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Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
A British-American novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright, Huxley was noted for his satire. Among his novels are Point Counter Point, Eyeless in Gaza, Brave New World, Time Must Have a Stop, and Island.
The problem of what to do with new knowledge has always presented itself to the writer after a burst of philosophical or scientific activity…. The early novels of Aldous Huxley are obsessed with this problem. Knowledge destroys value. We believe that we have a vision of ultimate reality, until we learn that it is all glandular, that every emotional conviction of value can be explained away physiologically…. God as a sense of warmth about the heart as opposed to God as 2+2=4; music as a series of sound waves impinging on a physiological organism and music as something significant and moving—these are expressed by Huxley as irreconcilable alternatives. Both explanations seem to be true, yet each seems to deny the other. If the dilemma is posed in this way, the only solution would seem to be either complete scepticism or complete irrationality, and neither scepticism nor irrationality can provide a proper environment for great art. Huxley's early novels are witty fables designed to illustrate this dilemma; he takes us on a conducted tour of dried up wells, sources of value which no longer yield anything because the curse of knowledge has struck them: we know too much about how they came to be what they are.
David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 103-05.
Huxley's versatility has enabled him to probe into nearly every aspect of the modern era; and his novels and essays read like an intellectual tour of man's endeavors to lift himself from selfishness into self-effacement, from materialism into mysticism. More moralist and sermonizer than fictionist, Huxley seems himself to have tried every new idea for size before committing it to paper. In each area of experience, he has sought some justification for an absolute, if, at times, even the absolute denial of absolutes, but usually some kind of divine reality which would give meaning to an otherwise inane existence…. Huxley, without attaining the heights of great literature, has attempted to reveal the underlying discontent of the twentieth century, and in so doing has demonstrated a range greater than that of any other novelist of his time….
Aldous Huxley's reputation was made in the decade or so following the First World War, in which his disillusionment, reflected in his playful but bitter humor and in his mordant portrayal of human futility, fitted an era that reduced positive values to witty ironies. Huxley's freedom from traditional values, his license in discussing world-weary practitioners of sex, and his detached, ironical manner gave him stature as a sophisticate with a wry awareness of the world's corruption. Ideas, rather than carefully drawn characters or dramatic situations, were the stuff of his novels…. When these ideas came together, however, they created a dialectic more of conflicting philosophies than of living people. In such terms, Huxley's novels rarely attain the status of "literature"; closer to tracts or fictional essays, they have been called, among other things, "novels of ideas." Therefore, to apply literary standards to Huxley's fiction is often futile, for his characters, situations, and dramatic conflicts simply fail to sustain the work as a whole….
However, after we recognize Huxley's novelistic shortcomings … there still remains his value as a spokesman for the twentieth century. For of contemporary novelists, Huxley, perhaps more than any other, has run the range of modern ideas and has involved himself in every possible intellectual stance while attempting to find cures for society's malaise. The ills of the modern world, so consciously dissected by every major novelist, when complemented by Huxley's own disgust with life, create an inferno-like atmosphere of frustration and meaninglessness unique in the contemporary English novel. Apparently, the key to Huxley's interpretation of the twists and turns of the twentieth century is disgust—disgust for life, for people as individuals, even for ideas, which themselves, he recognizes, must eventually fail.
Frederick R. Karl and Marvin Magalaner, in their A Reader's Guide to Great Twentieth-Century English Novels, Farrar, Straus, 1959, pp. 255-58.
'As a man sows, so shall he reap.' It is a favourite quotation of Mr Propter's, in After Many a Summer [Dies the Swan], and it is the moral of Huxley's later fiction. It is the theme of many great works of fiction, but what we are conscious of in Huxley is not the degradation which is the consequence of wrong choice but only of the jigging of puppets. The drama the puppets play out is horrifying enough, but we are unaffected because it is not played out in terms of flesh and blood. If it were, it would be unbearable. As it is, in the novels that follow Point Counter Point, one can scarcely help feeling that Huxley himself is indulging in sensation for sensation's sake….
From the beginning—one sees it in the early poems—Huxley has been agonizingly aware of the terrible contrast, the irreconcilable conflict within himself, between the idealization of art and the physiological, animal realities of human existence, the fact that, to hark back to an early poem, lovers among other things sweat. The conflict has continued throughout his work, apparently insoluble, reaching its climax perhaps—though Ape and Essence, published eight years later, falls little short of it—in After Many a Summer, where the consequences of the quest for an elixir of life are depicted in the spectacle of a man and woman who, at two hundred years old, have retrogressed into apes, savaging each other in a stinking cage. Here Huxley comes very near to literary coprophilia.
Since Ape and Essence, Huxley has written only three novels. The mystical reality he now accepts is intractable to dramatization in fiction. Perhaps his best work was always to be found in his essays and in the superb biography, Grey Eminence, which contains, among much else, the finest of his incursions into fantasy since Crome Yellow.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 43-4.
The spectacle of a society withering in a desert of make-believe and joyless gaiety, served novelists and dramatists in the 1920s and 1930s with material they turned to gruesome use. The most prominent of this group was Aldous Huxley…. As a writer of fiction … he had the useful gift of being, at least in his earlier works, irresistibly readable. He was well equipped as a humorist and wit, mainly sardonic and often savage enough to lead to his being regarded as a modern Swift. The inclination to consider him also as a follower of D. H. Lawrence had little foundation, for Huxley wrote, not as Lawrence did with the fervour of the blood, but in the deadly chill of a cerebral contempt which distilled vitriol. The contemporary Dance of Death had for him its moments of ludicrous humour, recorded in such books as Crome Yellow…, Mortal Coils…, and the more acerb Antic Hay … in which the human being becomes something of a Gothic grotesque. As the political atmosphere grew more and more saturated with intolerance and hatred, Aldous Huxley's novels became more darkly charged with antagonism towards these tendencies. Point Counter Point … is corrosive with detestations, so generously distributed as to leave few unscathed. Brave New World … pictured horribly a possible future in which laboratory-produced creatures would be mechanistically conditioned to serve the will of their masters in a world where everyone performs the motions of life without, in any acceptable sense, living. The measure in which this 'brave new world' was already existing for the radio and newspaper and otherwise 'capitalistically-conditioned' masses, gave Aldous Huxley's vision a more immediately sobering significance than any mere story of an inverted Utopia could have had. But as he became more immersed in the fearful contemplation of a threatening cosmic catastrophe, Huxley sacrificed his creative talent and therefore much of his readability, as was apparent in Eyeless in Gaza…, though some of his original verve was recovered in After Many a Summer….
From that point Aldous Huxley as a novelist was a spent force and his Time Must Have a Stop … and Ape and Essence … stirred a more limited interest. His disgust with the world seemed to be less the repulsion of a superior intellect by the follies and enormities of common humanity than the outcome of protracted adolescence, an aspect of arrested development frequently found among twentieth-century intellectuals whose abnormal mental growth had been at the expense of emotional comprehension and human understanding. Some part of Huxley's later fiction was more vomitous than satirical.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 64-6.
Huxley's death in November 1963 was ignored by the great world because it had another death to think about—the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, U.S.A. This event, like the assassination of Gandhi which starts off one of Huxley's last novels, the bitter and terrible Ape and Essence, could be taken as a self-evident proof of the existence of evil—a Huxleyan starting-point which it was too late for Huxley to use. Huxley's awareness of good and evil found its first starting-point in the awareness of human division which found expression in an early novel, Point Counter Point. His work before that had been gay, witty, erudite, vaguely pessimistic (Crome Yellow), concerned with the lack of belief and lack of direction in the cultured classes of the nineteen-twenties (Antic Hay), half-convinced that there was a way out of the human mess (Those Barren Leaves) which was closer to Indian yoga than to European Christianity. The statement of Point Counter Point, however, was that in man too many irreconcilables are yoked together for happiness in this world—flesh and spirit, passion and reason, instinct and intellect. The musical implications of the title applied to the fictional technique he used—many plots proceeding at the same time, very nearly independent of each other, on the analogy of the melodic strands of a complex piece of counterpoint—a Bach fugue, say….
For forty years his readers forgave Aldous Huxley for turning the novel-form into an intellectual hybrid—the teaching more and more overlaying the proper art of the fiction-writer. Having lost him, we now find nothing to forgive. No novels more stimulating, exciting or genuinely enlightening came out of the post-Wellsian time. Huxley more than anybody helped to equip the contemporary novel with a brain.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission from W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 39-43.
Huxley has some claim to be regarded as an example of Carlyle's "hero as a literary man."… Huxley—particularly during the last two-thirds of his career—did not hesitate to regard whatever he wrote as a possible contribution to the clarification of his turbulent century. He did not stand apart from it to create works of art esthetically self-sufficient. Instead, with a readiness that some would regard as heroic and others as indiscreet, he involved himself and his works in some of the main problems of his time. (pp. 15-16)
Huxley's books could be read as an effort to discredit the main features of a dishonest past that ignored crucial elements in human existence. And it is true that Huxley is unremitting in his censure of uncritical faith in the benefits of material and social progress. It is also true that Huxley comes around to a defense of a positive account of human capacities that does not make cancellation in itself an act of sufficient wisdom.
The human being was, according to the Huxley instruction, a creature whose complexity was ignored or simplified by the religion, morality, and facile social hopes that Victorian and Edwardian education had imposed on the young…. Huxley turns to solutions that Victorian Christianity ignored: in general, a blend of faith in science and devotion to religious insights that are of Eastern rather than Western origin. It is as if Huxley came around to speaking of a promised land, the actual existence of which lies beyond demonstration. (pp. 28-9)
[For Huxley] man has the power to live only as an animal, or man has the capacity to realize his destiny entirely within the framework of current social custom. But, if he chooses, man has the chance to go beyond sense and instinct (animal) and ordinary good and evil (social and rational), and to become a child not so much of personal deity as of the "Clear Light" where he merges with Nirvana, the ground of all being.
For it is Huxley's not particularly novel thesis that man can perceive, behind or above all that sense and society present him, the principle, the ground of being, that has allowed to come into existence what we hastily call "basic reality." (p. 34)
Huxley's fiction takes its rise from specific ideas that he has about man; for ideas about human beings rather than human beings are Huxley's points of departure … [and this] perception allows one to account for the absence of certain complex effects of design and texture that readers of much modern fiction expect. Huxley's fiction does not give intense pleasure of this sort, for what is firm in much of Huxley's fiction is the continuous polemic drive and the subordination to it of event and the delineation of persons. (pp. 43-4)
If there is any device that is properly Huxley's own or that he makes his own, it is the one that may be called "counterpoint."… In one version, this device effects a sudden switch from one scene to another; the arresting change of scene and persons amounts to an inharmonious contrast between one set of human pretensions and another. A modified form of the device exists within a scene when the words a person speaks are played off against the thoughts that are passing through his mind. Similarly the speech of one person in a scene is put in sharp and irrelevant contrast to the chatter of another person.
Indeed, any inspection of Huxley's fiction leads to the conclusion that his chief guide to the manipulation of event is the writer's desire to establish ironical cross-reference. Such cross-reference—in an early novel like Antic Hay …—is for the sake of irony itself; the only meaning life has lies in its basic inconsequence. Later, the same device is used more systematically to point to the "amphibious" nature of man and even to man's need to transcend the effects of irony and inconsequence that are all most men know of life. (pp. 44-5)
As utopian fiction, Brave New World has a great esthetic success; it fuses what one presently recognizes as the dangerous incompatibles of this form into a telling unity. And the novel is, just as interestingly, a notable record of uncertainties and hopes proper not only to Huxley but also to the era in which he writes; in consequence, it can be used as a key to analysis of the times by persons who regard as somewhat irrelevant to their purpose questions of esthetic success…. Furthermore, the novel must be seen as expressive of the developing opinions of Huxley himself. (p. 72)
Huxley's two other utopian fictions—Ape and Essence … and Island …—are works that are esthetically unsatisfactory. Ape and Essence is inferior simply because of the superficiality with which the utopian task is performed; and Island, a more ambitious work, fails to please because the interplay of the "mirrors"—one for reality, one for the author's speculations about reality—does not really take place. (p. 74)
Huxley's mature estimate of the meaning of human personality and his detection of its limitations draw together many items that, lacking this clue, dangle. This estimate—worked out systematically in The Perennial Philosophy and elsewhere but embodied less systematically in works of fiction and casual essays—may be expressed thus: man must somehow be saved or improved. But what ordinarily goes under the heading man is not, in its own right, very estimable. (p. 146)
For the Huxley of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Time Must Have a Stop, the persons who achieve superior existence are those who have gone beyond the trammels of personality, the fear of death, and the constriction of being this man or that man at a particular time and place. (p. 149)
Harold H. Watts, in his Aldous Huxley, Twayne, 1969.
Brave New World marks the end of Aldous Huxley's career as a major satiric novelist. After 1932 he abandoned the mask of the fashionably disenchanted ironist and began his drift toward mysticism and responsible involvement in public issues….
Some commentators on Huxley's late works maintain that they fail because they move too far in the direction of the essay; but this point is not, it seems to me, a particularly important one, for Huxley had in his early period also loaded his novels with generalizations about life. The primary difference is one of style; the ideas in his early books are largely negative and thus harmonize with the negativistic implications of his anatomical vision, but the later, affirmative ideas demand a style with affirmative implications, and that kind of writing is foreign to Huxley's literary personality. The stylistic failure of Island, Huxley's last novel, is an excellent case in point. More than any of his later works Island is purged of the dualistic irony characteristic of his best novels; his efforts to be entirely positive in this utopian antithesis to Brave New World render the book almost entirely devoid of esthetic value….
Huxley, then, suffered the misfortune of outgrowing his own technique. He changed his view of the world, the flesh, and himself, but he was unable to find a style suitable to the new attitudes. The pleasures of mauvais goût clash violently with the mystic's insight, but the style charged with the spirit of mauvais goût was the only one available to him. During his last quarter-century of writing Huxley tried a number of strategies for solving this dilemma: he shifted his anatomical emphasis from the absurd and comic to the painful and horrible, he limited the satiric use of physiological imagery to specific personae in an attempt to dissociate himself from it, he made direct appeals to his readers to take the flesh-spirit mergers seriously, and, in ever increasing instances, he abandoned the ineluctably ironic anatomical vision in favor of bluntly direct sincerity. The result was in most cases disunity and esthetic incoherence….
Huxley has been in his career both outrageous and morally affirmative; the only difficulty is that he was never able, like the great satirists of the past, to be both at the same time.
Joseph Bentley, "The Later Novels of Aldous Huxley" (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 507-19.