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Mantles of Elijah


ISSUE:  Summer 1925

I

Daedalus, or Science and the Future. By J. B. S. Haldane. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Icarus, or the Future of Science. By Bertrand Russell, F. R. S. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Tantalus, or the Future of Man. By F. C. S. Schiller. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

It is a commonplace among critics that the collaboration of authors is rarely successful. It is all the more remarkable therefore to find three essays by different authors forming the parts of a completed trilogy, achieving a unity which intention could not have bettered. These three delightful little books give us nevertheless such a trilogy. Prophecy is the order of the day; let us therefore look at them through the eyes of some student of Ancient English of the year 3000, who finds them in a single volume with no marks of their authorship. He sees this volume as the work of some unknown writer who brings on the stage in turn three imaginary characters, Daedalus, Icarus, and Tantalus. There is an added advantage in this mode of approach, for whereas in dealing with the separate books we are apt to direct our attention to the substance of the prophecies, and to argue, so to speak, with their authors, the study of the trilogy will be concerned rather with the characters which the prophecies reveal. It is a curious fact that critics will concern themselves much more with the character of an imaginary person like Hamlet than with that of a real author; and yet if William James be right in his contention that the essential thing in criticism is to reach a writer’s center of vision from which all details fall into their proper perspective, the human traits which these three books reveal should be our first concern.

By way of apology to those readers who seek in a review some account of the contents of a book, and who look to the reviewer to discern the position of his thumb, let me remark that their popularity is sufficiently attested by the numerous printings, and that praise or detailed description were equally belated. This point settled, we return to our three characters; but before the curtain rises we may pause to note how the unity of our trilogy is maintained in the exquisite felicity of the three names. Not only does each seem happily inevitable, but by their flavor of antiquity they impart a sense of the age-old nature of the problem which is put before us.

The stage is now set for the first act. Enter Daedalus, an experimenter and discoverer of the laws of nature. All his life has been spent in doing things in order to see what will happen. He is not however a man of action in the ordinary sense, for he lives not in a world of clashing wills, but in a laboratory in which his desires are achieved without human opposition. He says unto his servant, “Do this,” and he doeth it; and life is a succession of enchanting experiments, the outcome of which is not nearly so important as the privilege of watching them. The world of nature with which he deals yields not to passion but to intelligence. When the spirit of prophecy moves such a man he sees the world as a laboratory; on a grand scale perhaps, but none the less a laboratory. He raises briefly the question whether these experiments which he foresees will not prove destructive to man, their performer; but though he admits the danger he is not really disquieted, because he feels in his heart that whatever the result it will be great fun to try them. He begins with a prophecy of the future of physics. This is rather perfunctory, as his heart is elsewhere. When, however, he comes to physiology, the afflatus moves him more strongly, even exuberantly, and he presents a novel and titillating picture of a society which has learned to apply the discoveries of the physiologist. The ectogenetic baby is a theme well fitted to stir the imagination, and he deals with it in a delicious mixture of jest and earnest. Instead of the picture which he draws, in which the administration of ectogenesis is taken over by the state, and thus becomes the center of political disputes, we might imagine a variant in which the exploitation is left to private enterprise. Instead of “Vote for Smith and a prehensile tail” we would then have “Buy your babies from Brown” or “If you have not seen our 1976 model, you have never seen a real baby.” But let us not be drawn too far afield by such fancies. The keynote of the prophecy is one of almost gleeful anticipation of the miracles which science will work. The voice of Dsedalus is the voice of youth, and it still rings joyously in our ears as he makes his exit.

Enter now Icarus. He began life as a mathematician, sharpening thereby the blade of his logic to an exquisite keenness. Had his entire life been spent thus we should have had from him a different prophecy. His crystal ball would then reveal an age of reason, where passion has been deposed, and where the clearest intellect has in all disputes the deciding voice. Instead of this he has been thrust out from the cloister into the world of average men, and has come to realize not without bitterness, the gulf that lies between the persuading of men’s reason and the influencing of their actions. This note of disheartenment runs through his prophecy. He sees in science the agent which will ultimately destroy the civilization it has created; the vast power which it unlocks will become the minister of the selfish or the plaything of fools. There is a sombre intensity in the bitterness of the close: “Man’s collective passions are mainly evil . . . all that gives men power to indulge their collective passions is bad.” Exit Icarus.

A peal of thunder is now heard, and Tantalus appears, seated in his chariot, in a cloud. I borrow this mode of entry from the Greek tragedians, as obviously becoming the dignity of the philosopher, who now arrives to sum up the disputed questions, to give his verdict, and to pronounce, as it were, the epilogue. Which is right, O Divine Philosophy? we ask— but we know already her reply: “Both—and neither.” What other answer has she ever given? Man never wholly succeeds nor fails utterly. He attains the goal of his endeavors only to find that the summit toward which he has been climbing seems when reached to be a sort of valley; he flees from beasts which overtake him in his terror, and they lick his hands. He is the plaything of the gods; of what use, then, to struggle or to care overmuch? Hope and fear are twin phantoms, shadows of ourselves which will lead us but from one nowhere to another.

A Moment’s Halt—a momentary taste
Of being from the Well amid the Waste—
And Lo!—the phantom Caravan has reach’d
The Nothing it set out from—Oh, make haste!

As in the falling close of a Greek tragedy, the voices of the contestants sound faintly and from far off as Philosophy pronounces the epilogue . . . “history . . . seems to show that something worse and something better than what actually happens is always conceivable, and that neither our hopes nor our fears are ever fully realized.” Yes, to understand aright what has been accomplished in these three essays we must ourselves scan the scroll of Prophecy and read thereon the words of the future historian of literature: “The unknown author of this trilogy deals with the eternal problem of humanity. The characters of the two contestants, Daedalus and Icarus, are finely conceived and faithfully delineated, and the struggle between them is resolved in the last part by Tantalus, who, speaking with the voice of Philosophy, leads us back to where we began. Some critics have held that the three parts were written by different authors, but the obvious unity of the whole work makes this view untenable.”

In the words of the immortal Euclid: “The whole is greater than any of its parts.”

II

Callinicus, a Defence of Chemical Warfare. By J. B. S. Haldane. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

A Year of Prophesying. By H. G. Wells. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00.

For many readers the interest of “Callinicus” will lie primarily in the new information which it gives them. The right of Professor Haldane to speak authoritatively on his subject is unquestioned; that he speaks persuasively is assured by his other works; while the facts which he adduces to support his thesis, surprising as they may be to most readers, make his argument convincing. This thesis is that the use of poison gas will make warfare not more barbarous, but more humane. That only three percent of those disabled by mustard gas are killed or rendered permanently unfit, as against one in every three for high explosives, is of itself a sufficient answer to all those who oppose its use on humanitarian :>unds. The questions which this book discusses are at tins very moment agitating the councils of Geneva, and it should be read by all who wish to possess an informed opinion on the subject.

But there are those in this world who shy away from everything labelled Information; people to whom the Duties of Citizenship, and the Understanding of International Questions seem of less importance than that process of self-integration which we call culture. These too will find in “Callinicus” much to reward them. There is wit; there are delightfni little vignettes of the author’s war experiences; there is genial, but none the less biting irony, as in his comment on “Bayardism.” The Chevalier Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche, was the soul of courtesy to captured knights and even bowmen, but put to death all musketeers or other users of gunpowder who fell into his hands. The professional soldier’s opposition to gas is seen as a parallel to this attitude. He objects, not because of its cruelty, but because by its very novelty it outrages the traditions of his guild. With the Bayardists are allied those sentimentalists, whose god, he says, has compromised with high explosives, but has not yet found time to adapt himself to chemical warfare.

Once again, we find the chief interest of “Callinicus” in its revelation of the writer. He is intensely individual, but he is also one of a genus that has been little studied and is little understood by our generation. The novelist has rarely, if ever, produced a credible imitation of a scientist. The historian considers him as an impersonal force of nature, like the climate; or as a source, like Stevenson’s Friendly Cow, giving us “with all his might” new discoveries to eat with our politics and our literature. Lacking the artist’s egoism, he himself is rarely articulate concerning his inner life. He is least revealed in his proper work, and we seldom catch him outside it. We may learn much about chemical warfare from Professor Haldane’s facts; we learn more about him from his vigorous expressions of dislike, or from his choice of analogies—”War will be prevented only by a scientific study of its causes, such as has prevented most epidemic diseases.” “Callinicus” deserves wide reading.

To consider H. G. Wells with the writers of “Dædalus,” “Icarus,” and “Tantalus,” is to place a professional among amateurs. He is, in fact, our foremost professional prophet; he holds the championship in the long, short, and middle distances. As Mr. Haldane says in “Dædalus,” “The very mention of the future suggests him.” In “A Year of Prophesying” we are made aware of the superior endurance of the professional. Fifty-five separate prophecies, within a year, is a record not likely soon to be surpassed. He does not have to wait, like the amateur, for his inspiration. No such nonsense about him; he can turn the afflatus off and on like a water tap; he delivers his wares rain or shine. It need not surprise us therefore to find these essays of very uneven merit. Isaiah himself would have weakened if sweated in this way, and would have tried his hand at optimism. It is as much as we can expect to find a few of them in his best manner. I like particularly, for instance, the article on the Singapore Arsenal, with its description of the First Lord of the Admiralty. “He is a pleasantly smiling, short, thickset lad of fifteen. He was born in 1873, but in 1889 when he should have become sixteen, he was living the life of an exceptionally clever boy at Harrow, and somehow just became fifteen again, and he has remained fifteen ever since.” The article on The Creative Passion has the restraint and suggestiveness of an etching. But it is impossible to give any adequate account of the fifty-five topics. In their choice we see the superiority of the professional’s prophetic technique. Mr. Wells has learned from the great models of the Old Testament that what the prophet predicts is of far less consequence than the alarm, the indignation, or the sadness with which he manages to impart his prediction. For prophecy of this sort the League of Nations, Race Conflict, or Mr. Lloyd George are subjects affording much more scope than ectogenesis or chemical warfare. He does not quite achieve to the grand manner of his masters, but perhaps that sort of thing is rather out of fashion.

There remains the question why he has republished his entire year’s work, for it is obvious that the book would be much improved by the omission of some of the articles. In closing, he thus sums up his own estimate of their merit. “Some I like; most seem to be saying something quite acceptable to me, but imperfectly in a rather ill-fitting form; some are just bad.” Can it be that Mr. Wells thinks so highly of even his bad work that he is unwilling to let it die? It is a horrible suspicion, and we turn to an alternative explanation. It must be that he is proud of his achievement as a monument of his prophetic stamina—his “wind” so to speak. That must be the reason.

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