restricted access Evolution & the Demise of Art
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Evolution & the Demise of Art
Simon J. James. Maps of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity, and the End of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xiv + 230 pp. $99.00

Early in his career as a writer, Wells must have been exhilarated by the increasing popularity of his work. Steady income, based on the wide appeal of his fiction, was doubtless at the forefront of his mind, sometimes even to the point of his intentionally scheming at marketable "footle." Yes, the ideas in such fast-marketed works also mattered to him, but for most readers the author's deepest implications—the substrata mined by present-day critics—tended to remain "safely" buried beneath the surface of entertaining stories.

A general lack of deep perception was also true for readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne's romances, which Wells admitted had particularly influenced and intimidated him. Hawthorne futilely hoped for financial return while also aiming for lasting art. Wells, however, probably did not give much thought to the long-term endurance of his work as he rapidly moved from one project to the next.

Early on, apparently, Wells embraced the notion that he was dabbling in a kind of journalism—a notoriously transient medium emphasizing current events. His understanding of journalism was not based on the profit-driven model of newspaper reporting, lampooned in The War of the Worlds. Instead, by literary journalism Wells meant urgent representations true to both temporally delimited contemporary lives and humanity's future possibilities. "We make and pass, striving on a hidden mission," reads the apt final line of Tono-Bungay.

Authors might find it hard to believe that Wells felt no ambivalence at the prospect of his writings exhausting their "news" and then perishing in the sea of time. Whatever he actually deeply felt about the legacy of his literary reputation, he proclaimed that his short-lived journalistic literature was superior to "Art." Staking out an even more radical [End Page 117] position, he also believed that evolutionary processes would inevitably doom high art to oblivion.

In an insightful reading, Simon James finds Wells's view of the obsolescence of art as early as The Time Machine: "The Time Traveller's Promethean quest into the future finds not new additions to the corpus of human knowledge, but iterated images of forgetting: the enigma that is the Sphinx and the unreadable contents of the Palace of Green Porcelain." Never mind late-Victorian fears that inexpensive, mass-marketed books and cheap-thrill romances akin to the genre of The Time Machine would dull the collective cultural palate; for Wells, it was always just a matter of time before that palate would become meaninglessly forgotten. The Eloi occupy a world where evolution has simply emptied art (culture) of any value. Wells would agree with Edna St. Vincent Millay, albeit for different reasons, that beauty is not enough.

In Maps of Utopia James deftly delineates various narrative devices that Wells deployed to fashion works of "instrumental value" while negotiating the uncomfortable restrictiveness of literary realism and the equally uncomfortable freedom of romance. Constructing his writings as serviceable journalism that would pass away with its time, Wells advocated for social change. He did so through various literary techniques devised to vex reader expectations and foster a scientifically minded skepticism about the status quo. Often, for instance, Wells relied on generic reversals, fragmented insights or narrative unreliability to goad readers into rethinking presuppositions about their world.

At the center of such rethinking, in Wells's view, biology trumps art. "Having learned the lesson of biology's primacy over culture," James points out in a convincing example, "Kipps is awakened to the nature of reality by a scientific, rather than artistic book." In the contrarian novel Tono-Bungay, too, "high culture becomes advertising and ends in apocalypse ... a mere circulation of unreliable signs" that indicate the current trivialization of the potential utopian curatives of science and technology. So, Wells believed, social norms needed reformation, a need authorizing his journalistic fiction and prognostication. At the same time, as James rightly surmises, "Wells's utopian project ... possesses a kind of death instinct, seeking to extinguish itself, to write itself out of existence...