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Phoebus, or the Future of Prophecy

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

Quo Vadimus? Some Glimpses of the Future.
By E. E. Fournier d’Albe, D. Sc., F. Inst. P. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Hephcestus, or the Soul of the Machine. By E. E. Fournier d’Albe. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Ouroboros, or the Mechanical Extension of Mankind. By Garet Garrett. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Lycurgus, or the Future of Law. By E. S. P. Haynes. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Pygmalion, or the Doctor of the Future. By R. W. Wilson, M.B., Ch.B. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Thamyris, or Is There a Future for Poetry? By R. C. Trevelyan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Proteus, or the Future of Intelligence. By Vernon Lee, Litt.D. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

Thrasymachus, or the Future of Morals. By C. E. M. Joad. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $1.00.

It is clear that we stand at the threshold of a new era. The world has never suffered from a dearth of soothsayers, but the vaticinations of our modern magi find ears more than usually attentive. The interest in the past which the thirteenth century displayed made way in the nineteenth for science, with its absorption in the present; and this in turn is now giving place to a world in which only the future will offer problems worthy the attention of serious scholars. The merely up-to-date is hopelessly démodé. Hence my title.

When the first members of Dutton’s “Today and Tomorrow” Series appeared, the choice of titles appeared peculiarly happy. I now see why. I knew all about Daedalus and Icarus, and my vanity was pleasantly titillated by this consciousness of a Sound Classical Culture. This illusion has been sadly dispelled by some of the later arrivals. I was driven to Bulfinch, and I see now that the apparently long list of titles already published is but a tiny fraction of the possible number. There is of course some advantage in these ancient names in that the members of the series are marked off clearly from the general run of books, just as one can tell a White Star liner from a Cunarder by the name. The disadvantage is that it is hard to remember which is which. This perhaps from a publisher’s standpoint is unimportant. He would just as soon sell a copy of Jason, or the Future of Diplomacy as of Photon, or the Future of the Automobile. If in doubt, buy both. It is really rather a pity that the series includes a few titles which break all the rules. Surely it must be possible to find a classical equivalent for “Wireless Possibilities” or “The Conquest of Cancer.”

It was hardly to be expected that the newcomers should all reach the high level of “Daedalus” and “Icarus”. This partly because of a difference in the interest of the individual subjects, but also in part because of the manner in which the author conceives his task. At one extreme we see him attempting to cover too much ground; at the other, we find him limiting himself strictly to possibilities, which are always rather prosaic. The most successful members of the series are those in which the author sets himself a fairly limited subject, but within that limit gives his imagination free rein. After all, our interest in these future worlds is not measured by our belief or disbelief, it is an interest in the various men whom they attract or frighten.

To begin with a horrible example. In “Quo Vadimus” Dr. Fournier d’Albe attempts the impossible. He has no subject except the Future with a very large capital F. The description on the jacket tells us that “Interesting sections deal with Transport and Communication, Privacy, Clothing, Children and their Breeding, Education, Labour and Work, Government, etc.” All this, including the et cetera, within the compass of ninety-one small pages. He passes easily from household hints on the proper teaching of history to children to a solution of the labor question, or a casual glimpse into society in the year 2,000,000. And he is withal so cheery, so sure of human progress as to depress the most buoyant reader. In “Hephaestus” he shows to better advantage because he sticks to a text, but even here his cheerfulness passes the limits of good breeding. Still if one has not read “Quo Vadimus,” he may find “Hephaestus” fairly enjoyable. It is a sort of rhapsody in which the writer foresees an almost indefinite extension of machinery and glories in the prospect. The treatment is not untouched with imagination; the idea of a machine as a creature to whom man gives a soul, though not new, is creditably handled. And I confess to some sympathy with the author’s enthusiasm; like him I can “heartily sympathize with the child who adores a locomotive engine.” But what are we to think of a grown man who can write, “If we are not happier than our ancestors, the fault lies in ourselves, in our ingratitude and lack of imagination”? The nearest parallel to this is in Stevenson:

The child that is not clean and neat,
With lots of toys and things to eat,
He is a naughty child, I’m sure—
Or else his dear papa is poor.

The publishers tell us that “Ouroboros” should be read along with “Hephaestus”. This is good advice though the sequence is rather hard upon “Hephaestus”. Mr. Garet Garrett’s mind bites like acid through that surface over which our mechanical and industrial optimist slides so easily. In “Ouroboros” we find again a volume worthy of a place beside “Daedalus”; indeed I am not sure that it is not to he ranked first among all of this series that I have read. Certainly he carries conviction in greater measure than any of the others. He handles his theme sanely and with penetration. In a delightful first chapter he describes “the quest since Adam,” a quest for a world free from toil:

Until four hundred years ago the Europeans believed that somewhere in the world was a fabulous land whose inhabitants lived as in dreams, eating and drinking from golden vessels, wearing priceless jewels like common beads, sated with ease and luxury. King, courts, astronomers, and navigators believed this. The vulgar fancy was for a place such as Cockaigne of the medieval ballads where all features of the landscape were good to eat or drink and nobody ever was obliged to work. In quest of this mythical region the pioneer feats of circumnavigation were performed.

  ·  ·  ·  ·

The earth was explored. It was found to be round and full of labor. This, of course, was a terrible disappointment.

And then began the scientific era and man’s discovery that he could make machines work for him. The growth of our modern industrial civilization is sketched with masterly strokes, but unlike the author of “Hephaestus” Mr. Garrett sees only too clearly the frustration of the desire which called machines into being—the multiplication of hungry mouths instead of the reduction of physical effort. Comfort grew and man’s material possessions grew but this growth depended on his ability to sell the products of his machine to the less fortunate tillers of the soil. Today the agricultural peoples of the earth are disappearing; all the nations which formerly contributed the food supply of the world are embarking on a career of manufacturing and before long must face the prospect of having to live by taking in one another’s washing, like Mr. Andrew Lang’s inhabitants of the Scilly Islands. “God created man upright, but he hath sought out many inventions.” He has made a world in which he cannot live without machines, but they have escaped from his control and he faces the question of how to live with them. To this problem Mr. Garrett offers us no easy optimistic solution. Man will learn of course as he has learned in the past, not by taking advice but by passing through the fire. “Ouroboros” is bitter brew but it is a tonic bitterness in which we may draw hope from the simple fact that man can at least look honestly on his handiwork.

“Lycurgus” is disappointing. Doubtless Mr. Haynes knows the law, but this knowledge shackles his imagination. What I should like to see is a picture of a lawyer’s Utopia. Surely some of them must have Utopias. Not Mr. Haynes; he keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground of fact, and gives a sober realistic account of such topics as the specialization of courts, or probable changes in divorce laws. We in America moreover are so deluged with legislation that the changes which the Englishman regards as far-reaching seem a little tame. It only goes to show that in spite of Mr. Haynes’ prefatory emphasis on the thesis that lawyers are fundamentally progressive, his own book belies this contention. No doubt they wish to progress, but they lack that exuberant fertility of imagination which is displayed here by legislators, church conventions, and prohibitionists. Do not misunderstand me; my criticism is not of lawyers as such but of their qualifications as prophets, a business in which to be wrong is a venial offense, to be prosaic the worst of crimes.

After law, medicine. Why Dr. Wilson pre-empted the title which belongs to the yet unborn work on the future of sculpture is hard to see, but let that pass. “Pygmalion” suffers from a more serious fault, it is an exposition of a pet theory. So far as I know, this theory has not received a special name. Stated briefly (perhaps too briefly) it asserts that “symptoms are signs not of reaction to disease, but of altered reaction to life, occasioned by the presence of disease—a very different matter.” The author’s exposition of this thesis is interesting, but not convincing. Thus he cites a case in which severe gastric symptoms, which defied diagnosis, were finally relieved by an oculist who prescribed proper glasses. But by suitably selecting one’s cases any doctrine can be proved. Moreover, Dr. Wilson’s doctrine seems to take a step backward, in that disease is considered as something superadded to life, instead of as life under altered conditions. It is hard to believe that any doctor since Hippocrates, and certainly since John Hunter, has not been aware that symptoms have more than local significance. The history of medicine is full of warnings however of the danger of erecting one principle into a complete philosophy of practice.

But there is another point in which “Pygmalion” shows an inadequate grasp of reality, a point upon which a layman has more right to criticize. His doctrine may after all be right, but when he draws a picture of the doctor of the future supernaturally wise—”a humanist, a man with the widest possible knowledge of human nature, and the deepest possible understanding of human motives . . . a cultured man, ripe in intellectual attainments, but not lacking in emotional sympathy, a lover of the arts as well as a student of the sciences,”—one naturally asks whence will arise this new breed in numbers sufficient for man’s needs? Whatever tools the doctor of the future may have at his disposal, of one thing we may be sure. The average doctor will be an average educated man, and Sydenhams, Hunters, and Osiers will still be as rare and God-given as they have always been.

“Thamyris,” like “Lycurgus,” suffers from being too narrowly conceived. Mr. Trevelyan’s discussion starts with an interesting account of the progression (or degeneration) of poetry from the songs or chants of early times down through the various forms of spoken verse to the latest kind of vers libre which seems written for the eye alone. But here Mr. Trevelyan makes it clear that he at least thinks we are in a blind alley. “. . . poets themselves, when, as they often do, they write more for the eye and for the mind than for the ear, are not writing literature at all, let alone poetry.”

Here we have the reason for the interrogative form of Mr. Trevelyan’s subtitle. “Alas, poor Yorick”. This elegiac mood, however, is unbecoming a true prophet. All that Mr. Trevelyan is willing to call poetry, or even literature, must be cast in some ancient form revamped. It is the bottle that makes the wine. Now I hold no brief for the innovators. A good portion of their work is to me meaningless, but I insist first that the prophet should hold such a brief, and second, that change of form is only an incident in the history of poetry. “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, And every single one of them is right!” Any growing thing will from time to time burst through our definitions. The only formula I can find which is inclusive enough would define poetry as the art of meaning more than is said. Whether this meaning is conveyed by audible sounds, or whether our poets “pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone” is unimportant. Our present generation is, in the slang of the psychologists, eye-minded and must be reached by a form of expression in which a visible aura takes the place of overtones. And yet there are signs of a return to the older state of things which should afford a gleam of hope even to Mr. Trevelyan. The phonograph and the radio are literally opening the ears of the multitude. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to hear Mr. Vachel Lindsay must realize that his poems should never have been entrusted to dumb type, but instead recorded on the phonograph. If some tradition of the future should tell of a Homer of the twentieth century he would be represented as deaf, not blind, but mayhap the twenty-first will see a return to old ways.

Vernon Lee is the pen name of Miss Violet Paget, well known as a writer on aesthetics. “Proteus” purports to deal with the future of Intelligence, but the author is quite explicit in saying that she does not mean by Intelligence what one usually means. Unfortunately she is not equally definite as to what she does mean. After trying to follow her for some pages and to build up an idea as to what Intelligence is from a series of statements as to what it is not, the reader is beginning to think that the title at least is suitably chosen when he is again thrown down. “But here again I must forestall another wrong identification likely to jump into the reader’s mind: to wit, of Proteus with Intelligence. On the contrary: Proteus, multiform and ever-elusive, represents that which Intelligence (lighter equipped than specialized Intellect for such rapid hunts) can sometimes catch sight of and, for however brief a contact, sometimes even clutch. Proteus, in my mythology, is the mysterious whole which we know must exist, but know not how to describe: Reality.”

But this appears to be a distinction without a difference, for clearly it takes a Proteus to catch a Proteus, and, I fear, still another to catch the catcher. We are told moreover that this Intelligence is a modern thing. The Greeks knew it not. “The people of the past, superior though they may have been in genius, wit, humour, and even wisdom, would have struck us as decidedly stupid.” I must confess, after reading “Proteus,” to feeling more at home among these stupid folk than among the Intelligent. Some other reader may fare better, but “Proteus” is destined to a place in my library alongside its more famous predecessor. I mean “The Hunting of the Snark.”

To finish the meal with a bonne bouche, I have saved “Thrasymachus” to the last. After all, morals are our first concern. The question most frequently asked of the prophet is “what is the world coming to?” and it is always prompted by the sight of some human shortcoming. Mr. Joad’s book is among the very best of the series. Many will doubtless find it repellant; surgical operations are pleasant to witness only after one is used to them, and the skill of the operator is not appreciated by those who grow queasy at the sight of blood. Mr. Joad wields his knife with uncanny skill. He lays bare, sometimes at a single stroke, all those unpleasant viscera which we know are inside us but which really nice people do not like to talk or think about. For example: “Thus we have the majestic impartiality of the modern law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep in doorways.” By morals Mr. Joad means not a standard of positive personal ethics, but that code of prohibitions which we attempt to enforce on others, which, as he makes clear, is generally framed so as to cause the least possible inconvenience to the enforcer. The passage dealing with the part played by the old gives a good idea of his point of view:

A mistake which all societies have made is to entrust the management of their affairs to the old. Old men are naturally more vindictive, bad-tempered, malevolent, and narrow-minded than young ones. They are easily provoked to disapproval, and dislike more things than they like. Having for the most part lived their own lives, they have nothing left to do but to interfere in the lives of others. They form the governments, misrepresent the people whom they oppress, preach to the people whom they exploit, and teach the people whom they deceive. They mete out rewards and punishments, sentence criminals to death, direct businesses, make laws which they have no temptation to disobey and wars in which they do not propose to fight.

And the future? Some of those who read Mr. Joad’s forecast will perhaps conclude that according to him morals have no future but only a past. He foresees indeed an increase in the attempt to regulate personal conduct, both by legislation and by social ostracism, but he thinks this attempt foredoomed to failure, particularly in the sphere of sex morality because of woman’s growing economic independence and the spread of birth-control. Moral penalties will cease to be effective when the physical penalty is removed, because as society is at present constituted, the standard which the strong seek to impose is essentially hypocritical, a standard imposed on the found-out by the not-found-out.

The reader will be reminded at times of Samuel Butler, but Mr. Joad differs from Samuel Butler, for he is not fundamentally cynical. He is a surgeon, not a torturer, and at the end of the operation he applies the dressings:

In a new and positive morality in which men can believe lies the hope of the world; yet such a morality cannot come without a revival of religion. Religion and religion alone gives the driving force which impels men to change things, and until a religious attitude to the world again becomes part of man’s common heritage, all the apparent changes in morality, of which different ages and countries are the witnesses will fail to disguise the fundamental fact that there is no morality to change.


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