29 December 2013

Xmas Reading: General Cessation Day by H. G. W*lls

[Max Beerbohm imagines how H. G. Wells might have written of a Christmas-like holiday celebrated in some utopian future. This version appeared in The Saturday Review on 29 December 1906. It is described as being Chapter V of “Sitting Up For the Dawn”.]

The re-casting of the calendar on a decimal basis seems a simple enough matter at first sight. But even here there are details that will have to be thrashed out….

Mr. Edgar Dibbs, in his able pamphlet “Ten to the Rescue”,† advocates a twenty-hour day, and has drawn up an ingenious scheme for accelerating the motion of this planet by four in every twenty-four hours, so that the alternations of light and darkness shall be readjusted to the new reckoning. I think such readjustment would be indispensable (though I know there is a formidable body of opinion against me). But I am far from being convinced of the feasibility of Mr. Dibbs’ scheme. I believe the twenty-four hour day has come to stay—anomalous though it certainly will seem in the ten-day week, the fifty-day month, and the thousand-day year. I shouid like to have incorporated Mr. Dibbs’ scheme in my vision of the Dawn. But, as I have said, the scope of this vision is purely practical….

Mr. Albert Noaks, in a paper‡ read before the South Brixton Hebdomadals, pleads that the first seven days of the decimal week should retain their old names, the other three to be called provisionally Huxleyday, Marxday, and Gorkiday. But, for reasons which I have set forth elsewhere,§ I believe that the nomenclature which I had originally suggested||—Aday, Bday, and so on to Jday—would be really the simplest way but of the difficulty. Any fanciful way of naming the days would be bad, as too sharply differentiating one day from another. What we must strive for in the Dawn is that every day shall be as nearly as possible like every other day. We must help the human units—these little pink slobbering creatures of the Future whose cradle we are rocking—to progress not in harsh jerks, but with a beautiful unconscious rhythm….

There must be nothing corresponding to our Sunday. Sunday is a canker that must be cut ruthlessly out of the social organism. At present the whole community gets “slack” on Saturday because of the paralysis that is about to fall on it. And then “Black Monday”!— that day when the human brain tries to readjust itself—tries to realise that the shutters are down, and the streets are swept, and the stove-pipe hats are back in their band-boxes! No writer has yet done justice to the horror and the deleteriousness of Sunday….

Yet, of course, there must be holidays. We can no more do without holidays than without sleep. For every man there must be certain stated intervals of repose—of recreation in the original sense of the word. My views on the worthlessness of classical education are perhaps pretty well known to you, but I don't underrate the great service that my friend Professor Ezra K. Higgins has rendered by his discovery¶ that the word recreation originally signified a re-creating—i.e.** a time for the nerve-tissues to renew themselves in. The problem before us is how to secure for the human units in the Dawn—these giants of whom we are but the foetuses—the holidays necessary for their full capacity for usefulness to the State, without at the same time disorganising the whole community—and them.

The solution is surprisingly simple. The community will be divided into ten sections—Section A, Section B, and so on to Section J. And to every section one day of the decimal week will be assigned as a “Cessation Day”. Thus, those people who fall under Section A will rest on Aday, those who fall under Section B will rest on Bday, and so on. On every day of the year one-tenth of the population will be resting, but the other nine-tenths will be at work. The joyous hum and clang of labour will never cease in the municipal workshops….

You must figure the smokeless blue sky above London dotted all over with aeroplanes in which the holiday-making tenth are re-creating themselves for the labour of next week—looking down a little wistfully, perhaps, at the workshops from which they are temporarily banished. And here I scent a difficulty. So attractive a thing will labour be in the Dawn that a man will be tempted not to knock off work when his Cessation Day comes round, and will prefer to work for no wage rather than not at all. So that perhaps there will have to be a law making Cessation Day compulsory, and the Overseers will be empowered to punish infringement of this law by forbidding the culprit to work for ten days after the first offence, twenty after the second, and so on. But I don’t suppose there will often be need to put this law in motion. The children of the Dawn, remember, will not be the puny self-ridden creatures that we are. They will not say “Is this what I want to do?” but “shall I, by doing this, be (a) harming or (b) benefiting—no matter in how infinitesimal a degree—the Future of the Race?”

Sunday must go. And, as I have hinted, the progress of mankind will be steady proportionately to its automatism. Yet I think there would be no harm in having one—just one—day in the year set aside as a day of universal rest—a day for the searching of hearts. Heaven—I mean the Future—forbid that I should be hide-bound by dry-as-dust logic, in dealing with problems of flesh and blood. The sociologists of the past thought the grey matter of their own brains all-sufficing. They forgot that flesh is pink and blood is red. That is why they could not convert people….

The five-hundredth and last day of each year shall be a General Cessation Day. It will correspond somewhat to our present Christmas Day. But with what a difference! It will not be, as with us, a mere opportunity for relatives to make up the quarrels they have picked with each other during the past year, and to eat and drink things that will make them ill well into next year. Holly and mistletoe there will be in the Municipal Eating Rooms, but the men and women who sit down there to General Cessation High Tea will be glowing not with a facile affection for their kith and kin, but with communal anxiety for the welfare of the great-great-grandchildren of the great-great-grand-children of people they have never met and are never likely to meet.

The great event of the day will be the performance of the ceremony of “Making Way”.

In the Dawn, death will not be the haphazard affair that it is under the present anarchic conditions. Men will not be stumbling out of the world at odd moments and for reasons over which they have no control. There will always, of course, be a percentage of deaths by misadventure. But there will be no deaths by disease. Nor, on the other hand, will people die of old age. Every child will start life knowing that (barring misadventure) he has a certain fixed period of life before him—so much and no more, but not a moment less.

It is impossible to foretell to what average age the children of the Dawn will retain the use of all their faculties—be fully vigorous mentally and physically. We only know that they will be “going strong” at ages when we have long ceased to be of any use to the State. Let us, for sake of argument, say that on the average their faculties will have begun to decay at the age of ninety—a trifle over thirty-two, by the new reckoning. That, then, will be the period of life fixed for all citizens. Every man on fulfilling that period will avail himself of the municipal lethal chamber. He will “make way”….

I thought at one time that it would be best for every man to “make way” on the actual day when he reaches the age-limit. But I see now that this would savour of private enterprise. Moreover, it would rule out that element of sentiment which, in relation to such a thing as death, we must do nothing to mar. The children and friends of a man on the brink of death would instinctively wish to gather round him. How could they accompany him to the lethal chamber, if it were an ordinary working-day, with every moment of the time mapped out for them?

On General Cessation Day, therefore, the gates of the lethal chambers will stand open for all those who shall in the course of the past year have reached the age-limit. You must figure the wide streets filled all day long with little solemn processions—solemn and yet not in the least unhappy…. You must figure the old man walking with a firm step in the midst of his progeny, looking around him with a clear eye at this dear world which is about to lose him. He will not be thinking of himself. He will not be wishing the way to the lethal chamber were shorter. He will be filled with joy at the thought that he is about to die for the good of the race—to “make way” for the beautiful young breed of men and women who, in simple, artistic, antiseptic garments, are disporting themselves so gladly on this day of days. They pause to salute him as he passes. And presently he sees, radiant in the sunlight, the pleasant white-tiled dome of the lethal chamber. You must figure him at the gate, shaking hands all round, and speaking perhaps a few well-chosen words about the Future….

† Published by the Young Self-Helpers' Press, Ipswich.

‡ “Are We Going Too Fast?”

§ “A Midwife For The Millennium.” H. G. W*lls. 1905.

|| “How To Be Happy Though Yet Unborn.” H. G. W*lls. 1903.

¶ “Words About Words.” By Ezrah K. Higgins, Professor of Etymology, Abraham Z. Stubbins University, Padua, Pa., U.S.A. (2 vols.). 1906.

** “Id est”—“That is.”

[Note: This also appears in a different form in A Christmas Garland (1912).]

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