The Egoist: No. 11, Vol. 1, June 1st 1914.
by Dora Marsden
NEXT saviour, Mr. H. G. Wells. We by no means exhausted the topic of salvation in our last comments. The "salvation of the world" is not a theme to be regarded as a swan-song poured forth alone by spinsters and eunuchs in straits, its actual and fitting setting is oratorio with star-turns, minor lights, orchestra and chorus all complete. The salvationist company includes all those who now orate-all except ourselves. We are, in fact, their only audience. The only reason therefore, let it be said, that Mr. Wells is chosen in preference to other "god-gifted, organ-voiced salvationists" such as Mr. Shaw, Mr. Chesterton, Mrs. Besant, or Mrs. Pethick Lawrence is that we have just now read his newest book: the latest of his songs of salvage-songs which he produces with such prodigality that should we postpone him until a succeeding issue he will have another through the press and we shall be behind the times. Therefore let Mr. Wells be the next saving word. In the title of his newest sketch, "The World Set Free,"* there is a brevity which might suggest that he had fallen into the practice common to all other salvationists: that of losing sight of one of the parties involved in the warfare: a sort of glorifying of St. George before they have found the dragon. - But Mr. Wells is not guilty. The brevity turns out to be the outcome of purely aesthetic considerations connected with the graces of its outer cover. Mr. Wells is quite explicit and -not merely tilts his "world" boldly over against the "lives" which are in it: he even tackles the conundrum of the metaphysicians, "What is in the 'world' when the life which is conscious of what is, is removed without pause sufficient even to take breath he has his answer ready: there is in "overmind," a "purpose," a "life- force" (minus lives of course), a "race-consciousness" (minus the stuff of the roots), an "impersonal body of knowledge."
* "The World Set Free". By H. G. Wells. (Macmillan. 6/-.)
This initial precaution to state in precise terms that "the world" as an impersonal IT is more than a happy accident on the part of Mr. Wells. Most of the saviours leave "IT" safely without reference, a factor vague and irritating as invisible cobwebs tickling one's face: defeating attack by its own sheer lack of specification. When practically all Mr. Wells' later works have been forgotten it will, we hope, be held as a memorial of him that he never lost sight of the axiom that a conflict demands the postulating of at least two sides. It is this characteristic which along with vivacious and generous enthusiasms constitute what he has of genius. It gives his work its bite. It is his genuine apprehension of the spirit of combat which has enabled him, not indeed to with stand the invertebrate theorisings of his contemporaries, but to supply, in succumbing to them, out of his own genius the second party of the combat. Hence it is that every catch-penny theory finds a willing disciple in Mr. Wells: but, to their disaster, in his exposition of them they find themselves supplied willy nilly with the implicit half of their creed rendered explicit: exposed in fact. It suits Mr. Wells' temperament to have two blades to his shears. Accordingly a certain evolution in contemporary theories follows. They emerge as oozy insubstantial mental froth from the unbraced brains of his cosalvationists: and immediately fall under Mr. Wells' attention: needless to say his enthusiasm. He forth with expounds them: he puts into words their tacit assumptions. He makes "IT" explicit: trots IT out into the open, regardless of the fact that the open and a salvationist's IT cannot prosper together. He is the indiscreet salvationist as a Mr. Seeley was the indiscreet politician. Whence it is that once Mr. Wells has blessed any particular brand of salvation it is safe to calculate it to be as good as dead. His ingenuous wide-eyed support proves more deadly for it than the combined hostile attacks of the profoundest thinkers. He is the salvationists' enfant terrible.
Wherefore, all you salvationists, all socialists, humanitarians, platonists, life-force-ites, theosophists, christians and all who inhabit high planes, gather round and listen while Mr. Wells explains how the salvation mechanism works. We have already had a bout with "saviours" but Mr. Wells' specialism is more with the "salvage." The saviours told us they sacrificed themselves in order that "something" might be saved. The "something" is Mr. Wells' speciality. He knows it so well that he can recognise it under a hundred different aspects. Ordinarily he calls it "the world," and speaks of the "possibility of salvation for all the world." But he also calls it "Humanity" or "Man" with an initial capital: not men of course; men are the enemy: the opposing host: if they knew their proper place it would be as the sacrifice to be laid on the altar: meet only to be saviours of MAN. "How small are men, and how great is MAN in comparison," he says-"Man" alias "Over-mind," alias "Dominating Purpose," alias "Impersonal Body of Knowledge," alias "Aspiration which reaches to the Stars," alias "Immense and Awful Future of the Race"; and in saving this much-labelled spook men will find their true occupation. Because something distressing appears to have happened to this shadowy "IT." IT has run up against a thing which Mr. Wells calls "cosmic disaster" which has quite knocked it off its directing trolley. Hence it has become men's unending job-their duty-to set to rights again. As one of Mr. Wells' heroes puts it: "The 'world' has been smashed up and we have to put it on wheels again," or as another informs us: "The ' world ' was slipping headlong to anarchy." It is true that what appears to have happened is that some of Mr. Wells' creatures had vary cheerfully thrown explosive chemicals about-apparently for their own amusement. Still Mr. Wells prefers to say that it is his spook-the "world"-that is in distress, and as it is his tale one must grant he ought to know. At any rate, he decides that there must be a "conference of rulers to arrest the debacle of civilisation," at which conference "the chief powers of the world were to meet in a last desperate effort to save humanity."
Mr. Wells understands clearly that the plain person objects to the omission to give the "local habitation" of "IT" and he is therefore quite precise. His "IT" is fully equipped with an address in space. "IT," he says, "floats about us, above us, through us." And we are very glad to know. He means to be quite as clear in describing its manner of creation. That he does not succeed just so well is of course due to the unsteadying effect of the knowledge that his readers will be men and not MAN, and that possibly they may object to their relative status. However he does his best. "Man" is made out of a sort of mental excrement of men. Men pass away and become as dust or less, but the mental excrement remains. The lives which know, pass: knowledge remains: to know itself presumably. Mr. Wells appears to have an image in his mind which sees the formation of this "knowledge," this "world" on lines similar to the process which results in a coral-reef formation: where the husk appears more important than the living polyp. It is unfortunate of course that we cannot subpoena the coral-polyps to give first-hand evidence in the matter: how this version of the scale of values strikes them. Fortunately, however, there are still men existing in sufficient numbers from whom to gather evidence on how the importance of MAN appeals to them.
The poising of opposites between men and a hazy unknown opponent submission to whom is "virtue" and opposition, even when successful opposition, is "sin," is of course a very old catch: the most ancient catch in the history of "salvation" indeed. It starts off from a new axiom: the part is greater than the whole, and proceeds to the conclusion that the knower is less than his knowledge, living men less than a "Life-Principle," a "Life-Force." That is the theory. The method of application is for some "head-saviour" to abandon his salvationism: do just exactly what he pleases and then persuade the rest that what he wants is the "salvation of the world" and that what they want is nothing much any way: to tread in his path is a far, far better thing. Mr. Wells is working a very well worn theme when he says, "I saw how little and feeble is the life of man (small initial), a thing of chances preposterously unable to find the will to realise even the most timid of its (!) dreams kindly but jealous, desirous but discursive, able and unwisely impulsive, until Saturn who begot him (!) shall devour him in his turn": or when "I was irradiated with affection for the men and with admiration at their cheerful acquiescence in the subordination of their position. How willing those men were! How ready to accept leadership and forget themselves in collective ends!" "I could feel something of its infinite wonderfulness," in which quotation Mr. Wells reveals the badge of the saviour: a two-pronged fork. If a man is doing what he pleases and what to him appears important, he is impaled on one prong. "How little and feeble." If he is gadding about with the "collective purpose" he is hung up by the other, and his doings at once endowed with an " infinite wonderfulness": all within the distance of a couple of pages.
However, in spite of these discriminating "praises for merit" bestowed so lavishly for thousands of years, Mr. Wells still finds us wallowing in depths of "immense selfishness." He tells how when one of his heroes talked to men of "the larger scheme," they answered, "But then, we shall all be dead," and he could not make them see that that did not affect the question. These unreasonable beings no doubt felt that it did for them. In fact Mr. Wells realises that men are so incorrigibly selfish that nothing short of the demonstrable power to blow them to smithereens is sufficient to reduce them to a condition in which they will even verbally concede they might possibly become otherwise. Accordingly, as Mr. Wells, like many other saviours, realises, that whatever means are necessary, whatever slaying of men is needed, for the "salvation of the world," those means the saviours must provide-whether the stake, block, gallows, gunpowder makes no difference: what is necessary will be forthcoming: rather out of the forthcoming will be forged, the necessary. For Mr. Wells the necessary is an explosive chemical called Carolinum: a species of magnified fireworks of the "cart-wheel" variety: which goes cracking about the planet ultimately killing off the greater part of the population and reducing the rest to the required state of submission. The moment when that spirit in men which Mr. Wells before deplores as being so "little and feeble" has been cowed in fear (so he would have us believe) by the new explosive he chooses as the right one in which to choose a new system of government and to graft it on them. The time when Philip is dead-drunk he selects as the right moment to arrange for the good government of Philip when sober. In fact, the narrative of "The World Set Free" would come to an abrupt end were it not for the postulating of these spells when men's consciousness is stunned into momentary stupefaction and non-resistance. None of its constructive schemes could be "set on wheels" were it not granted that men could be treated as mummies. When Mr. Wells says that "collectivism has been plastered into our brains" he is a little mixed as to order of procedure: he means that first the brains were stunned (by his Carolinum) and that in order that "collectivism" could be plastered over them. A government finds it difficult to govern a crowd of individual " purposes," so while the individuals are stunned it sets up a " collective" one. This simplifies matters enormously, and explains why simplification becomes such an important aspect of the collective purpose. Mr. Wells is most strong on it. That hero-he has many heroes-who gathers together a motley crew of kings and politicians on Mont Blanc or thereabout proclaims himself a "devotee of simplicity" and accordingly "a noble simplicity" hung about that lofty assembly: even about its decisions, which ran like this: "the world must be a Republic," "The people must hand over to us all the Carolinum": war must end: separation means the threat of war: therefore there must be no separation: "there must be no mine and thine but ours": there must be "one government for man kind" and that one are we.
Accordingly the abdicated President of the United States drawls through a megaphone to North, South, East and West all the world round: "All you persons, just deliver up all that there carolinum right here and before luncheon." Of course they all did, which shows the advantages of simplicity and a unified collective purpose. No wonder that Mr. Wells becomes a little thick in his speech in his intoxication with the subject. For instance this: "the new civilisation came as a simplification of ancient complications," which carries a lilt with it, if no light. No wonder that Mr. Wells, whose indosyncrasy runs to a desire to "incorporate and comprehend his fellow-men into a community of purpose," believes that "the ultimate aim of art, religion, science and philosophy is to simplify," and fervently hopes he will "escape from individuality in Science and Service."
After reading more like the above there is nothing surprising in the fact that the leading spirit at the Abdication of Kings should be a person whom Mr. Wells calls King Egbert, "the young king of the most venerable kingdom in Europe" but who is plainly the well-known idiotic Rattle whose haunts are the Fabian, Theosophical and Suffrage societies and the vegetarian restaurants: the male person who does not consume fish and so unfortunately cannot swallow a bone and choke. This is the sort of gag with which Rattle induced the ninety-three rulers to abdicate:
"We are just going to lay down our differences and take over government. Without any election at all. Without any sanction. The governed will show their consent by silence. If any effective opposition arises we shall ask it to come in and help. . . . ."
"Before the sun sets today . . . we shall have made our abdications . . . and declared the World Republic, supreme and indivisible. I wonder what my grandmother would have made of it! All my rights! And then we shall go on governing. What else is there to do? All over the world we shall declare that there is no longer mine and thine but ours. China, the United States, two- thirds of Europe, will certainly fall in and obey. They will have to do so. What else can they do ? Their official rulers are here with us. They won't be able to get together any sort of idea of not obeying us. Then we shall declare that every sort of property is held in trust for the Republic. . . ."
"You don't want us to condemn all humanity to a world-wide annual Fourth of June for ever and ever more on account of this harmless necessary day of declarations. No conceivable day could ever deserve that. . . . The worst of these huge celebrations is that they break up the dignified succession of one's contemporary emotions. They interrupt. They set back. . . . Sufficient unto the day is the celebration thereof. Let the dead past bury its dead. In regard for the calendar I am for democracy and you are for aristocracy. All things are august and have a right to be lived through on their merits. To day should be sacrificed on the grave of departed events. What do you think of it, Wilhelm? . . ."
"If I do him an injustice it is only because I want to elucidate my argument. I want to make it clear how small are men and days and how great is man in comparison."
Such was the council, inspired by such a windbag, which ultimately secured "by a noble system of institutional precautions, freedom of enquiry, freedom of criticism, free communications, a common basis of education and understanding and freedom from economic oppression."
None the less, in spite of these triumphs, it appears that men continued to regard their individual lives as important: to consider the sum of their days as a matter of importance to them, and the pathos of Mr Wells really touches one's heart when he points out that "men who think in life-times are of no use for statesmanship." No more are they, and to put an end to this pernicious way of thinking he turns to education.
"The new government early discovered the need of a universal education to fit men to the great conceptions of its universal rule."
One can well believe it.
"It proclaimed that sacrifice was expected from all, that respect was to be shown to all"; "it taught . . . that the salvation of the world from waste and contention was the common duty and occupation of all men and women."
So it set a poor cripple to work at the task: one named Karenin. It was this ill-rigged gentleman who set all the water ways of the globe on fire with a staggering announcement-the result of years of original research-to wit, "There is no peculiar virtue in defect." (It is odd that all these saviours should have such a terribly disconcerting way with them.) The unexpectedness of Mr. Karenin is however only additional proof of his fitness for his job. Mr. Wells says "To him far more than to any of his contemporaries it is due that self-abnegation, self identification with the world spirit which was made the basis of universal education."His" memorandum to teachers" established him: and indeed it is a true salvation document.
"Education is the release of man from self."It is merely through an oversight that he omits to add that this is the psycho logical moment to ask for the collection: to make the announcement that contributions should be thrown on the drum.
"You have to teach self forgetfulness."
"Your children . . . have to shed the old Adam of instinctive suspicions, hostilities and passions, to find themselves again in the great being of the universe. The little circle of their egotisms has to be opened out until they have become ares in the sweep of the racial purpose. Philosophy, discovery, art, every sort of skill, every sort of service, love, are the means of salvation from that narrow loneliness of desire, that brooding preoccupation with self and egotistical relationships which (and he ends up on the pounding note in perfect tune) is hell for the individual, treason to the race, and exile from God."
The same Mr. Karenin who guarantees to do for the Universal Government by means of a properly educated Conscience anything which Carolinum leaves undone, has a little word to say which Mr. Wells cannot see his way conveniently to squeeze into the Memorandum to Teachers. It requires a more impressive setting-and this is what Mr. Karenin was made a cripple for. His defect (which we are asked to remember has no peculiar merit) necessitates a surgical operation and the operation necessitates his removal to a laboratory on the top of the Himalayas, and the Himalayas, which have snow and sun on them, form just the suitable back ground of Mr. Karenin's little word. It is the day before the operation which Mr. Wells by tricks of his craft has indicated is going to prove fatal. Mr. Karenin has struck the requisite note of AWE by talking of Man, of himself in the third person and all is ready for Mr. Wells to strike up the few bars of slow music. "The cloudbanks of India lay under a quivering haze, and the blaze of the sun fell full upon the eastward precipices. Ever and again as they talked some vast splinter of rock would crack and come away from these, or a wild rush of snow and ice and stone, pour down in thunder, hang like a wet thread into the gulfs below, and cease."
The subject is fittingly introduced-"Love and the Place of Women in the Renascent World," and the old attitudiniser lets himself go with a swing into Mr. Wells' latest views on the subject to an audience carefully assorted so as to be able to make suitable responses in character. There is the Poet: there is the Chemist; the Woman clever but plain, Rachel; the Woman who is not plain, Edith; and also many other stock characters. One wonders if ever it will fall within Mr. Wells' capacity during his present sojourn on earth to look directly at a woman- any woman-Countess, High School Mistress, or the One who does his chars and see in her something more than a peg to hang his passing views on. But to return to the educationist-poseur before his creator knifes him. Karenin informs his audience that there has been too much Love between men and women, but under his newly patented system of education there will be less. "You said sexual love was the key . . . all that may have been necessary but it is necessary no longer. All that has changed, is changing still very swiftly. Your future, Rachel, as women is a diminishing future." Whereupon Rachel, clever but plain, asks the usual intelligent question of Mr. Wells' intellectual women: "Karenin, do you mean that women are to become men? You would abolish women ? But Karenin, listen . . ." and there follow ten good reasons why Karenin should allow women to remain. "In some things we are amazingly secondary, but, but, but . . . ."which moves the good Karenin to concessions. "I am not thinking of the abolition of women . . . but etc. . . ." "so long as you think of yourselves as women "-he held out a finger at Rachel and smiled gently-"instead of thinking of yourselves as intelligent beings, you will be in danger of-Helenism. To think of yourselves as women is to think of yourselves in relation to men. You have to learn to think of yourselves, for our sake and your own sakes, in relation to the sun and stars. You have to cease to be an adventure, Rachel, and come with us upon our adventures . . ."-and he moved his hand towards the dark sky above the mountain crests." We have put "in relation to the sun and stars" in italics. It contains the essence of the sort of spirit which turns at the slightest provocation to cheap theatricals, to the pose, the unconsciously insincere, affected attitude. There is one fitting admonition-and one only-to the person who thinks of himself "in relation to the sun and stars": Don't be such a silly ass.
How Mr. Wells, for instance, can make an old fellow on the eve of a dangerous operation: at a moment when, if ever, a man will be sincere and lay aside his attitudes, talk to the "Old Sun" in the second person and of himself in the third is beyond fathoming: "Very soon now, old Sun, I shall launch myself at you, and I shall put my foot in your spotted face and tug you by your fiery locks. . . . Well may you slink down behind the mountains from me. . . . !" Really, Mr. Wells ! ! As for women "thinking" of themselves in any relationship towards the sun or stars as an improvement upon their relationships with fellow human beings, they are too safely anchored to their sensuous moorings to get so far astray in pursuance of a popular writer's comical metaphysics. The sense of remoteness which one upon occasions feels towards other human beings and which in a flighty mind suggests relations to Sun and Stars, they know to be nothing more than a germinating period in which one is preparing to make a new strong relation to a human being. That Mr. Wells should make the mistake is comprehensible enough, but he could be set right very easily by looking at the phenomenon under the guise of a simple ratio. "As remote as the stars appear to me, so remote do I appear to be from certain other human beings-for the present." Sea sickness or a bilious attack will have the effect of suggesting a like solar or stellar remoteness.
It is curious that Mr. Wells with his ardent enthusiasm for the "Spirit which desires to know" should never have taken the trouble to find out what knowledge is. What is knowledge if not feeling sufficiently strong to become clear and definite? How can we know more than we feel? Why then suggest that the "spirits which desire to know" should leave the low plains where feeling is passionate and strong for Himalayan heights where there is snow and one scratches back one's hair and wears white drill over alls? We offer these fruitful questions for Mr. Wells to consider before he writes the first sentence of his next volume, which event we suggest should be postponed for a period of at least three years duration. In the meantime we can explain to him why his prose is such as would lead a schoolboy to expect getting his head smacked should he try to make it pass criticism. We forbear from reiterating a tag and explain why literary style bespeaks the man. The growth of literature is the increasingly precise outlining in words of images felt clearly enough to make their features definite for the one who feels them. A poor writer is one who writes before his images are clear-before he knows in fact. For some reason, either because he wants money badly, or because popular acceptance and publishers' indiscriminate generosity as to pay fosters a belief that the world is thirsty for the works of his pen, good or bad, the poor writer writes, and neither his taste nor his character forbids. He assumes the certain tone in regard to that of which he is uncertain. He is untrue, and in his taste there is nothing exacting. It does not demand a complete image and therefore the expense of time while waiting for it to round to its completion. Respect for his own sincerity is not available to veto the publication of anything which would undermine it. The "style" is such because the character of the writer will permit it to be such. That is the gist of what we imply when we call a writer a poor writer. Now Mr. Wells is occasionally a good writer; but more and more he produces execrable writing. Although his writings have made him rich financially he is too poor to wait until he knows what he feels. He has a vague buzz and whirr in his head and straightway his pen is out and he will write down phrases such as "banked darknesses of cumulus," "civilisation the simplification of complications," "The ruling sanities of the world," "The spectacle of feverish enterprise was productivity." He will unblushingly produce a volume out of less emotional evidence and material for thinking than a truer person-even with an empty stomach-would feel honest in making to fill out a paragraph. And he trusts to a vague diffused energy to carry the performance off. And if we are asked what concern this has for us, we reply first that we have met so much of it and are bored; second, since we have a paper to sell and minds soaked and soddened in a hash-up of blurred images are incapable of bracing themselves to the effort of understanding it, draining off some of the slop is part of our struggle for existence; and third, Mr. Wells is not a fixed quantity and a little grand motherly admonishing may be enough to induce him to mend his ways: give the "salvation of the world" the slip and save himself in fact.