Saturday, July 19, 2008

Religious and moral evil in the central 'scientific romances' of HG Wells

Bravely, Elberry has decided to publish a university essay he wrote on TS Eliot. This sent me down to the basement, past the various women I've kidnapped over the years, and into the labyrinthine recesses of my voluminous personal library. Here, between various dusty parchments and palimpsests, I uncovered my university English literature notes, and in particular the essay on HG Wells, submitted to Professor Parrinder, which forms the title of this blog.

It's rubbish, so I shall spare you all but an extract from the first page:

Whilst the Martians in the 'The War of the Worlds' are certainly portrayed as fearsome enemies, the narrator refrains from describing them as morally evil. In the opening pages, it is explained that the Martians launched their attack as part of the Darwinian struggle for existence. We learn that Mars is decaying, and it is asserted that the colonisation of another planet is their "only escape from the destruction that generation after generation creeps upon them." The Martians' strategy is interpreted as one of survival rather than aggrandisement.

The narrator warns that "before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals...but upon its own inferior races." This attitude pervades the novel, the narrator repeatedly describing the relationship between Martians and humans as akin to the relationship between humans and animals. On various occasions, humanity is compared to lemurs, sheep, ants, bees, wasps, infusoria, and dodos. The implication is that if the Martians are morally evil, then so is humanity.

The narrator actually condemns humanity more strongly than he condemns the Martians. Mankind is described as "blinded by his vanity," complacently trusting in the security of human civilisation. The Martian invasion rids mankind of this attitude, and in this respect, is considered by the narrator to constitute a learning experience for mankind. An illustration of this is the protagonist's comment at the start of Chapter 7, (Book Two): "Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us to pity - pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion."

Written at a time of strong, British colonial rule, it is significant that the novel depicts the population of England subjected to Imperialism. The implication is that, if the Martians are immoral, then so too are the British.


Anonymous said...

But what about the other peoples of the earth, including the ones subject to the British. Do they somehow miracularly become moral just because they are colonised? Not sure you'd say this but one sometimes gets the impression this is how some people think.

Gordon McCabe said...

Indeed. I was, of course, merely relaying the implication made by Wells, not endorsing it.

Note also that in modern post-colonial Africa, the following implicit moral principle seems to be at work:

Country x was formerly under colonial rule, therefore current corruption and lawlessness is tolerable.

Jonathan said...

Not just tolerable, I thought, but attributable to the malign effects of colonialism, too. How this is really argued I don't quite see.

Was it that we were corrupt and lawless when there, and they like to imitate our example. But if they hate us why would they want to do that? Or is it: since you were corrupt and lawless when here (to what comparative extent were we?) it's therefore ok for us to be corrrupt and lawless now? What an incredibly reactive, passive, vengeful moral vision.

Also sad is that we might actually quite like to help people in Africa (even if at the same time we'd also quite like them to be able to buy our goods and services). But since the root of the problem is not famine or Africans lack of intelligence/belligerance, but political and institutional iniquity/selfishness, there is little we can do. Why? Because for us to try to do anything smacks immediately of the re-impositon of colonial overlordship, presumably. So better for people to starve and blood to flow than for the pride of a corrupt oligarchy to be humbled.

Oh what a lovely world!