Excerpt: The Coming Race
As I write this, it is May 25th for me, the 207th anniversary of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s birth.
Most people may not have heard of Bulwer-Lytton, at least by name. He has a reputation now, for those that have, of being a…well, bad novelist. There is even a bad writing contest named after him. Contestants deliberately try to write the worst openings to stories.
However, bad may not be the right word. It’s broad writing, certainly. Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, was copying Bulwer-Lytton when he wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night.” That’s the opening to Bulwer-Lytton’s own 1830 work, Paul Clifford.
He also coined a few well-known phrases: “the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”‘
I wanted to give you a chance to judge for yourself. I thought I’d treat you to an excerpt from one of his most important works, The Coming Race. It’s a Hollow Earth tale…and there have been a lot of those, from Burroughs to Verne. It was actually a real idea at one point…that the Earth is hollow, and in some cases, that other races live within.
I particularly enjoyed this section. It won’t really spoil any of the rest of the book for you, by the way. The narrator is of our world, and has encountered the female-dominated, more “evolved” race, the Vril-ya. In the excerpt, they are discussing literature:
I have said that these dramas are of great antiquity. No new plays, indeed no imaginative works sufficiently important to survive their immediate day, appear to have been composed for several generations. In fact, though there is no lack of new publications, and they have even what may be called newspapers, these are chiefly devoted to mechanical science, reports of new inventions, announcements respecting various details of business—in short, to practical matters. Sometimes a child writes a little tale of adventure, or a young Gy vents her amorous hopes or fears in a poem; but these effusions are of very little merit, and are seldom read except by children and maiden Gy-ei. The most interesting works of a purely literary character are those of explorations and travels into other regions of this nether world, which are generally written by young emigrants, and are read with great avidity by the relations and friends they have left behind.
I could not help expressing to Aph-Lin my surprise that a community in which mechanical science had made so marvellous a progress, and in which intellectual civilisation had exhibited itself in realising those objects for the happiness of the people, which the political philosophers above ground had, after ages of struggle, pretty generally agreed to consider unattainable visions, should, nevertheless, be so wholly without a contemporaneous literature, despite the excellence to which culture had brought a language at once so rich and simple, vigourous and musical.
My host replied—”Do you not perceive that a literature such as you mean would be wholly incompatible with that perfection of social or political felicity at which you do us the honour to think we have arrived? We have at last, after centuries of struggle, settled into a form of government with which we are content, and in which, as we allow no differences of rank, and no honours are paid to administrators distinguishing them from others, there is no stimulus given to individual ambition. No one would read works advocating theories that involved any political or social change, and therefore no one writes them. If now and then an An feels himself dissatisfied with our tranquil mode of life, he does not attack it; he goes away. Thus all that part of literature (and to judge by the ancient books in our public libraries, it was once a very large part), which relates to speculative theories on society is become utterly extinct. Again, formerly there was a vast deal written respecting the attributes and essence of the All-Good, and the arguments for and against a future state; but now we all recognise two facts, that there IS a Divine Being, and there IS a future state, and we all equally agree that if we wrote our fingers to the bone, we could not throw any light upon the nature and conditions of that future state, or quicken our apprehensions of the attributes and essence of that Divine Being. Thus another part of literature has become also extinct, happily for our race; for in the time when so much was written on subjects which no one could determine, people seemed to live in a perpetual state of quarrel and contention. So, too, a vast part of our ancient literature consists of historical records of wars an revolutions during the times when the Ana lived in large and turbulent societies, each seeking aggrandisement at the expense of the other. You see our serene mode of life now; such it has been for ages. We have no events to chronicle. What more of us can be said than that, ‘they were born, they were happy, they died?’ Coming next to that part of literature which is more under the control of the imagination, such as what we call Glaubsila, or colloquially ‘Glaubs,’ and you call poetry, the reasons for its decline amongst us are abundantly obvious.
“We find, by referring to the great masterpieces in that department of literature which we all still read with pleasure, but of which none would tolerate imitations, that they consist in the portraiture of passions which we no longer experience—ambition, vengeance, unhallowed love, the thirst for warlike renown, and suchlike. The old poets lived in an atmosphere impregnated with these passions, and felt vividly what they expressed glowingly. No one can express such passions now, for no one can feel them, or meet with any sympathy in his readers if he did. Again, the old poetry has a main element in its dissection of those complex mysteries of human character which conduce to abnormal vices and crimes, or lead to signal and extraordinary virtues. But our society, having got rid of temptations to any prominent vices and crimes, has necessarily rendered the moral average so equal, that there are no very salient virtues. Without its ancient food of strong passions, vast crimes, heroic excellences, poetry therefore is, if not actually starved to death, reduced to a very meagre diet. There is still the poetry of description—description of rocks, and trees, and waters, and common household life; and our young Gy-ei weave much of this insipid kind of composition into their love verses.”
“Such poetry,” said I, “might surely be made very charming; and we have critics amongst us who consider it a higher kind than that which depicts the crimes, or analyses the passions, of man. At all events, poetry of the inspired kind you mention is a poetry that nowadays commands more readers than any other among the people I have left above ground.”
“Possibly; but then I suppose the writers take great pains with the language they employ, and devote themselves to the culture and polish of words and rhythms of an art?”
“Certainly they do: all great poets do that. Though the gift of poetry may be inborn, the gift requires as much care to make it available as a block of metal does to be made into one of your engines.”
“And doubtless your poets have some incentive to bestow all those pains upon such verbal prettinesses?”
“Well, I presume their instinct of song would make them sing as the bird does; but to cultivate the song into verbal or artificial prettiness, probably does need an inducement from without, and our poets find it in the love of fame—perhaps, now and then, in the want of money.”
“Precisely so. But in our society we attach fame to nothing which man, in that moment of his duration which is called ‘life,’ can perform. We should soon lose that equality which constitutes the felicitous essence of our commonwealth if we selected any individual for pre-eminent praise: pre-eminent praise would confer pre-eminent power, and the moment it were given, evil passions, now dormant, would awake: other men would immediately covet praise, then would arise envy, and with envy hate, and with hate calumny and persecution. Our history tells us that most of the poets and most of the writers who, in the old time, were favoured with the greatest praise, were also assailed by the greatest vituperation, and even, on the whole, rendered very unhappy, partly by the attacks of jealous rivals, partly by the diseased mental constitution which an acquired sensitiveness to praise and to blame tends to engender. As for the stimulus of want; in the first place, no man in our community knows the goad of poverty; and, secondly, if he did, almost every occupation would be more lucrative than writing.
“Our public libraries contain all the books of the past which time has preserved; those books, for the reasons above stated, are infinitely better than any can write nowadays, and they are open to all to read without cost. We are not such fools as to pay for reading inferior books, when we can read superior books for nothing.”
“With us, novelty has an attraction; and a new book, if bad, is read when an old book, though good, is neglected.”
“Novelty, to barbarous states of society struggling in despair for something better, has no doubt an attraction, denied to us, who see nothing to gain in novelties; but after all, it is observed by one of our great authors four thousand years ago, that ‘he who studies old books will always find in them something new, and he who reads new books will always find in them something old.’ But to return to the question you have raised, there being then amongst us no stimulus to painstaking labour, whether in desire of fame or in pressure of want, such as have the poetic temperament, no doubt vent it in song, as you say the bird sings; but for lack of elaborate culture it fails of an audience, and, failing of an audience, dies out, of itself, amidst the ordinary avocations of life.”
What did you think? Different than you expected? Do you feel like it has anything to say about literature today? If you want to read more of that book, you can get it for free:
There are a lot of other books…Kindle owners can get 32 books in one file for $4.99 at time of writing: The Essential Edward Bulwer-Lytton Collection.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.