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Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
A British-American novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright, Huxley earned his early reputation as a brilliant satirist. Vaguely optimistic and witty in his early novels, Huxley used his intellectual and sermonizing later novels to vent his increasing disgust with contemporary society. Critics often contend that his novels are...
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- Critical Essays
Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
A British-American novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright, Huxley earned his early reputation as a brilliant satirist. Vaguely optimistic and witty in his early novels, Huxley used his intellectual and sermonizing later novels to vent his increasing disgust with contemporary society. Critics often contend that his novels are not fiction at all, but fictionalized essays.
Point Counter Point is supposed to be the ruthless, not to say scientific, anatomizing of Huxley's world. Its fundamental artistic weakness is that that world as a living organism never comes into existence. It is as though Huxley is so keen to dissect that he cannot first take the trouble to create. His novel entirely lacks the sense of what makes the wheels go round in life. Even more than in the novels of his spiritual (and technical) successor, Jean-Paul Sartre, life is replaced by parasitism, a state of affairs tolerable only if the author is himself fully aware of it.
Such vitality as Point Counter Point possesses is the vitality of a sharp, if cynical, intelligence exercising itself on certain situations and individuals which it has seen through rather than seen imaginatively.
Arnold Kettle, in his An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume Two (copyright © 1960 by Arnold Kettle; reprinted by permission of Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Hutchinson, 1960, p. 168.
Aldous Huxley held a unique position in the literature of his age. He essayed many forms; and was eminent in all. He was a brilliant novelist, a subtle critic of literature, music, painting, a fascinating essayist; and in youth a beautiful poet. In all his work he combined an acute searching intelligence enriched by deep learning with a sparkling literary accomplishment. His books were at once deeply interesting and continuously entertaining.
The unique position, however, which he held in his age was not due to his literary gifts alone. Aldous Huxley was also an influence on men's ideas, even on their conduct. I have been told by more than one distinguished man that the living author who had affected their lives most was Aldous Huxley; for in the formative period between thirteen and twenty he had, as it were, 'released' them, had freed their spirits from the conventions of the past and the inhibiting conditions of the present age. He was able to do this because he blended two strains rarely found in one man. They were the product of his distinguished heredity. In Aldous Huxley's veins flowed the blood of Matthew Arnold and of Thomas Henry Huxley. From both he drew something. Arnold had bequeathed to him a sensitive imagination soaked in the culture of the past, Huxley an adventurous scientific curiosity disciplined by a stern regard for truth. Aldous Huxley did not find it easy to satisfy both sides of his nature: and much of his life was spent in search of a faith. Yet the fact that he combined in himself these two strains was a necessary condition of his achievement and his influence. It enabled him in an especial way to grasp the contemporary predicament….
[To] the literary and scientific strains in him he added a religious strain. Though scientific, his mind was not materialistic. He had a profound sense of some spiritual reality, not to be apprehended by the senses, existing beyond the confines of time and space, serene, inviolate, ineffable. He was never able to pin down this awareness in a dogmatic formula: he did not attempt to chart the limits and extent of this spiritual region. Nor was there ever any question of his accepting the account of it given by any of the orthodox churches. None the less, the spiritual world was intensely real to him, irradiating his soul with 'bright shoots of ever-lastingness' and imbuing it with a fortitude that stood the shocks inflicted on him by fate. Aldous Huxley was threatened all his life by blindness, and in his last years he came to know that certain death was coming to him soon. Yet always he maintained his spirit unshaken. The distinguished artist, the bold thinker, was also a selfless and unobtrusive hero.
David Cecil, "Lord David Cecil, C.H." (copyright © David Cecil 1965), in Aldous Huxley, 1894–1963: A Memorial Volume, edited by Julian Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Julian Huxley; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Chatto and Windus Ltd.), Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 13-14.
It would be easy to think that after his first novels Aldous Huxley ceased to be a man of letters. It is certainly true that his later works do not show the kind of interest in writing something called the novel, the story—the nouvelle—the essay even, which we expect from modern writers. But this may be because we have a sense of the writer as someone who uses his experience to create something we call a work of art, not his art as a vehicle to convey his search for the truth. Undoubtedly Huxley became more and more a man pursuing what he believed to be the truth: firstly the truth which he thought to be the consistency of the means used with the ends aimed at; then the truth of what he called the perennial philosophy; the living of one's life in order to achieve the vision of the mystics; then the kind of truth which is really prophetic: looking into the future and warning people living in the present of what that future may bring; and lastly truths of extra-sensory perception which involved him in his research into the uses of substances like mescalin and lysergic acid, which he called psychodelic since they revealed new capacities of the human psyche. A good many people would regard this last kind of research as aberrant and dangerous, but what should concern us here is that it was one aspect of Aldous Huxley's passion for the truth.
Stephen Spender, "Stephen Spender, C.B.E." (copyright © Stephen Spender 1965), in Aldous Huxley, 1894–1963: A Memorial Volume, edited by Julian Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Julian Huxley; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Chatto and Windus Ltd.), Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 19-20.
[Aldous's] uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province. What is more, he was able to integrate this astonishing range of fact and idea to give him a comprehensive vision of man and his possibilities, including the possibilities of vision itself, which he set forth in The Art of Seeing….
One of Aldous's major preoccupations was how to achieve self-transcendence while yet remaining a committed social being—how to escape from the prison bars of self and the pressures of here and now into realms of pure goodness and pure enjoyment; how to integrate the warring drives of what he called our 'multiple amphibian' nature into some satisfying total pattern of peace, harmony, and wholeness; how to achieve union with that 'something deeply interfused', which pervades existence and makes for righteousness, significance and fulfilment….
He had no illusions about human beings ever attaining complete perfection or absolute certainty, whether of understanding or of morality. But he believed that life and the world could and should be improved….
He will of course long be remembered for his many-sided writings, and for his amazing knowledge of fact and appreciation of excellence. But above all he will go down in history as the greatest humanist of our perplexed era, the many-gifted man who in a chaotic age of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral irresponsibility, used his gifts to enrich man instead of to diminish him, to keep alight humanity's sense of responsibility for its own and the world's destiny and its belief in itself and its vast unexplored potentialities.
Julian Huxley, "Sir Julian Huxley, F.R.S." (copyright © Julian Huxley 1965), in Aldous Huxley, 1894–1963: A Memorial Volume, edited by Julian Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Julian Huxley; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Chatto and Windus Ltd.), Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 21-5.
For all the excellence of the thought and writing of Huxley's books, one thing is missing: the ordinary man.
A great novelist must above all be vulgar, asserted Chesterton, because life is vulgar and men are vulgar, and because it is the novelist's object to reproduce life. This vulgarity was exactly what was lacking from Aldous Huxley in England or Jean Giraudoux in France, but was the fundamental characteristic of Balzac or Dickens or Dostoievsky. Chesterton was right. In spite of his extraordinary gifts, Huxley failed to inspire his characters with the intense life which Dickens gave to his. On the other hand, he was an excellent essayist and also a penetrating and historically minded biographer—witness Grey Eminence and The Devils of Loudun—for here reality supplied his imaginative deficiencies.
André Maurois, "André Maurois" (copyright © André Maurois 1965), in Aldous Huxley, 1894–1963: A Memorial Volume, edited by Julian Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Julian Huxley; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Chatto and Windus Ltd.), Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 62-5.
The social world about which Huxley wrote was all but destroyed by the Second World War, and the centre of his interests appeared to shift from the external world to the inner life of men. His approach to all this remained scrupulously empirical, directly related to the facts of the experience of individuals of which there is record in speech or in writing. It was speculative and imaginative only in the sense that in his view the range of valuable human experience had often been too narrowly conceived; that the hypotheses and ideas which he favoured about men in their relations to each other and to nature, illuminated the phenomena commonly described as paranormal or supernormal better than much conventional physiology or psychology, tied as they seemed to him to be to inappropriate models. He had a cause and he served it. The cause was to awaken his readers, scientists and laymen alike, to the connections, hitherto inadequately investigated and described, between regions artifically divided: physical and mental, sensuous and spiritual, inner and outer. Most of his later writings—novels, essays, lectures, articles—revolved round this theme. He was a humanist in the most literal and honourable sense of that fearfully abused word; he was interested in, and cared about, human beings as objects in nature in the sense in which the philosophes of the eighteenth century had done. His hopes for men rested on the advance of self-knowledge: he feared that humanity would destroy itself by over-population or by violence; from this only greater self-understanding would save them—above all, understanding of the intimate interplay of mental and physical forces—of man's place and function in nature—on which so much alternate light and darkness seemed to him to have been cast both by science and by religion.
He was sceptical of all those who have tried to systematize the broken glimpses of the truth that had been granted to mystics and visionaries, of whom he thought as uncommonly sensitive or gifted or fortunate men whose power of vision could be cultivated and extended by devoted, assiduous practice. He recognized no supernatural grace; he was not a theist, still less an orthodox Christian believer. In all his writings—whether inspired by Malthusian terrors, or by hatred of coercion and violence, or by opposition to what he called idolatry—the blind worship of some single value or institution to the exclusion of others, as something beyond rational criticism or discussion, or by Hindu and Buddhist classics, or by Western mystics and writers gifted with capacity for spiritual or psychological insight—Maine de Biran, Kafka, Broch (Huxley was a remarkable discoverer of original talent), or by composers, sculptors, painters, or by poets in all the many languages that he read well—whatever his purpose or his mood, he always returned to the single theme that dominated his later years: the condition of men in the twentieth century. Over and over again he contrasted on the one hand their new powers to create works of unheard of power and beauty and live wonderful lives—a future far wider and more brilliant than had ever stretched before mankind—with, on the other hand, the prospect of mutual destruction and total annihilation, due to ignorance and consequent enslavement to irrational idols and destructive passions—forces that some individuals had, and all men in principle could, control and direct. Perhaps no one since Spinoza has believed so passionately or coherently or fully in the principle that knowledge alone liberates, not merely knowledge of physics or history or physiology, or psychology, but an altogether wider panorama of possible knowledge which embraced forces, open and occult, which this infinitely retentive and omnivorous reader was constantly discovering with alternate horrors and hope.
Isaiah Berlin, "Professor Sir Isaiah Berlin, C.B.E." (copyright © Isaiah Berlin 1965), in Aldous Huxley, 1894–1963: A Memorial Volume, edited by Julian Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Julian Huxley; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. and Chatto and Windus Ltd.), Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 144-53.
Aldous Huxley—he would have hated the comparison—was the H. G. Wells or Bernard Shaw of his generation, a dazzling intellectual entertainer and the apparently omniscient mentor of many an adolescent self-education….
Huxley was a more sensitive, more impressionable, less dictatorial guide than the great Edwardian pair, Shaw and Wells, though less successful in creating characters to embody his opinions; he remained essentially a critic and connoisseur of forms of knowledge and attitudes to life. He was never, like them, an outsider; he did not have to raise his voice to attract attention, though he never appealed to so wide an audience. From his early twenties, in fact, Huxley, who numbered an exceptional quantity of Victorian sages and culture-heroes in the preceding generations of his family, was in touch with leading figures in the British social and literary world….
Huxley's career, far more than that of most writers, was given shape and dramatic unity by his personal intellectual odyssey, undertaken largely under the pressure of an obsessive dialectic … between spirit and matter, analytic intelligence and unitary mystical vision, the claims of diversity and the search for a still center. Huxley was always fascinated by the sublime and comic incongruities of man as what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "the great Amphibian," mind and matter. He took an enthralled ironical interest in the peculiarities of the conjunction: in the paradoxes of asceticism and the ailments and weaknesses of great minds—Pascal's bowels, Nietzsche's making himself sick on sweets, perhaps even Bertie Russell's piles. His later preoccupation with drugs and with using the body's chemistry as a launching pad to the infinite seems a natural development….
Huxley never achieved a satisfactory synthesis of his talents and interests in his writings; even in the best of them there is a feeling of provisionality, of a staging post on an intellectual journey that is more important than any of its individual moments. At their worst they have a kind of rarefied parasitism, as though the author were eagerly telling one about the books that have excited him recently.
It looks as though Huxley's most satisfying embodiment of his restless intellectuality may have been his own life. "I should like to go on forever learning," he writes on leaving Oxford. It is not a bad epitaph….
J. W. Burrow, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 36-7.
Point Counter Point, the technique of which owes much to Ulysses as well as The Counterfeiters, represents Huxley's effort to deal imaginatively with the destructive forces his age had unleashed. He develops his theme by exploiting the device of the musicalization of fiction, relying on strategic shifts in mood and point of view, counterpointing plot structure and characters, presenting simultaneity of contrasting effects and events of time, all designed to illustrate the relativistic motif that people react in different ways to the same problem. By placing a novelist within his novel, Huxley is able to include discursive pages of speculation on the aesthetics of fiction and the difficult task of portraying the nature of reality. What he seeks to achieve is a symphonic structure that will present varied types of character, each one justified in his own right. He combines "scientific" objectivity with a multiplicity of perspectives.
Charles I. Glicksberg, in his Modern Literary Perspectivism, Southern Methodist University Press, 1970, pp. 25-6.
[Huxley has been condemned for] "snobberies", conspicuous in his travel books Jesting Pilate and Beyond the Mexique Bay. A more accurate word is "coldness". It was not merely the Indian coolie or the Mexican peon with whom he had no sympathy, but the 99 per cent of humanity with whom he had nothing in common except birth, copulation, and death. Humanity he could write about (as something tiresomely wild, irrational and poly-philoprogenitive which cultivated people should tame, condition and control); but in ordinary, puzzled human beings he was not interested. He did not accept the Christian belief that every human being is possessed of an eternal soul. Indeed, though he became increasingly interested in oriental religion and mysticism, in what he called The Divine Ground and unity with the Not-Self, he remained until the very end an agnostic, incapable of acknowledging the existence of any God outside human consciousness: and the Personal God, communion with whom has been the experience of countless religious, he regarded as the creation of illusion, superstition or both….
[Some] find Island more scarifying even than the cautionary nightmare Brave New World, because of Huxley's change of sides. He had given up the bad old world of sin and Shakespeare, free will, love, failure and triumph: and he had accepted the conditioning of human creatures to a contentment in the principles which he held at the time (quite different from the various others he had accepted at different stages of his life). Dissatisfied with the world as he had found it, he wanted to remake it as God ought to have done….
Everybody who has studied Huxley's writings has observed the paradox of his "development"; the number of ideas he had at the beginning was nearly the same as he had at the end, but their respective importance was different. He was like a man starting with a pack of cards, from which he invented a variety of different games not merely by altering the rules but also by raising or lowering the value of different suits and individual cards. Some people prefer one type of Huxley book, some another; as those who like bridge tend to dislike poker or gin rummy. But if we are to understand the vagaries of Huxley's development, we need to know far more of the details of his life than any of us yet possess.
"The Armour of the Polymath," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), April 9, 1971, pp. 421-22.
[Huxley] used the novel as a convenient and popular springboard from which to launch his ideas on a multiplicity of subjects. The only political characters in his fiction who in any way can be considered as people rather than as spokesmen are Spandrell, the nihilist, and Illidge, the communist, both appearing in Huxley's finest novel, Point Counter Point—and even here, both tend to more "flat" than "round" characters.
Furthermore, to try to isolate Huxley's attitudes on politics, government, war, and peace is obviously to try to isolate but one color from his prismatic inclusiveness. His encyclopedic brain emitted waves on an ocean of subjects. Yet encyclopedias (incidentally, among his favorite reading) are divided into subjects, and Huxley's impact on our society can perhaps best be gauged by an analytic survey of the chief directions of his search for meaning…. The central search in Huxley's works is for a life of meaning, a quest for the ultimate attainment of a transcendent union with divinity. In this search Huxley had to clear out the Augean stables of the drosses of time-centered and ego-oriented impedimenta; politics, economics, and social mores are part of this baggage….
It should be pointed out that there are essentially at least two Aldous Huxleys. One is the societal Huxley, who feels keenly the outrages of history and the deleterious distortions inflicted upon man by political, technological, and social-religious systems; this is the Huxley who looks at society, finds it wanting, and offers prescriptive cures for its amelioration. There is also the other Huxley, who, with the weariness of Ecclesiastes, knows that the more things change the more they remain the same, that man is Sisyphus, performing a futile and endless task, that activity tends to yield despair, and that the quest therefore should be directed toward self-transcendence in an attempt to gain a unity with the Godhead. Self-realization becomes self-effacement, and the problems of society attain a solution through a dissolution of time and place. In Huxley, as in Goethe's Faust, there are two forces contending for supremacy: the corporeal and sentient societal self and the transcendent self seeking unity with the divine spirit. Huxley wants to be a part of and apart from the human predicament. One of his wings is flapping toward earth; the other is soaring toward the Godhead. Although this paradoxical flight cannot gain much momentum if one wants to proceed in one direction, one should consider that paradox is the essential condition of man and that direction is not nearly so desirable as the drive for understanding.
Milton Birnbaum, "Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 65-84.
Brave New World … is obviously a satire as well as a fantasy, and at first glance it may seem just as appropriate to evaluate the book on the basis of criteria derived from a definition of satire as on the basis of those derived from a concept of fantasy. Huxley's novel, like Gulliver's Travels and Erewhon, employs fantasy as a vehicle for satire….
The World State, as it exists in the unverifiable year 632 A.F., is a satiric projection of popular values and associated uses of science in the real world of 1932. Nevertheless, to treat Brave New World as primarily a satire would involve difficulties which it might be wiser to avoid than to confront. In the first place, satire is much easier to recognize than to define; unlike fantasy, it is not so much a technique as a manner. The underlying assumption of fantasy is that the reader can distinguish between what is verifiable and what is not….
Second, Brave New World is wholly a fantasy (that is, unverifiable time and devices are integral to the novel) but not wholly satiric. John's suicide serves as a final symbol of universal death, or of the ultimate horror of the road civilization may be traveling, but it is not a satiric symbol. Much in the real world simply cannot be satirized. A satire of the concentration camps at Auschwitz is inconceivable. Yet the horror of the camps can be reflected in fantasy…. Most modern fantasies with a political theme combine satire with reflections of those aspects of reality which must be treated differently.
Rudolf B. Schmerl, "Fantasy as Technique," in SF: The Other Side of Realism—Essays on Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971, pp. 105-15.
Aldous Huxley is one of those large protean figures in contemporary literature almost impossible to grasp in totality, one whose parts seem greater than his sum at this early date. And for some time to come there is likely to be controversy as to just which parts represent his best work. I cast my vote for the essays, familiar, literary and travel, like those wonderful early 1920 volumes, On the Margin and Along the Road. But I admit that the brash and cynical novels, flawed and frivolous as they often are, give the essays keen competition. Furthermore, stories like Young Archimedes, and The Tillotson Banquet remind us he was also a brilliant short story writer. As to the social reformer, the amateur mystic, the psychodelic prophet, I must confess I don't respond to these aspects of Huxley at all, and I have a strong hunch that, from a strictly literary point of view, one need not fret over what are extra-literary limitations. Most of his best work was accomplished before 1937, the year he went to California.
Philip Murray, "Dominations: Rational, Romantic, Ironic," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1972, pp. 230-35.