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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, November 6, 2015


The "Neopuritan nannies" referenced in Part 1 were pretty much the Usual Gang of Bloody Comic Book Elitists, but I've never meant to suggest that they were the worst of the lot. Such elitists are pikers next to some of the philosophers who have been guilty of creating false expectations for the world as a whole.

Marx may be the biggest Nanny of all time, given that he fostered the idea of controlling human destiny through the manipulation of economic factors. But one of the seminal "fathers of science fiction" had similar nanny-ish proclivities, as I find after my having given one of his works-- H.G. Wells' THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME-- a quick though not superficial read-through.

By the time SHAPE was published in 1933, Wells was no longer writing "scientific romances" very much. His key works were all the flowers of his youth, and in his later years he often sought to use non-fiction as a means to express his passion for Socialism. SHAPE is what we now call an "alternative history," in which Wells narrates his understanding of world affairs up until 1933, and then imagines the future events that will lead to the formation of a beneficent world state.

I find myself regarding this as a "nanny-ish" proposition because Wells' world state is, despite all his protests as to the continued value of a "sublimated" individuality, remains a place that values safety above all else:

What has happened during the past three and a half centuries to the human consciousness has been a sublimation of individuality. That phase is the quintessence of modern history. A large part of the commonplace life of man, the food-hunt, the shelter-hunt, the safety-hunt, has been lifted out of the individual sphere and socialized for ever. To that the human egotism has given its assent perforce. It has abandoned gambling and profit-seeking and all the wilder claims of property. It has ceased altogether to snatch, scramble and oust for material ends. And the common man has also been deprived of any weapons for his ready combativeness and of any liberty in its release. Nowadays even children do not fight each other. Gentleness in difference has become our second nature.

Now Nietzsche was no less aware that every society practiced this same ritual that he calls "self-overcoming," by which individual selfish tendencies are conquered in order to promote each society's "table of values." But the German philosopher was extremely leery that any civilization could reach a point of such advancement that it would not grow stagnant, so that it needed men of "courage" who would overturn the established values. This is why THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA so frequently has its interlocutor rage against "the good and the just:" not because society's rules aren't based in real needs-- to prevent theft, adultery, etc.-- but because such rules become the people's reason for living in itself, rather than serving as a means to an end. The idea that Wells proposes above-- of a mankind where "even children do not fight each other"-- with extreme suspicion. To my ear it sounds like an old man's vision of paradise: a place where no one raises voices or has any arguments-- and of course Wells was over sixty when he wrote SHAPE.

I also find Wells guilty of a Pollyanna attitude in Chapter 8, where he tries to use biological double-talk in order to make it seem as if the human propensity for cruelty is an aberration:

The older psychologists were disposed to classify cruelty as a form of sexual aberration — in ordinary speech we still use their old word Sadistic — but this attribution is no longer respected by contemporary authorities. Cruelty goes far beyond the sexual field. Just as hate is now understood to be a combative fear compound, the stiffening up of a faltering challenge, which may become infectious, so cruelty is regarded as a natural development of effort against resistance, so soon as the apprehension of frustration exceeds a certain limit. It is a transformation of our attempt to subdue something, usually a living thing, to our will, under the exasperation of actual or anticipated obduracy.

I've established in my own posts that I don't consider cruelty, or anything associated with violence, to be entirely derived from sexuality. But clearly Wells is trying to divorce human nature from cruelty by making it seem as if cruel action is simply an adventitious reflex. Thus, if a "nanny-state" takes away anything that people might fight over, then there will be no "transformation of [an] attempt to subdue something."

Contrast this with Nietzsche's psychological insight from ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS:

"To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [....] Without cruelty there is no festival."

One may disagree with Nietzsche about the degree to which human nature is dependent upon cruelty in its most objectionable forms. But who, aside from a nanny, could doubt that a part of what makes us human is our competitiveness, our desire to excel? Since I've quoted Francis Fukuyama's verdict on these matters at least three times now, I suppose I need not repeat myself on this subject.

Though SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME is no fun to read-- it often seems like the author merely repeating himself: "See, I was right about this, and this, and this"-- it does show that the ideal of the overprotected society is far from a new one.

Since modern-day nannies so frequently worry about how susceptible minds will be driven to orgies of fascist violence by superheroes, I find myself wondering if Nietzsche might not have viewed them as more in the vein of Wells than of his "overmen." After all, most superheroes are devoted to maintaining the values of the society, rather than overturning values. So maybe had Friedrich N., been given the chance to behold the spawn of Siegel and Shuster, he would have found superheroes as repressive to spirit as I find Wells' "nanny-state."

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