The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Fourth
The Modern State Militant

6. Æsthetic Frustration: The Note Books of Ariston Theotocopulos

H.G. Wells

IT IS a growing custom of historians, and we have already followed it freely, to vivify their general statements by quotations from contemporary descriptive writers. As histories have disentangled themselves from their primitive obsession about rulers and their policies, they have made a more and more extensive use of private memoirs, diaries, novels, plays, letters, sketches, pictures and the like. Once upon a time washing bills and memorandum books were below the “dignity of history”. Now we esteem them far above acts of parliament or diplomatic memoranda. And certainly there is no more convenient source of information about current ideas and feeling under the Air Dictatorship than the cipher Note Books of that gifted painter and designer Ariston Theotocopulos (1997-2062). For thirty-seven years until his death, he wrote in these books almost daily, making his own shrewd comments on current events, describing many odd and curious occurrences, noting very particularly his own emotional reactions, and adorning them all with a wealth of sketches, dreams, caricatures and the like, which make the full edition in facsimile, with a translation, among the greatest delights of the book-lover. The bulk of this matter does not concern the student of general history at all, and yet it is possible to pick out from it material for a far clearer realization of life under the second Council than could be derived from a score of abstract descriptions.

The earlier of these volumes are coloured by the irritation of the writer with three particular things: the restrictions upon private flying, his difficulties in finding scope for his genius, and the general want of beauty and graciousness in life. At that time there were no privately owned aeroplanes and no one could act as an air pilot who was not an active Fellow of the Modern State organization and subject to its rules and disciplines. Theotocopulos had an anarchistic soul, and his desire to wander freely above the mountains and clouds, to go whither he liked at his own sweet will, unhampered by any thought of immediate “service”, became an obsession with him. “If they would let me alone I would give the world something,” he scribbles. “But what on earth is the good of those blighted old Master Decorators telling me to do this and that? Did I come into the world to imitate and repeat things done already?”

And in another place he notes: “Some damned official flying overhead on his way to preventing something. It spoilt the day for me. I couldn’t think any more.”

Then comes a cry of agony. “The lay-out of all this terracing is wrong. What is the good of putting me to do a frieze of elephants on a wall that ought to come down again? If I do anything good that wall will stay where it is. The better I do it, the more likely they are to keep that wall. And it’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s wrong.”

A few pages on, one word is all alone by itself: “Elephants!

Then follows a string of caricatures of that animal which Li has characterized as acute biological criticism. Theotocopulos had been vividly interested in elephants, but now he had tired of them. He represents them as diaphanous or altogether transparent, and reveals the distresses of their internal lives. And there is a whole page of incredibly wicked elephants’ eyes.

He was working on the rather deliberate decoration of the main-road system then in course of construction, running from Cape Finisterre through North Italy and along the North Black-Sea Dyke to the Crimea and Caucasia. That system has since been deflected from the Ligurian coast northward, but at that time it was made to follow by the sea to Genoa, and thence passed in a great cutting through the mountains to the plain of the Po and so to the still existing Chioggia viaduct. It was one of a not very ably conceived system of world roads that was greatly modified before its completion in our own time, and it was carried out with a massiveness and a solidity of ornamentation that witness to the World Council’s incapacity to realize that Change was still going on. Those roads seem to have been planned for all time. They indicate mental coagulation.

Theotocopulos was engaged upon the coast section between the old town of Nice to the old port of Genoa. It was driven in a series of flattened curves that straightened out in places to a right line, cutting brutally through headlands and leaping gulfs and bays in vast viaducts. Above and below the slopes were terraced with natural or imitation marble walls and the terraces were planted with oranges, lemons, vines, roses, olives and agaves. These terraces went up, as Theotocopulos says, “relentlessly” to the old Corniche Road above, broken only by a few masses of evergreen trees. The ruins of the villas and gardens of the Capitalist era and most of the towns along the coast that Titus Cobbett had visited and described seventy-odd years before had now been cleared away; a few groups of residential buildings occurred here and there, and pretentious staircases, which were rarely used because of the lifts they masked, led down to beaches and holiday places and harbours for pleasure boats and fishermen. These holiday places and the residential buildings were low and solid-looking, after the fashion of the time, and they provoked Theotocopulos to frenzy. He caricatured them and spotted his drawings with indecent words. It is amazing how truthfully he drew them and how ingeniously he distorted them. He represented them as cowering into the earth like the late buildings of the war years, from which they certainly derived their squatness.

“We still dream of air raids and war in the air,” he said, and he speaks elsewhere of “the inmates of those fortifications. . . . If only I could get hold of an aeroplane and a bomb! Perhaps after all there is some sense in keeping intelligent people like me out of the air, with this sort of stuff about.”

His task unhappily kept him in close contact with all this squat architectural magnificence. He had won distinction at an unusually early age for his brilliant drawings of men and animals; he had a grotesque facility for seeing into bodies and conveying his sense of internal activities; before his time the only anatomy known to artists had been muscular anatomy; and he was set to “decorate” an ungainly stretch of wall near Alassio with a frieze of elephants. It is necessary to explain that in those days there was the completest divorce in people’s minds between æsthetic and mechanical considerations. First you made a thing, they thought, and then you decorated it. It seems almost incredible now, but the engineers of the Air Dictatorship were supposed and expected to disregard all thought of beauty in what they did. If they made something frightful, then the artist was called in to sugar the pill. There, as in so many things, the restless sensitive mind of Theotocopulos anticipated the ideas of to-day. “Engineers ought to be artists,” he says, “anyhow; and artists ought to be engineers or leave structural work alone.” This wall of his still exists; his decoration has preserved it, even as he foresaw. It just remains for his sake, a lesson for students and a monument to his still incomparable talent.

“Took a holiday,” he notes one day, “and rowed about five miles out to sea. These disproportions grow worse as one gets away from them. Never before have I seen anything that got uglier as it receded in perspective. This coast does. The road is too broad and big. There will never be that much traffic. The population of the world isn’t increasing and on the whole it rushes about less than it did. One hundred and twelve metres of width! What is this coming torrent of traffic from Finisterre to God knows where? Not a sign of it as yet. Nor ever will be. The little lizards get lost across that glassy surface and die and dry up. Artless earthworms crawl out upon it and perish. One sees them by the thousand after wet weather. No shade for miles. The terraces are badly spaced and the walls that sustain them look gaunt. There is no sympathy in all this straight stuff with the line and movement of the hills behind. They live. And this accursed habit of building houses close to the ground! Damn it, don’t we build to get away from the ground?”

And then suddenly in big capitals comes one word: “Proportion!

After that he meditated with his pencil in hand, jotting down his thoughts. “The clue to life. Not simply beauty. There is no evil but want of proportion. Pain? Pain arises out of a disproportion between sensations. Dishonesty? Cruelty? It is all want of proportion between impulse and control. . . . ”

It is interesting to trace in the notebooks how he tries over ideas that are now familiar to everyone. He worries between the ideas of proportion and harmony. Then he hits on the discovery that all history is a record of fluctuations in proportion. To-day, of course, that is a commonplace. We have told the economic and political history of the twentieth century, for instance, almost entirely as the story of an irregular growth of the elements of life, hypertrophy of economic material going on concurrently with a relative arrest of educational, legal, and political adjustment. The first dim realizations of these disharmonies were manifested by the appearance of “planning”, those various crude attempts to make estimates of quantities in social life of which the Russian Five Year Plan was the first. After 1930, the world was full of Plans, and most of them were amazingly weak and headlong plans.

We learn from these notebooks of Theotocopulos how imperfectly this idea of really deliberate quantitative preparation in the activities of our species was apprehended even in the early twenty-first century. Just as the war complex ran away with men’s minds in the war period, so now political unity and uniformity and an extravagant concentration of enterprise upon productive efficiency had outrun reason. The interest of these notebooks lies exactly in the fact that they are not the writings of a scientific social psychologist, but of a man who was, except for his peculiar genius and energy of expression, a very ordinary personality. They tell us how common people were taking the peculiar drive of the times, how the general mind was puzzling out its new set of perplexities and asking why after having abolished war, restored order, secured plenty, defeated the fears and realized the wildest hopes of the martyr generations, it was still so far from tranquillity and happiness.

“Growing pains,” he writes abruptly. “That was old Lenin’s phrase. Is a certain want of proportion unavoidable?”

After that flash in the pan, the notebook wanders off into a dissertation upon Levels of Love, of no importance for our present purpose. But that idea of “Growing Pains” was working under the surface all the time. Suddenly appear pages of sketches of strange embryos, of babies and kittens and puppies, all cases of morbid hypertrophy. “Is want of proportion inevitable in all growth? Nature seems to find it so, but she always has been a roundabout fumbler. She starts out to make a leg, and when it comes out a wing she says, ‘Eureka! I meant to do that.’ But in designed work? In engineering for example?”

His mind goes off to the making of castings, the waste in grinding, the problems that arise in assembling a machine.

“Nature corrects the disproportions of growth by varying the endocrines,” he reflects. “And when a house has got its frames set up and its walls built, we turn out the masons and put in the plasterers and painters. So now. A change of régime in the world’s affairs is indicated. New endocrinals. Fresh artisans.”

This particular entry in the notebook is dated April 7, 2027. It is one of the earliest appearances of what presently became a current phrase, “change of régime”.

The preoccupations of Theotocopulos with the physical and mental aspects of love, his extraordinary knack of linking physiological processes with the highest emotional developments, need not concern us here, important as they are in the history of æsthetic analysis. For a year or so he is concentrated upon his great “Desire Frieze” in the Refectory of the Art Library at Barcelona, and he thinks no more of politics. He likes the architects with whom he is associated; he approves of the developments at Barcelona, and he is given a free hand. “These fellows do as they like,” he remarks. “A great change from all those damned committees, ‘sanctioning’ this or asking you to ‘reconsider’ that.” Then he comes under the influence of that very original young woman from Argentina, also in her way a great artist, Juanita Mackail. Sketches of her, memoranda of poses and gestures, introduce her. Then he remarks: “This creature thinks.” So far he has never named her. Then she appears as “J” and becomes more and more frequent.

“There is something that frightens me about a really intelligent woman. Was it Poe or De Quincey—it must have been De Quincey—who dreamt of a woman with breasts that suddenly opened and became eyes? Horrid! To find you are being looked at like that.”

Following this a page has been torn out by him, the only page he ever tore out, and we are left guessing about it.

An abrupt return to political speculation in the notebooks follows. A number of entries begin, “J says”, or end, “This is J’s idea.”

Then some pages later he repeats: “This creature thinks. Do I? Only with my fingers. Language is too abstract for me. Or is it true, as she says, that I am mentally lazy. Mentally lazy—after I had been talking continuously to her for three hours!

“It seems all my bright little thoughts don’t amount to anything compared with the stuff these social psychologists are doing. I have a lot to learn. I suppose J would schoolmistress anybody.”

The notebooks keep the fragile grace and mental vigour of Juanita Mackail alive to this day. She was the sort of woman who would have been a socialist revolutionary in the nineteenth century, a commissar in Early Soviet Russia or a hard worker for the Modern State in the middle twentieth century. Now she was giving all the time her strongly decorative idiosyncrasy left free to the peculiar politics of the period. It is plain that before she met Theotocopulos she was already politically minded. She had had a feeling that the world was in some way not going right, but her clear perception of what had to be done about it came only with her liaison with him. The notebooks with their frankness and brutality tell not only a very exceptional love story, but what is perhaps inseparable from every worthwhile love story, a mutual education. Theotocopulos was her first and only lover. To begin with he had treated her as casually as he had treated the many other women in his life, and then it is plain that, as he began to find her out, his devotion to her became by degrees as great or greater than her devotion to him.

He studied her. He made endless notes about her. We know exactly how she affected him. How he affected her we are left to guess, but it is plain that for her there was at once the magnificence of his gifts and the appeal of his wayward childishness. The former overwhelmed her own. It is plain in her surviving work. The earlier work is the best. He asks twice, “Am I swamping J? Her stuff is losing character. She is borrowing my eyes. That last cartoon. Am I to blame? It was such lovely stuff. Once upon a time.” And he writes: “This maternity specialization is Nature’s meanest trick on women. If they are not going to be mothers, if they can’t be mothers, why on earth should they be saturated with motherhood? Why should J think more about getting me a free hand to do what I please than she does about her own work? She does. I haven’t asked her. Or have I, in some unconscious way, asked her? No, it’s just her innate vicious mothering. I am her beloved son and lover and the round world is my brother, and every day her proper work deteriorates and she gets more political and social-psychological on our account.”

From that point onward the trend of these notebooks towards politics becomes very strong. The early volumes express the resentments of an isolated man of extreme creative power who finds himself singlehanded and powerless in an unsympathetically ordered world. The late show that same individuality broadening to a conception of the whole world as plastic material, sustained by a sense of understanding and support, coming into relationship and cooperation with an accumulating movement of kindred minds. At last it is not so much Theotocopulos who thinks as the awakening æsthetic consciousness of the world community.

“The change of régime has to be like a chick breaking out of its egg. The shell has to be broken. But the shell had to be there. Let us be just. There is proportion in time as well as in space. If the shell is broken too soon there is nothing to be done but make a bad omelette. But if it isn’t broken at the proper time, the chick dies and stinks.”

The forty-seventh notebook is devoted almost entirely to a replanning of the subject of his early animadversions, the Ligurian coast. That notebook proved to be so richly suggestive that to-day some of his sketches seem to be actual drawings of present conditions, the treatment of the Monaco headland for example, and the reduction of the terraces. But his dreams of orange-groves are already quaint, because he knew nothing of the surprises in tree form that the experimental botanists were preparing. The forty-ninth booknote is also devoted to planning. “Plans for a world,” he writes on the first page. “Contributions.” He seems to have amused himself with this book at irregular intervals. There are some brilliant anticipations in it and also some incredible fantasies. Occasionally, like every prophet, he finds detail too much for him and lapses into burlesque.

There is a very long note of a very modern spirited discussion about individuality which he had with Juanita when apparently they were staying together at Montserrat. The notes are the afterthoughts of this talk, “shots at statement” as he would have called them, and they bring back to the reader a picture of that vanished couple who strolled just sixty years ago among the tumbled rocks and fragrant shrubs beneath the twisted pines of that high resort, both of them so acutely responsive to the drift of ideas that made the ultimate revolution—she intent and critical, holding on to her argument against his plunging suggestions, like someone who flies a kite in a high wind.

“The individual is for the species; but equally the species is for the individual.

“Man lives for the State in order to live by and through—and in spite of—the State.

“Life is a pendulum that swings between service and assertion. Resist, obey, resist, obey.

“Order, discipline, health, are nothing except to make the world safe for the æsthetic life.”

“We are Stoics that we may be Epicureans.”

“Exercise and discipline are the cookery but not the meal of life.

“Here as ever—proportion. But how can proportion be determined except æsthetically?

“The core of life is wilfulness.”

So they were thinking in 2046. Have we really got very much further to-day?

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