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Inventing Tomorrow by Sarah Cole

Inventing Tomorrow by Sarah Cole

Author:Sarah Cole
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Columbia University Press


V. PREHISTORY IN THE OUTLINE OF HISTORY

These stories, then, make their mark in figuring the prehistory of humanity in terms of conflict and bodily trial, slow innovation (again violent), and the dramatic moments when change suddenly becomes visible. They also call attention to how one manages these extremely strange and disorienting subjects—subjects, after all, whose defining quality is that they cannot be known in any concrete way. In The Outline of History, Wells recalibrates the balance to some degree, as the history attempts a full consideration of how and what we know of these early days, complete with a full roster of charts, maps, and renderings of flints, skulls, cave drawings, and the like. In the first edition, serialized over twenty-four installments, there were also several standout color plates from this part of the history, including a depiction of one of the most beautiful and oft-discussed of the Altamira cave drawings (the bison so admired by Lawrence—no doubt he saw the reproduction here) and an especially sensational, fanciful rendering of a pair of Neanderthal-related prehumans standing in a cave entrance. In a certain way, The Outline provides, in the form of its illustrations, some of what Wells’s fiction rendered as red, blue, yellow, or ochred bodies. The pictorial qualities of The Outline are essential to its overall function and appeal; in the case of the prehistory sections, they do a special work, since the injunction to visualize is unusually pressing and overt when the archive is so partial, fragmentary, and speculative. As with the project of anticipation, moreover, there is some risk in making all these explicit forays into unknown temporalities, and Wells received some of his harshest and most contemptuous criticism in relation to his treatment of the Neanderthals and other early people. His tendency to follow the essay “Primal Law” (1903), by the archeologist James Jackson Atkinson, which lays out a social organization based on an Old Man at the center of tribal life, was particularly ripe for derision.71

Yet there is good reason why the public, not heeding the wagging fingers of historians, was engrossed by these early segments, from the fiery origination of the earth as it broke off from the sun (the prevailing theory in 1919 when Wells was writing) through to the segments on early historical cultures. Prehistory in The Outline has three key characteristics: it is accessible, it is also uncanny, and its temporal phases are unfathomably long. As we have noted (in the passage that began, “Speculations about geological time vary enormously”), the misapprehension of recorded and recent history in relation to the scale captured in the longue durée is one of Wells’s reiterated motifs throughout The Outline. These prehistory sequences require that we constantly check and recalibrate our temporal apparatus, and this mental exercise adds to the overall interest, a kind of magnetism, in these pages. One could name any number of passages where the stretches of prehistoric time are elaborated with especially rich, engrossing results. To take one such: Wells’s spellbinding



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