History, the cliché goes, is written by the winners.
This line is often misattributed to Winston Churchill, a common source, it seems, for erroneous quotations. Churchill is also quoted as having said: ‘History will be kind to me; for I intend to write it’—a misquote of a longer and much less pithy line. Or, for one final example, we can turn to another controversial world leader fond of historical hyperbole, Donald Trump: ‘History’, he tells us, ‘is written by the dreamers, not the doubters’.
Banality notwithstanding, we can derive something important from these statements. The very fact that history is something that is ‘written’ at all—rather than, say, something that simply ‘happens’—alerts us to the fact that, in any engagement with history, a series of narrative choices must inevitably come into play. How the writer of history negotiates those narrative choices is of key importance in determining who that history is speaking for, and who, denied the means of or the opportunity for representation, finds themselves instead spoken for by the histories of others.
In this post, I will discuss some key works of speculative fiction from the early twentieth century: Jack London’s The Star Rover (1915), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). I’ll examine these in relation to Nietzsche’s 1874 essay on the nature of history, ‘On the Utility and Liability of History for Life’. This essay can help us to unearth the attitudes taken towards history and historical representation by writers in the early twentieth century, while, taken together, essay and works can allow us to better understand how the past can be employed as a tool to preserve, or as a weapon to overturn, the shapes of both present and future.
Monumental and antiquarian history
‘History’, Nietzsche writes, ‘pertains to the living person in three respects: it pertains to him as one who acts and strives, as one who preserves and venerates, and as one who suffers and is in need of liberation’ (131). Here we are presented with a basic outline of Nietzsche’s three modes of history. We will begin by examining the first two of these, identifying their usefulness in analysing works by London and Conan Doyle. In the final section, we will move on to a discussion of the final, more critical mode of history in relation to Gilman’s Herland.
The first mode of history described by Nietzsche is ‘monumental’ history, which looks to the past in order to uncover acts of greatness that may serve as models for the future. In this mode, history is sifted for ‘moments’ of human achievement, which are then held up as exemplars to be emulated (132). Such moments—‘a work, a deed, a rare inspiration, a creation’—can then be used to inspire similar works, deeds or creations in the future. As Nietzsche writes, ‘Whatever was once capable of extending the concept of “the human being”’—that is, whatever force may have once inspired the human to great or noble actions—‘must be eternally present in order for it perpetually to have this effect’ (132). History thus becomes ‘one single chain’, each link a moment of terrific ‘human struggle’ that serves also to link past with future (132). The canon of ‘great’ Western literature, with its select view of literary history, may be thought of as one clear example of a monumental view of history.
Against monumental history, Nietzsche contrasts ‘antiquarian’ history, which sees the present as directly coextensive with the traditions and habits of the past. In the antiquarian view, the emphasis is on stability, not change: the antiquarian ‘preserves and venerates’ the past, and ‘looks back with loyalty and love on the origins through which he [sic] became what he is’ (135). The state of the present is justified for the antiquarian, Nietzsche argues, ‘as the blossom and fruit of a past that is its inheritance’, and need not justify itself any further than this (136). History is thus viewed teleologically, with the present emerging inexorably from the past, and the future subsequently emerging as a mere extension of the present.
It can be seen, then, that whereas monumental history takes a selective approach to history, emphasising only those moments which can serve as models for the future, antiquarian history takes a much broader and more reverential view, viewing the future as, in a sense, already here: quite simply, the future will be as the present is. Both modes of history, however, emphasise identification with historical narratives—that is, the importance of identifying oneself in the recorded past, and of using this identification as a basis for present and future action. These different views of history can be put to useful purpose in unearthing the ideological frameworks underpinning works of Anglophone speculative literature from the early part of the twentieth century. We will here briefly consider two works by prominent fin de siècle writers, London’s The Star Rover and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
The Star Rover tells the story of Darrell Standing, an inmate of San Quentin State Prison. Standing is a typical London protagonist: hardy, no-nonsense, and hyper-masculine—a mixture of brains and brawn, capable of resisting the psychological and physical tortures administered by the brutal Warden Atherton. While bound in a strait-jacket during extended solitary confinement, Standing undergoes a series of out-of-body experiences—these experiences, it is revealed, consist of relived moments from Standing’s past lives, taking him to such diverse times and places as Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, Paris prior to the Revolution, and Utah in the period of Mormon settlement in the mid-nineteenth century. In this way, Standing experiences ‘ten thousand lives’ from his ‘past’, discovering within himself a ‘flux of spirit’ that settles, in each new reincarnation, into a ‘mould of my particular flesh and time and place’ (12).
Standing’s out-of-body experiences can thus be seen to take him through all of human history, allowing him to relive specific historical moments from the past. And these moments, furthermore, are of quite a specific nature: they are moments of suffering that mirror, and thereby reinforce the significance of, Standing’s own present suffering at the hands of the Warden of San Quentin. Hence, for instance, Standing identifies himself with the shipwrecked Daniel Foss who, against all odds, survives eight years on a tiny island of rock somewhere in the southern hemisphere; with Adam Strang, a sixteenth-century explorer who, after earning the wrath of a Korean military commander, suffers forty years of ostracisation before finally achieving his much-desired murderous revenge; and with Ragnar Lodbrog, a Danish orphan who, after a life of military adversity and privation, becomes a centurion in the Roman army. Following each relived experience, Standing comes more and more to realise the truth (as he sees it) regarding death and life:
There is no death. Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die. Only the flesh dies and passes, ever a-crawl with the chemic ferment that informs it, ever plastic, ever crystallizing, only to melt into the flux and to crystallize into fresh and diverse forms that are ephemeral and that melt back into the flux. Spirit alone endures and continues to build upon itself through successive and endless incarnations as it works upward toward the light. What shall I be when I live again? (297)
Standing here demonstrates what Nietzsche claims to be the key trait of the monumental individual: a disregard for death. The monumental individual, he argues, need not fear death, since they are already ‘on their way to immortality’, to the transcendence of the material flesh (132).
London’s use of history, his select drawing upon historical narratives derived from diverse cultures and traditions from around the world, reinforces this tendency towards material transcendence. London’s use of such wide-ranging historical reference points, his assimilation of disparate instances of suffering sifted from the whole of the human past, has the effect of imbuing Standing’s sufferings with a universal, rather than particular, historical resonance. Standing’s heroic conflict with the Warden figures not merely as a local conflict between individuals, but as a timeless and universal struggle between honour, endurance and strength on one side, and weakness and corruption on the other—one that dramatises London’s own deeply-held ideal of human action centred on self-realisation in the face of hardship and suffering.
In London’s novel, then, we can see a monumental view of history in action: Standing is buoyed by his awareness that his suffering, suffused with historical significance, is both historical and transcendental, ephemeral and timeless, and that he himself, being spiritually ‘immortal’, remains ultimately out of reach of the Warden’s physical tortures.
In Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, conversely, we see a much different view of history emerging. The Lost World follows the adventurers of Professor Challenger, a British biologist, as he travels with a band of co-explorers to Brazil in search of a hidden plateau rumoured to contain living prehistoric animals. On the plateau, however, the explorers discover not only dinosaurs, but also two races of ‘prehistoric’ humans: a group of sympathetic, proto-European ‘Indians’, and a tribe of violent and amoral ‘ape-men’, in conflict over control of their ancient homeland. The Europeans intervene to aid the Indians in overthrowing the ape-men, killing or enslaving the entire ape population and thus ensuring that ‘Man was to be supreme and the man-beast forever to find his allotted place’ (136).
Conan Doyle’s novel acts as a demonstration of evolution-in-action: the explorers, as Challenger points out, are ‘privileged … to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history, the battles which have determined the fate of the world’:
What, my friends, is the conquest of one nation by another? It is meaningless. Each produces the same result. But those fierce fights, when in the dawn of the ages the cave-dwellers held their own against the tiger folk, or the elephants first found that they had a master, those were the real conquests—the victories that count. By this strange turn of fate we have seen and helped to decide even such a contest. Now upon this plateau the future must ever be for man (136).
This is a highly interesting passage: wars between nations, Challenger here insists—including, presumably, the recently concluded Boer War between Britain and the Transvaals of South Africa, in which Conan Doyle himself participated—are of no real importance, since the end result is always the same: western imperial stability. European civilisation, it is suggested, is thus protected from any significant flux, or change, or historical transformation by a level of technological sophistication and social stability that preserves it even from the ill effects of war. This is in sharp contrast to the evolutionary uncertainty depicted as impacting upon life on the ‘primitive’ plateau, where the intervention of the European explorers generates an entirely new evolutionary narrative for the newly-victorious Indians. European imperial civilisation is thus figured as existing in a kind of post-historical state—while all human evolution, it is implied, leads inexorably along a path culminating in this civilisation, and to the supreme scientific rationalism encapsulated by Professor Challenger.
The Indians of the plateau offer some further support of this view. The Indians, with whom the European explorers seem to share some common affinity, are of course not considered ‘true’ humans—they lack the required technical or civilisational progress to earn such a vaunted epithet. Such progress is, however, merely a matter of time: if we understand the ‘lost-world’ novel (as many critics do) as essentially a time-travel tale, in which the ‘primitivism’ of the imperial periphery comes to represent an earlier stage from the European human past, then it becomes clear that the Indians are in fact ‘Europeans’—but Europeans at a much earlier stage in their evolutionary and technological development. The Indians, in other words, symbolise western humanity’s past, and so exist in a direct lineage with the rationalist Challenger and his companions. This schema of teleological evolution may help to account for the buoyant tone of Conan Doyle’s work: his novel is underpinned by what Nietzsche describes as ‘the happiness of knowing that one’s existence’—or, in this case, the existence of all European civilisation, including Professor Challenger, who discovers his primitive doppelgänger living on the plateau—‘is not formed arbitrarily or by chance’, but is the final, and indeed ‘natural’, outcome of inexorable evolutionary historical processes (136).
Conan Doyle’s novel thus adopts a conservative, antiquarian view of history, with evolution taking the place of tradition: by framing the Indians as the evolutionary ‘ancestors’, so to speak, of the European explorers, and framing the plateau as a ‘primitive’ space in relation to the ‘advanced’ European imperial society, a direct contiguous link is established between the historical past and the unchanging present (and, by extension, the future).
So, although London’s and Conan Doyle’s works demonstrate different understandings of history, it can be seen in both cases that the emphasis is on identification with the prevailing historical narrative. It must also be noted, however, that each work is also circumscribed by its uncritical historical attitude—its tacit acceptance of a host of encoded western power structures (in the imperialist depiction of the Indians of the plateau, for instance, or in London’s deeply patriarchal passages on the role of women). In this final section, I will turn to the final mode of history described by Nietzsche, and to Gilman’s Herland, in which history is instead employed as a critical tool to refute, rather than replicate, such prejudices.
Critical history in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland
According to Nietzsche, the third and final mode of history, ‘critical history’, occurs simply when the ‘past is viewed critically, when we take a knife to its roots, when we cruelly trample on all forms of piety’ (138). Critical history functions, in Nietzsche’s view, to expose ‘how unjust the existence of certain things—for example, a privilege, a caste, or a dynasty—really is, and how much it deserves to be destroyed’ (138). One such injustice, both in Nietzsche’s and our own time, can be seen in the exercise of patriarchal power, and indeed there was no shortage of speculative writers in the early twentieth century—often, though not exclusively, female—who imagined the various ways in which this power could be overturned and destroyed.
One of the most powerful portrayals of these is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia, Herland. Herland takes the form of a lost-world tale, depicting an all-female society (also called simply ‘Herland’) that is discovered by three male explorers. Captured by the women of Herland and integrated into their society, these three men quickly find their entrenched views on gender under fire, as the all-female society proves to be more just, equitable, and harmonious than that of the United States, and the women themselves both stronger and more intelligent than themselves.
Herland offers, I argue, a kind of critical history of western civilisation. The common utopian trope of the curious outsider learning about western civilisation is used here to generate a powerful feeling of historical estrangement: the various western institutions and concepts that the men attempt to explain—including capitalist economics, marriage, the gendered division of labour, and warfare—are met with a mixture of surprise and revulsion from the pacifist and communist women of Herland. In fact, all of the seemingly ‘natural’ bases upon which western society is founded—most clearly, the supposed superiority of men over women—are made to appear at best ridiculous, and at worst irrational and dangerous, when viewed against the utopian structures and institutions of the feminist utopia.
Indeed, the primary tension in the novel is generated by the refusal of one of the men, Terry, a loud and boorish misogynist, to accept the irrationality of his beliefs against even the most compelling evidence. ‘Terry’, the narrator writes, ‘never seemed to recognize that quiet background of superiority’ that he automatically assumed with the female citizens of Herland, and which eventually lead him to attempt a sexual assault on one woman in an effort to demonstrate his physical mastery over her (98). This crime, thwarted when Terry finds himself physically overcome by his intended victim and her companions, is spurred by Terry’s utter refusal to accept the historical contingency of his deeply-felt beliefs—to accept that his ‘pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered’, for example, or his impulse ‘to oppose, to struggle with, to conquer’ the women around him, are not universal gendered traits, but learned behaviours derived from a specific historical tradition (171; 130).
In opposition to this tradition, the citizens of Herland have their own history. It begins in a familiar way—the women of Herland were originally descended from a ‘slave-holding’, war-mongering, ‘bi-sexual race’—but following a series of natural and human-made disasters, they were left with only female citizens, sealed off in an inescapable valley (73). Slowly, a new society arose on the ashes of the old, a society which, it is eventually discovered, ‘had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics … but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine’ (77-78). The immediate problem of reproduction is miraculously solved by the spontaneous conception of one woman, whose children in turn undergo spontaneous conception, until an entire race of ‘New Women’ come to populate the valley. In other words, an entirely new kind of society emerges, one in which the primacy of the Father is replaced with that of the Mother, where possession—a harmful concept in a tiny, resource-stricken valley—is replaced with communal sharing, and where competition is replaced with cooperation.
In the face of this utopian historical narrative, the narrator—despite his lifelong conviction that the society of ‘the United States of America had always seemed … as good as the best of them’—finds himself uncomfortable at having to explain the mechanics of a society that appears so manifestly unjust in comparison to Herland (83). The ‘New Women’ of Herland—‘clear-eyed, intelligent, perfectly honest and well-meaning’ (83)—who question him on the shape of western society can thus be viewed as what Nietzsche describes, in his discussion of critical history, as ‘a tribunal, painstakingly interrogating’ the history of western civilisation—yet, importantly, one that does so without ‘finally condemning it’ (138). Gilman, like other contemporary utopian writers, is interested not simply in critiquing the failures of patriarchal capitalist society, but also in pointing towards its possible salvation.
On this note, it is significant that her utopians are not lofty intellectuals from another dimension, as in Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923), nor located in the inaccessible future, as in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) or William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890). Rather, they are simply people like Gilman herself: ordinary women interested in a more equitable and just society. Nor is Gilman advocating a simple replacement of patriarchal with matriarchal power: unlike the violent Terry, the (male) narrator is inspired by his experiences of a more equal society, and so is accepted by the women of Herland as a member of their society. Gilman thus offers here a positive vision of progress, but one that is based not on destruction, nor sentiment, nor lofty or abstract ideals, but simply on the recognition that the seeds to utopia lie already buried in the soil of western cultural change—that the feminist movement then gaining political traction in the US need not be viewed as a threat to the ideals of life, liberty, and happiness, but as a powerful and pragmatic means of their realisation.
So Gilman’s critical history in Herland stands in contrast to the monumental history of London’s The Star Rover or the antiquarian history of Doyle’s The Lost World. Historical identification is not possible where one’s identity is not represented, and so the challenge becomes to create a new history that speaks to the historically voiceless. Where the two latter works remain silent on this exclusion of certain voices from history, Gilman instead succeeds in giving voice to the previously silenced, thus transforming history into a utopian weapon for transforming the present—and salvaging the future.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Lost World. 1912. ‘The Lost World’ and Other Stories. Wordsworth Classics. 2010.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1915. Hesperus Press. 2015.
London, Jack. The Star Rover. 1915. The Star Rover and Other Stories. Leonaur. 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘On the Utility and Liability of History for Life’. 1874. The Nietzsche Reader. Edited by Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Blackwell Publishing. 2006. 124-141.
Thomas Connolly is a final year doctoral candidate at Maynooth University in Co. Kildare in Ireland. His research explores posthumanist depictions of the human subject, technology and nature in Anglo-American science fiction from Wells to Ballard. He completed both his BA in English and Mathematical Physics and his MA in Twentieth-Century Irish Literature and Cultural Theory in Maynooth University, and was the recipient in 2012 of the John and Pat Hume Scholarship.