Sunday, 4 February 2018

All Aboard for Ararat (1940)

A brisk novella, this, with some interesting touches, although it's raw dough rather than baked goods. Or else it's an extraordinary Benjaminian excursus on the radical instability of interpretation as such. One of the two, certainly.

I mean, we can be honest: it's the former. But it is at least an interesting exercise to entertain the notion that it's the latter.

We start with elderly writer and HG surrogate, Noah Lammock, who has been cast into a deep despair (like Wells) by the advent of World War 2. ‘it seemed beyond dispute to [him] that madness had taken complete possession of the earth and that everything he valued in human life was being destroyed’ [1]. He entertains a caller to his house who announces himself as Mr Lord God Almighty. Believing him an elderly escapee from the local insane asylum, Lammock alerts the institution and chats with the fellow until his minders can come and get him.

Wells's God is a rather fine piece of comic writing, actually. He quotes Gosse's Omphalos, complains about being trapped in time with the cosmos he has constructed, is variously bad-tempered about what has happened to his formerly pristine universe, and, like a pre-vision of the superb W G Grace God of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he absolutely hates grovelers.
People read their Bibles in such a slovenly fashion. You can hardly call it reading! They bolt the stuff in a state of pious awe. I do so wish they wouldn't. I hate pious people. I hate their abject prayers. Almost always they are mean demands for preferential miracles. Whenever I get a chance, I do them bad turns. I never, if I can help it, answer their prayers. Then they say I am trying them and they crawl more than ever. Where do they get these ideas about me? When have I countenanced any of these verminous saints? Read me. Read my Book. My Bible is fairly plain about it. If only people would read intelligently. The people I favour are upright men who walk with God. It says so over and over again. Not crawlers at his feet. Men who stand up. [Ararat, 1]

The longer he talks, the less certain Lammock becomes that he is an insane asylum escapee, and the more he starts to wonder if he is actually God after all. When staff from the asylum come by, God has mysteriously vanished (though He returns to Lammock over the following days) and the asylum staff go off looking for him elsewhere.

Lammock, God tells him, is actually Lamech. He instructs him to build an ark: ‘into that Ark we will put reproductive samples of every good thing that is in the world, beasts, birds, arts and crafts, inventions and discoveries, literature’ [1]. There is, it seems, an Adversary, and he is behind not only the war, but all science and technology. On the subject of the latter, Wells's God sounds like David St Hubbins asked if this is the end of Spinal Tap as a band:
They come along now declaring that Space is finite. Well, I ask you; isn't that plain nonsense? What do they call whatever there is outside Space? This finite Space isn't metaphysics; this is mountebank physics. They declare we live in an Expanding Universe. What does that mean? Expanding into what? They say that the apprehension of Being is a three-dimensional consciousness system falling through a fourth dimension with the velocity of light. And what is worse, he gets them to make experiments to prove it. [Ararat, 1]
This ‘he’ is the shadow God cast when he first said let there be light. By ending the cosmos God would also end his being. But there's a consequence. ‘As God fades out, the Devil fades also,’ says Lammock. ‘Even now you seem quivering on the very verge of non-existence.’
‘Yes,’ said the Almighty, not without a touch of malice; ‘and man as he grows clearer and firmer, discovers that he too casts a shadow.’

‘There is something in that,’ said Noah. [Ararat, 1]
Still, Lammock is inspired by the prospect of hope for the world, after all, an ark that ‘may perhaps take us at last, by way of Ararat, to Shinar again and so to mankind reunited in one brotherhood, growing in strength and power for ever’ [1]. What to save though? God proposes ‘some sort of cache, or caches, containing all human knowledge and thought and achievement up to date, a sort of Museum Encyclopedia’ like ‘that museum of yours, dusty and derelict’ in ‘your Time Machine for example.’ This leads to some metatextual banter, which is (I can be honest) my favourite kind of banter.
‘I never wrote The Time Machine,’ said Noah.

‘Why pretend?’ said the Lord. ‘The same idea is the framework of your Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. It is World Brain. It crops up more and more frequently in your books as you get older and repeat yourself more and more—’

‘I tell you—. I had nothing to do with these books.’

‘Rubbish! You as are bad as that fellow Bacon. He wrote the entire Elizabethan literature and Ignatius Donnelly proved it. I am a convinced Baconian. You have written every book with the idea of a world reconstruction in it for the last hundred years.’ [Ararat, 2]
This is all pretty jolly, actually. God is excited by the prospect of transferring all human knowledge onto microfiche: ‘“it is possible and practicable to make these microphotographic films ... one thing I will certainly grant you moderns,” said the Lord, “and that is the extraordinary way your gadgets and contrivances facilitate all sorts of things”’ [2]. Noah starts jotting down ideas for the ark, which comes to sound more and more like a Wellsian World-State manifesto:
My Ark cannot be a wide popular movement. Nor can it be a movement among people in power and authority. Ordinary people won't understand a new world they have never seen. That needs some cultivation of the imagination, and people who find this world full of gratifications, will resist any move towards a new world. They will detest the Ark idea, they will gather round to mock and hinder it until the inundation is rolling them over and over. So how do we man the Ark? Wait a bit, Noah; what was that sentence you wrote down when you awoke? Something quintessential for the élite and something very strong and clear and simple for the masses of mankind. Did that get a little deeper into our problem? [Ararat, 2]
It seems that, at this late stage in his life, Wells is slowly coming to an awareness that his proposed Samurai, though he can't imagine the World State Utopia without them, might be, just maybe, who-knows, prone to the temptations and corruptions of power: ‘our élite is our necessity and our menace,’ muses Lammock. ‘The primary danger, I take it, is that the élite will become a self-conscious, self-protective organisation within the State. It will taste the joys of authority and aristocracy ...’ [3] No shit, Sherlammock. Still, Noah thinks this danger can be averted via ‘an intenser religiosity, a livelier passion, a greater awareness of what we are,’ which strikes again the naïve note.

The novella comes to no conclusion. I don't mean in its arguments; I mean actually, in itself. It doesn't even fizzle out; it just stops, mid sentence. So: throughout, God has been putting Noah to sleep (‘dreadfully worried by things—a good long sleep will do him good’) to refresh him. The final chapters of All Aboard for Ararat see Lammock waking up the cabin of an actual ark, far out at sea, with no memory of how he got there. Things, however, aren't going well. The ark has sprung a leak. Arrival at Ararat has been delayed. At this point Wells literally gives-up on telling the tale, and instead jots down a few notes towards the story:
Fish and seagulls become the main articles of diet. The elephants are put on half rations. A stowaway, giving the name of Jonah (which is as much as to say dove in Hebrew) is discovered like a gross devouring maggot among the ship’s stores, thrown overboard, and swallowed by a whale. The whale, after circling about the ark for three days in a manifest indigestion, rejects Jonah contumeliously and offensively. He is taken aboard and complains of his rations ... He shoots an albatross, produces a stagnant and festering calm, and is again put off the ark … and shot by Noah. But continues to float alongside in an unpleasant manner. He swells in his decay. He is towed round to the lee side, but attempts to attach lead sinkers to him fail. [Ararat, 5]
This can't help but disappoint. It would have been interesting to read all this actually written out as proper fiction, rather than being lazily, or exhaustedly, gestured-towards so loosely. They've been at sea for a year and three weeks now. Noah and God have one last conversation, and then the story just stops. ‘Nor will we cease to fight these overwhelming powers ...’ Noah begins to say, and Wells thwunks down his authorial guillotine.
His sentence remains unfinished. The final pages of this story do not appear to be forthcoming. They never may be. As there is so much of current interest in it, it has been decided to print and publish the expanding narrative so far as it goes now. So that this is not so much the end as a colophon, thus:

We are, I guess, sliding down the chute towards Mind at the End of its Tether-level despair. Prospero enacts the end of Shakespeare's writing career by abjuring his rough magic and drowning his book deeper than did ever plummet sound. Lammock enacts the approaching end of Wells's career by just ... giving up, really. It's hard to blame him (I mean, does anyone blame Walter Benjamin for his suicide?). To have lived through the war to end war, having actually coined the phrase ‘The War To End War’, only to have all your worst suspicions confirmed that it was, on the contrary, the War to Enable An Even More Destructive And Appalling War—how could your heart not sink? There's a neat little irony in having your character insist, in Churchillian-Blakean mode, that he will never cease to fight these overwhelming powers as the novel itself abruptly ceases.

On the other hand, the ark itself—Wells's allegory for his hopes of a future achievable Utopia—is still afloat, though leaky, under-supplied and dragging along with it the unsinkable corpse of false-prophets who have lyingly promised the same thing. Or maybe the corpse of Wells's earlier over-optimism. Who knows? God is still with Noah, at the end, after all. And the actual ending of the novella is a colophon (the ark, roiling dangerously in stormy waters), which might make us wonder if it is doomed to sink, but also might offer us a slender beam of hope. After all the English word colophon (‘a printer's or publisher's identifying inscription or logo appearing at the end of a book; a finishing stroke or crowning touch’) is a straight lift from the Ancient Greek κολοφών which means ‘peak, summit’ as well as ‘finishing touch’ and is cognate with κολώνη ‘hill, peak, mountain’. So in a manner of speaking the story does reach its mountain, the Ararat promised in its title.

That manner of speaking is: via textual game-playing, and there's the germ of something interesting in the way All Aboard for Ararat mixes two ludic modes: allegory on the one hand, and a kind of metatextual allusiveness and play on the other. And it is a pretty entertaining, playful piece of writing too, at least until it stages its running-out-of-steam deflationary ending. But allegory and metatextuality aren't actually the same thing, and they fit together in weirdly angular ways here. Lammock allegorically represents Wells, the ark is Wells's lifelong World State project and the flood allegorizes the Second World War. By insisting he did not write The Time Machine, Lammock is actually making a bid to shore-up the logic of the allegory as such. But of course the person who writes all the words that Lammock writes, in this text, did indeed write The Time Machine, so Lammock's doubling-down on the coherence of his allegory is, actually, a kind of lie. Lammock's God is actually a kind of sham (a madhouse escapee, or on another level just a character confected out of words by a writer), but in another sense, since God made the writer who made the words, he is realer than, or at least prior to, anything else in the story

We like to distinguish between allegory and symbolism/allusion by identifying a sort of rigidity in the former mode: Spenser's Redcross Knight is masculine chivalric virtue, and his Duessa is feminine duplicitous falsehood; these characters can't alter their characteristics, any more than Nogbad the Bad could repent and become good. Bunyan's Giant Despair figures despair, and that's as far as interpretation is licensed to go with him. By contrast Blake's sick rose, Williams's red wheelbarrow or, indeed, Shakespeare's Prospero can mean many different things at once. As far as that goes in this novella, Wells won't sit still. What does his Jonah ‘mean’ in the allegory? Wellsian bad conscience? External actors whose actions impede the betterment of mankind (aka the arrival at Ararat)? The text offers us a hint. Jonah leaves the ark and returns with an olive branch, but ‘its leaves were blood-stained and tied with a swastika ribbon’:
‘I have the most satisfactory assurances,’ said Jonah, the Dove, Franco, Pétain, Hoare,* whatever his momentary alias was. ‘If only you would let me arrange!’ [Ararat, 4]
Yes, that's an asterisk, and it leads us to the bottom of the page:
* The reader may season here according to taste in this space reserved for the purpose. Additional pages for the names of local personages and special acquaintances can be inserted if necessary. He will find this an agreeable way of wiling away the time in his air-raid shelter and a fruitful provocative of quite animated discussion almost anywhere.
This Jonah/Ancient Mariner/Pétain opens a ludic space in the interpretive fabric of the novella. Have fun! says Wells. Enjoy your Beckettian Endgame in your air-raid shelter. It's dark enough, as humour, although it's also self-reflexive enough upon the whole exercise to collapse allegory as allegory. This individual is a mad old geezer from a lunatic asylum; and we know he is because officers from that very asylum confirm it as they search Lammock's house for the escapee. But this individual is also God, and God played His own games with allegory, as we all know, by inventing a new variety of the form, calling it Incarnation, and embodying Himself into the world as his own son.

Noah's ark and Jonah-in-the-whale are both an Old Testament stories, of course; but Christian scholars and theologians have appropriated both to a New Testament religious ethos as pre-visions of Christ's saving of mankind, which is why there are so many arks in medieval art. This is, if you like, another kind of allegory, called by its professional practitioners typology, and according to its logic the ark is Christ himself, in whose capacious innards we are all carried to safety through the floodwaters of sin and death; just as, with an aesthetically pleasing inversion, Jonah is also Christ himself, living for three days inside the belly of the leviathan, that is death, before being reborn. Instead of pinning down interpretation into neat patterns, as is the case in Spenser and Bunyan, allegory here begins to proliferate, to metastasize, until the novella itself collapses under the weight of it. Look again at that colophon, with those flame-shaped waves wrapping themselves around that homely ark! Meaning itself is swamping it.

I mentioned earlier Walter Benjamin as an individual who, having struggled through the rise of fascism in the 1930s, eventually gave up. When he believed himself liable to be delivered into the hands of the Nazis, whose mercies towards him (as a Marxist Jew) would not have been tender, he chose instead to commit suicide on the French-Spanish border, September 1940. Part of Benjamin's life work, unfinished at his death, was a theory of allegory. Wells almost certainly knew nothing at all about this: Benjamin's present-day fame as a thinker was far in the future, and at this stage his work was all in German, which Wells did not speak. But it's an interesting conceptual context for what's happening in All Aboard For Ararat.

Benjamin's Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (‘The Origin of German Tragic Drama’, 1928) identifies an expressive version of allegory in 17th century baroque, as a way of unifying mediaeval religiosity and Renaissance materialistion or secularization. For Benjamin Romanticism, by preferring and valorising instead the symbol, and devalying allegory in relation to it, was a wrong-turn in aesthetic history. Read properly, says Benjamin, allegory is not a one-to-one code or mapping operation, but the aesthetic spatialization of the temporal structure of eschatology, a kind of slowing-down of history into a form where we can achieve a kind of transcendent apprehension, into a form in which ‘the measure of time of symbolic experience [Symbolerfahrung] is the mystical instant [Nu]” [Benjamin, Origin German Tragic Drama, 165].
Whereas in the symbol, with the transformation of the deceased the transfigured face of nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption, in allegory the facies hippocratica [‘Hippocratic face’, the face of the dying patient] of history lies before the eyes of the observer as a stiffened, primal landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed as a face—or rather in a death's head [Totenkopfe]” [Benjamin, Origins, 166].
Allegory for Benjamin becomes, in essence, a mystic apprehension of things, and his later (and more famous) study of Baudelaire opens with the Baudelaireian epigraph: ‘tout pour moi devient allégorie’: ‘for me everything becomes allegory.’ Here's Bainard Cowan's summary:
In Benjamin's analysis, allegory is pre-eminently a kind of experience. A paraphrase of his exposition might begin by stating that allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality, or a conviction, as in Dickinson, that ‘this world is not conclusion.’ Allegory would then be the expression of this sudden intuition. But allegory is more than an outward form of expression; it is also the intuition, the inner experience itself. The form such an experience of the world takes is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs. Transforming things into signs is both what allegory does—its technique—and what it is about—its content. Nor is this transformation exclusively an intellectual one: the signs perceived strike notes at the depths of one's being, regardless of whether they point to heaven, to an irretrievable past, or to the grave. [Bainard Cowan, ‘Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory’, New German Critique, 22 (1981), 110]
This is the free-play-of-signifiers stuff that so endeared Benjamin to the postmodernists and deconstructionists back in those black-roll-neck-sweater-wearing gitanes-smoking 1980s, which I remember so very well. But it is all weirdly anticipated in this broken-backed little novella: play and signification, the corrosion of interpretation, the ship of state reimagined as an impossible ship of future-state by virtue of being a mythological ship of the deep past. The elephants are eventually put on quarter rations. But Ararat is still out there, somewhere. It's just (Wells seems to be saying) we're asking the wrong question. It's not a matter of where this mountain is. It's a matter of what it is.

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