Same hot buttons a hundred years later


NEW YORK — What was the world like 100 years ago? That was not the question I had in mind when I idly wondered if I could find exactly how French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) had described British playwright/novelist Oscar Wilde on one special occasion. As this is the age of the Internet, I quickly found the object of my wonderment in The New Age — no, not some magazine associated with the amorphous spiritual movement of recent vintage, but the famous Socialist weekly started in England a century ago in 1907.

Not that I knew anything about this periodical. I say “famous” because Brown University considers it important enough to include, in the Web site for its Modernist Journals Project, all the issues edited by A.R. Orange, from 1907 to 1922. Orange was a member of the Fabian Society whose most prominent member, George Bernard Shaw, partly financed the publication.

Among those congratulating the launching of the weekly were Prince Peter Kropotkin and H.G. Wells, and among its later contributors were T.E. Hulme, Katherine Mansfield and Ezra Pound.

Even if you know something about the Fabian Society, the Socialist stance of The New Age may surprise you. In its inaugural issue of May 2, the lead editorial supported the creation of “a British Empire,” and an article with the heading “First Public Conference on Mr. H. G. Wells’ ‘Samurai’ ” quoted the futurist putting forward the samurai as “the ideal citizen of the Socialist State.”

No, the British Empire such as we think of today did not exist at the time. But just as The New Age was going to press, the first Colonial Conference, in London, was winding down with “festivities, dinings, speeches, and entertainments.” Its aim was to strengthen Britain’s ties to its colonies and dependencies — which were then “bound together only by a common allegiance to the Crown” — so that an Empire might last for “the next hundred years or so.” How to do so, the editorial said, was “a problem worthy of far closer attention from Socialists than it has yet received.”

A few weeks earlier, at the New Reform Club, Wells had argued that the samurai represented the three groups of rules that the model citizens of the Socialist State he envisioned would have to have: “rules to secure personal efficiency, rules to secure discipline and co-ordinate action, and rules for intellectual training.” Here, he was rephrasing what he had proposed in his 1905 collection of essays, “A Modern Utopia,” where he had defined the samurai as “the voluntary nobility.”

If The New Age’s support of British imperialism inevitably brings to mind what Britain went on to perpetrate in the Middle East within a decade, the collapse of colonialism in less than half a century, and even some warmongers’ advocacy of reviving colonialism timed to America’s recent invasion of Iraq, Wells’ idealization of the samurai seems odd, if only in retrospect. In Wells’ case, luckily, Shaw was in attendance and pooh-poohed the idea. “The discipline described by Mr. Wells falls ridiculously short of the discipline I have put upon myself,” the playwright observed, adding, “I put it to Mr. Wells that the present state of our civilization has been brought about precisely as the result of a sort of Samurai idea.”

Wells’ exaltation of samurai in 1907 may even have indicated a dramatic change of heart. Describing the prevalent advocacy of eugenics during that period in “Europe: A History” (Oxford, 1996), English historian Norman Davies points out that Wells, in “Anticipations” (1901), had characterized “the blacks . . . the yellow race . . . (and) the Jews” as undesirables that had to be dealt with in some drastic way. If Wells had indeed made an about-face, was it because of the discipline that Japanese soldiers were reported to have displayed during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)?

That war had allowed Japan to join the ranks of imperialist nations as a full-fledged partner. But it was U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt who made that possible by stepping in as mediator. If he had refused to mediate, the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War might have been inconclusive. The two combatants had lost the ability to fight on — Russia was threatened with revolution, Japan was out of ammunition.

But only 1 1/2 years later, Roosevelt bruised Japan’s ego, which he had helped inflate by allowing the country to come out victorious: In March 1907 he signed an executive order prohibiting Japanese laborers from entering the United States. He did so to accommodate anti-Japanese agitation in California, but it eventually led to the immigration law of 1924 excluding Japanese immigrants altogether. After World War II, the Showa Emperor saw in that law the one great cause of the fateful U.S.-Japanese hostility.

In October 1907 the Second Peace Conference in the Hague spelled out the rules of war — rules made to be broken soon. That same month the first of the series of trials known as the Eulenberg Affair opened in a Berlin court. Involving the highest echelons of Kaiser Wilhelm’s entourage, it turned into the biggest homosexual scandal of the period.

But, as I was saying, what the world was like 100 years ago was not the question I had in mind, although the few random facts I stumbled onto make it clear that immigration, war and homosexuality were issues as alive back then as they are today.

Working on Yukio Mishima, I wondered whether I could ascertain his quotations from Bernhardt’s memoirs. In 1963, when the Bungaku-za broke up, Mishima, who had written plays for it, decided to devise new plans for the theater company. One idea he had was to restore theatricality to the Japanese theater, and for that, he thought of staging “La Tosca,” since Sardou’s play had brought Bernhardt the wildest fame.

Sure enough, The New Age, in its Dec. 28, 1907, issue, had a review of her memoirs, “My Double Life,” and it quoted her description of Oscar Wilde’s very theatrical behavior in their first encounter.

Should I add that the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, whom Mishima cites in “Confessions of a Mask” to explain his sexuality, was an expert witness in the Eulenberg trial?