Monday, 17 October 2016

Toomas Karmo: Victorian Humourist Jerome K. Jerome on Deep Time and Eventual Japanese Tourists

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo has time to make the necessary points to adequate length. 

Revision history:


  • 20161018T0255Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version. He reserved the right to make tiny, nunsubstantive, purely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48  hours, as here-undocumented versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ... 

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

The historical record, it might be thought, renders the seer's would-be vocation ridiculous. I, for one, may in the past have yielded to the temptation to think this. For how silly have those tomes proved which were flooding Canadian bookstores in 1965 or 1970, purporting to forecast "life in the Year 2000"! We were blandly assured back then - as a child or young teen, I relished the Kool-Aid, and subsequently I rued the relishing - that by the "Year 2000" space tourism and flying cars would be commonplace, with the social problems of the 1960s diminished or eradicated. 

A particular Canadian theme back then was the impending city-under-a-dome, secure from winter snows, its happy citizenry therefore having no need of overcoat or shovel. (Nobody that I can remember made much of a fuss in Canada, back then, about climate change. And so it never occurred to anyone, as far as I recall, that Canadian municipal air-conditioning bills would get progressively more hefty with each successive July, under all that curving glass or plastic.) 

And, going a bit farther back, how silly is the 1936 British science-fiction thriller film "The Shape of Things to Come"! I have managed easily enough to view this on YouTube. The London Blitz gets foretold with stunning accuracy, those chilling (if 1930s-level) "Special Effects" rendered all the more apocalyptic by the producers' forced resort to black-and-white. 

But well, gee whiz, the Blitz lay a scant four years into the producers' future. So how could they go astray? 

The rest of the film, seeking to depict the world of the later 20th century, proves silly indeed. (A plot hint: the world of that distant epoch is going to be dominated by lone aeroplane pilots - rugged, individualist, Viking figures, in the manner of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.) 

Then, going still farther back, there is that 1865 moonshot narrative of Jules Verne. 

One thing Verne does, it must be conceded, get more or less right: his three pioneering spacefarers are not British or German, but American. (Or, rather, there is just a small departure from the realities of Project Apollo: although the serious two are Americans, tagging along is a Parisian of markedly Bohemian disposition, in fact a poet.) And when I read this as a youngster, I like the angry analytical-geometry debate between the two heroic Americans, in a crisis which has seen their impending trajectory become unlear: hyperbola, or not a hyperbola? 

The rest - notably, the cannon shooting the projectile skyward, in excess of escape velocity, under the auspices of the "Baltimore Gun Club" - lacks merit. 


Yet on closer inspection of past would-be seers, a contrary picture emerges. 

Jules Verne, despite his brilliance, was writing on too technical a topic, and at too early a date, to make success attainable. 

Those 1967-era "Life in the Year 2000" money-wasters were for their part the offerings of writers primarily interested in cashing in (I believe) on a hot literary market. There was abundant reason in 1967 - still more than there is now, in 2016 - for fearing our civilization would collapse into a radioactive ruin. Doomsters, however, would not have sold as well back then as the feelgoods. The Feelgood Squad was after all purporting to validate foundational values of the then booming Canada-USA Suburbia, taking skillful aim at the wallets of a socially conservative, and middle-brow, readership. 

What about the serious writers, the real cultural critics? It is here that a contrary picture emerges. 

From Jules Verne's day we have also Richard Jeffries (1848-1887), tackling a topic less technical, and therefore in his day more tractable, than Verne's. What, asks Jeffries in 1885, is the conceivable shape of English society a couple of centuries ahead? Like Henry David Thoreau in Massachusetts a generation earlier, Jeffries grasps the emptiness of Victorian industrialism. Jeffries' specific prognostication in After London: or, Wild England (at least in the perhaps half or third of this work which I have read) is startling in its plausibility, given what we now know about climate change and sea-level trends: after London comes water, the former metropolis a toxic swamp. For the higher terrain in England, Jeffries envisages rather pleasant, dignified neo-mediaeval conditions, with city life diminished or gone. This seems, given what we know in 2016, perhaps reasonable enough. 

I am not sure if I have read Huxley's 1931 Brave New World. But I, like everyone, am aware of its dramatic premiss - Britain over the coming decades to become pleasant on its surface and nasty at its core, its citizens  now enervated through a cunning combination of feelgood pharmaceuticals and feelgood mass media. 

And everyone has read Orwell's 1984

Nowadays, the joke is, "Well, both prophets were right. We've had our Brave New World, and now we're getting our 1984." 

Downright eerie in its insightfulness - I shudder when I think of this, as one shudders upon thinking of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel from antiquity, and of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl from one's parents' decades of Party and Reich - is E.M.Forster. It's all there, folks, in that 1909 short story "The Machine Stops": the personal electronics, with voice and image, offering a pathetic simulacrum of personal connection; the devotion to empty, if highbrow, humanistic scholarship, on the part of people too frightened to venture outdoors; the unreality of intercontinental air travel, as one stares out of the window at a speed so great, from an altitude so high, as to render the experience meaningless (Forster's "air ship" is, admittedly, not as fast as an Airbus, but this is an incidental detail); the eventual helplesness of city upon networked city, across the planet, as the poorly understood technology breaks down and the real, non-virtual, natural order reasserts control. This is Web culture in all its darkness, foretold in an era where even a trunk telephone call from London to Birmingham was a Big Thing. 

If you, Gentle Reader, have yet to examine "The Machine Stops", then find it in Google, or whatever, and set aside half an hour or an hour or two hours (it's just 12,300 words), and only then come back here. One access link (among many, I imagine) is


In all the crop of now-vindicated prophecy, Victorian humourist Jerome K. Jerome (whom I quoted in a different context on this blog on 2016-09-19 or 2016-09-20) merits a place of modest honour. I finish today's little essay by quoting verbatim, from the sixth chapter of his masterpiece Three Men in a Boat

I leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to decide just how close Jerome K. Jerome came in 1888 to forecasting social realities - if not the realities of his envisaged 2288 Britain (that, I think with Jeffries, is going to be under lots of water), at any rate the realities of 2016. I add here, as an explanation for some readers who may need it, that Jerome's "Jedo" (also "Jeddo", "Yedo", "Yeddo")  is the old term for Tokyo. 

Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimney-pieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown) that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house? 

That china dog that ornaments the bedroom of my furnished lodgings. It is a white dog. Its eyes are blue. Its nose is a delicate red, with black spots. Its head is painfully erect, and its expression is amiability carried to the verge of imbecility. I do not admire it myself. Considered as a work of art, I may say it irritates me. Thoughtless friends jeer at it, and even my landlady herself has no admiration for it, and excuses its presence by the circumstance that her aunt gave it to her. 

But in 200 years' time it is more than probable that that dog will be dug up from somewhere or other, minus its legs, and with its tail broken, and will be sold for old china, and put in a glass cabinet, and people will pass round and admire it. They will be struck by the wonderful depth of the colour on the nose, and speculate as to how beautiful the bit of the tail that is lost no doubt was. 

Well, in this age, we do not see the beauty of that dog. We are too familiar with it. It is like the sunset and the stars: we are not awed by their loveliness because they are common to our eyes. So it is with that china dog. In 2288 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendants will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as "those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs". 

The "sampler" that the eldest daughter did at school will be spoken of as "tapestry of the Victorian era", and be almost priceless. The blue-and-white mugs of the present-day roadside inn will be hunted up, all cracked and chipped, and sold for their weight in gold, and rich people will use them for claret cups; and travellers from Japan will buy up the "Presents from Ramsgate", and "Souvenirs of Margate", that may have escaped destruction, and take them back to Jedo as ancient English curios. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated. For comment-moderation rules, see initial posting on this blog (2016-04-14).