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Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
Huxley was a British-American novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and playwright. Trained in medicine, he was always interested in science; later in life he turned to mysticism and was preoccupied with the occult. His vast learning and searching intelligence are apparent in all of his forty-five books.
Point Counter Point with its counterpointed narratives might be described as a multiple 'novel of ideas'; while Eyeless in Gaza hardly belongs to the original genre at all. The conversion theme of this novel demanded a more complex analysis of character and a narrative which stretched over four decades, neither of which could be accommodated within the basically static structure of the 'novel of ideas'. The result was Huxley's most ambitious experiment in form; it contains some of his highly developed characters, and, in spite of the copious notebook extracts, it can hardly be dismissed as a lengthy essay with added entertainments.
The utopian novels, Brave New World and Island, deserve special mention as they both carry a heavy burden of exposition. This, in itself, does not necessarily point to failure: the 'novel of ideas' by its very nature allows for a large measure of expository material. Perhaps the only criterion we can apply is that the exposition should be lively and that it should be tempered by a measure of dialectical opposition. Brave New World, which originated as a parody of the Wellsian utopias, is largely satirical and the expository material never loses its incisive quality. Island, on the other hand, as the portrait of an ideal society, offers little scope to the satirist—here the community itself is the norm and only such a peripheral character as the Rani of Pala, a Madame Blavatsky figure, allows for true Peacockian caricature. Further, the savage in Brave New World supplies a dialectical opposition which Will Farnaby totally fails to provide in Island. As a result the ideas lack the dramatic qualities they possess in the earlier novels. This is not to say that Island is completely without merit as a 'novel of ideas'; it is redeemed to a large extent by its sheer intellectual density and the wealth of ideas which it has to offer, but it is the one major novel to which the criticism of 'a lengthy essay with added entertainments' might fairly be applied. In conclusion, it must be said that it is not the least of Huxley's achievements that he has revived an outmoded form, to which only one major English novelist had previously aspired, and blessed it with the touch of his genius. Under Huxley, the 'novel of ideas' has approached the status of a major art form. (pp. 14-15)
Eyeless in Gaza, Huxley's single complete expression of the conversion theme, his first novel to restore the meaning, stands central to his work as a whole. Everything he wrote earlier is in a sense preparatory, everything subsequent a tailing off, except for the final utopian vision of Island. After Crome Yellow the theme of moral regeneration, leading to Anthony Beavis's conversion, is latent in all the novels of the nineteen-twenties. (pp. 19-20)
The search for a more desirable way of life is clearly the most important single theme in Huxley's novels. What distinguishes Huxley's work from that of other moralists is the treatment of this theme within the framework of the 'novel of ideas'. The idea of conversion, for example, is central to both Eyeless in Gaza and Tolstoy's Resurrection but it is clear that apart from their parallel themes the two works have little in common. It is not just that Huxley's form and characterization owe nothing to the nineteenth-century novel, the whole moral climate has changed. In the eighteen-nineties, Tolstoy could appeal to what was still a traditional morality: to Nekhlyudov, at grips with the problems of a stricken conscience and the Tsarist penal code, Christianity was still a powerful moral force. For Anthony Beavis, no such traditional morality existed: science had made Christian dogmas intellectually unacceptable and if the findings of science were true not even the basis of a humanistic morality remained. The challenge to moral values, then, as it appeared to Huxley in the nineteen-twenties, was substantially an ideological one, a matter of dialectic in which the appeal is to the intellect rather than the emotions. (p. 22)
There is little doubt that when Point Counter Point was written, Huxley was a confirmed convert to [D. H.] Lawrence's ideas and the novel with its sympathetic portraits of Frieda and Lawrence as Mary and Mark Rampion is in many respects a tribute to their friendship. Huxley's debt to Lawrence was further acknowledged in Do What You Will, the volume of essays published in the same year. To what extent Lawrence actually caused Huxley to deviate from his original path is a matter of argument. The strong anti-clerical element prevalent in Huxley's writing at this time was undoubtedly the result of Lawrence's influence; on the other hand, Lawrence merely reinforced Huxley's growing distrust of intellectualism, and Point Counter Point and Brave New World represent Huxley's most concentrated attack on the scientific attitude and its effect on the modern world. (p. 78)
While it is profitable to compare, say, Brave New World with Men Like Gods and The Shape of Things to Come, it is worth noting that none of Huxley's novels have yet fallen into the ranks of literary curiosities. His novels have always been something more than mere vehicles for the popularization of ideas; and, although the polemical element is never totally absent from his work, it is almost invariably subordinated to the wider demands of his art. That his interest in the novel declined towards the end of his career is indisputable, but this is no reason for our dismissing him as an inferior talent. (p. 213)
All of Huxley's major novels, with the exception of Island, are conceived as ironic structures. The death of Grace Elver in Those Barren Leaves; the isolation and suicide of the Savage in Brave New World; the discovery of the senescent Fifth Earl in After Many a Summer, all provide the final twist of the screw, the ironic reversal which is the characteristic of Huxley's art. Even in Island, the least ironic of Huxley's novels, the forces of reason are crushed at the very moment of Will Farnaby's conversion, a piece of super-added irony that caused at least one critic to lose his bearings. What, however, distinguishes Huxley's art is the breadth of his ironic vision, the intensity of the viewpoint which it provides. Nothing is spared, nothing assumed or taken for granted. No one since Swift—certainly not Peacock, to whom Huxley's satire owes a great deal—has viewed the totality of human activity with such complete scepticism. (p. 214)
The weaknesses in Huxley's novels can almost always be traced back to his failure to find an adequate correlative for the presentation of 'goodness'. It is perhaps debatable whether a writer who is primarily an ironist and a satirist should in fact try to explore the more positive aspects of human nature. His appointed task is to tear away the mask of human pretensions, to shock us into awareness; if he momentarily drops the cloak of irony, he takes the risk of either lapsing into sentimentality or becoming merely a propagandist. It must be admitted that Huxley's attempts at moralizing bring him dangerously close to failure on both counts. In the early novels, whenever irony is absent, he is betrayed into sentimentality. The Emily episode in Antic Hay, with its recurrent references to wild flowers, 'barrel-bellied ponies' and the 'twiddly lanes of Robertsbridge', is at its best an unhappy interlude. What must be considered the most ineffective chapter in Point Counter Point—one which must have caused Lawrence considerable embarrassment—is that describing the early life of Mary and Mark Rampion, an impossibly idealized version of Lawrence's meeting and courtship of Frieda. These lapses into sentimentality disappear in the later novels although the brand of 'goodness' exhibited by Brian and Mrs Foxe in Eyeless in Gaza might give some readers a moment of uneasiness. (pp. 225-26)
Huxley never really solved the problem of placing 'goodness' within a novel of this kind. It is indicative of his failure that the redemptive characters, the exemplary figures of Gumbril Senior, Rampion, Dr Miller, Propter and Bruno Rontini, all stand outside the ironic structure of the novel. Unlike the redemptive characters of E. M. Forster, they are largely powerless to influence events and share no significant part in the action of the novel. (p. 226)
The theme of moral regeneration which plays an important part in Huxley's novels also demands an active demonstration of 'goodness' and once again we find Huxley involved in problems of a formal nature. In the early novels the mood of disenchantment predominates and, except for Calamy's precipitant conversion in the final chapters of Those Barren Leaves, the moral and satirical elements are for the greater part in harmony. In the later novels the theme of moral regeneration appears and this becomes a secondary principle of organization. As we have seen the theme of conversion is largely autobiographical; it begins in Antic Hay and reaches a climax in Eyeless in Gaza. As the theme develops so the problem of form becomes critical, the 'conversion episodes' trying to impose themselves, as it were, on the ironic structure of the novel. The formal weaknesses in Huxley's novels belong almost entirely to his failure to reconcile the two opposing elements. (p. 228)
Island, the least ironic of the major novels, is the least typical, the least Huxleyan. As a synthesis of ideas it is impressive by any standard, nevertheless it remains the one work which clearly approaches failure. Huxley's art depends above all on a dialectic of ideas, a dialectic engendered by the major ironies inherent in the human condition. This dialectic is absent in Island and in consequence, the sense of urgency present in the earlier novels, is lacking. Here the utopian theme could not be treated ironically; thus the situation presents basically the same problem Huxley faced earlier, the portrayal of goodness, only this time on a larger scale. It is significant that the utopian Palanese are the least effective of Huxley's redemptive figures; they fail to emerge as individuals and their virtues are expounded rather than lived. The failure to provide an adequate core of dialectic can be attributed to a great extent to the sketchy characterization of Farnaby. Will Farnaby, whose antecedents lie in Chelifer and Anthony Beavis, is an ineffective foil to the Palanese; as a world-weary Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms, he is too quickly charmed by the superior virtues of his hosts; as a result whatever conflict might have centred on his conversion is immediately lost and with it the dialectic which might have provided a backbone to the novel. (pp. 230-31)
Huxley's inability to animate the ideas in Island, to provide a central point of conflict lies not so much in the fact of his conversion, but in the nature of the conversion itself. Mahayana Buddhism, as Huxley insists, is a way of looking at life which reconciles opposites: 'the blessed experience of Not-Two'. In brief, it dissolves the opposing elements which lie at the heart of the ironist's vision: man as a product of his genes and his glands; man as a creature of sensitivity and suffering. To the Mahayanist, 'Born under one law, to another bound' is not a theme for ironic commentary, but merely a distorted vision of reality. It is impossible to be an ironist without being a dualist at the same time; irony depends for its strength on the co-existence of two irreconcilable sets of ideas and this is inimical to the whole concept of Buddhist thought. The point is worth emphasizing because this kind of reconciliation is rare in Western thought; dualism is in fact the basis of Western culture, and it was within the framework of a dualist philosophy that Huxley created his major work….
The harmony which Huxley achieves as a moralist in Island, then, was gained at the expense of his ironic vision. Farnaby, of course, remains attached to the old way of life as his Mescalin experience illustrates; but his cynical asides, the puppet figures of the Rani and Colonel Dipa—these are little more than left-overs from the earlier novels. The ideas remain, ideas which … provide an important closing chapter to Huxley's development as a moralist, but the unifying factor has gone; what is left is certainly a novel with ideas but one which rightly belongs to the province of the essayist rather than the novelist. The history of Huxley's decline as a novelist is in effect the history of his decline as an ironist and his failure to find an alternative form. (pp. 232-33)
Peter Bowering, in his Aldous Huxley: A Study of The Major Novels (copyright © 1969 by Peter Bowering; reprinted by permission of The Athlone Press of the University of London), Athlone Press, 1969.
Whether Aldous Huxley has been a force for good or evil, whether he is an artist more noted for his contributions to the novel of ideas or for the ideas themselves, whether he is chiefly a romantic or a neoclassicist—on these questions, critics have not agreed. He has been called a frustrated romantic by [David Daiches in The Novel and the Modern World]; he has been attacked because he has joined Freud, Jung, Adler, and Lawrence "to sow distrust of reason, and to represent it as a mere tool of the unconscious [by C. E. M. Joad in Return to Philosophy]. His view of life has been characterized as "essential sterility" [by Millett, Manly and Rickert in Contemporary British Literature], and his embracing of mysticism has been called "the rationalist's substitute for suicide" [by Edwin Berry Burgum in The Novel and the World's Dilemma]. But Huxley has had his defenders, too. His description of the modern world has been hailed as "far more honest and decent than the early Victorian age depicted in Bulwer Lytton's Pelham" [by Morris R. Cohen in The Faith of a Liberal]. Similarly, "despite the temptations which beset a successful author," he never "seriously compromised with his intellectual integrity" [Jocelyn Brooke in Aldous Huxley]….
Wherein then lies the value in giving serious consideration to Huxley? Precisely in his being able to articulate the intellectual and moral conflicts being fought in the collective soul of the twentieth century. D. H. Lawrence would express his reactions viscerally but failed to look through a microscope, as Huxley reminds us. James Joyce could disentangle himself from the nets in which he felt caught, but he did not seem aware of the oases to be found in Eastern meditative systems. E. M. Forster knew of passages to other cultures but preferred to regard art as self-sufficient rather than as catalytic. Virginia Woolf knew the agony of private torment but did not realize the healing that can emerge from societal involvement. It was Huxley of all these twentieth-century English writers who best reflected and coordinated the divisions of the modern world; he best expressed its Weltanschauung in its most universal sense. Thomas Henry Huxley, Aldous Huxley's grandfather, was called "Darwin's bulldog" because he so tenaciously clung to and advocated Darwin's theories; similarly, Aldous Huxley may become best known for being both an observer of and a contributor to the shifting values of our world.
That Huxley's works have always demonstrated a search for values can be shown by an analysis of his works from the very beginning. The novels published in the 1920's (Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point) were all concerned with showing how some of the traditional sources of value—religion, love, family life—were absent from the postwar generation. Most readers thought these books to be cynically entertaining and did not see their essentially moral undercurrent. (pp. 4-5)
He attacks the growing preoccupation with hedonism, materialism, technology, and false intellectualism in Brave New World (1932), Eyeless in Gaza (1936), After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), Time Must Have a Stop (1944), and Ape and Essence (1948). He considers alternatives to materialism: mysticism (The Perennial Philosophy, 1946), an intelligent application of science (Science, Liberty and Peace, 1947), and a fusion of mysticism and science (Island, 1962). Occasionally, as in The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), he endorses the use of hallucinogenic drugs as a means of heightening one's spiritual and aesthetic awareness. Brave New World Revisited (1948) considers "the subject of freedom and its enemies." Even in books that are purportedly biographical, there is evident concern with moral directions; when he writes about the life of Father Joseph, adviser to Cardinal Richelieu, he deplores the evil mingling of spiritual and material values—saying, in effect, that Caesar and God cannot be served simultaneously. Similarly, in The Devils of Loudun (1952), he impregnates the biography of a seventeenth-century monk with meaning for this century. The life of Maine de Biran, the eighteenth-century French philosopher, occupies about half of Themes and Variations, but here again, as with the other subjects found in this 1950 volume, Huxley's observations are tinged with moral implications. (p. 7)
Huxley … prefers to consider his characters as states of being rather than what E. M. Forster would call "round characters." It is no wonder then that his characters can be classified under so many "humors." First, there is the intellectual who has developed his mentality but pathetically neglected the emotional and physical sides of life—people like Philip Quarles (Point Counter Point), Denis Stone (Crome Yellow), Bernard Marx (Brave New World), Shearwater (Antic Hay), Anthony Beavis (Eyeless in Gaza). Then there is the sardonic cynic—people like Spandrell (Point Counter Point) and Mark Staithes (Eyeless Gaza). There is the promiscuous female—characters like Mary Thriplow (Those Barren Leaves), Mrs. Viveash (Antic Hay), Lucy Tantamount (Point Counter Point), Lenina Crowne (Brave New World), and Virginia Maunciple (After Many a Summer Dies the Swan). The mystic began to appear in the novels of the 1930's—characters like Mr. Propter (After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), Dr. Miller (Eyeless in Gaza), and Bruno Rontini (Time Must Have a Stop). Other characters of humors could be listed to make the point that most of Huxley's characters are used to illustrate the values (or more often, the lack of values) of certain ways of life. (p. 8)
Despite his inclusion of a mystic character in all his novels beginning with Eyeless in Gaza, it is revealing that the characters who most closely resembled Huxley in those novels (people like Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza and Sebastian Barnack in Time Must Have a Stop) were not the mystics but those Hamlet-like individuals who were frozen into inaction by their excessive cerebration. The mystic characters, it would seem, typified the person whom Huxley would have liked to emulate. He still remained the person who found conflict between his ideals and reality; who preferred to detach himself from the torrent of life's paradoxes…. (p. 18)
Basic to any interpretation of Huxley's quest for values is an understanding of Huxley's conception of reality, for therein lie the causes for his seeming inconsistencies, his sardonic irony, his rejection of many of the traditional sources of meaning in life, his plunge from the fetters of self, time, and space into self-transcendent mysticism, and finally, his attempt in his last novel (Island) to attain heaven on earth by embracing the knowledge of science along with the wisdom of religion….
Huxley's search for reality assumed three seemingly different directions. Until the 1930's, Huxley's books (both fiction and nonfiction) examined a world in which the traditional sources of value (Judeo-Christian religion, patriotism, the conventional frameworks of private and public morality, the "progress" concept derived from the findings of science) were either replaced by a moral vacuum or else privately violated while publicly espoused. Such books as Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, and Point Counter Point indicate Huxley's disillusionment with Western society. In the second stage, approximately from the publication of his Eyeless in Gaza (1936) through The Perennial Philosophy (1945), Huxley tried to embrace the reality offered by mysticism, especially that preached by Buddhism. Then, in the last decade and a half of his life, Huxley tried to incorporate Buddhism within the framework of science (pp. 27-8)
Let us briefly review the path Huxley took before he embarked on the road to the ultimate reality as revealed by mysticism. He first found objective reality (the world of matter as measured and interpreted by science) both ugly and incomplete. Subjective reality (as explained by most philosophies of the Western World) he found equally objectionable because in most instances these philosophies were merely rationalizations of basic ugliness and selfishness. On the question of teleology, he found little to write about. On the problem of causality, he felt that hereditary and environmental forces are influential; at the same time, he believed, or at least hoped, that an assertion of will can do much to combat the determinism of heredity and environment. Looking at history, he found that the mistakes of the past tend to be repeated. This concept of reality led Huxley first to a kind of bitter cynicism…. Even the mystics found in Huxley's early works are somewhat cynical. Mr. Propter, in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, tells Pete: "Most of the things that we're all taught to respect and reverence—they don't deserve anything but cynicism" (p. 97). It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the vacillations from despair to hope, from hope to cynicism again, vacillations which both objective and subjective reality engendered in Huxley, should yield to an attempt to find an absolute reality. This absolute reality Huxley found synonymous with the divine reality, or the divine Godhead. "Ultimate reality is at once transcendent and immanent. God is the creator and sustainer of the world; yet the kingdom of God is also within us…" (Grey Eminence, p. 59). It is characterized by self-transcendence, that is, by a negation of the world of the ego, of animal desires, or carnal and material aspirations. The philosophy of this absolute reality is the perennial philosophy….
This self-transcendence and loss of personality is the only effective cure for a world suffering from idolatry, stupidity, and cruelty. In the ultimate reality, we can find true salvation. This attainment of the divine Godhead, Huxley felt, can be facilitated by a strong determination to do so. (pp. 36-7)
Selfhood, time, space—these are the obstacles to attainment of self-transcendence. And yet, unless we achieve this state, Huxley warned us in Themes and Variations, we are slaves to sorrow, wars, barbarism, futility….
Huxley did not believe that very many people are capable of achieving this self-transcendence, although there has always been yearning for self-transcendence because human beings are tired of themselves, their dreary lives, and their responsibilities. (p. 38)
Despite Huxley's passionate belief that the divine reality is the only reality that can bring salvation, he was sufficiently pragmatic to recognize the limited appeal of such a philosophy of reality for most people. With the exception of the people in Island, all the mystics in his novels are, significantly enough, either old or else completely without any family responsibility. (pp. 38-9)
Possibly because Huxley realized that the life of self-transcendence could not be attained by very many people if will power were the only means utilized, Huxley began experimenting with certain drugs like mescalin. He found that the mystic euphoria could be reached not merely by a saintly self-transcendence, but by the taking of these drugs as well. Consequently, the books he wrote during the last decade of his life (The Doors of Perception, Heaven and Hell, Brave New World Revisited, Island, and literature and Science) show an increasing respect for science as a means of ordering the chaos of reality into a sane existence. In the utopian society of Pala that he created in his last novel, Island, chemistry, physics, physiology, and other sciences are no longer satirized as they were in Brave New World. There is still, however, an occasional cynical echo from Huxley's early period. (pp. 39-40)
It should be fairly obvious, however, that Huxley's return to science and religion does not mean that he finally succeeded in his quest for truth. (p. 40)
Huxley began by trying to attain "Shanti." He ended by embracing the hallucinatory bliss of "moksha-medicine." On his pilgrimage to reach the shrine of understanding the ultimate reality, he ended by embracing not reality but an escape from it. (p. 41)
Although Huxley has offered many suggestions to effect an ideal government and the establishment of peace, what underlies all his statements for reform is a current of pessimism about the ultimate efficiency of any attempt to ameliorate the evils of our society. This undercurrent of pessimism is perhaps responsible for the paradoxical juxtaposition of offering a cure in one book, and then satirizing it in the next. For example, although he will advocate the creation of bridge-builders to bring about a better understanding of the various countries and philosophies in the world, he will satirize such a bridge-builder as De Vries in Time Must Have a Stop. Similarly, although he mildly favors the establishment of a world government, he will say, in The Perennial Philosophy, that what is needed is more decentralization…. (p. 114)
Despite the lack of finality and absolute certitude in the reforms he suggests, the impression that clearly emerges from the reading of his works written prior to Island is that government per se cannot possibly serve as a source of permanent value…. (p. 115)
Little wonder that Huxley tried to resolve the mess of human problems by detaching himself from them; consequently, his penultimate solution for the problem which a consideration of government, war, and peace engenders is a life of mystical nonattachment and a striving for a unitive knowledge and love of God. (p. 116)
Whatever else Aldous Huxley may have been, he was not a romantic, at least not a dedicated one. The romantic preoccupation with love and Nature is manifestly absent from his writings….
From his earliest novel, Crome Yellow, to his last, Island (in spite of his attempts there to preach the yoga of love), sexual relationships are never considered a source of value. His comments about love in his nonfiction works likewise treat physical love disparagingly. With the exception of several artifically delineated happy marriages in Island, there is not a single love affair in all of Huxley's novels that is successfully and satisfyingly consummated; the marital and extramarital relationships all lead to pain or frustration. (p. 119)
Up to the time that he embraced mysticism as a way of life, Huxley had been grappling with the problem of sex and love and had come up with no satisfying solution. (p. 128)
In Huxley's novels, Nature is almost completely absent; to this extent, he might be called an urban novelist. He is primarily concerned with the life in the cities, the sophisticated conversations held in drawing rooms. Nearly all his characters are members of the upper classes and of the genteel professions. There are no laborers or rustics in his works; his dialogue never has the Hardy earthiness; his characters speak aphoristically. The forces of Nature play no significant role either in the setting or the characterization of his novels. And yet, in a sense, Huxley does analyze Nature as a source of value: he first attacks the romantic conception of Nature which seeks to find in Nature the source of wisdom and beneficence; he also warns us that if we are to continue the callous exploitation of Nature's resources, then we are faced with a far graver crisis than the political struggle of opposing ideologies. (p. 133)
Huxley's objections to the encroachment of applied science upon our lives are twofold: first, applied science, he argues, has intensified standardized mediocrity and the loss of attention to intellectual and spiritual values; second, the technology of the scientist has contributed to the destructiveness of war and to the diminishing of individual freedom. (p. 144)
Has science, then, no value for man? Huxley tries to work out a kind of conciliatory compromise which would maintain the contributions of science in helping to solve man's ecological problems while it would also tend to eliminate some of the evils that an uncontrolled technology would create. He wants scientists to be more actively responsible for the technological improvements they help to bring into existence; in other words, he wants them to be morally responsible for their actions or, as has been the case in the past, for their lack of active protests against producing more destructive weapons of mass annihilation. He also wants people to recognize the fact that the advantages of technology also bring with them disadvantages. (p. 149)
In his evaluation of science as a source of value, Huxley assigns to science the same function he did to the arts: facilitating the apprehension of the nature of ultimate reality. Science, like the arts, should never become an end in itself; both science and the arts should not be worshiped as ultimately divine entities. Science and technology, unless carefully controlled, can cause many evils: increased mediocrity, rising unemployment, and the barbarisms of warfare and totalitarianism; science and technology can, however, help man wisely use the earth's natural resources and can even aid him in achieving "the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision" (Doors of Perception, p. 73). (p. 151)
His search for ultimate answers led him, in his examination of religion, into all kinds of paradoxical complexities which were not resolved very clearly in his works and into all kinds of generalizations which have little meaning when subjected to detailed scrutiny. For example, he will sometimes speak of Christianity or Judaism as if they were monolithic entities. Furthermore, when he talks of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, he does not consider the evolutionary changes that have been incorporated into these beliefs so that when he makes criticisms about them, one is not sure, for example, whether he is castigating the Mohammedanism of the late Middle Ages or the Mohammedanism of today….
There are other difficulties besides trying to find specific meaning in the welter of generalizations one finds in Huxley's comments on religion. There is the difficulty in trying to grasp Huxley's attempts to reconcile religion with philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and government. There is also the problem of endeavoring to find a relationship between religion considered as a metaphysical concept and religion considered as ritual and as a practical guide to mundane problems. (p. 154)
He found little to admire in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He blamed Judaism for narrowness of vision and excessive preoccupation with material success; he castigated Christianity for its cruel oppression of heresy, its occasional hypocrisy, its failure to object to the existence of wars; he criticized Islam for its pessimism and fatalism. It should be remembered, however, that what he was specifically rejecting in these three religions was the nonmystical element; wherever he found elements of mysticism, as he did in the Book of Ecclesiastes; in the writings of such mystic Christians as St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Walter Hilton, William Law, St. François de Sales, Thomas Traherne, and others; in the Sufi books of Islam, he accepted their teachings of contemplation, renunciation of worldly preoccupation, and the practice of love. It is, therefore, not so much religion itself that he was rejecting but what he felt was the perversion of the religious essence. (p. 163)
Essentially, then, Huxley's religious quest has been paradoxical and tortuous. He began by mocking and rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition (though accepting its occasional manifestations of mysticism), flirted temporarily with the Lawrentian doctrine of instinctive living and "blood consciousness," changed to contemplative investigation, turned to the East for further illumination, and died in the West trying to balance, in an uneasy syncretism, the Caliban of Western science with the Ariel of Buddhist mysticism. One is saddened to observe that the religious syncretism turned out to be a synthetic product, that his metaphysical quest ended with a pharmacological solution. (p. 174)
[Since] man lives in many compartments, Huxley also compartmentalized himself. His spiritual self sought value and meaning by turning ultimately to a unitive knowledge and love of God; his societal self realized that man does not live by spirit alone, and thus he wrote frequently about society's need to adopt rational and scientific approaches for its many problems such as an inadequate supply of food, overpopulation, and the threat of man's extinction by war. The inner search and external quest thus formed the two foci of his elliptical journey through life. It was a journey well taken. (p. 183)
Milton Birnbaum, in his Aldous Huxley's Quest for Values (copyright © 1971 by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville), University of Tennessee Press, 1971.
The man who emphatically considers that Huxley attempted the novel proper with only an essayist's gifts is likely to be overlooking Huxley's positive aesthetic achievement. To think of Huxley simply as a satirist is to limit understanding of the purpose of his various devices. The term, 'novel of ideas', is accurate, but needs qualification and should not be allowed to impose the suggestion of a dwarfish offshoot of a grand phenomenon.
Very often, indeed, critics have argued that Huxley ought to have been doing this, that, or the other, instead of holding to his own peculiar course, and the fact that he openly took navigational directions from so many forerunners might sometimes have aided misunderstanding. His technical borrowings are numerous and they range over several arts, but they combine in every novel to form a new, Huxleyan whole. (p. 11)
One peculiarity of Huxley's fiction is the combination of the aims of the generalizing philosopher and the artist. He normally causes his language, his characters, his plots, his structures to signify richly rather than attempt to reproduce the exact multifariousness of personal experience. Particulars of persons, emotions, situations are often presented very clearly, but used (implicitly or explicitly) to illustrate generalities. (p. 14)
[For] Huxley the composition and disposition of characters are features of form. The characters are figures in landscapes, aesthetic components as well as arguments. Both major and minor characters have—quite realistically—clear features and accoutrements which bear out their natures, but, since they are for the most part comic figures (figures, that is to say, conceived in a comic mode even when they are not actually funny), they continually voice characteristic sentiments, and lack both inconsistency and the less obviously revealing surface of real-life conversation. (pp. 15-16)
The fact that Huxley's own people are personalities 'in the old sense of the word' is again a feature of the curious amalgam of the ways of science (or philosophy) and art. Huxley was interested in the classification of human beings, in the Galtonian, Jungian and Sheldonian categories especially, and he was keenly interested in the broad highways of response to experience. He regularly portrayed hedonists, for example, or cynics, because he wished to question the validity of their responses. Thus, while knowing all about the modern, 'atomized' personality, he yet tended to portray the contours of an individual's consciousness, and to align these contours with physical features, as if he believed that such a procedure is perfectly proper to a work of art, especially when that work includes mention of the true complexity of consciousness. It is safe to say that Huxley knew more about post-Bergson notions of the mind and more about the later developments of scientific psychology than most modern authors, but he did not regard such knowledge as necessarily replacing knowledge gained from the old, unprofessional psychologists, and all was grist to his mill. (p. 17)
It is hard to think of any other modern English writer so much possessed by death as Huxley. Death in his novels is often not so much a finale or a departure which produces its effect upon other characters; it is also a fact and a process to be contemplated in itself. Even in Crome Yellow Denis climactically thinks of suicide, while Sir Hercules and his wife actually kill themselves. Not many authors, one imagines, would in such a context include the business of severing the artery with a razor. In Antic Hay the Monster dies on the same evening that Lypiatt considers killing himself. Frequently the death is a climax and a turning-point. In Point Counter Point the deaths of little Phil and Webley occur, as does the death of Grace Elver in the present novel, just before the close, thus modifying all that has gone before and casting a shadow forward over the conclusion. By the time we close the novel old John Bidlake is about to die and Spandrell has been shot. In Eyeless in Gaza the details of the death of Brian Foxe (there are, of course others) are withheld until nearly the end; in Time Must Have a Stop the early farcical death of Eustace Barnack—followed by his revelations of life beyond the grave—is balanced by the later saintly death of Bruno Rontini. After Many a Summer reflects Huxley's preoccupation more concentratedly and obviously than any of the other novels. Just as characteristically Huxleyan is the car-accident and the mutilation of Katy Maartens in The Genius and the Goddess. In Brave New World the death of the Savage is the denouement, while earlier the act of dying has, for serious satirical purposes, been transformed into a painless event. In Island, too, the death of Lakshmi takes place with a minimum of pain, but this time a straightforwardly serious recommendation is being made. It is hardly necessary to comment upon the malformations of Ape and Essence or the descriptions of decrepitude, torture and death in two non-fictional works, Grey Eminence and The Devils of Loudun. (p. 69)
The half-way mark in Huxley's writing career, from The Burning Wheel (1916) to Island (1962), comes in 1939 when After Many a Summer was published; and in a valuable as well as a merely chronological sense Eyeless in Gaza represents the close of the first period. We have so far examined the variety of techniques which Huxley used to make sense of his experience, but from now on, excluding Ape and Essence, we shall be observing degrees of success in the techniques used to disseminate certainties. (p. 137)
It seems possible that between Crome Yellow and Eyeless in Gaza Huxley overlooked no alternative to the perennial philosophy and no loophole in the arguments for it. But [Eyeless in Gaza] is also a considerable literary feat because it pushes the novel of ideas as far as possible in the direction of the novel proper without losing the distinctive characteristics of the former or dealing less than ably with the requirements of the latter. (p. 138)
The Genius and the Goddess, a nouvelle of about thirty-thousand words, is for the most part in the guise of a piece of oral narration by a man who played a leading role in the events which he is now describing. This device should be seen first of all as yet another answer to a problem which Huxley had by now been faced with for some twenty years, the problem of how to pass on certainties without fracturing the work. He evidently felt the need to incorporate into his later fictions his own commentaries upon the actions. Take away Mr Propter, for example, and no one could make of the remaining events and characters of After Many a Summer what Huxley wished us to make of them. But in that novel the commentary and the action are more clearly separated than Huxley seems ever again to have regarded as satisfactory.
Now in The Genius and the Goddess the fictional element and the essay element are at one, though this has been achieved by minimizing the dramatic element. (p. 192)
Island is not a hotch-potch of proposals for the good life casually attached to an indifferent story, but a structure in which one's appreciation of each item is enhanced, directly or indirectly, by knowledge of many other items.
In this way the novel is a structure of close inter-relationships, and only the most trivial steps in the story are superfluous to Huxley's didactic purpose. If Will Farnaby has a bad fall, this is so that we can be shown how to deal with physical shocks; if a praying mantis comes on the scene, this is so that Will—and therefore the reader—can be taught in the final chapter how to accommodate even the apparently gratuitous horror of the mantis. Murugan is presumed to be homosexual solely to emphasize by contrast the wisdom of normal Palanese upbringing and the native methods of training in sexual activity. The Rani's theosophy constitutes both a touch of satire for our entertainment and an illustration of false spirituality. Vijaya is given physical strength partly in order to show how strength need not lead to bullying or contempt for the frail. Conversely, the maithuna instructress, Mrs Rao, is plump and 'very stupid upstairs' because it is necessary for us to realize that such traits need not be disadvantages. In particular, the concluding deaths of Lakshmi and Dr MacPhail occur so that the reader, having been 'trained', so to speak, by the earlier sections of the novel in a mode of acceptance of such experiences, can properly accept them.
In the foregoing remarks there are implications that some of the effects of Island are cumulative, and it is true that the closing chapters form a climax, not simply in the usual sense that a sequence of events bears fruit, but also in the unusual sense of a fusion and heightening of all the preceding ideas. And these ideas form a summit towards which Huxley can now be seen to have been struggling (often without knowing his direction) since at least 1920. (p. 214)
[Complex] emotions, of whatever strength, inform the novels, and it is for these emotions that Huxley in inventing his various devices, including the larger structures, found 'objective correlatives'. At one end of the sequence, the design, the incidents, the people and the language of Crome Yellow make up the formula for a particular compound of feelings, including sadness; while, at the other end, Island expresses bereavement. Neither the intellectual ideas which the novels are so full of, nor the technical ideas which Huxley thought up or adapted are merely sportive. He had an exceptional capacity for using ideas creatively, as expressive of the whole man. In this way, the tricks of Eyeless in Gaza should be recognized as reflecting full-blooded concerns with time, death and spiritual rebirth; and the fantastic effects of Ape and Essence as methods of organizing a mood of defection into a countervailing hope of change through the very carnality gross representations of which have helped to express the dejection. Brave New World is as much about personal problems as it is about problems of society.
One detects in Huxley's writings—alongside the Pyrrhonism which he gives to Philip Quarles and the searching for non-attachment which he gives to Calamy, Anthony Beavis and Sebastian Barnack—a kind of Stoicism arising from a conviction that, since the individual is a tiny fragment of the cosmic process, it is bad to 'make a fuss' about personal feelings. Instead of having an inclination to rage or repine about any shocking feature of the human condition, he continually recommended, either by direct statements or implicitly through his manner, a mixture of insouciance and intellectual honesty. But Huxley's emotions, though stoically restrained, never appear to have been evaded in the fiction, so that even Brave New World, the novel in which ideas seem most flagrantly to crowd out feelings, owes its distinction not only to its celebrated ingenuities but also to emotional pressures which, we can be sure, produced the main ingenuities, and which are amply (though inconspicuously) expressed by construction and style. (p. 225)
Keith M. May, in his Aldous Huxley, Paul Elek Books Ltd., 1972.
Aldous Huxley never again wrote as badly as in Eyeless in Gaza….
As a writer of fiction, Aldous Huxley made an impact which is likely to be felt longer than that of many better writers. This is not to say that the lessonless Point Counter Point and the wearisome Eyeless in Gaza, both forgotten today, are likely to be rediscovered and hailed by future generations. But Brave New World is still remembered and is likely to be for long, is spite of its Wellsian beliefs, in spite of the disastrous parable of the erudite Red Indian who represents the traditional world, in spite of the over-insistence.
As a writer of fiction, Huxley was far too imperfect a craftsman to be described as 'great'. If you want to be sure of that, read another didactic novel with aims similar to Huxley's, Candide…. Reading [Huxley's] books, one may often have the impression that he was an essayist forced [by his need for money] to express himself clumsily in novels.
Certainly he was a very remarkable essayist. His essays are almost all very good, and the bad ones belong mostly to his later years…. Whatever his theme, light or grave, his touch as an essayist was exquisite.
His spiritual and political philosophies were not separable. They were both concerned with an absolute morality based on biological considerations of the means needed to preserve the human race, and the merits of mystical pacifism. His influence on opinion in these respects was massive for a short time.
As a Huxley, he revered science, and though he was the first to protest against excessive scientific claims, he was averse to non-scientific ideas. His admiration for mysticism was to a great extent based on the view that the reality of the mystical experience is open to rational deduction. He did not give any attention to the doctrine of original sin. In a world dominated by Hitler and Stalin, he still could not but believe in the efficacy of persuasion alone. He saw equal impropriety in authoritarian war-mongering and the (unhappily inadequate) efforts of the civilized part of the world to resist. 'Only connect,' he might have said, as did E. M. Forster, another brilliant but bewildered thinker.
Christopher Sykes, "Aldous Huxley and Original Sin," in The Listener, November 1, 1973, pp. 601-02.
Huxley ends up focusing most of his satire at the point of balance where humanism and aspiration, body and soul, split. His work is comedy of ideas in a universe thus dichotomized between intellect and passion; what, though, is clear is that he recognizes that he himself is one of the order of persons he is satirizing—the new artist-intellectuals—and this induces narrative unease and even guilt, though it is of course essential to the sense of compelling honesty in his books. But it is also evident that his work arises in a very specific social milieu and the unease has a decided historical location. [Chrome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point] are very much about the twenties; Huxley writes them about and for a world in which his own sources in culture and art are insecure. The world is in a bewildering disorder; intelligence and reason alone cannot save it, but stand, with several of his heroes, bewildered before barbarism and passion….
Huxley's novels are largely novels of inaction, for his scrupulous, devastating analysis usually produces in the central characters a masochistic withdrawal from action. At the same time, the novels turn on the emptying out of the centre from any dream, hope, or institution, and hence have an apparent air of cynicism, a suggestion of universal failure.
But what is so very Huxleyan about these books is that the author's own cynicism and detachment are very much part of the matter for analysis. The embarrassment of the novelist's feeling that his own ideas and assumptions are themselves a sterile or incomplete view of life comes out most clearly in Point Counter Point, where the writing of novels of ideas becomes part of the theme, and where the character of Philip Quarles is the novelist's self-surrogate. But this element runs through all the twenties novels, starting in Chrome Yellow with the figure of Denis, the sensitive writer conscious of the loss of a real infinite to feed upon….
[For] Huxley the modern is a species of evolution as well as a matter for excellent comedy and farce, and so his world of parties, free love, adulteries, revolutionary and reactionary passions, and the boredom of 'disillusion after disillusion' is an intense experiencing of the times. The cultural and moral passions both expose and are exposed by the new freeing of repressions, the new sorts of men and women, the new freedom, but also the new anarchy of the post-Freudian as well as the postwar universe. The artist, here, is deeply implicated in the modern not only as an art form but as an enveloping experience. 'Living modernly's living quickly,' says Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point. 'You can't cart a wagonload of ideals and romanticisms about with you these days.' Huxley's fictional world is one in which this may produce a sense of yearning loss, but one in which the view is taken for granted. If the consequence is that intelligent man is left in a comic predicament, in an historical void, Huxley sees that as inescapable—such is the contemporary historical acceleration. The result is hardly cynicism but a complex blend of involvement and disgust. He is satirically savage, but not satirically secure; his novels are a continuous, tentative intellectual inquiry into new forces as well as a display of ironic detachment. Indeed, the desperation and absurdity of the characters is not at a total distance; it touches the novelist as well.
Malcolm Bradbury, in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (copyright © 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 151-53.
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