A Happy Meeting with Rupert Thomson’s “Secrecy”

Funny things happen on Twitter.

One morning a week or two ago, House of Anansi Press, a prominent Canadian publisher, tweeted a challenge:  first person to reply with the name of the artist responsible for the tableau pictured would win a reading copy of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy.  Honestly, being largely closeted away from contemporary English-Language non-Canadian literature, I’d never heard of Thomson before.  There’s a good possibility I’d never have read his work if I hadn’t answered Anansi’s tweet with such dispatch. Such dispatch that I was actually first!  A few days later, the book arrived in the mail with a nice little note. image It seemed only right that I take a break from Isherwood’s Berlin and Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards to read through this gift.  And a ripping read it is!  Thomson’s opening frame narrative of a dark and stormy day in November 1701 immediately hooked me and I stayed on the hook throughout.  Thomson is a very comfortable read, even when writing about uncomfortable things such as the clinical dismemberment of a dead body, torture and various killings.  Thomson’s fiction of the real Sicilian Baroque wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo is a vivid, almost entirely believable evocation of the late 17th century Florentine court and underworld(s).  While not an epic such as Umberto Eco or Roberto Bolaño would produce, Secrecy is distinctly more than a best-seller historical romance.  Secrecy is dark, gritty and even borders on smelly.  There is profundity to be plumbed. Thomson tells the story of the sculptor’s time in the employ of Grand Duke Cosimo in Zummo’s own voice.  Zummo is obsessed with decay and ambiguity in his art — and perhaps in his life.  The Florentine world seems to feed those obsessions, beginning with the ominous gift of a wormy truffle on p. 28.  Zummo tells us minute and unexpected details which are exquisite and a little frighteningly real, like his reaction to a simple brushing touch at dinner:

I felt a shock go through me, all the way to a small, surprising place in my left heel. (p. 54)

And many questions are left unanswered for both Zummo and the reader, like the significance of Cosimo’s pet cockerel at Zummo’s first meeting with the Grand Duke.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere. Zummo’s love, Faustina, contributes wonderfully evocative descriptions and memories.  I noted particularly her father’s horsemanship on page 94:

. . . when her father rode he seemed to float above the saddle, only connected to the horse by the most intangible of threads.  His hands on the reins, his feet in the stirrups — but lightly, ever so lightly.  They were like completely separate beings who just happened to be travelling in the same direction, at the same speed.

and her exquisite description of her aunt Ginevra’s heart on page 97:

If she tried to imagine Ginevra’s heart, she saw wood-shavings, and bacon rind, and thin, curling off-cuts of boot leather.  It was like peering into the corner of a shed, or into a room that was hardly ever used.

But, wait.  These are Zummo’s memories of Faustina’s memories.  At other points, Zummo tells his story in quoted conversation, but on these and other occasions, he becomes almost an omniscient narrator, apparently able to see the thoughts of Faustina.  Is he a reliable narrator?  At one point Faustina herself reminds Zummo and us that her memories are not necessarily accurate records.  Ambiguity abounds. Some small quibbles: Once or twice as I was reading I felt that a phrase Thomson chose was just a touch anachronistic, perhaps making Zummo’s story accessible, but breaking the period realism briefly.  But these moments were so minor I made no lasting note of what exactly the phrases were. I felt personally a little disappointed that the character of Fiore, the young girl who makes herself Zummo’s sidekick, is worth of greater development.  She is a gem shining in Zummo’s rot-filled world. But, as I said, these are quibbles.  Secrecy is a fine, fascinating, exciting read.  Its three hundred pages pass more quickly than one would wish, but it is by no means a light-weight work.  Secrecy is packed with sweeping history and tiny detail, but it is never a chore nor overwhelming.  Thomson has achieved a fine balance in an intensely human novel I would highly recommend.


By the way, Secrecy would have been a great literary accompaniment to the National Gallery of Canada‘s touring show, Beautiful Monsters  recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta and coming next year to the Kamloops Art Gallery and  The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.


“The City of the End of Things” by Archibald Lampman

If I were to write a scholarly paper on Archibald Lampman’s remarkable poem, “The City of the End of Things“, I would probably spend weeks or month in the Rutherford Library at the U of A reading everything written by Lampman and everything written about Lampman’s life and works.  I would definitely mention Shelly and I might mention Wells, Teasdale and Bradbury.  I would avoid mentioning Lewis and Ellison, although I might bring in Star Trek for fun.  I would meticulously footnote and be sure to add passages in Latin and possibly Greek.  I might throw in bits of Old English from “The Ruin” which so exquisitely descends into fragments as it progresses, and maybe a bit of Czech and Polish.

On the other hand, if I were writing a blog post about “The City of the End of Things” I would probably sit down in a hospital room — like the detective in that Tey novel — with a print-out of the poem, a notebook and pen, a smart phone with a failing battery, and my memory.  I would certainly mention Ellison and Star Trek, I might even bring in Robert Bloch.  I would probably not do anything like meticulous research (that might come another day) and I’d probably let the structure of the poem structure my post to a certain extent.

In fact, if I were to write a blog post about “The City of the End of Things”, I would probably write something unlike a scholarly article and quite like what you’ll find below.

Some of my most vivid memories of childhood are images of dying worlds, for example, the skittering giant crab-creatures under the red sky in Well’s The Time Machine, or Jadis’ empty city of Charn in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.  Long ago I met Shelley’s traveller from an antique land and Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an old friend, although it was only relatively recently that I found Bradbury’s inspiration in Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.

I’ve always been playing catch-up with Canadian Literature — something of an embarrassment — so it was only late in life that I came across a quite startling end of the world in what might seem an unlikely place.  Archibald Lampman lived a short life, beginning shortly before the Confederation of the Canadas and living to see only the first three decades of the new Dominion.  Well known in life, he is, perhaps less remembered today except in CanLit circles.  Lampman was known as one of the “Confederation Poets”, along with Duncan Campbell Scott, now infamous as the author of Canada’s “Final Solution to the Indian problem.”  In 1895, four years before his death, Edmund Stedman placed Lampman’s short, unusual poem of alternate rhymed tetrameters, “The City of the End of Things” in his A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.

I can’t help but feel an echo of Lampman’s title in the title of Harlan Ellison’s “The City at the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest original Star Trek episode.  Indeed, Ellison’s almost empty City bears more than a passing resemblance to Lampman’s.  Ellison seems to have an affinity for titles of this structure: vis. “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” in his anthology Dangerous Visions.

But, back to “The City at the End of Things.  What a fascinating, intriguing, mysterious and allusive thing it is!

Lampman begins by describing the location of the City in “the Valleys huge of Tartarus” seemingly quite clearly placing the City in the Classical underworld.  The eighth line is the title, in position to become a refrain, although that never happens.

The second section (20 lines) expands on the description of the fiery, Hellish City.  In line 16 are mentioned the “thousand furnace doors” which bring to my mind the “aditus centum, ostia centum” of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Inhuman music is heard, no man is there, only fire and night.  Continuous noise, no cessation, no change.

The third section, twice the length of the first, begins with a description of the surprising robotic mechanical men who keep the City going.  While inhuman creatures may seem startlingly prophetic (and marvellously steampunk) for Victorian Canada, it strikes me that Lampman may be looking back to the bronze man Talos of Apollonius’ Argonautica and earlier, rather than ahead to Čapek, Asimov and Lem.  The second half of this section clarifies that not only are there not any humans like us in the City, but Death would shrivel our souls and snap “each thread of memory.”

The fourth section, twenty lines again, begins with a description of the City’s origin as the work of human hands.  But the builders have withered until only three remain in a room in a tall tower facing each other, “masters of [the City’s] power.”  And one other remains standing unmoving and immovable at the Northern Gate.  Of this one Lampman says:

In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul, — an idiot!

In the final 24 line section Lampman lets us know that the three shall perish, the wheels will slack, the fires die, the sound fall to silence, and the buildings fall to rust and dust.  No tree or grass will grow in the dead City.  And then, the final four lines:

Alone of its accurséd state
One thing the hand of Time shall spare
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there!

Well.  What to make of this?

Certainly interesting is the line count structure of two twenty line stanzas separating stanzas of 8, 2×8, and 3×8 lines.

Very interesting as well is the vision of an empty dead world at such an early date in a land itself politically new and so filled with “untamed” wilderness.

But something of a conundrum is the figure of the deathless, eternal, mindless and soulless Idiot.  Why is he eternal while the City and its builders must decay and fade?  The Idiot has no soul, no mind, no memories, no motion.  He is nothing but a shell, like the “empty nut” of line 44, the remnants of the hypothetical Man meeting Death in the City of the End of Things.

What is the Idiot except eternal meaninglessness?  Is Lampman suggesting that all meaning must decay? Or is he suggesting that Eternity, continuance without decay or change, would be a meaningless existence?  Perhaps he is just asking the question, “What are some implications of Eternity?  And is eternal, unchanging existence desirable?”  Perhaps this is the insight of The City of the End of Things:  there is only life where there is change and decay.

And, perhaps the Idiot, the one Eternal of the poem, is Death, the one Eternal of our world.

Where to Begin with Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”?

Last night I finished reading Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.  I don’t know where to start in my praise and reflection.

I might begin by remembering my youthful imagining of a Shakespearean tragedy titled “Nicholas II”, a grand, dark romp featuring an over-the-top mad monk named Rasputin, a bumbling, soliloquizing Tsar, a flamboyant rhetorician Lenin . . . And I might end by saying, although The Coast of Utopia is about different revolutions in different countries and a different Tsar named Nicholas, Stoppard has produced something very like the Shakespearean tragedy I had imagined, but far grander and far more intimately human than I could have dreamt as a teen.

I could begin by mentioning that I’ve seen only a few of Stoppard’s plays produced — The Real Thing, On The Razzle, Rock and Roll, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, of course — but then, rare is the person who has seen every Shakespeare play they’ve read.  Experience has shown me that Stoppard’s plays work beautifully both on stage and in the study.

Maybe I should begin with Stoppard’s fascinating return to the trilogy convention of Classical Greek theatre, for, is The Coast of Utopia not a modern Oresteia, three linked plays laying before us the personal tragedy of Herzen’s life and the parallel social tragedy of Europe in the middle years of the 19th century?

And shouldn’t I also mention that this trilogy of two act plays together make a six act play, passingly similar to Shakespeare’s five act structure? Of course, at nine hours, the plays are more of a marathon than any of Shakespeare’s single plays. But then the Henrys Parts I, II, III, etc. come to mind . . .

I’d have to get to Stoppard’s stunning erudition and wit, the intellectual belly-laugh inducing throw away quips, and the earthy ones as well (I’m thinking of the suppository in Salvage, here).  And Stoppard’s exquisitely sensitive rendering of the aging of thought, of the growth — and withering — of the revolutionary’s mind and of the revolution.

And, of course, The Coast of Utopia‘s subject is also the little considered or remembered foundation of the modern West, the age between the American and French Revolutions and the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of Napoleon and the time of his lesser namesakes.  Marx struts across the stage for a moment or two and then hides out in the British Museum, while the men and women who actually make revolutions shuffle through time in shabby clothes and chase unruly children, trying to make marriages work and households get by while struggling to change the world.

I don’t know where to start in my praise of and reflection on The Coast of Utopia, so I’ve started a few different places.  I recommend a careful reading and rereading of the plays.  I’m certain deep reflection will follow, and then more praise. The Coast of Utopia is a stunning piece of work. I suspect reflection on and praise of it will never be finished.

The Coast of Utopia is published by Faber & Faber

We live in the Science Fiction I read as a teen

It’s strange to have artistic time on my hands now that “My Village” is hanging on display and I’ve taken a few pieces to Harcourt House for the annual Members’ Show and Sale.  As I sat minding “My Village” yesterday, I started doodling illustrations for an idea I had a few days ago.  For the past few months I’ve been following the adventure of “Astronaut Abby“, Abigail Harrison, an audacious teenager from Minnesota who intends to be the first person to walk on Mars.  As part of her preparation, Abby has devoted herself to reaching out to other young people to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  The latest part of that outreach has been a partnership with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and a crowdfunded journey to Baikonur Cosmodrome to see Luca’s launch.  On her return, Abby intends to visit schools in person and to give virtual talks and workshops about her experiences and ambitions.  Throughout, this astronautic mission has been powered by social media in its finest manifestation.

I couldn’t help but think as I followed Abby’s exploits, and the exploits of Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, that Abby is, in fact, living in the science fiction I read as a teen. So, I decided to recreate a little piece of Abby’s Golden Age Science Adventure as a bit of doodling.  First I jotted down an opening for a story about a mid-west teen setting out on an adventure to Baikonur, the Space Station, and Mars, trying to catch a bit of the flavour of 1930’s juvenile pulp magazine science fiction.  Then, as I sat minding “My Village” I doodled in a sketchbook.  Here’s the final sketch I made:


Then I scanned the sketch and did a bit of computer work on it:

Abby second scanAbby third scanAnd finally I juggled the elements around a bit, added the text I’d written, printed the whole thing out on newsprint and scanned the whole thing again:

Abby's Soyuz Adventure

Then I chiriped the product off to Abby at the mighty spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome from my handheld teleputer just in time for Luca’s launch to the World’s Space Station.

Now I’m about to watch Abby’s mysterious Italian mentor arrive at his destination in his Soyuz space ship. On one of I don’t know how many computers I have in my house.

It’s science fiction, I tell you!

Update, June 2, 2013 – Astronaut Thomas H. Marshburn (@AstroMarshburn) tweeted at 9:23 PM on Sun, Jun 02, 2013 this bit of Science Fiction Poetry (it even rhymes):

“Perfect morning under gray skies with a light rain & warm wind on my face. I missed life under clouds while in space.”
(https://twitter.com/AstroMarshburn/status/341394697975128064) .

But it’s not Science Fiction! This is a real Spaceman celebrating his return to the Green Hills of Earth!

Tomorrow is here!

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On the Occasion of Commander Hadfield’s Return to Earth

I have written elsewhere about my inspiration as a youngster watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon, the same event that put another young Canadian boy on the road to command of the ISS.  I have written elsewhere about the writings of Carl Sagan leading me to the great Irish mystic poet Yeats.  I have written elsewhere about how obvious it seems to me that science and art are fundamentally the same thing, that both inspire and move us, the both change us and our world and, perhaps most importantly, both science and art, and all the wonder they stir in us, are accessible to all of us.  I have always known this to be true.  I have always seen supporting Science and supporting the Arts as obvious obligations of individuals and society. But I am very aware that many friends and acquaintances have never been able to see through those lenses.

Over the last five months I’ve often thought of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance in which art comes to a space station as dance. And, of course, I’ve thought of the paintings of astronaut Alan Bean and of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov.  While Bean and Leonov’s art is exquisite and inspiring, they painted after they came home. And the Robinsons so wonderfully imagine making art in space, but they never did it.  But, perhaps because they lacked the internet, these artists never caught the larger public’s attention.  They never joined, on a grand scale, science to ordinary people through art.

I realized tonight as Commander Hadfield’s new video of Space Oddity went viral, that this fairly  unassuming gentleman from Sarnia has done it.  He has shown ordinary people art and science meeting together  And the people get it!

Using social media and the biggest stage possible – the sky – Hadfield has had us watch him rapt for five months as he shape-shifted from rock star to zero-gravity chef to science teacher to science fiction character to military commander, and, finally, to a fifty something man with a crew-cut and moustache who actually pulls off a self-shot music video of his own acoustic cover of perhaps the most iconic Bowie song.  Whatever the flaws of adaptation or performance, Hadfield has capped his inspiring public Space Odyssey with a piece of art that captures the tension apparent in his earlier collaboration with Ed Robertson, the tension between the unknowable-to-most joy of looking down on Earth from a home in the sky and the universal human joy of standing at home on the Green Hills of Earth.  No longer the story of an ominous malfunction of Major Tom’s capsule which leaves the astronaut stranded, Hadfield’s revised Space Oddity is a bitter-sweet lament for the end of his stay on the Space Station and his final return to earth. He is facing an inversion of Bowie’s original conceit of the Marooned Astronaut  –  Hadfield knows that it is to Space, not to Earth, that he will never return. With this recording Hadfield has turned a once inconceivable  Space Oddity – a Canadian kid from Sarnia becoming the tweeting rock star commander of the International Space Station opening hailing frequencies to Captain Kirk – into an Odyssey of Space very true to the spirit of the Greek epic poem.  Although at last he stands on the shores of Ithaca, he can’t help but look longingly back at the Cosmic Ocean he has sailed.

Hadfield has put himself up there and made a point of making art with us and for us from that tin can he’s sitting in.  He makes us all feel like we’re there with him, doing science, looking down on our blue home, feeling wonder at the speed and the vastness.

And we can’t help but sing along.

Thank you, Commander Hadfield.

We can hear you, Major Tom!

Safe landing!


Update, May 14, 2014: Yesterday Commander Hadfield’s one year licence from Space Oddity‘s publishing company ran out, so the Space Oddity video was voluntarily taken down from YouTube.  Sad, in a way, I guess.  For those who missed it: you missed something pretty special. For those who saw and heard glitter space rock science fiction become science fact, you’ve been part of something special.  This morning Jian Ghomeshi gave us a fine audio essay on the vanishing of Hadfield’s Major Tom.


Making connections through The Paston Letters

Last Wednesday I made time to partake of one of my favourite activities: I walked to my local second hand bookshop, The Bookseller, and spent an hour or so browsing unencumbered by companions or rush. As usual, the proprietor, Mr. Prins, had set aside a few hardcover Everyman’s Library Editions and an old blue hardcover Oxford World’s Classic for me to consider.  Unlike most visits, today I had time.  I left the four volumes on the counter, the seed of a number of large stacks I would build as I browsed.  Throughout my visit, Mr. Prins pottered about the store, flitting from the computer on his book-stacked desk, to the shelves and to “the back” where I imagine an infinity of yet-to-be- and never-to-be-catalogued books wait to be brought into the light.

The one volume I had come specifically seeking was H. G. Wells’ little war-time (WWII) anti-Catholic diatribe, Crux Ansata (“Why don’t we bomb Rome” it begins). I had been reading it online, but, as well as finding the digital a completely unsatisfying, indeed, unsettling manner of reading, I knew that I would someday require a real copy for the Wells collection I’ve been building since that day in about 1980 that I stumbled on a copy of Ann Veronica in that bookstore that used to be in Hub Mall on the University of Alberta Campus.  If I remember correctly, that bookstore, since shifted locations a number of times, is now The Edmonton Book Store on Whyte Avenue, in the location that one time was Bjarne’s Books, a shop and proprietor I sadly miss.  Edmonton’s loss — Victoria’s and Cyberspace’s gain.

I went straight to the Fiction section and was at first disappointed by the slimness of the Wells selection.  A few of the usual War of the Worldses and Time Machines. And, there in the middle, a slim little volume bound in dark leather. Crux Ansata! With a large smile on my face I strode back to the counter and plopped my find onto the Everyman Shelley and Langland and the little blue Paston Letters.  Now to some truly unencumbered browsing!

Oh, the treasures I found!

An early edition of the Tolkien/Gordon edition of Sir Gawain; Skeet’s two volume edition of Piers Plowman and Richard the Redeless (I already had one, but this was in better condition. The next day I traded the old one for a copy of  Bentham’s Fragment on Government); a lovely copy of the first edition of Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (in four volumes); Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century; a 1959 copy of Vinaver’s Malory; nice old hardcovers of Quirk & Wrenn’s Old English Grammar and Campbell’s venerable volume on the same subject; The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse; nice editions of Ancrene Wisse and The Parlement of Foules . . .

And a copy of Sisam’s edition of 14th Century Verse and Prose, a volume I find oddly common in Edmonton — I have three copies now myself. But this latest copy, unusual in that it still had a (rubbed) dust jacket, had a little surprise for me which made me take a second look at the other books in my stacks. There on the flyleaf was written in small letters in ball-point “Raymond J. S. Grant”.

During my days at the University of Alberta, Dr. Grant was the senior Anglo-Saxonist in the English Department, standing in a venerable line stretching back to R. K. Gordon, a professor at the University’s foundation and, by the way, translator of number 794, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, in Everyman’s Library.


It was Dr. Grant who surprised me during an undergraduate directed reading of The Seafarer by saying “I think you might have a publication here.”  Because of Dr. Grant, I had my first scholarly publication accepted before I got my Bachelor’s degree.

I have gradually have fallen out of contact with the people of my University days. I regularly return to campus, but it’s a different world with different people now.  Not worse, not better, just different.  I had some sort of memory that Dr. Grant had retired and perhaps gone back to Scotland. As I gathered my thoughts for this piece I found on the University web page that Dr. Grant is, indeed, emeritus, as is my thesis supervisor, L. N. McKill, the man who first taught me Old English.  After I got home from the bookstore I discovered Dr. McKill’s name on the flyleaf of Brown’s English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century.  I held in my hands volumes that had educated my educators. These books had been around me in those offices three decades ago as I puzzled my way through great poetry sadly experienced by only a few.

What I find of extreme interest in second hand books is the little bits of paper one finds tucked into them.  Dr. Grant’s copy of Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose (1959) is undoubtedly a text from his student days.  Tucked into book at the first page of the Introduction are two slips of paper, one laying out the geography of dialects of Middle English with representative authors (information repeated in the facing map) and the other a cryptic, multicoloured graph of English sound changes.


These are meticulous thoughts-on-paper of a student of a different time, brief glimpses of the learning process in an age of paper, conversation and information hard-won from beautiful, tactile, fragrant objects with their own individual histories — books in a library.

Mr. Prins filled a banker’s box with my selected volumes and agreed to hold the heavy collection for me to pick up later when I’d be out with a vehicle. When I returned two stacks of brick-red hardcovers were on the counter.  “I told you I thought I had a lot of Wells back there!” Mr. Prins announced with a grin.  Indeed, he had brought from “the back” a twelve volume matched set of Wells’ novels ranging from The Time Machine to The Undying Fire.  A fine day’s discovery!

Later Wednesday evening I looked more carefully at the World’s Classics copy of The Paston Letters.  There was no name on the fly leaf.  It seemed an anonymous book with no story to tell outside of its text.  But, tucked in the back was a small blue slip of paper which indicated that this, like some others of the volumes in the box, was a review copy sent out by the publisher in the hope that professors would say nice things about it. On the back of the slip was a hand written note:


pp. 41-72 seem to be missing from this book as also 73 to 104. I suppose that is a whole gathering! Give him hell next time — you might get a real find from them.



Sure enough, a gathering is misplaced in the book.  But of far more interest to me is the note. Considering the number of Dr. Grant’s books that had recently come into the Bookseller, I have no doubt that “Raymond” addressed in the book is Dr. Grant. And I am equally certain that “Joan” who wrote the note is Dr. Joan Crowther, a Chaucerian I never met during our shared time at the University.  But I did meet and get to know Dr. Crowther in her retirement as each weekday morning I got her clubs out of storage for her round of golf.  I lost touch with Dr. Crowther after leaving the world of golf just a few years before she left this world.

As I stood looking at that little blue note on Wednesday night I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshhold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”

“Mind at the End of Its Tether” by H. G. Wells: a final testament of hope

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”.