Shades of the prison-house

September 9 2014

When it rises to [an] active response, the Soul finds that the effacement of the characteristic form of the disintegrating civilization has brought it face to face, not with a Chaos void of any form at all, but with a Cosmos whose circumambient form and divine architecture are now at last coming into view through the rents in the screen of lath-and-plaster work with which Man has sought to shut out an overwhelming vision of Eternity and Infinity.

[Footnote: An almost naïvely self-complacent boast of juvenile proficiency in this art of self-protective spiritual jerry-building is made in the following passages from Mr. H. G. Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography, vol i (London 1934, Gollancz), pp 78-9, 96, and 144:

“I was glad to think that between the continental land masses of the World, which would have afforded an unbroken land passage for wolves from Russia and tigers from India, and this safe island on which I took my daily walks, stretched the impassable moat of the English Channel. I read, too, in another book, about the distances of the stars, and that seemed to push the All Seeing Eye very agreeably away from me. …

“I felt it must be rather empty and cheerless beyond the stars [Victorian “beyond”], but I did not let my mind dwell on that. My God, who by this time had become entirely disembodied, had been diffused through this space since the beginning of things. He was already quite abstracted from the furious old hell-and-heaven Thunder God of my childish years. His personality had faded . …

“It must be hard for intelligent people nowadays to realize all that a shabby boy of fifteen could feel as the last rack of a peevish son-crucifying Deity dissolved away into blue sky, and as the implacable social barriers, as they had seemed, set to keep him in that path unto which it had pleased God to call him, weakened down to temporary fences he could see over and presently hope to climb over or or push aside.”

The unconscious irony of these passages is heightened by the very expressiveness of the author’s literary genius. Mr. Wells here reveals himself building up defensive screens and fancying all the time that he is pulling down constricting barriers; contracting the spiritual bounds of his microcosm and imagining that he is enlarging the span of the Universe because he is pushing the physical frontiers of his macrocosm out to a mathematical infinity. To all appearance he is unaware of the truth that, as God dissolves into blue sky, the shades of the prison-house are closing around the growing boy [Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality].]

On the other hand, Wells in his teens sees God as having been “diffused“ through the Universe “since the beginning of things”.

Wells was an atheist in most of his later life, but went though a quasi-religious phase in the 1910s.

Surely God’s disembodiment was merely an instance of the human tendency to etherialise.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

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