Friday 29 August 2014

The New Accelerator

Amphetamine, first synthesised in Berlin in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu, was not commercially available until the mid-1930s, when it was marketed under the brand name Benzedrine. It soon became, and has intermittently remained, a drug of choice for writers and other creative artists. One author who used it enthusiastically was W. H. Auden, who took Benzedrine tablets every morning for twenty years, countering their effect with Seconal, a barbiturate, when he wanted to sleep. Pills were, he said, a 'labor-saving device', part of the cutlery in his 'mental kitchen', adding the warning that 'these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.'. Another writer who depended on amphetamines, though not in Auden's league (or any other, come to that) was Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, who took Dexedrine and Dexamyl daily for thirty years. Neither Auden nor Rand will ever be regarded as hipsters, but for whatever reason speed has become associated with cool and cultish beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.

In The New Accelerator H. G. Wells imagines the creation of a colossally powerful amphetamine and, in one of the most extraordinary sequences in Edwardian fiction, describes the effect on its first users (who may strike the modern reader as precursors of Withnail and Marwood) one summer afternoon in a fashionable seaside resort. 

The New Accelerator was first published in Strand magazine in 1901 and appeared two years later as the best in a lacklustre collection of short stories called Twelve Stories and a Dream. It's not only a brisk and thought-provoking entertainment (and it really is quite fantastically entertaining), but is also an early example of modern narcotic fiction, providing a link between the writings of Baudelaire and Thomas De Quincy in the 19th century and William Burroughs and Aldous Huxley in the 20th. These writers and their followers joined in questioning our assumptions about time's linearity, about how we pass through time and how time passes through us. 

The New Accelerator begins in a brisk, button-holing and unmistakably masculine register:

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.

'These pushful days' - a cobwebby phrase for a modern situation. At the turn of the last century there was intense debate surrounding the principles of Scientific Management, better known as Taylorism (after Frederick Winslow Taylor), the main object of which was improving economic efficiency through greater labor productivity. A development of Taylorism, better known to a general public and frequently the object of satire, was Time and Motion Study. Sceptics and advocates were at loggerheads, as the principles of Taylorism had, especially in the popular imagination, a distinctly sinister ring, implying a dehumanised, mechanised and standardised workforce bound by rigid, non-negotiable management systems. Think of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, or the platoons of workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

When Wells was writing The New Accelerator, time - and its relation to industrial labour, efficiency and productivity - had never been so closely scrutinised or rigorously commodified. It was as if time itself was now privately owned, to be packaged and allocated, so we can imagine the subversive implications of Professor Gibberne's discovery - a drug that will lead to 'the absolute acceleration of life' but also, by implication, the corresponding acceleration of death.

The setting of The New Accelerator is genteel Folkestone, now a fading resort but then a very respectable middle-class holiday destination on the Kent coast. Wells's description of the Gibberne residence is so precise that I'm sure I'm not the only reader to have scoured the Upper Sandgate Road for a detached house with Flemish gables and a Moorish portico, a ground floor room with mullioned bay window and 'an Early English carved oak gate'. My money's on number 150, on the right as you head down to the sea. Wells lived nearby in an imposing pile called Spade House, designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It's now a residential nursing-home, a place for people who are fast running out of time, and visitors are not encouraged.

Gibberne's elixir accelerates the user's metabolism to such a speed that his movements become too swift for the human eye to see. The user becomes invisible to us while the real world we inhabit appears motionless to the user, who is free to move around it at his leisure. What a great idea!

Wells, never short of great ideas, does remarkably little with this one, although to be sure narcotic writing is seldom compatible with anything as routine as a plot. It's all about sensation, subjective perception and self-absorption. The New Accelerator is little more than a description - and a wonderfully evocative and persuasive description - of the experience of being under the imaginary drug's influence. The protagonists, having taken a dose, do little but move unseen through a holiday crowd and, apart from a single mild act of delinquency involving a yapping lap-dog, nothing much happens. Since the real aim of the story is to describe a new cognitive experience - one that only photography, magic lantern projections and early moving pictures had attempted to represent - there's no call for a plot and I'm glad the author didn't work the story up into some kind of crime caper in which the protagonists fund an increasingly expensive addiction by invisibly looting shops and banks. One later writer who exhaustively exploited the libidinous potential of Wells's idea was Nicholson Baker, in his 1994 novel The Fermata. The central character, Arno Strine, has the ability (not drug-related) to freeze time and indulge in all manner of sexual goings-on. 

Back to our story. A euphoric Gibberne - the name should be pronounced with a hard 'g', as in gibbon - invites the narrator (who is a writer) to join him in an informal trial. "It kicks the theory of vision into a perfectly new shape!" he excitedly claims, and this it certainly does. The preliminaries are brilliantly handled by Wells - Gibberne delivers a series of deadpan practical instructions and portentous warnings, part health and safety nostrums, part music-hall conjuror's patter. Our narrator shuts his eyes and waits for the Accelerator to take effect. After a minute or two he opens them and looks around. Nothing appears to have changed but he has passed into another world - a billowing curtain hangs frozen in mid-air and, when Gibberne opens his hand to release his empty drinking-glass, it doesn't fall to the floor but remains quite motionless in mid-air, descending imperceptibly slowly.

Accelerated and disinhibited, the two men venture out through the ground floor window and make their way a few hundred yards southward to the Leas, the landscaped municipal gardens on the Folkestone cliffs high above the beach and harbour. It's a clear, hot August bank holiday weekend, 'every colour incredibly bright and every outline hard'. The spectacle confronting the two men is, in the narrator's chummy saloon bar idiom, 'deuced queer':

An immovable cyclist, head down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to overtake a galloping char-a-banc that did not stir. I gaped in amazement at this incredible spectacle.

It's a white flannel and straw boater world that the two Baudelairian flâneurs inspect at their leisure. As social observers they are at a double remove from everyday life because the holiday-makers they scrutinise with mounting horror are themselves on temporary leave of absence from 'these pushful days' and it would be a very different story if it unfolded in a more familiar Wellsian setting such as the South London suburbs.

It soon becomes clear that all is not well. An unpleasant reaction sets in as they examine that static, galloping horse-drawn char-a-banc:

The effect as we walked about the thing began by being madly queer, and ended by being disagreeable. There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. 

What the two men see on the Leas is not life but a simulacrum of life. It's 'disagreeable' not simply because there's no movement but because there's no vitality either - the holiday crowd is 'smitten rigid' like figures in a wax museum and what begins as a high-spirited excursion soon becomes a journey through a sunlit necropolis. Esse est percipere said Bishop Berkeley - 'to be is to be perceived' - and the two men, unperceived by others, undergo a mild but nevertheless disabling loss of self, a condition we would diagnose today as drug-induced paranoia. Wells doesn't explore this in much detail - but what he suggests is a state of death-in-life, the addict condition. The two men are invisible, spectral, unable to communicate with the world of the living. In the midst of life we are all are in death of course, but they, in an unsettling reversal, are dead in the midst of life, animated corpses who rise from the grave to terrorise the living. (Folkestone's Wikipedia entry tells me that the town's cultural highlight is an Annual Zombie walk, which attracted 200 participants in 2012. They could aim higher, although this link to the animated dead certainly resonates with the necrotic significance of the story. Perhaps Folkestone Town Council could up their game and arrange an Annual New Accelerator festival. That would really be something.)

What Wells depicts, rather than examines, is a temporal liberation that brings the user closer to death - not only by the 'infinitesimal degree' mentioned by Gibberne but in a profounder, existential sense. Wells raises important questions about selfhood - what it is, how it is sustained by the individual within the social order - but he doesn't offer answers to these questions because he's not that kind of writer. Like his narrator he is 'given to paradoxes about space and time' but, to quote a line from The Time Machine, he is at his best as a writer and his least convincing as a philosopher 'when thought roams gracefully free of the trammels of precision'. 

Although several of his stories are reflections on the effect of drugs real and imaginary, Wells was not himself a drug-taker and there's no evidence to support the widespread claim that the occultist Aleister Crowley introduced him to hashish. What Wells would have made of Auden's speed habit I can't imagine. His outlook was probably closer to that of the chronic insomniac in his 1910 novel When the Sleeper Wakes. Graham, the main character,  has not slept for six nights because, he says: "I dare not take ... sufficiently powerful drugs."  He falls into a self-medicated trance in 1897, awakening two hundred and three years later, fabulously wealthy thanks to compound interest accruing on his modest capital.

Wells is a practical, often literal-minded writer, preferring mechanics to metaphysics. He has a canny tradesman's eye for detail - the commercial version of Gibberne's New Accelerator will, we learn, be sold 'in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000, distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively'. He's less good on character and motivation, but this is not so much a flaw in his short stories so much as a defining characteristic. In The Time Machine (1895) Wells had explored temporal paradox, and the Time Traveller's description of his headlong voyage into the future anticipates some of the effects in The New Accelerator: 'The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me.'

Premature senility (as if there were any other kind) and/or early death are the drug's predicted side effects and we can imagine other, even less desirable outcomes for those who become addicted to a state of constant acceleration. Of course we all of us trade off experience against longevity every time we indulge ourselves in booze or tobacco or recreational drugs or whatever sensation meets our nihilistic needs or whims. 'This shit will probably kill us / Let's do another line' as Tom Waits memorably croaked. Gibberne's elixir brings death incrementally into the world and death, and our awareness of death, are behind everything, beneath everything, driving everything and overshadowing and ultimately thwarting all that we do.

It's quite a rock and roll drug, isn't it? 'Live fast, die young'; 'better to burn out than fade away', that sort of thing. Mutability and oblivion are at the dark heart of The New Accelerator - the irresistible attraction towards personal extinction expressed through a skewed romantic impulse to mock the quotidian and live more intensely. Stepping outside time is an essentially romantic impulse, and such disparate writers as Wells and Burroughs are romantic writers in the 19th century sense. One of Burroughs's aims, through his cut-ups and other literary experiments, was to crack open time and see what came out. By breaking up straight chronology Burroughs wanted to free himself - and us - from what he saw the tyranny of linear time and drugs, in his view, offered users the path to liberation. Granted access to Gibberne's elixir, one can't imagine 'El Hombre Invisible' (as Burroughs dubbed himself, in a nod to another Wells character) playing harmless pranks on the promenade. 

Novels, whether conventional or experimental, develop over time and at different speeds - writing speed, reading speed, the time depicted in the narrative and so on. Avant-garde fiction regularly challenges and subverts the conventions but in so doing tends to confirm their utility and durability. There is nothing stylistically daring in this story or elsewhere in Wells's writing, although in a smart self-referencing flourish he concludes The New Accelerator by telling us that 'the whole story has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I began at 6.25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the half-hour.' 

Over five thousand words in six minutes? It makes Philip K. Dick look like a slacker. Working twenty hours a day, fuelled by a thousand capsules of benzedrine a month, he hammered out just eleven novels in two years. I suppose that Wells will never be cool in the way that Dick, or Kerouac and his beat compadres are, and perhaps this is down to audience expectations. Readers in search of drug-fuelled literary illumination can be quite unadventurous, unwilling to venture outside the sanctioned cohort of cultish hipsters, and they always look in the same places. You can keep your groovy pill poppers; give me the unhip drug writers: Honoré de Balzac (who died of caffeine poisoning); Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“Opium – opium – night after night!”); Paul Verlaine (drowned in absinthe); Chandler and Cheever and Hemingway (epic boozers all).

When it comes to the social implications of the Accelerator Wells gives a casual libertarian shrug. The market will manage the consequences: 

Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of medical jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences--we shall see.

It's easy to predict a dystopian outcome - a society composed of two antithetical, pharmacologically-defined communities, built around collective addiction to Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator and its correspondingly potent Retardant, with a hyperkinetically active minority holding sway over an intermittently active underclass doped to the gills with mental and physical bromides. A society in collective denial at the thought of decay and death, with a compensating tendency to fetishise youth and beauty, a society addicted to self-realisation and self-fulfilment though elective self-medication. Picture a society that has fallen out of step with time, and look around you. 

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