I always side with the Morlocks

In The Time Machine, H G Wells drops his character, the Time Traveller, into a very different world, in the year 802,701.

If you have not read the book, it imagines humanity that is no longer human. Some great, decayed buildings still stand but mankind which built them has gone. There is a great sphinx monument, and across the landscape there are well-heads (or so they seem) but the human race as we know it is no more. At a past age it had bifurcated into two species: surface-dwelling eloi and subterranean morlocks.

It s a well-crafted book, written before Wells ‘sold his birthright for a pot of message’, so it need not contain a political or social point – just the author’s brilliant imagination giving a radical possibility for the future.

The Time Traveller is charmed by the eloi and repelled by the morlocks. The eloi amongst whom he finds himself, in their bright, carefree, arcadian lifestyle, gathering flowers, eating the fruit of untended trees and doing no manner of work, with no machines or science or writing, childlike in attitude and stature, seem to live out the dreamed ideal of mankind. The morlocks dwell in tunnels beneath the ground, where there are machines beating unseen in the dark. They are white-skinned and pink-eyed, and malevolent. They emerge at night from the sphinx and the wells and hunt for their meat – the eloi. The eloi fear the dark.

The BBC has (or had) a weird and worrying children’s television programme, called ‘Waybuloo’ (which was apparently Buddhist propaganda, not that the Beeb ever noticed) portraying childlike creatures living such an idyllic life with no cares and no work, living on wild fruit. I saw it, and knew instinctively that someone has to be doing all the work that they could live, and I could hear in my mind the thumping of the machines in a deep, unseen cave and the morlocks waiting the harvest the Piplings they had cultivated above. Don’t tell the children.

I still prefer the Morlocks. The Eloi are clothed and fed by another’s work and sustained just as cattle in the field. They have lost all the attributes of humanity. They have a simple language, but little reason for it. They know no past nor future and do not even look after each other – Weena was left to drown in the stream without a thought. The morlocks however take a hand in their own preservation and prosperity. They work, they have machines. They are curious, carrying off the time machine to study it. They farm the eloi as a food source, and so the eloi depend on the morlocks, though little realising this. The morlocks impliedly built the sphinx so that all who see it know who is superior. The eloi neither build nor preserve anything. The eloi are a disgrace to their distant ancestry: they are mere animals. The morlocks alone continue the human story.

Wells, through the voice of his Time Traveller, supposes that the morlocks were descended from the working men forced underground to toil, while the eloi came from the masters in their airy villas who banished them, only to lose their vitality through indolence. Any division like that would be self-correcting in our world, as the vigorous class became masters over the useless. The world of 802,701 imagined by Wells had reached not a new equilibrium but a position between two separated species that had to be maintained by the constant work of the morlocks.

It is possible to read too much into The Time Machine by reference to the radical political ideas later espoused by Wells. His visit to Bolshevik Russia in 1920 may have been a turning point for him, seeing it as a science fiction writer might, for the imaginary being turned into a reality, and ignoring inconvenient subplots like the induced mass poverty and starvation, repression and massacres. During the Great War he had come to express radical ideas, spurred by a hatred of the Hun and their industrial violence, but the development of his political ideas through fiction can be traced back earlier. The War in the Air (1907) is more soundly Hobbesian in its concept of how the world would turn out if civilisation were to smash itself. The Time Machine (1895) looks far further forward, deeper into humanity and sub-humanity. Maybe this is what pushed him over the edge.

The world portrayed in the book is not really about the future: it is more personal and internal. Victorian philosophers used to talk of a good and an evil side to each of us (as expressed in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that is another article): the eloi and the morlocks represent those sides. Perhaps instead though they represent on one side the ideal we dream of and on the other the reality in which we find ourselves, or the idyll of childhood summers against the toil of adulthood. The eloi are compared with children, in case we had not picked the clues up.

There is something worrying there too. The only named character of the future age is Weena. In the classic film adaptation she is portrayed as a lover. In the book her position is ambiguous: she is more like a clingy child, but the Time Traveller is not unreciprocating as he ‘returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena’. Not too childlike, I hope. (There are men who seek utterly limp and submissive women, but such men deserve no respect, and I pity the women concerned.) I will be generous and assume that in this case the man finding himself the only human being in the world needs some innocent, reassuring company.

He meets the morlocks in the tunnels beneath a well. In the dark there are just looming shapes, a mass of figures, the meat on a table, the huge machines of unknown function. Fingers paw at him, exploring, then seizing him and he wrenches himself away. Is it an attack or a desire to know more of this unknown being who has stepped amongst them, just as they wanted to understand the machine? We cannot know.

The night will come though, and it does, even as he and Weena are far from the communal hall of home, and the morlocks emerge. It is perhaps the first time we see them with characters of their own. They are still for the Time Traveller an anonymous swarm to be rendered no pity even as they scream in terror of the approaching fire. he does not see them as being closer to him than is the eloi girl in his arms, or maybe he does but does not want to know himself. He is as far as he can be from the comforts of that Victorian withdrawing room from which he stepped, but it has not left him. The eloi are comforting; the morlocks a deadly threat, but back in London men in the shadows are no less a threat.

All this analysis can be pushed too far. I might read the book for my own reading of it, or as the average reader (if there is such a thing), or the way Wells intended. As you wish.

What I take from it, which Wells did not intend, is that of the two species descended from mankind, the Eloi are lovely but a dead-end, unable to develop or even to survive on their own. The Morlocks look after themselves and each other, they plan ahead, they build, they are curious and accordingly they can develop and adapt. The future is theirs. I must always side with the Morlocks.

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Creature of the Full Moon

A bright full moon, dazzling in a clear night sky, stirs the deepest nature in me. The hair beneath my shirt feels it and seems to thicken, my teeth are bared and my ears alive for prey. This is a hunter’s moon and man is a hunter.

The myth of the werewolf is an ancient one, found amongst the Greeks (in a typically rationalised form) and amongst the ancient Germans in the raw. In the saga, Sigurd puts on a wolfskin cloak and with it takes on the character of the beast, as if the poet recognised what is within, ready to be released when we step out of the accoutrements of society. All the tribes of the north had two names for that beast, one left unspoken out of supernatural fear, but still named their children ‘Wulf-‘ as if to recommend its character. In Mongolia they taught that the khan was descended from a wolf and a doe (a deer, a female deer), as if picturing the ideal characters they thought seemly in a man and in a woman.

The wolf is always with us. To look upon one is like seeing in a distorted mirror. The domesticated beast, the dog, looks up at man wishing to be loved, wishing to understand and to imitate. A wild wolf has looked into my eyes and he did so as an equal, but with another quality: he is looking for weakness. Among mankind we look at each other the same way, especially at the full moon. As Hobbes says in De Cive, ‘Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe’.

The men of former days lived beside the wolf and saw in it their own instincts: in hunting both show intelligence, co-operation, ruthlessness, the thrill of the chase and remorselessness in the kill. Perhaps they imagined man to be descended from the wolf, as the Mongols did – it would be a more attractive proposition than descending from an ape.

There have been plenty of Sci-Fi stories imagining manlike creatures evolved from wolves, but why always wolves and not other creatures? Perhaps it is an obvious thought as it just seems from their eyes and behaviour that the wolf could be like us.

Perhaps instead we should think that we are like wolves, beneath. Our dogs try to imitate us, but in the wild, man imitates the wolf, the perfectly designed hunter alongside which many generations of man grew up. Civilisation is just a few millennia old, barely that amongst the peoples of Northern Europe, while the Stone Age lasted far, far longer. We are Stone Age people, with a thin crust of civilisation sitting on top of countless ages of instinct. Beneath that veneer of society, the natural man drives our behaviour, and waits for the cracks to appear. On those cold nights where the clouds depart and the full moon blazes in the sky, casting shadows, showing where the prey lies; on those nights the crust of modernity is very thin, the age-long instincts of the natural man rise.

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Books

Hate speech: the Denning Solution

The Law Commission have discredited themselves into irrelevance. The Police have lost the respect they need to bear authority. Power has passed to the unaccountable. Lord Denning had a solution ahead of his time to define what is truly hate-speech worthy of the law’s attention.

The tussle between freedom to speak and the maintenance of order is an old one, maybe as old as speech itself. The first Stone Age tribal chieftain who clubbed underling for speaking out of turn began an age-long train of action.

Not so long ago, freedom of speech was limited even in Britain, but there was liberty enough to grumble against it, and juries were not so willing to convict their neighbours for speaking against what the government or polite opinion insisted upon. The main crime of expression was one against the written word only: ‘seditious libel’, and on this charge many pamphleteers was put before a jury for insulting the King’s ministers and sowing dissention against the lawful authorities.

In the latter half of the twentieth century Lord denning expressed his opinion of the offence:

The offence of seditious libel is now obsolescent. It used to be defined as words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects. But this definition was found to be too wide. It would restrict too much the full and free discussion of public affairs…So it has fallen into disuse for nearly 150 years. The only case in this century was R. v. Caunt…when a local paper published an article stirring up hatred against Jews. The jury found the editor Not Guilty.”

The Caunt case he quotes concerned a shocking editorial in a local newspaper: in 1947, the editor of the Morecambe and Heysham Visitor published an article virulently attacking all Jews and suggesting that violence against them would be understandable; and this just two years after the death camps had been opened. It was written as a response to the Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, making no distinction between the rebels in the Levant and Jewish people generally – its key paragraph would get any journalist sacked and disgraced from any respectable newspaper today, or promoted in the Guardian. It may have been a cause of anti-Jewish riots that followed in Liverpool. Nevertheless, the jury acquitted the editor, because free speech was more precious to them.

The acquittal burst the idea that racial hatred could be restrained by the law of seditious libel, and in time the first Race Relations Act was introduced. It made explicit as a crime to stir up racial hatred. That is not a problem for anyone: today’s issue is in imagined interpretations of the much later Equality Act, unwarranted extensions of the McPherson recommendations, and a hedge built about the law by those with a deeper agenda.

Lord Denning’s summary of the law of his time was perhaps a personal one, as ‘seditious libel’ was a common law offence not defined in statute, but is much quoted abroad, where sedition is still a live topic.

Denning’s summary gives us a what may be though the ideal standard not just for speech against races but against any portion of the population, whether one of the narrow categories of the Equality Act or any other group which has attracted the ire of an ill-disposed speaker, to persecute any minority or majority:

words intended to stir up violence, that is, disorder, by promoting feelings, of ill-will or hostility between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects

That should be simple enough, and it should be enough: stirring up violence. That said, the coda, in the idea of “ill-will or hostility” is itself very broad, which might be what made the old law a dead-letter in the hands of a jury. Political rhetoric today (on one side at least) is dominated by accusing opponents as a class of being fiends in human form, which is improper and to be condemned socially but finding the policeman’s boot at the doorstep of every Labour or SNP activist its likely to bring the law into disrepute.

The law steps in where it is necessary to protect society each individual in the society it governs, and guard the social bonds which keep order in that society. In a totalitarian society those bonds may be drawn tight and inflexible, but a free society needs elasticity, and that means mutual tolerance of originality and plain rudeness. It only steps over the line when actual violence is threatened. That is where a law of sedition has a place. In the Denning formulation then, the essence of what should be forbidden is “words intended to stir up violence”: the promotion of feelings of hostility is the method whereby violence is stirred or made more likely, not an additional offence: “promoting hostility such as to stir up violence”, not stirring up violence or promoting hostility.

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Books

Credulity – ignorance – curiosity

Adhaerence To Private Men, From Ignorance Of The Causes Of Peace

Ignorance of remote causes, disposeth men to attribute all events, to the causes immediate, and Instrumentall: For these are all the causes they perceive.

And hence it comes to passe, that in all places, men that are grieved with payments to the Publique, discharge their anger upon the Publicans, that is to say, Farmers, Collectors, and other Officers of the publique Revenue; and adhaere to such as find fault with the publike Government; and thereby, when they have engaged themselves beyond hope of justification, fall also upon the Supreme Authority, for feare of punishment, or shame of receiving pardon.

Credulity From Ignorance Of Nature

Ignorance of naturall causes disposeth a man to Credulity, so as to believe many times impossibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true; being unable to detect the Impossibility.

And Credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that Ignorance it selfe without Malice, is able to make a man bothe to believe lyes, and tell them; and sometimes also to invent them.

Curiosity To Know, From Care Of Future Time

Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them, maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage.

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Books

Bloodlust

The logic has defied the best of philosophers, but the reality is plain before us. Upon it depends much of the entertainment industry. Bloodlust is in the heart of man as surely as the more fashionable emotions.

Caliban dwells within each of us; man, woman and child and cannot be driven out. Our civilisation being but the thin crust humanity has built each for his own protection, the greater part of us is in the seething lava beneath

In an uncharacteristically grim passage in his comic novel Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K Jerome describes the sight and the feeling of watching the blood flowing and flesh ripped on the duelling floor in Heidelberg:

Whether anything can properly be said in favour of the German Mensur I am doubtful; but if so it concerns only the two combatants.  Upon the spectators it can and does, I am convinced, exercise nothing but evil.  I know myself sufficiently well to be sure I am not of an unusually bloodthirsty disposition. 

The effect it had upon me can only be the usual effect.  At first, before the actual work commenced, my sensation was curiosity mingled with anxiety as to how the sight would trouble me, though some slight acquaintance with dissecting-rooms and operating tables left me less doubt on that point than I might otherwise have felt. As the blood began to flow, and nerves and muscles to be laid bare, I experienced a mingling of disgust and pity.  But with the second duel, I must confess, my finer feelings began to disappear; and by the time the third was well upon its way, and the room heavy with the curious hot odour of blood, I began, as the American expression is, to see things red.

I wanted more.  I looked from face to face surrounding me, and in most of them I found reflected undoubtedly my own sensations.  If it be a good thing to excite this blood thirst in the modern man, then the Mensur is a useful institution.  But is it a good thing?  We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched. Occasionally he may be wanted, but we never need fear his dying out.  On the other hand, it seems unwise to over-nourish him.

This is not just about Germans. True that their murderous cruelty a generation later still shocks us to the core of our humanity, but no one should think it is exclusive to one nation – we are all Adam’s sons. It is about mankind, thirsting for blood like the wolves we resemble in character.

Why we should thrill to see a boxer crush his opponent’s nose, or two thugs beating each other to pulp, or why crowds used to press tight in the streets to watch a hanging, that is the question. No one can feel superior to this: in the cinema the action thriller is exactly the same.

When we see an action film, the peril is the thrill, or we might rationalise it that way. We know there is no real peril, even in the willing suspension of disbelief, because the hero gets out at the end. The film does not pall on the second viewing when we know the outcome, and we might even look keenly for particular details of the carnage.

The crowds at a boxing match are actually present at actual peril, and the reactions of the crowd are telling: yelling, bellowing, cheering not just at the skill but at the bloodiest blows. This is not a surrogate fear as one might feel towards another’s danger, but a bloodlust, a heating of the temper. The biggest cheers are not at the greatest peril but at the most crushing bodily punishment. The idea that the fight, or an action sequence, inspire through the peril presented just does not fit what we see. It is deeper, more primal.

The boxing match takes place in a settled society of rules and norms. The car chase in the film is in a city of ordered lines. The hanging is within the strict procedures of the law. The college duel, the Mensur, is within the epitome of civilisation, the university, in a streich in Ordnung student society.

What they have in common is an outbreak of raw violence, ripping aside the peaceful veil of society and releasing the feral man. Social rules suppress the animal that we are inside, and the greatest lust is for freedom. As the blade spews blood, it is a glimpse of that ancient freedom for which we all yearn. There is nothing like it.

See also

Books