The Life and Thought of H. G. Wells

J. Kagarlitski
Translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg


Chapter Two

BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

(1) About the Present, the Past and the Future

When The Time Machine, Wells’s first novel, appeared in 1895, the critics were almost unanimous in their praise, though they contradicted one another when it came to comparing him with other writers. He was treated, according to his own words, as “an applicant for the post of Dalai Lama, about whom it is necessary to find out with the utmost thoroughness which of the souls of his predecessors has been incorporated in him”. The young writer had to be appointed, naturally, as a probationer, to all the vacant literary positions for which he was at all likely to be suitable. Among English writers he was most often compared to Edward Bulwer-Lytton (later Lord Lytton), and particularly to his novel The Coming Race (1870). The reputation of Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) stood very high at that time and this comparison could be regarded as flattering. I doubt whether it flattered Wells.

Bulwer-Lytton described in his novel how a young man penetrated through a deep gallery into a strange underground kingdom and later re-appeared on the surface of the earth. In the underworld people were eager to explain to him how their society was organised so that on his return to earth he would be able to tell what he had seen with a full knowledge of the facts.

There was a romantic side to Bulwer-Lytton’s work, His hero is loved by the beautiful and wise daughter of an underworld dweller. She was even ready to follow him back to the surface of the earth, but our hero declined the honour—the

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ardent young woman terrified him by her gigantic size (quite usual, however, among her tribe), her athletic build and unfeminine strength of mind. He felt himself a pathetic pygmy beside her and his manly pride was wounded.

Bulwer-Lytton’s hero was, in fact, not only thinking of himself. The inhabitants of the underground kingdom possessed a special kind of energy, called “vrill”, with the help of which they were able to heal wounds, conquer disease, put into motion intricate mechanisms and shatter rocks. Vrill enabled them to fly and they all had a pair of wings on their backs, like angels. But vrill had another property. Without any effort it was able to destroy everything within an enormous range. The Vrills (as these people were called) never, it is true, made attempts upon the lives of their compatriots, but they destroyed “foreigners” who resisted the capture of their lands without a twinge of remorse. It is not hard to guess what might happen to Europeans and Americans if the young woman from the underground kingdom, used to considering all except her compatriots as savages and inferior, found herself among them!

Bulwer-Lytton, former Secretary of State for the Colonies, knew what he was writing about. But if you exclude such elements of satire which he inherited from his past radicalism and the very interesting fantasy of the Vrills—a match for Wells himself—Bulwer-Lytton’s book was imitative from beginning to end. A man of great erudition, which astounded everyone who met him, he literally plundered English literature for the sake of one book. The subject was borrowed from Robert Paltock’s novel The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751), whose hero gets through a cave into the underground kingdom, meets a flying woman and marries her; he was obliged to Swift for his heroine of gigantic size, and the Tragedy of Tragedies, or Tom Thumb the Great (1730). Even Bulwer-Lytton’s conclusion that a world without vice would become a world of mediocrity is suspiciously reminiscent of the conclusions of Oliver Goldsmith’s philosophical tale “Azem, the Manhater” (Royal Magazine, October 1761), whose hero also visited an underground kingdom. These various fragments were not particularly cleverly stitched together by the ageing Bulwer-Lytton and often his book leaves a truly poor impression.

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Describing the society of the future, Bulwer-Lytton simply proceeds from the society of his own time and he confines his fantasy to this essentially narrow little world. He entertains himself and his reader, turning notions inside out, moving his characters here and there against the old familiar background. Thus, describing a party in the underworld kingdom he draws a picture of an average Victorian drawing-room, though one must add that in the book, it is not men who pay court to women, but women who pay court to men, who are as coy as the young Victorian women of the time. [1]

The society of the future for Bulwer-Lytton is simply his own contemporary society, corrected only in the light of the illusions it cherishes about itself. In this society, in spite of a rapid industrial growth, private property has remained intact and there are, of course, the rich and the poor. No one, however, lives in penury, no one envies the rich, it is rather the rich who envy the poor, for are not the poor independent, while the rich are the slaves of society until they die? The rich are compelled to live in luxury and buy a great number of commodities to secure employment of their fellow-citizens. They are forced to entertain, organise balls and other festivities and, in the end, to govern the country. The rich, however, carry their cross without complaint, while the rest of society leads a life of bliss, feeding on the fruits of their labour and the benevolence of the powerful. All aspects of human behaviour, public as well as private, have been from time immemorial so established by custom, so instilled in the consciousness of the dwellers in the underworld, that no one dreams of any change. There is one calamity—with the disappearance of conflict in public and private life art has disappeared and from the point of view of the world outside, life in the ideal society is unbearably dull. It never occurs to the Vrills to notice it.

This lack of conflict in the ideal society as described by Bulwer-Lytton is quite understandable. According to him, modern vices will disappear not when their requisites disappear, but on the contrary when these requisites reach the peak of their logical development. Vices born from riches will disappear when the

1 These observations can be found in A. L. Morton’s English Utopia.

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rich become so rich that all they dream of is to give as much as they can to the poor. Vices born from individualism will disappear when every individual turns into an autocrat, free to dispose of the lives of his co-citizens. Thus Bulwer-Lytton discarded all the existing conflicts and there were none other to be found in his ideal society, so like the present one.

It was, however, precisely this peculiarity of Bulwer-Lytton’s Utopia that determined its success. He started in his book from the philosophy of positivism, which maintained that the progress of science and technology and the increase of national income caused by it would lead to the universal well-being of mankind, within the framework of the existing social order. True, the positivist ideals are not always to Bulwer-Lytton’s taste. Describing the society of the future he lends to it certain patriarchal features in conformity with his own Tory background. It becomes clear from the course of his arguments that he preferred stagnation to any type of social change, and thought that all the spiritual achievements of mankind were the results of the disorder in our world, that our qualities were simply our vices the other way round and that as it approached the ideal mankind impoverished itself. Bulwer-Lytton showed, probably more clearly than anyone else could have done, that the old order had nothing left to offer mankind.

His book sounds the death knell of the old-style Utopias. It embodies the more conservative elements of the works of Swift and Goldsmith, and of Manderville’s The Fable of the Bees (1714). But nevertheless The Coming Race paved the way for the new novel of social fantasy in England and America. Bulwer-Lytton was the first to talk of the consequences of a basic change in industrial development. More than that he linked this change with the discovery of new scientific principles. He posed questions which were dictated by the times. The half-hearted and uninspired answers which he gave spurred others on to seek different solutions.

Writers of different trends of socialist thinking came out as Bulwer’s opponents. Two of the better known works of social fantasy at the end of the last century, Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) and News from Nowhere (1890) by

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William Morris (1834-1896), were directly opposed to the views of Bulwer-Lytton although their differences lay more in the sociological than in the literary sphere and in fact the two works did not stray very far from the old fantasies though, undoubtedly, News from Nowhere stands higher than The Coming Race from the literary point of view. The first man who combined a new style with a new content was H. G. Wells.

Wells was prepared to disagree with Bulwer-Lytton on almost everything. For Wells there was no question of simply adapting the present social system. Victorian England was not the centre of the universe, and the history of mankind did not end with the nineteenth century. The idea of the natural evolution of society did not inspire him; on the contrary it spelt catastrophe. Bulwer-Lytton’s opinions were unacceptable to him, and so was his style—which he considered self-satisfied and pedantic, tiresomely fanciful, frequently pretentious. However hard Bulwer-Lytton may have tried to give depth to the picture he drew, for Wells it was merely a piece of canvas in an ugly petty bourgeois frame and behind it there was nothing but a blank wall.

Wells, like many of his own contemporaries, came to literature, having already discarded the ideas and way-of-life which Victorian England had forced upon the new world. True, he was not in the least contaminated with the mania of literary subversion. Dickens and Thackeray remained for him always the great masters they undoubtedly were. But he could not abide the run-of-the-mill Victorian novelists, writing for the consumption of the educated middle-class who tended more and more to enter the sphere of fantasy. It was precisely in this sphere that Wells was destined to upset the smug provincialism of the past century—to shake the very ground under the feet of the petty bourgeois, to prove to him how mean his little brain was, how mediocre his life, how small his knowledge, how great his own unworthiness. The need to do this was so basic in Wells that he did not even have to fall back on the usual literary methods. His inner convictions determined the very structure of the book. The Time Machine is in itself so controversial in essence that there was no need to include any controversy in it. It was such an important book that it was entitled to a special place among the works of this style; at the

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same time it was so original that it was impossible to pigeonhole it.

Of all his books this, his first one, was probably the one that deserved the most criticism as far as improbability was concerned. We know that the past cannot be brought back and that we can have a peep at tomorrow only when we have lived to see it. A journey in time is so apparently absurd. But is not that precisely why Wells chose such a subject?

What the average empiric thinking accepts as impossible seems by no means impossible to the mind of a scientist. The empiricist is unable to imagine anything that goes beyond the limits of sensory experience or the associations it engenders. Science breaks this barrier. The mathematical conception of infinity must, for instance, seem an absurdity to the empiricist, because he himself, and all that surrounds him, has a limit in time and space—“everything comes to an end”. It is quite pointless to enquire of people who believe that the world is supported by three elephants “on what are the three elephants supported?” so basic is their idea of limitation, so unbelievable the idea of infinity. This idea, like many others, modern man has to become aware of outside sensory experience. He will never be able to convince himself of their reality from his own experience. He is convinced only by science and once he has become accustomed to this new dimension, he accepts it effortlessly.

A journey in time contradicts all the evidence of our experience but nevertheless it is a possibility. Modern science has proved this without doubt, though no man has as yet been on such a journey. Only during space flight at high speed do laws come into operation that supersede our sense of time. We have become accustomed to this idea but, at the time Wells was writing, it was as far removed from the mind of even an educated person as the idea of infinity from a person without an elementary knowledge of mathematics.

The journey in time was not a mere literary device for Wells, nor the Time Machine simply an appropriate vehicle in which to bring the reader to his favourite beauty spot. It was intended rather as a battering ram to shatter a great number of accepted social and literary canons—with it Wells planned to prove the probability of the improbable and the absurdity of the commonplace.

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From the moment the Traveller in Time sets out on his journey, centuries begin to flash by like seconds and the accepted view of time becomes meaningless. The passing of the centuries takes on a new meaning in a new perspective, the perspective of the history of the world. H. G. Wells confronted empirical and scientific theory.

In the The Time Machine Wells expressed in “mathematically abstract” form his belief that the wisdom of the man in the street was little more than a set of prejudices, and that the so-called common sense of which he was so proud, a very proper working of his narrow-mindedness.

Was it only the man in the street, with his lack of scientific knowledge, that Wells was attacking? This is unlikely—what he said was meant for clerks and shopkeepers, for all men in fact who mistakenly believed the social order would never change. Many years later, in The World Set Free, Wells wrote: “At the core of the nineteenth century, as a multitude of passages in the literature of that time bear witness, it was thought that the fact that man had at last had successful and profitable dealings with the steam that scalded him and the electricity that flashed and banged about the sky at him, was an amazing and perhaps a culminating exercise of his intelligence and his intellectual courage.”

“All the great discoveries have been made”, wrote Gerald Brown, summing up the nineteenth century. “There is nothing more for us to do except develop the details.”

The world of the man in the street was solid and stable and permanent—it was precisely this world that Wells wanted most of all to shake out of its complacency.

“The Traveller in Time (so we must call him) told us the strangest things.”

Wells’s hero was not, in fact, the first to embark upon this journey.

Sir Thomas More made his hero swim to the island of Utopia, but he was really attempting to see into the future of mankind. Campanella wrote that the Navigator swam to foreign shores and was taken on foot to the Town of the Sun, but his real path lay elsewhere for he, too, was travelling in time.

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The writer followed by land the paths that could lead into the unknown. He waited for cities and countries to open up before him, beyond the chain of mountains which no one had crossed before, where people lived differently, as we would live in so many hundreds of years. One could drive so many thousands of leagues and miles and suddenly find oneself among people who had found before us a true and honest life or a tribe that had carried all our vices to the utmost limit. One could land in the future in a coach and pair. It seemed possible that, in overcoming space, one could overcome time as well—and find oneself in the world of the future.

The vast oceans also held great promise, for who knew but that a new society was not hidden away on some island in the middle of the seas. And though the three-dimensional world was not yet sufficiently under man’s control, Cyrano de Bergerac went one step further and investigated the kingdoms of the moon. And sometimes there were travellers too who penetrated the bowels of the earth, the last resort perhaps when there was nowhere else to explore on earth, or on the sea, and a journey to the moon and the possibility of finding life on it became subjects of scientific hypothesis.

The fantasies initiated by the period of great geographical discoveries came to an end. Captain Cook alone did more to transform Utopian fiction into mere convention than hundreds of dull writers before him. It became clear that however far he travelled, the real explorer was likely to find himself back in the past of mankind, rather than in the future.

The aims of the Utopians, limited as they were to a three-dimensional world, remained the same: to see the future, a task which became increasingly difficult.

Wells’s traveller makes his journey within the four walls of his laboratory. He touches a lever and the hands on the dials of days, years, centuries and milleniums begin to turn. He has not moved an inch in the three dimensional sense, but time begins to race past him at ever greater speed, leaving its marks everywhere. He is travelling in the fourth dimension, and in time. The walls of the laboratory crumble and then grow up again. Trees, huge buildings appear and disappear in the space of a second. The sun’s course

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lasts a minute, then a second and suddenly cannot be seen at all. There is only a gigantic fiery semi-circle swinging in the sky from right to left, according to the season. The traveller now begins to see the passing of time not through its earthly signs. Not only can he reach any point of the future—he feels himself to be part of the great and mysterious universe. He has not moved from his laboratory, but before his very eyes the doors of the universe have slid apart as they did for the navigators and explorers of the past. Their path and Wells’s path are the same. He is modern as they were modern in their own time. The Time Machine enables us to imagine the outlook of the man destined to burst into space six decades later.

Not even the author of The Time Machine himself realized the enormous possibilities implicit in this outlook. In 1920, after a conversation with Lenin, Wells made a note, which was published fairly recently—after the Soviet flight to the moon. “Lenin said”, wrote Wells, “that as he read The Time Machine he understood that human ideas are based on the scale of the planet we live in: they are based on the assumption that the technical potentialities, as they develop, will never overstep ‘the earthly limit’. If we succeed in making contact with the other planets, all our philosophical, social and moral ideas will have to be revised, and in this event these potentialities will become limitless and will put an end to violence as a necessary means to progress.”

The world which the Traveller in Time saw in the year 802701 did not, as we can guess, in any way resemble the antiquated idyll of Bulwer-Lytton. People lived in large communities, in luxurious palaces, ate at a communal table and owned no private property except their clothes. The acquisitive spirit was unfamiliar to them because they could get all they needed in abundance and the family, as “the economic embryo of society,” had completely broken up. The time span that Wells allowed himself for the social evolution of mankind is so vast that it gives no scope for any kind of eventuality. He was determined to look as objectively as possible at the development of mankind in its “pure” aspect.

At first glance Wells’s final deduction is a surprising one. His predecessors had often written of the evil aspects of progress. However, their pessimism was nothing compared to that of Wells.

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The people whom his Traveller met were hardly worthy of the name. They were useless, pampered children of hard-working parents—the previous generations. They were devoid of the most elementary ideas of the world they lived in, they knew nothing, and wanted nothing. They were incapable of the slightest effort of will, intelligence or physical strain; they were carefree, happy and thoughtless like well-cared-for cattle.

The picture given by Wells is all the more frightening because it claims full scientific objectivity. His predecessors based their dismal prophecies upon such variables as their own personal ideas of the moral laws guiding mankind; Wells on the other hand turned to biology. Every capacity he says that is not exercised becomes atrophied. Therefore in a society without conflict or the need to struggle for survival, without poverty or danger, man must inevitably degenerate. Man created labour and then suddenly finding himself in an “automatic” civilisation, has no further need to use his hands or his brain. Man’s brain committed suicide.

In spite of the obviously scientific basis for this judgment, the picture is, of course, quite false. Progress cannot cease for the properties of matter are inexhaustible and however long mankind exists, each milestone passed will simply lead to the next. The “cleverest” of machines is not likely to compel man to idleness; it is more likely, on the contrary, to spur him on to greater efforts, and particularly to self-improvement. [1] It is also hard to believe that mankind, having mastered so much, would not be able to master his own prosperity. In the course of progress the capacity of men for singleness of purpose does not diminish, it increases, becomes more and more free from the effect of blind biological laws. But according to Wells, precisely from the very moment when his capacity for singleness of purpose reaches its peak, the laws of the animal kingdom will again acquire power over mankind.

There are other ideas that underline even more the improbability of this picture. Wells is so keen to find direct biological consequences of social change that he sometimes sins against the very principles of biology. It is true that every faculty which is

1 Later, in the Utopian Men Like Gods, Wells adopts this very premise.

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not exercised becomes atrophied but it is true only in relation to a separate biological individual. Peculiarities acquired during life do not pass to the descendants and those that are lost can be inherited. Wells, in agreement with Lamarque, asserts the opposite. In the society of the future, as we have heard, the family disappears and the social role of men and women becomes identical in all fields. Again biology hastens to carry out a terrible sentence, passed by mankind upon itself: henceforth it will be impossible to distinguish men from women. True, this did not digress from the Darwinian theory of the time. Darwin could not know about hereditary processes—they were discovered after him—and to disprove Lamarque from a speculative point of view he considered unworthy of a serious scientist. But it was a clear digression from the spirit of Darwin’s theory inasmuch as it made Lamarque's constructions unnecessary to explain evolution.

However youthful and straightforward are Wells’s biological speculations, however unconvincing his theory of “ultimate knowledge”, they serve brilliantly to bring out the basic idea of the book. It is here that Wells declares war on the positivists who maintain that there is no need to fight for another social system so far as the existing one is bound to lead to universal human happiness.

Wells, like the positivists, proceeds from the idea of the straightforward, non-dialectic unfolding of history. But in the opinion of the positivists, the conflicts and contradictions of society are cured gradually by the passing of time; for Wells the passing of time serves to drag them out into the light.

Eleven years later he described in his book The Future in America (1906) his meeting with President Roosevelt, during which they talked of The Time Machine. Wells called it a book “full of the deliberate pessimism of youth”. This “deliberate pessimism” turned out to be the most powerful weapon he ever had.

The pessimism of the young Wells was born from a basic refusal to accept the optimism of the positivists. According to Wells’s views the store of knowledge and material wealth within the framework of the existing social order not only would not bring about, as was then said, the “practical equality” of the capitalist and the worker but would be the cause of the ruin of

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mankind. The theory of “ultimate knowledge”, though false in itself, turned out to be justified artistically because it applied to the artificially constructed positivist society, a society in which the old order was carefully preserved in spite of vast industrial change and all that went with it. Wells accepts conditionally the positivists’ first premise and then suggests that the reader should see for himself, what that society would in fact be.

“Communism!” exclaims the Traveller in Time, hardly throwing a glance at the great panorama of the future spreading out before him. But it is only later that he learns to understand the life of the people of the year 802701.

Here and there tall ventilating shafts broke the landscape of the land of the golden era, here and there the Traveller came upon ventilating wells from which there came, from time to time, a steady thud like the noise from distant giant machines. Some time elapses and the Traveller learns that the land of the golden era with its statue of the sphinx [1] is only the “top floor” of the world of the future and the beautiful mediocrities who populate it—the Eloi—not the only inhabitants. Below, where the machines are working, lives a different race of people—the bestial Morlocks. Once upon a time the Morlocks and the inhabitants of the top world had been equal men but the Morlocks had worked, and the others had appropriated the fruits of their labour. Generations of exploiters had driven the great masses underground where they found themselves doomed to a life of bestiality while they themselves degenerated from idleness. In the end there were no real men left above or below—only Eloi and Morlocks. Then the Morlocks suddenly ran wild and began to devour the Eloi. In the land of the golden era there are no cemeteries—sooner or later every inhabitant is faced with the prospect of being devoured by the underground population. But the Eloi are so accustomed not to think of anything unpleasant that the very mention of the Morlocks is considered positively indecent. The Eloi are fed, clothed, they do nothing—they are content with that. They do not even stop to think where it all comes from or what will be the reckoning.

1 This statue of the sphinx which the Traveller runs into as soon as he steps on the soil of the eloi was not put there by Wells for nothing: the sphinx was the favourite symbol of the decadents. (This interesting observation comes from Bernard Bergonzi.)

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It was inevitable that various collective forms of life should grow up here and there among the Eloi and among the Morlocks also—but if such a form of society could be called communism, it would only be a primitive form, although brought about not by a lack but by a surplus of material wealth. The circle is complete and man ends as he began. He made the fatal mistake of dividing the indivisible elements of human life, production and consumption, duty and freedom, labour and culture. Mankind came to an unnatural end, because it could not develop within the framework of an unnatural society. What would have been illogical for a society built on the principles of collectivism turned out to be quite possible in a society divided into workers and idlers. What would have been illogical for Man, turned out to be normal for two separate and different races of semi-humans. There was a period of wild confusion, and yesterday’s beasts of prey, having enjoyed too long their after-dinner siesta, turned into cattle for the slaughter, while their victims of yesterday became the beasts of prey. . . .

The Time Machine was a remarkable triumph for Wells the satirist. In it he points out the logical consequences of the contemporary situation which was accepted as being completely natural and normal. He showed in his final deductions the contemporary society which was presumed to be highly civilised; now the time had come for him to say whether contemporary society had in fact moved far from the animal kingdom. This led him to the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

It is generally accepted that H. G. Wells’s first historical work came out in 1920. This is not quite the case. Wells wrote his first Short History of the World in 1896. But if the later work came from the pen of a historian, the earlier was written by a satirist. For this is a history of mankind telescoped into a few short months, and enacted in a previously uninhabited island.

In The Time Machine, the time of the action is so vast that one can follow each idea to its natural conclusion. In The Island of Dr. Moreau the action is so tightly knit that it is more a case of taking every idea in, at a single glance.

[end of p. 50, followed by plates.]


SOURCE: Kagarlitski, J[ulius] [Iulii Iosifovich, 1926-2000]. The Life and Thought of H. G. Wells, translated from the Russian by Moura Budberg. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1966. xiv, 210 pp., 8 plates. (Originally published under the title Herbert Wells: ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva. Name also transliterated as: Julij Kagarlicki, Julij Kagarlickij, Julius Kagarlitski, Julius Kagarlitsky, Yuli Kagarlitsky.) Extract from start of Chapter 2: Between the Past and the Future; pp. 38-50.


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