Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"The World Was All Before Them"

Recalling Margaret Atwood’s description of science fiction as “where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost,” I saw H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine as a new take on the creation story with particular attention given to the inherent exclusion involved in creating paradise and the importance and dangers of seeking greater knowledge.

The Time Traveller’s initial descriptions of the future recall the imagery of Eden – a land of naïve but contented people, no conflict, dominion over animals (though it is in the form of having driven them all to extinction), and abundant fruit. It is striking that this land that recalls the creation myth lacks any acts of creation. There is no evidence of the Eloi procreating. In fact, though he’s only in the future for a short time (eight days which actually encompass massive leaps in time, quite like the seven days of creation in Genesis), the Time Traveller concludes that the people are sterile. This inability to produce also extends to goods and buildings on the earth’s surface – nothing is new. But what disturbs the Time Traveller the most is the loss of creativity. The people are not thinkers, and seem disinterested in working to gain more knowledge. They are Adam and Eve before the Fall, and have no intention of falling.

Of course, the Time Traveller’s initial perception of this imperfect paradise is further complicated by the fact that it comes at the cost of others being kept out. In a course I took last year on Moby-Dick, the professor noted that the creation story can be seen as a series of separations, beginning with the division between day and night. The Time Machine literally incorporates that idea, highlighting the distinction between the Eloi and the Morlocks by giving them the domains of day and night, respectively. But the story also complicates the traditional exclusion narrative of the paradise story by challenging the order of such a society. Barred from paradise, the Morlocks are a powerful force rather than the weaker party.

This concept of a change in order also comes into play with the manipulations of time. The Time Traveller’s accelerated journey further into the future is almost an exact reversal of the creation story as told in Genesis. First he notes the disappearance of man, already well under way in 802,701 with the division of humanity into the two distinct species of Eloi and Morlock. Land animals, sea creatures and birds disappear after the Time Traveller's brief interaction with them, followed by the distinct sun, moon, and stars, the earth’s greenery, the division between land, sea, and sky, and, finally, light. The Time Traveller is plunged into darkness, but is able to find his way back home, traveling backwards through time as the world recreates itself. The novel’s epilogue closes with a somewhat hopeful message that almost undermines the absolute need for creativity – “even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (117). My question is whether or not that’s enough, and I think the statement may be purposefully ambiguous. Seth raised the question of knowledge in terms of colonialism. Is it necessary to force our own system of knowledge on others who are leading supposedly ignorant but perfectly functional lives? I think this also connects to issues of learning in general. When should we seek knowledge that is beyond us and when would it be better to avoid the temptation of the forbidden fruit? Would the Time Traveller and those who heard his story have been better off not knowing what came next?

* “The world was all before them” is from Paradise Lost (12.646)

** Image Source:


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