Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells

Reorganizing the peace

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In his book Experiment in Autobiography, which he wrote when he was in his sixties, the novelist H.G. Wells defined what he saw as his great task ahead: “To get the primaries of life under control and to concentrate the largest possible proportion of my energy upon the particular system of effort that has established itself for me as my distinctive business in the world.” He explained:

I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business…And that is where I am troubled now. I find myself less able to get on with my work than ever before. Perhaps the years have something to do with that, and it may be that a progressive broadening and deepening of my conception of what my work should be, makes it less easy than it was; but the main cause is certainly the invasion of my time and thought by matters that are either quite secondary to my real business or have no justifiable connection with it. Subordinate and everyday things, it seems to me in this present mood, surround me in an ever-growing jungle. My hours are choked with them; my thoughts are tattered by them. All my life I have been pushing aside intrusive tendrils, shirking discursive consequences, bilking unhelpful obligations, but I am more aware of them now and less hopeful about them than I have ever been. I have a sense of crisis; that the time has come to reorganize my peace, if the ten or fifteen years ahead, which at the utmost I may hope to work in now, are to be saved from being altogether overgrown.

As it turns out, Wells was exactly right, and he lived for another fourteen years. And his notion of rethinking one’s life by “reorganizing the peace” has preoccupied me for a long time, too, although it wasn’t until I read this passage that I was able to put it into words. Wells associated such problems with the lives of creative professionals, whom he compares to “early amphibians” trying to leave the water for the first time, but these days, they seem to affect just about everyone. What troubled Wells was the way in which the work of artists and writers, which is usually done in solitude, invariably involves its practitioners in entanglements that take them further away from whatever they wanted to do in the first place. To some extent, that’s true of all pursuits—success in any field means that you spend less time on the fundamentals than you did when you started—but it’s especially hard on the creative side, since its rewards and punishments are so unpredictable. Money, if it comes at all, arrives at unreliable intervals, and much of your energy is devoted to dealing with problems that can’t be anticipated in advance. It’s exhausting and faintly comic, as Wells beautifully phrased it:

Imperfection and incompleteness are the certain lot of all creative workers. We all compromise. We all fall short. The life story to be told of any creative worker is therefore by its very nature, by its diversions of purpose and its qualified success, by its grotesque transitions from sublimation to base necessity and its pervasive stress towards flight, a comedy.

But the artists were just ahead of the curve, and these “grotesque transitions” are now part of all our lives. Instead of depending on the simple sources of gratification—family, work, religion—that served human beings for so long, we’re tied up in complicated networks that offer more problematic forms of support. A few days ago, the social psychologist Jane Adams published an article in the New York Times about the epidemic of “perfectionism” in college students, as young people make unreasonable demands on themselves to satisfy the expectations of social media:

As college students are returning to school after their winter breaks, many parents are concerned about the state of their mental health. The parents worry about the pressure their kids are putting on themselves. Thinking that others in their social network expect a lot of them is even more important to young adults than the expectations of parents and professors…Parents in my practice say they’re noticing how often their kids come away from Facebook and Instagram feeling depressed, ashamed and anxious, and how vulnerable they are to criticism and judgment, even from strangers, on their social media feeds.

And this simply places more of us in the predicament that Wells identified in artists, whose happiness was tied up with the fickle responses of tastemakers, gatekeepers, and the anonymous public. The need to deal with such factors, which were impossible to anticipate from one day to the next, was the source of many of the “entanglements” that he saw as interfering with his work. And the only difference these days is that everyone’s a critic, and we’re all selling ourselves.

But the solution remains the same. Wells spoke fondly of his vision of what he called the Great Good Place, borrowing a phrase from his friend Henry James:

I require a pleasant well-lit writing room in good air and a comfortable bedroom to sleep in—and, if the mood takes me, to write in—both free from distracting noises and indeed all unexpected disturbances. There should be a secretary or at least a typist within call and out of earshot, and, within reach, an abundant library and the rest of the world all hung accessibly on to that secretary’s telephone. (But it would have to be a one-way telephone, so that when we wanted news we could ask for it, and when we were not in a state to receive and digest news, we should not have it forced upon us.)

This desire for a “one-way telephone” makes me wonder how Wells would view our online lives, which over the last decade have evolved to a point where the flow of energy seems to pass both ways. Wells, of course, was most famous for his science fiction, in which he foresaw such future innovations as space travel and nuclear weapons, but this might be his most prescient observation of all: “We are therefore, now and for the next few hundred years at least, strangers and invaders of the life of every day. We are all essentially lonely. In our nerves, in our bones. We are too preoccupied and too experimental to give ourselves freely and honestly to other people, and in the end other people fail to give themselves fully to us.”

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2018 at 8:45 am

Falls the Shadow

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself repeatedly struck by the parallels between the careers of John W. Campbell and Orson Welles. At first, the connection might seem tenuous. Campbell and Welles didn’t look anything alike, although they were about the same height, and their politics couldn’t have been more different—Welles was a staunch progressive and defender of civil rights, while Campbell, to put it mildly, wasn’t. Welles was a wanderer, while Campbell spent most of his life within driving distance of his birthplace in New Jersey. But they’re inextricably linked in my imagination. Welles was five years younger than Campbell, but they flourished at exactly the same time, with their careers peaking roughly between 1937 and 1942. Both owed significant creative breakthroughs to the work of H.G. Wells, who inspired Campbell’s story “Twilight” and Welles’s Mercury Theater adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In 1938, Campbell saw Welles’s famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar with the writer L. Sprague de Camp, of which he wrote in a letter:

It represented, in a way, what I’m trying to do in the magazine. Those humans of two thousand years ago thought and acted as we do—even if they did dress differently. Removing the funny clothes made them more real and understandable. I’m trying to get away from funny clothes and funny-looking people in the pictures of the magazine. And have more humans.

And I suspect that the performance started a train of thought in both men’s minds that led to de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall, which is about a man from the present who ends up in ancient Rome.

Campbell was less pleased by Welles’s most notable venture into science fiction, which he must have seen as an incursion on his turf. He wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.” In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Their most significant point of intersection was The Shadow, who was created by an advertising agency for Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, as a fictional narrator for the radio series Detective Story Hour. Before long, he became popular enough to star in his own stories. Welles, of course, voiced The Shadow from September 1937 to October 1938, and Campbell plotted some of the magazine installments in collaboration with the writer Walter B. Gibson and the editor John Nanovic, who worked in the office next door. And his identification with the character seems to have run even deeper. In a profile published in the February 1946 issue of Pic magazine, the reporter Dickson Hartwell wrote of Campbell: “You will find him voluble, friendly and personally depressing only in what his friends claim is a startling physical resemblance to The Shadow.”

It isn’t clear if Welles was aware of Campbell, although it would be more surprising if he wasn’t. Welles flitted around science fiction for years, and he occasionally crossed paths with other authors in that circle. To my lasting regret, he never met L. Ron Hubbard, which would have been an epic collision of bullshitters—although Philip Seymour Hoffman claimed that he based his performance in The Master mostly on Welles, and Theodore Sturgeon once said that Welles and Hubbard were the only men he had ever met who could make a room seem crowded simply by walking through the door. In 1946, Isaac Asimov received a call from a lawyer whose client wanted to buy all rights to his robot story “Evidence” for $250. When he asked Campbell for advice, the editor said that he thought it seemed fair, but Asimov’s wife told him to hold out for more. Asimov called back to ask for a thousand dollars, adding that he wouldn’t discuss it further until he found out who the client was. When the lawyer told him that it was Welles, Asimov agreed to the sale, delighted, but nothing ever came of it. (Welles also owned the story in perpetuity, making it impossible for Asimov to sell it elsewhere, a point that Campbell, who took a notoriously casual attitude toward rights, had neglected to raise.) Twenty years later, Welles made inquiries into the rights for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which were tied up at the time with Roger Corman, but never followed up. And it’s worth noting that both stories are concerned with the problem of knowing how other people are what they claim to be, which Campbell had brilliantly explored in “Who Goes There?” It’s a theme to which Welles obsessively returned, and it’s fascinating to speculate what he might have done with it if Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby hadn’t gotten there first with The Thing From Another World. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

But their true affinities were spiritual ones. Both Campbell and Welles were child prodigies who reinvented an art form largely by being superb organizers of other people’s talents—although Campbell always downplayed his own contributions, while Welles appears to have done the opposite. Each had a spectacular early success followed by what was perceived as decades of decline, which they seem to have seen coming. (David Thomson writes: “As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” And you could say much the same thing about “Twilight.”) Both had a habit of abandoning projects as soon as they realized that they couldn’t control them, and they both managed to seem isolated while occupying the center of attention in any crowd. They enjoyed staking out unreasonable positions in conversation, just to get a rise out of listeners, and they ultimately drove away their most valuable collaborators. What Pauline Kael writes of Welles in “Raising Kane” is equally true of Campbell:

He lost the collaborative partnerships that he needed…He was alone, trying to be “Orson Welles,” though “Orson Welles” had stood for the activities of a group. But he needed the family to hold him together on a project and to take over for him when his energies became scattered. With them, he was a prodigy of accomplishments; without them, he flew apart, became disorderly.

Both men were alone when they died, and both filled their friends, admirers, and biographers with intensely mixed feelings. I’m still coming to terms with Campbell. But I have a hunch that I’ll end up somewhere close to Kael’s ambivalence toward Welles, who, at the end of an essay that was widely seen as puncturing his myth, could only conclude: “In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2015 at 7:17 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

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