Sunday, 11 September 2016

Who is the "Other" in The War of the Worlds?

It just struck me, but the "Other" of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds is not the Martian invaders. The Martians are a rather pale presence in the book. This might seem a curious thing to say considering that practically the entire book is taken up with gruesome descriptions of the destruction they bring. Yet despite this destruction, and the hideous details of their appearance, there's something about them that makes me think that Wells is uninterested in them. Unlike contemporaries like Jules Verne, Wells is also not very interested in space or the technical possibilities opened up by scientific progress; his concern seems rather to be with the moral state of humankind.

In fact, the most memorable scene of horror in the book is not any of the plentiful descriptions of destruction or suffering. It's surely the narrator's meeting with "the man on Putney Hill", a former artilleryman who appears to be the sole survivor in a vast, apocalyptic landscape of charred earth and strange Martian weeds near London. The artilleryman barely manages to scrape along, keeping himself alive in a shelter. "We're beat", he asserts with absolute conviction:
"It's all over," he said. "They've lost one - just one. And they've made their footing good and crippled the greatest power in the world. They've walked over us. (Wells 2005: 254)

"This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war; any more than there's a war between men and ants." (ibid. 254)   
"Cities, nations, civilization, progress - it's all over. That game's up. We're beat" (ibid. 257)
Despite this, the man has resolved to go on living: "for the sake of the breed. I tell you. I'm grim set on living" (ibid. 257). More specifically, he plans to live underground, even dreaming wildly about a future where humanity will be able to take revenge on the invaders:
I've been thinking about the drains. Of course those who don't know drains think horrible things; but under this London are miles and miles - hundreds of miles - and a few days' rain and London empty will leave them sweet and clean. The main drains are big enough and airy enough for anyone. Then there's cellars, vaults, stores, from which boltway passages may be made to the drains. And the railway tunnels and subways. Eh? You begin to see? And we form a band - able-bodied, clean-minded men. We're not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again. [...] Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. (ibid. 262)
The importance of this passage is underlined by its placement in the book. It comes near the end, just before the chapter that describes how humanity is suddenly and miraculously saved. This "happy" ending does nothing to diminish the weight of the artillerist's brutal, feverish vision. The artillerist - Wells seems to imply - is still right, in the sense that he says the truth of what would have been humanity's future if it hadn't been for that unlikely, miraculous escape. He says what Wells wants his readers to reflect on. He's a prophet; in other words, he's delivering a warning.

But a warning of what kind? It turns out that this is a very moral warning. The proto-fascist artillerist himself is certainly not a very moral person. Yet he impersonates a moral warning. It is quite clear that what Wells fears above all is the prospect of humanity having to turn itself into brutes like him in order to survive. The artillerist is the prime image of horror in this book since he holds up a mirror to the reader, showing humanity the depths of brutality and barbary into which it may have to descend.

At the same time, there's no denying that Wells's horror is mixed with fascination, and even a dose of grim, masochistic pleasure - a pleasure in driving home the dreadful message of humanity's reversion into brutishness. As the artillerist says, life becomes "real" again when humanity is shorn of civilization, and a powerful message of Wells's book is certainly that this civilization is built on lies. The element of fascination can be felt even more clearly if we turn to the terrifying Morlocks of The Time Machine, a race of troglodytes who live underground, emerging to the surface only at night to carry off and eat the fairy-like Eloi. While the Morlocks are repulsive, they're also the necessary, logical outcome of present-day class-society - the Eloi having evolved from the upper classes, the Morlocks from the proletariat. With his brutality and his advocacy of a rat-like existence in the sewers, the artillerist is certainly an ancestor of the Morlocks - a Morlock in embryonic form.

To put it plainly: it's the artilleryman who's the "Other" of The War of the Worlds - or rather, it's him and the things that he stands for. If my association of him with the Morlocks is correct, these things include the proletariat. Class war was one of the great, compulsively recurring motifs of the 19th century. The proletariat was feared even as it was pitied for its brutish existence, a projection of many of the nightmarish fantasies that in today's developed world seem to be directed at asylum-seekers and other migrants. To the bourgeoisie, the revolution was not only an economic threat but also, to many, an imagined end to culture and civilization as such.

Yet the "Other" of The War of the Worlds includes more than the proletariat. The book is notable for its passages discussing colonialism and humanity's treatment of other species. It's in these passages that the book's moral message is clearest. Already in the first chapter, the narrator writes:
And before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. (ibid. 4f)
This passage is more than a condemnation of the ills of Britain's imperialist, capitalist and profoundly hypocritical "civilization". It can also be read as an abstract declaration of solidarity with everything oppressed and ravaged by this civilization, including colonized peoples and nature. Later, as the book progresses, the narrator's identification with nature grows progressively deeper, strengthened by the gradual loss of humanity among the people around him (such as the Curate). For instance, as he totters around alone in a landscape devastated beyond recognition, he thinks:
I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies, digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martial heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away. (ibid. 240)
It is precisely this life of lurking, hiding and running away that is practiced by the artilleryman (into whom the narrator soon runs and who, as we recall, himself compares the relation between Martians and humans to that between humans and ants). What lends the artilleryman his air of "authenticity" is his resolute affirmation of this animality and his readiness to jettison civilization, a step which the narrator himself hesitates to take. What unites them, however, is their clear recognition that humanity no longer is the master of nature; it has been "dethroned", as the narrator writes, and must henceforth consider itself simply as one animal among others.

At this point, I think it's fruitful to connect up with the ideas of Mary Manjikian and Andrew Feenberg. Manjikian has argued that the "apocalyptic" fiction produced in Victorian Britain as well as in today's USA needs to be understood as products of the imperial status of these states in the respective periods. Apocalyptic stories, she suggests, are often indulged in when imperial nations appear to be at their most triumphant zenith. The imagined apocalypse is depicted as the outcome of arrogance and hubris. Interestingly, she argues that such stories have a critical function - they allow their readers to see and visit their own countries as a foreigner might, as if it were a foreign country. Thereby they allow us to “see” the other, to switch places with the other. Crucially, they often replicate conventions of colonial travelogues, offering a kind of inverted colonial gaze directed at the seat of imperial power itself (Manjikian 2012: 27, 228-238). This operation is exceptionally well illustrated by War of the Worlds, where Britain, the leading imperialist power of its time, becomes treated exactly as it itself treated Tasmania.

According to Feenberg, many Hollywood movies invert real life relations in a startling fashion. At the same time that the U.S. was busy fighting guerillas in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Third World, many of its movie heroes appeared to be mirror-images of the enemy: loners fighting impossible odds against enemies equipped with vastly superior high-technological weaponry.
The Enemy never employs the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong; instead, it possesses an antlike army supplied with technologically advanced weapons, helicopters, and nuclear devices. The hero - a Westerner - is captured and, working from within, destroys the Enemy's technology with his bare hands. Here underdevelopment represents the power of machines over men, while the West is the haven of humanism. The viewers are encouraged to identify with James Bond in a guerilla war against Third World technocracy. (Feenberg 1995: 42f)
What is Rambo, if not a subliminal identification with the very enemies the U.S. had been fighting in Vietnam? The most glaring example of this curious reversal of roles is probably Independence Day, where the U.S. air force saves the earth from alien invasion by nothing less than a glorious kamikaze-attack, another tactic borrowed from an old enemy desperately trying to fight off an American invasion. These films seem to replay the role of apocalyptic fiction by directing an inverted colonial gaze at the U.S. itself. The tendential identification with the victims of imperialism or capitalism that we see in Wells is here extended to an actual role-shifting, whereby the hero becomes an anti-imperialist resistance fighter. Returning to Wells's artilleryman, it is quite striking to observe how his employment of the underground image - likely meant to evoke association with rats - is today one of the most popular metaphors for resistance. Complex underground systems figure as the last holdout of brave resistance fighters in an almost inexhaustible number of works of fiction.

In this light, the ambivalence in the portrayal of the artilleryman comes forward clearly. We see him in a double-exposure. He denies everything we think of as cultured and civilized, yet he's somehow disturbingly right in what he's doing - right in the sense that "our" civilization is built on lies and "deserves" to perish. It's of course easy to see this ambivalence as typical for the collective bad conscience of the milieu that Wells belonged to - Victorian writers with socialist sympathies and a bourgeois class-background. These writers were deeply unhappy about their own society and the culture in which they had been thoroughly socialized. They were open-minded enough to recognize all the things suffering oppression by this society - including the proletariat, the colonized peoples and nature. Yet since they were unfamiliar with these things, the latter had to appear in the imagination of these writers in abstract, monstruous form - as a mere negation of the culture and lifestyle that they did know. These are the "Other" in Wells's fiction, the troubling other, the one's whose existence was felt to be an existential threat towards their own culture and identity, and who therefore inspire fear as well as fascination.

This ambivalence is easy to recognize today - in regard to immigrants. The dehumanized image of masses of people from poor and wartorn regions welling into the rich countries of the North has helped right-extremist parties gain ground almost everywhere in these rich countries. Here a new "Other" is taking form which again risks becoming the object of projections of various sort.

This lends a certain actuality to Wells. The Martians, as mentioned, are not Wells's "Other". They are there as a literary device, to shine an artificial light on the world to reveal its crevices and fault lines, and probe its moral status. Today, they might well fufill a similar function, for when the Martians attack, who - except the dead - will not be a refugee?

Henrique Alvim Correa, 1906 illustration to War of the Worlds

References

Feenberg, Andrew (1995) Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory, Berkeley: University of California Press

Manjikian, Mary (2012) Apocalypse and Post-politics: The Romance of the End, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Wells, H. G. (2005[1898) The War of the Worlds, New York: Aladdin Classics.



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