Sunday, January 14, 2018

Alan Jacobs on Adam Roberts on H. G. Wells

Adam Roberts, a British colleague from The Valve, has been blogging his way through the works of H. G. Wells in preparation for writing a literary biography of the man. His latest entry is on Wells's Experiment in Autobiography (1934). This is what Alan Jacobs had to say about that:

I agree.

Here's a longish passage from the middle:
The question that naturally arises, here but also of course with any autobiography, is: what specific relation exists between the character at the heart of this book and the human being Herbert George Wells who lived between 1866 and 1946? It's more than a question about autobiography, actually. It touches on the fundamental structural misprison of writing as such: the priority of representation over actuality. I'm old enough to find something reassuringly deconstructive about this idea, actually: the inescapability of textuality, the counter-intuitive precession of the written version of H G Wells over the irrecoverable (irrecoverable even when he was alive!) biological version of H G Wells. And Wells himself is certainly aware of what he is doing here: crafting himself, unveiling not the echt Wells but the Wellsian persona. That canny self-awareness is one of the great strengths of the Experiment in Autobiography precisely because the persona so created does have value as a way of apprehending what was ‘really’ going on to and in the Wellsian sensorium. As Wells argues, and as I think even Derrida would have conceded, the necessarily manque de hors-texte nature of all discourse, including that discourse we use to construe of our own selves to our own selves, doesn't mean that there is no actual self to talk about. Representation distorts and exaggerates but it doesn't invent out of whole cloth. This is how Wells puts it—how he theorises his own autobiographical praxis, via Jung:
A persona, as Jung uses the word, is the private conception a man has of himself, his idea of what he wants to be and of how he wants other people to take him. It provides therefore, the standard by which he judges what he may do, what he ought to do and what is imperative upon him. Everyone has a persona. Self conduct and self explanation is impossible without one ... So that this presentation of a preoccupied mind devoted to an exalted and spacious task and seeking a maximum of detachment from the cares of this world and from baser needs and urgencies that distract it from that task, is not even the beginning of a statement of what I am, but only of what I most like to think I am. It is the plan to which I work, by which I prefer to work, and by which ultimately I want to judge my performance. But quite a lot of other things have happened to me, quite a lot of other stuff goes with me and it is not for the reader to accept this purely personal criterion.

A persona may be fundamentally false, as is that of many a maniac. It may be a structure of mere compensatory delusions, as is the case with many vain people. But it does not follow that if it is selected by a man out of his moods and motives, it is necessarily a work of self deception. A man who tries to behave as he conceives he should behave, may be satisfactorily honest in restraining, ignoring and disavowing many of his innate motives and dispositions. The mask, the persona, of the Happy Hypocrite became at last his true faces.

... A biography should be a dissection and demonstration of how a particular human being was made and worked; the directive persona system is of leading importance only when it is sufficiently consistent and developed to be the ruling theme of the story. But this is the case with my life. From quite an early age I have been predisposed towards one particular sort of work and one particular system of interests. I have found the attempt to disentangle the possible drift of life in general and of human life in particular from the confused stream of events, and the means of controlling that drift, if such are to be found, more important and interesting by far than anything else. I have had, I believe, an aptitude for it. The study and expression of tendency, has been for me what music is for the musician, or the advancement of his special knowledge is to the scientific investigator. My persona may be an exaggeration of one aspect of my being, but I believe that it is a ruling aspect. It may be a magnification but it is not a fantasy. A voluminous mass of work accomplished attests its reality. [Autobiography, 9-11]
What this means, in practical terms, in this book, is that Wells consistently underplays himself, produces a persona more comically inept than the public record might suggest was ‘actually’ the case. Wells was, let's not forget, someone who, almost entirely on the strength of his own energy, genius and persistence, turned himself from a nobody into one of the world's most famous, influential, and wealthy authors. He went from being a draper's apprentice with literally no prospects to being friends with Jung, Beaverbrook, Roosevelt, Marie Stopes, George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Dorothy Richardson and Bernard Shaw, with Roger Fry and Charlie Chaplin and Booker T Washington, a man who took tea with Prime Ministers, Presidents and Archbishops. He was a man who overcame almost wholly impermeable barriers of class and background in the country and at the time when class and background were greater impediments than almost anywhere in the world, the man who took a congeries of futurist and technological-novum tropes and made them a coherent genre called ‘science fiction’, who made prophesy respectable and helped reconfigure the political landscape of his homeland. But the Wells who writes his Autobiography softpedals all that, and instead repeatedly stresses his inadequacies. What's remarkable is that he manages to do so in a way that doesn't come across as false modesty. His modesty has the sheen of genuineness, even of a kind of baffled ingenuity. How did all this happen to me? he seems to be saying.
The brain upon which my experiences have been written is not a particularly good one. If there were brain-shows, as there are cat and dog shows, I doubt if it would get even a third class prize. Upon quite a number of points it would be marked below the average. In a little private school in a small town on the outskirts of London it seemed good enough, and that gave me a helpful conceit about it in early struggles where confidence was half the battle. It was a precocious brain, so that I was classified with boys older than myself right up to the end of a brief school career which closed before I was fourteen. But compared with the run of the brains I meet nowadays, it seems a poorish instrument. I won't even compare it with such cerebra as the full and subtly simple brain of Einstein, the wary, quick and flexible one of Lloyd George, the abundant and rich grey matter of G. B. Shaw, Julian Huxley's store of knowledge or my own eldest son's fine and precise instrument. But in relation to everyday people with no claim to mental distinction I still find it at a disadvantage. [Autobiography, 13]
He is disarmingly honest about the limitations of his own writing: Mankind in the Making (1902) is ‘extremely sketchy’ and its component elements ‘do not interlock’ [213]; Joan and Peter (1918) ‘is as shamelessly unfinished as a Gothic cathedral’ [420]; What Is Coming (1916) was assembled ‘in a very blind and haphazard fashion’ (he says he would prefer to ‘let this little volume decay and char and disappear and say nothing about it’ [580]) and so on. Of his experience with the Fabians, he notes: ‘on various occasions in my life it has been borne in on me, in spite of a stout internal defence, that I can be quite remarkably silly and inept; but no part of my career rankles so acutely in my memory with the conviction of bad judgment, gusty impulse and real inexcusable vanity, as that storm in the Fabian tea-cup’ [564]. The reader feels that he's being perfectly honest in acknowledging his silliness and ineptitude.

The key to all this is (an English person is liable to say, but of course) class. Wells lives his own life on his own terms, but that life is also to an extent already overwritten by the social class into which he was born. Another way of expressing the quality of silliness or ineptitude, of comical bumptiousness, of his whole small-stature squeaky-voiced Britling-y nature, would be to say: he's a bit vulgar. Which is a thoroughly class-saturated way of putting things. What Wells never had as a person, and what his Autobiography never tries to mimic, are: breeding, refinement, elevation, suavity. Repudiating these things, and insisting on speaking the plain truth as he sees it, is the core of Wells's philosophy of life. The truth is that he wasn't even a parvenu. He was, in the crushingly snobbish English phrase, a counter-jumper. And the great merit of his Autobiography is that he owns that fact, revels in it, and so makes something potent out of it.

And that also speaks to the nature of autobiography as such. Because one of the unspoken truths of the mode is that telling your life story is, inherently, just a rather vulgar thing to be doing—a tad me! me! me!, a touch ungentlemanly or unladylike. And Wells's book owns that truth, mitigating it with wit and charm and pushing it through to suggest that the whole social hierarchy that supports such an attitude is due a bottom-up refit.

1 comment:

  1. He was, in the crushingly snobbish English phrase, a counter-jumper.

    I think the Scots gives a better sense its 'counter lowper'. Sense of stasis, you are only going to move if it is in you're best interest and its a particular form of movement.

    Americans don't use the term but you will be familiar with the sense of it.

    A dyke louper, one who climbs the wall but does not use the gate. Getting in by the back door. Land louper is a thief (generally from the highlands). Ladder louper is a gallows bird i.e one who jumps from a gallows ladder.

    One translation could be ' the inhabitant of a shithole country.