Friday, July 29, 2011

Megatherium

And for the Roman Church he always retained the same double attitude he had for Chesterton. He could say of both what Robert Browning said about the Catholic Church in his poem Christmas Eve:

I see the error; but above
The scope of error, see the love.

It is a feeling I cannot share. Where Peter finds an inner core of truth, I find only superstition. H. G. Wells, in Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, hit on the perfect metaphor. The Roman Church is like a prehistoric megatherium, a grotesque, gigantic sloth that somehow managed to survive extinction. It crawls clumsily around the world, getting in everybody's way, refusing to die.

Homer Wilson, in Martin Gardner's The Flight of Peter Fromm, Prometheus (Amherst, NY: 1994), pp. 82-83. I've said before that Martin Gardner's novel of ideas is underappreciated, and have no difficulty saying it again: it really should be more widely read. Part of it is that the psychology of the characters is done very well; the narrator of the book, the same Homer Wilson, who says the above, is simultaneously perceptive and flawed, and although Gardner, as far as I am aware, had very little use for the Catholic Church, his attitude to Chesterton was very much closer to Peter's double attitude than Homer's dismissal. Gardner likely expects us to learn something about the limits of the character from the fact that he treats megatherium as automatically an insult on the basis of Wells's work, just as he expects us to learn something from Homer's excessive devotion to Freudian explanations.

The reference to Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is interesting, and perhaps also suggests something, although I haven't really thought it through and would hesitate to do so without having the book in hand to compare. It's one of H. G. Wells's later (1928), and therefore less known, works, and is fairly difficult to find. The protagonist ends up on an island of cannibals and tries to teach them a rational and progressive view of the world; there are megatheria, too, of course. It's a dystopic allegory about civilization itself (Wells himself called it a caricature of the whole human world), and is often treated as being in the same general class of stories as the more popular The Island of Doctor Moreau, which has a certain amount of plausibility, although it seems to me that it requires some fairly generous principles of classification. There's a certain sort of ambiguity to the lesson, though, in that it turns out both that the protagonist is subject to psychotic delusional episodes and that Europe in the Great War is subject to real horrors quite as bad as delusional ones. There's a lot of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) religious imagery in the book, but this is true of much of Wells's science fiction, and it is often difficult to pin down exactly what its function is in any given case. In any case, the megatheria of Rampole Island are in the story symbols of what all institutions everywhere always eventually become if they do not die: ominously slow-moving, fantastically long-lasting, oblivious to most of the world, infested with parasites, the objects of strange devotions and taboos.

2 comments:

  1. Catherine Hodge1:54 PM

    I was trying to place the name Martin Gardner, and then I remembered that he wrote the foreword to a book of Chesterton's Mr. Pond stories (in the edition I have from Dover Press). If he had any animus against Chesterton, he hid it cleverly; the intro was most complimentary.

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  2. branemrys7:49 AM

    Yes, Gardner was actually a big fan of Chesterton; in addition to forewords and introductions to Chesterton's works, I think he put out an annotated version of The Man Who Was Thursday, which was one of his favorite books, and he also wrote a few imitation-Chesterton short stories. He was very critical of some of Chesterton's religious apologetics, but he published an anthology on scientific thinking in which he included Chesterton's "The Ethics of Elfland" and defended its inclusion quite passionately, which shows you how much respect he had for Chesterton as a thinker.

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