‘Some old-world savage animal’: H. G. Wells’ White Sphinx and the Terror of Posthuman Time
This article examines the significance of the White Sphinx statue in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) in relation to Victorian anxieties surrounding deep time and posthuman futures. It argues first that contemporaneous developments in archaeology and palaeontology during the first half of the nineteenth century led to an elision between the two fields, with the result that Victorian literary depictions of archaeological artefacts often link them with geological or palaeontological timescales.
In Wells’ The Time Machine, a colossal marble sphinx functions as a symbolic manifestation of complex and often conflicting questions surrounding the newly-conceptualised geological timescale that dwarfed human history, and that implied the disturbing likelihood of both pre-human and posthuman temporalities. At once an archaeological remnant produced by a human society, and a transitional hybrid body comprised of both human and animal elements, Wells’ sphinx is able simultaneously to embody historical and evolutionary timescales. As such, it appears to offer a possible answer to unsettling questions about time, history, and humanity’s place on this planet, if only its significance can be unriddled. Ultimately, however, the White Sphinx remains an unassailable enigma, testament to the incomprehensible profundity of deep time.