Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1427

Aldous Huxley wrote essays on a great variety of subjects: on nature, travel, literature, love and sex, psychology, music, painting, and even politics. Yet the division of his essays into groups can be misleading. In many of his studies the ostensible subject is only the point of a wedge and exists as the focus of opinions which are more or less contingent. Some of these opinions, it must be admitted, are in the nature of prejudices, and they are introduced into the essays at some peril.

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For example, one of his essays on India, superficially an account of a railroad journey “Between Peshawar and Lahore,” turns out to be an attack a predictable one given Huxley’s passionate secularism on Indian religion in particular and on all religion in general, Huxley encounters on the train an Indian mystic, and the fact that this particular guru seems to be highly unspiritual leads with remarkable rapidity to an indictment of all religious belief. Huxley reflects, always with unquestionable brilliance, malice, and style, on the guru’s character, on those of his disciples, and on his self-evident importance to himself. This particular holy man is dirty and rather objectionably the center of attention moreover, the attention accorded him is decidedly irrational and this fact particularly arouses Huxley’s contempt. In response to his presence Huxley argues—and here one may wish to query the extension of his thought—that it is characteristic of all religions to honor the mindless and obedient, the dirty and the anti-intellectual. The conclusion is a large step from the example to the deduction, but Huxley seems to make it without much difficulty. Yet, with characteristic common sense Huxley stops what he calls his own “Voltairianism.” He states that if all clerics were destroyed and if pure rationalism became the universal religion, all would perhaps be well. But, he adds, all would of course not be well at all, for there are other irrationalities which would soon take the place of religion. Like Voltaire, he sees religion as an institution of use to mankind. His viewpoint, although secular, is pragmatic: he objects to the nature of religion, not to its functions.

The values of Huxley are not to be compassed by religion, or even defined in the religious sense. He stands for a stable mental life, as we see in “Madness, Badness, Sadness”; for a realistic form of love, as we see in “Fashions in Love”; and for scientific toleration, as we see in “Beliefs.” In the first of these essays Huxley reviews the history of the treatment of mental illness and asserts that some of the very worst excesses have been characteristic of religious intervention. He goes so far as to accuse Christianity of turning madness into a form of profit: the practices of Catholic magistrates and Protestant witch hunters were designed to make scapegoats of the mad. Since madmen and non-believers could equally be disposed of under religious repressions, they constituted a most attractive target for those who kept themselves in power by attacking men weaker than themselves. The argument is tenuous. One may note that religious persecution was a characteristic of certain ages as well as of certain institutions, but the point is not dealt with by Huxley. His general assumption is that religion is responsible for all those things which occur in the area it putatively overlooks.

When Huxley addresses himself to the problem of love, he notes that two conceptions of love exist in our minds at present. They represent different conventions and opinions, and they struggle for dominance in this century. One derives from the ideals of Christianity, and is of course founded on a moral interpretation of love. The other derives from nineteenth century Romanticism and is founded on an unreal sense of human experience. These two tend to give love a falsely ideal identity, and they are perpetually in conflict with the practices of postwar life. To Huxley, both our ideals and our practices seem to offer a singularly poor basis for love, and he hopes that the subject will be amenable to scientific investigation. His “Fashions in Love” asserts that the older, Christian, and non-scientific form of love was born of a set of weaknesses. It is a mixture of contradictions, of the ascetic dread of passion and the romantic worship of passion. These united to form love as we know of its “official” existence, a blend of mysticism and naturalism. In opposition to this view Huxley offers his own anthropological idea of love.

Every form of amorous behavior, he notes, no matter how strange, is found both among animals and men. In any given society, at any given moment, love is the result of the interaction of the instinctive material of sex with conventions, morality, religion, laws, prejudices, and ideals. Now this is both scientific and fascinating, and certainly no clearer statement of this position has been made. It might be pointed out, however, that in Huxley’s argument amorous behavior is given the benefit of certain assumptions. For one thing, it is granted the quality of permanence simply because it is biological. Does it seem that ideas are any less valid, simply because they are not biological? One presumes not. Second, one might note that sexual activity is granted a certain value by Huxley, and this value is totally withheld from sexual restraint. In other words, Huxley accepts fully the fact that sexual behavior operates with biological authenticity in every human being—but he somehow neglects to mention that the morality governing sexual behavior seems to be no less instinctive and permanent. Indeed, if we examine primitive cultures which have presumably escaped the burden of both Christianity and Victorian naturalism, we shall find that restrictions on sexual life are every bit as thorough and perhaps every bit as comical as our own taboos. To ask, then, as Huxley does in the conclusion of “Fashions of Love,” for a new mythology of nature which will make love both more intelligible and less subject to irrational moral restraints, is perhaps to ask for something which is itself mythical.

To argue with Huxley, however, is to pay tribute to the openness of his mind. In other essays he reveals the capacities of mind which have made his iconoclasm a weapon of critical value. In “Wordsworth and the Tropics” Huxley attacks an old and cherished idea that nature is a great moral force and teacher and that “nature” poetry somehow accounts for the presence and conduct of man in his environment. He reflects on what would happen if Wordsworth were to experience not the cool and chaste gemutlichkeit of the English countryside but the darkness and fever of the tropical jungle. In that setting, hostile, diseased, full of presences inimical to man, Wordsworth and his cult might forget their faith in the goodness of nature and waken to an awareness of evil.

Other essays carry Huxley’s scientific iconoclasm into resounding conflict with the totems and taboos of our culture. In “Vulgarity in Literature” he seizes upon Dickens and belabors him for the treasonable loss of intelligence to sentimentality. Dickens, according to Huxley, ceases to be able and probably ceases to wish to see reality. His actual intention, on those occasions when he deals with tears and joy, is simply to overflow, nothing more. Huxley deals with D. H. Lawrence in a much less hostile way, yet he points out that the weakness of Lawrence, as it was his strength, was his compulsion to orient himself around the sexual drives. There are very few men and ideas that can escape the qualifications of Huxley’s judgment. Among them can be numbered Goya, on whom Huxley has done a remarkable job of interpretation. His sympathetic account of Goya’s desastres in “Variations on Goya” is a model of artistic interpretation. For him to say that Goya remains incomparable is great praise indeed. We must realize how fully Huxley is committed to the scientific realism so well objectified by Goya’s sketches of the Napoleonic Wars. That every detail of butchery and torment is true remains the foundation of Huxley’s praise: Goya becomes the archetype of the Huxleyan artist, scientific, objective, material in the highest sense. It is important that he refrains from picturing either the glory or picturesqueness of war—Goya’s great virtue. Here one is able to comprehend the artist as the pictorial equivalent of Huxley, in that he paints horror upon horror because that is what he recognizes in telling detail in the world around him.

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