The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians
A Modern Utopia
Experiment in Autobiography
Utopias and anti-Utopias have more than an academic interest. Writing about them in 1959, Richard Gerber pointed out the recurring religious metaphors in 1984, and how “curiously ambiguous” they made the book. William Empson—who admires ambiguity enough not to think it always a good thing—wrote sharply to the Critical Quarterly:
Orwell considered that the ultimate Betrayal of the Left, the worst thing about the way Communism had developed, was that it had nearly got back to being as bad as Christianity. For a few centuries the enlightened sceptics had managed to prevent that loathsome system of torture-worship from burning people alive, but it would spring like a tiger again at any opportunity to revive its standard techniques; and in the increasingly crazy modern world, with whole continents regarding Christianity as the only alternative to Communism, the opportunity was almost sure to come.
And then gentle people demurred; and then Mr. Empson remarked that a strong piece of evidence for Orwell’s pessimism is precisely what literary men can bring themselves to say:
I first read the book in Communist Peking, and thought its forecast absurd. But now when I find literary critics praising the final moral collapse of the hero of the novel, because it is so Christian somehow, thus exactly fulfilling Orwell’s forecast of how their minds will work, without having the faintest idea that the book itself makes the forecast, I think I am justified in letting out a small cry of horror.
Which brings us to Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare and to Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) and Experiment in Autobiography (1934). Each of them is enough to elicit a small cry, not of horror but of dismay. Mr. Hillegas’s book is so lacking in new investigation, in imagination and cogency, as itself to constitute a warning to utopians not to expect too much of mankind. Wells’s A Modern Utopia is certainly an honorable document, but not much is now left of it except a game, and a joyless one at that. As to the Experiment in Autobiography, that is depressing for another reason: it contains such clear witness of what Wells was really good at (especially the shrewd unsentimental evocation of his early years, in all their untidy specificity) as to force home a sense of how much was lost when he dedicated himself to the World-State. It is not his wishful but his wistful words that are most affecting. As with his economical waterproof collar—“But after a time it accumulated something rather like the tartar that discolours teeth.” No amount of “cosmobiography” weighs as much as that discolored collar.
ORWELL ARGUED that Wells was too sane to be able to understand the modern world. Stalin lived in the modern world. “I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and to these qualities it is, and to nothing occult and sinister, that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendency in Russia.” As Tennyson said …