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Dr Nathan Waddell, University of Birmingham
16 September 2019
Dr Waddell had spoken at the BRLSI on two previous occasions, once on John Buchan, and later on Beethoven and early modernist literature. His book on this last subject was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. His new research project, Wyndham Lewis and his Age, is in its early stages.
Two of the texts Nathan talked about are world famous: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948. The third book is a relatively obscure work, The Caliph’s Design, a collection of essays published in 1919 by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) Lewis, unlike Huxley (1894-1963) or the much younger Orwell (1903-1950) had served in the army in the Great War, and was, of course, an artist as well as a painter.
In a pamphlet written at the end of that war, Lewis had written, characteristically: “It is life at which you must aim. Life, full life, is lived in the fancy, the senses and consciousness. These things must be stimulated and not depressed. The streets of a modern city are depressing. They are so aimless and so weak in the lives of their masses that the mind and sense jog on their way like passengers in a train with blinds down in an overcrowded carriage.”
In Lewis’s well-known semi-abstract painting The Crowd: Revolution (1915) in Tate Britain, London, the figures in the building on the right are tiny, trapped and not moving, echoing the sentiments just quoted. From the same period come the many times quoted lines from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which are deliberately Dantean, harking back specifically to Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours,
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
This was Eliot, then in his early thirties, working at this time as a clerk at Lloyds Bank in the centre of London, recording what he saw and felt daily, in the five-section poem that was quickly to become one of the major landmarks of modernist literature.
Next, Nathan spoke of HG Wells’ Tono-Bungay, published in 1909. This was an important and still very readable pre-modernist novel about London. The title refers to a medicinal drink, a liquid tonic, said to be a panacea for all manner of physical and mental ills. (Of course, it isn’t, to everyone’s disappointment and anger). The central character, George Ponderevo, grew up, like Wells himself, in the south country provinces. Ponderevo observes: “I came to London in late September, and it was a very different London from that great grey-overcast, smoke-stained semi-wilderness of my first impressions… The whole illimitable place teemed with suggestions of indefinite and sometimes outrageous possibility, of hidden and magnificent meanings.”
In Wells’ novel, as elsewhere, the idea of the CITY can be seen as positive, or as negative. The positive view shows city life and existence as full of possibilities and energy, while negatively, it can be seen as having limitations, and as being the source of horror, anxiety and dread. Rob Latham and Jeff Hicks, in their essay Urban Dystopias (to be found in The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature, ed. Kevin R. McNamara, Cambridge UP 2014, pp163-174)) speak of cities being the embodiment of ‘oppression, blight and ruin.’
Plato’s Republic depicts the Greek (Athenian) polis, essentially a vastly unequal division between the oligarchs, or rulers, and the rest - those with authority and privileges and those without. Plato approved of such an arrangement - indeed for him it was the ideal, the only tolerable way of organising society. Yet we now recognise that ‘One man’s Utopia is another man’s Dystopia.’
Nathan then showed images from Fritz Lang’s celebrated 1927 science fiction film Metropolis. The workers (proles) were shown as me in uniform seen from the rear, shuffling along in rows. The whole atmosphere was mechanised and soulless. Glittering, brightly lit buildings were evident - cars, a train, and an aeroplane, signifying modern life and communication. The people here are tiny and insignificant. The 1982 film, Blade Runner, based on the 1968 science fiction novel Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? again features the city as its centre.
Willliam Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is a thriller, an existential mystery. Tokyo Bay is a black expanse. The Fuji Electric Company’s towering hologram logo dominates everything. Factory domes are evident, and there are drifting shoals of white Styrofoam. Among the older streets is Night City, with Ninsei at its heart. “By day…” Gibson writes: “…the bars down Ninsei were shattered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky.”
Brief references to The Hunger Games (dystopian America) and the 1936 Berlin Olympics (essentially a Nazi propaganda exercise) followed. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1920-21, published in English in Gregory Zilboorg’s translation in 1924) the same story is told: “Life in big cities is like that in factories. It de-individualises, makes people somehow all the same - machine-like.” In this remarkable and very influential work, Zamyatin describes the world of total harmony and conformity within a united, totalitarian state. It influenced many later writers, for example Ray Bradbury in his book-burning, book-memorising fable Fahrenheit 451.
In George Orwell’s 1984, we find the following: “Winston (Smith) kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer: though as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometre away, the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought, with a sort of vague distaste, this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania.”
That appeared in print for the first time in 1948, after the destruction and traumas of the Second World War. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932. Here, London is emphatically a city of machines and utter conformity: “The two low worktables faced one another; between them crawled the conveyor with its loads of separate parts; forty-seven blind heads were confronted by forty-seven brown ones. Forty seven grubs by forty -seven hooks: forty seven receding by forty-seven prognathous chins…”
Chapter One of Brave New World famously begins: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY. The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north. Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale, corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in long recession down the worktables.
And this,’ said the Director, opening the door, ‘is the Fertilizing Room.’”
(Nathan drew attention, with deliberate irony, to the way Huxley’s slogan for the Central London Hatchery was echoed in part by Mrs May’s 2017 election slogan ‘Security, Stability, Opportunity’)
Wyndham Lewis wanted to take art into the city and leave the studio - at least in theory. In his collection of essays The Caliph’s Design (1919), Lewis said “I should like to see the entire city rebuilt on a more conscious pattern… the first great modern building that arose in this city would soon carry everything before it, and hand in hand with the engineer, and his new problems, by force of circumstances, create modern ones… We know that all our efforts indicate a desire to perfect and continue to create, to order, regulate, disinfect and stabilise our life.”
Lewis was very suspicious of the then current codes of social engineering. The Caliph’s Design, only recently reissued, has essays on modern art, the political aspects of art, architecture, futurism, French realism, Cezanne, Matisse, Derain, Picasso, and Raphael.
Brave New World predicts an insectoidal future. In Chapter Five, Huxley describes how ‘an incessant bagging of helicopters filled the twilight’. In Chapter Four, we are told that: “…like aphicles and ants, the leafgreen Gamma girls, the black Semi-Morons, swarmed round the entrances…”
Orwell sent a copy of 1984 to Aldous Huxley in 1949, the year before his (Orwell’s) death. In his letter of thanks, Huxley expansively said: “There may be a large-scale biological or atomic war - in which case we shall still have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds”. This was hardly a surprising comment after the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945 that changed the entire future parameters of war between nations.
Huxley went on: “I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude ,as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
Copyright 2019 Dr Robert E Blackburn, BRLSI Convenor for Literature and Humanities, with some additional material, and Dr Nathan Waddell, based on notes taken at Dr Waddell’s talk, on 16 September 2019