A Modern Utopia H. G. Wells 1905
As I walk back along the river terrace to the hotel where the botanist awaits me, and observe the Utopians I encounter, I have no thought that my tenure of Utopia becomes every moment more precarious. There float in my mind vague anticipations of more talks with my double and still more, of a steady elaboration of detail, of interesting journeys of exploration. I forget that a Utopia is a thing of the imagination that becomes more fragile with every added circumstance, that, like a soap-bubble, it is most brilliantly and variously coloured at the very instant of its dissolution. This Utopia is nearly done. All the broad lines of its social organisation are completed now, the discussion of all its general difficulties and problems. Utopian individuals pass me by, fine buildings tower on either hand; it does not occur to me that I may look too closely. To find the people assuming the concrete and individual, is not, as I fondly imagine, the last triumph of realisation, but the swimming moment of opacity before the film gives way. To come to individual emotional cases, is to return to the earth.
I find the botanist sitting at a table in the hotel courtyard.
“Well?” I say, standing before him.
“I’ve been in the gardens on the river terrace,” he answers, “hoping I might see her again.”
“Nothing better to do?”
“Nothing in the world.”
“You’ll have your double back from India to-morrow. Then you’ll have conversation.”
“I don’t want it,” he replies, compactly.
I shrug my shoulders, and he adds, “At least with him.”
I let myself down into a seat beside him.
For a time I sit restfully enjoying his companionable silence, and thinking fragmentarily of those samurai and their Rules. I entertain something of the satisfaction of a man who has finished building a bridge; I feel that I have joined together things that I had never joined before. My Utopia seems real to me, very real, I can believe in it, until the metal chair-back gives to my shoulder blades, and Utopian sparrows twitter and hop before my feet. I have a pleasant moment of unhesitating self-satisfaction; I feel a shameless exultation to be there. For a moment I forget the consideration the botanist demands; the mere pleasure of completeness, of holding and controlling all the threads possesses me.
“You will persist in believing,” I say, with an aggressive expository note, “that if you meet this lady she will be a person with the memories and sentiments of her double on earth. You think she will understand and pity, and perhaps love you. Nothing of the sort is the case.” I repeat with confident rudeness, “Nothing of the sort is the case. Things are different altogether here; you can hardly tell even now how different are——”
I discover he is not listening to me.
“What is the matter?” I ask abruptly.
He makes no answer, but his expression startles me.
“What is the matter?” and then I follow his eyes.
A woman and a man are coming through the great archway—and instantly I guess what has happened. She it is arrests my attention first—long ago I knew she was a sweetly beautiful woman. She is fair, with frank blue eyes, that look with a sort of tender receptivity into her companion’s face. For a moment or so they remain, greyish figures in the cool shadow, against the sunlit greenery of the gardens beyond.
“It is Mary,” the botanist whispers with white lips, but he stares at the form of the man. His face whitens, it becomes so transfigured with emotion that for a moment it does not look weak. Then I see that his thin hand is clenched.
I realise how little I understand his emotions.
A sudden fear of what he will do takes hold of me. He sits white and tense as the two come into the clearer light of the courtyard. The man, I see, is one of the samurai, a dark, strong-faced man, a man I have never seen before, and she is wearing the robe that shows her a follower of the Lesser Rule.
Some glimmering of the botanist’s feelings strikes through to my slow sympathies. Of course—a strange man! I put out a restraining hand towards his arm. “I told you,” I say, “that very probably, most probably, she would have met some other. I tried to prepare you.”
“Nonsense,” he whispers, without looking at me. “It isn’t that. It’s—that scoundrel——”
He has an impulse to rise. “That scoundrel,” he repeats.
“He isn’t a scoundrel,” I say. “How do you know? Keep still! Why are you standing up?”
He and I stand up quickly, I as soon as he. But now the full meaning of the group has reached me. I grip his arm. “Be sensible,” I say, speaking very quickly, and with my back to the approaching couple. “He’s not a scoundrel here. This world is different from that. It’s caught his pride somehow and made a man of him. Whatever troubled them there——”
He turns a face of white wrath on me, of accusation, and for the moment of unexpected force. “This is your doing,” he says. “You have done this to mock me. He—of all men!” For a moment speech fails him, then; “You—you have done this to mock me.”
I try to explain very quickly. My tone is almost propitiatory.
“I never thought of it until now. But he’s—— How did I know he was the sort of man a disciplined world has a use for?”
He makes no answer, but he looks at me with eyes that are positively baleful, and in the instant I read his mute but mulish resolve that Utopia must end.
“Don’t let that old quarrel poison all this,” I say almost entreatingly. “It happened all differently here—everything is different here. Your double will be back to-morrow. Wait for him. Perhaps then you will understand——”
He shakes his head, and then bursts out with, “What do I want with a double? Double! What do I care if things have been different here? This——”
He thrusts me weakly back with his long, white hand. “My God!” he says almost forcibly, “what nonsense all this is! All these dreams! All Utopias! There she is——! Oh, but I have dreamt of her! And now——”
A sob catches him. I am really frightened by this time. I still try to keep between him and these Utopians, and to hide his gestures from them.
“It’s different here,” I persist. “It’s different here. The emotion you feel has no place in it. It’s a scar from the earth—the sore scar of your past——”
“And what are we all but scars? What is life but a scarring? It’s you—you who don’t understand! Of course we are covered with scars, we live to be scarred, we are scars! We are the scars of the past! These dreams, these childish dreams——!”
He does not need to finish his sentence, he waves an unteachable destructive arm.
My Utopia rocks about me.
For a moment the vision of that great courtyard hangs real. There the Utopians live real about me, going to and fro, and the great archway blazes with sunlight from the green gardens by the riverside. The man who is one of the samurai, and his lady, whom the botanist loved on earth, pass out of sight behind the marble flower-set Triton that spouts coolness in the middle of the place. For a moment I see two working men in green tunics sitting on a marble seat in the shadow of the colonnade, and a sweet little silver-haired old lady, clad all in violet, and carrying a book, comes towards us, and lifts a curious eye at the botanist’s gestures. And then——
“Scars of the past! Scars of the past! These fanciful, useless dreams!”
There is no jerk, no sound, no hint of material shock. We are in London, and clothed in the fashion of the town. The sullen roar of London fills our ears....
I see that I am standing beside an iron seat of poor design in that grey and gawky waste of asphalte—Trafalgar Square, and the botanist, with perplexity in his face, stares from me to a poor, shrivelled, dirt-lined old woman—my God! what a neglected thing she is!—who proffers a box of matches....
He buys almost mechanically, and turns back to me.
“I was saying,” he says, “the past rules us absolutely. These dreams——”
His sentence does not complete itself. He looks nervous and irritated.
“You have a trick at times,” he says instead, “of making your suggestions so vivid——”
He takes a plunge. “If you don’t mind,” he says in a sort of quavering ultimatum, “we won’t discuss that aspect of the question—the lady, I mean—further.”
He pauses, and there still hangs a faint perplexity between us.
“But——” I begin.
For a moment we stand there, and my dream of Utopia runs off me like water from an oiled slab. Of course—we lunched at our club. We came back from Switzerland by no dream train but by the ordinary Bale express. We have been talking of that Lucerne woman he harps upon, and I have made some novel comment on his story. I have touched certain possibilities.
“You can’t conceivably understand,” he says.
“The fact remains,” he goes on, taking up the thread of his argument again with an air of having defined our field, “we are the scars of the past. That’s a thing one can discuss—without personalities.”
“No,” I say rather stupidly, “no.”
“You are always talking as though you could kick the past to pieces; as though one could get right out from oneself and begin afresh. It is your weakness—if you don’t mind my being frank—it makes you seem harsh and dogmatic. Life has gone easily for you; you have never been badly tried. You have been lucky—you do not understand the other way about. You are—hard.”
I answer nothing.
He pants for breath. I perceive that in our discussion of his case I must have gone too far, and that he has rebelled. Clearly I must have said something wounding about that ineffectual love story of his.
“You don’t allow for my position,” he says, and it occurs to me to say, “I’m obliged to look at the thing from my own point of view....”
One or other of us makes a move. What a lot of filthy, torn paper is scattered about the world! We walk slowly side by side towards the dirt-littered basin of the fountain, and stand regarding two grimy tramps who sit and argue on a further seat. One holds a horrible old boot in his hand, and gesticulates with it, while his other hand caresses his rag-wrapped foot. “Wot does Cham’lain si?” his words drift to us. “W’y, ‘e says, wot’s the good of ‘nvesting your kepital where these ’ere Americans may dump it flat any time they like....”
(Were there not two men in green sitting on a marble seat?)
We walk on, our talk suspended, past a ruthlessly clumsy hoarding, towards where men and women and children are struggling about a string of omnibuses. A newsvendor at the corner spreads a newspaper placard upon the wood pavement, pins the corners down with stones, and we glimpse something about:—
MASSACRE IN ODESSA.
DISCOVERY OF HUMAN REMAINS AT CHERTSEY.
SHOCKING LYNCHING OUTRAGE IN NEW YORK STATE.
GERMAN INTRIGUES GET A SET-BACK.
THE BIRTHDAY HONOURS.—FULL LIST.
Dear old familiar world!
An angry parent in conversation with a sympathetic friend jostles against us. “I’ll knock his blooming young ‘ed orf if ‘e cheeks me again. It’s these ’ere brasted Board Schools——”
An omnibus passes, bearing on a board beneath an incorrectly drawn Union Jack an exhortation to the true patriot to “Buy Bumper’s British-Boiled Jam.” ...
I am stunned beyond the possibility of discussion for a space. In this very place it must have been that the high terrace ran with the gardens below it, along which I came from my double to our hotel. I am going back, but now through reality, along the path I passed so happily in my dream. And the people I saw then are the people I am looking at now—with a difference.
The botanist walks beside me, white and nervously jerky in his movements, his ultimatum delivered.
We start to cross the road. An open carriage drives by, and we see a jaded, red-haired woman, smeared with paint, dressed in furs, and petulantly discontented. Her face is familiar to me, her face, with a difference.
Why do I think of her as dressed in green?
Of course!—she it was I saw leading her children by the hand!
Comes a crash to our left, and a running of people to see a cab-horse down on the slippery, slanting pavement outside St. Martin’s Church.
We go on up the street.
A heavy-eyed young Jewess, a draggled prostitute—no crimson flower for her hair, poor girl!—regards us with a momentary speculation, and we get a whiff of foul language from two newsboys on the kerb.
“We can’t go on talking,” the botanist begins, and ducks aside just in time to save his eye from the ferule of a stupidly held umbrella. He is going to treat our little tiff about that lady as closed. He has the air of picking up our conversation again at some earlier point.
He steps into the gutter, walks round outside a negro hawker, just escapes the wheel of a hansom, and comes to my side again.
“We can’t go on talking of your Utopia,” he says, “in a noise and crowd like this.”
We are separated by a portly man going in the opposite direction, and join again. “We can’t go on talking of Utopia,” he repeats, “in London.... Up in the mountains—and holiday-time—it was all right. We let ourselves go!”
“I’ve been living in Utopia,” I answer, tacitly adopting his tacit proposal to drop the lady out of the question.
“At times,” he says, with a queer laugh, “you’ve almost made me live there too.”
He reflects. “It doesn’t do, you know. No! And I don’t know whether, after all, I want——”
We are separated again by half-a-dozen lifted flagstones, a burning brazier, and two engineers concerned with some underground business or other—in the busiest hour of the day’s traffic.
“Why shouldn’t it do?” I ask.
“It spoils the world of everyday to let your mind run on impossible perfections.”
“I wish,” I shout against the traffic, “I could smash the world of everyday.”
My note becomes quarrelsome. “You may accept this as the world of reality, you may consent to be one scar in an ill-dressed compound wound, but so—not I! This is a dream too—this world. Your dream, and you bring me back to it—out of Utopia——”
The crossing of Bow Street gives me pause again.
The face of a girl who is passing westward, a student girl, rather carelessly dressed, her books in a carrying-strap, comes across my field of vision. The westward sun of London glows upon her face. She has eyes that dream, surely no sensuous nor personal dream.
After all, after all, dispersed, hidden, disorganised, undiscovered, unsuspected even by themselves, the samurai of Utopia are in this world, the motives that are developed and organised there stir dumbly here and stifle in ten thousand futile hearts....
I overtake the botanist, who got ahead at the crossing by the advantage of a dust-cart.
“You think this is real because you can’t wake out of it,” I say. “It’s all a dream, and there are people—I’m just one of the first of a multitude—between sleeping and waking—who will presently be rubbing it out of their eyes.”
A pinched and dirty little girl, with sores upon her face, stretches out a bunch of wilting violets, in a pitifully thin little fist, and interrupts my speech. “Bunch o’ vi’lets—on’y a penny.”
“No!” I say curtly, hardening my heart.
A ragged and filthy nursing mother, with her last addition to our Imperial People on her arm, comes out of a drinkshop, and stands a little unsteadily, and wipes mouth and nose comprehensively with the back of a red chapped hand....
“Isn’t that reality?” says the botanist, almost triumphantly, and leaves me aghast at his triumph.
“That!” I say belatedly. “It’s a thing in a nightmare!”
He shakes his head and smiles—exasperatingly.
I perceive quite abruptly that the botanist and I have reached the limits of our intercourse.
“The world dreams things like that,” I say, “because it suffers from an indigestion of such people as you.”
His low-toned self-complacency, like the faded banner of an obstinate fort, still flies unconquered. And you know, he’s not even a happy man with it all!
For ten seconds or more I am furiously seeking in my mind for a word, for a term of abuse, for one compendious verbal missile that shall smash this man for ever. It has to express total inadequacy of imagination and will, spiritual anaemia, dull respectability, gross sentimentality, a cultivated pettiness of heart....
That word will not come. But no other word will do. Indeed the word does not exist. There is nothing with sufficient vituperative concentration for this moral and intellectual stupidity of educated people....
“Er——” he begins.
No! I can’t endure him.
With a passionate rapidity of movement, I leave his side, dart between a carriage and a van, duck under the head of a cab-horse, and board a ‘bus going westward somewhere—but anyhow, going in exactly the reverse direction to the botanist. I clamber up the steps and thread my swaying way to the seat immediately behind the driver.
“There!” I say, as I whack myself down on the seat and pant.
When I look round the botanist is out of sight.
But I am back in the world for all that, and my Utopia is done.
It is good discipline for the Utopist to visit this world occasionally.
But from the front seat on the top of an omnibus on a sunny September afternoon, the Strand, and Charing Cross corner, and Whitehall, and the great multitude of people, the great uproar of vehicles, streaming in all directions, is apt to look a world altogether too formidable. It has a glare, it has a tumult and vigour that shouts one down. It shouts one down, if shouting is to carry it. What good was it to trot along the pavement through this noise and tumult of life, pleading Utopia to that botanist? What good would it be to recommend Utopia in this driver’s preoccupied ear?
There are moments in the life of every philosopher and dreamer when he feels himself the flimsiest of absurdities, when the Thing in Being has its way with him, its triumphant way, when it asks in a roar, unanswerably, with a fine solid use of the current vernacular, “What Good is all this—Rot about Utopias?”
One inspects the Thing in Being with something of the diffident speculation of primitive man, peering from behind a tree at an angry elephant.
(There is an omen in that image. On how many occasions must that ancestor of ours have had just the Utopist’s feeling of ambitious unreality, have decided that on the whole it was wiser to go very quietly home again, and leave the big beast alone? But, in the end, men rode upon the elephant’s head, and guided him this way or that.... The Thing in Being that roars so tremendously about Charing Cross corner seems a bigger antagonist than an elephant, but then we have better weapons than chipped flint blades....)
After all, in a very little time everything that impresses me so mightily this September afternoon will have changed or passed away for ever, everything. These omnibuses, these great, stalwart, crowded, many-coloured things that jostle one another, and make so handsome a clatter-clamour, will all have gone; they and their horses and drivers and organisation; you will come here and you will not find them. Something else will be here, some different sort of vehicle, that is now perhaps the mere germ of an idea in some engineer student’s brain. And this road and pavement will have changed, and these impressive great buildings; other buildings will be here, buildings that are as yet more impalpable than this page you read, more formless and flimsy by far than anything that is reasoned here. Little plans sketched on paper, strokes of a pen or of a brush, will be the first materialisations of what will at last obliterate every detail and atom of these re-echoing actualities that overwhelm us now. And the clothing and gestures of these innumerable people, the character of their faces and bearing, these too will be recast in the spirit of what are now obscure and impalpable beginnings.
The new things will be indeed of the substance of the thing that is, but differing just in the measure of the will and imagination that goes to make them. They will be strong and fair as the will is sturdy and organised and the imagination comprehensive and bold; they will be ugly and smeared with wretchedness as the will is fluctuating and the imagination timid and mean.
Indeed Will is stronger than Fact, it can mould and overcome Fact. But this world has still to discover its will, it is a world that slumbers inertly, and all this roar and pulsation of life is no more than its heavy breathing.... My mind runs on to the thought of an awakening.
As my omnibus goes lumbering up Cockspur Street through the clatter rattle of the cabs and carriages, there comes another fancy in my mind.... Could one but realise an apocalyptic image and suppose an angel, such as was given to each of the seven churches of Asia, given for a space to the service of the Greater Rule. I see him as a towering figure of flame and colour, standing between earth and sky, with a trumpet in his hands, over there above the Haymarket, against the October glow; and when he sounds, all the samurai, all who are samurai in Utopia, will know themselves and one another....
(Whup! says a motor brougham, and a policeman stays the traffic with his hand.)
All of us who partake of the samurai would know ourselves and one another!
For a moment I have a vision of this resurrection of the living, of a vague, magnificent answer, of countless myriads at attention, of all that is fine in humanity at attention, round the compass of the earth.
Then that philosophy of individual uniqueness resumes its sway over my thoughts, and my dream of a world’s awakening fades.
I had forgotten....
Things do not happen like that. God is not simple, God is not theatrical, the summons comes to each man in its due time for him, with an infinite subtlety of variety....
If that is so, what of my Utopia?
This infinite world must needs be flattened to get it on one retina. The picture of a solid thing, although it is flattened and simplified, is not necessarily a lie. Surely, surely, in the end, by degrees, and steps, something of this sort, some such understanding, as this Utopia must come. First here, then there, single men and then groups of men will fall into line—not indeed with my poor faulty hesitating suggestions—but with a great and comprehensive plan wrought out by many minds and in many tongues. It is just because my plan is faulty, because it mis-states so much, and omits so much, that they do not now fall in. It will not be like my dream, the world that is coming. My dream is just my own poor dream, the thing sufficient for me. We fail in comprehension, we fail so variously and abundantly. We see as much as it is serviceable for us to see, and we see no further. But the fresh undaunted generations come to take on our work beyond our utmost effort, beyond the range of our ideas. They will learn with certainty things that to us are guesses and riddles....
There will be many Utopias. Each generation will have its new version of Utopia, a little more certain and complete and real, with its problems lying closer and closer to the problems of the Thing in Being. Until at last from dreams Utopias will have come to be working drawings, and the whole world will be shaping the final World State, the fair and great and fruitful World State, that will only not be a Utopia because it will be this world. So surely it must be——
The policeman drops his hand. “Come up,” says the ‘bus driver, and the horses strain; “Clitter, clatter, cluck, clak,” the line of hurrying hansoms overtakes the omnibus going west. A dexterous lad on a bicycle with a bale of newspapers on his back dodges nimbly across the head of the column and vanishes up a side street.
The omnibus sways forward. Rapt and prophetic, his plump hands clasped round the handle of his umbrella, his billycock hat a trifle askew, this irascible little man of the Voice, this impatient dreamer, this scolding Optimist, who has argued so rudely and dogmatically about economics and philosophy and decoration, and indeed about everything under the sun, who has been so hard on the botanist and fashionable women, and so reluctant in the matter of beer, is carried onward, dreaming dreams, dreams that with all the inevitable ironies of difference, may be realities when you and I are dreams.
He passes, and for a little space we are left with his egoisms and idiosyncrasies more or less in suspense.
But why was he intruded? you ask. Why could not a modern Utopia be discussed without this impersonation—impersonally? It has confused the book, you say, made the argument hard to follow, and thrown a quality of insincerity over the whole. Are we but mocking at Utopias, you demand, using all these noble and generalised hopes as the backcloth against which two bickering personalities jar and squabble? Do I mean we are never to view the promised land again except through a foreground of fellow-travellers? There is a common notion that the reading of a Utopia should end with a swelling heart and clear resolves, with lists of names, formation of committees, and even the commencement of subscriptions. But this Utopia began upon a philosophy of fragmentation, and ends, confusedly, amidst a gross tumult of immediate realities, in dust and doubt, with, at the best, one individual’s aspiration. Utopias were once in good faith, projects for a fresh creation of the world and of a most unworldly completeness; this so-called Modern Utopia is a mere story of personal adventures among Utopian philosophies.
Indeed, that came about without the writer’s intention. So it was the summoned vision came. For I see about me a great multitude of little souls and groups of souls as darkened, as derivative as my own; with the passage of years I understand more and more clearly the quality of the motives that urge me and urge them to do whatever we do.... Yet that is not all I see, and I am not altogether bounded by my littleness. Ever and again, contrasting with this immediate vision, come glimpses of a comprehensive scheme, in which these personalities float, the scheme of a synthetic wider being, the great State, mankind, in which we all move and go, like blood corpuscles, like nerve cells, it may be at times like brain cells, in the body of a man. But the two visions are not seen consistently together, at least by me, and I do not surely know that they exist consistently together. The motives needed for those wider issues come not into the interplay of my vanities and wishes. That greater scheme lies about the men and women I know, as I have tried to make the vistas and spaces, the mountains, cities, laws, and order of Utopia lie about my talking couple, too great for their sustained comprehension. When one focuses upon these two that wide landscape becomes indistinct and distant, and when one regards that then the real persons one knows grow vague and unreal. Nevertheless, I cannot separate these two aspects of human life, each commenting on the other. In that incongruity between great and individual inheres the incompatibility I could not resolve, and which, therefore, I have had to present in this conflicting form. At times that great scheme does seem to me to enter certain men’s lives as a passion, as a real and living motive; there are those who know it almost as if it was a thing of desire; even for me, upon occasion, the little lures of the immediate life are seen small and vain, and the soul goes out to that mighty Being, to apprehend it and serve it and possess. But this is an illumination that passes as it comes, a rare transitory lucidity, leaving the soul’s desire suddenly turned to presumption and hypocrisy upon the lips. One grasps at the Universe and attains—Bathos. The hungers, the jealousies, the prejudices and habits have us again, and we are forced back to think that it is so, and not otherwise, that we are meant to serve the mysteries; that in these blinkers it is we are driven to an end we cannot understand. And then, for measured moments in the night watches or as one walks alone or while one sits in thought and speech with a friend, the wider aspirations glow again with a sincere emotion, with the colours of attainable desire....
That is my all about Utopia, and about the desire and need for Utopia, and how that planet lies to this planet that bears the daily lives of men.