Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Riddle of The Sphinx

The Time Traveler was confronted by a sphinx with a faint shadow of a smile on its face.

In the two years following 1998 I wrote two essays that were inspired by my reading of H. G. Wells book “The Time Machine”. These essays can be downloaded as one PDF from here. They were my personal exploration of the loss of religious faith that is closely associated with the kind of world view implicit in The Time Machine. My copy of Wells' story, which I read in the nineties, was presented to me by my brother-in-law Jonathan Benison. It was very helpfully annotated by Jon’s erudite editorial notes, notes which proved to be very illuminating as I struggled to form my personal view on the message in the book. Jon himself was also struggling with the issues raised by the book and it was clear to me that he too didn't accept what he referred to as “reductive half-truths”; in this sense Jon was a fellow traveller and pilgrim. 

The general tenor of the book is bleak and nihilistic. In fact it is difficult to derive much consolation from Wells' world view; that view is one of a cosmos which in the large scale is utterly indifferent to human affairs and concerns, a place where beyond our very parochial context there can be found no meaning and purpose. Wells sends his Time Traveller on a mission into the far future thus giving him a startling retrospect on the heady and confident times of Victorian England. Or were they confident? Doubts were beginning to set in, it seems. From the distant vantage point of nearly a millions years hence ephemeral human affairs, according to Wells, pale into insignificance. This is what Jon Benison refers to as the cosmic perspective.

Wells was writing in late Victorian England and his views were based on what he believed to be the ramifications of the relatively new evolutionary theory. The riddle of meaning that the science of the day posed Wells and mankind as a whole is, I believe, very aptly symbolized by the figure of the Sphinx which the Time Traveller meets and which looms forbiddingly over the whole story. It is now be well over a century since the book was published, but that same riddle confronts us today. Wells was either warning us to respond proactively to the riddle of the cosmic perspective or Wells himself had actually acquiesced to it. These essays are my own reaction to this riddle.

"The Universe doesn't care about us!" said one atheist when he saw this spectacular meteor entering the atmosphere over Russia.

Further relevant links.

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