John Wyndham and The Catastrophe of Cosiness

John WyndhamReading through John Wyndham’s novels in order, I’ve been surprised to discover how a minor theme that emerges in The Day of the Triffids quickly takes over as the dominant note in all his subsequent novels. This is the way that people resist, suppress, or even attack change, difference and new ideas. In Kraken, it’s in the way the media, and its readership, are unwilling to accept they’re in the midst of an alien invasion, and simply disbelieve it, or at best blame it on the Russians. In Trouble with Lichen, it’s the way society turns completely antagonistic, even murderous, to protect its various self-interests in the face of what ought to be a widely-welcomed discovery that lengthens the span of human life. In the more emotive and compelling of his novels, Wyndham ties the forces of change/difference directly to children and childhood, so that both the “cuckoos” of The Midwich Cuckoos and the telepathic children of The Chrysalids are actual embodiments of this force of change, with the added vulnerability of being children, thus making the horror of victimisation by their own societies all the more vivid. What I feel is Wyndham’s most personal novel (and the last published in his lifetime), Chocky, is about a young boy who enters into telepathic contact with a highly advanced being from another planet. But Chocky’s attempts to prompt the boy towards a new understanding of humankind’s future does nothing but attract unwanted, uncomprehending, and sometimes even antagonistic and controlling, attention.

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science Fiction.org

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science Fiction.org

As I said when writing about The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, Wyndham is often dismissed as being a writer of “Cosy Catastrophes”, with the implication that there’s nothing genuinely challenging or meaningful in his books beyond their value as fantasies of self-indulgence in a depopulated world (or “a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking” as Brian Aldiss put it). But, to me, it’s obvious there’s something more going on. All artists, at their most successful, I think, are dealing with a clash of unresolvable forces within themselves, and it’s undoubtedly true that Wyndham’s novels contain such a conflict. He has an evident longing for the cosiness offered by the society he lived and wrote in — 1950s and early-1960s Britain, on the recovery from the second of two World Wars, and riding a wave of steadily growing prosperity — but it’s also true that he had a deep conviction that this cosiness was bought at the expense of ignoring very real, and potentially overwhelming, dangers. The cosiness of Wyndham’s age was perhaps a left-over from the Victorian era’s confidence that humankind was the pinnacle of God’s created world, but the mid-twentieth century was suffering the intellectual and spiritual fallout of the Nazi death camps and the use of the atom bomb, shorn of divine protection and exposed to a greater and greater knowledge of what Lovecraft called the “black seas of infinity” — the cold, un-cosy realities of a world of “sheer accident”, “blind chance” (Triffids), a world where “Life in all its forms is strife” (The Kraken Wakes) and where “Nature is ruthless, hideous, and cruel beyond belief” (The Midwich Cuckoos). In Chocky, we have “a vast, adventitious cosmos… the horrid wastes of space”. The longing for the cosiness is there, yes, but so is the knowledge that it’s by no means a guaranteed, but in fact a highly parlous, state. As someone says in Triffids:

“…how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”

And this, I think, is what Wyndham’s writing is really about. Not “Cosy Catastrophes” merely, but the Catastrophe of Cosiness: how living ensconced in a superficially successful society can blind you to the fact that civilisation is hard-won, and needs to be constantly guarded, regenerated and re-made, lest it should be lost altogether. And not just civilisation, but something deeper and more fundamentally meaningful:

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation… But the most precious… For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured. Without it nothing begins, nothing ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babblings of chaos…”

Chocky coverAnd it’s not just man-eating plants, invaders from Neptune, satellite weapons and post-nuclear wastelands that contribute to the danger Wyndham is warning of. It’s what we do to each other, day-to-day, within the confines of our supposedly cosy society. Particularly, it matters to Wyndham what we do to our children. Granted, in The Midwich Cuckoos, he goes out of his way to make those children something to fear, but in Chocky — Wyndham’s most positive novel, in that for once the fantastic element isn’t a monster, invader, or cold-minded evolutionary successor but an advanced intelligent being, wanting to help — there’s nothing to fear, but everything to exploit. Chocky’s gift to mankind (the possibility of a new and infinite source of energy) is withdrawn, or at least delayed, because of how the forces in control of our society, the people who sit atop the status quo, grasp at it so greedily. Cosy to the point of stagnation, society becomes a danger to itself, with the most innocent — children, the natural agents of change — also the most vulnerable to repression, to enforcement of “conformity with peoples’ expectations, the desire to prove that one is normal, the belief that it will establish status… the obligation of holding one’s own in competition with the neighbours.”

I can’t help but feeling Chocky is Wyndham’s most heartfelt statement about his own life. In the chapter on him in Seekers of Tomorrow (written after correspondence with Wyndham himself), Sam Moskowitz says:

“By the time he was 11, John learned that the easiest way to get along with other children… was to pretend enthusiasm for majority interests.”

Chocky (cover)Wyndham was obviously a highly-imaginative child, but being moved around to a lot of different schools in his early years meant he had to learn to fit in quickly, and the easiest way to do this was to fake it. Faking it becomes a dangerous habit of self-repression. (In contrast, his repeated fantasy of telepathic contact with other, similar beings, seems to point to a desire for a deeper sympathy with his fellow human beings than the mores of his time allowed.) I can’t help wondering how much his own childhood’s lowest points can be glimpsed in the few sentences in Chocky where the narrator’s usually laid-back and mellow tone is punctured by a sudden bitterness:

“I have been astonished before, and doubtless shall be again, how the kindliest and most sympathetic of women can pettify and downgrade the searing anguishes of childhood.”

(Of Wyndham’s relationship with his mother (his father was absent), Moskowitz says: “He saw his mother primarily during school holidays and attended seven schools in all as she impulsively changed her places of residence.” Which seems to imply a certain indifference to her child’s emotional needs.)

Also:

“I felt a poignant memory of those desolate patches of disillusion which are the shocks of growing up.”

Chocky can also be read as a story of the birth of the artistic impulse, with Chocky a sort of science-fictional muse, teaching young Matthew new ways of seeing things. The most affecting moment in the novel, for me, is the point at which Chocky, realising the danger she’s placing both her mission and her human contact in, withdraws. “It’s like losing part of me…” Matthew says.

‘It’s going to be a bit dull,’ he said. ‘She sort of made me notice things more.’

‘Can’t you go on noticing things? The world’s quite an interesting place. There’s lots to notice.’

‘Oh, I do. More than I did, I mean. Only it’s kind of lonely, just noticing by yourself…’

‘If you could get what you see down on paper you’d be able to share your noticing with other people…’ I suggested.

And thus, perhaps, a writer is born.

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