Perhaps the model for today’s “public intellectual,” hard-wired to the Zeitgeist and hair-triggered with opinions, is H.G. Wells. He dabbled in utopia and eugenics, wrote science-fiction novels and once said of Joseph Stalin, with whom he shook hands in 1934 (the year of the start of the Great Purge, following the murder of Sergey Kirov): “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest.” Wells believed in progress and World Government. I had read The Time Machine and his other “scientific romances” by the time I read John Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” (1961). David Kern, Updike’s stand-in, is thirteen and has also read The Time Machine. David’s encounter with Wells’ The Outline of History, first published in two volumes in 1920, shocks him and sets off a crisis of faith:
“. . . before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.”
Updike nicely captures the condescension and contempt associated with the dull, earnest scientism of any era. I remembered the early Updike story while reading Broadcast Minds (Sheed & Ward, 1932) by Ronald Knox, the Roman Catholic priest, Bible translator and author of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950). Knox took his title from the credence people put in the chief medium of his day, radio: “the habit of taking over, from self-constituted mentors, a ready-made, standardized philosophy of life, instead of constructing, with however imperfect materials, a philosophy of life for oneself.” In his chapter “The Omniscientists,” he anatomizes those who establish a pet thesis, withhold conflicting evidence, and then “serve up the whole to us as the best conclusions of modern research, disarming all opposition by appealing to the sacred name of science.” Among his targets are Wells, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Gerald Heard, the Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens of their day.
Knox traces the rise of “omniscience” in his day to the publication of The Outline of History. Wells, he says, is “a man who could turn his hand to anything, who, by his uncanny literary gift, could make any sort of improbability seem probable, in the manner of Jules Verne. Knox might be referring to Wells’ sci-fi novels and stories, or to almost anything he ever wrote. About his Outline of History he writes:
“But we had not pictured him as a historian. And then the book came out, and we realized that his treatment of his subject did not really need any knowledge of history, beyond the 1066 and All That standard; the rest could be left out.”
Conceding that Wells is “readable,” Knox adds: “It was a phantasia, history as Mr Wells wanted us to see it, with materials drawn from so wide a range of sources that, look where he would, he could always find some point of view, some opinion, which favoured his own thesis.”