Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race

To be pitied is the writer whose satire of Utopian fantasies is mistaken for the actual thing. Even more to be pitied are the people who take his Utopian vision and make it a key belief in their esoteric religion. Such is the case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1871 novel The Coming Race was not only one of the most popular novels of the 19th century but whose story of a technologically-superior subterranean civilization inspired theosophists and Nazi occultists. 

It wasn't for any lack of trying on Bulwer-Lytton's part. In a friendly letter he explicitly wrote "I don't think people have caught or are likely to catch the leading idea of the book, which is this: - Assuming that all the ideas of philosophical reformers could be united and practically realised, the result would be firstly, a race that must be fatal to ourselves; our society could not amalgamate with it; it would be deadly to us, not from its vices but from its virtues. Secondly, the realisation of these ideas would produce a society which we should find extremely dull, and in which the current equality would prohibit all greatness."  Nevertheless, his underground civilization of Vril-ya captured imaginations in the 19th century with its possibilities. Those who wished for a mere interesting Scientific Romance were rewarded, as were those "philosophical reformers" who considered that incompatibility with modern society as a good thing. Then there were those who took things a little too far.

Illustration from The Coming Race depicting the
underground society and its winged citizens, the Vril-ya.

The response to The Coming Race reflects, in many ways, the response to Plato's invention of Atlantis. In its original form, Atlantis was meant to be a cautionary tale of everything not to imitate. The decadent continent was the opposite of everything the philosopher recommended for a robust republic, and in his thought experiment their invasion was rebuffed by the ancient Athens he customized to his specifications. Having served their function, Plato went on to destroy both by the wrath of the gods and the flourish of the pen. But over time, later readers missed his original point. First they imagined that Atlantis was a real place, and it took on a life of its own as a civilization of technological wonders that was tragically lost, whose wisdom and inventiveness were just waiting to be rediscovered to the benefit of the modern age. 

Similarly, readers were prepared to overlook the more terrifying aspects of Vril-ya society because of their envy for the kind of technology Bulwer-Lytton gave to them. His greatest innovation was vril, the electro-psychic force animating all life and death that made the subterranean existence of the Vril-ya possible. "I should call it electricity," Bulwer-Lytton's narrator writes, "except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, &c. These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energetic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers above ground..." 
These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call 'atmospheric magnetism,' they can influence the variations of temperature—in plain words, the weather; that by operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, &c., but applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics. To all such agencies they give the common name of vril.  
Exertions of vril enable everything from flying machines and high-tech wings to psychic transference to light and heat to rapid healing to weapons of mass destruction. In fact, realizing the destructive power of vril was the penultimate chapter in the "Pax Vril-yana". 
But the effects of the alleged discovery of the means to direct the more terrible force of vril were chiefly remarkable in their influence upon social polity. As these effects became familiarly known and skillfully administered, war between the vril-discoverers ceased, for they brought the art of destruction to such perfection as to annul all superiority in numbers, discipline, or military skill. The fire lodged in the hollow of a rod directed by the hand of a child could shatter the strongest fortress, or cleave its burning way from the van to the rear of an embattled host. If army met army, and both had command of this agency, it could be but to the annihilation of each. The age of war was therefore gone, but with the cessation of war other effects bearing upon the social state soon became apparent. Man was so completely at the mercy of man, each whom he encountered being able, if so willing, to slay him on the instant, that all notions of government by force gradually vanished from political systems and forms of law. 
Here Bulwer-Lytton prefigures the mid-20th century hope that the power of the atom would end war under the threat of mutually assured destruction, allowing humanity to turn its energies towards the harnessing of the atom for the wellbeing of civilization. And all of that is well and good, except when considering the type of society that the Vril-ya became.

The origin of the Vril-ya is lost to history, but may or may not be connected to the Biblical Flood:
According to the earliest traditions, the remote progenitors of the race had once tenanted a world above the surface of that in which their descendants dwelt. Myths of that world were still preserved in their archives, and in those myths were legends of a vaulted dome in which the lamps were lighted by no human hand. But such legends were considered by most commentators as allegorical fables. According to these traditions the earth itself, at the date to which the traditions ascend, was not indeed in its infancy, but in the throes and travail of transition from one form of development to another, and subject to many violent revolutions of nature. By one of such revolutions, that portion of the upper world inhabited by the ancestors of this race had been subjected to inundations, not rapid, but gradual and uncontrollable, in which all, save a scanty remnant, were submerged and perished. Whether this be a record of our historical and sacred Deluge, or of some earlier one contended for by geologists, I do not pretend to conjecture... A band of the ill-fated race, thus invaded by the Flood, had, during the march of the waters, taken refuge in caverns amidst the loftier rocks, and, wandering through these hollows, they lost sight of the upper world forever.
Originally warlike, the harnessing of vril turned them against war, and against eating meat, keeping pets, and imbibing strong drink. The only animals against which violence was done were the roving dinosaurs of the Earth's core. 
The second service of danger, less grave, is in the destruction of all creatures hostile to the life, or the culture, or even the comfort, of the Ana [the particular group of Vril-ya the narrator is living with]. Of these the most formidable are the vast reptiles, of some of which antediluvian relics are preserved in our museums, and certain gigantic winged creatures, half bird, half reptile. These, together with lesser wild animals, corresponding to our tigers or venomous serpents, it is left to the younger children to hunt and destroy; because, according to the Ana, here ruthlessness is wanted, and the younger the child the more ruthlessly he will destroy. 
Yet, Bulwer-Lytton wryly adds, despite all these restrictions, "Happiness is the end at which they aim, not as the excitement of a moment, but as the prevailing condition of the entire existence; and regard for the happiness of each other is evinced by the exquisite amenity of their manners."

The Vril-ya define civilization as "the art of diffusing throughout a community the tranquil happiness which belongs to a virtuous and well-ordered household." Furthermore, as per their term for civilization - Vril-ya - the ability to harness vril is considered a precondition of being civilized. Self-ordered obedience to custom is considered a high virtue among the Vril-ya, along with a kind of "do as thou wilt" mutualistic libertarianism. Their political credo, such as one exists, is "the first principle of a community is the good of all." Their religion is a simple, non-sectarian, unadorned belief in an undefinable All-Good. Achievement is neither sought nor recognized, though regard is given to theoretical science... the more theoretical the better... and especially to female scientists. Gender relations fill an entire chapter of The Coming Race, but suffice it to say that when the power of vril allows the larger, stronger females to instantly vapourize a man who offends her, there aren't a lot of problems.

Though lacking in economic disparities, theirs is an aristocratic ethos in the full sense of society being ordered by customs rather than enforced by laws. 
We are all formed by custom—even the difference of our race from the savage is but the transmitted continuance of custom, which becomes, through hereditary descent, part and parcel of our nature... We consider that the judgment of one... of ordinary capacity is better than the judgment of three or more, however wise they may be; for among three there would probably be disputes, and where there are disputes, passion clouds judgment. The worst choice made by one who has no motive in choosing wrong, is better than the best choice made by many who have many motives for not choosing right.
Overall, as his hosts tell our narrator, theirs is a society ordered by custom to the "calm of existence."
See you not that the primary condition of mortal happiness consists in the extinction of that strife and competition between individuals, which, no matter what forms of government they adopt, render the many subordinate to the few, destroy real liberty to the individual, whatever may be the nominal liberty of the state, and annul that calm of existence, without which, felicity, mental or bodily, cannot be attained? 
So calm that their society lacks a high quality of art. In perusing a gallery of portraits, the narrator notices that about a thousands years after the harnessing of vril, not only the faces but the paintings start to become increasingly dull and monotonous. Likewise the literature, poetry, and drama. 
Do you not perceive that a literature such as you mean would be wholly incompatible with that perfection of social or political felicity at which you do us the honour to think we have arrived? We have at last, after centuries of struggle, settled into a form of government with which we are content, and in which, as we allow no differences of rank, and no honours are paid to administrators distinguishing them from others, there is no stimulus given to individual ambition. No one would read works advocating theories that involved any political or social change, and therefore no one writes them. If now and then an An feels himself dissatisfied with our tranquil mode of life, he does not attack it; he goes away. Thus all that part of literature (and to judge by the ancient books in our public libraries, it was once a very large part), which relates to speculative theories on society is become utterly extinct. Again, formerly there was a vast deal written respecting the attributes and essence of the All-Good, and the arguments for and against a future state; but now we all recognise two facts, that there IS a Divine Being, and there IS a future state, and we all equally agree that if we wrote our fingers to the bone, we could not throw any light upon the nature and conditions of that future state, or quicken our apprehensions of the attributes and essence of that Divine Being. Thus another part of literature has become also extinct, happily for our race; for in the time when so much was written on subjects which no one could determine, people seemed to live in a perpetual state of quarrel and contention. So, too, a vast part of our ancient literature consists of historical records of wars an revolutions during the times when the Ana lived in large and turbulent societies, each seeking aggrandisement at the expense of the other. You see our serene mode of life now; such it has been for ages. We have no events to chronicle. What more of us can be said than that, 'they were born, they were happy, they died?'
To reach the pinnacle of civilization is also, in a real sense, to reach the end of it. Perhaps that is why it is more compelling for the religiously inclined to perceive of Paradise as a timeless state rather than an eternal one.  

One can, by now, imagine what their attitudes towards the narrator's description of life in the United States. The closest word in the Vril-ya's language to "democracy" is "Koom-Posh", meaning "the government of the ignorant upon the principle of being the most numerous" or more literally, "Hollow-Bosh." The attitude of the Vril-ya to Koom-Posh is more or less the attitude of Victorian England and the United States to other cultures, to wit, that they have achieved the most enlightened and supreme system which all others must adopt or perish. The narrator's host recounts his visit to one of the society's of the Earth's core that have yet to harness vril and adopt the Vril-ya's way of life:
"I visited this people, and their misery and degradation were the more appalling because they were always boasting of their felicity and grandeur as compared with the rest of their species. And there is no hope that this people, which evidently resembles your own, can improve, because all their notions tend to further deterioration. They desire to enlarge their dominion more and more, in direct antagonism to the truth that, beyond a very limited range, it is impossible to secure to a community the happiness which belongs to a well-ordered family; and the more they mature a system by which a few individuals are heated and swollen to a size above the standard slenderness of the millions, the more they chuckle and exact, and cry out, 'See by what great exceptions to the common littleness of our race we prove the magnificent results of our system!'"
Not having the power of vril and therefore lacking civilization, the peoples of Koom-Posh are more or less reckoned as wild animals to be destroyed if necessary for the safety of the Vril-ya. Furthermore, the Vril-ya also hold to a terrible prophecy of their eventual emergence to the Earth's surface. Terrible to us, that is. To them it is no more terrible than a fumigation.
I learned... that the superiority of the Vril-ya was supposed to have originated in the intensity of their earlier struggles against obstacles in nature amidst the localities in which they had first settled. "Wherever," said Zee, moralising, "wherever goes on that early process in the history of civilisation, by which life is made a struggle, in which the individual has to put forth all his powers to compete with his fellow, we invariably find this result—viz., since in the competition a vast number must perish, nature selects for preservation only the strongest specimens. With our race, therefore, even before the discovery of vril, only the highest organisations were preserved; and there is among our ancient books a legend, once popularly believed, that we were driven from a region that seems to denote the world you come from, in order to perfect our condition and attain to the purest elimination of our species by the severity of the struggles our forefathers underwent; and that, when our education shall become finally completed, we are destined to return to the upper world, and supplant all the inferior races now existing therein."
The title of the book, The Coming Race, is meant to be understood as a Darwinian threat. 

Being slow to comprehend this is due in no small part to the subtlety of Bulwer-Lytton's satire. After a steady diet of Victorian Utopian novels like Herland and Looking Backward, it's difficult to parse out whether the author is engaging in satire or is deathly serious about his ideal society. Worse things than the Vril-ya have been proposed by people who really meant it. It is only really by the end, including a very helpful summary chapter, that it becomes apparent that Bulwer-Lytton is meaning to show the utter incompatibility of Utopian ideals with modern society. 

Utopian novels in themselves were very popular. The aforementioned Looking Backward was the third best-selling novel of the 19th century after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur. Then couple that with a kind of power like vril that any should want and people are willing to overlook how awful the Utopianism is. The idea of vril became something of a cultural phenomenon, as a synonym for any vitalizing force. After all is said and done, the most enduring contribution of vril-mania to society is Bovril, the iconic British beef drink. Its name is portmanteau of "bovine" and "vril", and an improvement on its original brand-name, "Johnston's Fluid Beef."

Vril-mania was such that even decades later, vril was in common use in Scientific Romances. In 1891, the founder of London's West End Hospital held a "Coming Race Bazaar" as a fundraiser. Royal Albert Hall was decorated in predominantly Middle Eastern motifs to echo the architecture described in the novel, guests and staff wore exotic costume inspired by the Vril-ya, booths sold cups of Bovril, and winged mannequins floated overhead. Unfortunately, the March 5-7 event drew much criticism in the press for being "a very sorry affair, inartistic, stupid" and "a vulgar entertainment." It failed so badly at its goal that it actually drove Dr. Herbert Tibbitts, the founder and organizer, into bankruptcy. Despite this, it is often cited as the first themed Sci-Fi convention.  

Illustration of the Coming Race Bazaar.

In 1910, French author Jules Lermina drew influence from both The Coming Race and Journey to the Centre of the Earth to produce L'Effrayante Aventure (aka: Panic in Paris). The story begins with a mystery: the corpse of an English pugilist was found in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, yet he was positively identified in London only a few hours before. For the better part of the story, this mystery is unfolded by a reporter and the English bobby on vacation who was skewered in the Parisian papers for the "erroneous" identification of the body. How could it possibly be a British boxer seen drinking in a pub earlier that same night? Another mystery soon overshadows the first: a strange contraption landing in a Parisian park and slowly boring a hole into the earth. It is of unknown construction, using an unknown power source. No one can stop this device from its uncommon descent into the soil. Is it an attack? Who or what could have sent it? It turns out that the whys and wherefores of both conundrums are the same... An English scientist who has harnessed the power of vril. Before everything can be resolved, yet another kaijuesque disaster shall befall the City of Lights. Lermina's use of vril is more light-hearted than Bulwer-Lytton's, as befitting its status as a silly penny dreadful involving dinosaurs breaking out onto the streets of Paris. A rarity, it is offered by the wonderful Black Coat Press, the publishing house specializing in English translations of vintage French Science Fiction. 

The stranger side of vril-mania was its adoption by occultists and esotericists. Bulwer-Lytton was already reputed to have some interest in occultic matters and the resonance of his descriptions of vril with various mesmeric powers did nothing to dissuade readers that he was in tune with such forces himself. A year before The Coming Race was published, Bulwer-Lytton was appointed in absentia a Grand Patron of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, much to his chagrin.

Helena Blavatsky incorporated vril into her invention of Theosophy, writing in The Secret Doctrine (1888):
If the question is asked why Mr. Keely was not allowed to pass a certain limit, the answer is easy; because that which he has unconsciously discovered, is the terrible sidereal Force, known to, and named by the Atlanteans mash-mak, and by the Aryan Rishis in their Ashtar Vidya by a name that we do not like to give. It is the vril of Bulwer Lytton’s "Coming Race," and of the coming races of our mankind. The name vril may be a fiction; the Force itself is a fact doubted as little in India as the existence itself of their Rishis, since it is mentioned in all the secret works. 
It is this vibratory Force, which, when aimed at an army from an Agni Rath fixed on a flying vessel, a balloon, according to the instructions found in Ashtar Vidya, reduced to ashes 100,000 men and elephants, as easily as it would a dead rat. It is allegorised in the Vishnu Purana, in the Ramayana and other works, in the fable about the sage Kapila whose glance made a mountain of ashes of King Sagara’s 60,000 sons, and which is explained in the esoteric works, and referred to as the Kapilaksha — "Kapila’s Eye." 

It's unclear whether she herself thought vril was a real thing as such or whether she was using a popular fiction to promote and articulate her ideas (assuming for the sake of argument that she was sincere in her beliefs in the first place). Of course Atlantis would figure into such fantasies. In his 1896 book The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria, Theosophist William Scott-Elliot stated that vril was the force that powered Atlantean airships.   

In 1947 German physicist Willy Ley, who escaped Naziism by emigrating to the United States in 1937, wrote an expose for Astounding Fiction on how magical thinking created a fertile ground for National Socialism. In Pseudoscience in Naziiland he wrote:
When things get so tough that there seems to be no way out, the Russian embraces the vodka bottle, the Frenchman a woman and the American the Bible. 
The German tends to resort to magic, to some nonsensical belief which he tries to validate by way of hysterics and physical force. Not every German, of course. Not even a majority, but it seems to me that the percentage of people so inclined is higher in Germany than in other countries. It was the willingness of a noticeable proportion of the Germans to rate rhetoric above research. and intuition above knowledge, that brought to power a political party which was frankly and loudly anti-intellectual. The Nazis not only burned books they disliked, they also classified theoretical physicists with "Jews and Marxists." 
Small wonder the pseudoscientists experienced a heyday under such a regime — but it would be a mistake to believe that these pseudosciences which I am going to describe, originated with the Nazis. They existed, and to some extent even flourished, before Hitler. But then they were hemmed in by the authority of the scientists—after Hitler had become Führer it was almost the other way round.  
After cataloguing a few such groups, he arrives at our topic:
The next group was literally founded upon a novel. That group which I think called itself Wahrheitsgesellschaft — Society for Truth — and which was more or less localized in Berlin, devoted its spare time looking for Vril. Yes, their convictions were founded upon Bulwer-Lytton's "The Corning Race." They knew that the book was fiction, Bulwer-Lytton had used that device in order to be able to tell the truth about this "power." The subterranean humanity was nonsense, Vril was not. Possibly it had enabled the British, who kept it as a State secret, to amass their colonial empire. Surely the Romans had -had it, inclosed in small metal balls, which guarded their homes and were referred to as lares. For reasons which I failed to penetrate, the secret of Vril could be found by contemplating the structure of an apple, sliced in halves. 
No, I am not joking, that is what I was told with great solemnity and secrecy. Such a group actually existed, they even got out the first issue of a magazine which was to proclaim their credo. (I wish I had kept some of these things, but I had enough books to smuggle out as it was.) 
No doubt what helped intrigue the Nazis was the descriptions of the Vril-ya as "Aryan". In the text, Bulwer-Lytton himself places the Vril-ya language with the Aryan linguistic group. The idea of a superior, subterranean, race of Aryans would have been catnip to the Third Reich. Decades of speculation on Ley's vague description has connected the "Society for Truth" with the Thule Society, Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Black Sun, and proven fertile for video games like Wolfenstein (2009) and films like Iron Sky: The Coming Race (2019).

Today, Bulwer-Lytton's novel is most often cited in connection to Naziism, which is unfortunate. Taken as it was originally intended, a satire of Utopianism, it is still as relevant now as it was in the 19th century during the height of its popularity. While our own modern Utopian preoccupations are not of the same kind as during the Victorian Era, Bulwer-Lytton's exercise is a worthwhile one to engage in. What kind of a nightmare would a Rapture-like society of total libertarianism look like, or a progressive Utopia that successfully abolished human rights and categorized everyone by identity groups?  

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