Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
Huxley was a British-American novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, critic, and playwright. His novels are generally considered novels of ideas: Huxley was interested in many fields of knowledge and his ideas on science, philosophy, religion, and other topics are woven throughout his fiction. His concentration on the philosophical content of a work led critics to find his fiction overly didactic and artistically unsatisfying. This tendency was adumbrated in his later works when, drawn to the philosophy of mysticism and discarding the more objective and satiric tone of his early novels, Huxley created characters that served as little more than mouthpieces for his ideas. Continually searching for an escape from the ambivalence of modern life, Huxley sought a sense of spiritual renewal and a clarification of his artistic vision in hallucinogenic drugs, an experience explored in one of his best known later works, The Doors of Perception. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8.)
Huxley has often demonstrated in his novels the fact that ideas may possess qualities which are comparable with those which animate persons—and this particularly in a period of time when ideas are not fixed, calculated, or limited by canons of strict acceptance or rejection. Ideas, as they are used in Huxley, possess, in other words, dramatic qualities. Dominating as they very often do the full sweep of his novels, they appropriate the fortunes and careers which ordinarily belong to persons. (p. 190)
The best examples of the novel of ideas are Huxley's novels of the 1920's. To be sure, he did not always use this form; nor is any of his novels purely a novel of ideas. In his shorter pieces, most notably in "Uncle Spencer," "Two or Three Graces," and "Young Archimedes," Huxley writes charmingly and sympathetically of persons and reveals a remarkable talent for a complete delineation of characters who are interesting almost exclusively as persons. But the works which mark the development of Huxley as a novelist—Chrome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point—are, each in its own way, novels of ideas. Rarely does a Huxley character give himself away directly; rarely if ever does Huxley fail to give him away. The position, the point of view, of the Huxley character is usually revealed in the course of Huxley's discussion of his tastes, his intellectual preferences, his manner of behaving himself in the society of his fellows. Thus the idea which each is to demonstrate becomes in the novel the point of view he adopts—or, actually, is. (pp. 194-95)...
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[The setting of Antic Hay] is Henry James's London possessed by carnival. A chain of brilliant young people linked and interlaced winds past the burnished front-doors in pursuit of happiness. Happiness is growing wild for anyone to pick, only the perverse miss it. There has been the single unpredictable, inexplicable, unrepeatable calamity of "the Great War." It has left broken hearts—Mrs. Viveash's among them—but the other characters are newly liberated from their comfortable refuges of Conscientious Objection, to run wild through the streets.
The central theme of the book is the study of two falterers "more or less in" their "great task of happiness," Mrs. Viveash and Theodore Gumbril. Everyone else, if young, has a good time. (p. 19)
The story is told richly and elegantly with few of the interruptions which, despite their intrinsic interest, mar so much of Mr. Huxley's story-telling. The disquisition on Wren's London should be in a book of essays but the parody of the night-club play is so funny that one welcomes its intrusion. The "novel of ideas" raises its ugly head twice only, in the scenes with the tailor and the financier, crashing bores both of them but mere spectators at the dance. They do not hold up the fun for long.
And there is another delicious quality. The city is not always James's London. Sometimes it becomes Mediterranean, central to the live tradition. The dance winds through piazzas and alleys, under arches, round fountains and everywhere are the embellishments of the old religion. An ancient pagan feast, long christianized in name, is being celebrated in a christian city. The story begins in a school chapel, Domenichino's Jerome hangs by Rosie's bed, Coleman quotes the Fathers. There is an insistent undertone, audible through the carnival music, saying all the time, not in Mrs. Viveash's "expiring" voice, that happiness is a reality.
Since 1923 Mr. Huxley has travelled far. He has done more than change climate and diet. I miss that undertone in his later work. It was because he was then so near the essentials of the human condition that he could write a book that is frivolous and sentimental and perennially delightful. (p. 20)
Evelyn Waugh, "Youth at the Helm and Pleasure at the Prow: 'Antic Hay'," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1955), August, 1955 (and reprinted in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert E. Kuehn, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 23-5).
[Huxley's] early poetry is a record of the highly complicated inner struggle which influenced, even determined the theme and the shape of his much more popular, much more successful fiction. After The Burning Wheel he quickly produced Jonah (… 1917), The Defeat of Youth (… 1918) and Leda (… 1920), and he appeared several times in the annuals Oxford Poetry and Wheels. Although this work shows some development in technique, some improvement in quality, it illustrates more clearly Huxley's shifting and ambivalent attitude toward the very practice of literary art. Like his fiction, Huxley's verse embodies his need to express himself entangled inextricably with the problem of how to do so. From the earliest poems the crucial inner conflict appears; Huxley tries various styles to express it; the need to choose a style then intensifies the conflict as Huxley is forced to choose between sincere expression and effective poetry. It is this dilemma I have attempted to follow, up to the point where Huxley virtually abandoned verse for fiction.
The first sign of inner conflict is a startling inconsistency between poems expressing a rebellious desire to shock and other poems voicing merely conventional sentiment. Huxley's first published poem, "Home-Sickness … From the Town," is as obviously anti-Victorian as anything he ever was to write…. As in so many of the novels, a deliberately shocking frankness about sex is combined with the makings of a new poetic style forged of knowing allusions and esoteric words. Yet in The Burning Wheel a few months later we find verses in the very manner Huxley seemed to have attacked, poems almost shockingly banal and stale where conventional phrases and worn-out notions abound. "Escape" begins like inferior Tennyson…. "Philoclea in the Forest," an even staler poem, is set amidst Arcadian wood-moths, flowers, and lutes. "Sentimental Summer" is a maudlin poem of love…. (pp. 64-5)
Although there is something typically youthful in this inconsistency, in Huxley's case it was a most important symptom, not just the sign of an inevitable but temporary stage. His inconsistency in poetic attitude and style was rooted in deep and lasting inner conflict, a conflict destined to increase, to plague him for years, to become and remain the most important force in all his work. "Home-Sickness …" is an exaggerated recognition of the real, "Escape" and "Sentimental Summer" a sincere gesture toward the ideal. Like Shelley and other romantics of the century before, Huxley saw a clash between the two. He presented the ideal as beauty, as love, or as spirit, and the real as the disappearance or transcience of beauty, the loss of love, sometimes replaced by lust, or the ugly facts of the surrounding material world. Most important, not only is his own soul affected by this clash; it is also both a part and an illustration of it…. [Huxley] finds both the ideal and the real within himself. Only occasionally could he project a vision of the ideal untarnished by unpleasant actuality, seen residing outside, in others, or within. Though he has been called a "frustrated romantic," he was inwardly split as most of the romantics never were…. He visualized a purer love, a permanent beauty, a world deserving nothing but our devotion and his praise. But he recognized his own tendency toward such romantic flights of fancy, and he also understood the frequent sordidness of actuality, in the world, in others, but—most disturbingly—in himself. (p. 66)
But more surprising than these contradictions is his own reaction to them. His inconsistencies apparently leave him unperturbed. He can be disturbed, of course, by what he finds in the world and himself, but not by the pattern of contradictions in his response. Yeats, who was at least as sharply split as Huxley, began to search for "Unity of Being" and regularly found his art a way to resolve his inner tensions. Huxley was not so much trying to dissolve his inner conflict as attempting to express or project it in his verse. Though he may have been searching for inner harmony, he seems to have been more interested in something theoretically external—a usable, original, aesthetically pleasing style. The Burning Wheel not only shows that inner conflict exists, it shows Huxley trying several different poetic styles, several different ways of putting the conflict into words.
In the title poem, "The Burning Wheel," an obviously symbolist style is used. The wheel of life, "Wearied of its own turning," painfully spinning "dizzy with speed," agonizingly yearns to rest…. The real-ideal conflict is seen here not through the specific emotions of the poet, but rather as symbolically generalized and abstract, as the opposition of life and death, the tension between activity and calm. The theme will find new symbols in the novels: the crystal of quiet described with such intensity in Antic Hay, and the connected pair of cones in Eyeless in Gaza, symbolizing the same quiet along with the flux of tortured lives. But Huxley immediately abandoned this kind of symbolism in his verse. Three other styles dominate the early poems.
"Escape," "Sentimental Summer," and their ilk are written in a "romantic" style, a diluted version of the manner perfected a century before, now superannuated though still so frequently used. It is easily recognized, in Huxley's early poems, by the direct, unguarded expression of emotion, by supposedly "poetic" phrases and words, by imprecise and worn-out metaphors. We find it, of course, when Huxley can believe in his ideal—when, for example, he can see love as untarnished by lust…. But just as frequently it expresses his disillusionment; his sense of the real, the unpleasant, the actual, victorious over the imagined, the ideal…. Most of the poetry in this romantic style is buncombe, soon to be parodied by Huxley himself in Crome Yellow when Denis Stone idealizes the older Anne in the lyric he calls "The Woman who was a Tree." Yet Huxley never abandoned either the romantic attitude or the corresponding style. They are important in almost all of his novels, from Antic Hay and its visions of young Gumbril to the synthesized utopia of Huxley's final statement, Island.
Huxley also tried a simple dialectic, a style embodying versified argument or discussion. Yeats had already begun to use it for expressing inner conflict, for presenting artistically his battles with himself. But Huxley was attracted by a curious potential unappealing to Yeats—the fact that two sides of his conflict could be expressed in dialectic with no demand that the conflict be resolved…. He frequently seems to be nurturing his conflict, almost preserving it as a subject for his poems.
Huxley was to transform his dialectic style into the sparkling conversations of the novels, the house party discussions of Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves. But his fourth, "ironic" style was an even more congenial voice, destined to be the one his public wanted to hear and most frequently heard. It became the characteristic trademark of his fiction, the tone of Point Counter Point, the very conception of Brave New World. Suggested as early as "Home-Sickness … From the Town," with its "debile" women and allusions to Rousseau and Keats, the style depends on the ironic contrast provided by the unexpected, in the form of such learned allusions and esoteric words. Its irony also involves another favorite Huxley strategy, setting the real against the ideal by putting human beings into a zoo. (pp. 67-9)
When Huxley shifts in a single volume from one style to another, juxtaposing "treasured things" and "golden memories" with turd-kicking children and souls as elephants' snouts, he is obviously unsettled, perhaps thoroughly confused. Yet his...
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Aldous Huxley's career resembles that of several other eminent twentieth-century writers: he began as an enfant terrible and ended as a sage…. Each of his novels, from Crome Yellow through Island, is indisputably modern, even though the later books differ so radically from the earlier ones. Huxley seems to have been born mistrustful of received attitudes and disdainful of those creeds that provided his forebears with a sense of order, continuity, and spiritual composure. His intellectual temperament, if one may call it that, was skeptical, restless, experimental. In his youth he was a debunker of moribund truths; in middle age he became an ardent seeker of new truths or of fresh combinations of...
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[Island] embodies a collection of the right responses to problems that the brave new world handled badly. But there is even more to the novel than that. Unlike News from Nowhere, Looking Backward, and other positive views of the future, Island can be defended as a reasonably complex novel in which a would-be utopian's attempt at optimism is challenged by the possibility that his characters inhabit a Manichean universe…. Unlike most utopians, Huxley tries to confront several inescapably negative factors in his perfect society, and these ultimately convince him that utopia is not of this world…. I do not wish to discredit the novel's many positive aspects. However, these have been the exclusive...
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[The] paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder had a profound influence on the writing of Aldous Huxley. Huxley seems to have been attracted to Brueghel's attitude toward life. Both artists saw individuals as isolated, yet forming a pattern of existence. Both saw a juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy as the nature of both life and art. Both were fascinated recorders of social customs and events. Both celebrated life above art, seeing art as a tool to record reality rather than an ideal to shape reality. And because of their similar attitudes, Huxley used a number of Brueghel's painting techniques in prose.
The key to understanding the Huxley-Brueghel relationship lies in Huxley's 1925 essay on the...
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