The Triumph of Human Empire:
Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World
This book is about the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire.
I am borrowing the term human empire from Francis Bacon, who used it in the early 1600s in a utopian tale in which he imagined the discovery of a new Atlantis. This make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense of territorial control. Instead, Bacon described it as the center of a vast, general expansion of human knowledge and power.
Since Bacon’s time, this enlargement has led to human dominance on this planet far beyond anything he could have imagined. Population, production, and consumption are far greater than what they were in his day. The human-built world is far more extensive and intensive. Most astounding of all, humans can do things never before possible on earth—splitting atoms, creating new lifeforms, altering the composition of the entire atmosphere.
Today we routinely draw upon a familiar cluster of abstract terms to describe this profound alteration in the fabric, at once material and social, of human existence: Globalization, Mobility, Progress, Change, Development, Modernity, Technology, Innovation. They are all dimensions of the larger, longer event of the rise and triumph of human empire. Because that overarching story has so many dimensions and for the most part unfolds only gradually, it may be imperceptible, or nearly so, to individuals during their lifetimes. But even slow changes may quite suddenly crystallize into events of consciousness, when individuals recognize the extent and significance of human domination of the planet.
In the late nineteenth century, such an event of consciousness was triggered by the realization that soon the entire globe would be mapped. The end of the geographical unknown implied the beginning of a new era of history, one of ever-intensifying human presence. Henceforth the world would be both closed and full: “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Settlements would expand; connections would proliferate; non-human life and relics of the human past would be crowded out. Human needs, desires, works, and actions would more and more dominate the planet. It would become more unstable, due to the integrated effects of human-driven changes. The closing of the world frontier implied the disappearance of the unknown, the humanization of the known, and the acceleration of both.
This book retrieves a moment when humans realized they were living through a decisive turning point in the human story, but before this realization had been locked down into formulaic terms. However socialized, consciousness is ultimately located in the individual. This book examines the late-nineteenth-century event of consciousness through three men who were especially alert to historical change and gifted in expressing their apprehensions: Jules Verne (1828–1905), William Morris (1834–96), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94). Their lives offer evidence of the transformation of the conditions of history during their lifetimes. Their works provide rich archives of this event of consciousness, conveying both evidence and insight into its causes and implications.
Although these writers were privileged in so many ways by education, class, and gender, they were not happy with the way the world seemed to be heading. They worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. While realizing the blessings of human conquest of the planet, they mourned what they considered the inevitable losses it entailed.
Verne, Morris, and Stevenson were very different writers in many ways, but they shared two fundamental affinities. In the physical landscape, they repeatedly left the land for the water. In the literary landscape, they headed away from realism towards romance. These tendencies were connected. Water and romance are media of human existence that offer a fresh experience of the world, that open upon new perspectives, that offer understanding, liberation, even transcendence. Two streams run through this book: water and romance.
Since the time of Bacon, enlargement of human empire has routinely been thought of as historical progress: more power, more knowledge, more wealth, and even, possibly, more fulfilling and just ways of life. This progressive understanding of history was shared by Verne, Morris, and Stevenson, but they also understood that enlargement of human powers could have quite different and more troubling results. They saw another pattern in the history of their times, that of spreading centers of loss and calamity, reinforcing each other in intersecting circles of unpredictability and uncertainty.
We are still struggling to come to terms with these contradictory ways of understanding the triumph of human empire. This book is about a still unfolding event of consciousness, as grasped by three writers exceptionally successful in conveying its depth and significance.
Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford