Tag Archives: H.G. Wells

Marginalia, no.309

But in comparison with the debased culture of seventh-century Gaul, traditionalism itself was a progressive force, for it secured the survival of the Classical inheritance of Western culture. The words of Alcuin’s teacher, Aelbert of York – that it would be disgraceful to allow the knowledge which had been discovered by the wise men of old to perish in our generation – show a sense of responsibility to the past which is the mark of genuine humanism rather than of a blind adherence to traditionalism.

~ Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Impressed by the pace of technological innovation in 1932, H.G. Wells bemoaned the fact that “there is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world” to help humanity prepare itself. We have abundant futurists and would-be prophets now. It’s possible to look to the future while still being responsible to the past, but constant panting after the Next Big Thing is debasing. Offerings and prayers are rightly made to ancestors rather than descendants. Genuine humanism values history not as an index of folly and barbarism but as a repository of memory without which there can be no abiding sense of self.

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Three Paragraphs of Disappearance

Not long ago there was a story in the news about a woman who turned up a decade or more after mysteriously disappearing. Her husband and children had come to believe she was dead, but here she was alive all this time a few hundred miles away. She’d left on a whim, when some passing travelers invited her to join them on the road to Florida, and she never contacted her family. Similarly, my great-grandmother’s father walked out on his wife and daughters, though he went in the opposite direction. It was the early 1900s and he supposedly marched off to hunt gold in the Yukon, never to be heard from again.

Behavior of this sort holds no appeal for me personally. I am a homebody and a family man. The theme of sudden, unannounced departures recurs with some frequency in my reading, however. I recently read Georges Simenon’s Monsieur Monde Vanishes, about a man who leaves one morning for his office in Paris but who boards a train for the Mediterranean instead. My favorite H.G. Wells book, The History of Mr. Polly, involves something similar. ‘Wakefield,’ one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, follows the same pattern.

Some high school student or college freshman could write a term paper comparing the French, British, and American treatment of the theme. Monsieur Monde seems to be after something like integrated personhood. Mr Polly, in a way, wants romantic heroism. Both involve the creation of new social ties. Hawthorne’s story is the most disturbing, I think, because Wakefield seems to want nothing. He is swallowed up in utter isolation. “By stepping aside for a moment,” Hawthorne writes, “a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever… He may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.”

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The Sufficient Beauty of Mr Polly

I read H.G. Wells for the first time this year.  I’d mentally set him aside as a purveyor of antique sci-fi thrills, which usually isn’t my cup of tea.  Then one day at the library, dull on the unread titles at home, I suddenly wondered if that particular cup wasn’t the one I was craving after all, and so I checked out The Island of Dr Moreau.  It delivered pretty much what I’d expected, until, that is, the final chapter, which shook halfway loose of the rest of the book and hinted, I thought, at something broader in Wells’ genius.

Looking for that broader Wells, I came across his neglected 1910 comic-picaresque, The History of Mr Polly.  Wells missteps in a couple places: putting too clinical a focus on Polly’s digestive troubles in the first few chapters and contradicting himself on his hero’s age, for example.  But Mr Polly himself – undereducated but word-drunk, virginal but affecting depravity, expecting illumination but stumbling blind into family, work and marriage – Mr Polly is the kind of character that marks the difference between author-as-storyteller and author-as-demiurge:  Mr Polly breathes.

Since he was an active socialist and sometime-member of the Fabian Society, we’re not surprised to find Wells here and there poking into issues of class and industry, but Polly is never flattened to symbol.  If there’s no proper place for him in the tumult of modernity, this is due as much to his personal idiosyncrasies as his background and status:

A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto, and uses ‘Stertoraneous Shover’ and ‘Smart Junior’ as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a great success under modern business conditions.

It’s a very funny book.  Certain scenes read like a provincial Victorian precursor to Withnail and I.  But there’s a quality to the vaguely-yearning but downtrodden Polly that can remind us, between chuckles, of Naipaul’s Mr Biswas or John William’s William Stoner.  If life is a landscape of obstruction and discontent, then Polly is sustained, like these,  by occasional glimpses of beatitude, “the momentary vision of a very beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train.”

The final quarter of the book I found somewhat weaker than the rest.  Perhaps it’s simply that Polly’s climb toward the light isn’t so funny as his fumbling in darkness.  We don’t want our windmill-tilters to snap out of it.  But their adversaries don’t have to be visible in order to be real:

Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it.  And fear, and dullness and indolence and appetite, which, indeed, are no more than fear’s three crippled brothers, who make ambushes and creep by night, are against him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him in that quest.

No matter how entertaining his trials, I suppose there’s always some satisfaction in seeing the hero come home in the end.

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