A Modernist Gospel

A Modernist Gospel (H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, 1899).

            Published first as a serial and thence complete in the same year as Acton began the bulk of his ‘Lectures in Modern History’, and several months before Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and yet several more before Nietzsche ultimately succumbed to a genetic brain disorder that had also claimed the lives of his father and brother, Wells’ early dystopian novel came hard on the heels of a series of legendary hits including The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. The original bore the title ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’ which was altered, along with some other minor edits, by Wells in the 1910 edition. In the preface to the third edition of 1921, he remarks that he no longer felt that such a future would in fact be the destiny of humankind. Over a century later, his vision of an autocratic capitalist hierarchy made manifest in a social organization kindred with that portrayed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and satired in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), we are not quite as sure, as was the author, of our collective fate.

            Wells disliked Metropolis, and we can infer that he felt it a plot device to ‘awaken’ one of the elites to the misery of the minions who supported he and his peers at the expense of their lives. Our contemporary geopolitics bears Lang out but as well, the Wells of 1898, when The Sleeper Awakes was originally penned.If it is plausible that most of our very much knowing elites take little enough care to ensure their longitudinal position in society, it is perhaps equally unlikely that, if indeed apprised of such conditions, any one of them would become the revolutionary hero we see in both Wells’ novel and Lang’s film. In the novel, the character Graham is cast as a modern messiah, as well as representing the incarnation of a myth, long disused by the literary future. He does not sleep for six days, then falls into a trancelike slumber upon the seventh, in an allusion to the Creator God of the Ancient Hebrews. After awakening 203 years later, he is held prisoner for three days and thence emerges, studying the changes for another three days before reaching a decision to carry forward the revolt which had originally been engineered and thence coopted by the great capitalist figure, Ostrog. This ‘eastern gothic barbarian’ become manager allusion is also transparent. Ultimately, Graham does ensure the people’s revolution is successful, but only through his self-sacrifice. In the climactic personal scene, he stands aloof to personal love, that of Helen Wotton, the young woman who has been his voice of conscience.

            The novel is thus only temporarily dystopian, and its theme is subjectively about self-sacrifice, objectively about political manipulation and exploitation, one of Wells’ leitmotifs. Even if he is arguably the most visionary author in the English language – it is a challenge to see anything new in science fiction and related genres if one knows Wells’ entire corpus of fiction – he was still a child of his time. Socialism and eugenics dominated his outlook, him seeing both as the chief manners of improving the human race. That we have rejected both almost entirely – the human genome project and the social welfare state are perhaps the residue of these once much grander ideas – Wells might well have seen as a final acquiescence to the thralldom of capital. He writes still later, in 1923, that with the publication of Men Like Gods (1921) that he had ‘tired of telling brighter tales of the human future to a world intent on destroying itself’. No reflective person today would not share his pain.

            Wells himself takes great pains with his thick description of the world, c. 2101. That it is peppered with imaginative innovations in the technical realm does nothing to distract the outsider from its basic inequality and injustice. The novel is a handy read for anyone who desires some much-needed perspective on our own reality, 2024. If anything, we have travelled nearer to Wells’ vision in the interim; half-way, he might judge us, if he could see our condition today. That we too have our technical spices and distractions, that our ability to do things in and to the world has far outmatched our ability to both think and care about the self-same world, all this he would have recognized and indeed predicted with his usual accuracy. But his late Victorian prose serves a more profound purpose than immersion; it allows the reader to just as painfully work through this terrifying vision with tools that are not made for such work. In this, we are cast back upon our own contemporary ethics, and each of us falls back upon her respective conscience, both of which seem unwilling, or yet unable, given their entanglement, to vouchsafe a humane future. We are as is the sleeper. Wells’ agenda is to awaken us, and that at a structural level, not at all one ideological. He is well aware that even if we do not literally sleep, we are yet asleep to all that truly matters to humanity.

            Helmuth Plessner reminds us that by ‘dividing the universe into fields of action, the world loses its face’. That we harbor the means of self-destruction and, once again, have entered a cycle wherein politicians are more amenable to committing global suicide on our behalves, he understands as merely the logical consequence of making a technique of cosmology. Oddly, we can understand this ‘discursifying’ of creation begins with the original Western gospels, its four-square of discipleship reporting as allegorical disciplines; the taxman representing government, the doctor representing the sciences, the seer the remaining enchantedness of the world, and finally, the youth, who represents the future. We understand the final three years of Jesus’ existence through lenses of action, each with the germs of their respective fields. Our ongoing harvest has left much of those four fields fallow, and Wells plays upon this with his contrast between the cynical rationalizations of Ostrog and the call to conscience of Wotton. The fruit of the gospel remains the sustenance of only the most marginal. Graham is referred to as ‘God’ and as ‘the one who has come’ and so on, in various moments when the people are encouraging or agitating for his presence and his Word.

            It was not at all peculiar for fin de siècle authors to rewrite the gospels in modernist forms, or yet pen new gospels entirely – Thus Spake Zarathustra is of the course the stand-out to this regard; once again in four books – and this interest speaks of their disenchantment with the idea of progress and their sense of the coming apocalypse. That August 1914 ended the bright-eyed gaze of both evolution as progress and Western culture as objective spirit, allowing John Bury to recapitulate a ‘history of the idea’ itself by 1920, should present a serious caveat to our own contemporary world visions, humane or inhumane the both. That Wells was able to conjure, in his own inimitable and unsparing style, a story resolutely current to the denizens of a different age, is an enduring testament to his own prescient imagination. But that we have celebrated many others of his works which only at best indirectly touch upon the key problems our species faces, presents a much more dubious record of our willingness to close our own hearts off to our consciences, thereby denuding consciousness itself of its built-in compass.

            At once straddling the genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, dystopia, and tall tale, The Sleeper Awakes is, finally, simply a very solid and relevant narrative that sold well on the backs of Wells’ early legendary works. Its challenge to us is not so much literary – the novel of today has displaced third party external description with a deeply introverted sense of what is going on in the character’s mind, and this not gleaned by way of described emotions but rather through ongoing reflection and its corresponding personal action – but very much as a statement of a critical politics. To reply to such a pointed query is to make manifest our shared reality as it is, and not as stated by either government or corporation. That Wells has provided to us both the model and the goal leaves us in his inestimable debt.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, art, religion, and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.