The World of H.G. Wells - Part 3

Part 3

I see myself in life as part of a great physical being that strains and I believe grows toward Beauty, and of a great mental being that strains and I believe grows towards knowledge and power. In this persuasion that I am a gatherer of experience, a mere tentacle that arranged thought beside thought for this Being of the Species, this Being that grows beautiful and powerful, in this persuasion I find the ruling idea of which I stand in need, the ruling idea that reconciles and adjudicates among my warring motives. In it I find both concentration of myself and escape from myself, in a word, I find _Salvation_.

And again later:

The race flows through us, the race is the drama and we are the incidents. This is not any sort of poetical statement: it is a statement of fact. In so far as we are individuals, so far as we seek to follow merely individual ends, we are accidental, disconnected, without significance, the sport of chance. In so far as we realize ourselves as experiments of the species for the species, just in so far do we escape from the accidental and the chaotic. We are episodes in an experience greater than ourselves.... Now none of this, if you read me aright, makes for the suppression of one's individual difference, but it does make for its correlation.

We have to get everything we can out of ourselves for this very reason that we do not stand alone; we signify as parts of a universal and immortal development. Our separate selves are our charges, the talents of which much has to be made.

It is because we are episodical in the great synthesis of life that we have to make the utmost of our individual lives and traits and possibilities.

Naturally then, just as he holds by the existing State as a rudimentary collective organ in public affairs, so also, in theory, he holds by the existing Church. His Church of the Future bears to the existing Church just the relation which the ultimate State of socialism bears to the existing State. "The theory of a religion," says Wells, "may propose the attainment of Nirvana or the propitiation of an irascible Deity or a dozen other things as its end and aim. The practical fact is that it draws together great mult.i.tudes of diverse individualized people in a common solemnity and self-subordination, however vague, and is so far like the State, and in a manner far more intimate and emotional and fundamental than the State, a synthetic power. And in particular the idea of the Catholic Church is charged with synthetic suggestion; it is in many ways an idea broader and finer than the constructive idea of any existing State."

All of which I take to be very much the position of Erasmus face to face with Luther and of Matthew Arnold face to face on the one hand with Nonconformity and on the other with Darwinism: that the Church is a social fact greater in importance than any dogmatic system it contains.

To Wells any sort of voluntary self-isolation, any secession from anything really synthetic in society, is a form of "sin." And like many Catholics he justifies a certain Machiavelism in squaring one's personal doubts with the collective end. Thus he holds that test oaths and declarations of formal belief are of the same nature as the oath of allegiance a republican takes to the King, petty barriers that cannot weigh against the good that springs from placing oneself _en rapport_ with the collective religious consciousness; at least in the case of national Churches, which profess to represent the whole spiritual life of a nation and which cannot therefore be regarded as exclusive to any affirmative religious man. The individual, he says, must examine his special case and weigh the element of treachery against the possibility of cooperation; as far as possible he must repress his private tendency toward social fragmentation, hold fast to the idea of the Church as essentially a larger fact than any specific religious beliefs, and work within it for the recognition of this fact. I have mentioned Catholic reasoning; Wells appears to be in general agreement with Newman as to the subordination of private intellectual scruples to the greater unity of faith.

But indeed I doubt if it is fair to take him too much at his word in specific matters of this kind. _First and Last Things_ has that slightly official quality which goes with all Confessions of Faith out loud. If his intention has led him to square himself with lines of thought and conduct where, to speak the truth, he is an alien, his intention remains, and that is plain and fine.

The synthetic motive gains its very force through the close-knitting of keenly-developed, proud, and valiant individualities. In Wells the synthetic motive and the individual motive qualify and b.u.t.tress one another; and he is quite as much opposed to the over-predominance of the synthetic motive where the personal motive is deficient as he is to the self-indulgence of the purely personal life. Thus the a.s.sembly in _A Modern Utopia_ is required to contain a certain number of men outside the Samurai cla.s.s, because, as they explain, "there is a certain sort of wisdom that comes of sin and laxness, which is necessary to the perfect ruling of life," and their Canon contains a prayer "to save the world from unfermented men." So also in _First and Last Things_ Wells remarks: "If I were a father confessor I should begin my catalogue of sins by asking, 'Are you a man of regular life?' and I would charge my penitent to go away forthwith and commit some practicable saving irregularity; to fast or get drunk or climb a mountain or sup on pork and beans or give up smoking or spend a month with publicans and sinners." Plainly his collective purpose is nothing unless it consists of will, will even to wilfulness, even to perversity.

And this leads one back to that early a.s.sertion of his that since beings and circ.u.mstances are unique, we must get rid of the idea that conduct should be regulated by general principles. Similarly, at the outset of _Mankind in the Making_ he says it is necessary "to reject and set aside all abstract, refined, and intellectualized ideas as starting propositions, such ideas as Right, Liberty, Happiness, Duty, or Beauty, and to hold fast to the a.s.sertion of the fundamental nature of life as a tissue and succession of births." Goodness and Beauty, he says, cannot be considered apart from good and beautiful things and one's personal notions of the good and beautiful have to be determined by one's personal belief about the meaning of life. Thus, to take an ill.u.s.tration from his novels, one of the most odious traits of such a father as Ann Veronica's or Mr. Pope in _Marriage_ is that they wish to regulate their daughters, not by a study of what is and must be good in their eyes, but by a general sweeping view of what good daughters ought to be.

Now since his own idea of the purpose of life is the development of the collective consciousness of the race, his idea of the Good is that which contributes to this synthesis, and the Good Life is that which, as he says, "most richly gathers and winnows and prepares experience and renders it available for the race, that contributes most effectively to the collective growth." And as a corollary to this, Sin is essentially "the service of secret and personal ends." The conflict in one way or another between this Good and this Evil forms the substance of each of the main group of his novels. Aside from the novels of shop-life, each of his men begins life with a pa.s.sionate and disinterested ambition to gather and prepare experience and render it available for the race; each one falls from this ambition to the service of secret and personal ends. Lewisham, Capes, Ponderevo, Remington, Trafford are, each in his own way, human approximations, with all the discount of actual life, of the ethical standard of Wells himself as it is generalized in the New Republicans and the Samurai. They ill.u.s.trate how fully the socialism of Wells is summed up in a conception of character.

But before turning to the actual men and women who form the substance of his novels, I must add something about those wraith-like beings, the Samurai of _A Modern Utopia,_ which fully embody his ideal.

The name Samurai, to begin with, is not a random choice, for it is plain that the j.a.panese temper is akin to that of Wells. The career of the j.a.panese as a nation during the last fifty years perfectly ill.u.s.trates his frequent contention that in modern warfare success falls to the nation that has most completely realized the socialistic, as distinguished from the individualistic, notion of society. "Behind her military capacity is the disciplined experience of a thousand years,"

says Lafcadio Hearn, who proceeds to show at what cost, in everything we are apt to regard as human, this disciplined power has been achieved--the cost of individual privacy in rights, property, and conduct.

But aside from social ideals and achievements one instinctively feels that Wells likes j.a.panese human nature. In one of his early essays, long since out of print, he remarks:

I like my art unadorned; thought and skill and the other strange quality that is added thereto to make things beautiful--and nothing more. A farthing's worth of paint and paper, and behold! a thing of beauty!--as they do in j.a.pan.

And if it should fall into the fire--well, it has gone like yesterday's sunset, and to-morrow there will be another.

He contrasts this with the ordinary English view of art and property, mahogany furniture and "handsome" possessions:

The pretence that they were the accessories to human life was too transparent. _We_ were the accessories; we minded them for a little while, and then we pa.s.sed away. They wore us out and cast us aside. We were the changing scenery; they were the actors who played on through the piece.

_There is no Being but Becoming_ is the special dictum of Wells, a dictum which does not consort with mahogany sideboards, but is tangibly expressed in j.a.panese architecture. And if Wells naturally likes j.a.panese art, its economy, delicacy, ephemerality, its catlike nicety, its paucity of color, its emphasis of design, its "starkness," it is plain also that many qualities of the j.a.panese character must also appeal irresistibly to him: the light hold they have on all those things into which one settles down, from stolid leather arm-chairs to comfortable private fortunes; their lack of self-consequence, their alertness, their athletic freedom from everything that enc.u.mbers, their remoteness from port-wine and _embonpoint._ These things exist in Wells's notion of right human nature.

Thus the Samurai. They are delegates of the species, experimenting and searching for new directions; they instinctively view themselves as explorers for the race, as disinterested agents. And their own self-development on this disinterested basis is not only the purpose of their own lives, but also the method by which the Life Impulse discovers and records itself and pushes on to ever wider and richer manifestations.

The socialism of Wells is merely a building out from this conception. He is persuaded that this kind of experimental exercise is not simply a happy indulgence for the few fortunately placed, but that it is actually virtue and the only virtue. And this notion of personal virtue--personal in quality, social in effect--once conceded, it follows that the moulding of life must proceed with reference to this.



There is always a certain disadvantage in approaching human nature through a theory or in the light of an ideal. If I am doing that, it is my own fault and by no means the fault of Wells. He has himself abandoned socialism, in the ordinary sense of the term, because it has too much of the _a priori_ about it; he has abandoned economics because it deals with man as a ma.s.s-mind; he has come to rest in human nature itself and he has made his theories subject to human nature.

"All fables, indeed, have their morals; but the innocent enjoy the story," says Th.o.r.eau. Most readers of the novels of Wells, I suppose, have no notion that a theory of life runs through them and unites them.

And they are right. The force of a work of art does not reside in its "inner meanings." An admirable work of art will always no doubt possess "inner meanings" in plenty and the unhappy mind of man will always rout them out. But to separate the intellectual structure of anything from the thing itself is just like any other kind of vivisection: you expose the brain and you kill the dog. A work of art is a moving living whole that speaks to the moving living whole which is oneself. We are insensibly modified by reading as by other experience. We come to feel differently, see differently, act differently. Without doubt Wells has altered the air we breathe and has made a conscious fact in many minds the excellence that resides in certain types of men and modes of living and the odiousness that resides in others. Socialism, like everything else which changes the world, comes as a thief in the night.

Still, it is plain that Wells himself began with doctrine foremost; richness of experience has led him only after many years to get the horse before the cart. From the first he was aware of a point of view--it was the point of view, writ large, of his own self-made career, growing gradually more and more coherent. Throughout his romances, down to the very end, his chief interest was theoretical rather than human.

Only this can account for the violent wrenching of life and character in them to suit the requirements of a predetermined idea. The Food of the G.o.ds, for example, is so far the essential fact of the book that bears its name that the characters in this book are merely employed to give the Food a recognizable human setting. Throughout his romances, indeed, men exist for inventions, not inventions for men.

Yet the "human interest," as it is called, was there from the outset, side by side with this main theoretic interest in the scientific and socialistic possibilities of life. The series of novels began almost as early as the series of romances. Two "streams of tendency" run side by side throughout the earlier writings of Wells--streams of tendency which meet fully for the first time in _Tono-Bungay_, and have formed a single main current in the novels subsequent to that. On the one hand was the stream of constructive theory, not yet brought into contact with human nature, on the other the stream of "human interest," not yet brought into contact with constructive theory. Mr. Hoopdriver, of _The Wheels of Chance,_ and Kipps, are typical of this earlier fiction, specimens of muddled humanity as such, one might say, quite unmitigated by the train of thought, the possibility of doing something _with_ muddled humanity, which was growing more and more urgent in the romances.

In _Tono-Bungay_, as I have said, one sees the union of these two trains of interest, muddled humanity being represented in Uncle Ponderevo, constructive theory in George Ponderevo. And in all the subsequent novels this fusion continues. The background in each case is the static world of muddle from which Wells is always pushing off into the open sea of possibilities, the foreground being occupied by a series of men and women who represent this dynamic forward movement. And the philosophy of Wells has finally come to port in human nature.

"Few modern socialists," he says somewhere, "present their faith as a complete panacea, and most are now setting to work in earnest upon those long-shirked preliminary problems of human interaction through which the vital problem of a collective head and brain can alone be approached."

And elsewhere he says: "Our real perplexities are altogether psychological. There are no valid arguments against a great-spirited socialism but this, that people will not. Indolence, greed, meanness of spirit, the aggressiveness of authority, and above all jealousy, jealousy from pride and vanity, jealousy for what we esteem our possessions, jealousy for those upon whom we have set the heavy fetters of our love, a jealousy of criticism and a.s.sociation, these are the real obstacles to those brave large reconstructions, those profitable abnegations and brotherly feats of generosity that will yet turn human life--of which our individual fives are but the momentary parts--into a glad, beautiful and triumphant cooperation all round this sunlit world."

Inevitably then he sees the world as divided roughly into two worlds, and human nature as of two general kinds. There is the static world, the normal, ordinary world which is on the whole satisfied with itself, together with the great ma.s.s of men who compose and sanction it; and there is the ever-advancing better world, pushing through this outworn husk in the minds and wills of creative humanity. In one of his essays he has figured this opposition as between what he calls the Normal Social Life and the Great State. And in one of those _degage_ touch-and-go sketches in which he so often sums up the history of humankind, he has presented the Normal Social Life as a "common atmosphere of cows, hens, dung, toil, ploughing, economy, and domestic intimacy," an immemorial state of being which implies on the part of men and women a perpetual acquiescence--a satisfied or hopeless consent--to the end of time. But as against this normal conception of life he points out that modern circ.u.mstances have developed in men, through machinery, the division of labor, etc., a "surplus life" which does not fit into the Normal scheme at all, and that humanity has returned "from a closely tethered to a migratory existence." And he observes: "The history of the immediate future will, I am convinced, be very largely the history of the conflict of the needs of this new population with the inst.i.tutions, the boundaries, the laws, prejudices, and deep-rooted traditions established during the home-keeping, localized era of mankind's career."

Two conceptions of life, two general types of character, two ethical standards are here set in opposition, and this opposition is maintained throughout the novels of Wells. Thus on the t.i.tle-page of _The New Machiavelli_ appears the following quotation from Professor James: "It suffices for our immediate purpose that tender-minded and tough-minded people ... do both exist." In _A Modern Utopia_ this division appears typically in the two men from our world who play off against one another, the botanist and the narrator of the story. The "tender-mindedness" of the botanist is exhibited in the fact that he cares nothing for a better world if it is to deprive him of the muddled, inferior and sentimental attachments of his accustomed life, and prefers them to the austerer, braver prospect that is offered him.

"Tough-mindedness," on the other hand, is above all the state of living, not in one's attachments, habits, possessions, not in the rut of least resistance, but in the sense of one's constructive and cooperative relationship to the whole sum of things, in being "a conscious part of that web of effort and perplexity which wraps about our globe." And indeed the constant theme of the novels of Wells might be described as tough-mindedness with lapses.

For the heroes of Wells do lapse: they pay that tribute to "human nature" and the overwhelming anti-social forces in the world and in man himself. They fall, as a rule, from "virtue" to the service of secret and personal ends. _Cherchez la femme_. Mr. Lewisham, insufficiently prepared and made to feel that society does not want him, has to give up his disinterested ambitions in science and scramble for money to support a wife whom instinct has urged him, however imprudently, to marry.

George Ponderevo gives up science and is forced into abetting his uncle's patent medicine enterprise for the same reason. For the same reason, too, Capes takes to commercial play-writing to support Ann Veronica; and to stand behind the extravagance of Marjorie, Trafford, having discovered in his researches an immensely valuable method of making artificial india-rubber which he is going to make public for the use of society, is persuaded to compromise his honor as a scientist and monopolize his discovery for private gain. In _Tono-Bungay_ the enterprise is a swindling patent medicine, which many business men would refuse to have anything to do with; but in _Marriage_ the proposition belongs to what is called "legitimate business," and it may be well to quote a pa.s.sage to show the subtlety and, at the same time, from this point of view, the very substantial nature of temptation and sin:

Solomonson had consulted Trafford about this matter at Vevey, and had heard with infinite astonishment that Trafford had already roughly prepared and was proposing to complete and publish, unpatented and absolutely unprotected, first a smashing demonstration of the unsoundness of Behren's claim and then a lucid exposition of just what had to be done and what could be done to make an india-rubber absolutely indistinguishable from the natural product. The business man could not believe his ears.

"My dear chap, positively--you mustn't!" Solomonson had screamed.... "Don't you see all you are throwing away?"

"I suppose it's our quality to throw such things away,"

said Trafford.... "When men dropped that idea of concealing knowledge, alchemist gave place to chemist, and all that is worth having in modern life, all that makes it better and safer and more hopeful than the ancient life began."

"My dear fellow," said Solomonson, "I know, I know. But to give away the synthesis of rubber! To just shove it out of the window into the street!"... Everything that had made Trafford up to the day of his marriage was antagonistic to such strategic reservations. The servant of science has as such no concern with personal consequences; his business is the steady relentless clarification of knowledge. The human affairs he changes, the wealth he makes or destroys, are no concern of his; once these things weigh with him, become primary, he has lost his honor as a scientific man.

"But you _must_ think of consequences," Solomonson had cried during those intermittent talks at Vevey. "Here you are, shying this cheap synthetic rubber of yours into the world--for it's bound to be cheap! anyone can see that--like a bomb into a market-place. What's the good of saying you don't care about the market-place, that _your_ business is just to make bombs and drop them out of the window? You smash up things just the same. Why! you'll ruin hundreds and thousands of people, people living on rubber shares, people working in plantations, old, inadaptable workers in rubber works...."

"I believe we can do the stuff at tenpence a pound," said Solomonson, leaning back in his chair at last.... "So soon, that is, as we deal in quant.i.ty. Tenpence! We can lower the price and spread the market, sixpence by sixpence. In the end--there won't be any more plantations. Have to grow tea."

There we have Eve and the apple brought up to date, sin being the choice of a private and individual good at the expense of the general good. The honor of a doctor or a scientist consists in not concealing and monopolizing discoveries. But why should the line be drawn at doctors and scientists? There is the crux of socialist ethics.

By this type of compromise the actual New Republicans fall short of their Utopian selves, the Samurai. But compromise is well within the philosophy of Wells. "The individual case," he says in _First and Last Things_, "is almost always complicated by the fact that the existing social and economic system is based upon conditions that the growing collective intelligence condemns as unjust and undesirable, and that the constructive spirit in men now seeks to supersede. We have to live in a provisional state while we dream of and work for a better one." And elsewhere: "All socialists everywhere are like expeditionary soldiers far ahead of the main advance. The organized State that should own and administer their possessions for the general good has not arrived to take them over; and in the meanwhile they must act like its antic.i.p.atory agents according to their lights and make things ready for its coming."

But if the New Republican is justified in compromising himself for the means of subsistence, how much more in the matter of love! "All for love, and the world well lost" might be written over several of Wells's novels. But, in reality, is the world lost at all under these conditions? On the contrary, it is gained, and the more unconsciously the better, in babies. Love belongs to the future and the species with more finality than the greatest constructive work of the present, and the heroines of Wells are inordinately fond of babies. When Schopenhauer a.n.a.lyzed the metaphysics of love he showed that natural selection is a quite inevitable thing seeking its own. In Wells love is equally irresistible and direct. Whenever it appears in his books it makes itself unmistakably known, and, having done so, it cuts its way straight to its consummation, through every obstacle of sentiment, affection, custom, and conventionality. It is as ruthless as the Last Judgment, and like the Last Judgment it occurs only once.

Why then does it appear promiscuous? The answer to this question refers one back to the underlying contention of Wells that there are two kinds of human beings and two corresponding ethics, and that in the end the New Republican who has become aware of himself cannot consort with the Normal Social breed. But in actual life this standard becomes entangled with many complexities. Just as, in a world of commercial compet.i.tion, it is the lot of most of those who try to give themselves whole-heartedly to disinterested work that they place themselves at such a disadvantage as ultimately to have to make a choice between work and love, so the pressure of society and the quality of human nature itself create entanglements of every kind. It is the nature of life that one grows only gradually to the secure sense of a personal aim, and that meanwhile day by day one has given hostages to fortune. To wake up and find oneself suddenly the master of a purpose is without doubt, in the majority of cases, to find oneself mortgaged beyond hope to the existing fact. The writer who sets out to make his way temporarily and as a stepping-stone by journalism finds himself in middle age with ample means to write what he wishes to write only to find also that he has become for good and all--a journalist! And so it is with lovers. Only in the degree to which free will remains a perpetual and present faith can "love and fine thinking" remain themselves; free of their attachments, free of their obligations, and mortgages, and discounts. That is the quality of a decent marriage, and the end of a marriage that is not decent.

It is no business of mine to justify the s.e.xual ethics of Wells. But there is a difference between a fact and an intention, and what I have just said serves to explain the intention. Consider, in the light of it, a few of his characters, both in and out of marriage. Ann Veronica from the first frankly owns that she is not in love with Manning, but every kind of social hypnotism is brought into motion to work on her ignorance of life and to confuse her sense of free-will. George Ponderevo simply outgrows Marion; but you cannot expect him not to grow, and who is responsible for the limited, furtive, second-hand world in which Marion has lived and which has irrevocably moulded her? Margaret's world, too, is a second-hand world, though on a socially higher plane: she lives in a pale dream of philanthropy and Italian art, shocked beyond any mutual understanding by everything that really belongs in the first-hand world of her husband. These characters meet and pa.s.s one another like moving scales; they never stand on quite the same plane. And then the inevitable always occurs. For, just as the Children of the Food cannot consort with the little folk they promise to supersede, so it appears to be a fixed part of the programme of Wells that New Republicans can only love other New Republicans with success.

He implies this indeed in _A Modern Utopia_:

"A man under the Rule who loves a woman who does not follow it, must either leave the Samurai to marry her, or induce her to accept what is called the Woman's Rule, which, while it exempts her from the severer qualifications and disciplines, brings her regimen into a working harmony with his."