Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review of Ted Hughes Collected Poems

Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Man (later to changed to “The Iron Giant”), has easily become one of my favorite poets of all time. He takes such a close, hard look at life, and speaks so very honestly and bravely. He does exactly what a poet ought to be doing: speaking passionately, imaginatively, complexly, uniquely, and relatably about life. He doesn’t relish being misunderstood and passed over by the masses, as some poets do. I can keep up with much of it, but not so easily that I get bored. 
Probably the most well-known books in this anthology of his collected poetical works are Crow, Wodwo, and Birthday Letters.

Crow is a collection of poems in which a crow, a metaphor or totem for the author, sets out on a carnal, dissective, and visceral probing into the meaning of life and death. The crow often functions as a questioner of life and God, epitomizing the author himself at times; while at other times the crow is the incarnation of life, death, death-in-life, suffering, and an unconscious, bestial absurdity growing into consciousness. This is by far my favorite book of poems in his collected works. The close examination of life in all of its filth, cruelty, danger, and beauty is so incredibly raw and direct, and in some way this ability to stare into the abyss, bordering on morbidity, earns the trust of the reader.  “This is how he kept his conscience so pure/ He was black/ (Blacker/ Than the eyepupils/ Of the gunbarrels.)” Brute observation balanced with impassioned, imaginative reportage is what Hughes excels at. His perspective includes the darkest places he’s found on earth, and blends despair and horror with the beauty and awe of a terrifyingly mixed universe into a worldview that preserves the tension and ultimately reveals a gyrating harmony of good and bad which most definitely characterizes human reality. Many of the poems sound like nonsense on first look; but the crude, jutting imagery and phantasmagoric chain of events are mesmerizing. I sense that they are mysterious and profound, even when I don’t fully understand.

My favorite poems from Crow: Crow’s First Lesson, A Kill, The Battle Of Osfrontalis, Examination At The Womb Door (BEST!), Crow’s Account Of The Battle, Oedipus Crow, The Smile, Crow Blacker than Ever, Revenge Fable, Crow and Stone, Lovesong, Two Eskimo Songs: Fleeing From Eternity, I See a Bear, and Crow the Just. 

Wodwo, meaning “wildman” in old English, is a collection of miscellaneous poems which includes the eponymous poem “Wodwo.” Their themes are random, which I love this in a book of poems, but the motif of finding one’s way through the universe is still prevalent and masterful.  Favorites: Ghost Crabs, Boom, Public Bar T.V., A Vegetarian, Sugar Loaf, Theology, Song Of A Rat, Skylarks, You Drive In A Circle, Pibroch, The Howling Of Wolves, Gnat Psalm, and Wodwo.

Birthday Letters is a collection of poems that Hughes which orbit the theme of his relationship with Sylvia Plath. It was an obviously turbulent liaison for both parties, and I can’t imagine the impact this sort of strain must have had on the children. Plath had battled clinical depression for years with constant follow-up by physicians, especially in her final days. She moved into her own apartment with their two kids when she learned Hughes was having an affair. Probably as a result of her long history battling depression and several botched suicide attempts, and the heartache about Hughes’ infidelity, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 by sticking her head in an oven and turning on the gas. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had sealed the doors between herself and her sleeping children with wet towels, opened their windows and placed bread and milk in their room. Plath’s history of depression notwithstanding, many still blame Hughes for Plath’s death. An especially committed band of protesters have periodically vandalized and effaced the headstone Ted erected for his wife’s grave because Hughes’ name appears on it (“[they] bite the face off her gravestone”), and each time Hughes had it repaired.  Six years after Plath’s suicide, his mistress named Assia Wevill, whom Hughes left Plath for and was only one of several affairs he would develop in his lifetime, killed herself in the same way Plath had, but deepened the wound grievously by asphyxiating along with herself the 4-year-old daughter Hughes and Wevill had together. And the train wreck of Hughes’ life continued when in 2009, 11 years after Hughes’ death, Hughes’ and Plath’s son committed suicide by hanging himself.

The Birthday Poems poems offer a very intimate glimpse of the impetuous and volatile relationship between Hughes and Plath, two emotionally taut and over reactive poets of great genius. Their mental/emotional processes are so inscrutable to the common person (“I had accepted/ The meteor logical phenomena/ That kept your compass steady.”), and it makes some of their struggles appear melodramatic and petty to many onlookers. Add to that Plath’s clinical depression, possibly the by-product of an anxiety disorder, the newly developed/late-adopted drugs and methods to treat anxiety and depression, the pressures of genius and fame (“you will have paid for [fame] with your happiness”), the British post-war economy (“the stink of fear was still hanging in the wardrobes”), and Hughes’ infidelity, and one can better understand the manic states and vitriolic interactions in Plath and Hughes’ history which characterize the poems of Birthday Letters. Some of them are indeed best understood in light of the Hughes/Plath saga, but much can be understood on their own. And some, like many of his poems, can’t be properly understood at all, but must be felt.

To be honest, Birthday Letters does feel a bit mundane in parts and lacked some thrust. Perhaps it functioned more as an autobiography or was simplified as an apologetic for the public, but I felt a significant difference between this and his other poems. It could be he found it to be an exhausting but propitiatory labor, and he felt he owed it to Sylvia, himself, his children and the public not to obscure the events leading to/from Sylvia’s death with his own theatrics. He had, in fact, burnt some entries of Plath’s journal before publishing it to protect the children, so his reserve may still have been motivating him, even though Birthday Letters was published so many years later. The poems are Hughes handiwork to be sure, full of imagination and passion, but they lack a certain boldness, in my opinion, which might be due to being fueled by guilt.

My favorite poems from Birthday Letters are: God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark, Fever, The Gypsy, The Lodger, The Table, Dream Life, The Rabbit Catcher, The Bee God, Being Christlike, Dreamers, Fairy Tale, The Blackbird, Robbing Myself, The Cast, Life After Death, and The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother. 

From the stories people tell about the life of Hughes, I’m not so sure I celebrate the poet as I do the poetry. I have no problem snapping off this bejeweled finger from the rot of a despicable man’s life. It is incredible and soul-illuminating. The anthology of collected poems published in 2005 is massive, and I have enjoyed every bit of it. It is cud for a lifetime. Okay, that’s nasty, but…you know what I’m saying. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Words

This book is an awesome display of the deeply literary and ‘religious’—religious in the sense of considering all the world and one’s self to be profoundly significant and purposive in every part— nature of Sartre. It explains so much about him. The title, The Words, refers to the way he attached a supremely high value in the first half of his life to reading, writing, and being read. This is an autobiographical account of his first ten years of life which were so formative for his adult life. I cannot emphasize enough how very much of Sartre’s philosophy is explained here. I was actually shocked to discover in his first decade alone so many unveilings to the meaning AND motive for his later work.

Sartre was once tempted to think it funny that people wondered if he even had a childhood. “When I was thirty, friends were surprised: ‘One would think you didn’t have parents. Or a childhood.’ And I was silly enough to feel flattered.” This was due to Sartre’s early-adult abandonment of his past which he believed could only be interpreted from his future. Now, Sartre is writing this book in his sixties and finding value in his earlier life like he thought he would, but in a different way. I truly believe he grew to appreciate each moment of his life in itself, rather than as a chronicle to lure others into loving himself, which he couldn’t do. “Because I did not love myself sufficiently, I fled forward. The result is that I love[d] myself still less…”

Sartre’s father died when he was two years old, and his mother moved with him into her parents’ home. It was an upper-middleclass home steeped in education, impassioned politics, and family tension which would indelibly shape his psyche and self-esteem for the rest of his life. His relationship with his mother was much like brother and sister, even as an adult to a child at times, and he accustomed himself to calling her by her name “Anne Marie.” The cause of this was his grandfather’s contempt for Jean-Paul’s father, who died very inconveniently, and the subsequent belittling treatment of Anne Marie by his grandfather who was irked to have his daughter again as his dependent-plus-one leveled, in Jean-Paul’s mind, the roles of Jean-Paul and his mother. Anne Marie was treated as an importunate child, but Jean-Paul was coddled as his grandfather’s alter-ego, and praised from a young age for his precocity. Actually, he was a spoiled brat, and he knew it, and it wasn’t long before he despised himself for the pretentious, melodrama with which he stooped to please his grandfather and sustain his image as a child prodigy. Sartre developed a persona that existed solely to please others around him, and his authentic abilities and desires were hidden deep beneath a veneer that was for him hardly comfortable or satisfying. “Even in solitude I was putting on an act… I sank deeper and deeper into imposture. Condemned to please, I endowed myself with charms that withered on the spot.” He developed many neuroses during his younger years, and may never have outgrown some of them. His feeling of superfluity and absolute insignificance apart from the attention of his doters, which was inconsistent at best and frankly demoralizing, hollowed-out his sense of security and worth, and he increasingly repressed and compartmentalized his less favorable habits, interests, and personality traits to survive socially. The result is that he loathed himself and all identity-pimps. 

He fell in love with writing only superficially and theatrically at first, determined to impress his watchers. He then introverted so far that he couldn’t find his way out for a long time, and he wrote himself into an self-awareness coma by creating fictions in which he was always a delivering hero and the world was celebrating him eternally. It was during this time he began to live ‘posthumously’, imputing meaning to his life by imagining how his ideas and fantastical exploits would be read by people after he was dead. Only then did he believe his life would be explained and his value to others would be etched in stone as a form of ‘legacy’ which has been a maelstrom for many heroes and celebrities who have unwittingly wasted their life in this denial of self. Much of this early tortuous introspection and self-loathing was because he had no friends—he wasn’t permitted to attend schools which didn’t ‘recognize’ his genius—and when he finally made friends at a school he was allowed to attend, he began the slow process of breaking out of what was quickly becoming a sociopathic escapism (“the human race became a small committee surrounded by affectionate animals”), though he would never completely overcome the desire to see his life as a book which would justify all of his actions in some future reader’s mind.

In his later years, he began to be grieved about his early and late inauthenticity. He relates that while writing Nausea he was “fake to the marrow of my bones, and hoodwinked.” And yet, as much as he tried to escape it, he resorted to the ‘elitism’ of criticizing everyone, but at the same time,

“I was I, the elect, chronicler of hell, a glass and steel microscope peering at my own protoplasmic juices…I doubted everything except that I was the elect of doubt.”

In trying to get back to the beginning of his insincerity and objectified, artificial persona, he found an infinite regression of personas that was forever creating new masks for him to unmask. This was a foreshadowing of his theory of the spontaneous and transcendent ego which is beyond our reach, for it inspires and directs our reach. Any sense of self that we discover or delineate has become an artifice, a forgery of the real self which is impelling the discovering and objectifying a decoy ‘self’. Trying to get to the back of the cogito probably kept him busy for a while, and this, along with a fear of death, inflamed his neuroticism. “I lived in a state of terror; it was a genuine neurosis.” I’m truly saddened to think how many psychoses and suicides a little Zoloft back in the day might have prevented.

Sartre was truly oppressed by the thought ingrained in him, mostly by his grandfather’s behavior, that he was not needed anywhere, or had any importance to anyone. He felt completely superfluous. I think his psyche and nervous system was scarred by having to play-act for his grandfather so much. He literally did not feel significant or valuable, and was looking for ways to make himself feel ‘real’.

“We were never in our own home…This caused me no suffering since everything was loaned to me, but I remained abstract. Worldly possessions reflect to their owner what he is; they taught me what I was not. I was not substantial or permanent, I was not the future continuer of my father’s work, I was not necessary to the production of steel. In short, I had no soul.”

At nine years old (c’mon!!) he was thinking about the existential ‘holes’ people leave behind when they aren’t at a party or gathering and people notice that they are ‘not there’. This spoke to Sartre of necessity, and he so badly wanted to feel necessary in a way that his absence would be palpable and would shake the world. It affected his whole outlook on his literary career, and Sartre admitted that it still affected him in his later years. His desire to write in such a way that he would be immortalized and ‘missed’ when he was dead consumed him. He later realized the flaw of living solely that you would be remembered, and labeled this “posthumous” thinking; and yet he couldn’t shake the need to leave a profound impression with others about his past being, whether or not he was still ‘being’ or not. This probably illuminates his more matured ideas about intersubjectivity and our connection to others that is irreducible and fundamental to our consciousness and being. Could it be that Sartre so badly felt the need to be needed, that he invented a philosophy in which this need is proof of our ontological interconnectivity? Or, could Sartre have felt more intensely and consistently this need we all have, and rightly surmised a possible reason for it that better explains its appearance than any other theory? I think both.

Sartre gives an excellent analogy about how he began to feel which may communicate more to the reader in imagery than Sartre could explain in abstract philosophy.

“Since nobody laid claim to me seriously, I laid claim to being indispensable to the Universe. What could be haughtier? What could be sillier? The fact is that I had no choice… I had sneaked onto a train and fallen asleep, and when the ticket-collector shook me and asked for my ticket, I had to admit that I had none. Nor did I have the money with which to pay my fare on the spot. I began by pleading guilty. I had left my identity card at home, I no longer even remembered how I had gotten by the ticket-puncher, but I admitted that I had sneaked on to the train. Far from challenging the authority of the ticket-collector, I loudly proclaimed my respect for his functions and complied in advance with his decision. At that extreme degree of humility, the only way I could save myself was by reversing the situation: I therefore revealed that I had to be in Dijon for important and secret reasons, reason that concerned France and perhaps all mankind. If things were viewed in this new light, it would be apparent that no one in the entire train had as much right as I to occupy a seat. Of course, this involved a higher law which conflicted with the regulations, but if the ticket-collector took it upon himself to interrupt my journey, he would cause grave complications, the consequences of which would be his responsibility. I urged him to think it over; was it reasonable to doom the entire species to disorder under the pretext of maintaining order in a train? Such is pride: the plea of the wretched. Only passengers with tickets have the right to be modest. I never knew whether I won my case. The ticket-collector remained silent. I repeated my arguments. So long as I spoke, I was sure he wouldn’t make me get off. We remained face to face, one mute and the other inexhaustible, in the train that was taking us to Dijon. The train, the ticket-collector, and the delinquent were myself. I was also a fourth character, the organizer, who had only one wish, to fool himself, if only for a minute, to forget that he had concocted everything.”

Writing this book in his sixties, he was able to understand the genesis of his motives for writing, and he could see that he would never be fulfilled by writing in the way he originally thought he could be. “For the last ten years or so I’ve been a man who’s been waking up, cured of a long, bitter-sweet madness.” He could see that his “eagerness to write involves a refusal to live” in that he would always be inclined to think of writing as a need to be loved and justified as a legend, a story, an object in the mind of some other existent.

“My individuality as a subject had no other interest for me than to prepare for the moment [death] that would change me into an object…I was charging my descendents to love me instead of doing so myself.”

He does a wonderful job of sniping the false pride of ‘legacy’ in himself and his culture. A desire to leave a legacy is a loathing of the present moment for the sake of being a chapter in someone else’ history, a drawing in some children’s book, that no longer risks hunger, humiliation, or danger of any kind. It is an agreement for one to die if everyone will tell good stories about them. “I became my own obituary.”

His loud, self-affirming declaration at the end of the book is as bold and clear as any man who has ever spoken a word in his own defense and fought for his own honor, or humbly but confidently surrendered himself to the gallows he would justly hang on. “What remains [of my work]? A whole man, composed of all men and as good as all of them and no better than any.

I love Sartre’s writing. Absolutely love it. It’s genius, meandering, spontaneous, anti-climactic, playful, enigmatic, and always, always honest. He reminds me of Wittgenstein. I often wonder if the two ever interacted. Both of their M.O. seemed to be anti-elitism (“Never in my life have I given an order without laughing, without making others laugh”), anti-institutionalism, spontaneity, and an emphasis on ‘knowing the world through relation’. I love when he tells on himself for being disingenuous, then tells on himself for telling on himself (“I’m always ready to criticize myself, provided I’m not forced to”). He is a fountain of messy, sudden, and superlatively powerful ideas. From a young age he liked word puzzles, and I think he created cryptic messages for diligent readers to unlock, though I think the point is not memorization but assimilation—if you don’t have to work for what you know, you don’t really know it to your core. Sartre notices and says all the things we’ve been taught for so long not to notice or say, and having dumbfounded you, leaves without knowing what you made of it. It was enough for him that he said it…the rest of your life is up to you, as the rest of Sartre’s own life and meanings are left to him. “Never have I thought that I was the happy possessor of a ‘talent’; my sole concern has been to save myself.”

His early childhood ideas and experiences were emotionally and cognitively overwrought and perhaps frantic by some people’s standards, but his hyper-developed sensitivity to existential angst and boredom allowed him to help people realize with devastating accuracy the tradition-vacuum into which modern man and academia has fallen, and the way to climb out. Sounds like a rough road, experiencing such psychological torment before the age of ten and much to follow after, but I’m glad he wrote about it for the postmodern explorer. Thanks Sartre my brother.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review of H.G. Wells' Outline Of History

If history of humanity feels a lot like the following video to you, then you need to read this book, or at least my review of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3Jhikj-djo (PG-13 for violence and some language, but it is VERY relevant!).

The premise of this monumental work of H.G. Wells’ is staggering: sketch all of history as succinctly as possible while critiquing major figures and events, noting their contributions to the evolving story and progress of humankind, and imagining for the reader the trajectory along which everything is barreling. Wells pulled it off quite nicely, although it was inevitable that sections of the work would became bogged down by a litany of names, dates, and places; but I’m assuming there were critics to please, and people who would feel he was doing history buffs a disservice by leaving out names and events that meant a lot to a particular demographic. His chronological table alone spans 15 pages. You can’t please them all, but Wells did as well as anyone I’ve read.

I have been asked a couple of times why I am reading an out-of-date historical work. The last revision to the Outline in Wells’ lifetime was published in 1937. Later, Raymond Postgate updated it, trying to preserve the ‘voice’ of Wells (which I think he did a fine job of); and Wells’ son, G.P. Wells, updated the final edition in 1971. It appears that since the last update in 1971, more has been added to our understanding of history than overturned. Mostly, Wells was timeless in the unique way he chose to outline and summarize happenings and, more importantly, ideas, for he believed that “all human history is fundamentally a history of ideas.” His remarkable storytelling stands out far beyond other histories that are a mere recitation of facts.

The goal of this review is to accomplish at least one of two things:

1)      I hope to interest people to read the Outline for its insight, if not for factual information.

2)      I hope to distill the insights that I’ve gathered to offer them in condensed form for those who will never be interested enough to read the entire two-volume work. The work as a whole may better represent historiography or philosophy of history instead of history per se, so, as much as I hate to say it, it is most likely already going the way of the dinosaur as far as a plain chronicle of episodes is concerned. This is an assumption, but there are probably other works out there that can do that job better. So, I want to share my gleanings. There is so much rich stuff here. I wish people could make the connection between what they love in H.G. Wells’ other writings, and infer that the same creative mind is at work in this Outline to help readers understand the deep meaning of humanity’s experiences, but that isn’t likely. So, my peeps, allow me to regurgitate for you.

Wells fully commits to the story of early humanity in a way that few seldom know to do. He seems to really understand all that was and is hanging on humanity’s evolution, and all the ramifications of the nuanced changes and milestones. His grasp of the origins of religion is especially illuminating. He reduces much early religion to a fear of the Old Man in a tribal culture who was the dominant male that ensured the survival of the tribe, monopolized the females, and demanded the fear, servility and absolute reverence of the other males. The taboo associated with tampering with any of the belongings of the Old Man carved deep grooves in the tribe’s psyche—“the fear of the Old Man was the beginning of social wisdom”—and probably influenced posterity’s fear of the Old Man coming back, since a fetish-awed mentality shrouded the dead in supernatural possibilities. Slowly but surely, “The fear of the Father passed by imperceptible degrees into the fear of the Tribal God.” There are traces here of Herbert Spencer’s ideas, one of the fathers of evolution who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, which developed the idea that religion’s root lies in the chief of a tribe whose mastery over his people and environment began to be understood by his contemporaries and successive generations as a difference that is “not of degree only, but of kind” (from Universal Progress).  The chief was a superman to his ordinary brethren, and the dead chief became the archetype of the aboriginal deity. 

Wells stretches this theory further to account for the growing fear and respect for priest-craft, which cultivated a hegemony of power by forging “secrets in order to have secrets to tell.” This groping veneration culminated in what we now consider to be the most barbaric of rituals and self-sacrifice. The blood-letting which characterized many of the primitive cultures was a matter of course. “To lift curses, to remove evils, to confirm and establish, one must needs do potent things. And was there anything more potent in existence than killing, the shedding of life-blood?” What began as fetishism in the late Paleolithic period morphed over the epochs into full-blown animism and later, as language developed in the Neolithic stage, into crudely systematized and heavily ritualized religious belief.

“Out of all these factors, out of the Old Man tradition, out of the emotions that surround Women for men and Men for women, out of the desire to escape infection and uncleanness, out of the desire for power and success through magic, out of the sacrificial tradition of seedtime, and out of a number of like beliefs and mental experiments and misconceptions, a complex something was growing up in the lives of men which was beginning to bind them together mentally and emotionally in a common life and action. This something we may call religion. It was not a simple or logical something, it was a tangle of ideas about commanding beings and spirits, about gods, about all sorts of ‘musts’ and ‘must-nots’. Like all other human matters, religion has grown. It must be clear from what has gone before that primitive man—much less his ancestral apes and his ancestral Mesozoic mammals—could have had no idea of God or religion; only very slowly did his brain and his powers of comprehension become capable of such general conceptions. Religion is something that has grown up with and through human association, and God has been and is still being discovered by man…Hitherto a social consciousness had been asleep and not even dreaming in human history. Before it awakened, it produced nightmares.”

Wells makes the fascinating observation that the appearance of civilization and temples are simultaneous in history. “It was in the early temples that the records and tallies of events were kept and that writing began. And knowledge was there.” It was there that people put their trust for a good crop, or health, or a better life for their children. People invested in the temple, it drew the creativity and intelligence of the community, and people paid homage and dues to it of a substantial kind. It was the wealth of the village. While the common people worked out in the fields and toiled in mind-numbing, exhausting labor, the priests had leisure and sanction to think at a more complex level. This does not necessarily imply that the priests and religious leaders were always conscious of deception or manipulation, but they were in a position of power, privilege, and convenience, and the lower level of their culture could have no integral part in the ideation and decision-making of the priests because they believed, and contributed to the priests’ belief, that the temple leaders were part of a higher order of beings and therefore completely justified and inscrutable in how they handled their responsibilities as community rulers par excellence. The disparity would only increase over time, with an exaggerated intensity during crisis or war.

As civilization advanced, the administrative/political tasks of the community became specialized beyond the interests or abilities of the priest, and ultimately separated out the role of a king; and the priest and king led the community together, albeit with frequent clashes. As people settled into civilized life under these authorities, free from constant nomadic wandering, hunger, war, and fear, there was a certain sacrifice that had to be made. “A certain freedom and a certain equality passed out of human life when men ceased to wander. Men paid in liberty and they paid in toil, for safety, shelter, and regular meals.” The road to stability with a 3-meal plan, within a sphere of limited freedom, has been slow and arduous. “All animals—and man is no exception—begin life as dependents. Most men never shake themselves loose from the desire for leading and protection. Most men accept such conditions as they are born to, without further question.”

It is interesting to see the development of the back-and-forth conflict between the settled/civilized, and the nomads, which Wells imputes to a fundamental difference in mentality and practices between the two types who attempt in different ways to reconcile freedom with civilization. “It seems as inevitable that voyaging should make men free in their minds as that settlement within a narrow horizon should make men timid and servile.” Rome, we know, fell to the nomadic ‘barbarians’: Visigoths in Spain, Lombards in Italy, Anglos/Saxons in England, Celts in Scotland and Ireland, Vandals in Tunisia, and Franks in France. Then the Monguls came from Asia, and gave Eurasia a spanking like it had never experienced. Wells addresses the ending of the era of nomad-city conflict:

“For thousands of years the settled civilized peoples…seem to have developed their ideas and habits along the line of worship and personal subjection, and the nomadic peoples theirs along the line of personal self-reliance and self-assertion. Naturally enough, under the circumstances, the nomadic peoples were always supplying the civilizations with fresh rulers and new aristocracies. That is the rhythm of all early history.” 

The cycles of invasion, settlement, opulence, decadence, and fresh conquest continued until a new blend of civilized people came about who were zealous for their freedoms while committed to an idea of social collaboration and security.

The industrial revolution was another watershed in the rise of equalitarian ideals and human progress in terms of, well, people not killing each other so much. It is very interesting to read Wells’ differentiation between the mechanical revolution and the industrial revolution, both of which happened simultaneously in the late 18th/early 19th century first in England, and later in Western Europe and the United States. Though this era is usually referred to simply as the Industrial Revolution, Wells is emphatic in helping the reader understand that a mechanical or technological revolution, with new and improved machines for production of goods and efficiency of labor, was not the same thing as an industrial revolution, although it may influence or be influenced by the latter, including new ways to structure labor and financial processes. The factory method, for instance, came before the actual new-fangled machines and consisted of a new division of collective labor, “herding poor people into establishments to work collectively for their living.” But there was a definite redeeming value to an industrial revolution’s concurrence with a mechanical revolution. Because machine power was being harnessed to do the work of human beings, it became more necessary to educate the common man to secure ‘industrial efficiency’, and his intelligence was slowly distinguished from and valued above the muscle and drudgework of manual labor which was left to the machine-works.  This higher valuation of the common laborer didn’t happen immediately (read any Dicken’s novel for a sense of how the immediate confusion the machines brought with them precipitated much suffering and death until their role was better understood), but it was only a matter of time before the human asset was clearly seen as wasted potential when competing with machine labor. “If, for a generation or so, machinery had to wait it’s turn in the mine, it is simply because for a time men were cheaper than machinery”, and, I would add, men, women and children were better understood, traditionally entrenched, and more readily available for the moment. Wells even dares to imagine some dubious benefit to children involved in factory labor who were always obligated to find what work they could to support their family, but now could do it in an environment which would make child-labor in general more “systematic, conspicuous, and scandalous.” This is an instance in which the industrial changes “challenged the quickening human conscience.”  The industrial revolution, as opposed to the mechanical revolution, would have happened regardless of coal, steam and new machines, but without the machines it may have shared a similar end as the social and financial developments (revolutions) of the later years of the Roman Republic in “dispossessed free cultivators, gang labor, great estates, great financial fortunes, and a socially destructive financial process.”

Wells had such a unique way of summarizing a culture’s beginnings and meanings. I felt like I was learning some historical lessons for the first time, even with narratives that I had believed I was thoroughly familiar with. The customs of ancient Egypt, which I have always viewed as highly creative and idealistic in many ways, he characterized as mostly practical and unimaginative, and even their approach to an afterlife was supremely pragmatic in that they primarily helped the deceased prepare essentials for the next part of a journey. For them, metaphysics was a packing list.

When commenting on the early history of Israel, Wells continued to shoot straight about the ‘Holy Land’, although it was clear he was cognizant of the possibility of offending religious readers. “[The story of Israel’s civil wars] is a tale frankly barbaric…For three centuries the life of the Hebrews was like the life of a man who insists upon living in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, and is consequently being run over constantly by omnibuses and motor-lorries…The plain fact of the Bible narrative is that the Jews went to Babylon barbarians, and came back civilized. They went a confused and divided multitude, with no national self-consciousness; they came back with an intense and exclusive national spirit.” Why did Wells care about what happened with this small nation of people? Because he saw in it a seed of something far greater that would one day grow so large and global that it would ignite the passion and imagination of all people in the world to see themselves as part of something larger, and this theme of world unity would be later spearheaded by Jesus of Nazareth himself.

“The jealous pettiness that disfigures the earlier tribal ideas of God gives place to a new idea of a god of universal righteousness…From this time onward there runs through human thought, now weakly and obscurely, now gathering power, the idea of one rule in the world, and of a promise and possibility of an active and splendid peace and happiness in human affairs. From being a temple religion of the old type, the Jewish religion becomes, to a large extent, a prophetic and creative religion of a new type…Two thousand four hundred years ago, and six or seven or eight thousand years after the walls of the first Sumerian cities arose, the ideas of the moral unity of mankind and of a world peace had come into the world.”

It is very evident that Wells loved the dirty, bold, revolutionary Jesus that believed in universal peace and preached a united kingdom of peoples of all types in which there were no lower class citizens. But much in the same way that Gautama Buddha, who left his palace to mingle with the poor and speak about earthly peace, has been transfigured into a teacher of metaphysics and detached escapism—a  “stiff squatting figure, the gilded idol of later Buddhism”—so Jesus has been emasculated by an attempt to make him and his down-to-earth, revolutionary teaching more palatable. “The lean and strenuous personality of Jesus is much wronged by the unreality and conventionality that a mistaken reverence has imposed upon his figure in modern Christian art. Jesus was a penniless teacher, who wandered about the dusty sun-bit country of Judea, living upon casual gifts of food; yet he is always represented clean, combed, and sleek, in spotless raiment, erect, and with something motionless about him as though he was gliding through the air. This alone has made him unreal and incredible to many people who cannot distinguish the core of the story from the ornamental and unwise additions of the unintelligently devout.”

The core teachings of Jesus as propagated by Christians certainly took at turn by the 4th century CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine was brilliant in taking advantage of the passion and solidarity represented in the Christian faith to unite the empire. He is cited by Wells as being extremely authoritarian and autocratic, but he shrewdly harnessed the energy of a movement that was obviously a force greater than his politics alone could muster. The First Council Of Nicaea was an opportunistic attempt by Constantine to increase this solidarity because theological rifts were diminishing the swell of religious fervor he wished to tap. He was a pagan following after the Roman pantheon of gods, and his involvement in the council was a major conflict of interest, though it was overlooked in his day and in our own by many traditions that refuse to be uprooted from his council’s decisions. The church leaders wanted stringency of doctrine, while the Emperor wanted more political power through unity. He probably would have proclaimed vampirism as the official Roman religion if they would all have agreed on that! Constantine most likely couldn't care less about Christianity as a personal awakening but more as a “unifying moral force.” He was a shrewd autocrat, and established church council meetings to “stamp out controversy and impose a dogmatic creed upon all believers” which would stop the doctrinal fighting and give him free reign to make peremptory decisions, “free from opposition and criticism.” The church councils all amount to what Wells keenly labels a “rough summons to unanimity” to establish the authority of the emperor.

In general Wells actually treats religious history very fairly and sympathetically, and sees in religious expansion a growth of education, a concept of unity, and a dispossessing of social orders and political systems that had grown defunct.

“Throughout all its variations and corruptions, Christianity has never completely lost the suggestion of a devotion to God’s commonweal that makes the personal pomps of monarchs and rulers seem like the insolence of an overdressed servant, and the splendors and gratifications of wealth like the waste of robbers. No man living in a community which such a religion as Christianity or Islam has touched can be altogether a slave; there is an ineradicable quality in these religions that compels men to judge their masters and to realize their own responsibility for the world.”

Muslims, for instance, conquered and ruled in some areas which were quite happy for the change in government, and fundamentalism may have helped to provide strict order and consistency until a people felt a secure enough foundation beneath them to be able to make changes and explore new ideas. Islam offered a sense of equality “that made the believing negro the equal of the Caliph” and Islamic societies were “more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.” That is not to say that oppression and tyranny wasn’t a problem, especially for those who resisted Islam, Christianity, and other invading religions; but Wells sees a lot of meaning in the timing of religions and revolutions. Even the Papacy of the12th/13th century he viewed as a “first clearly conscious attempt to provide such a government [of universal peace] to the [entire] world”, though he believed the buttresses of ancient religious forms would eventually fall away so that “communities of faith and obedience” could grow into adulthood as “communities of knowledge and will.”

The true wealth of this outline is in the way Wells interprets, and not merely reports, history. He has such a great balanced perspective, and has a good idea of what it all means. His imagination is profound, and often he seems not only informed, but, dare I say, prophetic. He’s as much concerned with the ‘why’ of history, and the ‘what now’, as he is any dry fact. History is not information for Wells, it is inspiration and a loud clarion of warning. He looks at ancient Israel and sees a world peace that is the moon half-hid by the clouds of religious forms. He refuses to revere, only appreciate, the works attributed to Homer. Of Plato and Aristotle he marks the quintessence of bravery and consistency. He says of them, “[Aristotle] was terribly sane and luminous…Plato says in effect: ‘Let us take hold of life and remodel it’; this soberer successor [Aristotle says]: ‘Let us first know more of life and meanwhile serve and use the king.’ It was not so much a contradiction as an immense qualification of the master.” In Alexander The Great he sees a garish façade (“that precipitate wrecker of splendid possibilities”) eclipsing the light of his brilliant luminary of a father, Philip, who did most of the work towards Greek unification, and trained his military in the use of cavalry charges, catapults, and artillery preparation. He was disgusted with the return of the ‘red eyes of the ancestral ape’ in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, of which he says, “The history of the Second and Third Punic Wars (between 218 and 146 BCE), it is plain, is not the history of perfectly sane peoples…the true spirit of the age is shown in the eager examination for signs and portents of the still quivering livers of those human victims who were sacrificed in Rome during the panic before the battle of Telamon.” That, along with slavery, incensed Wells enough to write, “If republican Rome was the first of modern self-governing national communities, she was certainly the ‘Neanderthal’ form of them.” He was also unimpressed with the exaggerated stability of the later Roman Empire, and attributes the modern well-faring reputation of Rome as mostly legend. The Crusades were a joke, with states kings and popes waging crusades against each other (I laughed out loud when reading this for the first time)! In his perspective, the later European ‘Powers’ were nations with capriciously set and flexible boundaries which changed constantly forming ‘entirely fictitious unities’.  The scuffle over North American ground is highly embarrassing to all nations involved in the power/money grab, and all are incriminated for the annihilation and oppression of native groups they came into contact with.  

He wasn’t a big fan of the Apostle Paul for turning Christianity back to a priestly-atonement idea of Christ as high priest, who had actually freed his followers from the priestly tyranny; or of Rudyard Kipling’s misunderstanding of Darwinian principles and literary effort to “lead the children of the middle and upper-class British public back to the Jungle to learn ‘the law’” which Wells’ thought amounted to a ‘might makes right’ sort of doctrine; Lord Byron was a “doggerel satirist with the philosophy of a man-about-town”; Sir Walter Scott wasted his powers on “regretful fiction” recalling the romantic, chivalrous past; he wants us to get it very clear in our heads that Napoleon was an neurotic momma’s boy (no, really) with only intermittent strokes of genius whose disastrous career obviously nauseates Wells as “an interruption, a reminder of latent evils, a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence…Even regarded as a pestilence, he was not of supreme rank”; and I’m sure Wells would surely have included Hitler on his black list, if he had been around long enough to see that young toadstool blossom.  

His favorites in history seem to be Jesus and Buddha, who he believed inaugurated freedom from caste systems, and religious/political oppression; 12th century German Emperor Frederick II who challenged and excoriated the Pope, and brought together people of different religions in his court; Roger Bacon in the 13th century, forerunner of William of Occam; 16th century essayists Montaigne and Rabelais; Robert Owen, the founder of experimental socialist methods and communities in the early 19th century; Shakespeare, of course; Charles Darwin who connected us to the significance of our pre-historical roots; Lincoln who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders to attain higher ideals of human fraternity and peace; and President Woodrow Wilson who worked to grow the embryo of the idealistic United Nations in the form of the League Of Nations.

Wells reminds us again and again that human development is extremely complex, but we have come a long way. Everything we see in civilization’s history is only the tip of the iceberg. “Half the duration of human civilization and the keys to all its chief institutions are to be found before Sargon I [king of the old-Assyrian empire 1920 BCE].” That’s why he spent a lot of time narrating prehistoric human evolution and tracing the branching out of the human species.

Wells sees that social unity is a primary goal that has been slow in coming, but is coming nonetheless. “[Humanity is] feeling its way blindly towards some linking and subordinating idea to save it from the pains and accidents of mere individuality.” And though progress has been long in coming, it could also go out in the blink of an eye. It is apparent near the end of the Outline that Wells’ bubble was officially burst at the outset of WWI, and perhaps it is fortunate he wasn’t around long enough to see the terrors of WWII, which would probably have pushed him to the brink of despair. He states that up until the beginning of WWI it was possible to look at the world and see that much progress had been made, “interrupted but always resumed, towards peace and freedom.” But the illusion shattered, and Wells sensed the extremely fragile nature of human progress, “Progress [is] not automatic. It must be fought for, not even the most elementary rights were secure.”

Wells continually circles back to three areas in which progress has often been delayed, but has struggled on consistently, precariously, and necessarily.

1.       Language

Language has been a key to the advancement of civilization and intellectual development for many reasons. Wells states that language has a far greater purpose than merely signaling our intentions or desires to another. Words and language helps to solidify our thought. “Speech gave man a mental handhold for consecutive thought, and a vast enlargement of their powers of co-operation.” Without language, thoughts and ideas faded away with faintly imprinting intuitions, and fell prey to the phantasmagoric feelings of the moment which were only ‘true’ as long as they lasted. A concept of truth or reality beyond transitory emotional experience was easily shoved behind the freshest sensations of pain or elation. Over time, language as ‘mental handholds’ grew more impermeable and developed a substantial thought life for individuals, and the effect increased cumulatively in community. “Human thinking became a larger operation in which hundreds of minds in different places and in different ages could react upon one another; it became a process constantly more continuous and sustained.”

The 20th century philosopher Susan Langer wrote in her essay Language And Thought that the purpose of symbolic language is to “bring an object to mind” and “transforming all direct experiences into imagery.”  Words as symbols spoken or written add permanence to quickly dissipating thoughts, and help to record the quality and behavior of the objective world by steadily monitoring it across temporal changes. Language, then, is humanity’s notepad and file system for experiences that can be drawn upon in the future for helpful advice. One can understand why this was such a prodigious achievement that is enough on its own to separate man from the animals.

2.       Large Scale Communication and Education

Once language developed, one would think that community-wide communication would be valued and increased at a rapid pace. Not so. It took a long time for societies to develop methods and understand the importance of communication, especially communication with what was considered superfluous peasantry. We must not forget that most people, for a long time, “knew nothing, except for a few monstrous legends, of the rest of the world in which one lived. We know more today, indeed, of the world of 600 BCE than any single living being knew at that time.” Imagine the ramifications of an inability to share information and failing to bring your citizens up to speed on societal events on a regular basis. It may be argued that an uncommunicative autocracy is efficient, but it isn’t most effective in the long run.  Writing, railroads, steam engines and the like eventually provided the tools necessary, but the understanding of the importance of communication to all citizens which would speed along technology was delayed. The failure of the Roman Empire can be reduced to a few factors, one of the most gaping holes being the absence of “any organization for the increase, development, and application of knowledge”, and this included the neglect to expand the road system that the Roman Republic had begun in earnest. In contrast to this neglect Wells applauds the early United States efforts to connect and inform all of its territories, without which he believes The U.S. would have become another disunited Europe.

State-wide education as a close corollary to communication and was also set aside for millennia as a matter that didn’t concern the state because its dividends were slow in coming, and mostly not recognized at all. Wells admits his amazement again and again that the world continued so long without taking seriously the need to instruct the masses. From the second century BCE writers and thinkers were commenting on the lack of education for the common man, and yet no one did anything about it. Until Christianity. “It was only with the development of the great propagandist religions in the Roman world, of which Christianity was the chief and the survivor, that the possibility of such a systematic instruction of great masses of people became apparent in the world.” Evangelism was, in Wells’ mind, the first real attempt of wide-scale instruction, education, and indoctrination on any subject. Even religious controversies sped the process along by developing competition for adherents, though for many centuries to an unhealthy extreme. Wells goes so far as to believe that “massive movements of the ‘ordinary people’ over considerable areas only became possible as a result of the propagandist religions, Christianity and Islam, and their insistence upon individual self-respect.”

Some religion-bashers see the promulgation of religion as a bad thing in history with devastating effects even today, but in the bigger picture, something was sparked by religion that may never have happened without a deeply personal passion to reach large numbers of people with a message that people felt mattered. For instance, let’s not forget the first Western printing press published Bibles and doctrinal theses! “We may think [Christianity and Islam] did their task of education in their vast fields of opportunity crudely or badly, but the point of interest to us is that they did it all. Both sustained world-wide propaganda of idea and inspiration. Both relied successfully upon the power of the written word to link great multitudes of diverse men together in common enterprises.” This was a huge step in human evolution.

The industrial/mechanical revolution in the late 18th century also gave rise to an understanding of the importance of education. As mentioned earlier in this review, the mechanical revolution prompted the more insightful people in society to view human labor as a waste when it was utilized for mere drudge work which a machine could accomplish more quickly and cheaply. Education of workers from the top down became important to ensure efficiency in industry, and from the bottom-up unionized labor began to speak for itself and force the state to listen to the concerns of the lower classes to be educated. The education of the masses could no longer be ignored by forward thinking people. People were forced to view their fellows at any station in life, not merely as a tool, but as a partner in rising above the insensate earth and drudgery of machines to establish a unity of purpose and, in the words of Charles Dickens, “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  

3.       Unity

The idea of a world unity is by far the most recurrent them in this Outline, and I believe that Wells saw this as one of the most necessary things to work towards in any age, not the least our own. The most recent hope Wells rejoiced over was the dawn of the League Of Nations, seed of the United Nations, which is still far from a full realization. Wells writes like an optimist, but he is shaken to the very core in considering the cataclysmic blows to progress. Nevertheless, his hope is firm in humanity’s forward movement, even if that progress is erratic and at times temporarily regressive. “The last twenty-three centuries of history are like the efforts of some impulsive, hasty immortal to think clearly and live rightly.”

I can see how Wells grieved to witness human beings refusing to acknowledge the power that two minds have over one. Besides the obvious benefit of teamwork, humanity is so much happier and fulfilled in relationships in which each person feels expanded by connection to another being. Wells’ elegiac utterances of impatience and disappointment with the roller-coaster progress of humanity and nature is truly striking:

“It is barely a matter of seventy generations between ourselves and Alexander; and between ourselves and the savage hunters our ancestors, who charred their food in the embers or ate it raw, intervene some four or five hundred generations. There is not much scope for the modification of a species [in] four or five hundred generations. Make men and women only sufficiently jealous or fearful or drunken or angry, and the hot red eyes of the cavemen will glare out at us today. We have writing and teaching, science and power; we have tamed the beasts and schooled the lightning; but we are still only shambling towards the light. We have tamed and bred the beasts, but we have still to tame and breed ourselves.”

Nations beginning to think as one people may seem like a step in the right direction, but even this can produce a false sense of accomplishment, given that a ‘nation’ is a concocted notion designed to create artificial boundaries which are always shifting. Wells’ cynicism here is clear, and his words are a blinding light of revelation to the absurdity of chauvinistic patriotism:

“We may suggest that a nation is in effect any assembly, mixture, or confusion of people which is either afflicted by or wishes to be afflicted by a foreign office of its own, in order that it should behave collectively as if its needs, desires, and vanities were beyond comparison more important than the general welfare of humanity…[when in reality] the affairs and interests of every modern community extend to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

But even state-wide unity, not to mention global, is extremely difficult to realize. Wells, a socialist in the broad sense of the word (would anyone with a perspective as sophisticated as his misuse the word of socialism in a restricted, specific sense as manifested in any of the myriad regimes and expressions of an ideal in an un-ideal world?), pressed for ‘oneness’ and human solidarity more than anything, yet he realized that there are no easy answers to vast economic disparities regarding property, currency, and international collaboration. Ownership is a huge obstacle to overcome, but the very point of society is that it challenges a less effective, isolated individualism. Wells was sufficiently stirred on this subject to say quite profoundly, “Society, therefore, is from its beginnings the mitigation of ownership.” However, he wasn’t a communist, or what he called a “primitive socialist”, who wanted to abolish property. People in time began to see that “Property was not one simple thing, but a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences, that many things (such as one’s body, the implements of an artist, clothing, tooth-brushes) are very profoundly and incurably personal property.” How do we decide what is mine and what is ours? Every society in every time will decide a little differently, but it must be decided for any civilization to make progress.

Wells felt like one of the greatest blows to stagnant thought and old religion which was fast becoming the moribund foundation for human solidarity was struck by the critical thought introduced by the discoveries of Charles Darwin. It was good news for the world, though some struggled with how to push forward through the immediate sense of a loss of faith. Soon, it became apparent that a new faith must replace the old.  “The new biological science [Darwinism] was bringing nothing constructive as yet to replace the old moral stand-bys. A real demoralization ensued…Prevalent peoples at the close of the nineteenth century believed that they prevailed by virtue of the Struggle for Existence, in which the strong and cunning get the better of the weak and confiding...They soon got beyond the first crude popular misconception of Darwinism, the idea that every man is for himself alone.”

Now, on to some good meaty controversy about H.G. Wells. Many people, especially in his day, were/are pretty irked with Wells. The writer of this article for instance: http://www.discovery.org/a/516. Frankly, it’s not badly written, and it shows how much C.S. Lewis felt compelled to dedicate of his Space Trilogy to responding to Wells’ ideas (even G.K. Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man in response to Wells’ decentralized role of religion in history).

It appears from this article that Wells went through phases in his life in which he overcommitted to his understanding and persuasions about the future of humanity, and proposed some radical and racist measures to establish world peace and more specifically a world state. However, I did not gather ANY of this from Well’s Outline. I can attest to the fact that his ideas in this work, though at times unpleasant to admit, were, as far as I have understood, completely egalitarian, compassionate, selfless, and pretty fairly balanced. I see there only an authentic concern for individuals and humanity, not merely an abstract and detached regard for humanity as an idea as the article appears to contend. Wells even writes, “The idea of the world-State, the universal kingdom of righteousness of which every living soul shall be a citizen, was already in the world two thousand years ago, never more to leave it.”

He definitely believed our future was in our hands, and it was up to us to care for our kind in the absence of a manifest God. Maybe he became desperate and, as I said, overcommitted to his ideas and became a bit fanatical, but I question whether the extent of his fanaticism was as severe as the article claims based on other biographical information on Wells, including the Wikipedia article about him which mentions a softening of Well’s position towards the Jews, and his apology for pre-war statements of specific forms of utopian strategies. Though none of Wells’ fanaticism or racism was evident in the Outline, that is not to say that it couldn’t have been edited out in one of the later editions; but the tenor of this work in its final form is completely and utterly hopeful for peace for all people and all races.

It seems to me that humanists like Wells have always been criticized by the religious right for trusting in man-made solutions, but critical theists haven’t come close to offering any long-term solutions. Rather, they trust in a miracle in which God makes everything right in the end, which, in my understanding, amounts to a form of pessimism regarding humanity’s potential for harmony. In one case you have thinkers like Wells that hope for a better end and are doing everything in their power to help bring people around to try and actualize their possibilities; and on the other hand you have those who hold no hope whatsoever that we can make a better world, and they expect God to come and do it for us. The latter appears to be an abdication of responsibility while criticizing those who toil and bleed for what may be a noble dream. Who’s the more valiant and honorable?  Granted, any human solution will be finite, short-sighted, and fraught with problems and setbacks...but will we use that as an excuse to close our eyes to the suffering around us and neglect to plan for the reduction of long-term evil because that is humanistic and an abstraction? I think Wells got his hands dirty trying to care for his fellow human beings in distress...and some find his courage as offensive simply because he may be doomed to failure? Who's proud? Who's fanatical? Lewis and Chesterton were brilliant, to be sure. But so was Wells.

Pre-written and written history is so vast. It blows my mind. Some experts say that we can only picture a small number of separate, concrete units in our mind at one time—I think that number is ten—and the rest is abstraction and generalization. There are so many factors to consider in historical surveys. What factors are we classifying in history as significant, and what myriad elements have those factors combined with in their time, and over the eons, that adulterate the isolated fact, making it a mélange of influences, or an altogether different thing from the original fact? Billions of data are interacting with billions of data, and those billions upon billions of results interacting with old and new data to form objects, acts, events, people, ideas, cultures, civilizations and worlds. Where does one datum end and another begin? Where do we draw the lines for meaningful memories and studies, and if we could draw the lines of discrete facts and interactions, how do we hold it all in our little mind? History is infinitely complex, as is each of our experience in history, and the best we can do is redraw our internal maps and strategies using the most significant and reliable information as we can receive and understand. This is one of the reasons Wells titled his book as an Outline, a bird’s-eye-view, which, if we’re being honest, is the best any of us can do. Even as an outline the book in places became bogged down in names, dates, and deeds, much of which couldn’t be well-described for lack of space. The amount of material one has to summarily skip over is in itself mind-numbing. I’m sure the decision about what to include may not have been nearly has difficult to determine as what to exclude.

In the end, Wells has hope for humanity, but he’s not a blind optimist…not after the World Wars. He has been criticized over the years for his materialistic notions, socialist leanings, and utopian ideals, some of which he gave verbal apologies for, but his Outline Of History is a very balanced and cautiously optimistic approach to hope and progress. He does seem to understand the tenuous and fragile thing peace and intelligence is, and I think he was doing his utmost to help the world realize its fullest human potential. “Modern civilization…is an embryo, or it is a thing doomed to die…our present civilization may be no more than one of those crops farmers sow to improve their land by the fixation of nitrogen from the air; it may have grown only that, accumulating certain traditions, it may be ploughed into the soil again for better things to follow.”

I did, however, disagree with Wells on one issue that I can think of. He hammered some philosophy as dreamy, and he referred several times to the possibility of a pure pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. With one sweeping gesture of disdain he condemned the whole Romantic era in literature as a “refuge of minds passionately anxious not to think.” He said he agreed with R.L. Stevenson’s lampoon of himself as a “mental prostitute”, and he said of European theater, novels and romances that they had a “disposition to waste time agreeably.” But I see in the Romantic era a respite and rejuvenation of passion, desire, and contemplative choice to fuel new empirical pursuits! Leave our passion behind, and we risking becoming instruments of someone else’s passion that has not yet been thrown out with the bathwater. I can understand one finding science to be intrinsically rewarding as an adventure full of thrilling discoveries and healthy challenges, but the thrills and mastery ARE the rewards. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge—without mention of the emotional satisfaction brought by the act of acquisition of knowledge which alone brings a sense of fulfillment—is nonsense. “As scientific men tell us continually, and as ‘practical’ men still refuse to learn, it is only when knowledge is sought for her own sake that she gives rich and unexpected gifts in any abundance to her servants.” Well, then, the “rich and unexpected gifts” sort of rule out ‘knowledge for her own sake’ now don’t they? We’re not robots. We are human beings who desire, and sensible ideas are not ever sought after by ANYONE if they don’t satisfy a desire somewhere. Maybe he should have emphasized the need for people to make of science and knowledge better tools to get us all what we want, but to pretend that the Great Ones were great simply because they were will-less, emotionless readers and experimenters is missing the point entirely. What’s worse, emotional detachment in the scientific method can bring murderous results and a lack of empathy may have caused more suffering in the world than too much emotional involvement. Why or how would people ever work towards something like world unity without a strong human desire for relationships, and a very refined yet powerful empathy? “Pure science” (‘purified’ from our humanity?) won’t take us there. Only acts of will and love, and utilizing knowledge as a tool, can bring positive change. Wells, did you learn nothing from writing your history of the world?

So, in the big picture, have we as humans come far? I think Wells’ answer is yes, but not without loss. His wrap-up to his chapter ending WWI is probably how he ultimately tallies the results of wins/losses throughout history, and how far he could see from where he last stood. “Nearly everyone had lost too much and suffered too much to rejoice with any fervor.” Well said. But not nearly as well said as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (who Wells considered out-of-touch with the other romantics) brave expression of hope in his poem, To The Autumnal Moon:

“Ah such is Hope! As changeful and as fair

Now dimly peering on the wistful night;

Now hid behind the dragon-winged Despair:

But soon emerging in her radiant might

She o’er the sorrow-clouded breast of Care
Sails, like a meteor kindling in its flight.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

I really enjoyed reading this play. It keeps you on your toes, and takes a lot of brainwork to get through it and detect the author’s meaning behind the decoy of ‘meaninglessness’. It is an excellent challenge to a simplistic and dogmatic world view. Do you see the hilarity of borrowing traditions that others have established for you but really have become defunct for our time? Do you secretly laugh at the tangle of logic and ideas that philosophers, theologians, and intellectuals bandy around solely in order to impress each other with words and concepts that don’t matter in real life?  Do you find cliché’s to be exaggerated generalizations that are often contradictory though consoling. Do you question the role of logic in emotionally-driven beings? Do you question your part in the human ‘rat-race’, the meaning of the universe in general, and do question your questioning of the meaning of the universe? Then this play will play havoc on your brain, and it’s great fun.

Samuel Beckett wrote plays questioning logic and meaning, and became associated with what was labeled the “Theater Of The Absurd” with some other playwrights of the mid-twentieth century.  In many ways it is a quite understandable reaction to the mind-numbing horrors perpetuated on a scale never before as comprehensively realized and publicized as during WWI and WWII. Restarting the quest to learn the direction and meaning of history, and our place within it, might have been a good place to start. ‘Square One’ can make a lot of sense in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. However, be not deceived you dilettante readers of absurdism, intentional randomness might be more difficult to produce, and therefore more intrinsically brilliant, than patent order. There is much treasure buried in Beckett’s seeming wilderness of thought. This play, is, I believe, genius, but for many passerby’s and the I-had-to-read-that-for-a-class types it may be dismissed as nonsense. Right, and Alice In Wonderland was written by a schizoid. It only goes to show, “To the true alone will the truth be known” (G. Macdonald).

When it comes right down to it, Waiting For Godot is a naked commentary on the phenomena of day-to-day life, our habits and customs, and our normal way of dealing with it. If you’ve ever stopped to ask what it all means, without quickly slurping some religious truism to smother your curiosity, then you may have noticed that there is often a nagging feeling of repetition, banality, and inertia that wells up in the spleen when one begins to question the meaning of existence like only a human can. Staring this nagging feeling straight on, and suffering through it long enough to describe it, is, as author Paul Tillich has put it, a “courageous expression of decay” in that our fear has been magnified, systematically catalogued, and finally reconstituted in illustration to discover if our worry is a chimera, or a ‘real’ nightmare. Attempting to dismiss existential angst is tantamount to denial. The only real way to deal with it, is to deal with it. Beckett masterfully captures the postmodern zeitgeist by creating a scene of sickeningly mundane and purposeless existence which is accepted with minimal struggle by the characters with a passivity, an act of the will however feeble, which succumbs to the overrated force of drift in the material universe.

The play begins at a fresh cycle of another day in which the characters “resume the struggle”, as they will do several times in the play, simply because they feel they have no other option. Of course, we find later that they do have options—they could leave, or hang themselves—but they tacitly decide that to live is better, which tells us that living must not be so bad after all, no matter how hard Beckett tries to convince us otherwise. The story revolves around two guys waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. They actually have no idea as to why they are waiting, who Godot really is, or if he will ever really come. They get caught up in speculation about their life, about things they heard about life, about the past, about the present. They speculate on the meaning of the wisdom they’ve heard in their lifetime from others, including religious teachings. They find all traditional logic to crash at the end. Even their personal logic begins to reveal fissures in their normal conversation, and before they know it, they’ve lost their way back to the original subject that got them talking in the first place. The dialogue is all over the place, and actually quite funny. I was very surprised at the amount of humor. The play’s subtitle is “A Tragicomedy In Two Acts”, but I had underestimated how funny it was going to be. Some of it is vulgar, which was also a surprise (like the moment one character yells out randomly with “who farted?”, to which no answer is provided), but it was well-placed and hard-thought, as strange as it may sound to someone who hasn’t read it. So, again, the reader has to keep in mind not to mistake satire for actual nonsense. I especially loved the rambling monologue of the servant named Lucky which seemed very characteristic of the type of ideas and phrases academics and professionals use in jostling at the trough for prestige.

In the end, the characters are mildly satisfied with a pseudo-answer to the meaning of their lives, as people generally are. “What we are doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.” The answer practically amounts to ‘because’, which functions as a distraction from feeling the need to search any further. “We have kept our appointment and that’s an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?/ Billions./ You think so?/ I don’t know./ You may be right.” It’s pretty evident that Beckett’s “Godot” is a semi-eponym for God (“Do you think God sees me?”). Many people are following after, and waiting for, a God that gives them a sense of purpose, because they would rather have a pat excuse for existence than none (“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”). How many people are trying to get through life, waiting for God to come and take them to a better place, because they still haven’t found any other reason for this world other than the fact that God is trying to save us from it? “Billions.”  And what is to be said for this kind of attitude that Nietzsche a century earlier exposed as an ‘earth-wearyness’? The faithful boast in their faithfulness to a God(ot) they don’t see, and may never see, because it frees them from having to think further. Author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi summarizes the precarious situation of the religious in his book Flow, “Metaphysical goals may never be achieved, but then again, failure is often impossible to prove.”Living Pascal’s Wager has its cons to be sure.

However, the blind religious are not the only ones who suffer, though they may suffer to a different degree, and I don’t think Beckett felt that the rest of humanity is much better off. We all employ the potency of habit which deadens thought and may save us in the end from over-thinking and over-feeling our anxiety and the confusing ache of our existential meaninglessness, boredom and inertia. Together, habits and a convenient stock of ‘reasons’ keep us moving, and offers us bliss through ignorance regarding our purpose. “It’s so we won’t think./ It’s so we won’t hear./ We have our reasons./ All the dead voices./ They make a noise like wings. / Like leaves./ Like sand…All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which—how shall I say—which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit.” But habits and reasons only work so well. The suppressed Question regarding the meaning of one’s own existence, which the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said is the very nature of consciousness in that “it’s own being is in question”, bubbles up again, regardless of the precautions against it. One can’t escape it, and the effect can be maddening. “You may say [habit] is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths? That’s what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning?” The reply offers only a slight ray of hope, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” Nothing in the play frames the grotesqueness of the human struggle any better than the following lines which is sure to disturb anyone who hasn’t been too deeply anesthetized by habit: “[We come into this life] Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens). But habit is a great deadener.”

The universe is big. The universe has been here for a long time. The universe will be here for a long time after us. The universe provides no easy answers to the meaning of my existence. The universe actually seems at times disposed to resist me and my sense of order. And the universe will not allow me to change its mind about it. Yeah, so what. I am here, and I am the center. All things bend their shape around me. I make things small or big, near or far, here or there, loved or hated, good or bad, me or not me. The universe may be, but there is no color, no hardness, no distance, no weight, no motion without me. “Through me it moves and lives and has it’s being, for it is my offspring.”In Ted Hughes’ poem, Examination At the Womb Door, humanity’s final triumph is put in sharp contrast.

“Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.

Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.

Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.

Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.

Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.

Who owns these questionable brains? Death.

All this messy blood? Death.

These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.

This wicked little tongue? Death.

This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial? Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.

Who owns all of space? Death.

Who is stronger than hope? Death.

Who is stronger than the will? Death.

Stronger than love? Death.

Stronger than life? Death.

But who is stronger than Death?

Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.

Bam. Mr. Beckett, take two of these with water, and you’ll feel much better the next morning.

For those who aren’t comfortable with the post-modern problem Beckett is tackling, I would respond with: are you surprised that we in our era have different questions to answer than did the Egyptians, Romans, or early American pioneers? Our world is different, some old solutions have succeeded while others have failed, and some old problems are continuing while new ones are being generated all the time. It should come as no surprise that new questions are being asked. As long as the boundaries of knowledge and exploration are pushed further back, there will continue to be new problems, and new thrilling challenges. Isn’t that what life is all about: growth? I think it feels exhausting to those who are tired and want to settle, but not all of us are ready to go back to sleep so soon after just waking up from eternity. I want my eyes open and blood pumping for as long as they can. This is my time. I don’t want it to go to waste, and books like this help me to keep asking the questions and pushing forward. For some, Beckett’s characters’ wail of “I can’t go on like this” feels justified. To others, like myself, the reply from his friend is a mot juste, “That’s what you think.”

It probably should be mentioned that the absurdist movement, closely associated with Dadaism in the same period, is an offshoot of existentialism in general, and does not characterize all existentialist thought. While the core of existentialist thought centers on the idea that all of the sense in the world is the sense we make of it, absurdism explores the limits of logic, even the logic of the authors of this very exploration itself. The real heart and power of absurdism is in the protest against the claim of infallibility of any one form or expression of logic and positivism, while existentialism works towards establishing the foundation of reliable experience and deeper intuition that subsume the fluctuating landscape and edifices of human reason. For those interested, Paul Tillich did a wonderful job identifying the redeeming characteristics of existentialism and even adsurdism in his inspiring book, “The Courage To Be.” It is well worth the read.

And for those of you who really dig the play and want to see how it plays out on the stage, or maybe you’re just a glutton for punishment, here’s a brilliant performance of Waiting For Godot: