Wednesday, July 5, 2017

From Wells to Fargo

"Capitalism has made it this way
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away"

Marilyn Manson - The Beautiful People

Happy firecracker day everyone!

Ah, yes, yesterday Americans celebrated their peaceable economic acumen by wasting lots of money on makin' big boom-boom. Which differs from the usual routine in keeping the boom-boom at home instead of tossin' it over the neighbors' fence. But it's all done politely, you see. Every SUV now comes with a fainting couch in a sensory deprivation chamber, should any members of Generation Facebook decide to feel micro-aggressed by pigeons crapping on their windshield.
Damn you! Let the robins wear diapers! Save our brothers! Can I get an amen? Can I get a hallelujah?!

Of course, not too long ago in your great-great-grandparents' time, Western society found itself sclerotized by another crop of oversensitive moral dictators fastidious to the point of paralysis. Remember, chickens have dark or white meat, never legs or breasts, and Queen Victoria died in 1901. In the decade before that, H.G. Wells wrote his most famous science fiction books: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Of his career in the four decades after that, most of us haven't heard a peep. Several years ago, I opened up a volume of his complete works to revisit time travel and topped that off with another and another, becoming weirdly fascinated by the path his writing took.

To some extent, Wells' grasp on his own narratives does seem to have loosened. For one thing, his growing obsession with aircraft litters his books with somewhat tedious rhapsodizing on the glory of flight, play-by-play commentary on imaginary aerial combat, convoluted visuals of airplane shapes (most of them ludicrously impractical) etc. The War in the Air is, unsurprisingly, the worst offender in this, yet still manages to overcome it through some chilling prognostication of World War I a decade before it struck. Wells saw the inevitable in the endless build-up of armed forces and armaments which would, by virtue of their very existence, manage to get themselves used at some point. To the man who later coined the phrase "the war to end all war" the system of alliances and global empires only needed a spark of good old Prussian bellicosity to yield the inevitable conclusion. Even if he overstated the immediate importance of aircraft, it only took another three decades for reality to catch up to him, for WWII to become a "war in the air" between the Luftwaffe and RAF, an interweaving of carpet-bombings.

But as eerie as The War in the Air can be to read on its own, it's freakier in the context of Wells' better written, non-SF novel Tono-Bungay, describing the decline of English society. In the rise to fame and fortune of confidence artists selling patent "medicines" and manipulating the economy of an entire nation you find the socio-economic substructure of the military-industrial complex. The willful ignorance of the public, the commoners' enthusiasm in reducing themselves to numbers in the balance sheets of the rich, the eagerness to believe "the big lie" all screech gleefully from Wells' pages at you in recognition. The society Wells described was the last gasp of the Victorian era, with its insecure rising crust constantly vying for a seat on the latest bandwagon. The very model of modern major-generals had already been set at the height of Victoria's reign in 1879, after all, an archetype of aesthetics divorced from reality. Fashions came in the mail, and the mail came often, from places exotically uncivilized.

So here we stand now, a century and a smidge later. Yuppies drink their "fair"-traded coffee out of disposable recyclables and every university student can recite the latest talking points of social activism but not yesterday's chemistry lecture. Snooty grocery stores fill entire aisles with Tono-Bungays by the barrel-full: homeopathy, naturopathy, voodoo-opathy, patheticopathy, you name it and we'll drink it, because reality's all in the nomenclature. Everything's a War On- and everything's a -gate, everything's a scandal, mock and weep to taste. Titles are bought, futures sold on credit. The 2008 crash made uncle Ponderevo look like an amateur, and everyone decries the costly and impractical space program while Lockheed Martin rises in the polls. Everyone wants to give money to the poor, and the diamond industry expects a steady growth of 2-5% per year.

Add to all this Wells' earlier musings on the unmooring of youthful aspirations in The Wheels of Chance in 1896, the youths who presumably, a decade later, invested in Tono-Bungay: "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." 
Look at the snowflakes, at Generation Facebook, the Bunthornes of our time, the coming collapse, a hermetically sealed world of pre-chewed opinions, so breathlessly enthralled by fad and posturing, each a knight in shining armor, each flying as many banners as they can grab from each other: "spiritual" / "progressive" / "pro-life" / "animal, right?" / "feminist" / "ellgeebeateeovertheheadee" / "athlete" / "organizer" and a hundred other titles and orders in their own self-described aristocracy. Crinolines or yoga pants, their skills nonetheless restricted to feinting and fainting, this is a world which ranks "manspreading" somewhere above beheadings as cause for condemnation. Our panem comes sliced (though no-one knows by whom) and our circenses Olympically intersectional: little brown dogs chase little black Sambos through the rings to the cracking of Mrs. Steinem-Dworkin-Grundy's tightly-gripped rainbow whip.

And oh, the juiciest little tidbit's what's been growing in the cracks, the festering sores behind the carefully posed lace fans:
Decades of overly-polite moral repression, policed speech, padded corners and childproof caps, facetious niceness, taboo reality, mask the reactionary upswing until it connects. Are we talking about the first half of the 20th or 21st century? The British Empire, The Continent or The Colonies? Are we looking at the "big and blond and virile" Teutonic air-pirate prince of The War in the Air with his bird-faced attendant, or at a fire-haired robber baron and his born-again evangelical Catholic sidekick? Cossacks or cowboys? Does it matter?

After the capitulation of the intelligentsia to their own credulity and mysticism over the past few decades, how many rabble-rousing tribal traditionalists, how many snake-oil-peddling confidence artists, have sprung up over the past few years in one election and referendum after another in the U.S., in Britain and the rest of Europe? So in tune with the tribal primitivism of the invasive third world they claim to hate, both echoing off each other, amplifying each other, the waves syncing up. Sarajevo, Sudetenland, Syria, all sounds sorta similar. And, with the military build-up and hollow-centered worldwide usury-based economy growing unrestricted behind the scenes, are we now in Wells' position, staring down the inevitable?

No comments:

Post a Comment