Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pearls Before Swine

"Time was when men had simple souls, desires as natural as their eyes, a little reasonable philathropy, a little reasonable philoprogenitiveness, hunger, and a taste for good living, a decent, personal vanity, a healthy, satisfying pugnacity and so forth. But now we are taught and disciplined for years and years, and thereafter we read and read for all the time some strenuous, nerve-destroying business permits. Pedagogic hypnotists, pulpit and platform hypnotists, book-writing hypnotists, newspaper-writing hypnotists, are at us all. This sugar you are eating, they tell us, is ink, and forthwith we reject it with infinite disgust. This black draught of unrequited toil is True Happiness, and down it goes with every symptom of pleasure. This Ibsen, they say, is dull past believing, and we yawn and stretch beyond endurance. Pardon! they interrupt, but this Ibsen is deep and delightful, and we vie with one another in an excess of entertainment. And when we open the heads of these two young people, we find, not a straightforward motive on the surface anywhere; we find, indeed, not a soul so much as an oversoul, a zeitgeist, a congestion of acquired ideas, a highway's feast of fine, confused thinking."

H.G.Wells - The Wheels of Chance


Wells' amusing little romp (or roll) along the southern shores of England tends to push gentle satire somewhat over the top in that verbose belabored Victorian rambling (which I often find myself emulating, so let me get to the point.) It's hard to tell when he's joking or not. Most comedians would decry this as a failure and Wells wasn't particularly known for his humor. A sort of dry, observant wit, on the other hand...

Though this is not one of Wells' SF stories, assume the above passage was delivered in the usual style of the Science Fiction mid-narrative pedantic monologue outlining the failures of society. It's got the right tone and falls at about the right place in the story. Assume it's mostly honest. Forgiving the venerable master his occasional primitivism, his misplaced romantic nostalgia for a nonexistent healthy natural state of the human individual, I'm always struck by passages from decades or centuries past which echo some tones of my own brand of disgust with society.

For how many generations has indirect social control via various media outlets been spinning our inner compass in every which way? On one hand it seems like every generation thinks the sky is falling, that the latest technology is destroying the arts of interpersonal communication as they existed at the time when the speaker was, conveniently enough, a starry-eyed youth. (There's an amusing Wondermark strip about that but I'll be damned if I can find it at the moment.) On the other hand, there's something to be said against everybody saying something all the damn time.

The tribal and medieval worlds were those of near-absolute authority. The individual aped the moral standards of local authority. Only way to keep from getting skinned alive and torn apart by dogs on the bishop's orders. We laud the printing press and other technologies (like, ummm, this) for easing the dissemination of ideas but at some point we have to realize that most human beings are simply incapable of independent thought and even the best of us fall to easily into our social ape brown-nosing. Instead of one hierarchy, the tail-chasing maelstrom of modern sensibilities has us continually bowing left and right to the latest moral authority. We have gradually exchanged two ruling estates for two hundred, but we genuflect as much as ever - only without admitting we are.

This isn't a matter of reactionary backsliding, of reverting to some false idol of the noble savage. Our regret, instead, should be for an unreachable future, for the possibilities inherent in human consciousness which we never quite embody, that Nietzschean bridge we fear to cross. If every increase in freedom of choice brings only more frenzied chasing of that increasing congestion of acquired ideas, a greater desperation for an oversoul in place of missing individuality, then we have to acknowledge that something is inherently wrong with the social nature of the human animal, that this state of "humanity" is unfit for progress.

H.G. Wells wrote The Wheels of Chance one hundred and twenty years ago. For all the velocipede's benefaction and all the blogs that Blogger can blog, the human weakness for social manipulation has not changed. Intelligence needs better materials than our instinct-riddled carcasses to work with.


(Oh, and before you look up Ibsen, he wrote plays.)

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