I’ve just revisited H.G. Wells’ last book (apart from that thing on which he collaborated with Uncle Joe Stalin) Mind at the End of Its Tether, published in November 1945. I feel I must emphasize at the outset that the title is not A Mind at the End of Its Tether — Wells is explicitly not saying in the title that his own mind is at the end of its tether (although that may have been a fact). No, this little collection of odd essays is about the coming end of “self-conscious existence” as the European intellectual elite had conceived it for centuries and also about the probable (from the late 1945 point of view) obliteration of Life itself:
. . . within a period to be estimated by weeks and months rather than by æons, there has been a fundamental change in conditions under which life, not simply human life but all self-conscious existence, has been going on since its beginning.
I think too often Mind at the End of Its Tether is condemned or dismissed (or praised) as a disjointed (Orwell’s description) wallow in pessimism by an old man disappointed or even heartbroken over the failure of his life-mission as he feels that life winding down to an end he knows to be only days or weeks away. When I consider another little book Wells published just before Mind at the End of Its Tether, I find the suggestion that Wells had lost hope and given up to be preposterous. The Happy Turning concludes with an idea very similar to the conclusion of Mind at the End of It’s Tether:
So we found ourselves in agreement that the human mind may be in a phase of transition to a new, fearless, clear-headed way of living in which understanding will be the supreme interest in life, and beauty a mere smile of approval. So it is at any rate in the Dreamland to which my particular Happy Turning takes me. There shines a world “beyond good and evil”, and there, in a universe completely conscious of itself, Being achieves its end.
Well! That’s nothing other than an evolutionary jump!
And how does Mind at the End of Its Tether end?
. . . my own temperament makes it unavoidable for me to doubt, as I have said, that there will not be that small minority which will succeed in seeing life out to its inevitable end.
What? Bloody convoluted British piling up of negatives to confound whether or not one is making a positive statement! If I parse correctly, Wells is saying that, in fact, he can’t help but think that there *will* be that small successful group which will reach life’s inevitable end.
But what is that end?
I would argue that life’s inevitable end in Wells’ view is an intellectual evolutionary jump to the situation described in The Happy Turning, that world “beyond good and evil”, that “clear-headed way of living.”
Let’s look at the book.
I think the chapter headings can vital to an understanding of what Wells is arguing:
The End Closes In Upon Mind
Mind is Retrospective to the End
There is No “Pattern of Things to Come”
Recent Realisations of the Nature of Life
Race Suicide by Gigantism
Precocious Maturity, A Method of Survival
The Antagonism of Age and Youth
New Light on the Record of the Rocks
Here is the pattern of Wells’ discussion. Self-conscious life is facing conditions which will end it, but thought will look back to past patterns till the end because there is no pattern in the chaos of the future. So Wells himself looks back to the past through the lens of evolutionary biology and presents some patterns he sees, including a tendency to large body size, except in the case of humans who have evolved through a process of progressive infantilization. Just as humanity has survived by evolving a permanent arrested physical development, it is necessary that Mind remain vibrantly youthful if there is to be a future for life.
Throughout the book, Wells is frustratingly vague about the threats to Life he sees and use deceptive terms to describe exactly what he thinks is in danger. Just as there may be a tendency to read the title as A Mind at the End of its Tether, it is easy to misunderstand Wells’ talk of “our universe” ending rather than “the Universe”: at one point he writes “our ‘universe'” and at another it is “Our universe”. Wells is decidedly not talking about a rolling up of the firmament and God wandering off to start anew. At most he is anticipating a nuclear sterilization of the planet. At least he is talking about a restructuring of human society and intellect into something his generation of old men would no longer recognize as human.
Now, in more detail:
Chapter One is partly a description of the Mind of Wells’ time, of the intellectual approach to existence that Wells sees in the common folk (keep calm and carry on) and in the educated classes (keep calm and carry on). Wells describes what his own attitude has been:
The habitual interest in his life is critical anticipation. Of everything he asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that the would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, an adaptation and a resumption. It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume . . .
But Wells has come to the conclusion that there has come a complete breakdown in predictability, perhaps an anticipation of Chaos Theory, and he seems to be anticipating Toffler’s Future Shock in his description of the trauma of a world in which “everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity.” And his description of his mid-twentieth century world is remarkable:
Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet . . .
If 1945 appeared to be at Tether’s End, what would Wells have done if confronted with the world today?
Although Wells has stated that prediction is no longer possible, he predicts that
the normal multitude, which will carry on in this every contracting NOW of our daily lives — quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness.
We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty.
Welcome to the 21st Century, Mr Wells!
What I find troubling about Chapter One is Wells’ introduction of what he calls “The Antagonist”, some sort of almost-almost personal force which is Hell-bent on destroying life. I have trouble reconciling Wells’ seeming acceptance that the world is purposeless and virtually lacking in causality with what seems a wholly unnecessary hypothesis of an Enemy of humanity. He is vague to the point of meaninglessness about the nature of the Antagonist. Is the Antagonist simply entropy? Wells’ frequent references to radioactivity — they appear in almost every chapter — makes me wonder if the Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan just a few months earlier are not the root of Wells dread. Or is the Antagonist something about human nature, a race-suicidal imperative which nuclear fission could only exacerbate? I don’t know, but I don’t understand why Wells felt it necessary to personify this “force” as “The Antagonist”.
The brief second Chapter is simply a condemnation of religion as a usually malicious fiction but also a necessary anodyne for the common person in the face of the futility of life: the priests help the people keep calm and carry on until they die.
Chapter III is probably the one that causes people to judge Wells a pessimist:
After all the present writer has no compelling argument to convince the reader that he should not be cruel or mean or cowardly. Such things are also in his own make-up in a large measure, but none the less he hates and fights against them with all his strength. We would rather our species ended its story in dignity, kindliness and generosity, and not like drunken cowards in a daze or poisoned rats in a sack. But this is a matter of individual predilection for everyone to decide for himself.
In Chapter IV Wells looks at evolutionary theory as it stood in his time and then applies it to humanity and the problem he sees coming. Wells suggests that within his lifetime there has been a huge change in the relations of the sexes in Britain, a hint that evolution continues in humans. And then, he suggests that the sorts of forces which bring about these relationship changes “may play incalculable parts in the production of a new humanity” capable of adapting to the new world. A hint of a sort of absent-minded eugenics as the future hope.
In Chapter V Wells suggests that the first law of Life is “the imperative to aggression” which leads to large body size. As I understand modern evolutionary theory — and the comparative numerical and biomass success of, for example, whales and beetles — Wells is beyond wrong in this detail (as he is on the diet of basking sharks). But Wells is correct in his main point in the chapter: species rise and fall, usually to be replaced by other species but sometimes a species rebounds from an evolutionary bottle-neck. Again, Wells is closing on a hopeful note.
In the title of Chapter VI, “Precocious Maturity, a Method of Survival”, and in the Chapter itself, Wells makes clear the basis of his hope for the future:
time after time Nature has cut out an adult form from the record altogether, abolished it, and made some larval stage the sexually mature form.
Wells is arguing that the future must be made by the young in youth, and as he closes the next chapter, he states such explicitly: “The young are life, and there is no hope but in them.” Is this pessimism? I think not!
Wells’ final Chapter brings the suggestion that a small minority of highly adaptable individuals will survive the coming “end”. Wells recaps human evolution, pointing out the progressive infantilization which must continue into any viable future and then concludes with his convoluted affirmation of his own hope for the future.
Certainly Mind at the End of Its Tether is uneven and at times frustratingly vague. But I cannot call it disjointed — there is a very strong coherence in Wells’ discussion. And there is nothing pessimistic in the little book! This is the final testament of a man who has seen his world very nearly destroyed in two world wars, of a man who has seen his life long work of building peace repeatedly dashed — this is the final testament of a man in a time of vanishingly little hope who stands up and points to a young couple daring to begin a life together and announces “There are the new Lords of Creation!”
And, you know what? Those young people Wells passed the torch to are our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We’ve made it through the End Wells expected. We are the New Humanity, navigating a world more complicated, chaotic and terrifying than Wells could have imagined or handled. We navigate that world with all Humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, in our back pockets. We chat instantly with a friend on the other side of the world, with people living off the planet, for goodness sake. We are the Shape of Things to Come.
Let’s try to keep up the “mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness”.