Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945)



This is the end, beaut-i-ful friend. The end. ‘This little book,’ Wells declares in his preface, ‘brings to a conclusive end the series of essays, memoranda, pamphlets, through which the writer has experimented, challenged discussion, and assembled material bearing upon the fundamental nature of life and time. So far as fundamentals go, he has nothing more and never will have anything more to say.’ So it proved.

Mind at the End of its Tether is a mere slip of a book: 34 pages, and eight short chapters:
1. The End Closes in upon Mind
2. Mind is Retrospective to the End
3. There is no “Pattern of Things to Come”
4. Recent Realisations of the Nature of Life.
5. Race Suicide by Giganticism
6. Precocious Maturity, a Method of Survival
7. The Antagonism of Age and Youth
8. New Light on the Record of the Rocks
With a title like that, we expect pessimism; and Wells does not disappoint. Indeed, pessimism is piled on pessimism, to the point where this short work starts to feel endless, a TARDIS-book longer on the inside than its external page-count can allow. On and on it goes, repeating the same obscure and doom-clanging point over and over. Wells has had, he says, an intimation that things are approaching an end ‘within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by aeons’. Something profound has changed about the cosmos: ‘there has been a fundamental change in the conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning’. Wells explains, referring to himself in a distancing third-person:
This is a very startling persuasion to find establishing itself in one’s mind, and he puts forward his conclusions in the certainty that they will be entirely inacceptable to the ordinary rational man. If his thinking has been sound, then this world is at the end of its tether. The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded. [Mind, 1]
For Wells to write this only a few months ahead of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima looks prescient indeed; but Wells is not talking about nuclear weapons—even though he anticipated (more or less) the immense destructive properties of that ordnance all the way back in 1914. No: he's thinking about something else. Not a super-weapon invented by the world, but something existentially prior to the world itself.

He insists that ‘the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life’; that ‘the secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order’ [1] By ‘secular process’ he means the physical world outside humanity, something he here call, a little confusingly, ‘Eternity’. Wells used to believe that human consciousness and the external world run together, in intertwined ways, and now he no longer believes that:
That congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process ... is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it.
In other words, it's not, or not just, Wells's mind that's at its tether's-end in the title to the book; it's consciousness as such. Exactly how that works is not explained.

Indeed, it's not just the how of this coming apocalypse that is not explicated; it's the what. The book is surprisingly elusive of exactly what is going on: it is ‘the Pattern of Things to Come fading away’; it is ‘extinction coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt!’ (although Wells immediately contradicts this assertion: ‘it never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?”’ [1]). It is ‘chaos’ and ‘a harsh queerness come over things’. It is a kind of cinematic illusion:
We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty ... The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, them- selves as unsubstantial as a dream. [Mind, 1]
There is some kind of menace out there, lurking in the darkness, in the supracosmic spaces. Wells, channeling Shelley (though the poet isn't named) calls it “Power”, although he isn't happy with the nomenclature (‘“Power” is unsatisfactory. We need to express something entirely outside our “universe”, and “Power” suggests something within that universe and fighting against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness’). His alternatives won't serve though: ‘“Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”, all carry unsound implications’.

This is all in chapter 1, which comprises almost half the whole book. Subsequent chapters ring changes upon this theme without, really, explicating it. ‘Our universe is not merely bankrupt,’ he says; ‘it has not simply liquidated; it is going clean out of existence, leaving not a wrack behind. The attempt to trace a pattern of any sort is absolutely futile’ [3]; Homo sapiens is ‘played out’, ‘the stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal’ [4]. What animal?
Ordinary man is at the end of his tether. Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive. The rest will not trouble about it, finding such opiates and consolations as they have a mind for. [Mind, 8]
But Wells gives us no hints as to what this adaptable minority will look like, or how even this sliver of future possibility might unfold. On the contrary, he ends the books as gloomy as he started it, : ‘doubt[ing] that there will not be that small minority which will succeed in seeing life out to its inevitable end.’

So what's going on here? At the end of the lengthy first chapter, Wells says:
Hitherto, recurrence has seemed a primary law of life. Night has followed day and day night. But in this strange new phase of existence into which our universe is passing, it becomes evident that no longer recur. They go on and on to an impenetrable mystery, into a voiceless limitless darkness.
It's hard to avoid the sense that he is here merely projecting his imminent individual extinction onto the cosmos as a whole. We mortals are prone to that, I suppose. And indeed it soon did follow that H G Wells's personal nights no longer followed his personal days.

Still: the rest of us have survived pretty well past the months-, nay weeks-long, deadline of doom with which Mind at the End of Its Tether opens. Indeed, there's something ironic in a book that insists the old existential repetitions are coming to an end being, in itself, so very repetitious. But perhaps that's not irony; perhaps that's the point. This is Wells's cope-stone work, slender though it is. It self-consciously repudiates the very fact of ‘the future’, which looks like it is denying the very grounds on which Wells's fame as a writer rests: an anti-prophetic work that denies there will even be a future to be prophetic about. But this doesn't seem to me quite right. I think what Wells is confronting here is not the death of the future, but the death of uncertainty, that quantity which enacts not only the distinction between fact and fiction, but precisely the prophet's distinction between past and future. Wells at the end of his life has lost faith in uncertainty. Without it into which to expand, Being simply butts its head on the inevitable, over and over, until the particular iteration of Being doing the butting finally stops, as happened with Wells on 13 August 1946.

That said, I'm not sure this is the best context in which to read Wells's final published work. It contains, for example, nothing of the personal in it (beyond some references to previous books Wells has published; but nothing on Wells's failing health or imminent death). Rather it takes its place, although it is rarely discussed in these terms, in a whole series of works generated by the war and its immediate aftermath that discussed the end of history, or of time itself. Most famously now, perhaps, though certainly unknown to Wells in 1945, is Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ written in 1940. Having bought himself a copy of Klee's Angelus Novus, Benjamin crowned her-him as history itself:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.



That piled-up wreckage has some consonance with Wells's pessimistic assessment in this book, although Benjamin means (insofar as there's any consensus about what Benjamin means) something different:—that the future is not visible to us, even to us supposedly forward-looking Marxists, except as a kind of backward intuition predicated upon the past. Revolutionaries are not inspired by the possibilities of their grandchildren so much as outraged into activity by the injustices suffered by their grandparents. Although there's also a mystic sense of Eternity intersecting temporality, that draws on Jewish eschatological, or Christian apocalyptic, traditions: Benajmin's slippery like that. The important thing in this context is that he was far from alone. Back in the early 1990s, in those innocent pre-9-11 days when Francis Fukuyama could proclaim the end of history as if the notion was his own discovery, Lutz Niethammer published a history of the end-of-history (the English translation, by Patrick Camiller, appeared as Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End? in timely fashion in 1993, although the German original was first published in 1989).

Niethammer identifies a knot of thinkers and writers who were moved by the end of the Second World War to theorise history's ending—he doesn't discuss Wells, but easily could have done—as a reaction to a broader sense of intellectual exhaustion. Malcolm Bull summarises:
European theorists of posthistoire [consistsed] most notably of Kojève on the Left, Arnold Gehlen (who first deployed the term) and the novelist Ernst Jünger on the Right and (moving between the two extremes) the political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel and the Belgian politician Hendrik de Man. By finding the connections between the ideas of this seemingly heterogeneous group of (mostly) mid-century writers, Niethammer evokes the mood of historical exhaustion that enveloped radical intellectuals at the end of the Second World War when their political expectations were disappointed and American-style capitalism became dominant in the Western world. [Bull, ‘The End’, LRB 15:5 (11 March 1993), 23]
Niethammer diagnoses in these diverse thinkers ‘the fantasy of a meaningless, but ever continuing course of events’, which is exactly what Wells is complaining of in Mind at the End of Its Tether. Niethammer notes what he calls ‘this characteristic mixture of ideas’ which ‘equates bourgeois society with history, defines the contemporary world in terms of systemic dangers, and maintains hope in the future mainly at the level of individuality’. The ending of history, in this case, means the collapse of bourgeois individualism, which is quite a fruitful way of reading late Wells, I think. He worries about species death as a ‘systemic’ transference of the ego-individuality of Wells’s own mind, and he cannot project a new species to supersede the exhausted strain of Homo Sapiens. One of the things that has surprised me, as I have worked through Wells's entire oeuvre, is how often his socialist and revolutionary non-fiction plays peek-a-boo with a kind of constitutive bourgeois sensibility.

It's hard to avoid the temptation (although succumbing to it exposes me to the charge of imposing an egregious neatness of pattern on a book that specifically repudiates meaningful pattern) to link this last publication of H G Wells back to his first, to thread the needle that links Mind at the End of Its Tether to 1893's The Time Machine. That's also a book about the end of all things, the terminal beach to which the nameless traveller ventures and from which he flinches back in horror, or despair. That story, of course, is presided over by the Sphinx, a relative of some kind to Benjamin's angel of history, who poses the riddle what is this monster? to which the answer is: us, it is we ourselves. The monster is man. We are the ones who violate the incest taboo, who murder our fathers and sleep with our mothers, who are compelled to blind ourselves in self-disgust, who range out as far as we can only to feel the tether fastened around our necks go taut. Mind at the End of its Tether discusses the fossil record; but The Time Machine actually dramatizes those petrific sheaves of deep time. The human traveller encounters Morlocks eating Eloi, and both are his descendants, as are the strange crab creatures and the black eyeball-like blobs under the dying sun. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless.

It's a repetition, rather than a pattern, I think: this parallel between Wells's first and last work; a psychopathological going over and over the same ground, like Lady Macbeth endlessly washing her own hands. Mind at the End of Its Tether offers neither evidence for Wells's strange presentiment that everything was coming to and end, and develops nothing that looks like a conventional argument. Instead it just states and restates that the nameless something (“Power”, “Cosmic process”, “the Beyond”, “the Unknown”, “the Unknowable”) is bringing doom. That, it seems to me, is the final twist in Wells's twisted final book. He is not predicting an apocalypse, because, as Frank Kermode so eloquently shows in The Sense of an Ending, it has always been the role of apocalypse to shape the story of our collective existence, to transform the tick-tick of chronological time into the gleaming wonder of kairos, the right time, the special time. Rather Mind at the End of its Tether is predicting the radical absence of apocalypse, the trapped tick-tick of an endlessly existential cul de sac, the impossibility of shape or meaning as such. Pessimism had never been so pessimistic before. Credit, at least, to Wells for that.

7 comments:

  1. I wonder if Ballard read this little book, and took Wells's prediction that life was soon to run "as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein" to develop into The Crystal World?

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  2. Inquiring minds want to know -- and of course you're at perfect liberty to ignore them (and me) -- but now that you've completed the Long March through the Wells oeuvre, when do you have to hand the first draft of the book in?

    I'll probably buy it and may even review it, as I occasionally do with some books. As forex --
    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/411039/the-alien-novelist/

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    1. I've got a few housekeeping additions to make to this blog, and then I'll let it lie fallow for a couple of months. I'll probably come back mid- to late-summmer, make the blog private and start quarrying chunks of it into the book. It'll need a good deal of reworking. We'll see.

      That's an excellent review of the Budrysbook! Are you a frequent reviewer, there and elsewhere?

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  3. I read this once and was baffled by what seemed like a weirdly non-specific prophecy of impending doom. (Everyone from the JWs to the PBs can prophesy impending doom, but to say that something is coming but refuse so resolutely to say what it is...) At the time I just thought Wells's powers were failing, but the idea of setting it in the context of the "end of history" literature is very suggestive - in particular, the idea that he's not actually saying everything is about to stop forever, but just that everything is about to stop making sense forever. Which would also mean losing any hope of (the sense of) an ending - an awful prospect, to which one's own death might actually be preferable. In the (possibly misheard*) words of Beck Hansen

    "The end of the end,
    We live again,
    Oh, I grow weary of the end"

    (Did somebody mention Algis Budrys? Can we picture Wells putting down his pen and flexing a curiously light arm, ready to face whatever was next?)

    Alternatively, this may simply have been what happens when a sense of one's own imminent death gets filtered through a mind like his, with its self-importance, its tendency to cosmic perspectives and its lack of any sense of proportion. Eighty years old and in poor health, he almost certainly did have a vivid intuition that everything he had ever known or experienced was about to be snuffed out.

    *The published lyrics are actually the more conventional "the end, oh, the end", but this is how I've always heard it.

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  4. @ AR

    [1] You write: 'Are you a frequent reviewer, there and elsewhere?'

    No. I’ve only done it very sporadically when I feel some righteous cause needs it. When I've written for publication, it was mostly was science/technology magazine-type journalism like, forex, this cover story on bioweaponeering and emerging possibilities in synthetic biology for MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW --

    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/405434/the-knowledge/

    Or this piece on orbital debris remediation for ARS TECHNICA --

    https://arstechnica.com/science/2014/05/beyond-gravity-the-complex-quest-to-take-out-our-orbital-trash/

    In other words, I was one of those folks who, pre-2008, occasionally made $2-3 a word -- hence, my interest in Wells getting the equivalent of a quarter-million in the 1930s – and after 2008, it was clear to me that, going forward, there wouldn’t be a 'journalism business' as we had known it. And in many ways, I felt, good riddance. Since there were other things I could do that were less work and more fun, I’ve mostly backed away from it.

    [2] That said, when there’s a righteous cause I can help, I still involve myself. I helped out on the next TWELVE TOMORROWS anthology, due in April --
    https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/twelve-tomorrows

    – in terms of the author roster (check out the contributors); story/narrative problems, as the editor was a newbie to fiction (!); and when a Samuel R. Delany Q&A was becoming problematic (because the old guy has ADD and dyslexia problems, and is depressed by how he’s mismanaged his finances in retirement) I did a save by turning the Q&A into a profile a la the Budrys piece. (Which honestly wasn’t so great, except as it served the purpose of helping to keep a few more people aware of Budrys.)

    [3] What’s a righteous cause?

    Well, as the author of THE THING ITSELF, you’ve now had an update on to what extent no good deed goes unpunished and how this is especially true in the SF genre, as figures as worthy as Robert Silverberg and Gene Wolfe have learned before you. (Arguably, John Brunner destroyed his career and died young because he wrote the four great SF novels, including STAND ON ZANZIBAR, that we remember him for, and then was slow to grasp that they’d done _nothing_ for his bankability from a publisher’s POV. Au contraire.)

    Wells and your overview of him sounds like it’ll be worth promoting when it’s published. Budrys was similarly a worthy cause, because there was a time when he was the guy showing how a writer could yoke mainstream literary effects to real SFnal ideation, and produce something resembling serious adult literature. Here’s a recent Nina Allen commentary on reading Budrys’s ROGUE MOON –
    http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/?p=3132

    -- so some of his writing still has some power these many decades later.

    You’ve got my email address, I think. Let me know when the Wells book is imminent.

    Cheers.

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    1. That 'The Knowledge' piece is a mine for possible SF story ideas; and I'll certainly dig out the Twelve Tomorrows vol. When they ('they') briefly relaunched the Argosy magazine they hired me to interview Delany, which I did via a email to-and-fro, but we very soon ended up with a vast stretch of text. Fascinating stuff, but it needed some pretty aggressive editing.

      As for good deeds never going unpunished: I do see what you mean. Budrys has the respect of critics, but never had the readership. Fans sometimes pick up Rogue Moon expecting a jolly Golden Age adventure, and find it much stranger and (its gender politics especially) more awkward than they were expecting. I know Nina a little, and she's an excellent critic. To speak personally I did go through a gloomy period after it became clear how resolutely uninterested SF was in Thing Itself and everything else of mine, but it didn't last all that long, and in retrospect was probably a necessary psychological process for me, enabling me to get to where I am now: much more Zen about the whole thing. You're absolutely right, though, that authorial ressentiment is real and widespread and also hugely destructive, fatally.

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  5. @ Phil -

    [1] I think you made an astute diagnosis, offered in a comment you attached to an earlier entry by OGH, to the effect that Wells became increasingly trapped in his later years -- both because he was an autodidact and as proprietor of Brand Wells -- in the socio-ideological precepts he advanced at the 20th century's turn, so that he couldn't move beyond them no matter what new information came in.

    [2] You wrote: "Did somebody mention Algis Budrys? Can we picture Wells putting down his pen and flexing a curiously light arm, ready to face whatever was next?"

    (a) Yes, the last line of Budrys's 'The End of Summer.'

    (b) No, alas: we can't picture Wells putting down his pen and flexing a curious light arm, ready to face whatever was next. He would have been better off.

    Peace.

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