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, men “impute themselves,” and Wells imputed his own decency. It all goes back to the most vivid of his early memories:
There was a picture in an old illustrated book of devotions, Sturm’s Reflections, obliterated with stamp paper, and so provoking investigation. What had mother been hiding from me? By holding up the page to the light I discovered the censored illustration represented hellfire; devil, pitchfork and damned, all complete and drawn with great gusto. But she had anticipated the general trend of Protestant theology and hidden hell away.
And then “one night I had a dream of Hell so preposterous that it blasted that undesirable resort out of my mind for ever.” Unfortunately it was not just the Christian Hell that was hidden and blasted away; it was all that Hell which is here and now. What was it Goethe said? that every day he learned more clearly from Homer, “That in our life here above ground we have, properly speaking, to enact Hell.” As a novelist, Wells had great powers of sympathy, acumen, and poignancy—but he had no sense of tragedy, of Hell above ground. It is this that makes him a lesser novelist than his friend and rival, Arnold Bennett. It is this too that vitiates so much of his political writing, where tragedy is engrained in the very subjects with which he purports to deal. “Since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons,” said Orwell—a squandering which might have mattered less if there had not been real slaying in the world. When Wells remarks that “aphasia is frequent with me,” one is now reminded of Lucky’s aphasia and of the “divine aphasia” to which his speech grimly refers—his speech itself the tragic debris of Wellsian aspiration and investigation.
Mr. Hillegas does not suffer from aphasia. Which is not to say that he has anything to say. If we need compacted experience, we have Orwell’s essay; if we wish to see Wells in the World which fostered him, we have Bernard Bergonzi’s book, The Early H. G. Wells; if we really wish to think about Utopia and Its Enemies, we have George Kateb’s book* , amazing in its combination of range with scrupulousness. Mr. Hillegas hardly does more than point out what has long been obvious: that Wells himself in his early work sometimes presented the future as a nightmare, and that E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Zamyatin’s We, and Huxley’s Brave New World are against the Utopia of Wells.
The fatiguing thing about his book is that it takes all such matters back to the stage they were at before Mr. Kateb ever wrote. Mr. Hillegas pays Mr. Kateb the most insulting of compliments: that of calling him “brilliant” while virtually ignoring what he had to say. What matters is not the absence of technical classifications—dis-utopia, pseudo-utopia, semiutopia, negative utopia, and so on; it is the absence of any serious thinking about the nature of his subject which makes Mr. Hillegas’s book less alive at birth than Mr. Kateb’s is after five years. One can be aware that their main concerns are considerably different while also being aware that the interstices of Mr. Kateb’s book effected much of what Mr. Hillegas’s book now sets out to do.
MR. HILLEGAS begins his book “It is a truism that…,” and he has started as he means to go on. He does not bring us News from Nowhere. Throughout he has to say “of course” and “manifestly,” yet he never considers the possibility that the manifest may not need to be drawn to our attention. “Few educated people would need to be reminded of…”—and so into a dozen lines of paraphrase and quotation from Brave New World. “There can be no question that,” “unquestionably,” “striking similarities.” All true, but all raising the same question: if they are so striking, why does Mr. Hillegas suppose that no one has been struck by them? “Knowledgeable commentators have long been aware of ….” Yes.
But even Mr. Hillegas would not be able to make a book out of nothing but regurgitation, so he regurgitates that too. Tautologies are offered with the airs appropriate to aperçus. “To Amis’s definition we must make certain additions. The first is the extremely important one—that ‘quality’ science fiction, such as is represented by the great anti-utopias, always makes a significant comment on human life.” True, but that is what “quality” means in Mr. Hillegas’s context. “Wells turned naturally and easily to the writing of science fiction because he possessed what demands to be called ‘the Wellsian imagination.’ ” An all-purpose circularity—of what writer could the equivalent not be said? Pope turned naturally and easily to the writing of verse satire because he possessed what demands to be called “the Popean imagination.” Mr. Hillegas is not always (in the words which he applies to The Time Machine) “rich in significant meanings.”
Because he gives no sign of being concerned with the substantive points about Utopias or mechanization, Mr. Hillegas continually reduces all arguments to biases. In his world, if intellectuals are offended they are offended by the “reek” of something. Not that he is clear-headed here. He says that Wells’s liking for machines is “a quality peculiarly offensive to literary men in the twentieth century,” and at once goes on:
Their anti-machine reaction, for example, explains G. K. Chesterton’s remark, directed at A Modern Utopia, that the writers of utopias “first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motorcar or balloon.”
But this is far too rough and ready. For one thing, “literary men in the twentieth century” have not been united in any one opinion, not even that the machine is to be hated. In his generation, Arnold Bennett was a literary man who could write about the beauty and value of machinery; and so in their generations were Hart Crane and Spender and Empson and Thom Gunn. Certainly, as Mr. Kateb has said, “Fear and hate of the machine are among the stalest and most pervasive emotions of modern life,” but (as Mr. Kateb’s discussion makes clear and as Mr. Hillegas’s never does) there is a lot more to it than were “anti-machine bias.” “Offensive” and “reaction” are terms which shrink beliefs into matters of taste. Surely Chesterton’s remark is not primarily one that deplores the machine, but one that deplores the way in which A Modern Utopia uses the machine as a deus ex machina. A man who revered the machine could still make the very same point against A Modern Utopia in the very same words.
For Mr. Hillegas has thought about neither of the two constituents of utopia: fantasy and history. That he has not thought about fantasy is clear from the way in which he reaches for “willing-suspension-of-disbelief” like a styptic pencil to stop internal bleeding. A worthwhile book on utopias or on nightmares of the future would have to consider the status of fictions, and would have to understand the questions discussed by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending. Mr. Hillegas never adequately considers the difference between saying of a literary work which uses the past (Henry V or Middlemarch) that it is “credible” or “persuasive,” and using the same words for a work set in the future. The credence given to art which shows something that did happen must be different in kind, and raise different issues, from the credence given to something set in the future, of which we say rather that it could or might or must or ought to or must not happen. The consciousness that those things which are set down have not happened is inseparable from a true response in reading. Yet Mr. Hillegas shows no awareness that there are any problems about credibility; as far as he is concerned, it is merely a matter of Wells’s sprinkling his futures with a little local color. Mr. Hillegas more than once invokes Gulliver’s Travels, as if it were simply Swift’s wish to persuade us of the truth of what he says, as if it were not an essential part of Swift’s purpose that we should not believe him but continually find ourselves having to pull ourselves together. On Mr. Hillegas’s terms, the ideal reader of Gulliver’s Travels would apparently be one who muttered “Yuh, I always knew that there were little people.” With Mr. Hillegas for a friend, utopia doesn’t need its enemies.
WELLS HIMSELF was frank about the impetus of his early work: “It was a sign of growing intelligence that I was realizing my exceptional ignorance of the contemporary world and exploring the possibilities of fantasy.” Yet that remark sells short his own best work, in which fantasy is powerful precisely because it is not divorced from a knowledge of the world. But Mr. Hillegas writes as if both Wells and his antagonists lived in a bathysphere. He never sufficiently considers what it might be about recent history which fosters so many and such diverse visions of “the future as nightmare.” He is prepared occasionally to drop phrases like “against a background of totalitarianism,” but they remain phrases. He writes as if the important influences were always literary. “Even Orwell’s Thought Police are ultimately derived from a Wellsian detail—his Labour Police, armed with truncheons, too.” Perhaps—but what about just police? “Truncheons, too,” as if English police didn’t carry non-literary truncheons. Possibly the Mothers of Invention have read Wells and Orwell, but they wouldn’t have had to in order to ask “Who are the Brain Police?”
“The chief source of this image of the super city in twentieth-century utopian fantasy is most likely Wells’s picture of the inhumanly vast, complex mechanical anthill cities.” Yes—but what about cities, the big cities where people live? Or take the thrush. Anybody would think that a thrush was a phoenix from the way in which Mr. Hillegas treats it; a thrush sings in Wells, “surely the same thrush that sings to Julia and Winston in 1984.”
Mr. Hillegas sees life through the spectacles of books. Moreover his spectacles need adjusting. Huxley’s “islands for nonconformists” are said to be “the islands for criminals and social misfits in A Modern Utopia“—but what about those actual islands which for hundreds of years have been used as prisons? Islands are natural prisons—and anyway it seems more likely that the present Greek generals know more about Napoleon than about Wells. But not only does Mr. Hillegas offer shallow history (“this late Victorian complacency,” “the calm, secure, snug Victorian world”), he is uneasy about those who have brought history to bear on Wells. Mr. Bergonzi “demonstrated at length the pessimism in the stories and the scientific romances, even going to the extreme of relating them to nineteenth-century fin de siècle.” Why is that an extreme? Mr. Bergonzi is a better guide than Mr. Hillegas—but then so are the BeeGees:
Everything’s happening at the turn of the century, I’m going to buy myself a Time Machine, go to the turn of the century.
Meanwhile on Haight Street they still believe in utopia:
Oracle #10 will be a blueprint for the imaginary City of God made real. Material envisioning ideal relationships for human beings on planet earth, in particular San Francisco’s sevenhilled paradise; architectural—economic—cultural—social—technological or agrarian—religious ideas images visions prose and poetry should be sent to: The San Francisco Oracle.
But we all suspect that it will be a blueprint only in the sense that the Oracle uses blue print.
Free Press (1963), 244 pp., $5.95↩
Free Press (1963), 244 pp., $5.95↩