The World of H.G. Wells - Part 1

Part 1

The World of H.G. Wells.

by Van Wyck Brooks.


A natural pause appears to have come in the career of Mr. H.G. Wells.

After so many years of travelling up and down through time and s.p.a.ce, familiarizing himself with all the various parts of the solar system and presenting himself imaginatively at all the various geological epochs, from the Stone Age to the end of the world, he has for good and all domesticated himself in his own planet and point of time. This gradual process of slowing down, so to speak, had been evident from the moment of his first appearance. The most obvious fact about his romances of science, considered as a series, is that each one more nearly approached the epoch in which we live, and the realities of this epoch. From the year A.D. 802, 701, witnessed in his first romance by the Time Traveller, we found ourselves at last in the presence of a decade only so remote as that of the war which has now befallen Europe. A similar tendency in his novels has been equally marked. The possibilities of science and socialism have received a diminishing attention relatively beside the possibilities of human reaction to science and socialism. It is individual men and women, and the motives and personalities of individual men and women, which now concern him. Still retaining the entire planet as the playground of his ideas, still upholding science and socialism as his essential heroes, he has been driven by experience to approach these things through human nature as it is. In a recent essay he has told us not to expect any more dramatic novelties: for the present at any rate our business must be to make science and socialism feel at home. Whether or not this may stand as a general diagnosis of our epoch, it is a remarkable confession with regard to his own place in it. For it signifies nothing less than that he has reached the limit of his own circle of ideas and finished his own pioneering, and that his work for the future will be to relate the discoveries of his youth with human experience. He is no longer a "new voice"; his work belongs, for good or ill, to history and literature, and he presents himself from this time forward as a humanist.

In this new posture Wells does not stand alone. He is typical of an entire generation of Englishmen that knows not Oxford, a generation which has been busy with all manner of significant movements and discoveries, too busy indeed to relate them to the common reason of humankind. During these years the word "academic" has been outlawed; naturally so, for the academic mind is to the creative mind what the digestive system is to the human body: a period of energetic exercise must precede its operation. But in order that ideas may be incorporated in society they must submit themselves at the right moment to those digestive processes by which they are liquefied and transmitted through the veins to all the various members of the common organism.

During the last twenty years modern thought has been dominated to an extraordinary degree by men who have been educated solely through the movements in which they have taken part: seldom has there been so universal and so hectic an empiricism. But this is the way the earth moves. Like an inchworm it doubles itself up at intervals and then gradually stretches itself straight again. The whole nineteenth century, according to Taine, was occupied in working out two or three ideas concocted in Germany during the Napoleonic era. History is a succession of Gothic invasions and academic subversions. It marks the end of one of those eras which perpetually overlap one another in various groups of men and cycles of thought that our own Visigoths have capitulated. As the pressure of their own immediate points of view relaxes and they cease to identify their own progress with the progress of men in general, they become perhaps less striking but certainly more useful.

Intensely preoccupied with contemporary ideas and inventions, brilliantly gifted and full of life, these leaders of thought were more innocent of literature and history than a fresh-man. Both Wells and Bernard Shaw have confessed that throughout their most active intellectual careers they believed instinctively that progress was mainly a matter of chronology. To discover the future Wells considered it necessary merely to set his imagination at work on Chicago and multiply it by a thousand; while the famous remark of Shaw that he was "better than Shakespeare" sprang from his a.s.sumption that, living three centuries later, he naturally stood (as a dwarf, in his own phrase) upon Shakespeare's shoulders. This navete placed them at the mercy of literature, as they soon discovered. Everyone knows the change that came over Bernard Shaw's cosmos when for the first time, a few years ago, he read two or three pre-Darwinian philosophers: one could almost have heard a pin drop when he stopped talking about being better than Shakespeare. A similar experience, exhibited in his books, has befallen Wells, and there is no doubt that reading has contributed to the progressive modesty of his point of view. Each monument of historic experience that he has absorbed has left its mark on him. Rabelais, Machiavelli, Plato, incorporated at regular intervals in his own work, have certainly contributed to make him less agile and less dramatic.

Let us take advantage of these post-prandial moments to survey some of the remarkable ideas which have been added to the general stock during this period. After the fashion of Cato, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells have come late to the study of Greek. Bernard Shaw read Plato at fifty, and in his latest book Wells has insisted that in the Great State everyone will study Greek. Nothing could signify more plainly that these outriders of the Modern Mind have come to a halt and wish to connect themselves with tradition, with history, with literature, with religion, with the grand current of human experience. Having been for so long experimenting with new and untried forces, sharply separated from what is received and understood, they should be related to the familiar landmarks and connected with the main stream of English thought and literature.

Grotesque and violent as it may at first appear, I believe that in the future Wells will be thought of as having played toward his own epoch a part very similar to that played by Matthew Arnold. I say this with full recognition of their remoteness in personal quality, recognizing also the difference in their direct objects of attack, in the precise causes they uphold. One thinks of these two vivid personalities--Wells--how shall one picture him?--and Matthew Arnold, that superb middle-cla.s.s gentleman with his great face and deprecating hands--and the comparison is instantly ludicrous. In reality the entire trend of Arnold's social criticism was anti-individualistic and in a straight line with socialism. Seen retrospectively the main work of Wells has not been to promote any intellectual or economic doctrine, but to alter the English frame of mind. The function of each of these men has been to bring home to the English mind a range of ideas not traditional in it.

Indeed this comparison holds (the shock once over) not merely with regard to their general function, but in their specific att.i.tude toward most of the branches of thought and action they have concerned themselves with. Wells on Education, on Criticism, on Politics and the nostrums of Liberalism, Wells even on Religion continues the propaganda of Arnold. Everywhere in these so superficially dissimilar writings is exhibited the same fine dissatisfaction, the same faith in ideas and standards, the same dislike of heated bungling, plunging, wilfulness, and confusion; even the same predominant contempt for most things that are, the same careful vagueness of ideal. It was Arnold who pa.s.sed his life in trying to make England believe in and act upon ideas instead of "muddling through," who never wearied of holding up the superiority of everything French and everything German to everything English, who adopted into his own language that phrase about "seeing things as in themselves they really are." Read his chapter on _Our Liberal Pract.i.tioners_ and you will find the precise att.i.tude of Wells toward the premature inadequate doing of things rather than the continued research, experiment, and discipline which lead to right fulfilments.

Who urged the ventilation of life, affairs, conduct in the light of world experience? Who preached the gospel of reasonableness, mutual understanding, and more light? Who spurred England to cultivate the virtue of intellectual curiosity? Who believed with a paradoxical pa.s.sion in coolness and detachment? In each of these things what Arnold was to his generation Wells remarkably has been to ours. Differing in their view of the substance of religion, their conception of the Church as a great common receptacle for the growing experience of the race is precisely the same, fragmentation, segregation, sectarianism being to both of them in this matter the greatest of evils. The love of curiosity, centrality, ventilation, detachment, common understanding, coolness and reasonableness and a realistic vision, the dislike of confusion, bungling, wilfulness, incompetence, hot-headedness, complacency, sectarianism--these are quite fundamental traits, and Arnold and Wells share them in a remarkable degree. It is quite true that Arnold lived in a universe which only with some reluctance confessed to three dimensions, while that of Wells trembles with the coming of a fourth. But in any case it is worth while to release a phenomenon like Wells from the medium of purely contemporary influences, and for this purpose it is convenient to see a socialist in the light of a man who knew nothing of socialism, to see that socialism is itself a natural outgrowth of those "best things that have been thought and said in the world." It is important to realize that the train of thought and the circle of ideas of this man are connected with a well-recognized branch of intellectual tradition. And even socialism is benefitted by having friends at court.



"I am, by a sort of predestination, a socialist," Wells wrote once. And everything one can say of him serves merely to explain, justify, qualify, illuminate and refine that statement.

First of all it implies a certain disposition and certain habits of mind, habits of mind which are all to be found in the first phase of his work, in those marvellous tales of Time and s.p.a.ce that won him his original sensational fame. It is this disposition behind them, this quality they have as of an inevitable att.i.tude toward life and the world, which distinguishes them at once from those other superficially similar tales of Jules Verne. The marvels of Jules Verne are just marvels, delightful, irresponsible plunderings from a helpless universe.

To the grown-up mind they have a little of that pathetic futility one a.s.sociates with a millionaire's picture-gallery, where all sorts of things have been brought together, without any exercise of inevitable personal choice, because they are expensive. I don't know that the tales of Wells are better tales, but they have that ulterior synthetic quality that belongs to all real expressions of personality. Wells was never merely inventive; his invention was the first stage of an imaginative growth.

Now the quality that pervades all these early writings is what may be called a sense of the infinite plasticity of things. He conceived a machine that could travel through time, a man who found a way to become invisible, a drug that made men float like balloons, another drug that enabled men to live a thousand hours in one, a crystal egg through which one could watch the life in Mars, a man who could stop the sun like Joshua, a food that turned men into giants, a biologist who discovered a method of carving animals into men, an angel who visited a rural vicar, a mermaid who came to earth in search of a soul, a homicidal orchid, a gigantic bird hatched from a prehistoric egg, a man who pa.s.sed outside s.p.a.ce. In short, the universe appeared to him like that magic shop of which he also wrote, where the most astonishing things may happen, if you are the Right Sort of Boy.

If all this implies anything it implies that things in general are not fixed and static, but that they are, on the contrary, infinitely plastic, malleable, capable of responding to any purpose, any design you may set working among them. The universe, it seems to a.s.sume, may be and quite possibly is proceeding after some logical method of its own, but so far as man is concerned this method appears to be one of chance.

Obviously, man can do the most surprising things in it, can take as it were all sorts of liberties with it. The universe, in short, is like a vacant field which may or may not belong to some absent landlord who has designs of his own upon it; but until this absent landlord appears and claims his field, all the children in the neighborhood can build huts in it and play games upon it and, in a word, for all practical purposes, consider it their own.

This idea of the relation between free will and determinism is the underlying a.s.sumption of Wells, as he explains it in _First and Last Things_:

Take life at the level of common sensations and common experience and there is no more indisputable fact than man's freedom of will, unless it is his complete moral responsibility. But make only the least penetrating of scientific a.n.a.lyses and you perceive a world of inevitable consequences, a rigid succession of cause and effect.

And elsewhere he says:

On the scientific plane one is a fatalist.... But does the whole universe of fact, the external world about me, the mysterious internal world from which my motives rise, form one rigid and fated system as Determinists teach? I incline to that belief.... From me as a person this theory of predestination has no practical value.... I hesitate, I choose just as though the thing was unknowable. For me and my conduct there is that much wide practical margin of freedom. I am free and freely and responsibly making the future--so far as I am concerned.

In a word, for all the purposes that affect man's need the universe is infinitely plastic and amenable to his will. Like every clean-cut philosophical conception, this clears the ground for practical conduct and a certain sort of direct action.

There was a time, no doubt, when he shared the old Utopian folly of expecting a sudden and unanimous change of human will. When the universe appears as unconventional as it used to appear to Wells, there can surely be no reason to think it impossible, after a comet has collided with the world, for the human race to become suddenly Utopian. Generally speaking, comets do not collide with the world, and in the same way men are slow to change. But certainly if Wells ever thought of humanity as merely a multiplication of one pattern, certainly if he has long since abandoned the idea of our all turning over a new leaf one fine morning, he has never lost his faith in free will as regards the individual. He has always believed in the personal doctrine of summarily "making an end to things" as distinguished from the old-fashioned doctrine of "making the best of things"; and there is nothing more modern about him than his aversion to the good old English theory of "muddling through."

Mr. Polly is a good example of his view of personal direct action, the getting rid, quickly and decisively, of a situation that has only sentiment to save it from complete demoralization. "When a man has once broken through the wall of every-day circ.u.mstances," he remarks at the moment of the Polly _debacle_, "he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, _you can change it_. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether." Mr. Polly sets fire to his shop, takes to the road and repairs his digestion. Desertion of duty and the quick repudiation of entanglements make him healthy and sensible and give him a sense of purpose in things. And I know of nothing in all Wells that is described with more relish than that Beltane festival which occurs toward the end of _In the Days of the Comet_. The world's great age has begun anew, and the enlightened men of the new time revive the May Day of old in order to burn the useless trappings of the past.

They heap old carpets on the fire, ill-designed furniture, bad music and cheap pictures, stuffed birds, obsolete school-books, dog-eared penny fiction, sham shoes, and all the corrugated iron in the world; every tangible thing that is useless, false, disorderly, accidental, obsolete, and tawdry to celebrate the beginning of things that are clean, beautiful, and worthy. Sceptical, hesitant, and personal as Wells has become, that indicates a strong primitive mental trait. Philosophy does not spring out of the brain; we hate the hateful things of our own experience, just as we think the things we desire. And though there are nine and sixty ways of being a socialist, they all unite in a certain sense of the plasticity and malleability of things human, a certain faith in the possibility of a.s.serting order in the midst of disorder and intelligently cleaning house.

Inherent in this trait is another--detachment. You only become aware of confusion when you stand free of it, when you cease to be a part of it.

And of all writers who have so immediately felt life I doubt if there has been one so detached as Wells. The mental detachment of his early tales is a detachment half scientific, half artistic; scientific as of one who sees things experimentally in their material, molecular aspect, artistic as of one conscious of moulding will and placed amid plastic material. Thus, for example, he sees human beings quite stripped of their distinctively human qualities; he sees men anatomically, as in that pa.s.sage where the Invisible Man, killed with a spade, becomes visible again as a corpse:

Everyone saw, faint and transparent as though it were made of gla.s.s, so that veins and arteries and bones and nerves could be distinguished, the outline of a hand, a hand limp and It grew clouded and opaque even as they stared.... And so, slowly, beginning at his hands and feet and creeping along his limbs to the vital centres of his body, that strange change continued. First came the little white nerves, a hazy gray stretch of a limb, then the glossy bones and intricate arteries, then the flesh and skin, first a faint fogginess, then growing rapidly dense and opaque.

Similar is a pa.s.sage in _A Story of the Days to Come_, where he describes an ordinary breakfast of our own day: "the rude of bread needing to be carved and smeared over with animal fat before they could be made palatable, the still recognizable fragments of recently killed animals, hideously charred and hacked." That surely is quite as a man from another planet, or a chemist after a long day's work in the laboratory, would view our familiar human things. And one recalls another sentence from _Kipps_ where this detachment links itself with a deeper social insight and hints at the part it had come to play in Wells's later mind: "I see through the darkness," he says, toward the end of the book, "the souls of my Kippses as they are, _as little pink strips of quivering, living stuff_, as things like the bodies of little ill-nourished, ailing, ignorant children--children who feel pain, who are naughty and muddled and suffer, and do not understand why."

And just as he sees men and human things chemically and anatomically, so he sees the world astronomically. He has that double quality (like his own Mr. Bessel) of being bodily very active in life and at the same time watching it from a great distance. In his latest book he has figured a G.o.d looking on from the clouds; and there is nothing in his novels more stimulating and more uncanny than a certain faculty of telescoping his view suddenly from the very little to the very large, expanding and contracting his vision of things at will. You find the germ of this faculty in his early tales. Looking down as though from a balloon he sees the world as a planet, as a relatively small planet. In doing so he maintains at first a purely scientific set of values; he is not led, as he has since been led, and as Leopardi was led by the same imaginative experience, to adopt poetical values and to feel acutely the littleness and the powerlessness of man. His values remain scientific, and the absurdity he feels is the absurdity an astronomer must feel, that in so small a s.p.a.ce men can vaunt themselves and squabble with one another.

Race prejudice, for example, necessarily appears to him as foolish as it would appear to ordinary eyes among insects that happen to be swarming on a fallen apple. Once you get it into your mind that the world is a ball in s.p.a.ce, you find a peculiar silliness in misunderstandings on that ball. This reflection has led to many views of life; in Wells it led to a sense of the need of human solidarity.

And solidarity implies order. The sense of order is one of those instincts exhibited everywhere in the writings of Wells that serve as preliminaries to his social philosophy. There is a pa.s.sage in _Kipps_ where he pictures the satisfactions of shopkeeping to an elect soul: "There is, of course, nothing on earth," he says, "and I doubt at times if there is a joy in heaven, like starting a small haberdasher's shop.

Imagine, for example, having a drawerful of tapes, or again, an array of neat, large packages, each displaying one sample of hooks and eyes.

Think of your cottons, your drawer of colored silks," etc. De Foe knew a similar satisfaction and has pictured it in _Robinson Crusoe_. De Foe was himself a shopkeeper, just as Wells has been in one of his incarnations; and he knew that good shopkeeping is the microcosm of all good political economy. The satisfaction of a thoroughly competent man who is thrown on a desert island, and sets to work to establish upon it a political economy for one, is a satisfaction by itself. That certainly is a primitive relish, and it is one of the first gestures of Wells's sociology.

Now the sense of solidarity, the sense of order, implies the subordination of details, the discipline of const.i.tuent units. Only in his later works did Wells begin to consider the problems of the individual life; in his novels he has considered them almost exclusively, but always in relation to the constructive purpose of society and as what may be called human reservations from it. The telescope has been adjusted to a close range, and the wider relationships are neither so emphasized nor so easily discerned.

Nevertheless it is still the world that matters to Wells--the world, the race, the future; not the individual human being. And if, relatively, he has become more interested in the individual and less in the world, that is because he is convinced that the problems of the world can best be approached through the study of individuals. His philosophy has grown less abstract in harmony with his own experience; but the first sketch of his view of human nature and its function is to be found crudely outlined in the scientific romances. How does it figure there?

The human beings who flit through these early tales are all inconspicuous little men, whose private existence is of no account, and who exist to discover, invent, perform all sorts of wonderful experiments which almost invariably result in their summary and quite unimportant destruction. They are merely, in the most complete sense, experiments in the collective purpose, and their creator has toward them just the att.i.tude of an anatomist toward the animals upon which he is experimenting; not indifferent to their suffering as suffering, but ignoring it in the spirit of scientific detachment necessary to subordinate means to an end. "I wanted--it was the only thing I wanted--to find out the limit of plasticity in a living form," says Dr.

Moreau in his confession; "and the study has made me as remorseless as nature."

Invariably these experiments in human possibility, placed in a world where charity is not so strong as fear, die quite horribly. Dr. Moreau is destroyed by the beasts he is attempting to vivisect into the semblance of men, the Invisible Man is battered to death with a spade, the Visiting Angel burns to death in attempting to carry out his celestial errand, the man who travels to the moon cannot get back alive.

Does not all this foreshadow the burden of the later novels, that the individual who plans and wills for the race is destroyed and broken by the jealousy, prejudice and inertia in men and the blind immemorial forces of nature surging through himself? These are the forces that are figured, in the early tales, by that horrible hostile universe of nature, and the little intrepid men moving about in the midst of it. And the mind of Wells is always prepared for the consequences of what it engenders. The inevitable result of creating an imaginary world of malignant vegetables and worse than antediluvian monsters is that the imaginary men you also create shall suffer through them. You reverse the order of evolution and return men to conditions where life is cheap. An imagination which has accustomed itself to running loose among planets and falling stars, which has lived habitually in a universe where worlds battle with one another, is prepared to stomach a little needless bloodshed. The inflexible pursuit of an end implies the sacrifice of means, and if your experiment happens to be an invisible man you will produce the invisibility even though it kills the man.

Widen the range and this proposition logically trans.m.u.tes itself into a second: if your experiment happens to be an orderly society you will produce order at the expense of everything that represents disorder. And from the point of view of a collective purpose, ends, motives and affections that are private and have no collective significance represent disorder. Now the whole purpose of Wells's later work has been to illuminate and refine this proposition. He has flatly distinguished between two sorts of human nature, the constructive, experimental sort which lives essentially for the race, and the acquiescent, ineffectual sort which lives essentially for itself or the established fact; and he gives to his experimental men and women an almost unlimited charter to make ducks and drakes of the ineffectual. Think of the long list of dead and wounded in his novels--Mr. Pope, Mr. Stanley, Mr. Magnet, Mr.

Manning, Margaret, Marion--and you realize how much of a certain cruelty, a certain ruthlessness is in the very nature of his philosophy of experimental direct action.

Another primitive relish exhibited in these early tales is the delight of constructing things. The Time Machine, for example, is the work of a mind that immoderately enjoys inventing, erecting, and putting things together; and there is not much difference between constructing an imaginary machine and constructing an imaginary society. If Wells's early Utopian speculations are ingenious impossibilities, are they any more or less so than his mechanical speculations? One doesn't begin life with an overwhelming recognition of the obstacles one may encounter--one doesn't fret too much about the possible, the feasible, or even the logical. It was enough for Wells that he had built his Time Machine, though the logic by which the Time Traveller explains his process is a logic that gives me, at least, a sense of helpless, blinking discomfort--partly, I confess, because to this day I don't believe there is anything the matter with it. In any case it is the sheer delight of construction that fascinates him, and everything that is a.s.sociated with construction fascinates him. He is in love with steel; he speaks with a kind of ecstasy somewhere of "light and clean and shimmering shapes of silvered steel"; steel and iron have for him the transcendental charm that harebells and primroses had for Wordsworth. A world like that in _The Sleeper Awakes_--a world of gigantic machines, air fleets, and the "swimming shadows and enormous shapes" of an engineer's nightmare--is only by afterthought, one feels, the speculation of a sociologist. It expresses the primitive relish of a constructive instinct. It expresses also a sheer curiosity about the future.

In a chapter of his book on America Wells has traced the development of what he calls his prophetic habit of mind as a pa.s.sage through four stages: the millennial stage of an evangelical childhood when an imminent Battle of Armageddon was a natural thing to be looked for; the stage of ultimate biological possibilities; the stage of prediction by the rule-of-three; and a final stage of cautious antic.i.p.ation based upon the study of existing facts--a gradual pa.s.sage from the region of religious or scientific possibilities to the region of human probabilities. "There is no Being but Becoming" was the first of his mental discoveries; and finding years later that Herac.l.i.tus had said the same thing, he came to regard the pre-Aristotelian metaphysics as the right point of departure for modern thought. Consider this pa.s.sage:

I am curiously not interested in things and curiously interested in the consequences of things.... I have come to be, I am afraid, even a little insensitive to fine immediate things through this antic.i.p.atory habit.... This habit of mind confronts and perplexes my sense of things that simply _are_, with my brooding preoccupation with how they will shape presently, what they will lead to, what seed they will sow and how they will wear. At times, I can a.s.sure the reader, this quality approaches other-worldliness in its constant reference to an all-important hereafter. There are times indeed when it makes life seem so transparent and flimsy, seem so dissolving, so pa.s.sing on to an equally transitory series of consequences, that the enhanced sense of instability becomes restlessness and distress; but on the other hand nothing that exists, nothing whatever, remains altogether vulgar or dull and dead or hopeless in its light.... But the interest is shifted. The pomp and splendor of established order, the braying triumphs, ceremonies, consummations,--one sees these glittering shows for what they are--through their threadbare grandeur shine the little significant things that will make the future.

And the burden of his lecture _The Discovery of the Future_ is that an inductive knowledge of the future is not only very largely possible, but is considerably more important for us than the study of the past. Even in the sciences, he says, the test of their validity is their power to produce confident forecasts. Astronomy is based on the forecast of stellar movements, medical science exists largely for diagnosis. It is this thought which determines the nature of his own sociology.

There is usually something inept in speaking of a man, and especially an artist, as interchangeable with any ism. Socialism, in the common sense of the word, is a cla.s.sification of men. Individual socialists are as a rule something more than socialists; often they are socialists by necessity, or imagination, or sentiment, or expediency--their socialism is not inherent, not the frame of their whole being. In the degree that socialism is a cla.s.sification, or a school of thought, or an economic theory, the individual socialist will, in practice, make mental reservations from it. Now my whole aim in this chapter has been to suggest that if socialism had not existed Wells would have invented it.

It is not something which at a given moment or even after a long process of imaginative conversion or conviction came into his life. It is, in his own formulation of it, the projection of his whole nature, the expression of his will, the very content of his art. With one or two exceptions--works deliberately devoted to propaganda or exposition--even his purely sociological writings are subjective writings, personal and artistic in motive; socialism figures in them just as Catholicism figures in the of Mozart, or the brotherhood of man in the poems of Whitman, not as a cause but as a satisfying conception of truth. And just as, if one were to study the psychology of Mozart or Whitman, one would find habits of mind that inevitably produced the individual Catholicism of the one and the individual fraternalism of the other; so behind the socialism of Wells are certain habits of mind, certain primitive likes, relishes, instincts, preferences: a faith in free will, a sense of order and the subordination of details to design, a personal detachment, a pleasure in construction, a curiosity about the future.

These are innate qualities, which inevitably produced their own animating purpose.