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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

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Hena Maes-Jelinek

Aldous Huxley

Texte intégral

Not a soul
But felt a fever of the mad, and play’d
Some tricks of desperation.
(The Tempest, I, ii, 208-10)

  • 1 Aldous HUXLEY, Ends and Means, London, 1946, p. 273.

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confusing these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.1

1The philosophy of meaninglessness is the essence of Huxley’s early novels, of those witty and merciless satires in which he exposes the spiritual disease of the post-war generation. Huxley was an eloquent interpreter of the feverish mood of the Twenties. His clever and sardonic criticism of his contemporaries lays bare the futility and immorality of a social class which seeks oblivion in pleasure. He expresses the unavowed despair which underlies their defiant negation of values and shows the vulnerability of modern man, his distrust of his fellow-beings and his reluctance to face life responsibly. His characters are mostly upper-class people who can still afford to lead a leisured existence and divide their time between house-parties and travels; or they are artists and intellectuals of the type which Wyndham Lewis so much despised for corrupting “genius” and undermining the greatness of Western civilization. All of them are sophisticated people who refuse to take life seriously and either become cynics or are secretly distressed about their own negative attitude. In a sense, the type of characters he presents in his early novels and what he reveals of their way of life limit the bearing of his satires. On the other hand, the comments of his intellectuals on the human condition give his work an air of universality which often leaves the reader wondering at the perspicacity and the breadth of the author’s judgment. This and the topical character of his novels explain their success, though Huxley has always been both a widely read and a controversial writer.

  • 2 Frederick HOFFMAN, “Aldous Huxley and the Novel of Ideas,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, pp. 189-200

2It is a commonplace to say that Huxley can create neither a plot nor characters and that his novels consist in bringing people together and making them talk. This form of fiction has been, if not vindicated, at least accounted for, by Frederick Hoffman,2 who showed that Huxley used ideas as if they were animated persons and that he dramatized ideas instead of the life of his characters. His conversation-pieces are often a curious blend of urbane seriousness reminiscent of Peacock and of Firbankian frivolity. His method can hardly render the reality of life or of people, for it only reveals a limited aspect of the human personality. But the characters’ exchange of ideas and the glimpse we have of their behaviour make clear the individual and social attitudes he wishes to interpret. Huxley does not present life itself but the approach to life of a particular social class. As has often been pointed out, he is his own most lucid critic. The mixture of superior irony and bitterness in his satires may be accounted for by his twofold capacity as detached observer and self-deprecating actor in the social game he presents: in each of them an intelligent but frustrated young man vainly attempts to come to terms with life. The novels published by Huxley between the Wars are to some extent the story of these attempts and of his own spiritual development.

3In Crome Yellow Mr. Scogan sums up the plot of the novel Denis is writing as follows:

  • 3 Aldous HUXLEY, Crome Yellow, Penguin Books, 1960, p. 17.

Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.3

  • 4 Ibid., p. 61.

4This description also fits the plot of Huxley’s first novels, with the difference that the hero never disappears into the luminous Future but remains stuck in the grim present. Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923) and Those Barren Leaves (1925) were the first and most significant post-war novels which dealt with the predi-cament of the “Clever Young Man” in a confused society. Denis, Gumbril Jr., Chelifer and to some extent Calamy illustrate different stages in the development of the artist or intellectual who wishes to reach perfection in art or in his chosen field and to discover the secret of personal happiness. These young men start in life with plenty of illusions about their future achievements and with vague ideals about the true, the good and the beautiful. But they are soon disappointed in their romantic expectations, and they are either unable to reconcile the real with the ideal or torn between idealism and the temptation to yield to the cynical nihilism of those with whom they associate. They are at once anxious to fit into society and to escape from it, eager to discover the quintessence of life behind its richness, yet afraid of its complexity and above all of committing themselves to a positive attitude. They are absolutely unprepared for life and unable to behave sensibly in a world which is itself without established standards or beliefs. That is why they are much more at ease in the world of ideas and wish, as artists, “to work [the manifestations of life] into an idea.”4 Denis, who feels so insecure and lost in the real world is acutely aware of the difficulty of living and is the more inclined to retire into an Ivory Tower:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 22.

One entered the world … having ready-made ideas about everything. One had a philosophy and tried to make life fit into it. One should have lived first and then made one’s philosophy to fit life. … Life, facts, things were horribly complicated; ideas, even the most difficult of them, deceptively simple. In the world of ideas everything was clear; in life all was obscure, embroiled. Was it surprising that one was miserable, horribly unhappy?5

  • 6 Aldous HUXLEY, Those Barren Leaves, London, 1950, p. 149.

5The consequence of the young man’s inability to cope with ordinary life is an incapacity to act, particularly evident in his ineffectual endeavours to be a successful lover. Denis is seldom free from a sense of frustration because he can never take an initiative. Gumbril also lacks self-assurance, but he puts on a semblance of decision and momentarily gains confidence by wearing a false beard. The mild and melancholy Gumbril is thus transformed into a complete man and the transformation gives him power to act and to conquer where formerly he would have been hopelessly inefficient. But the episode is a farce; his completeness belongs to a fantasy world. It may help him to win the favour of Rosie, who also assumes a false personality to gain assurance, but when he discards his disguise in order to please the innocent Emily, he is unable to resist the challenge issued by Myra Viveash to destroy their relationship: he renounces his chances of being happy with Emily and allows himself to be dragged into a vacuum. As to Chelifer, he denies the potential richness of life much more consciously and determinedly. Whereas Denis’s disenchantment finds expression in nostalgia and a melodramatic death-wish, and Gumbril’s in gloom and self-disgust, Chelifer becomes deliberately cynical on the ground that “Reality gives imagination the lie direct.”6 His cynicism is a form of self-protection, for he wants to avoid being disappointed again. He is rightly called a “reversed sentimentalist,” for the obstinacy with which he kills all pleasure and joy in life and confines his existence to a mediocre reality is proportionate to his former exaggerated idealism.

  • 7 Crome Yellow, p. 19.
  • 8 Aldous HUXLEY, Antic Hag, Penguin Books, 1960, p. 81.
  • 9 Crome Yellow, p. 61.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 162.
  • 11 Antic Hay, pp. 27 and 29.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 45.

6The disenchantment of Huxley’s early heroes is partly an effect of their sense of isolation. Whether in the secluded world of Crome, in the hectic atmosphere of post-war London, or in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan setting of an Italian palazzo, everyone goes about in search of his own pleasure. The characters seem to have been brought together by mere chance; they talk but share no particular interest, purpose or feeling, and their relations with one another are mostly based on pretence. They are people without love and without compassion, unaware of others as human beings capable of joy and suffering. They are “all silent and all damned,” Denis reflects looking at his companions. They are, indeed, incapable of real communication, isolated in their own thoughts, interests and concern with themselves. It is Denis again who deplores that “we are all parallel straight lines,”7 while Myra Viveash actually wishes “one could manage things on the principle of railways! Parallel tracks – that was the thing.”8 The older generation refuse even more deliberately to take an interest in their fellow-men: “People aren’t in my line,” says Henry Wimbush, “They don’t interest me, they give me no emotion.”9 He looks forward to the time when it will be possible “to live in dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from human intrusion.10 Similarly, Gumbril Sr. acknowledges his incapacity to deal with people: “Most of them I don’t like at all, not at all”; he only aspires to privacy: “No need to look on the dirty world or let the dirty world look on you.”11 Like Wimbush, he seeks refuge in the past by building miniature seventeenth-century cities. These older people have retained a sense of decency and are capable of generosity, but they have always lived in a fairly closed world and refuse to open their minds to change and progress or even to take an interest in mankind. Gumbril Jr. rightly guesses that his father is more attached to his models than to himself. He sees in his father one of the few individuals who might personify his own ideal of the true, the good and the beautiful, but he is also aware of the futility of his father’s life purpose. Unable to discover anything worthwhile around him, he comes to think that “It’s altogether too late in the day to have dreams,”12 and he renounces his ideal.

7Most Huxleyan heroes react like Gumbril to the ambient barrenness. They are too weak to resist the spiritual disease of their day and they readily give up the human values they had meant to uphold. Gumbril himself offers the best example of sheer irresponsibility, for he is sensitive enough to be aware of what he misses by allowing the “desiccated waste” to extend around him.

  • 13 Antic Hay, pp. 146-7.

There are quiet places also in the mind. … But we build bandstands and factories on them. Deliberately – to put a stop to the quietness. We don’t like the quietness. All the thoughts, all the preoccupations in my head – round and round continually. … And the jazz bands, the music-hall songs, the boys shouting with the news. What’s it for? What’s it all for? To put an end to the quiet, to break it up and disperse it, to pretend at any cost that it isn’t there. Ah, but it is; it is there, in spite of everything. Lying awake at night, sometimes – not restlessly, but serenely, waiting for sleep – the quiet reestablishes itself, piece by piece; all the broken bits, all the fragments of it we’ve been so busily dispersing all day long – a crystal quiet, a growing, expanding crystal. It grows, it becomes more perfect. … And at last you are more conscious of something approaching; it is almost a faint sound of footsteps. Something inexpressibly lovely advances through the crystal, nearer, nearer. And, oh, inexpressibly terrifying. For if it were to touch you, if it were to seize and engulf you, you’d die. … But one can’t face the advancing thing. One daren’t. It’s too terrifying, it’s too painful to die. Quickly before it’s too late, start the factory wheels, bang the drum, blow up the saxophone. Think of the women you’d like to sleep with, the schemes for making money, the gossip about your friends, the last outrage of the politicians. Anything for a diversion. Break the silence, smash the crystal to pieces. There it lies in bits. And by this time the lovely and terrifying thing is three infinites away, at least. And you lie tranquilly on your bed, thinking of what you’d do if you had ten thousand pounds, and of all the fornications you’ll never commit.13

8Though this passage is a rather poor attempt at conveying Gum-bril’s intuition of another reality, it explains the moral cowardice which makes people seek refuge in a destructive nihilism. Antic Hay is Huxley’s most cruel satire of the aimlessness and spiritual confusion which prevailed in the coteries of artists and intellectuals in post-war London. Each character in the novel stands for a distorted attitude, whether in art, intellectual pursuit, or emotional and spiritual life. In Lypiatt, as in Mary Thriplow in Those Barren Leaves, Huxley satirizes a belated and sham romanticism and exposes with cruel lucidity the spiritual poverty of people who use art and beauty to conceal their emptiness. Both stimulate passions with their minds because they are emotionally impotent, and both deceive themselves by pretending to feelings which they never experience. Lypiatt is quick to denounce the nihilism of his friends: “Ideals – they’re not sufficiently genteel for you civilized young men. You’ve outgrown that sort of thing. No dream, no religion, no morality.”1 But for all his noisy and self-intoxicating declarations about life and art he is an artist without talent or vision who is eventually made to face his nothingness and loses all sense of dignity when he seriously contemplates suicide without having the courage to commit it.

  • 14 Antic Hay, p. 47.

9Mercaptan is a counterpart to Lypiatt. In his little rococo boudoir he enjoys “conversations across the polished mahogany … and delicately lascivious witty flirtations on ample sofas inhabited by the soul of Crebillon fils.”14 He is a dilettante completely cut off from reality: “Homo au naturel … ça pue. What I glory in is the civilized, middle way between stink and asepsis.”1 He revels in his small, soulless, degenerate world, and his cultivation of “refinement” leads him to the complete negation of feeling and life. Lypiatt rightly sums up what his existence amounts to:

‘You disgust me – you and your odious little sham eighteenth-century civilization; your piddling little poetry; your art for art’s sake instead of for God’s sake; your nauseating little copulations without love or passion; your hoggish materialism; your bestial indifference to all that’s unhappy and your yelping hatred of all that’s great.’ (p. 48)

10Yet Mercaptan’s hatred of life seems trivial compared to Coleman’s satanic depravity. The latter is a cynic who revels in degradation and filth. Unlike Spandrell, whom he foreshadows, he does not feel it necessary to account for his perversion, which may simply be due to the horror of an immature man for sex: “The real charm about debauchery is its total pointlessness, futility and above all its incredible tediousness.” (p. 186) He finds it particularly interesting to watch children “tobogganging down into the cesspools” and he derives an additional satisfaction from the sense that he is committing a sin: “It’s only when you believe in God and especially in hell, that you can really begin enjoying life.” (p. 223) He takes good care not to be contaminated by other people’s weaknesses and makes fun of them while doing his best to destroy their illusions. There is one person, however, whom he is careful to avoid: Myra Viveash, the fashionable beauty whose eyes have “a formidable capacity for looking and expressing nothing.” She destroys whomever she allures with her expiring death-bed voice. Her life is a void, an infinite boredom, a cold and heartless game with other people’s lives. She is largely responsible for Gumbril’s disenchantment, she ruins Lypiatt’s life and destroys Shearwater’s peace of mind. The latter is another perverted intellectual, a physiologist interested in science for its own sake, in the functions of the human body but not in man. He tries to forget Myra Viveash by devoting himself to grotesque and pointless experiences. At the end of the novel he pedals unceasingly on a stationary bicycle while Mrs. Viveash looks on and comments discouragingly: “To-morrow … will be as awful as to-day.” (p. 254) In fact, it is not surprising that Gumbril, Lypiatt and Shearwater should be so completely subjugated by Myra Viveash, who symbolizes the destructive nihilism to which they adhere, what she calls “Nil, omnipresent nil, world-soul, spiritual informer of all matter.” (p. 170) The depressing conclusion of Huxley’s early novels is that the hero agrees to live in a vacuum with his joyless pleasures, his disgust towards himself and others and his concealed hopelessness.

  • 15 Crome Yellow, p. 133.
  • 16 Crome Yellow, p. 137.

11The selfishness of Huxley’s characters and their escapism is deeply related to their inability or their unwillingness to face their own nature. None of them can reconcile the potential spiritual greatness of man with what they consider as his physical repulsive-ness. They either try to ignore the body or become cynically sensual. Most of them could say with Scogan: “Nature or anything that reminds of nature disturbs me.”15 Indeed, Scogan and Cardan, the two elderly commentators on life in Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves, deplore the futility of attempting to transcend the limitations of the self. In moments of depression Cardan is reminded that the body suffers degradingly, dies and is eaten by maggots. In his urbane manner he declares that the final triumph of the flesh over the body is a farce which the wise man forgets lest it should spoil the pleasures of the spirit as well as of the body. But he cannot ignore the fact that spiritual decline keeps pace with bodily decay and he is aware of being in a blind alley because he has never discovered what might have harmonized his split personality and given his life its “raison d’être.” This self-division is the dilemma of all Huxleyan heroes; they are caught in the vicious circle of their dichotomy and emotional sterility: as pure intellectuals or pure sensualists they are emotionally sterile, while this incapacity to feel makes them either turn exclusively to the realm of the spirit where man can be “magnificent, strong and free,” or yield to the physical with self-disgust. Their insensitiveness is further increased by the interest with which they analyse what feelings they may experience. Denis is so busy dissecting all his feelings and actions that he is unaware of “all the vast conscious world of men outside him; they symbolized something that in his studious solitariness he was apt not to believe in.”16 How impoverishing this process of self-analysis can be is illustrated in such artists as Mary Thriplow and Philip Quarles, the novelist in Point Counter Point.

  • 17 Crome Yellow, p. 56.

12Huxley’s satire of the English upper classes in the Twenties seems to have much in common with Wyndham Lewis’s: both writers attribute the decline in their characters’ standards of behaviour to their self-division and express the same contempt for all that is not intelligence and common sense in man. However, whereas Lewis views man’s dichotomy as a desirable condition and criticizes his contemporaries for cultivating the wrong half of their personality, Huxley sees in that dichotomy the source of man’s confusion and tragic plight. It is true that, like Lewis, he is unable to create a character capable of behaving as a normal human being, a fact which accounts for his partial failure as a novelist. On the other hand, he at least discriminates between sensations and feelings and satirizes his characters’ callousness and unwholesome approach to life. In his early novels there are also occasional touches of sympathy and understanding which now and then take the place of real insight and prevent his work from being purely satirical; this also reveals his deeper awareness of the complexity of life. Huxley attempts to convey the duality of man through a mixture of seriousness and farce in his characters’ behaviour; he naturally uses the farcical or the grotesque to render their incapacity to cope with life. Thus the dignified Henry Wimbush shrinks from human contact but enjoys the spectacle of pigs breeding in numbers and delights in the eccentricities of his ancestors. His family chronicle is in fact a historical account of the growing split in man’s personality and of his increasing reluctance to face his nature and the reality of life. Crome was built in the seventeenth century by Sir Ferdinando, who was preoccupied with one problem: “the proper placing of his privies.” He found the necessities of nature so incompatible with the great-ness of man that he wanted the privies to be the rooms nearest to heaven, “provided with windows commanding an extensive and noble prospect, … lined with bookshelves containing all the ripest products of human wisdom … which testify to the nobility of the human soul.”17 In the eighteenth century Sir Hercules, a dwarf, built for himself and his wife a beautiful miniature world and committed suicide when he realized that its artificial refinement could not supersede or even keep out the brutishness of ordinary men. In the nineteenth century the three romantic Lapith girls pretended to ignore their bodily existence and never ate in public until one of their suitors discovered that they gorged themselves in secret, and threatened to expose their greediness.

13Crome is truly representative of this refusal to take men as they are: “It makes no compromise with nature, but affronts it and rebels against it,” (p. 55) Mr. Scogan says. He himself feels only at home among the works of man, which are the “products of friendly and comprehensible minds,” whereas nature even in those few aspects of it observable in a big city – the sky, an occasional tree, the flowers in the window-boxes – evokes a world “inhumanly large and complicated and obscure.” Scogan and Cardan are both products of nineteenth-century materialism and belief in progress. They were brought up in an age when man thought he was conquering Nature. Scogan rejoices in the achievements of applied science which gradually replace natural functions, but like Cardan, he is a disappointed man. Both are convinced that the majority of people in contemporary society are not sufficiently intelligent to make use of progress and civilization or even of their increasing freedom; whatever class they belong to, they are all becoming bourgeois, i.e., domesticated and degraded animals. Scogan and Cardan favour the creation of a Rational State in which the men of intelligence “will learn to harness the insanities to the service of reason.” However, the confidence of these staunch rationalists in the men of intelligence is not devoid of irony, for the élite to which they belong has ceased to feel responsible and would not be able to govern. They are themselves unable to deal with life. Mr. Scogan has no other resource to comfort Denis than his disenchanted nihilism: “What’s the point of it all? All is vanity. … But then why allow oneself to be distressed? After all, we all know that there’s no ultimate point. But what difference does that make?” (p. 166) At sixty-five Cardan finds solitude too disquieting even for a day; he is afraid of poverty and death, and he coaxes a simpleton into marrying him in order to secure her fortune. The simpleton dies, and he is again faced with the prospect of solitude and poverty. Huxley often resorts to the grotesque to describe the whims of the older generation. Lilian Aldwinkle, Cardan’s elderly hostess in Those Barren Leaves, also loses all sense of propriety and dignity when she tries to become Chelifer’s mistress. All these people are the spiritual inheritors of Crome, for none are able to face life or to integrate into the world of men.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 23.

14Huxley’s typical young hero does not, like Waugh’s, reappear in each work as the same naive and slightly obtuse character. Unlike Denis, Gumbril does not lament over a missed opportunity. He very soon makes his the philosophy of his generation: “[One] takes things as they come. … It seems so obvious. One enjoys the pleasant things, avoids the nasty ones. There’s nothing more to be said.”18 Gradually, however, the temptation to adhere to an ideal becomes more insistent and, when rejected, leads to a more bitter form of nihilism. In Those Barren Leaves Chelifer and Calamy embody two antithetic aspects of a split personality. Both have reached the same dead end: Chelifer is a poet who adheres with perverse obstinacy to a self-inflicted mediocre existence on the ground that he has no right to ignore the real character of the contemporary world: “Religion, patriotism, the moral order humanitarianism, social reform – we have all of us, I imagine, dropped those overboard long ago. But we still cling pathetically to art. … It’s time to smash the last and silliest of the idols …[to] put away the ultimate and sweetest of the inebriants and wake up at last completely sober – among the dustbins at the bottom of the area steps.” (pp. 84-85) He, therefore, seeks out “the heart of reality” and, with feigned detachment, describes his life as “one unceasing slide through nothing.” (p. 108) Unlike Chelifer, Calamy does not make ordinary life a source of self-torment and he does not gloat over its horrors. However, his attempt to escape from a meaningless world is not very convincing. When he is too blasé to go on with the social game, he decides to give his life a purpose, and he transforms his predecessors’ motto “one takes things as they come” into: “The man of sense sees the world neither too rosily nor too biliously and passes on. There is the ulterior reality to be looked for.” (p. 371) This sentence and Calamy’s retirement from society foreshadow the spiritual quest described in Eyeless in Gaza. It should be noted, however, that even at this early stage the “ulterior reality” is presented as a refuge from the world; it does not transform the hero’s vision of it or his life in it. Indeed, Calamy takes for granted the “wearisome condition of humanity” and bases his search on his self-division because he thinks that he must ignore the body to be able to explore the depths of the mind. Both Chelifer and Calamy evade a positive attitude to life in exactly the same manner: the former chooses a soulless reality and rejects the temptation of the mind, while the latter gives up the flesh reluctantly to cultivate the spirit. But Calamy’s mysticism is only a false start; the Huxleyan hero is not yet prepared to reject this world for a timeless and spiritual peacefulness.

15Those Barren Leaves is the last of Huxley’s novels in which the detached observer satirizes the aimlessness and sterile agitation of a disrupted society and cannot refrain from finding the spectacle amusing. Apart from Brave New World they are in their limited way his most successful novels and come nearest to achieving his purpose, which might be likened to that of Knockespotch, the imaginary author whose tales Mr. Scogan so much appreciates:

  • 19 Crome Yellow, p. 81.

Oh, those Tales – those Tales! How shall I describe them? Fabulous characters shoot across his pages like gaily dressed performers on the trapeze. There are extraordinary adventures and still more extraordinary speculations. Intelligences and emotions, relieved of all the imbecile preoccupations of civilized life, move in intricate and subtle dances, crossing and recrossing, advancing, retreating, impinging. An immense erudition and an immense fancy go hand in hand. All the ideas of the present and of the past, on every possible subject, bob up among the Tales, smile gravely or grimace a caricature of themselves, then disappear to make place for something new. The verbal surface of his writing is rich and fantastically diversified. The wit is incessant.19

16The particular zest of these tales lies precisely in their lack of meaning. “I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social planum,” Knockespotch is supposed to have said, “I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, fully and sportively bombinating.” (p. 81) The trouble with Huxley’s characters is that they are never quite free to frolic as they please. Unlike Firbank’s or Waugh’s characters, they allow their pleasure to be marred by the bitterness or self-disgust which makes cynics of them. Their distrust of their fellow-men and their lack of illusions about them, their indifference to personal tragedy often clash with their apparent concern for the greatness and progress of humanity as a whole. Moreover, the characters who denounce modern society and the folly of men are themselves responsible for the breakdown of moral standards and beliefs. This emphasizes the absence of conviction in Huxley’s early work. The worst sin in his eyes is stupidity, “being unaware,” and the greatest good is intelligence, which, as he more or less acknowledges, is powerless to make men behave reasonably. But by the end of his third novel Huxley is clearly growing tired of eccentricity and is ready to give up negativism.

17In Jesting Pilate Huxley compares life to a melody in which separate moments are meaningless but all the moments put together reveal the nature of the tune and its significance:

  • 20 Aldous HUXLEY, Jesting Pilate, London, 1948, pp. 150-1.

At any given moment life is completely senseless. But viewed over a long period it seems to reveal itself as an organism existing in time, having a purpose, tending in a certain direction … it is conceivable that the moment of world existence, of which we are each aware during a human lifetime, may be an essential part in a musical whole that is yet to be unfolded.20

18This idea is exploited in Point Counter Point (1928), which marks the beginning of Huxley’s quest for meaning in life and in art. He creates a microcosm whose numerous parts illustrate a central theme unfolding contrapuntally like a musical fugue. As in Huxley’s previous novels, this theme is the refusal of man to face his own nature and the dichotomy that ensues from his escapism. But for the first time Huxley suggests that men might be reconciled with their condition if only they realized that they are parts of an organic whole to whose nature they contribute unconsciously. His purpose is to offer a synthesis of life and to render its complexity and richness, “to get the whole range of thought and feeling” and convey it in a harmonious composition in which individual elements find their proper place. Describing the execution of Bach’s suite in B minor, Huxley stresses its contrapuntal structure and compares its interpreters to the orchestra of human life:

  • 21 Aldous HUXLEY, Point Counter Point, London, 1930, p. 32.

The parts live their separate lives; they touch, their paths cross, they combine for a moment to create a seemingly final and perfected harmony, only to break apart again. Each is always alone and separate and individual. ‘I am I’ asserts the violin; ‘the world resolves round me.’ ‘Round me’ calls the cello. ‘Round me’ the flute insists. And all are equally right and equally wrong; and none of them will listen to the others.21

19The plot of the novel develops on several planes on which a series of variations takes place: Huxley brings together different sorts of people in the same place, or simultaneous scenes involve closely related people, or again he shows different characters reacting in their own way to the same event. Moreover, each theme – for instance, sensuality or mysticism – is given a different twist or emphasis according to the character who illustrates it. The first theme introduces Walter Bidlake tired of his mistress, Marjorie Carling, who is with child. In spite of her entreaties he leaves her to attend a party at Lady Tantamount’s, where most characters are present. Walter is in love with Lucy Tantamount, a hard and cold woman, who eventually accepts him as her lover and makes him suffer. Illidge comes down from the laboratory to listen to the music. He is of lower-class origin and a communist. He meets Webley, the fascist leader. Later in the novel he associates with Spandrell to kill Webley. The latter, an idealist and a man of action, is in love with Elinor Quarles, Walter’s sister. She is waiting for Webley when she is called to her parents’ country-house where her child has been taken ill with meningitis. Instead of Elinor, Webley finds Spandrell and Illidge, who kill him. Shortly afterwards little Phil dies. Spandrell commits suicide. Another theme is illustrated by Burlap, the rapacious editor for whom Walter works. He succeeds in seducing Beatrice, an ageing virgin who works for him. The novel ends with Beatrice and Burlap having a bath together while a secretary whom Burlap has dismissed commits suicide. A number of secondary characters add to the variations on the themes Huxley develops: Lady Tantamount revels in social blunders; her husband, a distinguished biologist addicted to science for its own sake, is incapable of personal relations and outside the laboratory behaves like a child of ten, “a fossil mid-Victorian child, preserved intact.” Lord Gattenden, his brother, tries to prove the existence of God mathematically and takes revenge on the universe for being a cripple by ignoring the world of appearances. John Bidlake, Walter’s father, once a very talented painter and a sensualist, is reduced to a human wreck by old age and cancer; he takes refuge with his wife Janet, whom he has always neglected. Mr. Quarles, Philip’s father, a fake intellectual, spends his time doing cross-words and compensates for his sense of inferiority by having love affairs with young typists.

20This vast network of themes and characters illustrates the evils which poison man’s life and modern society. Moral cowardice, unhealthy spirituality, sensualism, cold intellectualism, bitterness and discontent, cynicism, action of its own sake or for the sake of a false ideal, lack of sensibility, hypocrisy, all these evils are illustrated and opposed to the warm humaneness of Mark and Mary Rampion, who are portraits of D.H. Lawrence and his wife. The Rampions do not share in the action; they are brought in whenever Huxley wants to contrast their healthy conception of life with the perversity or weakness of the other characters. For this reason Rampion gives the impression of not being integrated in the orchestra, and the sense of harmony which he was no doubt intended to create is absent from the novel. “What I complain of,” says Mark Rampion, “is the horrible unwholesome tameness of our world.” (p. 129) The world is tame because people have been domesticated by the all-powerful institutions which govern modern Western civilization. This tameness is unwholesome because instincts and spontaneous living are being restrained. Rampion analyses man’s inner division and attributes it to religion, science and business (Jesus-Newton-Ford) which “ripped the life out of our bodies and stuffed us with hatred.” (p. 162) Religion is responsible for man’s ideals, for his effort to be better or other than merely human. When man tries to be an angel or a devil, the only possible result is death, which is also the outcome of industrialism, the monster born from the combined efforts of science and business. Its effects are felt everywhere, even in education, which inspires children with a love for machinery, and in art, which expresses the spirit of industrialism by sterilizing life out of things. Industrialism is supported by political parties which advocate americanization even in Russia: on both sides, machinery takes people to hell, only in Russia the rich men have been replaced by government officials. The industrial civilization is the fruit of an excessive intellectualism which serves the new gods instead of serving man and provokes inward decay, infantilism, degeneration and all sorts of madness and primitive reversion. For Rampion, the evil is rooted in the individual so that it is the individual psychological outlook which must be reformed. The only absolutely evil act that a man can perform is an act against life, against his own integrity. Rampion pleads for life with a passion truly reminiscent of Lawrence, though unfortunately he is no more than a mouthpiece for the latter’s ideas:

Our truth, the relevant human truth, is something you discover by living completely with the whole man. … Nobody’s asking you to be anything but a man. A man, mind you. Not an angel or a devil. A man’s a creature on a tightrope, walking delicately equilibrated with mind and consciousness and spirit at one end of his balancing pole and body and instinct and all that’s unconscious and earthy and mysterious at the other. Balanced. … And the only absolute he can ever really know is the absolute of perfect balance. (pp. 555-60)

21The character who is most strikingly opposed to Rampion is Spandrell with his strange mixture of cynicism, debauchery and asceticism. He finds all human beings hateful and boring, and boasts of depraving young girls whom he makes desperate by revealing to them the full horror of their corruption. As Rampion rightly guesses, his motive is hatred of sex: “You hate the very basis of your life, its ultimate basis. … Not only you. All these people…. It’s the disease of modern man.” (p. 161) Spandrell pursues sin systematically in order to prove the existence of God, for “some people can only realize goodness by offending against it.” (p. 215) When he becomes used to the wrongness of acts he at first thought sinful, he sees no other solution than to commit more serious offences. After killing Webley in order to prove the existence of God, he discovers that his crime is more stupid than horrible and that, whatever he does, he remains on the dust-heap. Just before committing suicide, he invites the Rampions to listen to Beethoven’s A minor quartet in order to discover with them in the “Heiliger Dankgesang” the proof that God exists. Spandrell experiences a moment of perfect serenity, though to Rampion his intense spirituality is equivalent to death because it is achieved “by throwing half of himself in the paper basket.” The reverse attitude is Lucy’s cold, civilized lasciviousness. She rejects Walter’s tenderness because she wants to be emotionally free. Like Spandrell, she is confined to solitude and to a “deathly sort of liveliness.” Rampion thinks that promiscuous love-making is the ascetic’s contempt for the body expressed in a different way. When people hate life, their only alternative is promiscuity or asceticism, two forms of death. Burlap’s perversity and hypocrisy and Marjorie’s unwholesome spirituality are other manifestations of fear and hatred of life.

22The characters of Point Counter Point serve as models for one among them, the novelist Philip Quarles, who is himself writing a novel about a novelist. Philip is a semi-autobiographical character, and his notebook offers illuminating comments on Huxley’s purpose and achievement in Point Counter Point; it also makes clear why Huxley was attracted to Lawrence’s view of life but unable to adhere to it. Like Rampion, Philip thinks that an excessive development of the mental functions leads to the atrophy of the other features of the human personality. He realizes that actual living is more difficult than the intellectual life, that even the “Search for Truth” is a refined substitute for genuine living. He shares Rampion’s ideas, but he is unable to live up to them, “to transform a detached intellectual scepticism into a way of harmonious all-round living.” (p. 440) “It is easy to believe one ought to change one’s mode of living,” he says, “The difficulty is to act on the belief.” (p. 473) His mother’s efforts to induce in him a desire to give himself, Elinor’s attempts to make him more human even by encouraging him to have affairs with other women, are unavailing. Emotionally, he remains an alien, using his wife as a go-between in his relations with the outside world. If only for the sake of his work, he rather wishes that he could really feel those emotions which he understands so thoroughly, or be one of those personalities he so readily assumes, but at heart he prefers to remain emotionally free even if this means being confined to his own mind; after all he is only safe in the world of ideas, and there at least he is certain of his superiority. Elinor, the most normal and human character in the novel, suffers from his attitude; he cannot give her the human warmth she craves for. His poor attempts at intimacy fail, and Elinor, who admires Webley but doesn’t love him, feels that unfaithfulness is the only way in which she can shake Philip out of his indifference. Characteristically, Webley is a man of action and violent emotions, Philip’s exact opposite. The latter realizes that his relationship with his wife has come to a crisis but all he does is use it as a basis for the plot of a novel.

  • 22 Aldous HUXLEY, Do What You Witt, London, 1929, p. 81.

23In his notes on the musicalization of fiction Philip expresses his desire to convey life in its immediacy, by allowing an equal part to intuition and intellect. This is clearly what Huxley attempts to do in Point Counter Point, But if he can observe people and describe their states of mind, he cannot infuse them with a life of their own nor present them as he sees them: “multifarious, inconsistent, self-contradictory.”22 The structure of the novel and his approach to the characters are determined by a turn of mind which is also Philip’s:

The essential character of the self consisted precisely in that liquid and undeformable ubiquity; in that capacity to espouse all contours and yet remain unfixed in any form, to take, and with an equal facility efface, impressions. To such moulds as his spirit might from time to time occupy, to such hard and burning obstacles as it might flow round, emerge, and, itself cold, penetrate to the fiery heart of, no permanent loyalty was owing. The moulds were emptied as easily as they had been filled, the obstacles were passed by. But the essential liquidness that flowed where it would, the cool indifferent flux of intellectual curiosity – that persisted and to that his loyalty was due. If there was any single way of life he could lastingly believe in, it was that mixture of pyrrhonism and stoicism which had struck him, an inquiring schoolboy among the philosophers, as the height of human wisdom and into whose mould of sceptical indifference he had poured his unimpassioned adolescence, (pp. 269-70)

24It is this “essential liquidness” and “the cool indifferent flux of intellectual curiosity” which make Huxley look at life from different angles: “Multiplicity of eyes and multiplicity of aspects seen. … Each sees, professionally, a different aspect of the event, a different layer of reality. What I want to do is to look with all those eyes at once.” (p. 266) By looking at life through the eyes of his many characters and by describing their reactions to it, Huxley presents a wide range of contemporary attitudes. Through the development of various themes, the confrontation of characters and the clash of ideas, he explores various aspects of life. This naturally emphasizes the heterogeneous character of contemporary society; it also allows the author to expose a number of aberrations which estrange men from their real nature as well as the diversity of escapes they devise. Actually, Huxley denounces the same evils as in his previous novels, with the difference that eccentricity is no longer farcical but life-destroying and a frequent source of tragedy. He widens the scope of his criticism by examining the philosophic tendencies of the Twenties in their vulgarized and often distorted expressions and by giving examples of the class-hatred and the political squabbles between fascists and communists in England at the time. In order to achieve completeness he “assume[s] the god-like creative privilege and elect[s] to consider the events in the story in their various aspects – emotional, scientific, economic, religious, metaphysical, etc.” (p. 409) Still, however comprehensive his vision of the contemporary world, however accurate his diagnosis of the disease of modern industrial society, the novel is, to use his own words, a “made-up affair” and “slightly monstrous.”

25Huxley was aware that the multiplicity which underlies the structure of his novel might result in “a too tyranical imposition of the author’s will.” (p. 409) This is certainly true in so far as each character’s life is made consistent with the ideas he illustrates and his fate is the inevitable outcome of his approach to life.

26“Everything that happens is intrinsically like the man it happens to,” (p. 389) Spandrell says, an assertion substantiated by the kind of death he chooses. Similarly, Webley, who had appealed to force and violence, meets with a violent death. This determinism leaves little room for the autonomous development of characters; the latter behave as their creators expect them to. Like the novelist-zoologist in Philip’s novel, Huxley’s approach to his characters is that of a scientific observer who illustrates human vices through those of animals: he compares Lucy’s cruelty with that of crocodiles and Spandrell’s orgies with copulating snakes. He is sometimes amused, though mostly horrified, at their queer behaviour, but he assumes that they cannot be saved from themselves because he has no faith in human beings nor apparently in life. Indeed, it is his lack of any deep-set conviction that makes all truth relative in his eyes and makes it possible for him to look at life from multiple angles. It also undermines the authority of Rampion’s position and explains why Philip Quarles cannot put into practice the ideas he shares with his friend. He adheres to the theory of inconsistency and advocates it, but he cannot be inconsistent himself, and instead of asserting passionately like Rampion that it is natural for man to be inconsistent, he demonstrates it rationally. In the end Quarles’s fear of life and “congenital” incapacity to live integrally is Huxley’s most eloquent comment on the tragic isolation of modern man.

27Point Counter Point is a significant novel both as a criticism of modern civilization and as a landmark in Huxley’s development. It shows a maturity unprecedented in his fiction and a deep insight into the human mind and soul. It is also Huxley’s most humane work because of his attempt to interpret human suffering and of his lack of irony towards his main characters. He makes a serious endeavour to present life as a whole and to offer integral living as a way of redeeming man from the evils of modern life. Unfortunately, Rampion merely preaches his message, he is not shown living it. Moreover, Huxley has no intuition of wholeness; he illustrates the idea of wholeness by making multiplicity a substitute for it: “All you need is a sufficiency of characters and parallel contrapuntal plots.” (p. 408) Nor does he reconcile passion with reason; at best he says that “the very possession of a body is a cynical comment on the soul and all its ways. It is a piece of cynicism, however, which the soul must accept, whether it likes it or not.” (p. 576) This remark, coming from Elinor at the end of the novel, is a confession of failure: the characters are incapable of integration, and the novel does not suggest that integration is possible. The orchestra presented by Huxley merely interprets fragments of isolated and unsatisfactory lives. The “abrupt transitions” are certainly present, but there are few of those subtle variations, of those exquisite and unexpected associations, of the fantasy or sadness which a musical fugue can convey. This is perhaps because most characters are consistently bad and show little real feeling, perhaps because, like Quarles, Huxley cannot deal with the simple manifestations of ordinary human feelings: “When it came to the simplicities, he lacked the talent – that talent which is of the heart no less than of the head, of the feelings, the sympathies, the intuitions, no less than of the analytical understanding.” (p. 267) On the other hand, he draws a shrewd picture of the English social scene in the Twenties. By relating the experiences of individuals to the contemporary historical background, he throws light on the climate of death which prevailed after the First World War, impairing personal relations and poisoning man’s life. His evocation of the social chaos shows that he still looks at humanity with the same horror and fear. Eventually, the central theme of the fugue drowns Rampion’s voice and the ending of the novel is a sardonic comment on man’s incorrigible perversion. Although Huxley was led to acknowledge the incompatibility of Lawrence’s philosophy with his own approach to life and art, he kept from his association with him a conviction that man is and should remain whole: whereas in his first novels he had advocated reason as the sole guide to the best way of life, in his later work he points to the danger of an exclusive adherence to reason at the expense of instincts. This broader vision accounts for his attempt to convey a more complete picture of man in Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza though this picture is still limited.

  • 23 Aldous HUXLEY, Proper Studies, London, 1929, p. 136.

28Brave New World (1932) is the only pure satire Huxley has written. It is a picture of what our world might become if we allow applied science to condition our life entirely and to destroy our individuality. From his earliest work Huxley showed interest in the form of government and social structure that were most likely to offer man the greatest possibilities of fulfilment. Like many thinkers of the inter-war period, he felt that the disintegration of the European aristocracy after the First World War demanded the formation of a new élite. Huxley’s criterion of excellence is, like Wyndham Lewis’s, intelligence; he also recommends an aristocracy of the mind though one that would include different types of intelligence. In Proper Studies he argues for the unique-ness of each individual, the inequality in reason and intelligence which differentiates men and should be taken into account when determining the place they are to occupy in society. “A perfect education is one which trains up every human being to fit into the place he or she is to occupy in the social hierarchy, but without in the process destroying his or her individuality.”23 In Brave New World Huxley’s dream of a hierarchical society has come true. But it does not allow the individual to develop in harmony with his nature. It is similar to Mr. Scogan’s “Rational State,” in which there is no room for individual aspirations. Poets, however, are not yet destroyed in the lethal chamber, they are merely sent to a distant island.

  • 24 Crome Yellow, pp. 130-1.

In the upbringing of the Herd, humanity’s almost boundless suggestibility will be scientifically exploited. Systematically, from earliest infancy, its members will be assured that there is no happiness to be found except in work and obedience; they will be made to believe that they are happy, that they are tremendously important beings, and that everything they do is noble and significant. For the lower species the earth will be restored to the centre of the universe and man to pre-eminence on earth. Oh, I envy the lot of the commonalty in the Rational State! Working their eight hours a day, obeying their betters, convinced of their own grandeur and significance and immortality, they will be marvellously happy, happier than any race of men has ever been. They will go through life in a rosy state of intoxication, from which they will never awake. The Men of Faith will play the cup-bearers at this lifelong bacchanal, filling and ever filling again with the warm liquor that the Intelligences, in sad and sober privacy behind the scenes, will brew for the intoxication of their subjects.24

29Huxley describes the society imagined by Scogan with the mixture of ironical amusement and seriousness which characterizes his early novels. He presents a world from which nature has been as far as possible eliminated both from man’s environment and from his personal life. It is not the political dictatorship dreaded by most people but the equally inhuman society created by an unconditional demand for comfort and security. The worst threat that now hangs over Western civilization is that the Utopia so long dreamed of by philosophers and scientists should come true. For progress, the fruit of unlimited scientific research, is a powerful and dangerous instrument in the hands of the world controllers. It gives them the means of organizing the state and the lives of men along very strict pre-established lines. The tragic dilemma of modern man is at last solved for him by being made irrelevant: he need no longer reconcile body and mind; his main functions are skilfully channelled and mechanized or simply eradicated. Another of Mr. Scogan’s fantasies is made true through the dissociation between love and procreation. Ironically, it is in this overorganized world that men achieve integration though at the cost of their individual freedom. The stereotyped “flapper” with her “promise of pneumatic bliss” symbolizes the new society.

  • 25 Aldous HUXLEY, Brave New World, Penguin Books, 1956, p. 37.

30The motto of the New World is “Community, Identity, Stability.” It is not ensured by force but by creating the conditions which make it inevitable. Babies are decanted as socialized human beings and predestined to becoming standard men and women; they are classified according to the part they are expected to play in society. The main principle of education is the suppression of natural instincts through conditioning. Indeed, man can be conditioned to anything: “What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.”25 Maternity no longer exists except accidentally, and “mother” has become an obscene word, while love and individual passion have been replaced by a cold promiscuity encouraged from childhood: “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” (p. 42) Emotion is withheld from all human intercourse, and the old notions of family and home are presented as the horrors of a past and miserable civilization. In order to avoid neurosis women are given pregnancy substitutes; violent passion surrogates are compulsory, they are the psychological equivalents of fear and rage. Even the religious instinct finds an outlet in the cult of Our Ford which allows people to satisfy both their need for religious faith and for collective hysteria. Belief in God has, of course, been eradicated. People believe in God when they have been so conditioned, or when they are unhappy. But there is no need for an absolute when the social order is immovable and its stability is its own justification. Moreover, God isn’t compatible with machinery, scientific medicine and universal happiness. If anything should go wrong in this well-organized world, there is always soma to help one to get away from reality. Soma is the supreme remedy, the equivalent of moral strength, “Christianity without tears.”

31Children are conditioned through hypnopaedia, “the greatest moralizing and socializing force of all time.” (p. 33) They are taught slogans, “words without reason,” until the words instilled into the child’s mind in his sleep is his mind. Thus man is completely dehumanized since even thought is automatized by the state. People behave in an undifferentiated insensitive way on the individual plane, and they are taught to abhor nobility and heroism, which are symptomatic of political inefficiency. Their spiritual and emotional deathliness entails the complete disappearance of creative activity. There is nothing to write about since, by suppressing pain and conflict, the state has also quenched the incentive to self-expression and to the interpretation of experience in terms of art. All the treasures piled up in centuries of intense living and expression of individual genius have become irrelevant. The eradication of love, understanding and compassion, the replacement of self-denial by self-indulgence, the extinction of ideals, the condemnation of solitude and contemplation, and the destruction of the mystery of life and death have rendered the creation ot beauty impossible and undesirable. Even science has to be sacrificed; this may seem paradoxical since it has made progress possible, until we realize that the search for truth is a threat to stability; as a consequence, science must be carefully controlled, for it might defeat the ends of this “scientific” society. Truth and beauty have given place to comfort and happiness. People are happy because they get what they want, and they never want what they cannot get. All conditioning aims at making people satisfied with their inevitable social destiny.

32Yet even in a well organized society errors are apt to happen. Because of a mistake in their conditioning Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson are not perfectly regimented. Bernard is an intelligent Alpha plus trained in psychology. Unlike the people of his caste, he likes to be alone and to do things in private. He feels separate and isolated and often has the impression that he is an outsider. He resents being a mere cell in the social body. He would like to feel strongly and to know what passion is. Bernard and Helmholtz share the knowledge that they are individuals and long to assert themselves as such, Bernard in personal relations, Helmholtz as a creative writer. However, when Bernard is threatened with exile for unconformity, he behaves like a coward. By associating cowardice with sensitiveness and individuality, Huxley weakens his point against organized society. In this respect Helmholtz is a better example of a harmonious personality, but his role in the novel remains very limited. Huxley obviously wished to avoid making him an apostle of regeneration.

33Before his exile Bernard had gone with Lenina to an Indian Reservation in Mexico where the people have been preserved from civilization. Everything there is alive, and they feel man’s nearness to the earth. But primitiveness, squalor, superstition, prejudice are not very tempting to the man who has experienced civilization, and going backwards is impossible. Bernard brings to London the savage John and his mother Linda, a former Beta girl lost in the Reservation. To her, return to civilization means a return to soma. John, who was educated partly by Indians, partly by reading an old edition of Shakespeare’s works, has always imagined the civilized world as a kind of paradise. When he reaches London, civilization turns out to be a nightmare. He cannot overcome his disgust and horror at the sight of the Delta Dwarfs, and they almost kill him when he throws away their rations of soma and offers them liberty. Asked to choose between God, poetry, real danger, freedom, good and evil on the one hand, and civilization on the other, he rejects civilization and claims the right to be unhappy. Life in the Brave New World becomes an inhuman farce, and by a cruel irony its people provoke his death. John is in love with Lenina, whom he identifies with Shakespeare’s Miranda. But he is horrified at her shameless promiscuity, for as a true old-worlder, he associates the flesh with sin. He seeks purification in self-punishment and decides to retire to the country in order to live naturally and ascetically and to escape the filth of civilized life. Confused and humiliated, he commits suicide after a horrible and most distasteful session of whipping which turns to collective hysteria.

  • 26 Aldous HUXLEY, Brave New World Revisited, London, 1959, pp. 17-18.
  • 27 Brave New World, p. 120.

34In Brave New World Revisited (1959) Huxley examines one by one the social evils of the contemporary world and shows to what extent the situation he imagined in 1932 has already come true. Modern society is faced with “the problem of rapidly increasing numbers in relation to natural resources, to social stability and to the well-being of individuals.”26 Political power, almost inevitably centralized in overpopulated and highly industrialized countries, together with technology and applied science concur to annihilate the individual, deprive him of his freedom and reduce him to a mere cog in the social machine. In democratic as much as in totalitarian countries the state increasingly takes precedence over the individual: “It’s better that one should suffer than that many should be corrupted.”27 People are thus made to lose their personality and become functions in the social body. It makes them feel lonely and insignificant, though material comfort and the pleasure of consuming partly make up for the coldness of their environment while mass communication media such as the popular press, radio and television prevent them from thinking too much or from paying too much attention to the realities of their world. Huxley further describes the means which the modern statesman commands to persuade his people that they live in the best possible world. Brainwashing, chemical persuasion and hypnopaedia can and sometimes have been used on individuals or even on crowds. Huxley’s analysis of life in the modern metropolis is meant to show what high price man is paying for scientific progress; the deliberate annihilation of human nature, the suppression of art and the limitation of individual aspirations. All this was already illustrated in Brave New World, though we are now in a better position to appreciate this satire and its implications. Throughout this work Huxley remains faithful to his satirical outlook without yielding to the temptation of a more human approach. Even Bernard and the Savage are not allowed for long to appeal to the reader’s understanding or to win his approval: the former wants the best of both worlds, the latter is neurotic and self-destructive. By slightly distorting reality or magnifying some of its aspects, Huxley brings home to his reader the consequences of the disappearance of freedom, passion and creativity. The controller’s words about the conditioning of the masses sound alarmingly true:

‘His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed. Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle – an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixation. Each one of us, of course, … goes through life inside a bottle. But if we happen to be Alphas, our bottles are, relatively speaking, enormous.’ (p. 175)

35By the mid-Thirties the threat of war was again hanging over the world and fighting was soon to break out in vulnerable spots. For many people fascism was a threat which they hoped to check by committing themselves politically. In Ends and Means Huxley explains how people went over from disillusionment and cynicism to political commitment:

Disillusion, fatigue and cynicism succeeded the initial enthusiasm (about the First World War), and when it was over, the sense of pointlessness became a yawning abyss that demanded to be filled with ever more and intenser distractions, ever better ‘good times’. But good times are not a meaning or a purpose; the void could never be filled by them. Consequently, when the nationalists and communists appeared with their simple idolatries and their proclamation that, though life might mean nothing as a whole it did at least possess a temporary and partial significance, there was a powerful reaction away from the cynicism of the post-war years. Millions of young people embraced the new idolatrous religions, found a meaning in life, a purpose for their existence, and were ready, in consequence, to make sacrifices, accept hardships, display courage, fortitude, temperance and indeed all the virtues except the essential and primary one, without which all the rest may serve merely as the means for doing evil more effectively. Love and awareness – these are the primary, essential virtues. But nationalism and communism are partial and exclusive idolatries that inculcate hatred, pride, hardness, and impose that intolerant dogmatism that cramps intelligence and narrows the field of interest and sympathetic awareness. (pp. 124-5)

36Huxley was a pacifist, probably since the First World War when he was associated with the Morrels, who were the inspirers of a pacifist movement. He didn’t think that communism could ward off the danger of war. As he explains in Ends and Means, he thought that the Soviets wanted peace, but in this matter as in the management of their country they used bad means to reach their ends; they were like the militarists of the First World War, who thought that war was an efficient means to end war. Huxley called himself a “rational idealist.” To the Marxist ideal which advocates a reform of social institutions in order to create conditions favourable to the individual, he opposed an ideal which made the reform of the individual a preliminary to the reform of society. He analysed the elements in modern society which made for war, and he defined the means by which he thought it could be avoided. He developed the same theme in Eyeless in Gaza.

37Eyeless in Gaza (1936) records five moments in the life of the hero: as a sensitive child, he already evades his real nature and tries to match other people’s image of himself. As a young man, he is the lover of Mary Amberley, who dares him to seduce Joan, the fiancée of his life-long friend, Brian. This betrayal leads to Brian’s suicide. After this Anthony breaks with Mary and systematically refuses to commit himself emotionally. At thirty-five he is an amiable intellectual without real personal life or sense of responsibility. He is divided between his work and a heartless sensuality. A few years later, in 1933, Helen, Mary’s daughter, becomes his mistress. He takes good care to refuse the love she offers; though she is deeply hurt, she accepts his conditions because she is herself in a sad predicament. Once when they are naked on the roof of Anthony’s house, a dog falling from an aeroplane crashes near them and spatters them with blood. The incident arouses in Helen a feeling of repulsion for Anthony, whereas he becomes aware of her as a person and realizes too late that he loves her. He agrees to go to Mexico with Mark Staithes partly because he thinks he must get out of his spiritual impasse, partly because he is ashamed to confess his cowardice, for they are expected to take part in a revolution. In Mexico he meets Dr. Miller, an anthropologist, who diagnoses his disease as both physical and spiritual and converts him to mysticism and constructive pacifism.

  • 28 Aldous HUXLEY, Eyeless in Gaza, London, 1936, p. 23.

38Several experiences in Helen’s life explain her disenchantment and the perversity with which she hurts herself and hides her wounded sensibility. All the important episodes in her life and in Anthony’s are told in four alternating narratives. Huxley repeats with time the experiment he had carried out with characters and place in Point Counter Point. At the beginning of the novel Anthony, who has been looking at old snapshots, is suddenly reminded of the past; events come back to him confusedly “as if the snapshots were dealt out by a lunatic.”28 In spite of the apparent absence of connection between the snapshots he is led to make certain associations. The seemingly haphazard flashbacks suggest the complexity of the human personality and the importance of events which leave their impact on the subconscious and influence man’s behaviour. By avoiding continuity and by juxtaposing events which took place at different periods, Huxley hopes to make clear why the characters became what they are. A whole network of cause and effect relationships is created, though the complete lack of transition sometimes makes it difficult to connect events. The discontinuity in the narrative is meant to emphasize the confusion in Anthony’s life, while it also gradually brings to light the motives which have always determined his behaviour and stresses the relation between past, present and future. Anthony’s awareness of his past is conducive to self-knowledge, an essential preliminary to self-change. He has always been actuated by lust and fear, of being decent like Brian, of being ridiculed by Mary if he didn’t kiss Joan, of confessing his betrayal to Brian, and then by the fear of committing himself and of losing his beloved freedom; in other words, fear of life has always imprisoned him, but he now hopes to overcome it by facing the hostile crowd he is going to lecture on pacifism. Fear is the root of evil not only in Anthony’s life but in the other characters’ as well; it pervades the novel and becomes more conspicuous when the characters face loneliness, old age or death.

39All the characters are tormented by the old plight of being “born under one law, to another bound.” Brian is imprisoned in his moral code and tortures himself uselessly to atone for what he calls his base desires. The despair which drives him to commit suicide arises as much from self-disgust as from disappointment in others. Hugh Ledwidge is a specimen of arrested sexuality, while Helen is a thwarted idealist. In her “hell of emptiness, and drought and discontent,” she seems akin to Mrs. Viveash and Lucy Tanta-mount, but she is much more sensitive and rather pathetic in her repeated efforts to reach fulfilment spiritually and physically. Mark Staithes is an inverted Spandrell: he resents his dependence on other human beings, whom he despises, and he enjoys “forcing humans to be fully, verbally conscious of their own and other people’s disgustingness.” (p. 245) Like Spandrell, he craves for a spirituality which he cannot attain; he lives ascetically and he adheres to a strict moral code in order to feel more separate, more intensely himself and in a better position to look down on other people. He is a communist because it seems the only thing worth being in the Thirties, but he asserts that there is not much difference between tyranny under commissars or under gauleiters. If he goes to Oaxaca and tries to help the revolutionaries, it is not because their revolution makes sense but in order to submit himself to yet another hard trial and prove his superiority through sheer assertion of his will.

  • 29 Ends and Means, p. 24.

40The fact that Anthony Beavis is a sociologist who discovers the sterility of theorizing and seeks redemption in action is significant of Huxley’s new outlook. His hero’s conversion to mysticism is accounted for by his abhorrence of the past, which he disavows when he realizes that his life and that of his friends have been marred by futility and madness. Similarly, his constructive pacifism is based on Huxley’s new, though clearly theoretical, conviction that “‘unchanging human nature’ is not unchanging, but can be, and very frequently has been, profoundly changed.”29 Anthony is the first character in Huxley’s fiction who undergoes a spiritual change and decides to act upon it. His purpose is to achieve liberty and to convince other people that they can also achieve it. But what exactly does he mean by it? Even before his conversion he had made detachment from the self a condition of freedom: “How can there be freedom so long as the ‘you’ persists? A ‘you’ has got to be consistent and responsible, has got to make choices and commit itself.” (p. 365) As a sociologist, he thought that freedom could only exist for a few economically independent individuals: man has always exchanged one form of slavery for another, slavery to nature for slavery to institutions or vice-versa. But for himself freedom was an excuse for avoiding action either on the professional or on the personal plane. Twenty years later he realizes that this freedom was illusory: “I preferred to be free for the sake of my work, in other words, to remain enslaved in a world where there could be no question of freedom for the sake of my amusements.” (p. 323) After his conversion Anthony makes liberation from the self a means of reaching a higher end, of achieving a union with the spiritual reality which underlies the phenomenal world and gives it what significance it possesses:

The ideal man is the non-attached man. Non-attached to his bodily sensations and lusts. Non-attached to his craving for power and possessions. Non-attached to the objects of these various desires. Non-attached to his anger and hatred; non-attached to his exclusive loves. Non-attached to wealth, fame, social position. Non-attached even to science, art, speculation, philanthropy. (p. 325)

41Huxley further explains that “People will behave justly and pacifically only if they have trained themselves as individuals to do so, even in circumstances where it would be easier to behave violently and unjustly.” (p. 325) In other words they must use their inner powers in order to practise the virtues which make for non-violence. Intelligence is essential as a means of increasing awareness, and love is the instrument by which man can hope to ensure peace and justice. Love in the widest sense is a unifying factor between individuals and between peoples. “Unity of mankind, unity of all life, all being even” is the ultimate good; evil is the accentuation of division. That is why man must achieve unity beyond the turmoil of his surface life.

42Eyeless in Gaza ends with Anthony’s meditation on a mystical experience which makes him perceive “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.” He is aware of peace as “a dark void beyond all personal life,” (p. 619) for “minds like ours can only perceive undifferentiated unity as nothing.” (p. 615) Thus, the void of life, which had hitherto been meaningless and a source of despair for Anthony and all Huxleyan heroes is transformed into the nothingness of perfect non-attachment and acquires a regenerating value. But as a man who undergoes a spiritual experience, Anthony fails entirely to convince the reader. For one thing, he has not successfully integrated body and mind before transcending them to achieve union with the ultimate reality. His solution is that of a divided person, for he rejects the body, of which he is still ashamed, to follow a spiritual path about which he is himself uncertain:

Quietism can be mere self-indulgence. Charismata like masturbations. Masturbations, however, that are dignified, by the amateur mystics who practise them, with all the most sacred names of religion and philosophy. ‘The contemplative life.’ It can be made a kind of high-brow substitute for Marlene Dietrich: a subject for erotic musings in the twilight. (p. 503)

43Similarly, Anthony hopes to convert people to pacifism by appealing to love and intelligence although he is convinced that most people are selfish and stupid. After his second speech at a pacifist meeting he feels like Mark that “they might as well go and talk to cows in a field. … I caught myself taking intense pleasure in commenting on the imbecility of my audience and human beings at large. Caught and checked myself, reflecting that seeds had been sown.” But his meditation ends with the thought that “At present, most people seem more or less imbecile or odious; the fault is at least as much in oneself as in them.” (pp. 170-1)

44Anthony’s scepticism about the success of his undertaking is due to his wrong approach to his spiritual experience. Indeed, his conversion is the outcome of an elaborate intellectual process, not a spontaneous act of faith. Meditation is a technique, self-knowledge and training in the use of the self are mere devices which are supposed to make the spiritual experience possible, but they are not associated to the love and compassion which he also considers as requisites for this experience:

The fundamental problem is practical – to work out systems of psychological exercises for all types of men and women.. .. In time, it might be possible to establish a complete and definite Ars Contemplativa. A series of techniques, adapted to every type of mind. Techniques for meditating on, communicating with and contemplating goodness. Ends in themselves and at the same time means for realizing some of that goodness in practice. (p. 565)

45This lack of inner compulsion as well as his unconvinced and cold proselytism explains why it is hard to believe that Anthony’s commitment is anything but a temporary way out of his spiritual confusion. Obviously, he is still more preoccupied with himself than with the state of the world and his escape into mysticism excludes the complete surrender of the self which always marks a real conversion. His technical approach to the spiritual also accounts for the failure of the novel: Anthony describes mysticism, he does not experience it, and the passages which deal with it are not more dramatized than the essays on the same subject in Ends and Means. Another reason for this failure is that Huxley has abandoned satire without giving a more complete or more normal picture of man. He is still the detached observer who discourses on the follies of his contemporaries. True, he shows greater psychological insight than in his previous novels, and he has also made clear the relation between disorder in private life and the confusion and violence in public life. On the other hand, the elaborate structure of the novel is inadequate to show that the combination of past, present and future in an attempt to transcend time is a means of achieving true freedom. It fails precisely to convey that element of moral growth essential to a true conversion. Anthony’s willingness to stand on a platform and be attacked by people whom he despises anyway may be an example of self-mastery, but its does not make real the “ultimate spiritual reality” which is the ground of his action. On the whole, he still fits in with the description of the Huxleyan hero given by Philip Quarles in Point Counter Point:

By this suppression of emotional relationships and natural piety he seems to himself to be achieving freedom – freedom from sentimentality, from the irrational, from passion, from impulse and emotionalism. But in reality, … he has only narrowed and desiccated his life; and what’s more, has cramped his intellect by the very process he thought could emancipate it. (p. 474)

46Huxley’s belief in action and in the efficacy of reform was of short duration, and his acquired faith in the perfectibility of human nature did not outlive his realization that men were inevitably heading towards war and destruction. Three years after Eyeless in Gaza he published a novel in which he satirized more fiercely than ever the depravity of human beings and recommended complete detachment from life on the ordinary human level. In After Many a Summer (1939) he makes no compromise between perversion on the one hand and sainthood or something approaching it on the other. He is more convincing in his interpretation of vice, though his usual types are so overdone that they are no longer recognizable as human beings. Like Wyndham Lewis’s “apes,” they are degenerate creatures engaged in a senseless and grotesque show. The performance is often witty and amusing even if it sometimes verges on the tragic. But it is frequently interrupted by the preaching of Huxley’s mouthpiece on mysticism. The shifts between the farce and Mr. Propter’s philosophical essays are representative of Huxley’s dualistic vision of man.

47Among the grotesque characters we find the American millionaire, Jo Stoyte, who is sickeningly afraid of death and employs a full-time doctor, Obispo. In exchange for keeping Jo in good health the latter is given all facilities to do research work on longevity. Obispo is the most unpleasant of Huxley’s cynics: he perverts Virginia Maunciple, the brainless beauty who acts at once as mistress and adoptive daughter to Jo and he observes the effects of his experiments with a detached scientific interest. Jeremy Pordage, an oldish, fossilized Mercaptan, arrives from England to edit the Hauberk papers bought by Stoyte from the impoverished descendants of an English earl. He is bored with the frightfulness of the world and shrinks more from life than any of Huxley’s hard-boiled intellectuals. The disordered universe created by Stoyte turns out to be his spiritual home:

  • 30 Aldous HUXLEY, After Many a Summer, Penguin Books, 1959, p. 140.

… because it was the embodiment of an imbecile’s no-track mind. Because there were no issues and nothing led any-where and the dilemmas had an infinity of horns and you went round and round … round and round in an infinite cosiness of issueless thoughts and feelings and actions, of hermetically bottled art and learning, of culture for its own sake, of self-sufficient little decencies and indecencies, of impassable dilemmas and moral questions sufficiently answered by the circumambient idiocy.30

48This indulgence in nonsense for its own sake and in the aberrations and corruption of a world exclusively actuated by materialism and self-indulgence shows to what degradation sterile intellectualism and sheer sensualism can lead. In Jeremy Pordage the conflict between body and mind becomes a farce; a few intellectual fads and pornography are all that remains of a once serious dilemma.

49In this insane and corrupt world Propter would appear as an agreeably normal and balanced character if he lectured a little less and was involved in what action there is in the novel. But even while he helps the unfortunate transients who pick up oranges on Stoyte’s plantations, he feels it his duty to explain with a logic which one can hardly expect them to follow that they are responsible for their own misfortunes because ignorance and stupidity are no less severely punished by the nature of things than deliberate malice; their gravest offence was to accept the world in which they found themselves as normal, rational and right. Propter presents mysticism as a practicable and rewarding way of life. He quotes Cardinal de Bérulle’s definition of man as “a nothingness surrounded by God, indigent and capable of God, filled with God, if he so desires.” (p. 76) He rejects ideals on the ground that they are all magnified aspects of the personality; the only accept-able ideal is union with God, which can only be achieved through liberation from personality, from craving and from time. Time is the medium through which evil propagates itself and in which evil lives, therefore time is evil. Good lies outside the prison of personality in a state of pure, disinterested consciousness. The negation of personality as an expression of self-will, which is itself a denial of God, leads to the belief that nothing can be achieved on the strictly human level that isn’t evil.

On the human level, good exists as the proper functioning of the organism in accordance with the laws of its own being. On the higher level, it exists in the form of a knowledge of the world without desire or aversion. (p. 99)

  • 31 Aldous HUXLEY, The Perennial Philosophy, Cleveland, 1962, p. 80.

50Between the animal below and the spirit above there is nothing but a swarm of impulses, sentiments and confused notions which must be transcended. Indeed, Propter asserts that the world as it is and people in their strictly human capacity are beyond hope. Salvation lies in retreat from humanity, in an intellectual and intuitive union with God, for society can never be improved. Whereas for Anthony meditation was a preparation for action and, so he hoped, would contribute to the improvement of society, Propter thinks that “Right action “is the means by which the mind is prepared for contemplation. Society itself is good only in so far as it renders contemplation possible for its members.” What is important in regard to the social environment is not its progressive-ness or non-progressiveness (whatever those terms mean) but the degree to which it helps or hinders individuals in their advance towards man’s final ends.”31 Actually, Mr. Propter’s assertion that men have to choose between almost insuperable difficulties on the one hand (in order to actualize goodness) and absolutely certain misery and frustration on the other, leaves the majority of people with little hope of finding happiness – whatever one means by it – in either world.

51The plot of the novel and its main theme are based on Obispo’s research on longevity. They are inspired by Huxley’s aversion for time and its accompanying evils, decay and death, as well as by his aversion for man’s bodily existence. Virginia’s exclamation about two baboons copulating: “‘Aren’t they cute! Aren’t they human!’” (p. 70) is a fierce satirical comment on the characters. Obispo hopes to find a means of prolonging human life in the intestinal flora of a carp. In the Hauberk Papers Jeremy discovers the diary of the fifth earl of Gonister, in which the latter explains that he eats the viscera of freshly opened carp and observes on himself the effects of rejuvenation. At the age of eighty-three he had three illegitimate children and at about ninety-five a scandal forced him to have his funeral celebrated in order to escape imprisonment. He then retired with his housekeeper to subterranean apartments. Obispo decides to go to England and to take with him Virginia and Jo Stoyte. In the cellar of the earl’s country-house they discover the earl and his housekeeper. He is now two hundred and one, and both are perfect anthropoids! More afraid of death than ever, Stoyte wonders how long it would take a man to become an ape and concedes that, after all, in their own way they are having a pretty good time!

52The denouement of the novel is a masterpiece of grim humour, but it arouses disgust as well as amusement and conveys the author’s full horror of physical decay. To prolong life without being able to stop the degeneration of the body is to preserve the repulsive animal in man, not the enlightened human being. Like Swift’s Struldbrugs, who only retained the disadvantages of old age and gradually lost all the spiritual, intellectual and emotional qualities which differentiates men from animals, the earl of Gonister, though a highly intelligent and reasonable man, has allowed himself to become a slave to his physical being and to time. Huxley insists in all his writings that man always pays a high price for every victory over Nature. In The Perennial Philosophy (1962) he writes that “The doctrine that God is in the world has an important practical corollary – the sacredness of Nature, and the sinfulness and folly of man’s overweening efforts to be her master rather than her intelligently docile collaborator. … Modern man no longer regards Nature as being in any sense divine and feels perfectly free to behave towards her as an overweening conqueror and tyrant.” (pp. 76 and 79) Man’s efforts to master Nature by prolonging life amount to a violation of its sacredness; he denies what is divine in him and makes it possible for him to unite with God. Moreover, to prolong human life is to extend the potentiality of pain and evil and thus lengthen what in Eckhart’s words is the greatest obstacle to reaching God. Attachment to time is an attachment to the human personality, that “stinking lump” ruthlessly derided in the perversity of Obispo, in Jeremy’s squalid indecencies, in the degrading hysteria to which Virginia is reluctantly led and in the repulsiveness of Jo Stoyte, who is insistently called a “warm, smelly barrel.” The latter’s willingness to survive even as an ape is a sardonic evidence of man’s gross surrender to the flesh.

  • 32 D.S. SAVAGE, The Withered Branch, London, 1950, p. 155.

53The coexistence of satire with religious or philosophical preaching in After Many a Summer is the last and most regrettable expression of Huxley’s dualistic vision of man. In Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza he expressed his belief in the possible improvement of man as a human being. In After Many a Summer he seems to have given up hope completely and has thereby destroyed the moral implications of his satire. He has reached the extreme limit of defeatism: society is no longer worth improving, and he is convinced that nothing will palliate the banefulness of industrialism, business and centralized governments. Men make war either because they like it, or because they allow themselves to be persuaded that it is necessary. Munich or no Munich, it doesn’t really matter what politicians do since nationalism will always produce a war in every generation. Propter’s comment on the fall of Barcelona is that, whether captured or not, the city was foredoomed to perpetual self-stultification and to self-destruction for it existed on the plane of the absence of God. This detachment from human affairs is rather unpleasant for at the time many people were suffering while, after all, Huxley was safely preaching from California. It is the more objectionable as it leads him, even as an artist, to deny significance to anything human. To deny the value of the human personality and what it stands for amounts to a denial of all human values; these are not even criticized, they are simply abolished. Huxley wishes to transcend what is merely human, but he does not succeed in doing so in the novel. He dwells separately on the two parts of the self, and the dichotomy is emphasized by the structure of the novel, for he is alternately a satirist who caricatures contemptible specimens of humanity and an essayist who discourses in the most abstract manner. Propter is a purely static character who at no moment substantiates the spiritual experience he pleads for. If the satirical aspect of the novel is fairly successful, it is because, as in his early work, Huxley relies on shock and irony to arouse indignation and disgust, but his lack of faith in men is even more destructive than his early nihilism: “When human life is seen as intrinsically meaningless and evil, then the work of the novelist, whose task it is to present a picture of that life in terms of its significance and value, is deprived of all justification. Art and life must be thrown overboard together.”32

54Except for Ape and Essence (1949), in which he imagined the quasi-total destruction of mankind by atomic warfare, followed by the rebirth of a deformed and repulsive humanity, Huxley’s work after Time Must Have a Stop (1944) indicates a softening of his attitude towards contemporary man. He continued indefatigably to denounce the same evils in modern society, and he generally did this in pamphlets which expressed his thought more appropriately than his fiction. In Science, Liberty and Peace (1947) he reasserts his ideal of freedom, peace, justice and brotherly love and insists again that the scientist must adopt a more responsible attitude if the world is to be saved. In Doors of Perception (1954) he describes a mystical experience provoked by mescalin and conveys the impression of liberation from human limitations. Until then he had known contemplation as “discursive thinking,” and it is probably because he experienced it at last as a liberation that he could enter its visionary quality. In his last novel, Island (1962), he describes a community of contented individuals living according to the principles he had advocated in his 1946 preface to Brave New World:

In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: ‘How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?’ (pp. 8-9)

55Huxley once more denounces man’s follies, though he also expresses his belief that intelligent individuals could lead a reasonable life if they wanted to. From Crome Yellow to Island Huxley’s standards haven’t changed: they are intelligence, common sense and measure.

56Huxley’s literary achievement between the Wars is essentially inspired by his vision of man as a self-divided, ineffectual actor in a mad and hopeless world. His early satires are the most successful because his witty, devastating conversation-pieces, interspersed with samples of awkward or purposeless behaviour, are best suited to his criticism of the intellectual and artistic coteries of the Twenties. Though few of his characters are memorable, he has so magnified some aspects of their personalities as to give a cruel though striking picture of their vices. He is a better moralist in his earlier than in his later fiction, because he shows the folly and ugliness of immorality without resorting to long, metaphysical disquisitions. He also conveys more directly the confusion of his characters and their implicit need for reliable standards. His early heroes are lost in the noisy and aimless agitation of modern life, contemptuous of the fossilized attitude of their elders, yet secretly appalled at the vacuum in which they are whirled. They mistrust all institutions, all forms of action, all decent and normal relationships. They have inherited a dislocated world, a world without faith and they have no illusion or expectations about mankind. They ward off loneliness through pointless or unwholesome associations and seek refuge from the barrenness of their existence in some artistic or scientific activity practised for its own sake. They have abdicated all responsibility for themselves and for their environment and are truly “chairless in an exhausting world.”

  • 33 Aldous HUXLEY, Science, Liberty and Peace, London, 1947, p. 5.

57It is often difficult to infer from his early work the standpoint from which Huxley criticizes the spiritual illness and nihilism of post-war society. One detects in his more intelligent characters, those who seem to act as mouthpieces for his ideas, a refusal to be taken in by any claim to sincere and positive values. They even refuse to be duped by their own intelligence and are their own merciless detractors. On the other hand, Huxley understands his characters too well to be a true satirist, and the trouble is that he generally imparts his understanding theoretically. As a novelist he explains too much without leaving room for mystery or intuitive communication. This is particularly obvious in Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza, which otherwise might have the makings of great novels. For Huxley becomes more explanatory about his characters – without showing them actually living – as they are faced with some alternative to their unsatisfactory outlook and way of life. At the same time, the gap between perverts and saints becomes wider and the extreme types are less recognizably human. One reason for this may be that from Brave New World to After Many a Summer his satire becomes more universal. He no longer criticizes a particular class but humanity at large and the world which men have made for themselves. He sees this world as the outcome of nineteenth-century materialism and of man’s over-confident belief that he can master Nature. Dominated by scientific and technological experts who are prepared to reduce them to mere biological or consuming units, modern men have been lured into a cold sensualism and material comfort. Huxley draws attention to the danger of destroying life altogether by encouraging man to rely increasingly on artificial rather than natural resources. He shows the reverse side of progress, the high price man has to pay for it in individual freedom and impoverishment of his spiritual and creative life. “Progressive science is one of the causative factors involved in the progressive decline of liberty and the progressive centralization of power, which have occurred during the twentieth century.”33 In both democratic and totalitarian states technology provides the men in power with the means of persuading the masses that concentration of political and economic power is for the good of all. Huxley’s own conviction with regard to applied science is that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” and he believes that an appropriate use of technology could really contribute to the fulfilment of man instead of thwarting it. It is a question of being able to distinguish between ends and means, a discrimination which modern man is increasingly less able to make.

  • 34 Antic Hay, p. 139.
  • 35 Aldous HUXLEY, “The Desert,” in Collected Essays, London, 1960, p. 25.

58As a novelist, Huxley is essentially concerned with the question of good and evil in contemporary life. We may wonder then what standards or values he implicitly upholds in his criticism of society. The forms of perversion and corruption he derides are all deviations from nature: not the nature of crude bodily existence that Mr. Scogan finds so disturbing but some harmonious integration of the physical and spiritual in man, a sort of compromise which is reflected in his continuing insistence on common sense and measure in all fields of life. Intelligence and awareness induce people to accept the compromise; stupidity makes them reject it and generates evil. Yet, this compromise is an ideal to which Huxley never reconciled his own vision of man in spite of his efforts to do so in Point Counter Point, Eyeless in Gaza and After Many a Summer. In theory he remained faithful to that ideal, but in practice he deprived it of meaning by encouraging man to free himself from his nature in order to unite with an impersonal God. Huxley has always combined curiosity for the richness and multiplicity of life with interest in the mysterious reality which informs it. His conversion to mysticism answers two deeply-felt needs. The first is an obsessive desire to achieve freedom through liberation from human limitations. Though he wrote of Swift that “he could never forgive man for being a vertebrate mammal as well as an immortal soul,” he was himself haunted by what he called “the prodigious grandeur and the abjection of the human race.”34 Mysticism made it at last possible for him to escape the conflict between body and mind by transcending it and making it irrelevant. His second, less obvious need was a craving for an absolute. In fact, the anxiety of Huxley’s characters is partly metaphysical; the substitutes for religion in Brave New World are evidence of Huxley’s belief that men cannot do without some kind of religious faith. Unfortunately, his introduction of mysticism into fiction has only emphasized his dualism as philosopher and writer. To declare that “Nature is blessedly non-human; and insofar as we belong to the natural order, we too are blessedly non-human”35 is to renounce the interpretation of life in human terms. Huxley’s satire in After Many a Summer is more cruel and disheartening than in any other novel, and the solution proposed inconsistent with his view of the incurable wickedness of man. At the same time, preaching mysticism has stressed the incompatibility between the novelist and the essayist, who strive for prominence in his satires. Yet, it is significant that Huxley’s conversion did not induce him to give up his interest in men. He persevered in his pessimistic indictment of the human race, but to the last he attempted to give mankind an ideal that would save it from destruction.

Notes

1 Aldous HUXLEY, Ends and Means, London, 1946, p. 273.

2 Frederick HOFFMAN, “Aldous Huxley and the Novel of Ideas,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, pp. 189-200.

3 Aldous HUXLEY, Crome Yellow, Penguin Books, 1960, p. 17.

4 Ibid., p. 61.

5 Ibid., p. 22.

6 Aldous HUXLEY, Those Barren Leaves, London, 1950, p. 149.

7 Crome Yellow, p. 19.

8 Aldous HUXLEY, Antic Hag, Penguin Books, 1960, p. 81.

9 Crome Yellow, p. 61.

10 Ibid., p. 162.

11 Antic Hay, pp. 27 and 29.

12 Ibid., p. 45.

13 Antic Hay, pp. 146-7.

14 Antic Hay, p. 47.

15 Crome Yellow, p. 133.

16 Crome Yellow, p. 137.

17 Crome Yellow, p. 56.

18 Ibid., p. 23.

19 Crome Yellow, p. 81.

20 Aldous HUXLEY, Jesting Pilate, London, 1948, pp. 150-1.

21 Aldous HUXLEY, Point Counter Point, London, 1930, p. 32.

22 Aldous HUXLEY, Do What You Witt, London, 1929, p. 81.

23 Aldous HUXLEY, Proper Studies, London, 1929, p. 136.

24 Crome Yellow, pp. 130-1.

25 Aldous HUXLEY, Brave New World, Penguin Books, 1956, p. 37.

26 Aldous HUXLEY, Brave New World Revisited, London, 1959, pp. 17-18.

27 Brave New World, p. 120.

28 Aldous HUXLEY, Eyeless in Gaza, London, 1936, p. 23.

29 Ends and Means, p. 24.

30 Aldous HUXLEY, After Many a Summer, Penguin Books, 1959, p. 140.

31 Aldous HUXLEY, The Perennial Philosophy, Cleveland, 1962, p. 80.

32 D.S. SAVAGE, The Withered Branch, London, 1950, p. 155.

33 Aldous HUXLEY, Science, Liberty and Peace, London, 1947, p. 5.

34 Antic Hay, p. 139.

35 Aldous HUXLEY, “The Desert,” in Collected Essays, London, 1960, p. 25.

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