Piercing the Veil

As with all the texts we have read thus far, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine registers a tension between science and poetry, or language more broadly. Like Victor Frankenstein, the Time Traveller is a representative of a science that has surpassed language entirely. In the society Wells depicts, science has advanced to such an extent that language can no longer keep up, or depict it fully. In reading Wells’ novella for the first time in this class, I was struck by the fact that this novella, centering on a time machine, has very little to do with time travel, itself. The first chapter’s iconic monologue on Time as the 4th dimension of space transitions abruptly to a commentary on Darwinian notions of evolution.

The time machine allows for an interesting discussion of the concept of limits. The “limit” is a term that recurs throughout mathematics and the sciences. For example, when a line converges on zero or infinity, it is said to be approaching its limit. The Time Machine is, like Frankenstein, a narrative about the transcending of limits, or boundaries. The initial conversation between the Time Traveller and his skeptical colleagues suggests that all achievement and possibility for productive change is contextualized in terms of the impossible. In other words, we can only understand what is possible by thinking about what is not possible. As I read Bruno Latour’s “How to Modernize Modernization,” I thought as much about The Time Machine as I did of Frankenstein. The Time Traveller is very aware of the “limits of the notion of limits,” (Latour 107) and through this character, Wells suggests the idea that limits are artificial. As evidenced by the Time Traveller’s voyage through time and space, limits exist only in language, not in nature. Language allows us to distinguish the self from the surrounding world. However, Wells plays with and distorts language in this novella, to suggest that even in language, limits are airy and immaterial.

In the first few chapters of The Time Machine, which we didn’t discuss much in class, Wells establishes a certain paradigm of thought that the Time Traveller will unravel. As made clear in Latour’s essay and in these chapters, there is a certain comfort in the notion of limits. Commonly understood societal limits allow for some measure of progress without stepping over a line into the unknown. Tellingly, when the Time Traveller reveals his miniature model time machine, the narrator refers to it as a “glittering metallic framework.” (65) These first chapters of the novella are about the framework—society, as people like the Medical Man wish to understand it. Wells illuminates the framework, and the Time Traveller takes it apart. As the Time Traveller attempts to describe his invention to his peers, the narrator refers to a “pause required for…proper assimilation.” (68, emphasis mine) This relationship to new information evokes David Hume’s “Of Miracles”—the compulsion to integrate new discoveries into one complete understanding. The alternative to assimilation is rejection. Out of fear, the Medical Man insists that the group “wait for the common-sense of the morning.” (68) But then, what is “common sense”? The Medical Man is clinging to a crumbling framework—an approach to reality that is no longer sufficient. When the narrator refers, in the first chapter, to the “luxurious after-dinner atmosphere, when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision,” Wells is making an ironic commentary. These men are anything but free. They do not digest—they have been digested into empirical and linguistic systems that were invented by men. Language should be a tool to classify and categorize, and make the world simpler. Instead, it makes the world much more complex.

Names are one form of language used to draw limits—lines of separation between individuals, and between the individual and his collective society. As discussed in lecture, in labeling the Time Traveller’s colleagues by their professions (as Joseph Conrad did in Heart of Darkness, only five years later), Wells denies these men a sense of individual identity. This doesn’t affect the characters, themselves, but rather the reader, who is trying to navigate through the text and distinguish between characters. The lack of real names attributed to these individuals creates a sense of two-dimensionality or hollowness. It is impossible to empathize with these characters because they don’t feel like real people. There is obviously a line being drawn between the skeptical professionals, who reaffirm boundaries, and the Time Traveller, who crosses them. The narrator’s perception of the Time Traveller is that “you never felt that you saw all round him.” (69) He conveys a sense of identity and dimension beyond that which is trivial and immediately recognizable. However, at the same time, the Time Traveller, too, is unnamed and identified only by a profession of sorts. In this sense, he is no different from his peers. Names are demonstrated to be one form of superficial linguistic distinction between people, and Wells conveys a sense of sameness, just as he is conveying the Time Traveller’s uniqueness. If the Time Traveller is not so different from his peers, perhaps the other men can transcend their self-imposed boundaries, as well.

H.G. Wells continues to meditate on the superficiality of language throughout the novella. He often employs expressions that border on paradox. For instance, he refers to the world of the Eloi often as one of “ruinous splendour.” (87) We do not often see those words employed in the same sentence. As the Time Traveller returns, injured, from his voyage in time, the narrator remarks, “A man couldn’t cover himself with dust by rolling in a paradox, could he?” (72) Here, the author conflates the physical and the metaphysical, blurring the line between the two. H.G. Wells brings the reader’s attention frequently to these contradictory or difficult expressions or images.

The novella plays upon this sense of tension and contradiction in its repeated reference to children. As we’ve discussed, in the Romantic tradition, children were considered to possess extraordinary wisdom and a profound connection to nature, beyond that which any adult could possess. When the Eloi are described as “beautiful and graceful creature[s]” (81) possessing a “certain childlike ease,” (82) Wells is inviting the reader to think of children in terms of the Romantic understanding. Subsequently, he reveals that the Eloi are “on the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children.” (83) Wells has deceived us into thinking that these are superior creatures that exist infinitely in a state of child-like wonder, only to subvert that expectation, revealing that these creatures are mentally and physically stunted. They are childish in the worst sense of the word. Wells toys with the reader, knowing that he possesses the same contemptible predispositions of the Medical Man. We are programmed to read the world in a certain way—to think of time as strictly linear, for example. Wells is interested in adjusting lines of demarcation. As science evolves, language must evolve. Though the Time Traveller is obviously condescending toward the Eloi, his statement that “they made no effort to communicate” (83) is perhaps complimentary to the Eloi. Language is greatly problematic in this text.

H.G. Wells synthesizes this thematic preoccupation with limits in the image of the “veil of…confusion” –the “hazy curtain.” (80) This seems to be a recurring image in the texts we’ve read thus far, including Frankenstein. In the person of the Time Traveller, Wells reminds the reader of how little we really know. Wells’ harrowing depiction of futurity intimates a sense of humble wonder before the great unknown. Though The Time Machine is, like Frankenstein, something of a cautionary tale about digging too deeply into nature’s secrets, I believe that the text is also inherently more optimistic than Shelley’s text. Obviously, Wells makes no comforting promises about the future. Nevertheless, the novel suggest’s man’s infinite potential. By reimagining the idea of limits, man can go further than he ever imagined possible, for better and for worse. Nature is man’s for the taking. The “veil” to which the narrator refers is figurative, existing only in the mind. Men are truly limited only when they succumb to the notion of limits. Both Frankenstein and The Time Machine suggest man’s ability to do incredible things, penetrating into the great mysterious heart of nature. For better and for worse, there are no real limits. There is little distance between man and his animal counterparts, and increasingly little distance between man and God. This is modernity.

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