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Two notable myth-based omens of war and disaster in late nineteenth century novels

Written by: Julian Scutts

Two notable myth-based  omens   of war and disaster in in late nineteenth century novels

Let us suppose that Carl Jung was right in asserting that the phenomenon of synchronicity and coincidence is grounded in the  collective unconscious. Let us further suppose that great writers, poets and artists can probe the depths. of the mind to reach that level where Plato found  the eternal forms and ideas that underlie all surface phenomena, then it will seem only natural that true prophecies and coincidences will arise as a matter of course. There is then no reason to discount Michael Foot’s bold statement  that a possible reading Gulliver’s Travels will show that Jonathan Swift foresaw the age of the atom bomb or that William Cowper rejoiced at the thought of the fall of the Bastille when no one  contemplated the possibility of the French Revolution. Let us go on in time and consider another remarkable coincidence.

 In 1898, fourteen years before the tragic loss of the Titanic, a novella entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, was published. Its author was Morgan Robertson,  a man whose  title to distinction   rests on the claim that he invented the periscope and more importantly, on the writing of  a novella which some people have viewed as a prediction of the tragedy which befell the Titanic.   The novella tells of a voyage that ended in disaster. The doomed ship was the Titan, its dimensions lying in close proximity to those of the Titanic. It struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic in the month of April, just as the Titanic did. It was thought to be unsinkable and the same boast was made regarding the Titanic. It carried too few lifeboats to cope with a great emergency. Robertson himself denied that he possessed any powers of prediction and stated that with his sound knowledge of nautical technology he could predict the next most likely development in the construction of a very large transatlantic liner. But what about the other points of similarity? Here it is worth considering the implications of the word titan. According to ancient Greek legends the Titans were giants of both divine and earthly origin. The Titans collectively rebelled against the ruling gods and tried to storm their abode on the summit of  Mount Olympus. Their rebellion ended in defeat and failure. They could be seen both positively and negatively, positively as  bold rebels against the ruling clique on Olympus, or negatively as brazen and overambitious rebels who sought to disrupt the divine order. Similarly the appellation of Titan(ic) when given to a ship could reflect the aspirations of heroic materialism that sought fulfillment in the building of bigger and faster ships, the construction of longer and sturdier bridges and the raising of taller and taller skyscrapers, the very notion of which has a titanic ring. Cultural pessimists saw the downside of Titanism with all its hubris and defiance of nature. A poem by Theodor Fontane “Die Brück' am Tay” interpreted the tragic collapse of the bridge over the river  Tay as a token of the flimsy nature of all products made by human hands. Robertson was evidently on Fontane’s side of the fence. He was surely  sincere in disclaiming  any intention to lay  a curse or predict doom but one also has the unconscious mind to consider. and this may well have led  Robertson to intuit the advent of impending self-activating disaster.

It is a widely held belief that the loss of the Titanic heralded the end of an era characterized by millennial optimism and boundless confidence  in the inevitable progress of civilization aided by technology and industrial strength. Other great ships foundered in the lead-up to the First World War involving a great  loss in human lives but they have almost been forgotten. What about the RMS Empress of Ireland, which sank in the Saint Lawrence River  on 29 May 1914 to the loss  of 1,012 lives?  No empress of Ireland figures in Greek mythology.

The fact that Robertson claimed to be the inventor of the periscope points to an ominous aspect of the fate of the Titanic, and one that was not overlooked by naval strategists  in the run-up  to the First World War. The sinking of the Lusitania inevitably recalled the tragic end of the Titanic. The first decade of the twentieth century, which saw the first beginnings of aircraft and effective submarines, reduplicated with technology the creation of birds and fishes  on the fifth  day of Creation according to the Book of Genesis.

In another  well-known  case  an allusion to a mythological theme added resonance to the title of a novel: The War of the Worlds. The planet Mars much was in the news at the time H. G.  Wells wrote this novel published in 1897. Owing to an undetected optical illusion experienced by astronomers observing the red planet by telescope, the notion was current that this planet was criss-crossed by a system of canals that could only have been constructed by highly  intelligent beings. To the mind of H. G. Wells the message was clear. What had  the  civilized world to crow about if beings on Mars could build canals that made the Suez Canal look like a pathetic little scratch of the earth’s surface? If imperialists thought they had a right to enslave and exploit the “uncivilized” peoples of the world in accord with the motto  might is right, what was to stop Martians with their vastly superior technology from doing the same to puny earthlings?

 This early example of science fiction in literature harked back to the ancient pagan deity closely associated with the number  three, at least no later than when  the month of March was accorded third place in the year by the Julian calendar. The monstrous war machines of the Martians stalked on tripods. The theme of redness, also drawn from mythology, comes to the fore in the red weeds that spread over parts of the earth during the Martian invasion. The hysterical priest who railed against the sins of the world that to his mind  had provoked  divine wrath saw in the Martian the demons of hell done up in a new guise. Most important of all, Mars to the Romans  was the god of war. It is arguable that Wells was a reluctant prophet who sent out  the message that – to rearrange the title of The War of the Worlds – a period of world wars was soon to be unleashed on Planet Earth. To cite another odd coincidence Orson Welles, whose surname sounds exactly the same as the surname of H. G. Wells, played a major role in the making of an adaptation of War of the Worlds to be broadcast on  radio to listeners in the New York area at the end of October in 1938, on Halloween to be precise. The time of the invasion was updated to 1938 and relocated to New York and  thanks to its presentation in the form of news bulletins and live  reports conveyed the impression that a real Martian invasion was under way and ongoing events were being reported on the spot. Those who were unaware of the fictional character of these reports  fell into a panic, though subsequent research has questioned claims that this was on a truly massive  scale. Some thought “the Germans” had invaded. At the time the Munich negotiations were in the news and the time was ripe for prophesies of war and the Apocalypse. Wells and Welles actually met up in 1940 in San Antonio, Texas, and of course the relevance of their fictional works to the real state of world affairs was a point of discussion. Orson Welles evinced a considerable interest in the mysteries of life and near the end of his life  presented a documentary film on the prophecies of Nostradamus. He also directed a film based on The Trial, a novel written by Franz Kafka, which ominously treated the theme of false trials and arbitrary executions and so arguably foreshadowed the Holocaust. Dostoyevsky and others had depicted hellish condition before, but Kafka was the first to presuppose the ontology of guilt, the guilt of  being what one is with no  reference to  what one may have done.

I asserted earlier that the phenomenon surrounding coincidences only became an issue in the minds of writers and poets from the Romantic period onwards. What lies at the root of this question? Even before the Romantic period began Laurence Sterne asserted that the author was the master of own imaginary universe to become the sovereign arbiter ruling the choice, sequencing and treatment of all subject matter contain within the bounds of a work and this he demonstrated with exemplary skill in his novel Tristram Shandy. We speak now of the “omniscient” narrator, using a term otherwise reserved for God. Taking over God’s role in any capacity must  a heavy burden indeed, and the element of self-consciousness that invaded the minds of Romantic poets led to deep anxiety of the kind shown by Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The call now was for self-limitation and the recognition of essential self-organizing propensities in language itself. Authors of realistic fiction felt the need to conceal  any sovereign claim to omniscience and total control of subject matter, and in the course of their efforts sought to respect to the principle of verisimilitude and thus refrain from resorting to any artificial allegorical frame. In respecting the principle of verisimilitude the author had to ensure that coincidences reported in a narration should not exceed the scope of coincidences that are recognized as such in the real world. However, once an author, particularly a novelist, has devised a plot, the work that then takes shape is subject to the outworking of a teleological scheme comparable to what religious minds would call a divine plan, and in this framework there can be no coincidences in the widely accepted sense of this word.  The novelist is not in full control of the process of unravelling whatever plot he or she has in mind, for the mind itself has both a conscious and unconscious side, and as Barbara Melchiori  noted with reference to Robert Browning, this poet’s choice of words may run counter to his conscious intentions and purposes. Coincidences that bestride literary works and events in real life   lead me and perhaps others to the  thought, if only a suspicion, that there  is some mysterious correlation, sympathy, call it what you will, between the what is recorded in literature and what happens in the outside world, a disturbing conclusion perhaps for  those who categorically deny the very possibility of such a relationship.