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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The End Of The World–The Chilling Visions Of H.G.Wells and T.S.Eliot

The Time Machine, written by H.G. Wells in 1895, is the account of scientist who travels into the future. The book is part science fiction, part social commentary, and part philosophy. Most critics have focused on the dystopian society the Time Traveler visits. There the Eloi, a simple, delicate, sylph-like people live in a Garden of Eden and are seemingly without care, curiosity, or concern.  Soon enough he finds out that this idyllic world is nothing of the sort, for the Morlocks, ape-like troglodytes who live underground, operate the machinery that make life on the surface possible, but come to the surface at night to feed on the Eloi, their only source of food.

The Time Machine


The Time Traveler concludes that in their pursuit of ease and pleasure the Eloi have lost the intelligence, fitness, and spirit that characterized humanity for millennia and have become only listless, weak and sybaritic prey for the Morlocks who, separated by class and capital, marginalized, and virtually enslaved, regressed to a primitive, proto-human state.  He is shocked and surprised:

You see, I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, and everything. Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children – asked me, in fact, if I had come from the sun in a thunderstorm!….

'he great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general cooperation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion, the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man.

He is captured by the Morlocks and escapes; but before he begins his journey back in time, he needs to know how the story turns out – what happens to humanity and the world.  This time he travels millions of years into the future, until finally he stops in a silent, dark, cold, and desolate world.

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

Saeed and Sharif of Salahaddin University comment on this final, chilling vision in which Wells admits his error in assuming that humanity progresses towards an inevitable ideal.  To the contrary, life is nothing but chaos which must end in entropy and without meaning:

With the Time Traveller's journey into the decaying, dying future, Wells suggests that entropy, the gradual dissipation of energy within an increasingly chaotic system, will be the fate of the universe. It makes sense that Wells would believe this, since entropy seems at odds with evolution - evolution implies that life becomes more complex and fitter with time, whereas entropy leads to chaos and death. As he has already shown with the Eloi and Morlocks, evolution leads to dystopian imperfection, not utopian perfection (The Socio-cosmological Dystopia in The Time Machine)

The Time Traveler has found his answer.  Only one other writer has written so chillingly of the end of humanity – T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men (final fifteen lines):

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

Image result for images t.s. eliot the hollow men


David Spurr of the University of Illinois at Urbana comments on these final verses; and the similarity to the bleak, chilling vision of Wells is clear :

The Hollow Men explores this boundary situation in its images of finality or extremity and in a thematic structure comprising two different states of being. The poem's speaker anticipates with dread "that final meeting"; the men grope together "In this last of meeting places"; the final section, in its generalized abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that "This is the way the world ends." The Dantescan image of the lost souls "Gathered on this beach of the tumid river" belongs to a boundary motif that recurs throughout Eliot's poetry: Prufrock escapes from the world of skirts and teacups to the world of visionary imagination via a "walk upon the beach."

The protagonist of The Waste Land sits down and weeps "By the waters of Leman," then upon the shore "with the arid plain behind me." The sea of The Dry Salvages "is the land's edge also." The persona of The Hollow Men has arrived, intellectually and imagistically, at the outer limit of one world only to find that its ''deliberate disguises" conceal a finite lack of possibility: between the potency and existence "Falls the Shadow." (From Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984)

The end of the world! But not as Revelations or modern-day secular doomsday-sayers prophesy. 

Image result for images dürer four horsemen of the apocalypse 1498


In the view of Wells, the world will end as it started.  The millions of intervening years of human history are insignificant and meaningless.  Could Shakespeare have been more right?

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Macbeth)

Image result for images macbeth 19th century


The Time Traveler listens to ‘the last syllable of recorded time’, but it is ‘a breeze rising to a moaning wind’. 

Eliot’s world doesn’t end in entropy or in Armageddon, but with ‘a finite lack of possibility’. The Hollow Men ends long before the entropy of Wells; but is as chilling because the poet understands the tragedy of human beings plodding blindly through a meaningless world without knowing it.

The ending of The Time Machine is so chilling because it is so bleak. No nuclear holocaust, no post-apocalyptic nightmares of savagery and pillage until the earth is not sustainable, no billion-ton meteor causing total catastrophe, no nothing.

We have all been brought up on apocalyptic endings.  If the universe was created in one stupendous explosion, then it should end in the same way. Not so, says Wells.  The end will come slowly, gradually, but absolutely.  In Wells’ vision there are none of Eliot’s existential conundrums, and especially no tragedy. At least there should be some drama, we think, to our end? At least Cleopatra’s catafalque, great armies clashing on a field of battle, heroes falling on their swords.  Bravery, stalwart defiance.  Something other than a cold, desolate, dark water’s edge.

Image result for images armageddon


“Hell is other people”, wrote Sartre in No Exit; and his pessimistic vision matched that of Eliot.  If life weren’t bad enough – a predictable rumble through a meaningless world – we have to endure it with idiots. Wells’ vision is far more frightening because wouldn’t we always rather live with other people around rather than die on an empty, desolate shore? There is not a scintilla of hope in The Time Machine.  At least in The Hollow Men, and even though Eliot writes convincingly of his own bleak shore, there is at least some hope that men will see again.  Shadows, after all, are cast, not permanent.

Image result for images sartre no exit


Tolstoy offers at least some consolation. Nihilism provides intellectual cover if not repose for the existential worrywart. Life is meaningless, so what? he says.  It is the natural order of things, so make the best of it. Anna, Levin, Andrei, and Pierre certainly did.


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