Books to Read
The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume XXVI, January to April 1902 (p. 133-136)
RECENT literature continues to bear traces of that increased seriousness which is the first necessity for the restoration of the joy of life. We have even had a revival of that most serious of all human historical functions, the art of prophecy. Distinguished men have once more taken up the work of Mr. Bellamy, and painted a new heaven and earth with pen and ink.
One of the books of this kind, most worthy of being seriously read, and seriously disagreed with, is Mr. H. G. Wells's Anticipations (Chapman & Hall). In these articles he gives an extremely dexterous and suggestive version of what he thinks to be the future of our civilisation, the system on which it will be conducted, and the types and classes in which, according to his estimate, the power of society will in all probability abide. He maintains, with a great deal of plausibility and truth, that we are more and more moving away from the scheme of government as administered by our present governing classes, and that the control of the future will almost certainly be in the hands of a scientific and serious class of what may be called middle-class mechanics. Their motto will be the word "efficiency." It is all extremely neat and satisfying; but for some mysterious reason it does not satisfy me, as indeed none of the numerous forecasts of the world's future have ever done. I am not interested in how efficient the world is going to be. I am interested in what it is going to be efficient to perform. And all these forecasts of our future earthly state have always seemed to me to be under one great primary curse and error. They all represent the future condition of mankind as a state. The condition of mankind never has been, and probably never will be, a state. It has always been a change, and, to the people engaged in it, an exciting change.
It is solemnly said that this is a transition period; but the whole history of humanity has been one continual transition period. The great and delightful thing about human existence is that it has been engaged from the beginning of time in one everlasting crisis. Humanity went to bed every night expecting to wake up and find itself divine. The whole of history is the vigil of a festival. This is, I think, the essential error which gives that strange air of unreality, even of a kind of spectral horror, to all the Utopias which are now written about the ultimate condition of men. Men a thousand years hence may have the institutions of Mr. H. G. Wells, or the institutions of Mr. Bellamy, or the institutions of Mr. William Morris. But whatever their institutions are, the essential point is that they will not live by those institutions or in those institutions; they will live in some direct and practical excitement about the approaching appearance of the kingdom of God. Man will not rest in the Eden of William Morris any more than he rested in the Eden of the Book of Genesis. The simple pagan villages of "News from Nowhere" will be convulsed by the rumour that a man has arisen who claims to unite earth and heaven. The vast and automatic cities of Mr. Bellamy will be shaken, like Tyre and Babylon, to their foundations by a voice crying in the wilderness. Mechanics and business men who will run so successfully the perfect society of Mr. H. G. Wells may at any moment be made to look as black and mean as a mob of ants by the appearance of a martyr or an artist. There will be no "state" of humanity in the future. It will be, as we are, excited about something that it cannot understand. What we want to know about men in the future—supposing that we want to know anything, which is, I think, more than doubtful—is not how they will manage their police or their tramcars, but what they will be excited about. Their police and tramcars will be as uninteresting to them as ours are to us. What we want to know is what will make the darkness a hint to them and the dawn a prophecy. For to the collective spirit of humanity, as to the mightier spirit behind it, there is nothing-but an everlasting present; a thousand years are as yesterday in its sight, and as a watch in the night.
Mr. H. G. Wells has, indeed, almost every intellectual faculty for the estimate of the tendency of society; but he has a deep and not easily definable deficiency which is well exhibited in the fact that he can contemplate apparently with contentment the idea that society will be dominated eventually by a race of sombre and technical experts—a race, as it were, of glorified gasfitters, without gaiety, without art, without faith. The best chance of analysing this deficiency lies in studying Mr. Wells's novels, and it so happens that a typical novel comes within our scope. He continues in The First Men in the Moon (George Newnes) his great series of the thousand romances that lie secreted in "The Origin of Species." Mr. H. G. Wells is, of course, a profoundly interesting and representative man of this age. The conception at the back of his mind appears to be essentially the same as that of Swift. Swift, in "Gulliver's Travels," sought to show how, by merely altering the standards and proportions of life, by conceiving a hypothetical man forty feet high, and another hypothetical man five inches high, you could make the whole position of humanity ridiculous, and confound all the principles of heaven and earth. "Gulliver's Travels" is, indeed, the great Bible of scepticism, and worthy to be the greatest literary work of the most polished and most futile of centuries. Mr. Wells achieves this same conception—the conception of the confusion of standards—but not by means of Swift's big men and little men, which were merely abstract figures, like the figures of a geometrical diagram. He attains this confusion of standards by means of the whole roaring and bewildering' vision of the universe as seen by science. His world is indeed a kind of opium-dream.
The First Men in the Moon is an account written with astonishing animation and lucidity of a visit to our satellite conducted by purely scientific methods. In dealing with the inhabitants of the moon, Mr. Wells exhibits in a very clear way the difference that I have mentioned between the old sceptical and satiric romance and the new. Such writers as Lucian or Rabelais or Swift would have used the moon as a mere convenience, an empty house among the planets in which to put the angels or elfins of some human allegory, a mere silver mirror in which would have been glassed, under monstrous shapes and disguises, all that was passing upon the earth. Mr. Wells's satiric method is the new one; it inaugurates almost a new method, which might be called biological satire. He represents the moon creatures as being more or less what he conjectures that such creatures would, by the laws of nature, have become. They are' beings like walking toadstools or horribly magnified animalcula; beings with heads like huge bubbles, which grow bigger as they think; beings who' divide among themselves the senses and the powers of man, who have one specialist to see and another specialist to hear, and another specialist to count. The weakness of the book is that of nearly all Mr. H. G. Wells's books, and it arises out of his sceptical attitude. As a human story it is lifeless. The men who conduct the expedition are as distant, as monstrous, and as cold as the wan populace of the moon. A curious cold light of indifference, a curious cold air of contentment and unconcern, lies upon the whole wild narrative. We read of the blood-curdling idea of a man left behind on the moon, but we do not read it with any of the basic and primeval human emotions with which we should read of our brother, born of our own kindly race, whirling in space at the mercy of the blind tournament of the spheres. We do not care what becomes of the man; we feel that he and the moon monsters are both about as basically heartless and dreary as each other. This is a real misfortune, or punishment of the sceptical attitude, for you cannot write a romance or a story of adventure without human interest. The common modern notion that a romance is simply a string of brute incidents, fights, voyages, and discoveries, is an error which is responsible for cartloads of bad imitations of Dumas and Scott. A set of adventures is nothing unless we have first gained a working and approximate human interest in the adventuier. He may be stabbed by his rival, or betrayed by his lady-love, or drowned in a storm, or killed in a mantrap, and we shall do nothing but call the watch together and thank God we are rid of a bore. The First Men in the Moon fails, in spite of a wealth of world-wide fancy and gigantesque logic, for lack of that one feeling which one of the older and more humane romances would have made us feel—the feeling of man returning after his nightmare of space and finding this common earth glowing all round him like a fire-lit room.
In connection with this serious discussion about the possibilities of alternative commonwealths and alternative civilisations, I may notice one very remarkable and exceptionally able book, which has recently appeared in a very small and unpretentious form—The Letters of John Chinaman (R. Brimley Johnson). It fitly finds a place in this discussion, because, however remote and alien may be Mr. H. G. Wells's conception of future generations, however grotesque and even loathsome may be his vision of the commonwealths of another planet, the actual people of the great empire of China are to us more ghostly than the unborn generations and more wild than the men in the moon. Tlie Letters of John Chinaman constitute an astonishingly spirited and remarkably able protest on behalf of the idea that Chinese civilisation is, morally, intellectually, and materially, immeasurably superior to our own. To take up the fantastic and almost fabulous position that the ancient Chinese emperors were right in regarding Europeans as barbarians and sky - breakers, that in meddling with China we are meddling, like so many Goths and Vandals, with a system that we cannot understand or value—to adopt such a position as this, and then defend it with the most unimpeachable modern logic, the largest modern liberality, and the fullest allowance for all modern facts and discoveries—this is indeed a task for a bold and brilliant man, a task that is not so much a task as an heroic adventure. Yet the author makes out his case, not, indeed, sufficiently to make us believe that it is the unadulterated truth or the whole truth, but quite enough to make us feel that he has come upon a vast hoard of truth which has been almost entirely hidden and neglected. For example, he urges one point in favour of the Chinese against the Western civilisation which struck me as decidedly forcible. The Chinese civilisation, he points out, is a moral civilisation—that is to say, it does organise all power, all property, and all life in accordance with certain ethical ideas, right or wrong, which were taught by Confucius. Their civilisation is, in short, Confucian; but our civilisation is not Christian. Christianity remains the one really inspiring ideal which can induce us to soften and beautify the mechanical action of our society. But that mechanical action itself is not Christian; it is the very reverse of Christian. The deduction made by John Chinaman is simply that China has molded human life to its ideal, and that Christendom has failed to do so. This is almost certainly an exaggerative and fallacious way of putting it. The Oriental nature finds one of its first pleasures in being passive and orderly, but chivalry and adventure are necessary to the Western nature, and these necessitate a certain degree of spontaneity, and even of disorder. But though the arguments of John Chinaman furnish to the liberal mind no reason for despising the civilisation of Europe, they do furnish an excellent set of reasons for abandoning the brutal and babyish habit of despising the civilisation of China. John Chinaman exaggerates, no doubt, but exaggeration is often a very good proof of honesty. The test of a truth is that it is a thing that may be safely exaggerated. Try to exaggerate a falsehood, and every one will see what a monster you have set up.
Works on the philosophy and romance of history have been common in many quarters lately. Mr. Andrew Lang is as delightful as usual in his Mystery of Mary Stuart (Longmans), but it certainly required a lively writer, a writer with the noble frivolity of Mr. Lang, to render pleasant and entertaining the dankest, darkest, and most thoroughly ghoulish corner of history, the Scotch Court in the time of Mary. In that Court we have the Renaissance at its very worst—the most melancholy of all human movements. It was no longer a matter of brutal men animated more or less by large ideas, as in the Middle Ages, but of brutal men animated by nothing but their own exquisite and undiluted brutality. And it is very strange that Scotchmen should have taken such a fancy to defending Mary Queen of Scots, for she was in every respect the antithesis of the Scotch character. Generations of the most wholesome nation on the earth have wasted their time in defending one spiteful, sensual, degenerate French vixen. It was she who injected into the kingly blood of Stuart that poison of cunning and uncleanness which clung to it ever after like a curse. The Stuarts after her were graceful and clever and capable of inspiring devotion; but humanity made all kind of haste to get the taste of them out of its mouth.
One of the most important and interesting books that have appeared recently is, of course, Mr. Barry O'Brien's Life of Lord Russell of Killowen (Smith, Elder). It required an Irishman to write the Life of so very Irish a figure, because a great deal of what constituted the great lawyer in Russell of Killowen was Celtic in the highest degree. It is certainly a strange idea which supposes the lawyer by nature and necessity to be cold. All the greatest and most emotional Irishmen, such as Daniel O'Connell and Isaac Butt, have been lawyers. The cant notion runs that the lawyer is a man with no sympathies, who can in consequence take any side of any question. It is forgotten that it is also possible for him to be a man of so many sympathies that he can take any side of any question. This was certainly the case with Russell, the last of the great line of Irish advocates. Mr. Barry O'Brien tells us many things about him which give food for thought about this singular intellectual type. In a world, for example, where "intellectual" is always taken as meaning "literary," it is significant to read that for all practical purposes Russell of Killowen never opened a book. If a member of what we commonly regard as the intellectual classes had met Russell of Killowen in private life, he would probably have thought him a very ordinary man of the world, whose conversation was compounded of that of a trainer, a tipster, a card-player, and a bon vivant. But if that intellectual gentleman had been suddenly pitted against Russell in a struggle for a nation's destiny or a man's life, he would soon have discovered whereabouts on the field were the big guns of the intellect. Among a thousand other values the life of a man like Lord Russell is valuable if it reminds us of this—of how shallow, upon the whole,are the pretensions of the cultivated class to represent the intellect of the nation.
The Conversations of James Northcote with James Ward, edited by Ernest Fletcher (Methuen), is a very charming collection of the best thing in the world, really intellectual gossip. James Northcote belonged to an old school, and his conversation has much of the flavour of Dr. Johnson's. Like Johnson, he belonged to a period of a kind of genial and companionable scepticism—a period in which ideas were broken up and in solution, and in which, consequently, good conversation on art, morals, and philosophy was more than usually possible.
It is remarkable that of all the interesting books of the last month hardly any have been novels. Fiction is indeed only represented by two very distinguished men, and even these are not altogether at their best. The first novel is Mr. Stanley Wey man's Count Hannibal (Smith, Elder), in which he takes us as usual to the French Court in the seventeenth century, which would appear, from an accumulation of romantic testimony, to have been the most sanguinary and disorderly place that the world ever saw. The second is Love like a Gipsy (Constable), by that turbid and extravagant but extraordinarily able and promising novelist, Mr. Bernard Capes.
On the side of light philosophy and obiter dicta, however, there has been a greater wealth of production than we have space to notice. Prominent among these examples may be noted Mr. Stephen Gwynn, who is as delightful as ever in The Old Knowledge (Macmillan), and Mr. Leslie Stephen's edition of The Letters of John Richard Green (Elliot Stock). Most prominent of all, in all probability, stands the new Miscellanies (Macmillan) of Mr. Augustine Birrell, one of the wisest and most serious men of the age, who is, like almost all people who try to be honestly serious, commonly regarded as funny. In the new book, however, there can be little doubt about the gravity of the voice, speaking in a grave time: "The longer I live the more convinced I am that the only two things that really count in national existence, are a succession of writers of genius and the proud memories of great, noble, and honourable deeds." In a time when there is a kind of panic of cynicism, when men hasten to assign a mean or material origin to everything they mention, these are indeed courageous and admirable words.