. [Secret Places, 9.8; ellipses in original]
Martineau is mostly worried that ‘the servants might hear and wonder what it was all about’. The last line of the novel is: ‘Always he had feared love for the cruel thing it was, but now it seemed to him for the first time that he realized its monstrous cruelty’ [9.8]

Contemporaries weren't quite sure what to make of all this. The characters ‘conceal nothing either very sacred, very subtle, or even very interesting’ complained the English Journal. ‘Who cares about the secret places of the heart of Sir Richmond Hardy, the chairman of the fuel commission, the egotistical husband, the libertine?’ [English Journal, 11:8 (Oct 1922), 522]. This review calls the story ‘cold’, and thinks Wells ‘a cold writer’, which touches on something true of this novel, I think. From its moonlight lovemaking to its relentless intellectualising of erotic desire, even unto the psychiatrist's rather Lovecraftian vision of modern humanity waking from its animal heritage to find itself in ‘a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe’ [1.4] (quoted above), this is a novel about illicit sexual passion that tropes it as, in some core sense, chilly.

It's a counter-intuitive move, but an aesthetically interesting one. Counter-intuitive not only because actual sex, what with its shared body-heat, frottage and so on, tends to be actually warm (as of course it does); but because the new-for-the-1920s sexual frankness of writers like D H Lawrence tended to talk about sex as heat, a ‘hot’ liberating escape from intellectual life: ‘I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart,’ is how Mellors puts it in 1928, as he and Lady Chatterley make love before a roaring fire. ‘I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come all right. It's all the cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy.’ But there is something strangely cold-hearted about the various sexual infidelities of The Secret Places of the Heart. Hardy seduces V.V. with his coolly intellectual conversation, makes love to her outside by moonlight, and immediately afterwards freezes her out: even his rages, as when he smashes up his own car, are a mode of cold fury. It's not coincidental I think that it is a cold that kills him in the end: ‘he had worked to the pitch of exhaustion. He neglected a cold that settled on his chest’ [9.1]

Wells in this novel marks the distance between the warm bestial sex-past and the cooler, more intellectual sex-present. He, or his avatar Hardy, can't just let himself go, sexually speaking. His kink (as it were) is not just the excitement of extramarital sex, it is extramarital sex with an intellectual equal. Secret Places reads like Wells trying to work through, to his own satisfaction, why he is so drawn to this particular sort of interaction. Now, some of this veers a little clumsily towards self-exculpatory mendacity of the we-artists-just-need-to-shag-a-lot-alright sort (‘was it really true that the companionship of women was necessary to these energetic creative types? Was it the fact that the drive of life towards action, as distinguished from contemplation, arose out of sex and needed to be refreshed by the reiteration of that motive?’ [4.6] and so on). But I think the, if you'll excuse the phrase, main thrust of the novel isn't actually persuaded by that. This cold rebellion of his own will against his ageing libido puzzles the mature Wells, and he's trying to get of the bottom of it.

David Y. Hughes notes that ‘the paradigmatic act of Wells's personal life is sexual revolt’ and then quotes Robert P. Weeks to the effect that ‘Wells's fiction presents us with a unified world that limits its inhabitants, provokes their rebellion, and then frustrates their flight’, adding shrewdly: ‘illicit sex makes entanglement; the escape becomes the trap; each affair fuels the next ... even the ever-patient Amy Catherine [Jane Wells] had complicity not just by tolerating the affairs but by the act of having eloped with Wells from his first wife’ [Hughes, ‘Desperately Mortal’, Science Fiction Studies 14:3 (1987), 393-94]. Wells's fantasy is a short-circuit, sex as escape from entanglement that is itself entanglement. In Secret Places Hardy begins to cool on his ardour for V.V. the very next morning after their moonlit tryst. Wells's previous novels about extramarital sex had largely concerned themselves with practical consequences and with human jealousy. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells summarises The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) as a work in which ‘I was thinking not so much of the problem of jealousy, as of love-making considered as a source of waste of energy’, so perhaps the way to think of all this is as a realisation of the entropic nature of sexual energy. H G wasn't getting any younger, after all.

In the final analysis Secret Places isn't a very satisfying novel. Wells worries away at his problem, but the images that most stand out in this text are of all human passions and vital drives as, in effect, black boxes, malfunctioning or stopping altogether but for wholly mysterious reasons. The novel gives the impression of having been made out of a series of loosely assembled conversations on various topics stitched together with some travel-writerish observations on the English southlands; but actually I see fingerprints of Wells the Conscious Artist in the way the whole is disposed. In particular I'm struck by what I take to be the deliberate parallel between the scene at the beginning, where Hardy (Wells) beats his unresponsive automobile, denting the bonnet and cracking the windshield—and the scene at the end where Miss Martin Leeds (Rebecca West) beats her fists on the coffin containing the unresponsive body of her lover. Mysterious containers, hiding the death of drive. Hearts that hold their secrets to the end. And in between, the deadlands of the past, marked only by the huge pagan ruins of Avebury and Stonehenge, or the newer Catholic ruins of Tintern Abbey. Death is the mystery inside this novel's secret places, I fear.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Salvaging of Civilization: the Probable Future of Mankind (1921)



Probable. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, yes: yet another collection of previously published Wellsian journalism (apart from chapter 2, which was written originally as a lecture to be delivered in America, and the Envoy, which is new), all on the topic of the future World State, how it is definitely coming, and how it will make everything in the garden rosy.



The chapter-titles on the contents page gives the drift of the argument:
Chapter I. The Probable Future of Mankind
Chapter II. The Project of a World State
Chapter III. The Enlargement of Patriotism to a World State
Chapter IV. The Bible of Civilization, Part I
Chapter V. The Bible of Civilization, Part II
Chapter VI. The Schooling of the World
Chapter VII. College, Newspaper and Book
Chapter VIII. The Envoy
The main thesis is one Wells has advanced many times: war has become so destructive that we must either put an end to war, or face species death.
The next well-organized war, we are assured, will be far more swift and extensive in its destruction—more particularly of the civilian population. Armies will advance no longer along roads but extended in line, with heavy tank transport which will plough up the entire surface of the land they traverse; aerial bombing, with bombs each capable of destroying a small town, will be practicable a thousand miles beyond the military front, and the seas will be swept clear of shipping by mines and submarine activities. There will be no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, because every able-bodied citizen, male or female, is a potential producer of food and munitions; and probably the safest, and certainly the best supplied shelters in the universal cataclysm, will be the carefully buried, sandbagged, and camouflaged general-headquarters of the contending armies. There military gentlemen of limited outlook and high professional training will, in comparative security, achieve destruction beyond their understanding. The hard logic of war which gives victory always to the most energetic and destructive combatant, will turn warfare more and more from mere operations for loot or conquest or predominance into operations for the conclusive destruction of the antagonists. A relentless thrust towards strenuousness is a characteristic of belligerent conditions. War is war, and vehemence is in its nature. You must hit always as hard as you can. Offensive and counter-offensive methods continue to prevail over merely defensive ones. The victor in the next great war will be bombed from the air, starved, and depleted almost as much as the loser. His victory will be no easy one; it will be a triumph of the exhausted and dying over the dead. [Salvaging, 8-9]
You can see why Wells thought this, and he wasn't alone in thinking it. But he wasn't right, either. We as a species did survive 1939-1945, after all. Still, believing this, Wells urges radical global changes upon us all. It must be a world state, collective ownership of wealth and resources, and a comprehensive drive to educate the whole population of the planet. Wells's disillusionment with the League of Nations has now bedded-in:
Because a world-wide political organ is needed, it does not follow that a so-called League of Nations without representative sanctions, military forces, or authority of any kind, a League from which large sections of the world are excluded altogether, is any contribution to that need. People have a way of saying it is better than nothing. But it may be worse than nothing. It may create a feeling of disillusionment about world-unifying efforts. If a mad elephant were loose in one's garden, it would be an excellent thing to give one's gardener a gun. But it would have to be an adequate gun, an elephant gun. To give him a small rook-rifle and tell him it was better than nothing, and encourage him to face the elephant with that in his hand, would be the directest way of getting rid not of the elephant but of the gardener. [Salvaging, 13]
Poor old Percy Thrower!

The logic here is a Wellsian ‘wars happen between nations; do away with nations and there will be no war’ syllogism (he repeatedly insists on ‘the plain necessity for a political reorganization of the world as a unity to save our race from the social disintegration and complete physical destruction which war, under modern conditions, must ultimately entail’ [21]). It seems to me that what the creation of a World State would actually do is convert all wars into civil wars; but Wells won't entertain that notion.

The task, he thinks, is to change human nature. ‘The spread of Christianity in the first four centuries A.D. or of the spread of Islam in the seventh century will, we believe, support a reasonable hope that such a change in the minds of men, whatever else it may be, is a practicable change’ [23].
So far it is only the trader who has made any effectual use of the vast facilities the modern world has produced for conveying a statement simultaneously to great numbers of people at a distance. The world of thought still hesitates to use the means of power that now exist for it. History and political philosophy in the modern world are like bashful dons at a dinner party; they crumble their bread and talk in undertones and clever allusions to their nearest neighbour, abashed at the thought of addressing the whole table. But in a world where Mars can reach out in a single night and smite a city a thousand miles away, we cannot suffer wisdom to hesitate in an inaudible gentility. The knowledge and vision that is good enough for the best of us is good enough for all. [Salvaging, 24]
If I look at what our present web-based global intwitterconnectedness has brought us I do not think our problem is that we're suffering from an excess of gentility.
I want to say that this civilization in which we are living is tumbling down, and I think tumbling down very fast; that I think rapid enormous efforts will be needed to save it; and that I see no such efforts being made at the present time. I do not know if these words convey any concrete ideas to the reader's mind. [Salvaging, 43-44]
To me they convey that you're comprehensively underestimating human civilisation's resilience, Bertie. But OK.
If we had the resources of the cinema it would be interesting to show a map of North America year by year from 1600 onward, with little dots to represent hundreds of people, each dot a hundred, and stars to represent cities of a hundred thousand people. For two hundred years you would see that stippling creeping slowly along the coastal districts and navigable waters, spreading still more gradually into Indiana, Kentucky, and so forth. Then somewhere about 1810 would come a change. Things would get more lively along the river courses. The dots would be multiplying and spreading. That would be the steamboat. The pioneer dots would be spreading soon from a number of jumping-off places along the great rivers over Kansas and Nebraska. Then from about 1830 onward would come the black lines of the railways, and after that the little black dots would not simply creep but run. [49-50]
I can go one better and show you dots animated globally (from 0.58 in the video). What it shows is that it's resources and access to food that count, long-term; not networks of travel. But that's probably a question of the timescales we are interested in.

Wells thinks patriotism is a necessary human thing (‘ do not think we want to get rid of patriotism, and I do not think we could, even if we wanted to do so. It seems to be necessary to his moral life, that a man should feel himself part of a community, belonging to it, and it belonging to him’). He also believes that patriotic attachment to the larger unit always trumps patriotic attachment to the smaller. As evidence for this curious belief he instances America, where, he says, Kentuckians are always Americans first and Kentuckians only second.
Suppose, for instance, there was a serious outbreak of local patriotism in Kentucky. Suppose you found the people of Kentucky starting a flag of their own and objecting to what they would probably call the ‘vague internationalism’ of the stars and stripes. Suppose you found them wanting to set up tariff barriers to the trade of the states round about them. Suppose you found they were preparing to annex considerable parts of the state of Virginia by force, in order to secure a proper strategic frontier among the mountains to the east, and that they were also talking darkly of their need for an outlet to the sea of their very own.

What would an American citizen think of such an outbreak? He would probably think that Kentucky had gone mad. But this, which seems such fantastic behaviour when we imagine it occurring in Kentucky, is exactly what is happening in Europe in the case of little states that are hardly any larger than Kentucky. They have always been so. They have not gone mad; if this sort of thing is madness then they were born mad. And they have never been cured. A state of affairs that is regarded in Europe as normal would be regarded in the United States as a grave case of local mental trouble. [70-71]
Yes indeed: there never has been and never could be such a thing as a civil war in America.
For the idea of Man, for human unity, for our common blood, for the one order of the world, I can imagine men living and dying, but not for a miscellaneous assembly that will not mix... The idea of the World State stands to the idea of the League of Nations much as the idea of the one God of Earth and Heaven stands to a Divine Committee composed of Wodin and Baal and Jupiter and Amon Ra and Mumbo Jumbo and all the other national and tribal gods. [76-77]
Yes indeed: there's no chance believers in One God (let's call them ‘Catholics’) would ever go to war with or perpetrate violence upon other believers in One God (let's call them ‘Protestants’, 'Muslims', ‘Jews’ ...)—or ... you know what? Maybe sarcasm isn't the best way of reacting to this book. So let's look instead at Wells's practical proposals:
And what will be the chief organs and organizations and works and methods with which this Council of the World State will be concerned?

There will be a Supreme Court determining not International Law, but World Law. There will be a growing Code of World Law.

There will be a world currency.

There will be a ministry of posts, transport and communications generally.

There will be a ministry of trade in staple products and for the conservation and development of the natural resources of the earth.

There will be a ministry of social and labour conditions.

There will be a ministry of world health.

There will be a ministry, the most important ministry of all, watching and supplementing national educational work and taking up the care and stimulation of backward communities.

And instead of a War Office and Naval and Military departments, there will be a Peace Ministry studying the belligerent possibilities of every new invention, watching for armed disturbances everywhere, and having complete control of every armed force that remains in the world. All these world ministries will be working in co-operation with local authorities who will apply world-wide general principles to local conditions.

These items probably comprehend everything that the government of a World State would have to do. [86-87]
So: the removal of all borders and the enforcement of a single currency would advantage those portions of the globe already wealthy against those that are poor, which would bed-in inequalities of opportunity and ownership. But perhaps a couple of generations of proper education, and the careful intervention of those various itemised ministries, would even things out eventually. The economic upheaval worries me less, actually, than the bald fact that whoever has control of this ‘Peace Ministry’ would aggregate into their hands more power than anybody else in the entire history of the globe. Wells is a Canute in the face of the tidal encroachment that power always corrupts. Checks? Balances? No need for them, it seems; or perhaps H.G. considers such items pettifogging details to be ironed out at a later stage. They're not, though: checks and balances, and copper-bottomed means by which people with power can be gotten rid of if (when) the need arises, should be central features of a project such as this.

I am sniping, I know. Wells's heart is in the right place, I suppose. But he seems wilful in the persistence with which he simply refuses to notice the most obvious possible flaws in his programme, a Nelson deliberately and repeatedly putting the telescope to his blank eye. Salvaging concludes with a lengthy discussion of Comenius's ideas for universal education and a universal ‘book’ of knowledge that everyone may consult and which will therefore put an end to dissension over what to do or what to believe. ‘You may say,’ Wells interjects, ‘that no such book exists—which is perfectly true—and that no such book could be written. But there I think you underrate the capacity of our English-speaking people’ [107]. But I don't say that no such book could be written. I say that having such a book will not put an end to human disagreement and dissension, yea verily, even unto the electing-idiots-to-the-White-House and making-war-upon-one-another thereof. Presenting people with facts does not stop them interpreting facts in ideologically overdetermined and belligerent ways.

Wells concludes with a series of chapters on how education will be conducted in the new regime, and here he is, I have to say, bizarrely overconfident about the possibilities of film. Education, he says, will be ‘revolutionized by the cinematograph’ [161]. Teachers will be made redundant at a stroke: simply get the ‘best and most dexterous teacher in the world’ to teach the lesson in front of a camera! Every subject and all education needs are thereby satisfied, ‘performed once for all—before a cinematograph. They can be done finally; they need never be done again’ [162]. This is such a bonkers idea it makes me wonder what Wells was doing all those years he was reading and researching on pedagogic and androgogic theory and practice. Not for the first time, Wells's prophesies are not so much falsified by subsequent events (although, you know: they are) as stymied by their own strange blindspots and limitations. Wells had one of the great speculative imaginations of his age: why did it fail him in this big matter?

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Russia in the Shadows (1921)



:1:

Wells went thrice to Russia: visiting for twelve days in 1914, two weeks in 1920 and eleven days in 1934. Russia in the Shadows is the book he wrote about that second trip. His son George, ‘Gip’ as he was known, travelled with him. The lad had just turned 19, and had studied Russian at Oundle School (this, it seems, was the first British school ever to teach the language, and Gip's year the first to be given the opportunity). He was fluent enough to act as interpreter.

They went to Petrograd (not yet named Leningrad) and then on to Moscow, and Wells writes about everything he sees. The highlight of the visit was, and the climax of this little book is, an interview with Lenin himself. The official invitation for Wells to visit had come from Lev Kamenev, Chair of the ruling Politburo, but the original idea had likely been Lenin's. Presumably Vladimir Ilyich appreciated the propaganda value of having one of the world's most popular and widely-read authors write-up the new country. Not that Lenin was a particular fan of Wells. Despite being fluent in English (he had taught himself the language in order to be able to translate English socialist writers into Russian), he told Claire Sheridan that he'd only read one Wells novels: Joan and Peter, oddly enough. Wells was no Marxist, and certainly no Leninist (after their conversation Lenin told Trotsky he was ‘an unreconstructed bourgeois’, which is spot on, I'd say) but given Wells's socialist/collectivist views, and considering the enormous popularity of his war journalism, Britling and the Outline of History, it was as much a coup for Lenin to get Wells as it was for Wells to meet Lenin. Gip took pictures, eight pages of which were included in the volume.


Before going, Wells had contracted to write his travels up for the Sunday Express (the fee was £1000, and he agreed not to write any other articles or give any interviews until the Express pieces had appeared.) In the event wrote five articles, and these were fixed-up, with an all-new final chapter, into Russia in the Shadows—the first edition says 1920 on the title page, but was in fact published January 1921. Here's the verso of the American edition's dust jacket:


The book caused quite a fuss. Though it portrays a country desolated by war and on the brink of collapsing into anarchy, Wells says sympathetic things about the aims of the Bolsheviks, and is genuinely impressed by Lenin. That outraged some in Britain and America. Winston Churchill published an attack-dog article in the Express under the toothsome title ‘This Frightful Catastrophe: Mr Wells and Bolshevism’ (5th Dec 1920) mocking Wells's account as superficial and asking him whether he thought ‘cancer could repent?’ Wells's reply (‘Mr Wells Hits Back—Rejoinder to Mr Churchill's Criticism’ 12 and 19 Dec 1920) is worth quoting at length:
Although I am an older man than Mr Churchill and have spent most of my time watching and thinking about a world in which he has been rushing about vehemently from one superficial excitement to another, he has the impudence to twit me with superficiality. ... He believes quite naively that he belongs to a peculiarly gifted and privileged class of beings to whom the lives and affairs of common men are given over, the raw material for brilliant careers. It seems to him an act of insolence that a common man like myself should form judgments upon matters of statescraft. He is the running sore of waste in our Government ... He has smeared his vision with human blood, and we are implicated in the things he abets. He does not stand alone. This vision of his, grotesque and distorted though it may be, is no more and no less contemptible than some misshapen idol esteemed by the tribe, to which we may presently see our children sacrificed.
That's the stuff!


:2:

Russia in the Shadows launches straight into its main theme:
Our dominant impression of things Russian is an impression of a vast irreparable breakdown. The great monarchy that was here in 1914, the administrative, social, financial, and commercial systems connected with it have, under the strains of six years of incessant war, fallen down and smashed utterly. Never in all history has there been so great a débâcle before. The fact of the Revolution is, to our minds, altogether dwarfed by the fact of this downfall. By its own inherent rottenness and by the thrusts and strains of aggressive imperialism the Russian part of the old civilised world that existed before 1914 fell, and is now gone. The peasant, who was the base of the old pyramid, remains upon the land, living very much as he has always lived. Everything else is broken down, or is breaking down. Amid this vast disorganisation an emergency Government, supported by a disciplined party of perhaps 150,000 adherents—the Communist Party—has taken control. It has—at the price of much shooting—suppressed brigandage, established a sort of order and security in the exhausted towns, and set up a crude rationing system.

It is, I would say at once, the only possible Government in Russia at the present time. It is the only idea, it supplies the only solidarity, left in Russia. But it is a secondary fact. The dominant fact for the Western reader, the threatening and disconcerting fact, is that a social and economic system very like our own and intimately connected with our own has crashed. [Russia, 1]
The book is a fascinating historical document, certainly: but for me it's in this ‘poetics of ruin’ that the writing really hits home, partly for its moments of desolate beauty, and partly because Wells several times seems to be speaking with uncanny prescience to 21st-century realities. What price the internet-only shopping world? ‘One realises that a modern city is really nothing but long alleys of shops and restaurants and the like. Shut them up, and the meaning of a street has disappeared.’ Too right.

The rationing, the broken infrastructure, dysfunctional hospitals, people bootless and ragged, the looting of public buildings and art galleries (though not, Wells says, of theatres: Russians respect the theatre too profoundly to loot it) is all vividly described. ‘Ruin; that is the primary Russian fact at the present time,’ Wells insists. ‘The revolution, the Communist rule is quite secondary to that. It is something that has happened in the ruin and because of the ruin.’

It's good that the physical descriptions of Russia are so well done, because on the level of ideas Russia in the Shadows is a depressing congeries of intellectual and political philistinism:
It will be best if I write about Marx without any hypocritical deference. I have always regarded him as a Bore of the extremest sort. His vast unfinished work, Das Kapital, a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, a book for ever maundering away into tedious secondary discussions, impresses me as a monument of pretentious pedantry. ... When I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constituted the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows. [Russia, 3]
The humour is leaden, a kind of Peter Hitchens avant la lettre:
Wherever we went we encountered busts, portraits, and statues of Marx. About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn woolly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind. I found the omnipresent images of that beard more and more irritating. A gnawing desire grew upon me to see Karl Marx shaved. Some day, if I am spared, I will take up shears and a razor against Das Kapital; I will write The Shaving of Karl Marx. [Russia, 3]
This jovially-chuckling refusal to grant that there even is such a thing as ‘Marxism’ of course blinds Wells to what is happening around him. He believes Russia is about to tumble into the abyss; his refusal to take Marxism seriously means he simply can't see that it will go on to build a superpower out of these ruins. The most he will concede is that the Bolsheviks he meets seem determined: ‘albeit numbering less than five per cent, of the population, [they] have been able to seize and retain power in Russia because they were and are the only body of people in this vast spectacle of Russian ruin with a common faith and a common spirit. I disbelieve in their faith, I ridicule Marx, their prophet, but I understand and respect their spirit.’ [4]

Wells is shown round a very well equipped school and waxes wrothful that his hosts are trying to deceive him by taking him to a pedagogic Potemkin village; but then he is shown other schools and decides that Russian schools just are very well-provisioned. At the second school he asks the schoolchildren what they think of the famous novelist H G Wells. None of the kids have ever heard of him. ‘This did much to convince me that I was seeing a quite normal school’.

He addresses a Soviet (his speech, translated into Russia, is printed in Pravda), and hangs out with his old friend Maxim Gorky. Finally he goes to the Kremlin, and labours past the many layers of bureaucrats and guards, to meet Lenin.
We got to Lenin at last and found him, a little figure at a great desk in a well-lit room that looked out upon palatial spaces. I thought his desk was rather in a litter. I sat down on a chair at a corner of the desk, and the little man—his feet scarcely touch the ground as he sits on the edge of his chair—twisted round to talk to me, putting his arms round and over a pile of papers. He spoke excellent English. [Russia, 6]
This whole section is interesting, actually, partly for what the two men said, but also for the word-portrait Wells makes of Lenin: ‘not very like the photographs you see of him because he is one of those people whose change of expression is more important than their features’. Wells is struck by Lenin's ‘domed, slightly one-sided cranium’ (as who wouldn't be?) and says: ‘Lenin has a pleasant, quick-changing, brownish face, with a lively smile and a habit (due perhaps to some defect in focussing) of screwing up one eye as he pauses in his talk.’ The two men, though, talk rather at cross purposes:
Our talk was threaded throughout and held together by two—what shall I call them?—motifs. One was from me to him: ‘What do you think you are making of Russia? What is the state you are trying to create?’ The other was from him to me: ‘Why does not the social revolution begin in England? Why do you not work for the social revolution? Why are you not destroying Capitalism and establishing the Communist State?’ These motifs interwove, reacted on each other, illuminated each other. The second brought back the first: ‘But what are you making of the social revolution? Are you making a success of it?’ And from that we got back to two again with: ‘To make it a success the Western world must join in. Why doesn't it?’ [Russia, 6]
The Lenin Wells meets is the Lenin of his ‘Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country’ phase (that famous slogan is from 1920, of course), and Wells ribs him mildly about the way he bangs on and on about electrifying everything: ‘Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all “Utopians,” has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians’. But it also kindles something in Wells's science-fictional imagination:
Can one imagine a more courageous project in a vast flat land of forests and illiterate peasants, with no water power, with no technical skill available, and with trade and industry at the last gasp? Projects for such an electrification are in process of development in Holland and they have been discussed in England, and in those densely-populated and industrially highly-developed centres one can imagine them as successful, economical, and altogether beneficial. But their application to Russia is an altogether greater strain upon the constructive imagination. I cannot see anything of the sort happening in this dark crystal of Russia, but this little man at the Kremlin can; he sees the decaying railways replaced by a new electric transport, sees new roadways spreading throughout the land, sees a new and happier Communist industrialism arising again. While I talked to him he almost persuaded me to share his vision. [Russia, 6]
Electrification became the first of the USSR's five-year plans, and was completed by 1931. Dark crystal, indeed.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

A B McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet (2001)



This is a well-written, absorbing, heartfelt and, in the end, utterly unconvincing book. It's an account by respected Canadian historian A B McKillop of Florence Deeks's prosecution of Wells for plagiary. McKillop takes Deeks's side, assumes Wells's malfeasance, and in effect reprosecutes the case; and in the course of all that he says some undeniable things about the structural sexism of 20th-century British and North American society, the biases that favoured Wells and the forces that worked to marginalise and mock Deeks—the titular spinster, unfamous but with earnest literary ambition, who has, McKillop thinks, unfairly been lampooned as a withered old crank. But although McKillop tells a engaging story, and works hard to argue his thesis, the evidence he presents fails, I think, the common-sense tests of plausibility.

The bare facts of the Deeks case are summarised by that impeccable scholarly resource, Wikipedia. Over a four-year period Deeks wrote an ambitious history of the world designed to foreground the contributions made by women, which she called The Web of the World's Romance. A feminist world history, in effect. In August 1918 Deeks sent the complete MS of this to the Macmillan Company in Canada, ostensibly asking for permission to quote extracts from A Short History of the English People, a book for which they held the copyright, but actually in the hopes they would publish her. These hopes went unrealised: the MS was returned to Deeks either in February or April 1919 (the ambiguity on this point would become an issue at trial), apparently ‘well-thumbed and dog-eared’ and with certain pages marked by having their corners folded over.

Disappointed, Deeks moved on to other writing projects. But when she read Wells's Outline of History (1920) she became convinced it was based on her manuscript. Deeks spent some years, and quite a lot of her brother's money, assembling her case, largely by commissioning reports from various ‘experts’ (even I A Richards was recruited) that listed those passages where, she was sure, Wells had drawn on her prior work. Since there is no unambiguous plagiary—no word-for-word reproduction of whole passages, for instance—this amounted to passages where Wells said similar things to Deeks, selected similar details or arranged them in the same order.

Finally, in 1928 Deeks filed suit against Wells and Macmillan, suing for damages of CDN$500,000. The case was heard in the Supreme Court of Ontario and rejected: trial judge, Mr Justice Raney, described the case as ‘fantastic hypotheses’, ‘solemn nonsense’ and ‘comparisons without significance.’ Deeks appealed this verdict to the Appellate Division of the Ontario Supreme Court, where she represented herself (she had no more money to pay lawyers). Her appeal was likewise dismissed.

That left only one further court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (Canada, still part of the British Empire, came under its jurisdiction). Deeks travelled to England to argue her own case before the Judicial Committee on 1 October 1932; on 3 November 1932, the Committee dismissed her appeal, pronouncing that ‘evidence presented on the basis of literary criticism is not admissible in a court of law’. There was no other evidence apart from these submissions by experts on the supposed similarity between select passages in Deeks MS and Wells's book. Indeed, it was sworn on oath at the trial ‘that the manuscript remained in Toronto in the safekeeping of Macmillan, and that Wells did not even know it existed, let alone having seen it.’ This final judgement ‘found no proof of copying, and decided the similarities were due to the fact that the books had similar nature and both writers had access to the same sources.’ Costs were awarded against plaintiff, but although Wells had spent £5000 on legal fees defending himself from Deeks's repeated suits she declared herself bankrupt and he got nothing.

On its face, Deeks's case is not strong. Deeks's book was much shorter than Wells's, contains considerably less data and content, and has a completely different focus (Wells was hardly writing a ‘history via great women’ after all). Setting aside the similarity or otherwise of the disputed passages for a moment (McKillop discusses these in depth, and I'll come back to them) there is the prima facie unlikelihood of the proposed conspiracy to defraud Deeks. We have to imagine a respected Canadian publishing house risking its reputation, and possible prosecution, by secretly sending an obscure woman's unpublishable manuscript all the way across the Atlantic to one the world's most successful, and busiest, authors. McKillop acknowledges that this postage was not recorded in Macmillan's detailed manuscript logbook, as it would have been had the MS been sent through the usual channels. If it was sent, it must have been via some cloak-and-dagger means.

Why would they do this? Not to get a reader's report from Wells: Macmillan didn't use Wells for that work (he was far too famous, and busy), and the firm didn't need expert readers to tell them the MS was patently unpublishable. So why? McKillip believes that, despite being on the other side of the Atlantic and strangers to Wells, two Macmillan employees somehow intuited that he had not given himself enough time to write the 400,000 words of the Outline of History, and sent him Deeks's MS as an unsolicited invitation to cut corners via plagiary. We are to believe they did this despite having no history of prior communication with Wells and not knowing how long his proposed history was liable to be, or how quickly work on it was proceeding. Indeed, they can't even have been sure Wells was writing a history. So far as I can see, the first as-it-were public intimation that Wells was working on the Outline was an interview he gave to the Strand Magazine in which he mentions the project as on-going, but that wasn't published until July 1919, which is much too late for McKillop's purposes (his case is that the MS had been secretly shipped to England, comprehensively plagiarised, and posted back to Canada in time for it to be returned to Deeks in April 1919).

So, yes: McKillop concedes that in late 1918 there could only be ‘rumours’ about the project—‘rumour has it that [Wells] is working on a popular history of the world’ is how he phrases it. He is perfectly upfront that he is speculating without hard evidence, but that doesn't inhibit him: Frank Wise and John C Saul in the Toronto Macmillan office, McKillop says, would have heard rumours of Wells's new project because ‘the transatlantic publishing world’ is ‘collegial’ and that ‘co-publication arrangements require the sharing of confidences, even gossip’ [388]. This rather cuts against the picture of early century publishing adumbrated elsewhere in The Spinster and the Prophet, as a basically cutthroat and piratical dog-eat-dog world, but OK. There is such a thing as gossip in publishing; I can't deny it.

Still, a problem with the ‘co-publication arrangements require the sharing of confidences and gossip’ line is that there was no prior co-publication arrangement for Wells's Outline at Macmillan. Indeed there was no surety that Wells would publish with Macmillan at all; his relationship with the firm had been choppy throughout the nineteen-teens. Macmillan had turned down Ann Veronica on grounds of its immorality, and though the firm encouraged Wells during the writing of The New Machiavelli, in the event Sir Frederick Macmillan personally rejected the title, telling Wells the finished product was not the book they thought it was going to be (‘I feel sure you will agree that the kind of thing we objected to in Ann Veronica is here intensified’). Wells was forced to publish it with John Lane, an individual he personally disliked. Macmillan did publish the later Marriage, but that was not a happy experience for Wells, and he blamed the novel's commercial failure on the firm's lack of promotion. Relations soured.

Where the Outline was concerned, Wells's initial choice for a US publisher was Hodder and Stoughton (Newnes published the UK edition). It was only when Macmillan offered a larger advance that he went with them. There was, in other words, no reason for two Macmillan employees to assume this ‘rumoured’ book of history, of unknown length, would be coming to them anyway. So what could possibly have been going through Wise and Saul's heads in the scenario McKillop hypothecates?
Wise and Saul are well aware that H G Wells has been a Macmillan author, but they know that the author had fallen out with Sir Frederick over poor promotion of one of his novels a number of years back. Might Wells be secured once again to the Macmillan stable if, through some friends in the firm, he is offered ‘The Web’ in the writing of his own history? The Deeks manuscript is not publishable, not yet anyway, but it certainly contains a lot of good material. [The Spinster and the Prophet, 389]
Wise and Saul were not ‘friends’ of Wells (he didn't know them at all); but perhaps McKillop means ‘friends’ in a looser sense. Still, this scenario is frankly hard to believe: McKillop suggests these two men believed they would endear Wells to Macmillan-Canada by sending him, out of the blue, an unpublishably bad feminist history of the world in MS, on the offchance that rumours he was himself writing a History of the World were true, somehow magically, perhaps telepathically, intuiting that this project is too much for Wells to complete in the timeframe he has arbitrarily allotted himself—and that the way out of Wells's bind is mining Deeks's work for the ‘good material’ it contains? Material that Deeks extracted from encyclopedias and history books to which (Wise and Saul would surely assume) Wells also had access? What?

It's not impossible they sent Wells the MS, of course, but it doesn't seem to me a very likely, or a well-motivated action. Doing so exposed them to possible unpleasant consequences, from losing their jobs to prosecution, and exposed them for very vague possibilities of gain. McKillop is clear that they must have known they were acting in a delinquent manner:
An idea takes shape. Saul, no innocent in these matters, will send ‘The Web to England in such a way that it reaches Wells. For obvious reasons it cannot be forwarded through regular channels—through Macmillan's editorial division, for instance. That might involve entry of the author's name and title in the firm's manuscript logbook. The basic problem is who should be selected as the conduit to Wells. Each possibility involves some risk. Directly to Wells? Too dangerous, too much like the direct receipt of stolen goods. [The Spinster and the Prophet, 390]
None of this makes sense. Calling Saul ‘no innocent in these matters’ implies that he was in the regular habit of sending unsolicited manuscripts to authors for them to plagiarise, when in fact he'd never previously done anything of the sort (McKillop explores the shady side of Saul setting up a private company to trade copyrights and giving it the same address as his Macmillan office; but that is as far as his malfeasance goes). And ‘for obvious reasons’ invokes a rather unobvious obviousness. What obvious reasons? Why not send Deeks's work through official channels? That way not only would Wise and Saul be covering themselves against the supposed risk of which McKillop makes so much, but they wouldn't have to pay the postage. Deeks would surely be flattered that the opinion of so eminent a figure as Wells had been sought on her work, and his authority would make the inevitable rejection of the work easier for the press to navigate.

If the answer is: obviousness inheres in the fact that Wise and Saul are sending the MS with the express intention that Wells copy it, then we're bound to wonder why on earth they thought such a plan was a good idea. How would you compose a cover note in such a circumstance? ‘Hey Bertie, you don't know us, but rumour has it you're writing a History of the World, and we bet you're finding you've bitten off more than you can chew, so we're sending you a rubbish unpublished MS some Canadian spinster submitted to us for you to copy?’ Surely there'd be a good chance Wells would immediately return the package, angry at their presumption he was a plagiarist, and shop them to their superiors? Why would they send a manifestly rubbish book to a major writer for him to copy anyway? How could they possibly know that Wells was having difficulty pulling his book together? (I mean, I honestly don't think Wells was having difficulty pulling his book together. McKillop can't accept that a 400,000 word work could be as rapidly composed as the Outline of History was; but I don't think he grasps just how fluent and confident a writer Wells was). Even assuming this unlikely hypothesis, there would be only limited advantage in ingratiating themselves with Wells directly (if this unsolicited invitation to commit a crime could be taken as an ingratiation) since negotiation for the publishing of the work was in the hands of his agent, A P Watt, and not, as had previously been the case, being attended to by Wells himself. If the aim of the crazy plan was to bring Wells back to Macmillan then it was Watt they needed to win over.

Alternatively, if the answer is: since official channels have no record of the book being sent, it must have gone through some shady secret route, we're entitled to invoke okham's razor and suggest that a simpler explanation for that fact is that it wasn't sent at all.

McKillop, really, is hoist on the petard of Deeks's MS having to be two incompatible things at once. On the one hand it is not very good (an unpublishable and overwritten mess, so unimportant in the larger schemes of Macmillan that various testimonials show Macmillan employees struggling to remember anything about it, where it might or might not have been sent). On the other, it is dynamite stuff, the magic panacea that'll provide Wells with copy for the century's bestselling work of history. It's hard to see how it can have been both. It needs to be the latter, surely, for Wise and Saul to take such legal and personal risks in spiriting it secretly to England, but everything else The Spinster and the Prophet says about the work pulls very much in the other direction. I don't know: I haven't read Deeks's Web, and McKillop has. But his account of it doesn't fill me with relish: he calls it ‘not an act of formal scholarship’ and says: ‘written in the elevated style of High Victorian Romanticism, its combination of evangelical enthusiasm and moral umbrage would sit well with few contemporary readers’ [409-10].

So why is McKillip persuaded by Deeks's case? In part I think this is simply that, having worked on the case for many years, he has just grown to like her. This is understandable, and even in a way commendable: there is certainly much to be said for histories that unpack the oppressive structural and personal sexism of 19th- and 20th-century society. But beyond that there are, I think, two things that, so far as McKillop is concerned, tell heavily against Wells. One is just the size and complexity of the Outline, and the fact that Wells wrote it in under two years. As I note above, McKillip simply doesn't buy that one man could manage such a superhuman feat: nigh-on 400,000 closely written words in that kind of timeframe. It is a lot, certainly, and the book that resulted is an amazing thing. But even a cursory look at Wells's output suggests this was perfectly within his capabilities, especially when we consider that he was continually assisted by his wife Jane, who worked tirelessly as research assistant and amanuensis-typist, and who is specifically thanked in the work's preface: ‘without her labour in typing and re-typing the drafts of the various chapters as they have been revised and amended, in checking references, finding suitable quotations, hunting up illustrations, and keeping in order the whole mass of material for this history, and without her constant help and watchful criticism, its completion would have been impossible.’

Wells wrote fast, and was the kind of writer (I'm another, I must say) who worked out what he wanted to say by writing it out, rather than in advance. Court testimony quoted by McKillop suggests that he had completed 125,000 words of first draft by February 1919. The first instalment of the 24-part serialisation was published in November. Wells wouldn't necessarily have needed to have completed the entire book before its early sections were published, but even if we assume he had finished at least a first draft by then then would mean: the creation of 250,000 words over more than eight months, something over 30,000 words a month. A thousand words a day. Perfectly do-able; even a little slow by Wells's standards. And the argument that Wells must have plagiarised because he wrote so many words in such a short space of time is a very slender reed on which to balance a case such as this one. The Experiment in Autobiography (1934) is over 350,000 words long, and Wells wrote that over an equivalent time-frame to the Outline, between late 1932 and the beginning of 1934, whilst Wells was also writing a screenplay. I don't suppose McKillop would argue this book was also plagiarised from an unpublished Canadian MS.

This leaves the last pillar in the plagiarism case: those passages where Deeks determined parallels, not in the exact choice of words so much as in the details selected and the order in which they are presented. This is the nitty-gritty of the whole case, really, and needs to be exampled; so the rest of this post looks at a couple of instances, from Deeks's own submission to the court. McKillop, who can't be faulted on effort, prepared a ‘computerized transcription’ of Deeks's entire MS in order to have it checked against Wells's Outline for plagiarism by a programme developed by two software engineers, but admits they ‘detected no more instances of commonality than those found by Florence Deeks’

So: Deeks's Web contained an account of the Phoenicians that mentioned their seafaring trade, and they way they brought all sorts of luxuries to Europe including ivory, pearls and silk. Wells also treats of the Phoenicians, but although the two passages had no common phrases or repeated expressions (‘Wells was after all a wordsmith with an extraordinary vocabulary’ is McKillip's excuse here) Deeks nonetheless became certain the Englishman had copied her account into his book, and made the following list to prove it:


Some of this looks like a list of specific differences rather than plagiarised commonalities: ‘pottery and porcelain’ are not the same as ‘glassware and purple’; in Deeks the women are skilled, in Wells the men have learned to weave and so on. Otherwise these are the standard points any broad-brush historian summarising the Phoenicians is liable to make, surely; as you can see by comparing any of the many nineteenth-century general histories, like George Park Fisher's Outline of Universal History (1885)—‘Through the hands of Phoenician merchants passed the gold and pearls of the East, the purple of Tyre, slaves, ivory ...' and so on—or Samuel Griswold Goodrich A History of All Nations: From the Earliest Periods to the Present (1855), or ... well, any of them really. Isn't it more likely that Wells was drawing on these sorts of books and encyclopedia entries, than that he was plagiarising Deeks?

Or take this instance, again selected by Deeks herself, and endorsed by McKillip. A paragraph from The Web:
But notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the Greeks they still preserved their national unity by means of the institutions of the past—their language, religion, games, Amphyctionic councils and oracles. At the Amphyctionic councils the deputies of a dozen people met together and discussed common interests; and in order to consult the chief oracle, which was at Delphi, people flocked from all parts of the Greek world. The importance of their games may be judged by from the fact that their first existing historical record is connected with the Olympic games. In B.C. 778 the name Coroebus was inscribed on the public register of the Elians as having won the prize of the Stadium, and it became customary to take this date as the starting point of history. [quoted in McKillop, 198-99]
And one from Wells's Outline:
Yet there was always a certain tradition of unity between all the Greeks, based on a common language and script, on the common possession of the heroic epics, and on the continuous intercourse that the maritime position of the states made possible. And, in addition, there were certain religious bonds of a unifying kind. Certain shrines, the shrines of the god Apollo in the island of Delos and at Delphi, for example, were sustained not by single states, but by leagues of states or Amphictyonies (= League of neighbours), which in such instances as the Delphic amphictyony became very wide-reaching unions. The league protected the shrine and the safety of pilgrims, kept up the roads leading thereunto, secured peace at the time of special festivals, upheld certain rules to mitigate the usages of war among its members, and—the Delian league especially—suppressed piracy. A still more important link of Hellenic union was the Olympian games that were held every four years at Olympia. Foot races, boxing, wrestling, javelin throwing, quoit throwing, jumping, and chariot and horse racing were the chief sports, and a record of victors and distinguished visitors was kept. From the year 776 B.C. onward these games were held regularly for over a thousand years, and they did much to maintain that sense of a common Greek life (pan-Hellenic) transcending the narrow politics of the city states. [Wells, Outline of History 1:313-14]
I honestly don't see how this second passage is supposed to be copied from that first. There are so many substantive differences, from the phrasing and spelling (‘Amphictyonies’ and ‘amphictyony’ instead of ‘Amphyctionic’) to the level of detail and the number of elements covered; where the similarities are entirely what one would expect from two historians covering the same period. But Deeks thought Wells was plagiarising her and McKillop thinks she was right:


I for one don't see any ‘strong’ parallel between the two passages at all, and talk of structural identity between them is demonstrably false. Indeed, I'd suggest that specific verbal echoes make it much more likely that Wells is drawing not from Deeks's blandly phrased MS but the more detailed account in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which we know Wells had in his library: so Wells's phrasing and peculiar spelling ‘Delphic amphictyony’ appears twice in the 1895 Britannica's entry on ‘AMPHICTYONY’; which entry stresses the importance of Delphi and talks about how religion and games promoted the unity of the otherwise disparate Greek poleis.

The other main claim of the lawsuit was that the two histories perpetrated the same mistakes. For instance: Deeks claimed that when Columbus discovered America he mistakenly thought he had reached India; and Wells makes the same claim. McKillop thinks this damning: ‘Florence [Deeks] later learned that not even Columbus had believed this. Yet the mistakes remained common to both works’ [162]. If these two histories were the only two to make this mistake it might be suspicious, but in fact this piece of false history appears very widely in prior popular accounts (‘To the last Columbus believed that it was the Indies he had found’ [George Smith, The Conversion of India: From Pantaenus to the Present Time, A.D. 193-1893 (London 1893), 43]; ‘Columbus, supposing that he had discovered the coast of India, called the people Indians,—a name which has since been very inappropriately applied to all the aboriginal inhabitants of the Western Continent’ [Israel Smith Clare, The Centennial Universal History: A Clear and Concise History of All Nations (1876), 193] and many other instances.)

One more datum, which McKillip considers especially incriminating, is that Wells appears to take details from the French historian Victor Duruy, whose book Deeks drew on for her MS but a writer of whom Wells, in court, claimed not to have heard (although what he actually said, when asked if he'd read Duruy's History was ‘I do not know. I do not remember’). Since Duruy took his details from other historians, some of whom Wells also consulted, this in itself would prove nothing. But Deeks sought to show that Wells had copied an error she had made in transcribing from Duruy: ‘she had taken a sentence from Duruy stating that de Gama sailed from Lisbon and landed in India in 1498. But in her attempt to paraphrase she had taken the date and placed it at the beginning of her own sentence—which then lent the erroneous impression that de Gama had set sail in 1498’ [276]. Deeks believed that Wells had copied her error straight into his own text.

But this turns out, simply, to have no foundation at all. For one thing, Deeks calls the navigator ‘de Gama’ and Wells calls him ‘da Gama’. For another the actual sentence in Wells's Outline is: ‘In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon to Zanzibar, and thence, with an Arab pilot, he struck across the Indian Ocean to Calicut in India.’ McKillip, insists: ‘Wells had initially made the same mistake [as Deeks] in the date’ but ‘he had managed to find and correct the error in the text of the published version of the Outline.’ There's a smoking gun, though, he thinks: ‘he had neglected to correct the dates provided in his footnotes’ [276].

This really is desperately thin stuff. So: there's no evidence Wells ever wrote the wrong date in the Outline. 1498 is mentioned in none of his footnotes. I think what Deeks and McKillip mean is that 1498 appears in the chronology at the end of the volume, thus: ‘1498. Vasco da Gama sailed round the Cape to India’. But this doesn't say he set sail in 1498, it says he rounded the Cape in that year, which is (a) true and (b) a detail found in many other histories: (‘The discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by Bartholemew Diaz, and its subsequent passage by Vasco de Gama in 1498 formed one of the grand eras in modern navigation’ [Hugh Murray, Historical Account of Discoveries and Travels in Africa (1871) 312]; ‘In 1498, Vasco De Gama doubled the Cape ...’ [Alexander Duff, India and India Missions (1840), 34] and so on).

I appreciate this is all monstrously pettifogging stuff, but my point, in going into such detail here, is that pretty much all Deeks's claims crumble, when you look into them. I don't doubt she sincerely believed that she had been wronged, and clearly a series of lawyers and ‘experts’, all of whom made money out of doing so, encouraged her in her belief. But I really don't think her beliefs had any basis in truth. I'm not saying Wells was a moral exemplar, or incapable of plagiary: indeed, on the contrary, he made no secret of the fact that the Outline of History was a synthetic work, summarising and arranging the work of a great many other historians and writers. But he took care to attribute his sources, when he took material from collaborators he tended to pay, often very generously: David Smith notes that Johnston, Lankester, Barker and Murray received a fee of 100 guineas ‘which came as a great surprise to them, according to their letters; two of the men reported that it was the largest fee each had ever received for professional activity’ [Smith, H G Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 252]. He had no need of Weeks's work and almost certainly never saw it.

Having gone into all this in, as you can see, rather wearying detail I come out the other side with the belief that Wells did not plagiarise Florence Deeks's unpublished MS, and rather surprised that A B McKillop thinks he did.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Undying Fire (1919)



After Joan and Peter's longueursThe Undying Fire (1919) was a pleasure to read: a brisk, modern-day version of the Book of Job full of arresting moments. It was serialised in The International Review, March-June 1919, and then published as a book by Cassell & Co. in the UK and Macmillan in the US. We start in the cosmic spaces outside earthly concerns, where God and Satan are playing chess:
The chess they play is not the little ingenious game that originated in India; it is on an altogether different scale. The Ruler of the Universe creates the board, the pieces, and the rules; he makes all the moves; he may make as many moves as he likes whenever he likes; his antagonist, however, is permitted to introduce a slight inexplicable inaccuracy into each move, which necessitates further moves in correction. The Creator determines and conceals the aim of the game, and it is never clear whether the purpose of the adversary is to defeat or assist him in his unfathomable project. Apparently the adversary cannot win, but also he cannot lose so long as he can keep the game going. But he is concerned, it would seem, in preventing the development of any reasoned scheme in the game. [Undying Fire, 1.1]
The two immortals have a second go at their celebrated wager, picking a representative human, and Satan hurries down to Earth to set-up the trial. One little detail from early on that I love: we discover Satan can travel faster than light (‘Satan smote down through the quivering universe and left the toiling light waves behind’ [1.4]). FTL, the FaTher of Lies. Warp drive in more than one sense.

Anyway: the protagonist of Wells's novel is Job Huss, a character based on one of Wells's friends, the educator Frederick William Sanderson, of whom, following his death in 1922, Wells would write a biography, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, claiming ‘I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy’. Sanderson's fictional avatar, Huss, is ‘the headmaster of the great modern public school at Woldingstanton in Norfolk’ [2.2]; but, through no delinquency of his, fire kills two pupils and an assistant master is killed ‘by an explosion in the chemical laboratory’ that sprays him with acid (Huss was the first to come to the teacher’s aid: ‘still alive and struggling, [he] was blinded, nearly faceless, and hopelessly mangled. The poor fellow died before he could be extricated’). Worse follows: Huss’s lawyer, having embezzled and lost all Huss’s money, commits suicide. Huss falls ill, and his wife insists they spend time at the seaside, in dingy and depressing lodgings at‘Sundering-on-Sea’. Huss's sickness is diagnosed as cancer, and he is given only a short time to live. Finally Huss learns that his beloved only son, a pilot in the RFC, has been shot down over enemy lines and killed. All very Jōby.

His comforters—in the Biblical original, as of course you know, these are Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite—are in Wells's version: Sir Eliphaz Burrows (‘the patentee and manufacturer of those Temanite building blocks which have revolutionized the construction of army hutments’), William Dad (‘one of the chief contractors for aeroplanes in England’) and Joseph Farr, the head of the technical section of Woldingstanton School, who wants to depose Huss and take over as headmaster. Huss knows how sneaky Farr is, but has been unable to replace him because of a shortage of technically skilled teachers. When his ‘comforters’ arrive he immediately understands their purpose: ‘I know perfectly well the task you have set yourselves. You have come to make an end of me as headmaster of Woldingstanton’ [3.4]—this, he insists, would be the final blow that will sink him. Nonetheless, they harangue him: he must step down.

Wells sticks, with varying degrees of ingenuity, to the structure of the Biblical fable. Huss's wife encourages him, though not in so many words, to curse God and die. His comforters needle him in ways paralleling the Tanakhan original. The role of Elihu is played by Huss's physician, Dr. Elihu Barrack, who urges Huss to undertake a potentially fatal operation to remove his cancerous lump, and who discusses Huss's existential concerns with him, agreeing and disagreeing by turns. The two of them talk about Evolution, though they consider the term tendentious and prefer to speak of the ‘Process’, and though Elihu describes himself, with some vehemence as Agnostic about God, the discussion tends towards Huss's view of the divine as both imminent and immanent in humankind, which potential is the ground for the high calling of the world's educators.
What is the task of the teacher in the world? It is the greatest of all human tasks. It is to ensure that Man, Man the Divine, grows in the souls of men. For what is a man without instruction? He is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears. He can regard nothing except in relation to himself. Even his love is a bargain; and his utmost effort is vanity because he has to die. And it is we teachers alone who can lift him out of that self-preoccupation. We teachers .... We can release him into a wider circle of ideas beyond himself in which he can at length forget himself and his meagre personal ends altogether. We can open his eyes to the past and to the future and to the undying life of Man. So through us and through us only, he escapes from death and futility. [Undying Fire, 3.4. Ellipses in original]
Huss, strikingly, makes his own ill-health the ground of his vision of a world that surpasses pain: ‘I see deeper because I am not blinded by health.’ [5.4]. But we're near the end of the book, and it's time for his operation. Under anaesthetic he has visions, first of a mocking Satan, and then of God himself who issues a divine promise that mankind shall conquer the stars ‘so long as your courage endures.’ [6.1] Then there is a rather striking visualisation, and indeed unconscious anticipation, of the cosmic Big Crunch:
it seemed to him that the whole universe began to move inward upon itself, faster and faster, until at last with an incredible haste it rushed together. He resisted this collapse in vain, and with a sense of overwhelmed effort. The white light of God and the whirling colours of the universe, the spaces between the stars—it was as if an unseen fist gripped them together. They rushed to one point as water in a clepsydra rushes to its hole. The whole universe became small, became a little thing, diminished to the size of a coin, of a spot, of a pinpoint, of one intense black mathematical point, and— vanished. He heard his own voice crying in the void like a little thing blown before the wind: ‘But will my courage endure?’ The question went unanswered. Not only the things of space but the things of time swept together into nothingness. [Undying Fire, 6.1]
He wakes. The operation is over. The novel's coda is what you'd expect: the removed cancer is revealed to be non-malignant; Huss's financial affairs are restored when a distant relative dies leaving him a fortune; the boys at Woldingstanton school form a committee to prevent him from being sacked and finally news comes that Huss's son is a prisoner of war, and not dead after all.



As a reading of Job, Wells's little fable leans heavily on the final term in the celebrated Biblical verse (quoted several times by Wells): ‘who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ [Job 38:2]. We need to know more, Wells says, and know better. He dedicates the book to ‘All Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses and Every Teacher in the World’. Some of the to-and-fro of the dialogue bloviates, just a little, and there is no real sense of any argumentative progression or development (though that's true of the original Biblical book too, I think). But it's a surprisingly rich text: with many little inset anecdotes, observations and mini-arguments, any one of which could be developed and elaborated.

Lacking time and unwilling to expand into the space necessary to analyse all of these, I want to close this blogpost by looking at one such ‘episode’. I don't select it at random. David C. Smith [H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986), 248] has high praise for one extended passage in particular, located towards the end of the fable, in which a pre-op Huss evokes the life of a German U-boat seaman. At the beginning, Huss says, this lad imagines himself to be a hero, ‘fighting for his half-divine Kaiser, for dear Germany’; and on going down into a submarine for the first time he is struck that ‘it is a little cold, but wonderful; a marvellous machine. How can such a nest of inventions, ingenuities, beautiful metal-work, wonderful craftsmanship, be anything but right?’ [5.4]. But soon enough he begins to doubt the rightness of what he is doing:
He stands by one of the guns of the submarine in an attack upon some wretched ocean tramp. He realizes that the war he wages is no heroic attack on pride or predominance, but a mere murdering of traffic. He sees the little ship shelled, the wretched men killed and wounded, no tyrants of the seas but sailormen like himself; he sees their boats smashed to pieces. Mostly such sinkings are done at dawn or sundown, under a level light which displays a world of black lines and black silhouettes asway with the slow heaving and falling of coldly shining water. [Undying Fire, 5.4]
This is nicely done, I think. The cold dawn swell, which is death: monumental and a little queasy, cold, an absolutely swallowing emptiness.

Life on board proves cramped for the imaginary submariner: he is always cold and continually damp (‘the apparatus and the furniture sweat continually; a clammy chill pervades the whole contrivance’). He lives under the continual strain of death's imminence: ‘our destroyers will follow up a U-boat sometimes for sixty or seventy hours, following her sounds as a hound follows the scent of its quarry’. Huss thinks death the ‘inevitable end of the U-boat sailor, unless he is lucky enough to get captured’, adding that ‘the average life of a U-boat is less than five voyages’ (in fact death wasn't quite so inevitable: 178 of the German navy's 351 U-Boats—50%—were sunk in combat, with another ten percent or so being lost in other ways. But it certainly wasn't fun). Finally Huss relates a recent sinking from which only a couple of men escaped:
I was given some particulars of the fate of one U-boat that were told by two prisoners who died at Harwich the other day. This particular boat was got by a mine which tore a hole in her aft. She was too disabled to come to the surface, and she began to sink tail down. Now the immediate effect of a hole in a U-boat is of course to bring the air pressure within her to the same level as the pressure of the water outside. For every ten yards of depth this means an addition of fourteen pounds to the square inch. The ears and blood vessels are suddenly subjected to this enormous pressure. There is at once a violent pain in the ears and a weight on the chest. Cotton wool has to be stuffed into ears and nostrils to save the ear drum. Then the boat is no longer on an even keel. The men stand and slip about on the sides of things. They clamber up the floor out of the way of the slowly rising water. For the water does not come rushing in to drown them speedily. It cannot do that because there is no escape for the air; the water creeps in steadily and stealthily as the U-boat goes deeper and deeper. It is a process of slow and crushing submergence that has the cruel deliberation of some story by Edgar Allan Poe; it may last for hours. A time comes when the lights go out and the rising waters stop the apparatus for keeping up the supply of oxygen and absorbing the carbonic acid. Suffocation begins. Think of what must happen in the minds of the doomed men crowded together amidst the machinery. In the particular case these prisoners described, several of the men drowned themselves deliberately in the rising waters inside the boat. And in another case where the boat was recovered full of dead men, they had all put their heads under the water inside the boat. People say the U-boat men carry poison against such mischances as this. They don't. It would be too tempting.

When it becomes evident that the U-boat can never recover the surface, there is usually an attempt to escape by the hatches. The hatches can be opened when at last the pressure inside is equal to that of the water without. The water of course rushes in and sinks the U-boat to the bottom like a stone, but the men who are nearest to the hatch have a chance of escaping with the rush of air to the surface. There is of course a violent struggle to get nearest to the hatch. This is what happened in the case of the particular U-boat from which these prisoners came. The forward hatch was opened. Our patrol boat cruising above saw the waters thrown up by the air-burst and then the heads of the men struggling on the surface. Most of these men were screaming with pain. All of them went under before they could be picked up except two. And these two died in a day or so. They died because coming suddenly up to the ordinary atmosphere out of the compressed air of the sinking submarine had burst the tissues of their lungs. They were choked with blood.
‘So it was,’ Huss concludes, ‘that our German youngster who dreamt dreams, who had ambitions, who wished to serve and do brave and honourable things, died.’ This is indeed, as Smith notes, a well-written episode, although it seems to me that Wells's attempt to generalise the experience (‘I tell you all the world is a submarine, and every one of us is something of a U-boat man’) is a little dilute. Surely there's more to the striking affect this episode generates?

Wells extrapolates this, I suppose, from God's rebuke to Job, ‘canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?’ [Job 41:1]. The U-boat is the modern oceanic leviathan, and though marvellous it is a vanity compared to the sublime vastness and indifference of the sea through which it moves.
He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.

He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. [Job 41:31-32]
It does make me wonder about Wells's imaginative attitude to the deeps as such. Wells was never a Freudian (though he corresponded with him, and worked hard, and successfully, through PEN, to get Freud out of Nazi Germany towards the end of the 1930s), but the temptation to put him on the couch can sometimes be overwhelming. We could say, broadly, that Wells is unpersuaded by the subconscious, or at least that he is happy more-or-less to disregard it. The idea that consciousness, subjectivity and rational human thought is radically compromised by something irrational, libidinal and fathomable would dissolve his hopes for a humanitarian world state run on rational lines. He wasn't, we are likely to say, an individual particularly repressed about sex, but repression and its monstrous return is a slippery and unpredictable matter.

Two things in particular stand out in terms of the personal context of The Undying Fire. One is that he had sketched out the prospectus for his Outline of History in 1918 and had begun the monumental work of researching and collaborating towards its completion. And two: his extra-marital relationship with Rebecca West was in its latter stages. This had begun in 1913, and had resulted in a son (Anthony West) born in 1914. They broke up in 1923, though they remained in contact and managed to maintain a friendship until the end of Wells life. In some senses his affair with West was the most important in Wells's life. It was certainly complicated, and although an oversimplification it's close to the truth to say that the two of them were sexually infatuated with one another without actually liking one another very much. Two gifted writers tangling physically and emotionally: hardly a recipe for smooth living. And West, unlike Wells, was quite strongly influenced by her reading of Freud.

So what do we make of these dangerous, fatal, monstrous depths (as here) or of their remarkable absence (as in, almost, everything else Wells wrote)? Chatteris drowns at the end of The Sea Lady (1902), and it is a symbolic iteration of the choking, breathtaking potency of sexual desire. But apart from that, and one rather under-developed short story (‘In the Abyss’, Pearson's Magazine, August 1896) I don't think Wells had, by 1920, written anything else set undersea. It's conventional to link his name with Verne's, but there's simply no Wellsian equivalent to Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. Stories and novels about flying in the sky and through space are legion. Under the water, though, seems to have repelled him: ‘I must confess,’ he wrote in Anticipations (1900) ‘that my imagination, in spite even of spurring, refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea.’

That foundering and suffocating valence is chillingly evoked in The Undying Fire, as a rebus for existential angst: but we're entitled to wonder if it's not actually a subconsciously-prompted metanightmare about the subconscious itself: Of the inner tidal irrationality that hems in the Wellsian starry-eyed future of rational world-statehood and human expansion across the stars. Conceivably I over-stretch my argument in suggesting an erotic component to this awestruck terror at descending into the depths. Like Ballard's car crashes, there is a counter-intuitive rightness in the way drowning carries an erotic charge: all those siren mermaids luring mariners to their deaths.

Alain Corbin's Le Territoire du vide: L’Occident et le désir du rivage, 1750-1840 (Paris, 1988), his influential cultural history of the sea, stresses the uncanny erotic charge marine emptiness has so often carried in human affairs (the book was translated into English in 1994, by Jocelyn Phelps, as The Lure of the Sea). Corbin's thesis is, broadly, that humanity, or at least the Christian West, has tended to regard the sea—the consequence, after all, of the Biblical Flood—as a rebuke to human sinfulness (there was, he points out, no sea in Eden, and would be no sea, according to Revelation, after Apocalypse). But this attitude shifted around over the period specified in Corbin's subtitle. Now the sea became, politically, the means of western imperial expansion and, personally, a repository of healthful bathing and therapeutic possibilities that were also strongly eroticised.

Some of this is common-sensical: partially-undressed young people frolicking in the water, and the like. Corbin notes that when the vogue for women bathing in the sea at Brighton began men lined the promenade watching them through binoculars. Some of Corbin's theorising is more fanciful: he likens ‘the mere contact of a bare foot on the sand’ to ‘a sensual invitation and a barely conscious substitute for masturbation,’ and thinks ‘the virile exaltation ... a man experienced just before jumping into the water was like that of an erection.’ But we don't need to follow him all the way down his pelago-erotic rabbit hole to agree that the sea semiotically links the medical and the sexual in a distinctively Victorian/Edwardian way. And it is at least worth pondering whether drowning doesn't figure, for a highly-sexed and sexually expressive yet, in ways, oddly repressed figure like Wells, with all his interpersonal terror of being emotionally trapped and suffocated in his relationships, as a straightforwardly erotic release. It's being drawn back to the surface that kills the German U-Boat sailors, after all: it's only contact with the air that allows them to scream in pain. In the tight embrace of the ocean depths, frighteningly but excitingly, there can be no screaming. Frank Kermode summarises Corbin's larger argument:
The ocean offered to some images of the fashionable sublime, and to others, with whom Corbin amiably sympathises, erotic satisfaction (‘the dream of vanishing into the waves like an act of slow penetration’). The beach was now both an ‘erotic site’ and a mothering one, at any rate for francophones (‘la mère’ = ‘la mer’). ... For the most part evidence is abundantly provided, as for the peculiar pleasure to be had from watching sailors drowning as their ships sank near the shore. This gratification might be supplied by paintings, but with a bit of luck a holidaymaker might be in just the right place to enjoy the real thing, perhaps with the aid of a lorgnette. The chance of a good wreck within view of the beach was regarded as ‘one of the tourist attractions of a coast’. Corbin mentions several shipwrecks known to have given keen pleasure at Ostend and Weymouth. [Frank Kermode, ‘With the Aid of a Lorgnette’, LRB 16:8 (28 April 1994), 15]
Venus rises from the ocean depths. The, not-to-put-too-fine-a-point-on-it, scrotumtightening sea. Indeed, and since we're on the subject of Modernism more broadly, I did wonder whether T S Eliot, who certainly read Wells, and who may have taken one detail in one of his poems from an earlier Wells title, had The Undying Fire's account of death by drowning at the back of his mind when he composed his Waste Land (a terre, rather than a mer, vide, we might say): another text about the surprising and alarming interrelations between drowning, social and interpersonal suffocation, and erotic intensity.