Saturday, October 5, 2019

July: We, The Moon, and Things to Come-Part Two

Despite having been made during a decade of collectivist horrors and hints of even greater horrors to come, Things to Come (1936) is seemingly in earnest and has an almost childish ignorance or naïveté to it. Blame that on H.G. Wells, who wrote the screenplay when he was around seventy and still, apparently, an unreformed socialist. Though maybe not yet in his dotage, he seems to have failed to keep up with the times and the world's events. For example, Stalin's great purge of just about anybody who breathed began in 1936. That same year, the Nazis rounded up Gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses, opened the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen (later used by Communists in East Germany), and occupied the Rhineland as a prelude to further aggressions--and ultimately to a war in which tens of millions died. (Many more tens of millions would probably have died, too, but they had already been killed off by their Soviet masters. Or, to use a recently made euphemism, "Some people did something.")

We have these very nearly useless terms now of Right and Left, with the Nazis at one extreme and Communists at the other. My question is this: what kind of classification system is it where two opposites are the same? The Nazis and Soviets may have had their differences, but they were more alike than they were different. Both fall under a category that someone before us called the One State--a totalitarian state--ruled over by one man who is seen as the hero and champion of the people (the Volk or Proletariat) and the nation (the Fatherland or Motherland). He is the great Benefactor and all praise must come his way--or else. We'll see those terms--One State and Benefactor--again in a minute.

The Nazis were pulled in two different directions, I think. On one side was a kind of irrationality so extreme that it almost defies explication. On the other were socialism, science (or pseudo-science), technology, and the Teutonic propensity to establish and maintain order. When it comes to reason, though, the Soviets went whole hog--or at least they claimed to. (Never mind Lysenko and his crackpot ideas.) We should remember that both regimes were extremely illiberal and had nothing but hatred and contempt for western values, including democracy and free-market economics (which includes capitalism). Wells seems to have been ignorant of all of that. It's as if he had used his own fictional time machine to go back to the Victorian or Edwardian era, before the Great War and the Russian Revolution, to a time when collectivism, socialism, and the totalitarian state were still mostly abstractions.

Nobody dies in an abstraction, though many have died because of one. Although Wells seems to have shared some of his ideas with the Nazis and the Soviets, one of his saving graces is that he never killed anybody or commanded anybody to be killed. In Things to Come, though, he prescribed a system that in his own age was busy killing people and would soon be busier still. The body count of twentieth-century totalitarianism or statism or socialism, whatever you want to call it, is staggering: perhaps nearly 100 million people killed by worldwide Communism, another 25 million killed by the Nazis (according to the authors of The Black Book of Communism.) Those figures don't count wars in which many tens of millions more were killed, including almost 400,000 Americans. (Please explain your support for a system of government that has resulted in the deaths of so many Americans, including your fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins. You may use as many words as you like in your answer. You will need them.)

We are presented in Things to Come with a series of dichotomies: future vs. past, progressive vs. reactionary, revolutionary vs. counterrevolutionary, reason and rationality vs. romanticism and emotionalism, collectivism vs. individualism, science vs. art. We are supposed to believe, I think, that the former in each of these pairs of values is right and proper and of course far superior to the latter. H.G. Wells, though, in his lack of insight or irony, or because he simply would not see the truth, also in his old-fashioned faith in socialism and collectivism, failed to see that his ideas had already been, in his very age, discredited.

So, two long excerpts from two vastly different works . . .

At the end of Things to Come (1936), Raymond Massey's character, called Cabal, does a bit of speechifying that I think is supposed to inspire us. He and Passworthy, played by Edward Chapman, who have sent their children into space, stand next to an immense telescope and gaze into the night sky:
Cabal: There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.
Passworthy: I feel what we have done is monstrous.
Cabal: What they have done is magnificent.
Passworthy: Will they come back?
Cabal: Yes and go again and again until the landing is made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.
Passworthy: But if they don't come back, my son and your daughter, what of that, Cabal?
Cabal: Then, presently, others will go.
Passworthy: Oh, God, is there never to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon and we call it death, but for man, no rest and no ending. (1) He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First, this little planet and its winds and waves, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain it. Then the planets about it, and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Passworthy: But we're such little creatures--poor humanity, so fragile, so weak, little . . . little animals.
Cabal: Little animals, eh? If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than other animals do or have done. It is this [looking downward, at earth or at his own body] or that [looking upward into the stars]. All the universe or nothingness! Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? Which shall it be?
Choral voices (singing): Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? Which shall it be, __? [I can't tell what the last word is in this repeated question.]
A couple of observations first, then to my main point. One, Cabal is ready to accept that his daughter will never come back, in other words, that she will perish in outer space. Nice father. Two, Cabal--and by extension probably Wells himself--also seems to believe that "we're no more than animals" and that "we must snatch each little scrap of happiness [. . .] mattering no more than other animals do." Okay, so Cabal says "If" to begin his statement, but that word seems to be there so that Wells himself could say to anyone who might object: "I didn't say that, my character did." In any case, Cabal's cause is clear: to conquer "all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time." Reason shall reign everywhere and there will no longer be mystery anywhere. In case you haven't gotten the idea yet, Cabal knows how we should all live, and we must be made to live in his way. Again and again throughout Things to Come, he declares the superiority of his ideas, and he won't let anything stand in the way of his reshaping the world to meet his vision. Does that sound familiar? It should, because we have seen and continue to see the same thing in aspiring, incipient, and actual tyrants the world over, including among the current candidates for president from one of our major political parties. Anyway, this is why I call Cabal the true villain of Things to Come. He is arrogant, certain that he is right, that his ideas are right, that other men must live as he wishes them to live. He is a subscriber to a priori systems of thought, systems that have, when brought about in the real world, resulted in the deaths of countless millions of people. He is driven by a vision of how the world should be--a vision of practically religious intensity. In short, he is a true believer and an incipient tyrant. We should feel sorry for the people of his future world except that they are very likely to throw off his rule as people always do once they have had enough.

Now to my main point: I was struck by this final scene in the film because I saw in it a kind of inversion of the beginning scene of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was first published in English in 1924. In Record One (Chapter One), a notice appears in the State newspaper:
"In another hundred and twenty days the building of the Integral will be completed. The great historic hour is near, when the first Integral will rise into the limitless space of the universe. One hundred years ago your heroic ancestors subjected the earth to the power of the United State. (2) A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the Cosmos by the use of the glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy." (3)
A sentence bears repeating: "Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom."

That is what Cabal has in mind, I think, in Things to Come, first in regards to the society led by the warlord known as The Boss, played by Ralph Richardson, then, in the closing moments of the film, to the entire universe. Things to Come reaches its end. Then We begins. The latter can be seen as a kind of continuation or extrapolation of the former. The mission of the crew of the Integral is the same as Cabal's mission: to conquer the universe using reason as a weapon. Cabal, then, is Zamyatin's Well-Doer, in other translations called Benefactor, and the society he envisions is one in which reason, science, and technology are the ultimate arbiters of all things. By the way, the last sentence in We is this: For reason must prevail. We not only begins as Things to Come ends, it also ends as Things to Come ends.

The progressive mind in general is lacking in irony, more than that, in an understanding of human nature. So, too, was Wells at this late date. That seems clear to me. I don't know whether he ever read Zamyatin's book. Probably not. It may not have mattered anyway. Once progressive ideas become fixed in the mind, they seldom become unfixed. (Just look at Crazy Bernie: a hundred and fifty years old and still shouting and growling about the evils of all of those rich people who are not he and his wife.) Even if Wells had read We, he may still have written his screenplay the way it has come down to us, failing all the while to understand that his ideas and his story had already been rendered obsolete by the cutting and prescient satire of We.

(1) There are faint echoes of this line in Neil Armstrong's words upon setting foot on the moon: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
(2) Note the singular: the United State, not the United States. In some translations, it's called the One State.
(3) I have the Dutton paperback edition (D39). The quote comes from page 3. (D39 sounds like the name of a character in We.)

I saw the commercials for the TR7 before I saw the movie Things to Come. The phrase "The Shape of Things to Come" became associated in my mind with the car first. I think that was the opposite of what Triumph had in mind: it was supposed to invoke memory of the movie, which was based on a previous novel by Wells called The Shape of Things to Come (1933). The idea, I guess, is that here is a car for the future. Technology has made it this way. Technology and the future are good.

Finally, I have not read The Shape of Things to Come. I have read a description of it, though, and it seems to be a different kind of story, perhaps not so naïve, perhaps a little more skeptical of progressive ideas and the possibility of building a future Utopia. Maybe someone who has read it can tell us more.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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