Thursday, October 17, 2019

Vanderbeck's Poem About Rhode Island Slime Mold

The following poem may be the only poem ever written about slime mold — if not the only, it is certainly the best. A few words of explanation should precede any reading of this remarkable "shaggy dog" poem. Rhode Island plays host to a large slime mold called fuligo, which grows around the roots and trunks of dead or dying trees. Although fuligo is believed to be stationary, there are other slime molds which display remarkable behavior: some can actually move from one place to another in quest of nourishment; others are capable of breaking up into thousands of smaller, mobile organisms, which can later rejoin to re-form the original slime mold. Fuligo is attractive in appearance at first, looking ever so much like a large loaf of French bread. Later, it bursts open, revealing yellow and purple patches, quite appalling. Pieter and I are both fascinated by this very Lovecraftian organism. Pieter's poem also plays on the re-division of life into three families: plants, fungi and animals. Some people resist this new classification, since they are convinced that anything alive must be either plant or animal. Biologists have now decided that fungi are so very, very different that they cannot be called plants at all. And slime molds may be something else yet again. Without further ado, here is Pieter's slime mold opus:


OF THE SAME MOLD

He sleeps uneasily —
really not at all.
One thing is on his mind.
It turns over and over.
He turns over and over.
He cannot get it off his mind.
He cannot go to sleep.
He must not.
Once again,
he opens his eyes.
It is still dark.
He looks at the clock.
It is three.
Only three.
He looks out the window
It is not there.
It was there.
He is worried.
He gets up,
throws back the covers,
slips on the slippers,
goes downstairs,
goes outside.

Then he sees it.
It is still there.
But it is not on the tree.
It has moved.
It is at the beginning of his front walk,
about to turn the right angle.
He calculates.
Five hours, five feet.
He can get in a night.
Nothing can happen.
He goes back in.
He must get to sleep.
This cannot go on.

Who would think?
What looks like an omelette turned inside-out,
yellow, white, brown , grey,
amorphous and variegated,
defying any term of description —
that.
Who would think?

He goes back in.
He must sleep.
The door is closed.
That will help.
He is on the second floor.
That is better.
His bedroom door is closed.
If necessary, he can stuff old undershirts beneath it.
Not now.
Not tonight.
He is sure.
The lights go out.
The night is dark.
Dawn. will be approaching,
but for now,
the stars are full out.

It turns.
The walk awaits.
The porch steps.
The porch.
The front door.
The others know.
The ones inside.
They await the joining,
the ones in the walls,
the basement,
the attic,
the contingent from the garage,
they all know.
They await.
Moving quickly now,
(now that he is not up to measure it,)
it slides up the rough walk,
picking up its trail behind it.
It needs every one.
It crosses the cracks.
There is a twig.
It consumes it.
Pemmican.
Trail food,
No stopping on the campaign.

They are gathering.
They know the way under the door.
The garage contingent has entered the back.
They will meet at the stairs.
It will require cantilevering.
No problem.
The threshold has been crossed.
The rug is being attempted.
It is rough,
but it contains a cornucopia of dust mites, and their mites.
Snacks along the trail.
It will leave a swath.

Along the way it encounters various molds.
All colors.
All shapes.
But stationary.
The lower ones.
What to call them?
There is a name,
but it is not polite.
It eats them and goes on.
That’s evolution.
As it gains mass, it accelerates.
They are nearly all gathered by the stairway.
The basement contingent is eating too much along the way.
The night is going fast.
They do not want to put this off for another night.
This was to be the night.
There are other houses.
The city is big.
They can be big too.
It.
Whatever.
 
He snores.
It echoes down the stairway.
He sleeps fitfully.
He is having dreams.
Let him have his dreams.
No more measuring.
He won’t need measuring.
What an empire will be started.
It can go in all directions.
It is only a matter of yards or meters.
A ladder has been established.
The stairway is full of mites.
It is that white carpeted tread,
Valley of Shenandoah,
They’ll, it’ll, whatever’ll, be there in good shape.
One cannot live by tree bark alone.
One, many , whatever.

He snores.
His dreams are over.
The crack beneath the bedroom door is large.
The others are already in there.
They came up through the hot-air register grate,
joined by the ones from the attic.
What a bunch they are.
It is. Whatever.
Why express a thing that changes shape?
It will soon.
It may not get through the door.
It will not need to.
It will be the house.

Only feet now.
Not even yards.
The bed clothes are hanging down.
On all sides they are touching the floor.
They can use Greco-Roman tactlcs.
Classical maneuver.
Right by the book.

He is not snoring now.
He is in deep sleep.
The sky turns slaty blue out the window.
They, it, forms a ring.
A yellow ring.
Brown and grey join white.
Their lack of form is its strength.
No shape, no confrontation.
No consistency, no injury.
No firm entityship, no name.
But one.
They have been called it.
But the terms are not agreed upon.
Is it, they, a plant , an animal, both, neither?
What does it matter?
It, they, gather, gathers.
E Pluribus Unum, E Unibus Plurum.
Soon the house, and then the street,
the so-called neighborhood.
Neighborhood, indeed.

He snorts his last.
His arm hangs over the side.
They will not modify its tactics.
The classical way turns best.
Gather all.
Wait for the strike.
The ascent.
The occupation.
Then they, it, and he will be no different.
There will be reconciliation.
The marriage of Fuligo.


If Only Boris Karloff Were Alive to Perform This

My infamous Halloween-and-Christmas actor's monologue. "Knecht Ruprecht, or The Bad Boy's Christmas," has sent children shrieking in terror to their beds. It was written with the voice of Boris Karloff in mind, and now I have revised it to make it more Karloffian and more British. How? By eliminating almost all contractions, and adding "shall" and "do" in several places. What had sounded liked a gangster-demon talking in a boy's own jargon, is now more horrifyingly polite. I was surprised at how many contractions were in the original, considering how I shun them in my own writing, but the piece is dialogue and I was trying to simulate rather hurried speech, the only place where contractions should be permitted. I am much happier with this new version, Read it aloud, think of Boris, and send a child to bed with nightmares.



Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Spiders


Nature is not all birds and squirrels.
Under your feet cruel orders thrive.
Things you cannot dream of
     or should not dream of
feed one upon another;
things feed upon them,
every predator a prey,
every parasite sucked dry
by some relentless nemesis.

Look on your lawn —
eight-legged priests in bloated ease
tend their silken tapestries.
Stalk and web make buttresses,
nectar and dew the sunny glow
of rosette windows —
earth throbs with barely audible
enticements of organ threnodies —
deadly cathedral of arachnid gods!

A robed thing (too many legs
to crucify or kill) intones
     Suffer the insects
     to come unto me!
Watch how the chosen victims struggle,
captured in weed-strung ziggurats,
flyers downed, pedestrians waylaid,
sailors shanghaied and paralyzed.
This silken Karnak laced in dew
that only glimmers in early morn
before the sun erases it,
what do its gleamings signify?

They feast on every unshorn acre —
they seek to make the earth but one
necropolis of wolf and garden spider,
eating a billion souls and wanting more.
There is never enough food,
nor time enough to make more spiders!
Male spiders blind in a frenzy of sex.
Black widow brides sport hour-glass bellies
to count the narrow intervals of mating.
Their egg sacs swell with the death
     of the universe.

Barn spider giants bask in the sunlight.
Where any beam drops down
     from the heavens,
Arachne scrambles to lace it over!
Behind the walls, beneath
     the well-swept floorboards
I hear the skitter-skit of daddy-long-legs,
the spiders’ cousins,
insane horsemen of hunger’s apocalypse!

A million spiders in your uncut lawn!
Eight million legs, two million venom fangs!
How many eyes? Some of them have more than two!
They never sleep! They can live forever!
Their stomachs expand to any size!
They have been at it for a hundred million years!
It is better not to think of them.
They do not want you to.
Their webs are meant to be invisible.
They kill and eat and train their offspring silently.
There are more of them every year.
You will now forget that you have ever read this!

-- Revised October 2019

New Expanded Version of "Son of Dracula."

This is one of my most personal poems, from childhood memories and fantasies. It begins in Scottdale PA, then moves to the nosebleed year in West Newton PA, and a scene in McKeesport Hospital. Recently, I made this into a prose piece, and in the process, additional lines came to be. Now I unfold those new revisions back into the poem. It is better now.

ANNIVERSARIUM XVI:
SON OF DRACULA

I was the pale boy with spindly arms
     the undernourished bookworm
     dressed in baggy hand-me-downs
     (plaid shirts my father wouldn’t wear,
     cut down and sewn by my mother),
old shoes in tatters, squinting all day
for need of glasses that no one would buy.

At nine, at last, they told me
     I could cross the line
to the adult part of the library
those dusty classic shelves
which no one ever seemed to touch.
I raced down the aisles,
     to G for Goethe and Faust
          reached up for Frankenstein
                  
at Shelley, Mary
               (not pausing at Percy Bysshe!)
          then trembled at lower S
               to find my most desired,
               most dreamt-of —
     Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula! His doomed guest!
The vampire brides! His long, slow
spider-plot of coming to England
to drain its aristocratic blood!
His power over wolves and bats,
and a red-eyed vermin horde!
To be, himself, a bat
     or a cloud of mist,
to rest in earth
throughout the classroom day!

This was the door to years of dreams,
     and waking dreams of dreams.
I lay there nights,
the air from an open window chilling me,
waiting for the bat,
          the creeping mist,
                 the leaping wolf
the caped, lean stranger.

Lulled by the lap of curtains, the false
sharp scuttle of scraping leaves,
I knew the night as the dead must know it,
waiting in caskets, dressed
in opera-house clothes
that no one living could afford to wear.

But I was not in London. Not even close.
The American river town
of blackened steeples,
     vile taverns and shingled miseries
had no appeal to Dracula. Why would he come
when we could offer no castle,
no Carfax Abbey, no teeming streets
from which to pluck a victim?

My life--it seemed so unimportant then —
lay waiting for its sudden terminus,
its sleep and summoning to an Undead
sundown. How grand it would have been
to rise as the adopted son of Dracula!

I saw it all:
how no one would come to my grave
to see my casket covered with loam.
My mother and her loutish husband
would drink the day away at the Moose Club;
my brother would sell my books
    to buy new baseball cards;
my teachers’ minds slate clean
    forgetting me, the passer-through.
(Latin I would miss,
but would Latin miss me?)

No one would hear the summoning
     as my new father called me:
Nosferatu! Arise! Arise! Nosferatu!
And I would rise,
     slide out of soil
          like a snake from its hollow.
He would touch my torn throat.
The wound would vanish.
He would teach me the art of flight,
the rules of the hunt
     the secret of survival.

I would not linger
     in this awful town for long.
One friend, perhaps,
     I’d make into a pale companion,
another my slave, to serve my daytime needs
(guarding my coffin,
     disposing of blood-drained bodies) —
what were friends for, anyway?

As for the rest
of this forsaken hive of humankind,
I wouldn’t deign to drink its blood,
     the dregs of Europe

We would move on
     to the cities,
to Pittsburgh first, of course,
our mist and bat-flight
unnoticed in its steel-mill choke-smoke.
The pale aristocrat and his thin son
   attending the Opera, the Symphony,
   mingling at Charity Balls,
Robin to his Batman,
     cape shadowing cape,
     fang for fang his equal soon
          at choosing whose life
               deserved abbreviation.

A fine house we’d have
      (one of several hideouts)
     a private crypt below
          with the best marbles
              the finest silk, mahogany, brass
              for the coffin fittings,
our Undead mansion above
     filled to the brim with books and music.

I waited, I waited —
    He never arrived.

At thirteen, I had a night-long nosebleed,
as though my Undead half had bitten me,
drinking from within. I woke in white
of hospital bed, my veins refreshed
with the hot blood of strangers.
I had not been awake to enjoy it!
I would never even know from whom it came.

Tombstones gleamed across the hill,
lit up all night in hellish red
from the never-sleeping iron furnaces.
Leaves danced before the wardroom windows,
blew out and up to a vampire moon.

I watched it turn from copper to crimson,
          its bloating fall to treeline,
          its deliberate feeding
      on corpuscles of oak and maple,
          one baleful eye unblinking.

A nurse brought in a tiny radio
One hour a night of symphony
was all the beauty this city could endure —
I held it close to my ear, heard Berlioz’s
Fantastic Symphony: the gallows march,
the artist’s Undead resurrection
amid the Witches’ Sabbath —
my resurrection.

                                I asked for paper.
The pen leaped forth and suddenly I knew
that I had been transformed.
I was a being of Night, I was Undead
since all around me were Unalive.

I had turned the sounds of Berlioz
and his aural witches’ sabbath into words,
and the words, the images of night winds,
sulky witch sarabandes and wizards’ orgies,
a hilltop of animal-demon-human frenzy.

The Vampire father never had to come.
I was my own father, self-made
from death’s precipice.

I saw what they could not see,
walked realms of night and solitude
where law and rule and custom crumbled.
I was a poet.
I would feed on Beauty for blood,
   I would make wings of words,
        I would shun the Cross of complacency.

A cape would trail behind me always.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

At the Abbey of Bury St. Edmund's

by Brett Rutherford



Had they not
refused their fathers’ blessings
before they set out,
masters of the league of thieves —

Had they not
found unguarded, thanks
the sextons’ drunkenness,
the Burial Church of St. Edmund —

Had they not
in eagerness for profit
pried the iron nails
from the wooden door —

Had they not
in gold-lust, that Midas curse,
tried to pry loose
the gilding
above the lintel —

Had they not
left so visible a ladder
in alleyway
as two of them clambered
up to search for gaps
in the terracotta —

Had they not
made noise enough
to wake the dead
with shovel, pick, and hammer
in every-which-way attack
on the portal —

Had they not
greedily indulged in
“Mushrooms, fresh today!”
at the nearby inn that night

then off they would have gone
with the bones of St. Edmund,
some to re-sell
to ardent collectors,
some to grind up
for miracle cures,
but no!  All eight
fell down in one flow
of writhing limbs, hands
clasping their tools
and implements;
down, too,
the clattering ladder.

Eyes glazed, arms frozen
in acts of desecration,
they lay inert,
till well past dawn.

The watchman found them,
paralyzed yet breathing.
The bailiff was called.
A crowd assembled.
The burglars’ tools
were noted and catalogued.

A miracle! All cried
as thieves awoke
and were put in irons.
An eager friar
passing that way
on a pilgrimage,
reclaimed the precious
door-nails,
stuffed the torn gilding
into his mendicant bag,
and shuffled away.

The crowd moved
to the gallows’ square
where Bishop Theodred
condemned all eight
to share a single gibbet.

A miracle! The crowd chants
as word of the failed robbery
spreads far and wide.
Saint Edmund saved himself!


Ah! moaned the eldest thief,
had we not
partaken of
that mushroom stew!


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Girls from Fifty-Ninth Street

by Emilie Glen

Bunch of girls
come to the Coney sea
in their bathing-suit best
under toreador pants,
feel about as exclusive
as oranges in a crate,
keep their high-teased hairdos
out of the fright-wigging sea,
move their beach towels down-shore
to sands a bit more exclusive,
same difference as between
a ninety-nine cent and dollar ninety-nine item —
who knows who might spread towel nearby?

Bunch of boys
     beached in tighter than sand fleas
step over people
     push sands toward a shoreless Coney,
sunglass the girls elbowing up
     from their nautical towels,
cast off with
     Oh shit! The girls from Fifty-Ninth Street!


From the forthcoming chapbook, Moon Laundry.

Mysteries of Elsdon Churchyard

It was inevitable that I would finally write a poem about my ancestral home in Northumberland, the town of Elsdon, from my which great-great grandparents emigrated to Pennsylvania.




1
Why did the bell
of Elsdon Church
resound
across the landscape,

shaking the ground
of the tumulus mound
above the empty motte
of Elsdon Castle?

Why did the voice
of St. Cuthbert’s minister
echo deep mystery
in even a commonplace
sermon, bass-deep
from a voice that was
no lower than baritone?

Thank the medieval
architect who thrust
three horses’ skulls
upright into an oaken
cabinet,

a resonance box
suspended
within the bell-tower.

Bell above
thrice amplified below
and out across
the countryside;

preacher in pulpit
graced with the tone
of thunder-Jehovah.


2

Whose the stone
coffin that leans
against the wall
of St. Cuthbert’s?

No one can move it,
and no one knows
what sacred corpse
reclined within its hollow,
sculpted to human
silhouette.

Monks, it was said,
came here with relics
of St. Cuthbert,
in flight from the Vikings,

but who could flee
cross-country
with a stone sepulchre
and the eight horses
and cumbersome cart
it would take to haul
an entire saint
and his equipage?

No, this was not Cuthbert
whose tomb
rests finally in Durham,
but some unknown knight,
perhaps, who willed
himself a mighty coffin
where neither rat nor worm
could mar his godlike
features —

Yet what is left?
Lidless, leaning
against a wall
where dogs and derelicts
can lift a leg,

flesh, armor and bones
all gone, a hollow
in human outline,
no man and
Everyman.





3

Before Elli’s Valley
became “Elsdon,”
before the invading
Vikings,
before the Normans,
who built Elsdon Castle
before the Saxons,
guttering the Anglish
tongue, Romans
lived here and prospered,
secure in their reign
amid their household
and temple gods.

Here, against the unwilling
walls of Saint Cuthbert’s
a Roman gravestone.

To the divine Manes,
he of the prefect
of the first cohort
of the Augustan of the Lusitani,
also of the second cohort
of the Breuci, subcurator
of the Flaminian Way
and of the distribution
of maintenance,
subcurator of public works.

Julia Lucilla had this erected
to her husband well deserving.
He lived forty-eight years
six months and five days.

Pushed back southward
from the Antonine Wall
to Hadrian’s Wall, then out
of Britain altogether
as barbarians swarmed Europe,
Romans left only stones,
deep-buried lares and penates
beneath their houses,
the envied ruins
of colossal baths, the heads
and torsos of toppled gods.

Still, every English ghost
looks out to sea
for the dreaded Viking sails,
and treads lightly, lest
a Roman hand reach up
to seize its ankle.

Turn any stone
and a face looks up.




Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Loft on Fourteenth Street (Prose Version)


Doors painted bright,
the tapestries stitched brilliantly,
the singing hall, the dance pavilion —
all ashes now, their incense gone,
their light engulfed in night,
their echoes muffled, silent.
Bring the lute, I will sing
—Pao Chao, c. 465 CE.
Am I the only one who sees it? Up there. That third floor loft, all dark, the one whose windows gape wide through every season, the one whose ghost-white curtains, now grayed by soot and tattered by wind-flap, flutter like flags of abandonment, a place like a village deserted before a certain onslaught, bereft even of spider webs or sunning cats or plants. I wonder why owls or bats or pigeons haven’t gone into penetrate the darkened space inside, for that at least would tell me something. Dark panes tipped in to a darker space give only one answer: a nullity, that no one lives here.

Is that a light? One glow — a distant yellow bulb somewhere way back, relentlessly dim and dull, night and day burning. No matter how long I linger, I’ve never seen shadow or any illumined thing beam back or obscure its glow. If only some hand, with a wrist and an arm below it would show itself, reach out to pull the window shut at last! But it goes on and on, like some tortured modernist art (blank canvas, untouched piano keys, actors not acting) the flutter-flash of curtain at wind’s beck, the solitary beam of a single bulb on a tall and shadeless pole lamp.

Am I the only one who knows him? That man. It is his loft. We met in Central Park — yes, in the shrubbery! — we met the day he first arrived in America. I was the first to touch and welcome him, new-found from far-off China. He spent his first American night on the floor with me. Our bohemian mattress was next to the printing press. I helped him read the street signs, pronounce the words he needed to navigate the days until his funds caught up with him. We made love until dawn; he slept against me as light shafts broke day into the concrete canyons and made palaces of derelict old cast-iron dry-good stores, the dust-mite sun the same everywhere, bringing a special urgent magic.

We have mere dozens of words between us. His “How you are?” would never cease to be his American-English greeting. His raven hair intoxicated me, his eyes caught me with a sense of unpredictable intelligence. As the months passed, our friendship blossomed. He was my gateway to the best of a world that is all but hidden to most. What feasts we savored in Chinatown! Tai Tai Chen ma po tofu! Sea slugs in casserole! Beijing Duck! Dragon and Phoenix! The pi-pa, the er-hu, the bright world of Chinese music, mad whirl of the Monkey King, the death and return to life of the Butterfly Lovers; the long dark conspiracies of eunuchs and emperors, flute girls and fierce concubines, of Empress Wu, and Ci Xi, the last dread Dowager, seen on the dim screens of Chinatown movie theaters, even the awful kitsch of The Red Detachment of Women

One day I played, to his astonishment, “The East Is Red,” mock-improvised on my harpsichord. His Middle Kingdom he gifted me, as I brought him to Beethoven, Mahler, Handel and harpsichords, his East, my West in harmony.

(But we were never one, despite my always wishing it.) Manhattan’s day-long man-show and its nocturnal orgies drew him into the world of “always-chasing, never-caught.”

I moved to Providence, a secretive city, a place where none of the newly-dead were my dead, a place where Poe romanced forlorn, where gambrel or mansard concealed genetic errors, the deeds of avarice, locked attics whose cedar trunks had seen Canton and Goa and Senegal. His phone calls stopped; he never visited. That distance rose like an angry dragon between us. I had ceased to be, a faraway Zip-code denizen, a toll-call outlaw. I heard that his mother had visited, furious with him for his myriad boyfriends. “I want you married!” she shrieked. “You pick one. Stay with someone. I don’t care if it’s a man!”

Alone, I continued along my own Chinese journey. Weekends I drifted through Chinatowns — tea houses, the cry and clamor of the opera house enthralling me again —White Snake, The Golden Brick, The Peony Pavilion! —museums and galleries and auction houses teaching me the glory of Chinese painting, the breathless awe I felt regarding a single porcelain bowl emblazoned with five peaches in full blush bloom over which, in perfect arcs, five bats fluttered — perfect long life in perfect happiness. The Monkey King, the lord of Chaos, now graced my mantel. Kuan-Ti, the lordly general with his golden halberd guarded my doorway; my wall aflame as Yuan pagodas perched in impossible perspectives on dream-shrouded hills, and one great Taoist dragon emerged from a yellow scroll. This, my house, compounded of so many things he showed me. I thought of him often. The gulf of not speaking became an ocean. There would be no story to this, if this were all.

2
Those I have known and loved my lifetime through — How many can I count?
One hand’s fingers suffice! — Po Chü-I, circa 820 CE
Even though I am now an “older man,” I’m never drawn to older men. But here, a cultured gentleman, Chinese and kindly, a devotee of the arts and the opera, invited me for dinner and mischief (in one of those vast beds no doubt constructed for the Forbidden City.) Some instinct told me, Go with this. Some things are meant to be.

As I had only just resumed my old Manhattan haunts, I thought much about old friends, the lightning jabs I’d suffered while reading so many obits and epitaphs, too soon, too young, too many, my whole vast web of acquaintances shattered; thought, too, of the disconnects that the years impose on early friendships. Each one of them seemed more precious now as I began to make, and receive, what I came to call “the annual endangered species phone call.” Always I thought, there’s one I’ll see again, that fickle, spoiled, bad, obsessive and art-loving, music-besotted fellow. We were not done with each other, and I had come ten times more into his world since we had spoken last. Where was he?

He was there in the phone book, yet no one answered, ever. His neatly-typed name was glued above the lobby mailbox. Each time I passed there now, I entered and rang the doorbell. Always that window was open, always that one dim light in the far darkness, the curtains like a warlord’s banner. Where was his face, that glance of recognition, “How you are?”

The dinner was past, the rosewood bed explored in the dark in various positions. My host and I sat talking, and he asked me how I came to know so much of China, its culture and literature, its ways and its secrets. And so I spoke of my friend, of our seeing Liang Shan Po and Chiu Ying-Tai, the gender-bending Butterfly Lovers, of our long but often interrupted friendship, of how I had been trying in vain to reach him for months. “Perhaps his mother has died and he’s gone off to Taipei. Perhaps he’s made the often-dreamt-of journey to the mainland —”

“What is his name?” my host asked, interrupting me.

I spoke his names — the English one he’d taken, and the Chinese one.

His face fell, “I knew him. He came here often. His friends, too. Mad for music. Big stereo. He painted — or tried to.” He paused, lifted his cup of pale oolong. “Six months ago —about six months ago, he died of AIDS.”

The breath was ripped from me. My heart sank; I felt I’d hurtle downward to the earth’s core if someone didn’t catch me.

“I’m sorry —”he started, and then our eyes met and we realized it —that we had met so he could tell me this — of all the men, the myriad lonely American men he might have invited home. The message had passed between us as a death-white cloud —a thunder-blasted peach tree in a sky devoid of bats.

Later that night — how could I not? — I walked on Fourteenth Street. The curtains still billowed, the panther eye-beam yellow light still glowed. His name was still there — the rent still paid      from afar by his mother? — his things still up there uncollected?      the paints, those sketched-and-then-abandoned canvases piled up in a heap —a great, dusty horde of art books and classical music —or — nothing? a vast, dead space of which that shorn drapery was but the fringe, a Mongolian waste of unslaked hunger, a never-relenting sandstorm — and far, far off, a tomb lined with the terra-cotta likenesses of his lovers?(Which one was his death? To which of them was he Death?) No more!

3
Oh, that I could make the world-globe shrink, so that suddenly I’d find you back at my side. — Wang Chien (830 CE.)
Art is the great denier when the artist is silent. I waited all these years to write this, as though my silence would cancel his passing, and the maelstrom that took him, too. 

Perversely, I’d open a phone book and find his name there. Why? I’d pass those windows, open, the curtains billowing. Why? A whole year passed.

One day the panes were pulled shut tightly. There! A new name, neatly writ and pasted on the mailbox. You see! He is dead! It is as final as a tombstone, as final as the phone book, which no longer lists him now.

And more — it is as though he never existed. To me alone was bountied that first night’s touching,      mine the laughter of all the days we shared (that never a fraction of all I was willing to give!) But still I had no tears for him.

Art is the great denier when the artist is silent. Can world and time erase their errors? Another year passed. I found myself on that block again. Windows were open! Perhaps if I rang the doorbell, the new tenant would share some shred of knowledge about the eccentric prior tenant —

I froze as I stood before the mailbox. The tenant’s name, that new, hand-lettered name had come unglued, it was gone, fallen off, ripped off, or it had gone pentimento (just as old paintings reveal some older art beneath them),his name asserting itself, just as his absence ruled here. I turned and fled, and I did not look up at those windows.

Imagine a tentative life, so lightly lived, a dragonfly, an iridescent blur of wing, so light that all that remains of him is his name, a mere undercoat, a line on a page in a discarded old year’s phone book, a scratched-out entry in a hundred men’s pleasure journals.

Three breaths, his real name on the wind (his name unspoken except in my heart, and in the dream of autumn thunder) —not in a tomb with white flags fluttering — not burning joss at his ancestral shrine — but only, this moment, remembered.


The Beast Reasserts Itself: Vitalism in the Science Fiction of H.G. Wells

by Brett Rutherford

Expressions of vitalism run throughout the fiction of H. G. Wells, although the writer himself did not acknowledge the concept as central to his thinking. Instead vitalism emerges, in the voices of various characters, as a tentative thesis to explain life, or an expression of culminating purpose that Wells considered poetic mysticism rather than scientific truth. In this article I examine several instances of vitalist thought in Wells’s work, and attempt to decipher from the critical reception of those works why these ideas remain largely undetected. Specifically, I contend that readers confined within the discourse of Man versus Animal have difficulty apprehending statements about Life itself, and that Wells cleverly satirizes the “othering” of animal or potential superhuman, to demonstrate the common man’s inability to understand Life within a larger framework. I use four texts — The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Food of the Gods (1904), Things to Come (1935) and Star-Begotten (1937) — to demonstrate a vitalist undercurrent in the writings of this most scientific of all fiction writers.

Critics have found a wealth of influence, and a welter of themes, crowded into Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Like the best fiction, it is multivalent. It can be read both as an attack on the arrogance of scientism, and as a satire on religion. The text is also rich in allusion to previous literature, from Shakespeare through Kipling. Dr. Moreau is an outcast from Britain who establishes, on a Pacific island, a plantation-laboratory where he vivisects animals and transforms them into a semblance of human shape. Seen from the vantage of Prendick, a shipwrecked sailor — conveniently, like Wells, a former student of T. H. Huxley — Moreau’s island is a living hell of semi-human brutes who shamble about, chanting litanies to Moreau as their creator, and threatening those who would revert to beastly behavior with another visit to the “House of Pain.” Surgery without anesthesia is a key ingredient of Moreau’s science as well as the penal threat behind the Law.

As a biological science fiction work, The Island of Dr. Moreau is in a direct line with Mary Shelley’s 1817 Frankenstein. But where Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein creates a living being from dead tissue, a problematic vessel without soul or progenitor, Moreau’s creatures are animals already endowed with an animal nature. Wells was versed in science and its post-Darwin debates over the workings of heredity and evolution. The discovery of DNA was a half-century away, and it was by no means clear how genes worked or whether acquired traits could be passed along. As Moreau manufactures human forms from animals, he tests thereby whether or not the nature of man is entirely the result of his physical form. Given human speech organs, will not an animal speak? Given binocular vision and five fingers, will not an animal make and use tools? Moreau’s repeated failures are voiced very clearly in vitalist terms:
[T]here is something in everything I do that defeats me. . . . The human shape I can get now, almost with ease, so that it is lithe and graceful, or thick and strong; but often there is trouble with the hands and claws — painful things that I dare not shape too freely. But it is in the subtle grafting and re-shaping one must needs do to the brain that my trouble lies. The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere — I cannot determine where — in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate or fear. . . . First one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface and stares out at me. . . . But I will conquer yet. Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own. ... And they revert. As soon as my hand is taken from them the beast begins to creep back, begins to assert itself again. (146-147)

Wells, with a placidity almost as alarming as that of the fictional Moreau, writes in an 1895 science essay about the potential of reshaping life forms and even eliminating instincts through surgery and hypnosis:
It often seems to be tacitly assumed that a living thing is at the utmost nothing more than the complete realization of its birth possibilities, and so heredity becomes confused with theological predestination. . . . We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, something that may be shaped and altered ... a whole developed far beyond its apparent possibilities . . . that the thread of live might be preserved unimpaired while shape and mental superstructure were so extensively recast as even to justify our regarding the result as a new variety of being. (Wells, Plasticity, 221-222).

Leon Plover claims that, “Incredible as it may seem,” the novel and Wells’s accompanying journalism, “set in motion the ongoing controversy over heredity versus environment by his being the first biologist ... to discriminate nature and nurture” (Wells, Moreau 1896, 2-3)
Wells expresses two opposing vitalist ideas in these two texts. One is the mere “thread of life,” the classical élan vital, in this case a tabula rasa that can survive the complete reshaping of the living being. The other is the “reassertion of the Beast,” which implies that a living form has a blueprint capable of rebuilding and reasserting itself over matter. Set free after Moreau’s death and the collapse of the Law, his 60-odd creations reacquire both the psychological and physical traits of animals. Foucault, studying the work of Bichat, formulates an underlying concept applicable here: “Life is not the form of the organism, but the organism is the visible form of life in its resistance to that which does not live and which opposes it” (Foucault, 154).

As long as we interpret Moreau’s “failure” in terms of Man versus Animal, then we miss the underlying outcome: that the vital principle triumphs. The animal’s “nature” is its proper blueprint, its vitality. Its self-assertion is life imposing itself upon matter. The converse idea is that a human being, if “animalized” and “dehumanized” through hypnosis or conditioning, would reassert its own “beast,” an outcome that would be regarded as a success. It is all a matter of viewpoint. We must cast aside value judgment about “man” versus “beast” and see at play here the concept that each form of life has its unique organizational plan. The following value-laden description of the plight of man-beasts typifies the critics’  response:
They are not beasts, governed only by instinct, nor are they human, governed by the voice of reason. They are neither one thing nor the other, which is what makes them at once so pathetic and so dangerous . . . Dr. Moreau leaves behind him not a thriving and hopeful community, but a kingdom of beasts once again run wild. (Kagarlitski 54)
This line of reasoning obscures the more vitalistic concept that it is the business of animals to “run wild.” The depiction of man as “governed by the voice of reason” denies any commonality of human with animal, with man only as a Cartesian thing-that-thinks.

Other critical responses to The Island of Dr. Moreau focus on Moreau as bad scientist, his lack of ethics an alarming precursor of the medical atrocities to come in later decades at the hands of the Nazis, and of a scientific nonchalance generally about inflicting pain or seeking nonjustifiable ends. This is one of many ways of looking at the text, but it is questionable to what extent Wells himself doubted the ethics of experimental science in 1896. The “Plasticity” essay Wells published as science writing occupies Moreau’s ethical space.
Taking Moreau as a practitioner of science without regard to his ethics, the question at hand is whether Moreau’s theory is a vitalist one. A cogent analysis of Wells’s shifting attitude toward evolutionary theory in the years 1895-96 by John Glendening identifies Wells’s ambivalence towards vitalism as a key aspect in the depiction of Moreau. Glendening identifies the acquired-trait theory of Lamarck, still a contending theory in the early 1890s, as essentially a vitalist doctrine, “the idea that the desire to evolve is innate, expressing itself through the purposeful acquiring and development of new characteristics” (579).

      As Wells was writing his novel, he underwent a radical change of belief. Glendening says that Wells was not a vitalist, but that he, in common with writers Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw, “sought in Lamarck’s theories sanction for the idea of human progress . . . and for the primacy of intelligence in evolution. What particularly attracted Wells to Lamarckianism was its suggestion that evolution might occur rapidly, since an organism’s successful adaptational efforts could be immediately expressed and elaborated upon in the next generation” (597).

After reading the scientific work of August Weissman, Wells felt compelled to change his mind in favor of pure Darwinian selection, and published an essay on this in mid-1895, while still working on writing The Island of Dr. Moreau (Glendening 580). This problematizes the reading of Dr. Moreau’s failures and the reason for them. Wells inserted an admission that his manufactured beast-men cannot reproduce their kind: “There was no evidence of the inheritance of the acquired human characteristics” (Wells, Moreau, 151). Examination of Wells’s manuscript establishes this as a late revision to the book (Philmus xvii). This admission, however, is voiced by Moreau’s drunken assistant Montgomery. Moreau himself remains Lamarckian through and through.

Darwinian selection dictates that acquired traits cannot be inherited, but there is nothing in Darwinian theory per se to account for the failure of Moreau’s adaptations to “take” on the individual specimens. The indefinable “something I cannot touch, somewhere — I cannot determine where” (146) is still the essence of what makes the animal nature and animal physical features grow back. Moreau’s defeat is Life’s triumph. It is only because we perceive the animal as the “other” that we can regard the triumph of its essence a defeat. Moreau clings to his theory, though, saying he sees something promising in his specimens: “Yet they’re odd. Complex, like everything else alive. There is a kind of upward striving in them” (147).

Most critics have paid justifiable attention to the novel’s literary influences, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (for the shipwreck section of the novel only), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and especially Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The lattermost work was published just two years before Wells’s novel. The “Sayer of the Law” on Moreau’s island chants verses that parody Kipling’s “Law of the Jungle,” but they are also savage parodies of the Ten Commandments and the Christian catechism
Not to go on all-Fours: that is the Law. Are we not Men? . . . Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men? . . . Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men? . . .His is the House of Pain. His is the Hand that makes. (Wells, Moreau 1896, 117-118)
Wells’s book — and the memorable film made from it in 1932, Island of Lost Souls, banned from theaters in Britain despite a British cast (Lammes 73) — have elicited criticism overlaying racial and colonial content onto the man-animal dichotomy. Prendick employs both the words “Negroid type” and “Hebrew type” to describe several of the beast men, and although this is common terminology in the 1890s, it opens the door to symbolize Moreau as colonizer, plantation owner, torturer and slave master. Timothy Christensen examines the racism inherent in the evolution of the island’s Law, and how Moreau, through the enactment of the chants of the beast men, attains “the status of the Lacanian big Other,” (382) a surrogate god. This risks misreading, however, since Moreau claims the man-beasts invented the Law on their own. (Wells, Moreau 1896, 147).

Colonialism also rears its head. Sybil Lammes, writing about the film, and Charles Laughton’s sadistic portrayal of Moreau, sees “a mixture between a cold-blooded scientist and a colonialist. His white tropical uniform, his British accent and his priest-like demeanour during the submission ritual all point in the latter direction” (71). These interpretations are instructive, but Wells, like his contemporary Kipling, had a keen sense of the arrogance of colonialism and its costs, and it is perilous to conflate the character’s voice with the author’s. (Philmus locates a number of places where Wells edited out phrases that might be taken as racial slurs (xxii).) These narrowly focused critical glances, productive as they are to theorists, cloud the larger issues about evolution and vitalism the novel raises.
The critical urge to overwrite the duality of Man/Animal with White/Non-White or Colonizer/Colonized, retains a discourse that makes it difficult to understand the vitalist principle. The “othering” of the animal against the human implies some way in which animal and human do not belong to the same set, just as “othering” a group of people as “non-white” creates the opportunity to push the “other” class outside the larger conceptual set called “human.” Human and animal are not antonyms. The most potent mythic symbol of the endurance and commonality of life is the Ark. Can one imagine mankind moving out to the stars and leaving the other animals behind? Not surprisingly, the interplanetary or interstellar Ark is a staple of science fiction. Wells would take the development of ecology, a term he himself was using before 1900, as evidence of a larger human evolutionary force at work, a force that includes awareness of all life.

In 1935, Wells published a half-novel, half film script, Things to Come, the result of his collaboration with film director Alexander Korda, whose eponymous film is one of the great classics of the genre. The story, set in the future, projects a nuclear war in 1966 and an age of barbarism and warlords, after which a world organization of scientists and engineers, “Wings Over the World,” cleans up and sets everything aright in a utopia of rational socialism. Not quite aright, though, since a group of disgruntled artists and aesthetes opposes the first rocket flight to the moon and organizes a mob that attempts to destroy the launch pad. In a final peroration, Wells’s hero, John Cabal, speaks of scientific progress and exploration as a life imperative:
“Listen, Theotocopulos! If I wished to give way to you, I could not. It is not we who war against the order of things, but you. Either life goes forward or it goes back. That is the law of life” (139) . . .  
An observatory at a high point above Everytown. A telescopic mirror of the night sky showing the cylinder as a very small speck against a starry background. Cabal and Passworthy stand before this mirror. 
Cabal: “There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.” Pause. 
Passworthy: “I feel — what we have done is — monstrous.” 
Cabal: “What they have done is magnificent.” 
Passworthy: “Will they return?” 
Cabal: “Yes. And go again. And again —until the landing can be made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.” 
Passworthy: “And if they don’t return — my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?” 
Cabal (with a catch in his voice but resolute): “Then presently — others will go.” 
Passworthy: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?” 
Cabal: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on — conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, 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 are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile, — so weak.” 
Cabal: “Little animals, eh?” 
Passworthy: “Little animals.”
Cabal: “If we are no more than animals — we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more — than all the other animals do — or have done.” (He points out at the stars). “It is that — or this? All the universe — or nothingness. . . . Which shall it be, Passworthy?” 
The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.The musical finale becomes dominant. Cabal’s voice is heard repeating through the music:“Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?” (141-142)

In an entertainment medium not known for philosophical depth, Things to Come and its purposeful manifesto stand out. Wells, long associated with socialism, makes a surprisingly anti-Utopian stance here. Utopias are normally thought of as places of rest and balance and equity, while Cabal depicts a Nietzschean future for man with a cosmic destiny, a belief that only struggle matters, and that the cost is worth it. Cabal permits his own daughter to be hurled into space as ultimate proof of what life must risk. There is no mistaking Cabal’s belief that this process is an imperative, not a choice.

It is easy to pass over a speech like this, stirring as it is, as mere rhetoric. We are suspicious of rhetoric when it exhorts us for the hidden gain of the speaker. To be exhorted to greatness is another thing altogether. Wells makes here a fundamental claim about human nature, and, hence, about life, that would resonate through science fiction for decades. Colin Wilson, heavily influenced by Whitehead, expands this idea:
What are we doing here? And what are we supposed to do now we are here? . . .[W]e are driven by some powerful compulsion. The stakes are obviously higher than we think. The obvious explanation is that we are a colonizing expedition, and that our purpose is colonize the realm of matter. According to the view life — or spirit — is attempting to establish a bridgehead in matter, just as man might attempt to establish a way-station on the moon. (Wilson, Beyond Occult 349)
 This sense of seeing life as an adventure, from the outside in, is the transcendental perspective that made Nietzsche suggest that we are being lived through:
 the development of a higher body that emerges into our sensibility. The organic is rising to yet higher levels. Our lust for knowledge of nature is a means through which the body desires to perfect itself. . . . In the long run, it is not a question of man at all: he is to be overcome. (Nietzsche, Will to Power, III.676)
     In Things to Come, Wells offers a kind of science-driven higher consciousness, a rigorous mysticism, only mystical because it leaps to an assumption of purpose. Turning again to Wilson, in his synthesis of Whitehead and Husserl:
 Western man has become so accustomed to the idea of his passivity and insignificance that it is difficult to imagine what sort of creature he would be if phenomenology could uncover his intentional evolutionary structure and make it part of his consciousness. (Wilson, Beyond Outsider, 158)
Again and again, Wells sees humankind living at a level far below its potential because of small thinking. He finds a way to allegorize this idea in The Food of the Gods, in which a new super-nutrient leads to the rise of a generation of giants. These giants, who do not suffer from smallness of intellect, are promptly declared enemies of the small people, and the book ends in struggle and conflict.
      The Food of the Gods contains two fascinating stretches of vitalist thought. In one scene, the creator of the food and another character discuss the real possibility that the giants will win, will induce everyone’s children to consume the food, resulting in the end of their kind:
“I have not thought of it before. I have been busy, and the years have passed. But here I see. It is a new generation, Cossar, and new emotions and new needs. All this, Cossar—  
Cossar saw now his dim gesture to the things about them.
“All this is Youth.” 
Cossar made no answer, and his irregular footfalls went striding on. 
“It isn’t our youth, Cossar. They are taking things over. They are beginning upon their own emotions, their own experiences, their own way. We have made a new world, and it isn’t ours. This great place —” 
“I planned it,” said Cossar, his face close. “But now?” 
“Ah! I have given it to my sons.” 
Redwood could feel the loose wave of the arm that he could not see. 
“That is it. We are over — or almost over.” . . . 
“Of course we are out of it, we two old men,” said Cossar, with his familiar note of sudden anger. “Of course we are. Obviously. Each man for his own time. And now — it’s their time beginning. That’s all right. Excavator’s gang. We do our job and go. See? That is what Death is for. We work out all our little brains and all our little emotions, and then this lot begins afresh. Fresh and fresh! Perfectly simple. What’s the trouble?” 
He paused to guide Redwood to some steps. “Yes,” said Redwood, “but one feels —” He left his sentence incomplete. 
“That is what Death is for.” He heard Cossar insisting below him. “How else could the thing be done? That is what Death is for.” (317-318)

This is about more than one generation passing the burden of civilization to another. This is one human species poised at extinction as another comes to take its place. Only from a vitalist perspective, taking organic life as a whole as its subject, can one arrive at such a point of view, not as a tragedy but as an imperative.
Wells notes that the novel “begins in a cheerful burlesque and ends in poetic symbolism” (Wells, Autobiography, 211). When Redwood’s son, the leader of the giants, speaks on their behalf, Wells gives him a speech that could not be further from the narrow outlook of the politician, or of the scientist huddled over his microscope:
“It is not that we would oust the little people from the world,” he said, “in order that we, who are no more than one step upwards from their littleness, may hold their world for ever. It is the step we fight for and not ourselves. . . . We are here, Brothers, to what end? To serve the spirit and the purpose that has been breathed into our lives. We fight not for ourselves-for we are but the momentary hands and eyes of the Life of the World. . . . Through us and through the little folk the Spirit looks and learns. . . . This earth is no resting place —  this earth is no playing place, else indeed we might put our throats to the little people’s knife, having no greater right to live than they. And they in their turn might yield to the ants and vermin. We fight not for ourselves but for growth, growth that goes on for ever. To-morrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. That is the law of the spirit for ever more. . . .  To grow out of these cracks and crannies, out of these shadows and darknesses, into greatness and the light! Greater,” he said, speaking with slow deliberation, “greater, my Brothers! And then — still greater. To grow and again — to grow. To grow at last into the fellowship and understanding of God. Growing.  . . Till the earth is no more than a footstool. Till the spirit shall have driven fear into nothingness, and spread.” He swung his arm heavenwards —“There”
His voice ceased. The white glare of one of the searchlights wheeled about, and for a moment fell upon him, standing out gigantic with hand upraised against the sky.  (327-328)
Serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in London, and in The Cosmopolitan Magazine in New York in 1903, The Food of the Gods appeared in book form in 1904 in simultaneous English, French and Italian editions (Raknem 59). It was a popular success. Novels of this sort were not confined to the genre ghettos we know today, so this text was read by general audiences. Some readers were entertained by Wells’s fancy about giants, especially the amusing episodes early in the book when giant chickens, wasps and rats run amok. Other readers insisted, then and now, that the book was entirely allegorical. David C. Smith, in his 1986 biography of Wells, outlines the book as political allegory, citing the fictional Tory politician Catherham who leads the opposition to the Food, and Wells’s savage satire of small-minded citizens fearful for their money and property. This leads him to conclude that the book is about “the symbolic Food, which we can take to be socialism, and which will triumph, even though under attack from the Catherhams of the time; eventually it will transform the world of pygmies into a world of giants, the home of the blessed” (71). Wells, for his part, complained, “No one saw the significance of it” (Autobiography 358).

The work may pass muster as a Swiftean political satire and a polemic, but the final speech of young Redwood shares the same expansive sense of life as Cabal’s final speech in Things to Come. It is several orders of magnitude larger than what the plot calls for: three-score 40-foot-tall teenagers at war with the British government in 1904 do not need to talk about conquering space and using the earth as a footstool. This Nietzschean restlessness, this Faustian refusal to even admit the possibility of satisfaction, is a complete refutation of Utopian ideals: the average man’s idea of a Utopia is a place where nothing much happens. Wells urges the species to become supermen, not to create a theme park for the proletariat.
Frank McConnell argues that the bumbling, comical inventors of the Food, whose misadventures release the giant rats and wasps, are meant to satirize the Utopian social planners Wells knew among the  circle of Fabian Socialists (167). This arc from comical to earnest McConnell views as a shift in Wells’ opinions while working on the book (just as he had shifted stance on evolution during the writing of The Island of Dr. Moreau). The speech about the little men making way for the giants is part of that shift, and the final speech shows that men:
once they begin to take stock of themselves and their true position in the universe, once they began to think  both realistically and energetically about the business of living, they can  indeed become the fathers of gods, the founders of a humanity that might resist even the universal principles of entropy and extinction. (168)
Wells counterpoises the inevitabilities of genetics against individuality — the potential for parentage and the accident of mutation to create unique individuals. In his magnum non-fiction work, The Outline of History, Wells prefaces a presentation of straight Darwinian selection with this proviso:
This growth and dying and reproduction of living things leads to some very wonderful consequences. The young which a living thing produces are, either directly or after some intermediate stages and changes (such us the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly), like the parent living thing. But they are never exactly like it or like each other. There is always a slight difference, which we speak of as individuality A thousand butterflies this year may produce very many more next year and  these latter will look to us almost exactly like their predecessors, but each one will have just that slight difference. It is hard for us to see individuality in butterflies, because we do not observe them very closely, but it is easy for us to see it in men. All the men and women in the world now are descended from the men and women of A.D. 1800, but not one of us now is exactly the same as one of that vanished generation. And what is true of men and butterflies is true of every sort of living thing (Wells, Outline, 15).

McConnell sees the anti-Utopian message of  The Food of the Gods as “a fable about the literally gigantic future of humanity expressing . . . his belief that fierce individualism, if redirected and creatively channeled, could be the salvation rather than the bane of the race” (164). The catch in The Food of the Gods is that the young giants were educated and trained by their scientist fathers in a kind of super-Montessori nursery built for their needs. New, large thoughts are always engendered from the large thoughts of past genius, and they are reproduced, not in the collective, but in the individual mind. Wells came to be regarded as a romantic and a misfit among his fellow socialists, and his insistence on the primacy of the individual is at the heart of his continuing appeal to readers.

What has happened to Wells’s thinking in the years between Moreau and Cabal and young Redwood? Wells’ abandonment of Lamarckianism in mid-1895 was a shock to his optimistic belief that humankind would progress and improve with a modicum of tending. Wells’s later work becomes more didactic, and his confident statements about a human future are put in the mouths of supermen-leader figures like John Cabal. Biology by itself could not be trusted, and just as the young giants had to be “educated” in a specially-designed nursery, mankind can only evolve as a species through education, which means cultural continuity. Wells struggles over whether this education applies to everyone, or whether it is sufficient for certain superior types to receive it. Robert Philmus addresses this shift in Wells’s thought:
[T]he human species ceased being exclusively a product of Darwinian Nature in the Neolithic Period, at which point human development became primarily a matter of ‘artificial evolution’ and Homo sapiens ‘the highly plastic creature of tradition, suggestion, and reasoned thought.’ This is not to say that human nature has essentially altered since the Stone Age; indeed out species retains, in Wells’s view, ‘a type of animal more obstinately unchangeable than any other’ and is therefore in danger of extinction. Against that eventuality stands ‘the artificial factor’ with ‘Education’ as the instrument of its ‘careful and systematic manufacture’ and hence as the one ‘possible salvation’ from what otherwise lies in store for ‘the culminating ape. (xvii, interior quotes from Wells, Human Evolution).
     
This brings us to the 1937 Star-Begotten, a curiously relaxed novel written at a truly dangerous time, when Wells and many others were issuing books, articles and pamphlets denouncing the spread of Fascist terror. This novel returns to Lamarckian vitalism and deals with the sudden emergence of a new mental type in the human species. Although cast as a series of unproven speculations among a group of thinkers and scientists, the idea that a new biological type is emerging occurs to observers simultaneously all over the world, and the book’s protagonists labor over whether they are right, and if so, who should be told and what should be done about it. The narrator, Davis, is an expectant father, and his concern is that his child may be one of the “coming people,” superior in intellect but not quite human.
Because of its publication date, it is tempting to read this book mostly as allegory, and as satire. It plays upon racial fears — in this case fear of the unborn as the “other” — and satirizes the Nazi obsession with race. Nothing would be more offensive to true Aryans that the random arrival, all over the planet, of genius mutations superior to them.

At first, Wells’s narrator, Davis,  suspects the change may be a spontaneous product of life itself, evolution accelerating its own pace: “[W]hen a species comes to a difficult phase in its struggle for existence . . . there is an increased disposition to vary” (72). This harks back to Lamarck, or to the neo-Lamarckian thought always at the fringe of the laboratory. Neo-Lamarckian thought also appears in Bergson, who writes: “[T]he spontaneity of life is manifested by a continual creation of new forms” (96) . . . “an original impetus of life . . . the fundamental cause of variations, at least of those that are regularly passed on, the accumulate and create new species” (97-98). 

Wells drops this vitalistic notion quickly, however, in favor of personifying the change and blaming “Martians.” This “othering” of evolutionary life force is extremely intriguing. Wells centers on mutation caused by cosmic rays — a fact accepted by science — and adds a paranoid level: what if we are being “manipulated” by Martians using directed cosmic rays to speed up human mutation? (72) Wells speculates, in the absence of any evidence whatever for the existence of Martians, that “Martians have been firing away with increasing accuracy and effectiveness at our chromosomes — perhaps for long ages” (76).

The agency of Martians enables Wells to dodge, once again, the vitalist idea. Wells also takes this opportunity to lampoon the human desire to de-humanize the “other.” Instead of imagining Martians as advanced human types, Wells steals from the interplanetary xenophobia he himself helped create with his 1898 War of the Worlds. He parodies the popular assumption that the non-human, or even the superhuman, has to be monstrous. Recalling his own fictional Martians, he has his protagonist Davis imagine the genetic manipulator of mankind as: “[S]omething hunched together, like an octopus, tentacular, saturated with evil poisons, oozing unpleasant juices, a gigantic leather bladder of hate” or “[T]urnip heads, bladder-of-lard crania, short-sighted eyes, horrible little faces, long detestable hands, unathletic and possibly crippled bodies” (110-111). This depiction of the biological other is a hilarious compendium of pulp-magazine cover art, what mid-century art directors called BEMs (bug-eyed monsters).

Davis fears that his unborn son will inherit some of these non-human characteristics as a result of gene manipulation. This entire novel can be considered as an extension of the scientists’ dialogue near the end of The Food of the Gods, when they consider their own possible extinction.

Using highly-charged political terms, Wells euphemizes the biological cataclysm as “the Martian intervention” (135) and dubs the super-babies as Homo sideralis (152) or star-begotten., and also terms them “the coming people” (177). Much of this does have the air of looking over one’s shoulder at Nazi racial propaganda and eugenics literature, and reminds us that England and Germany had been collaborators in medical and psychiatric research and treatment regimens for decades. The Star of Bethlehem, the swastika and the Soviet Red Star are all symbols of solar- or stellar-endowed power.

The complete lack of evidence in the story is startling. Davis, the protagonist, even after meeting others who share his theory, knows little more than before, only that others share his suspicions. It is all “pure-guess fantasy. . . .A new sort of mind is coming into the world, with a new, simpler, clearer, and more powerful way of thinking” (155) He does go so far as to assert, so far as such a thing could be asserted in 1937, “Certain genes making up the human mentality, we agree, have been altered in this new type” (160).

Wells characterizes his mutations as already occupying places in the world, as engineers, scientists, inventors. Although they are an elite, “they are hardly aware of themselves” (156). Having no identity, they have no politics, no voice for their kind. He looks forward to a cleansing of philosophy and literature which will follow the advent of the “coming people.” He welcomes an end to the infantile, self-obsessed psychologizing of the modern era: “[W]e have had our minds washed out by a real drenching of psycho-analysis” (163).

In his autobiography, Wells self-identifies with the “delocalized man” who “with wide interests and a wider range of movements, found himself virtually disenfranchised,” the lament of the prophet ignored (Wells, Autobiography, 210). The author confesses that The Food of the Gods was a fantasy in which intellectuals, for once, simply could not be stopped. Star-Begotten continues that fantasy of the superior type finally taking over. The novel’s latter pages contain some speculation about the Utopian future the “coming people” might create, reminiscent of Things to Come. 

Unfortunately, Star-Begotten fizzles out. Davis’s son is born, and appears quite normal. Davis decides to abandon his efforts to expose the Martian conspiracy, and burns his notes — not because he was wrong, but due to a sudden revelation: “A great light seemed to irradiate and in a moment to tranquilize the troubled ocean of his disordered mind . . . He too was star-born.” (215) . . . “He too was one of these invaders and strangers and innovators to our fantastic planet, who were crowding into life and making it over anew!” (217)

This denouement can be read comically — as the passing fantasy of an expectant father — or it can be taken literally as a science-fiction story in which the “coming people” are indeed among us. On a conceptual level, this whimsical piece of wish-fulfillment at the brink of World War II flirts with vitalism and demonstrates its continuing utility for Wells.
What kind of vitalist is Wells? Canguilhem, in “Knowledge and the Living,” discusses vitalism as an underlying imperative, and I believe this approaches Wells’s vantage:
[A]n imperative rather than a method and more of an ethical system, perhaps, than a theory. . . . A scientist who feels filial, sympathetic sentiments toward nature will not regard natural phenomena as strange and alien; rather he will find in them life, soul and meaning. Such a man is basically a vitalist” (288).
Vitalism, then, as a kind of overarching tautological or ontological principle, need not be scientifically true to be useful. As an imperative, even fictional, it serves as Moreau’s nemesis, Cabal’s credo, and young Redwood’s hope. I doubt that Wells could have lived past seventy as he did, still holding to the possibility of a human future after two World Wars, without a form of that imperative in his own spirit.


Works Cited
  • Canguilhem, Georges. “Knowledge and the Living.”  A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem. Ed. Françoise Delaporte. New York: Zone, 2000. 287-319.
  • Christensen, Timothy. “‘The ‘Bestial Mark’ of Race in The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Criticism 46.4 (2004): 575-95.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage, 2004.
  • Glendening, John. “‘Green Confusion’: Evolution and Entanglement in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Victorian Literature and Culture  (2002): 571-97.
  • Kagarlitski, J. The Life and Thought of H. G. Wells. Trans. Moura Budberg. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.
  • McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells. Science-Fiction Writers. Ed. Robert Scholes. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
  • Nietzsche, Friedric. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J.Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.
  • Philmus, Robert M. “Introducing Moreau.”  H. G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau, a Variorum Text. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 1993. xi-xlviii.
  • Raknem, Ingvald. H. G. Wells and His Critics. London: Allen & Unwin, 1962.
  • Renzi, Thomas C. H .G. Wells: Six Scientific Romances Adapted for Film. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow, 1992.
  • Simmes, Sybille. “So Far, So Close: Island of Lost Souls as a Laboratory of Life.”  Screen Consciousness: Cinema, Mind and World. Ed. Robert Pepperell, and Michael Punt. Consciousness: Literature & the Arts. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006.
  • Smith, David C. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, a Biography. New Haven: Yale, 1986.
  • Wells, H. G. Experiment in Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1934.
  • ---. . The Food of the Gods: And How It Came to Earth. New York: Scribner’s, 1904.
  • ---. “Human Evolution as an Artificial Process.” 1896.  H. G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau, a Variorum Text. Ed. Robert M. Philmus. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 1993. 188-96.
  • ---. The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Critical Text of the 1896 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. 1896. The Annotated H. G. Wells. Ed. Leon Stover. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
  • ---. “The Limits of Individual Plasticity.”  The Island of Dr. Moreau: A Critical Text of the 1896 London First Edition. Ed. Leon Stover. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1996.
  • ---. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. 1920. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1926.
  • ---. Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasy. New York: Viking, 1937.
  • ---. Things to Come. London: Cresset, 1935.
  • Wilson, Colin. Beyond the Occult. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988.
  • ---. Beyond the Outsider. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
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