Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

Chesterton on Chesterton

February 9, 2010

G.K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908)
Anonymous [Cecil Chesterton] (Inkling Books, 2007)
179 p.  First reading.

To publish a critique of the thought and writings of G.K. Chesterton in 1908 might have seemed a little overhasty. At that early date only a few works of stature had appeared, with Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill preeminent among them.  This, one might think, was rather early and slender evidence on which to hang a character study.  Under normal circumstances that would be a sound conclusion, but these were not normal circumstances: the author of this anonymous study was none other than Chesterton’s own brother Cecil, who knew the man as well or better than anyone.  It is therefore a very interesting book, with good insight into Chesterton’s body of work — including the part that had not yet been written.

The key to understanding Chesterton, says Cecil, is to understand that he is a fighter and a romantic.  In everything he writes he has some opponent in mind whom he is seeking to persuade with his arguments and charm with his wit; he rarely writes simply to explain or describe; in everything he is a knight, riding out to meet the challenger with his own private trumpets sounding and banners flying.  This amiable combativeness suited him well, for he was temperamentally and intellectually inclined to defend causes which were, in his own time as much as in ours, lost, or at least losing:  he was an anti-imperialist, in the sense of being an unabashed nationalist; he loved Catholicism and defended it for many years before himself becoming a Catholic; and he was in revolt against the marching forces of modernity.

Cecil attributes his spirited opposition to modernity to several factors.  There was, first, his love of tradition, which naturally disposed him to reject habits of thought that held tradition in contempt.  He was also opposed to the scepticism that he saw as both tending to obstruct clear thought and as serving to loosen the influence of the past on the present.  And he disbelieved the theory of progress from which “progressives” derived their own name and that of their favoured causes; revolutions, which appealed to Chesterton’s romantic spirit, were in his mind not properly intended to create a new utopia, but rather to help the world return to a sanity which it was always threatening to forsake; revolutions were properly restorative, not radical.

All of this is familiar territory to those who have spent time with Chesterton.  More surprising, to me at least, were the literary influences which Cecil names as having had an early formative influence on Chesterton.  Decisive, in Cecil’s mind, was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “He embraced passionately the three great articles of Whitman’s faith, the ultimate goodness of all things implying the acceptance of the basest and meanest no less than the noblest in life, the equality and solidarity of men, and the redemption of the world by comradeship.” Chesterton’s early poetry collection The Wild Knight was especially under the sway of Whitman.  I had not suspected the connection (and now I suppose I am obliged to dig out my copy of Whitman’s poem and actually read it).  Second in importance, though more obviously, was Stevenson, from whom he learned that fighting can be noble and romantic, “but only if you fight against odds”.

Cecil has some insightful remarks to make about Chesterton’s fiction.  He was “a born story-teller, but not a born novelist”.  It is an astute observation.  Chesterton never had the talent for characterization and close observation that are the novelist’s art.  His fiction was largely a draping of narrative garb over a bony conceptual skeleton.  “Mr. Chesterton’s intellect sees ideas more clearly than persons, yet his temperament leads him to think about ideas as romantically as romanticists think about persons.  He wants to give every idea a feather and a sword, and a trumpet to blow and a good ringing voice to speak.”  His best work (to the time at which he was writing) Cecil judged to be The Napoleon of Notting Hill (“because Wayne and Auberon are the two lobes of Mr. Chesterton’s brain”), and, on the non-fiction side, his literary study Charles Dickens (“because Dickens is the author whose way of looking at life was most like his own”).  Cecil remarks that Chesterton’s talents might be better served in another genre: the musical comedy!  It is an inspired idea, and it is a pity that Chesterton never took up his brother’s suggestion.

It may well be, however, that Chesterton did take another suggestion from this book.  In his discussion of Chesterton’s literary prospects, Cecil proposes that his talents might be well served by a character who is “a sort of transcendental Sherlock Holmes, who probes mysteries, not by attention to facts and clues, but by understanding the spiritual atmosphere”.  This, of course, is a fine description of Father Brown, three years before the first Father Brown stories appeared in print.

In his closing pages, Cecil makes a comparison that has frequently occurred to me, but which I cannot recall having seen in print before.  He marks a similarity between Chesterton and Dr. Johnson, who was “regarded in his own time as a classic and in ours as a contemporary”.  There is something very apt about the phrase when applied to Chesterton; he was in his own time an oddity in many ways, yet today he is, if not exactly a contemporary, then at least someone who continues to provoke and fascinate, long after he might have been expected to go gentle into that good night.

For someone with a more than passing interest in Chesterton, this is a very worthwhile book.  Though based, by the nature of the case, on relatively little direct literary evidence, the book makes more than its fair share of shrewd comments about Chesterton’s character and style (some of which are appended below). This edition of the book, published by Inkling Books to mark the centenary of the original publication, is supplemented by an interesting set of essays by, among others, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Chesterton himself.  They include the essay in which Wells asked that, instead of simply criticizing others (as he had done in Heretics), Chesterton ought to state his own positive positions, a challenge that provoked Chesterton to write his wonderful book Orthodoxy.  The essay by Shaw invokes (for the first time in print?) the Chesterbelloc, that amiably pugnacious double-humped creature of legend. These essays make nice addenda to the main text. There are some odd variations in the weight of the book’s font, which I found a bit distracting, but basically the edition is very nicely done, and it is good to have this study back in print.

[Chestertonian paradox]
The typical Chestertonian paradox consists not in the inversion of a proverb, but in the deliberate presentation of some unusual and unpopular thesis with all its provocative features displayed, with all the consequences which are likely to startle or anger opponents insisted on to the point of wild exaggeration.

[Farce in Chesterton]
There is nothing more characteristic of G.K.C. than that he becomes farcical in proportion as he becomes serious.

[Chesterton as a writer]
To summarize Mr. Chesterton’s position as a writer we may say that, while he lacks the careful workmanship, the regard for true proportion, the sensitive aesthetic conscience which would make him a great artist, he has enough artistry for the work he wants to do, and a little to spare, and this is backed by so prodigious a stock of vital energy, by so much humour, imagination, pugnacity, and sense of romance, that one forgets the slips and defects in the great mass of achievement.  Probably, to Chesterton, at any rate, that achievement would be impossible without those defects.

[Quantity and quality]
Mr. Chesterton’s extraordinary versatility and copiousness of output is beyond question a danger to his permanent position in literature, if he cares to have one.  It is true that, considering the amount he writes, his level of work is remarkably high.  But, unless he controls his effervescent desire to write everything that comes into his head, he will never write the best that he might have written.

Wells: The War of the Worlds

November 9, 2009

The War of the Worlds (1898)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
205 p. First reading.

This must be one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written.  It has been said that in his first batch of novels Wells annexed the whole scope of subsequent science fiction writing: monstrous creatures, other worlds, time travel, special powers, technological dystopias — and here, in The War of the Worlds, alien invasion.  Its imagery, especially that of the Martian tripods striding across the countryside, has entered the popular imagination.

The apocalypse is an ancient literary genre, but Wells’ variation on the theme strikes a distinctively modern note.  Past ages have imagined that the end of human civilization would be accompanied by a great judgment, the triumph of justice, the vindication of the good and the destruction of the wicked.  It would have meaning, and could be seen as the ultimate culmination of human history.  All of that is gone for Wells.  He is ready to see the end as sheer destruction, just another stage in the remorseless triumph of the strong over the weak.  Our culture, religion, art, and science simply fall useless on the wayside, false or irrelevant.  A lot of things had to go wrong to make that vision possible.

To describe the confrontation between the Martians and us as a “war of the worlds” gives us too much credit.  The Martians’ enormous technological superiority — which nonetheless appears rather quaint by today’s standards — renders humanity’s defences useless.  Even if it is true that in the end the Martian invasion fails, it is not quite fair to say that they are defeated.  The means Wells uses to save humanity is certainly clever, but it comes about, as it were, by accident, and only serves as an ironic coda to the theme of history as meaningless struggle.  We are saved, but this kind of salvation is good news only in a sense.

Stylistically The War of the Worlds is the best of these early novels that I have been surveying.  The tone is that of a newspaper report: direct, taut, and unsentimental.

After finishing the novel, I listened to the 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast made by Orson Welles.  Roughly the first half of this radio program is “staged” as a radio news program, which famously led some people to worry that an actual Martian invasion was taking place, though I am told that the scale of the reaction has been exaggerated.  (It is always so pleasant to think that people in the past were dumber than we are.)  In any case, it becomes obvious in the second half of the program that it is just a dramatization.  The program makes a fleeting reference to a “MacMillan University” in Toronto, but this venerable institution, laden with so many undoubted excellences, nonetheless lacks the particular excellence of existence.


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Wells: The Invisible Man

October 27, 2009

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
175 p.  First reading.

Graham Greene divided his books into “novels” and “entertainments”, the latter being a little less probing than the former.  Had Wells done the same, The Invisible Man could have been fairly classified as an entertainment. It is imaginative, well written, and intelligent, but it hasn’t the weight of The Island of Dr. Moreau, or even of The Time Machine.

This doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means.  The power of invisibility, like the power of unaided flight, is one of those things that has engaged my imagination since I was a child. It would seem that one could do all sorts of delightful things if invisible.  And perhaps one could, but Wells puts a spanner in the works of these happy fantasies: suppose you became invisible, but couldn’t make yourself visible again.  What happens then?

What happens then is that invisibility becomes a curse.  If you wanted to avoid becoming a sensation to be poked and prodded, you would have to conceal your invisibility from the world, which, if you think about it, would not be easy.  How would you eat?  How would you buy anything?  How would you get money?  You would even find it difficult to walk around outside when others don’t do you the courtesy of walking around you.  You might very well find yourself driven to crime in order to survive.  Rather than live as a fugitive, you might be tempted to use your invisibility to terrorize and dominate your neighbours.

All of these possibilities, and others, are explored in Wells’ story.  Reading it, the desire for invisibility begins to look morally suspect.  After all, what advantages are gained from invisibility?  One chiefly gains the ability to do or see things that one is not supposed to do or see.

The Invisible Man could be read together with Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind”, which I have mentioned before.  In the short story, the hero is the only person in the community who can see; in the novel, the hero is the only person who cannot be seen.  There are some interesting resonances between the two.

Wells: The Time Machine

September 22, 2009

Yesterday was the birthday of H.G. Wells.  If I had a time machine, or even if I might someday have a time machine, I would have posted this then.

The Time Machine (1895)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
86 p.  First reading.

The Time Machine was the first novel that Wells published, and Arthur C. Clarke has called it his “masterpiece”.  The case could be made that it initiated the modern genre of science fiction.  My own judgment is that it is a good book, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of Wells’ others.

Although it is a time-traveling story, it is not at all concerned with the conundrums for which time-travel is infamous.  Wells sends his character far, far into the future — nearly a million years — so that there is less danger of his initiating self-intersecting chains of causation.  Instead, the time machine functions as a generic device to transport the hero into another world, one far different from our own, though the lingering temporal connection with our world provides Wells with an opportunity for melancholy reflection on the passing away of all earthly things.

In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species, one which lives on the surface of the earth in simplicity and apparent tranquility, and another which dwells underground in a series of caverns and tunnels.  (The similarities of this social structure to that observed in The First Men in the Moon are striking.)  Nothing from our time has survived, save a few trinkets in a ruined museum.  These two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, are essentially alien races, and part of the interest of the novel is in observing the two groups and trying to deduce their histories and character.  The book is an historicist’s dream: though they are rational creatures, at least to some extent, there is little evidence that their moral code bears any resemblance to ours.  Neither our science nor our art nor our religion has survived.

Wells attempts to introduce scientific concepts into some parts of the story.  The time-traveler describes traveling through time as “like” traveling through space, and argues that space and time are similar to one another.  This was a decade before Einstein made this notion a cornerstone of his theory of special relativity (in a much more precise form, of course).  I don’t claim that Wells invented the idea — Poincaré had discussed the idea at about the same time that Wells was writing, and perhaps someone else had aired the idea earlier — but I do note that Wells was clearly aware of the leading scientific speculations of his time.  In a late chapter, in which our intrepid time-traveler journeys even further into the far future, he brings in the concept of tidal locking.  (Does anyone know how long it would take for the earth to tidal lock with the sun?)

This is mostly a book of ideas: about evolution, about impermanence, about politics, about the conditions for intelligence, and many other things.  There is little plot, and less character development.  But in its own way it is a clearly conceived, neatly executed book.