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Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
Huxley was a British-American novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, critic, and playwright. His novels are generally considered novels of ideas: Huxley was interested in many fields of knowledge and his ideas on science, philosophy, religion, and other topics are woven throughout his fiction. His concentration on...
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- Critical Essays
Huxley, Aldous 1894–1963
Huxley was a British-American novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, critic, and playwright. His novels are generally considered novels of ideas: Huxley was interested in many fields of knowledge and his ideas on science, philosophy, religion, and other topics are woven throughout his fiction. His concentration on the philosophical content of a work led critics to find his fiction overly didactic and artistically unsatisfying. This tendency was adumbrated in his later works when, drawn to the philosophy of mysticism and discarding the more objective and satiric tone of his early novels, Huxley created characters that served as little more than mouthpieces for his ideas. Continually searching for an escape from the ambivalence of modern life, Huxley sought a sense of spiritual renewal and a clarification of his artistic vision in hallucinogenic drugs, an experience explored in one of his best known later works, The Doors of Perception. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8.)
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Huxley has often demonstrated in his novels the fact that ideas may possess qualities which are comparable with those which animate persons—and this particularly in a period of time when ideas are not fixed, calculated, or limited by canons of strict acceptance or rejection. Ideas, as they are used in Huxley, possess, in other words, dramatic qualities. Dominating as they very often do the full sweep of his novels, they appropriate the fortunes and careers which ordinarily belong to persons. (p. 190)
The best examples of the novel of ideas are Huxley's novels of the 1920's. To be sure, he did not always use this form; nor is any of his novels purely a novel of ideas. In his shorter pieces, most notably in "Uncle Spencer," "Two or Three Graces," and "Young Archimedes," Huxley writes charmingly and sympathetically of persons and reveals a remarkable talent for a complete delineation of characters who are interesting almost exclusively as persons. But the works which mark the development of Huxley as a novelist—Chrome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point—are, each in its own way, novels of ideas. Rarely does a Huxley character give himself away directly; rarely if ever does Huxley fail to give him away. The position, the point of view, of the Huxley character is usually revealed in the course of Huxley's discussion of his tastes, his intellectual preferences, his manner of behaving himself in the society of his fellows. Thus the idea which each is to demonstrate becomes in the novel the point of view he adopts—or, actually, is. (pp. 194-95)
[In] the case of Huxley, there is a close interaction of the essayist with the novelist. They parallel each other for a time; they frequently supplement each other. The essayist is a sort of "supply station," to which the novelist has recourse. He is the "port of call" at which the novelist stops, to take on necessary and staple goods. The reputation of Huxley is chiefly that of the novelist. In another sense, however, he is the essayist-commentator upon twentieth-century morals and ideas. Just as his characters are often subordinate as persons to the ideas or points of view they express, so his novels as a whole are often mere carriers for the cargo of ideas which their author must retail.
The essayist's attempt to give animation to his ideas leads to the novel of ideas. In the course of Huxley's development as novelist, the characters of his creation stumble, swagger, or are carried through his novels, supported almost always by the essayist. (p. 197)
In the novels of the 1920's, the essayist in Huxley strode along with the novelist…. Beginning, perhaps, with Eyeless in Gaza, the essayist far exceeds the novelist…. [In Huxley's later novels, he] is alternately a caricaturist and an essayist; he is no longer a novelist of ideas, but a philosopher who knows not how gracefully to leave the house in which he has lived so graciously all his life. (p. 199)
Huxley is no longer a novelist. His recent novels are lengthy essays, to which are added entertainments. But his novels of the 1920's are novels of ideas—ideas clothed, ideas given flesh and bone and sent out into a world in which they may test themselves. (pp. 199-200)
Huxley's novels of ideas are an expression of the tremendous vitality which ideas had in the 1920's; they are also a testimony of the intellectual confusion of that period…. Most important of all, these novels are a brilliant portrait of the age, or at least of its intellectual interests and habits. Whatever defects of manner the novels of Huxley suffer, his vital interest in the intellectual concerns of his time has resulted in several dramatic portraits of contemporary life and thought. (p. 200)
Frederick J. Hoffman, "Aldous Huxley and the Novel of Ideas," in College English (copyright © 1946 by The National Council of Teachers of English), December, 1946 (and reprinted in Forms of Modern Fiction, edited by William Van O'Connor, Indiana University Press, 1948, pp. 189-200)).
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[The setting of Antic Hay] is Henry James's London possessed by carnival. A chain of brilliant young people linked and interlaced winds past the burnished front-doors in pursuit of happiness. Happiness is growing wild for anyone to pick, only the perverse miss it. There has been the single unpredictable, inexplicable, unrepeatable calamity of "the Great War." It has left broken hearts—Mrs. Viveash's among them—but the other characters are newly liberated from their comfortable refuges of Conscientious Objection, to run wild through the streets.
The central theme of the book is the study of two falterers "more or less in" their "great task of happiness," Mrs. Viveash and Theodore Gumbril. Everyone else, if young, has a good time. (p. 19)
The story is told richly and elegantly with few of the interruptions which, despite their intrinsic interest, mar so much of Mr. Huxley's story-telling. The disquisition on Wren's London should be in a book of essays but the parody of the night-club play is so funny that one welcomes its intrusion. The "novel of ideas" raises its ugly head twice only, in the scenes with the tailor and the financier, crashing bores both of them but mere spectators at the dance. They do not hold up the fun for long.
And there is another delicious quality. The city is not always James's London. Sometimes it becomes Mediterranean, central to the live tradition. The dance winds through piazzas and alleys, under arches, round fountains and everywhere are the embellishments of the old religion. An ancient pagan feast, long christianized in name, is being celebrated in a christian city. The story begins in a school chapel, Domenichino's Jerome hangs by Rosie's bed, Coleman quotes the Fathers. There is an insistent undertone, audible through the carnival music, saying all the time, not in Mrs. Viveash's "expiring" voice, that happiness is a reality.
Since 1923 Mr. Huxley has travelled far. He has done more than change climate and diet. I miss that undertone in his later work. It was because he was then so near the essentials of the human condition that he could write a book that is frivolous and sentimental and perennially delightful. (p. 20)
Evelyn Waugh, "Youth at the Helm and Pleasure at the Prow: 'Antic Hay'," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1955), August, 1955 (and reprinted in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert E. Kuehn, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 23-5).
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[Huxley's] early poetry is a record of the highly complicated inner struggle which influenced, even determined the theme and the shape of his much more popular, much more successful fiction. After The Burning Wheel he quickly produced Jonah (… 1917), The Defeat of Youth (… 1918) and Leda (… 1920), and he appeared several times in the annuals Oxford Poetry and Wheels. Although this work shows some development in technique, some improvement in quality, it illustrates more clearly Huxley's shifting and ambivalent attitude toward the very practice of literary art. Like his fiction, Huxley's verse embodies his need to express himself entangled inextricably with the problem of how to do so. From the earliest poems the crucial inner conflict appears; Huxley tries various styles to express it; the need to choose a style then intensifies the conflict as Huxley is forced to choose between sincere expression and effective poetry. It is this dilemma I have attempted to follow, up to the point where Huxley virtually abandoned verse for fiction.
The first sign of inner conflict is a startling inconsistency between poems expressing a rebellious desire to shock and other poems voicing merely conventional sentiment. Huxley's first published poem, "Home-Sickness … From the Town," is as obviously anti-Victorian as anything he ever was to write…. As in so many of the novels, a deliberately shocking frankness about sex is combined with the makings of a new poetic style forged of knowing allusions and esoteric words. Yet in The Burning Wheel a few months later we find verses in the very manner Huxley seemed to have attacked, poems almost shockingly banal and stale where conventional phrases and worn-out notions abound. "Escape" begins like inferior Tennyson…. "Philoclea in the Forest," an even staler poem, is set amidst Arcadian wood-moths, flowers, and lutes. "Sentimental Summer" is a maudlin poem of love…. (pp. 64-5)
Although there is something typically youthful in this inconsistency, in Huxley's case it was a most important symptom, not just the sign of an inevitable but temporary stage. His inconsistency in poetic attitude and style was rooted in deep and lasting inner conflict, a conflict destined to increase, to plague him for years, to become and remain the most important force in all his work. "Home-Sickness …" is an exaggerated recognition of the real, "Escape" and "Sentimental Summer" a sincere gesture toward the ideal. Like Shelley and other romantics of the century before, Huxley saw a clash between the two. He presented the ideal as beauty, as love, or as spirit, and the real as the disappearance or transcience of beauty, the loss of love, sometimes replaced by lust, or the ugly facts of the surrounding material world. Most important, not only is his own soul affected by this clash; it is also both a part and an illustration of it…. [Huxley] finds both the ideal and the real within himself. Only occasionally could he project a vision of the ideal untarnished by unpleasant actuality, seen residing outside, in others, or within. Though he has been called a "frustrated romantic," he was inwardly split as most of the romantics never were…. He visualized a purer love, a permanent beauty, a world deserving nothing but our devotion and his praise. But he recognized his own tendency toward such romantic flights of fancy, and he also understood the frequent sordidness of actuality, in the world, in others, but—most disturbingly—in himself. (p. 66)
But more surprising than these contradictions is his own reaction to them. His inconsistencies apparently leave him unperturbed. He can be disturbed, of course, by what he finds in the world and himself, but not by the pattern of contradictions in his response. Yeats, who was at least as sharply split as Huxley, began to search for "Unity of Being" and regularly found his art a way to resolve his inner tensions. Huxley was not so much trying to dissolve his inner conflict as attempting to express or project it in his verse. Though he may have been searching for inner harmony, he seems to have been more interested in something theoretically external—a usable, original, aesthetically pleasing style. The Burning Wheel not only shows that inner conflict exists, it shows Huxley trying several different poetic styles, several different ways of putting the conflict into words.
In the title poem, "The Burning Wheel," an obviously symbolist style is used. The wheel of life, "Wearied of its own turning," painfully spinning "dizzy with speed," agonizingly yearns to rest…. The real-ideal conflict is seen here not through the specific emotions of the poet, but rather as symbolically generalized and abstract, as the opposition of life and death, the tension between activity and calm. The theme will find new symbols in the novels: the crystal of quiet described with such intensity in Antic Hay, and the connected pair of cones in Eyeless in Gaza, symbolizing the same quiet along with the flux of tortured lives. But Huxley immediately abandoned this kind of symbolism in his verse. Three other styles dominate the early poems.
"Escape," "Sentimental Summer," and their ilk are written in a "romantic" style, a diluted version of the manner perfected a century before, now superannuated though still so frequently used. It is easily recognized, in Huxley's early poems, by the direct, unguarded expression of emotion, by supposedly "poetic" phrases and words, by imprecise and worn-out metaphors. We find it, of course, when Huxley can believe in his ideal—when, for example, he can see love as untarnished by lust…. But just as frequently it expresses his disillusionment; his sense of the real, the unpleasant, the actual, victorious over the imagined, the ideal…. Most of the poetry in this romantic style is buncombe, soon to be parodied by Huxley himself in Crome Yellow when Denis Stone idealizes the older Anne in the lyric he calls "The Woman who was a Tree." Yet Huxley never abandoned either the romantic attitude or the corresponding style. They are important in almost all of his novels, from Antic Hay and its visions of young Gumbril to the synthesized utopia of Huxley's final statement, Island.
Huxley also tried a simple dialectic, a style embodying versified argument or discussion. Yeats had already begun to use it for expressing inner conflict, for presenting artistically his battles with himself. But Huxley was attracted by a curious potential unappealing to Yeats—the fact that two sides of his conflict could be expressed in dialectic with no demand that the conflict be resolved…. He frequently seems to be nurturing his conflict, almost preserving it as a subject for his poems.
Huxley was to transform his dialectic style into the sparkling conversations of the novels, the house party discussions of Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves. But his fourth, "ironic" style was an even more congenial voice, destined to be the one his public wanted to hear and most frequently heard. It became the characteristic trademark of his fiction, the tone of Point Counter Point, the very conception of Brave New World. Suggested as early as "Home-Sickness … From the Town," with its "debile" women and allusions to Rousseau and Keats, the style depends on the ironic contrast provided by the unexpected, in the form of such learned allusions and esoteric words. Its irony also involves another favorite Huxley strategy, setting the real against the ideal by putting human beings into a zoo. (pp. 67-9)
When Huxley shifts in a single volume from one style to another, juxtaposing "treasured things" and "golden memories" with turd-kicking children and souls as elephants' snouts, he is obviously unsettled, perhaps thoroughly confused. Yet his experiments, his vacillations in style seem to have made his conflict even more severe. Faced with the dilemma, the conflict posed by the real and the ideal, Huxley had tried four different styles in attempts to express himself, to put the conflict into words. He found that sincerity asked for the use of one of his styles but poetic effectiveness called for the use of another. To be candid about his state of mind, dialectic was the obvious choice, and it dominates his contributions, a year after The Burning Wheel, to the 1917 volume of Wheels. (p. 70)
Huxley seems gradually to have realized that his dialectic style, burdened by such complexities and awkwardnesses as these, could never be as effective as his ironic style and its amusing human zoo. But the greater aesthetic discipline the ironic style imposed either inhibited or made impossible sincere and frank expression. As a result a new element of inner conflict appeared; the clash between sincerity and the desire to develop effective style became another dominant motif of his career. In a later essay, "Sincerity and Art," Huxley tried to escape from the dilemma. Being sincere, he claimed, is not "a moral choice between honesty and dishonesty," but rather "mainly an affair of talent."… The writer does not have to expose his feelings, to explore his deeper self, to heed the cries of his truest inner voice. He merely needs to use his talent, to compose the most skillful, the most carefully polished poems.
The slim, rare volume Jonah (1917) seems to demonstrate this conclusion in the craft so evident in the dozen poems it includes. The idealistic Huxley of the romantic style, the split Huxley of dialectic have all but disappeared. Instead of the self-conscious involutions of "Retrospect," we find Huxley's ironic style prevailing again, this time reinforced by the influence of other poets. "The Oxford Volunteers" reflects the bitter manner of Wilfred Owen, but more frequently the poems echo the work of Arthur Rimbaud, whose startling imagination helped Huxley to fill his weird, ironical zoo. "Behemoth," for example, is a Rimbaldien kind of fantasy…. Even more Rimbaldien is "Zoo Celeste," one of the four Jonah poems actually composed in French…. The world of Rimbaud's famous "Après le Déluge" … is larger, more dazzling, more varied than Huxley's zoo, and his poem a more remarkable imaginative achievement. But "Zoo Celeste" is hardly less fantastic and less odd.
Rimbaud suggested motifs and subjects, and ways of rendering ironically the imagined and the ideal. Another Frenchman, Jules Laforgue, helped Huxley to find a congenial tone and to apply his ironic style to himself. Temperamentally and stylistically the converse of the older symbolist, Laforgue developed a bored, self-deprecating irony as evident in Jonah as the fantastic imagery so clearly drawn from Rimbaud…. ["Jonah" itself is a] remarkable example of this peculiar, efficient, distinctive style, as Laforgue's ironic use of scientific and medical words is merged with the spirit of fantasy of Rimbaud. (pp. 71-3)
These unusual poems were produced by subjugating at least a degree of sincerity to talent. They do not represent, as Huxley's romanticism proves, the attitude he consistently really felt, nor do they even hint at the struggle raging within. But they involved or suggested a kind of compromise procedure, a strategy allowing Huxley to write effectively without completely stifling the voice of inner conflict. He could use his clever, ironical, exaggerated style as an inverse kind of "sincere" poetic mask. The poet, to a degree, is there for all to see. But his deeper concerns, his sensitivities are hidden; he is protected even in self-expression by the masking effect of his style…. Jonah shows Huxley grappling with the sincerity-art dilemma by developing a style that would serve him as a mask. Wearing it, he could make gestures toward the sincere while composing his best ironic poems.
Huxley never transformed his need for a mask into a theory, as Yeats was soon to do as part of his system in A Vision. His problem was too personal for such objective treatment, too elusive and complex for any highly organized plan. He preferred presenting himself in verses like "The Contemplative Soul" as a weird, deeply submerged, shipinhabiting fish:
Fathoms from sight and hearing,
Where seas are blind and deaf,
My soul like a fish goes steering
Her fabulous gargoyle nef….
Since a danger awaits if the soul-fish comes to the surface, it decides to remain far down below…. Perhaps Huxley is already aware of his future: the final images [of this poem] hint at the mysticism he will eventually pursue. But the secret, whatever it is, is only barely suggested beneath the comical, self-deprecating mask.
Though Huxley had formed a style useful for deceptively partial self-expression, he did not employ even it with any consistency. It was a limited, temporary resolution of his dilemma, even though it produced the best of his early poems. The style of his next group, for the 1918 cycle of Wheels, is merely the purest, clearest expression of the impact on him of Rimbaud…. Unlike the Wheels, 1917, selections they are not in dialectic, nor are they in any other previous Huxley style; they are prose poems in the manner of Illuminations, with something of the energy of Rimbaud's imagination. (pp. 73-5)
Rimbaud the visionary, who saw beyond sordid actuality to an ideal, inspired the most important of these poems. "Beauty" is a glowing, lyrical disquisition, and—for Huxley—a surprising autobiographical admission. The search narrated in the poem is not really for beauty itself but for a way of living in the world with minimum conflict, and at the same time for a posture that will help him to create. Like the Rimbaud of "Being Beauteous," Huxley sees a dazzling female image, a "perpetual miracle, beauty endlessly born." But whereas Rimbaud will fall "à traverse la mêlée." Huxley's much longer poetic search continues…. The only true poets are centaurs, he concludes [after his long search]; their bellies travel close to the ground but their heads are in the air.
As this final image hints, though "Beauty" is an idealistic, visionary poem, it is the vision of an idealism severely challenged by actuality—so severely that it may corrode away. No mask, no ironical pose appears in the poem. The poet instead suggests that he is tempted to be a cynic—not to hide his idealism underneath a comic mask, but to flaunt his discovery that the ideal is mocked by the real. (pp. 75-76)
The idealist-turned-cynic accounts for Huxley's next book title, the volume he called The Defeat of Youth and Other Poems. The title refers to the volume's opening sonnet sequence, a group of poems directly avowing the cynical view. They redescribe Huxley's earlier idyllic view of love; reaffirm his idealized vision of true beauty; trace the change of love to lust in consummation; and leave the weary poet disillusioned, now in sight of a very different truth. The quest for the ideal, it appears, has been forsaken; the strategy of hiding conflict behind a mask has been abandoned; the poet has no choice but the cynical, tired view, and his earliest and least effective style, the romantic.
Yet the poems which follow "The Defeat of Youth" [in this volume] demonstrate that nothing could be farther from the truth. Cynicism is another alternative, another temporary phase. (pp. 76-7)
The Defeat of Youth is a more bewildering set of contradictions, of contrasts in attitude and of the various Huxley styles, even than those in Huxley's first book, The Burning Wheel. Yet this great variety apparently served as a kind of creative catharsis, a test which isolated the worst and the best and helped the vacillating poet to make his ultimate choice. In Leda, Huxley's last collection of early verse, and in the handful of poems for the last three collections of Wheels, the ironic style becomes once and for all Huxley's most frequent, most characteristic voice, and he regularly appears exposed and hidden with his mask…. [The] best and most typical are the four "Philosopher's Songs," the self-deprecating lyrics of a bard who continues to find the ridiculous or the grotesque in life and love. (pp. 77-8)
The conflict masked in the grotesquerie of poems such as these, Huxley's increasingly obsessive concern for love and lust, is a little more obvious in "Morning Scene" and "From the Pillar." In the first the poet sees, poised above Goya's image of scattered hair and tempting bosom, "a red face / Fixed in the imbecile earnestness of lust." In the other he seems to project an exaggerated version of himself [split by a mixture of hatred and envy]…. Huxley's desire both to accept and reject the flesh may account for yet another experiment, the final one before he virtually abandoned writing poems. All his poems before Leda had been short ones. He needed a more flexible, more extended mode of expression, especially to explore the continuing problem of the flesh. The temporary answer appears in the two poems which begin and end the volume, poetry in the form of narrative.
"Leda," which has found many critical admirers, is a long, elaborate treatment of the myth so powerfully compressed in Yeats' sonnet "Leda and the Swan."… [Though expansively and elegantly composed of blank verse, the] poem is not only a polished handling of the myth, it is also an allegory of Huxley's plaguing concern. Leda is the ideal, another vision of "perfect loveliness." Jove, embodying superhuman, transcendent power, is driven like mere mortals by restlessness and an irresistible sensual itch. His possession of Leda is the rape of "almost spiritual grace." Like the parade of women who soon will people Huxley's novels, Leda is unable, unwilling to resist…. Even centuries ago, the implication is, the gross forces of life destroyed the virginal ideal.
"Soles Occidere et Redire Possunt" (Suns are able to set and to return) is a narrative in a less traditional, more flexible medium. In loosely rhymed stanzas with a line of varying length, Huxley traces a day in the life of a friend killed in the War. Yet just as the friend sounds very much like Huxley, the style combines the elements Huxley had already used before. John Ridley, the supposed subject of the poem, lies in bed engaging in dialectic with himself, an idealized dream battling with an approaching "quotidian" task…. Through Ridley, Huxley seems to project his own life once again, but at greater length than in any earlier poem.
"Soles" and "Leda" both were abortive efforts, however; neither was a final answer, a proper mode for self-projection. Blank verse, however well he could employ it, was obviously a style wedded to a remote past. The contrasting jerky, cacophanous rhythms of "Soles" were the work of a poet really out of his element, who seems to be writing for the first time all over again. Earlier, his work in dialectic had allowed him the freest self-expression, yet his self was often what he most deeply wanted to mask. The ironic style had provided the mask and produced his most effective poems, yet its very indirectness, with the brevity it encouraged, inhibited full expression of his themes. The long narrative poems had at least helped to suggest an answer. If no style of poetry would work, perhaps the combination of prose and narrative would. Huxley was not quite yet ready to publish his first novel, but he was more than ready to try to master the short story. Before 1920, the year of Leda, was over, he had in the stories of Limbo most auspiciously begun. (pp. 78-80)
Charles M. Holmes, "The Early Poetry of Aldous Huxley," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1966 by the University of Texas Press), Vol. VIII, No. 3, Fall, 1966 (and reprinted in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert E. Kuehn, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 64-80).
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Aldous Huxley's career resembles that of several other eminent twentieth-century writers: he began as an enfant terrible and ended as a sage…. Each of his novels, from Crome Yellow through Island, is indisputably modern, even though the later books differ so radically from the earlier ones. Huxley seems to have been born mistrustful of received attitudes and disdainful of those creeds that provided his forebears with a sense of order, continuity, and spiritual composure. His intellectual temperament, if one may call it that, was skeptical, restless, experimental. In his youth he was a debunker of moribund truths; in middle age he became an ardent seeker of new truths or of fresh combinations of old truths. His zestful assault on the old order of things in Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and pre-eminently in Point Counter Point gave way in time to a strenuous and eclectic attempt to find a new order, to fashion a "perennial philosophy" from disparate fragments of the human past. The transition was not quite as abrupt as it is sometimes made to seem: the road to mysticism is as clearly implied in Those Barren Leaves as is the road to orthodoxy in The Waste Land.
Huxley has always been a hero to the young, for his interests have consistently matched those of the generation just coming forward. Men fifteen years younger than Huxley have testified to the "liberating" effect of his early stories and novels;… he was an advocate of pacifism long before pacifism became an unarguable mark of sanity; his loathing of technology when it is allowed to develop without ethical imperatives and his fear of the terrible consequences of over-population and the despoliation of nature were subjects of his fiction and essays years before they became subjects for the popular press…. And yet Huxley never courted the good will of the young or of any other group. His mind was free and adventurous, and his books were unfailingly of their time and place.
Huxley's novels are original in the sense that no one else could have written them: each is stamped with Huxley's peculiar mode of invention and with that witty inflexion that is his alone. We find in the novels an odd array of characteristics that constitute the Huxley vision and the Huxley style: an impressive and sometimes showy awareness of culture in all its multiplicity; enviable clarity of argument and facility of expression; the ironist's relentless tendency to demonstrate the differences between appearance and reality in things great and small; a love of unlikely, learned, and sometimes gruesome comparisons; and that "foible" that Peter Quennell describes as "his love of following up an irrelevant train of ideas, regardless of literary consequences." The novels are the very antithesis of the revered Jamesian model. They are quirky, full of ideas and lively debate, richly reflective. Better novelists have not succeeded in describing the age—roughly 1920 through 1960—with anything like the massive and significant detail that we find in Huxley's fiction…. Point Counter Point [for example] is 1928 London, and part of its value for us lies in its brilliant, dense, and authentic evocation of life at just that moment in English civilization.
I would suggest that the proper way of viewing Huxley is as a moraliste, a writer who has more in common with Montaigne and Pascal than with, say, Hardy or Conrad. Huxley's well-developed interests in philosophy, biology, sociology, economics, religion, anthropology often intrude upon the design of his novels because these interests were, for him, more important than design. Huxley is a cerebral rather than a poetic novelist. He is a satirist and a proselytizer of humane values who used the novel form because he found it sufficiently congenial to his purposes. He was a writer more passionately interested in truth as fact than in truth as myth, a writer who had the courage always to do as he pleased and who consequently displeased many, especially those whose definition of the novel was more rigid than his own. (pp. 1-3)
Contemporary reviewers of his early novels were charmed by their freshness, their sprightly erudition and casual impieties. But the praise faded as Huxley, the "amused Pyrrhonic aesthete" of those early years, became increasingly obsessed with the problems of modern life. His somewhat presumptuous attempt to dramatize these problems in his fiction met with disapproval, and the disapproval persisted. His colleagues in the arts—Eliot, Maugham, Virginia Woolf, to name only three—found his books unsatisfactory, and many subsequent critics have concurred: David Daiches, Arnold Kettle, D. S. Savage, Sean O'Faolain, William York Tindall. (p. 3)
[For Huxley] mere art was never enough, and hence his novels are maddeningly encyclopedic. Few writers have imposed upon fiction quite the weight of exposition which Huxley would have it bear, and perhaps only Tolstoy, in War and Peace, has done this successfully. Huxley's contrivances—his "long diaries or autobiographical documents"—may bore or disappoint the reader whose expectations have been shaped by long and exclusive familiarity with the novel of sensibility. But Huxley's novels are a deliberate departure from this tradition and we are misguided in blaming him for failure to conform to the canons of that tradition….
Huxley is no Fielding—he was never quite able to combine the instincts of the novelist with the habits of the essayist in the happy fashion of Fielding in Tom Jones. But Huxley's unsentimental view of man, his moral passion, his dependence upon humoural characters to convey his meaning are comparable to Fielding's; and like Fielding, he made his novels the carriers of diverse accumulations of experience and learning…. Few British novels of the twentieth century, aside from Point Counter Point, are comparable to Tom Jones in their intellectual energy, diversity, and thoroughness. (p. 5)
Huxley's reputation is of course problematical. Most readers prefer the early, Peacockian satires; others—Christopher Isherwood, for example—prefer the wisdom and gravity of the later works. But even the most hostile of Huxley's critics would probably admit that our literature would be greatly diminished without him. The man we meet in the books is arresting, for we see Huxley struggling heroically with those very problems that have made our century so turbulent and imploring us again and again to reason patiently, to view life clearly, and to be better. His moral seriousness and intellectual honesty are awesome. (p. 6)
Robert E. Kuehn, in his introduction to Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert E. Kuehn (copyright © 1974 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 1-7.
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[Island] embodies a collection of the right responses to problems that the brave new world handled badly. But there is even more to the novel than that. Unlike News from Nowhere, Looking Backward, and other positive views of the future, Island can be defended as a reasonably complex novel in which a would-be utopian's attempt at optimism is challenged by the possibility that his characters inhabit a Manichean universe…. Unlike most utopians, Huxley tries to confront several inescapably negative factors in his perfect society, and these ultimately convince him that utopia is not of this world…. I do not wish to discredit the novel's many positive aspects. However, these have been the exclusive focus of all the discussions of the novel to date, while Huxley's insistence that the novel is really about "the precariousness of happiness, the perilous position of any Utopian island in the context of the modern world" has been consistently ignored. One cannot overlook the presence and power of evil in Huxley's last complete novel, nor can one eliminate the author's suspicion that no temporal society can overcome them forever. Although Island is Huxley's conception of a model society, it also serves as the testing ground for some final questions: is utopia really possible? Will the rest of the world tolerate an ideal society, or is the nature of man and the universe too contaminated to leave such perfection alone?
Two misleading assertions generally accompany any discussion of Huxley's utopia. One is that Island is not a novel at all but an extended essay for which Huxley devised only the thinnest of plots. More so than in any other Huxley novel, the plot in Island is supposedly the simple vehicle for the novelist's thoughts. The other insits that Island is both synthesis and palinode. As synthesis it allegedly resolves the philosophical dualisms—real versus ideal, religion versus science, body against mind—that pervade Huxley's previous fiction. By dissolving the opposing elements heretofore at the heart of the ironist's vision, the novel deprives the ironist of his irony. Huxley's triumph as thinker and synthesizer, this argument implies, thus meant defeat for Huxley the creative artist. Island achieves philosophical significance at the cost of aesthetic value. As palinode the novel reportedly abandons Huxley's customary scepticism in favor of optimistic prophecy, thus making utopian speculation feasible once more.
Read more imaginatively, Island emerges as a moderately sophisticated exercise in counterpoint, less successful than the technical experiments in Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza but never as dull or as 'talky' as some have claimed…. The growth of the reader's comprehension and the acceleration toward [Pala's] dissolution become the novel's contrapuntal melodies. Worst of all, the prevalence of cancer in Huxley's utopia precludes optimism. Literal instances of this disease contribute to Huxley's metaphoric sense of a cancerous temporal world and of Pala as an ideal society insufficiently antiseptic. The history of Pala begins and ends with an emphasis on cancer…. Far from being a dull moral tract or a one-sided hymn to the future, Island is a relatively suspenseful novel that grants the possibility of individual salvation while growing increasingly sceptical about the world's desire for a perfect society. (pp. 619-21)
The need to make the novel do more than tell a story—a need he often discussed much too apologetically—set Huxley off from the so-called congenital novelist who seldom raised the fundamental questions about man's Final End and the purpose of life. Island is not merely a series of fascinating ideas held together by the minimum of plot. Huxley devised a story that would accentuate the novel's moral implications…. By learning to admire Pala while contributing to its destruction, Will reveals himself as a true Manichean. The Manichean and the contrapuntalist both share a frame of mind that sees life in terms of opposites. To some extent the Huxley who builds a perfect society only to disband it comes dangerously close to a Manichean world view in which there is a negative reaction to every positive force. (pp. 621-22)
Before Pala, Will's attitudes are similar to the early Huxley's. During his sojourn on the island, he begins to resemble the Huxley of the later novels and essays…. [By] helping to ruin Pala, he provides one of the novel's major ironies: he is spiritually cured, yet partly due to him Pala succumbs…. Farnaby becomes a sort of perverse Everyman who unwittingly illustrates what Huxley considers a depressingly cyclical historical process: man is able to recognize and love the good only after he has helped to destroy it. The two overlapping plots—Will as a student in utopia and Will as a conspirator—emphasize the Manichean nature of man, his ability to know the best and choose the worst.
Most utopias bog down under the weight of "the necessary exposition", the extensive Baedeker the author must supply so that the reader comprehends the modus vivendi of the ideal society. Utopias almost invariably become essays about the future…. Island never quite bogs down in this way…. Huxley manages to include his ideas about the educational methods a perfect society might employ and the ideal family structure. He comments on the societal use of drugs, such as the moksha medicine (the truth-and-beauty pill), which opens the minds of the young to life's higher mysteries. But exposition in Island, extensive though it is, is more dramatic than the essay-like lectures in previous utopias because Huxley's exposition is Will's therapy. Pala tries to cure Will of the infection he represents, an infection compounded of cynicism and Western materialism. The lectures in the novel are tied to Will's lengthy convalescence, on which the safety of Pala also depends…. [The] Palanese must genuinely heal Farnaby if their society is to convince the reader of its merit. (pp. 622-23)
[Island] is as dualistic as Huxley's earlier fiction, for Will is exposed to the conflicting demands of East and West, Pala and Joe Aldehyde, heaven and hell. Although the Palanese are mentally and physically sound, living proof of the hypothetical validity of Huxley's formula for utopia, Will must choose between cynicism and belief, sickness and health.
Throughout the novel Huxley assembles what he considers the components for a model society. He fashions into a synthetic whole his favorite ideas from his own reading and writing of the past twenty-five years. Ends and Means, The Olive Tree, and The Perennial Philosophy, to name only three, contained suggestions for many of the positive elements found in Island. Oriental mysticism, Sheldonian classifications of individuals by temperament and physique, genuinely progressive education, decentralization of government, and coitus reservatus as a means of birth control—these and many other ideas become parts of the master plan for the perfect society. Throughout it all, Huxley remains a curious utopian who undermines as he builds. In addition to such grotesques as the Rani and Colonel Dipa, who are as reprehensible as any character from Huxley's earlier, more cynical fiction, there is the presence of cancer, a negative element no amount of social planning or mystical enlightenment can eradicate. That this disease survives in utopia raises the possibility that contamination may be inherent in the nature of temporal things. If so, utopian perfection is an illusion…. (pp. 624-25)
The power of cancer in Huxley's final novel is unmistakable…. Huxley himself was suffering from cancer as he wrote. In addition to functioning as an actual disease in Island, cancer also becomes Huxley's metaphor for an ineradicable sickness in temporal man and his world, a sickness too essential an element of life for any society, no matter how perfect, to withstand indefinitely. Despite his utopian synthesis of ideas developed over a quarter of a century, Huxley cannot overcome his sense of life as a dualistic process in which there is a counter for every point. The best somehow contains the seeds of its own demise: Pala is contaminated by the oil beneath its surface. This substance brings out all the non-utopian elements in human nature. (p. 625)
Throughout the novel Dr. MacPhail's wife is dying of cancer, "slowly wasting to extinction". Symbolically, Lakshmi is at the center of the novel. Huxley parallels her deterioration and the island's. Pala is both a utopia and the story of the vulnerability of any ideal. The novel exposes the fragility, perhaps even the futility, of utopia at the same time that it describes the society its author would establish were such an endeavor possible within the temporal order. (p. 626)
Will asks the child, Mary Sarojini, if she knows "what cancer is?" She replies that "it's what happens when part of you forgets all about the rest of you and carries on the way people do when they're crazy—just goes on blowing itself up and blowing itself up as if there was nothing else in the whole world." Cancer thus reveals itself as a malicious variant of Huxley's perennial target: the self-centered ego, the preoccupation with the temporal, physical self that permits the individual person—or a single cell in a larger body—to conduct itself as if the part were the whole. Mary's definition of cancer makes this disease the perfect metaphor for any nation practising self-aggrandisement. Rendang, as it puffs itself up to swallow Pala, represents the cancerous spread of war and annexation characteristic of world history. (p. 627)
In depicting heaven, Island never forgets hell…. [Will] broadens his conception of perfection to include the presence of negative factors. Unfortunately, no society seems capable of reconciling yes and no. Huxley's conviction that evil is ubiquitous does not condemn the individual to a Manichean existence, but it rules out any chance for utopia in this world. In transcending his Manichean outlook by learning to accept both halves of himself, Will no longer allows his unattractive aspects to undermine belief in his capacity for good. But a society's unattractive elements can, and in Island do, undermine its ability to function. Island therefore offers salvation primarily on the personal level. Surely this is a curious conclusion for a utopia. The individual need not function as a Manichee but the world appears to remain irreparably split. (p. 629)
Perfection for Huxley involves making beauty one with horror, a perception of life's inescapable unity, in which, for the individual, the horrible cannot eclipse the beautiful. The latter is the stronger because it can accept the former. Such a perception, however, cannot carry over into the social and political sphere…. Politically speaking, horror consumes beauty. In the temporal order, no fusion of them seems possible outside the consciousness of the enlightened individual. (p. 630)
Island is Huxley's most successful synthesis. It is also a contrapuntal novel. While Will learns to reconcile the good and evil within himself and in the surrounding world, the novel is pulled in the opposite direction by Pala's failure to survive, by Huxley's unwillingness to falsify what he considered the basic fact in the temporal, historical process: the succumbing of the ideal to the real, the noble to the ignoble, Pala to Rendang. Will transcends the historical process; Pala can do so only temporarily. The novel's two plots capture this essential dichotomy as the exposition plot leads to personal salvation and the action plot terminates with societal collapse. That Will contributes to the collapse while on his way to enlightenment further emphasizes the Manicheanism that constantly challenges and finally modifies the novel's utopian mood. (pp. 631-32)
No matter what the ultimate force in the universe may be, no matter what one contends is man's Final End, the temporal order remains bound by the second law of thermodynamics, of which cancer, whether in the individual body or the body politic, is a graphic illustration. Ironically, Huxley has finally found the ideal recipe but he is still sceptical about the world's ability to take 'yes' for an answer. Island shows what a perfect society could be like under impossibly ideal circumstances. The novel also demonstrates why utopia must always mean "nowhere". (pp. 632-33)
Jerome Meckier, "Cancer in Utopia: Positive and Negative Elements in Huxley's 'Island'," in The Dalhousie Review, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 619-33.
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[The] paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder had a profound influence on the writing of Aldous Huxley. Huxley seems to have been attracted to Brueghel's attitude toward life. Both artists saw individuals as isolated, yet forming a pattern of existence. Both saw a juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy as the nature of both life and art. Both were fascinated recorders of social customs and events. Both celebrated life above art, seeing art as a tool to record reality rather than an ideal to shape reality. And because of their similar attitudes, Huxley used a number of Brueghel's painting techniques in prose.
The key to understanding the Huxley-Brueghel relationship lies in Huxley's 1925 essay on the artist, which appeared in Along the Road….
[Here] Huxley analyzes a number of Brueghel's paintings on the bases of both formal construction and literary meaning. (p. 365)
But the real importance of Brueghel to Huxley does not lie in the relative originality or merit of Huxley's comments on the painter. A more interesting question to the literary critic is the relationship between works of art in two media which are joined by a common attitude toward life. In this case, both artists have used the same basic methods of situational presentation; and Huxley seems to have gained technical insight and reinforcement from his examination of Brueghel's works.
Huxley was strongly attracted to Brueghel's method of artistic construction…. For Huxley, the inclusion in the works of art of vast numbers of figures which are, individually, dissociated, but which together make up a vast and striking pattern was an exact imitation of life itself.
This sort of visual arrangement expressing realism is essentially the same arrangement Huxley used in the novels of the twenties. Point Counter Point is probably Huxley's best example of the revelation of the lives of dissociated groups and individuals which, when juxtaposed, form an overall pattern with implications which go far beyond the novel itself. Spandrell, Quarles, and Rampion in isolation—as they essentially are within the bounds of the novel—seem individuals whose ideas are taking them nowhere and whose lives have meaning only to themselves. But taken together, the characters form a complex view of the battling forces of life which will go on eternally. (pp. 366-67)
A second reason for Huxley's admiration of Brueghel is the artist's multiple vision of life. On the one hand, as Huxley observes, "Breughel's anthropology is as delightful as his nature poetry. He knew his Flemings and knew them intimately."… On the other hand, Brueghel was "a man profoundly convinced of the reality of evil and of the horrors which this mortal life, not to mention eternity, hold in store for suffering humanity. The world is a horrible place; but in spite of this, or precisely because of this, men and women eat, drink and dance."… (p. 367)
Huxley's multiple vision of life is most evident in his earliest novels, such as Antic Hay. Like Brueghel, Huxley shows his characters at moments of orgiastic gaiety…. But again, like Brueghel, Huxley was convinced of the horror and evil of the world. The trauma of World War I hangs over Antic Hay like smoke. Characters like Gumbril, generally sympathetic, are capable of senseless cruelty…. (pp. 367-68)
Both Huxley and Brueghel create characters who hide from the tragic side of life in the comic. The London of Antic Hay is hell, as Coleman suggests; but to hide from the facts of outer social and inner personal crumbling, the main characters in the novel must indulge in hilarious, witty, and loud drinking parties, culminating in rides such as the final wild one through London which closes the novel…. Both Huxley and Brueghel were well aware of the dark side of life, but both felt the need to respond to it in a partially comic way rather than to accept a black, existential despair as their philosophy of life.
Huxley was particularly struck by Brueghel's multiple point of view in the religious paintings…. Again, Huxley adopted this method as his own. He rarely used the single point of view or the transforming consciousness in his novels, but instead looked at events from several different points of view, thus preventing any sense of tragedy. When little Phil dies from meningitis in Point Counter Point, we do not see the event from the single point of view of his mother, who certainly has a tragic sense of the event. Instead we see it also from his father's point of view, a father who cannot get wholly involved in the event, as he has been unable to get really involved in anything else that has happened in his life. (p. 368)
By seeing events from the points of view of both the chief participants and the casual observer, both Brueghel and Huxley create a sardonic atmosphere around pivotal events in their works…. In the all-over flux of life, is one point of view really more important than the other simply because we want it to be? Both Huxley and Brueghel answer no. (p. 369)
Many of Huxley's short stories hinge on a particular social or historical event…. It is through careful use of contemporary detail that Huxley is able to create for the reader the feeling for time and place for which his fiction is noted. In the same way, there can be no doubt of the location and time of Brueghel's pictures, for they are such close recordings of his time and place.
A final point on which Brueghel and Huxley are quite similar is their view of the relative positions of life and art…. Unlike many artists of his time, Brueghel did not pursue classic beauty, nor was he interested in perfecting techniques of other artists. Instead, his primary interest lay in recording life around him, both openly, in his straightforward views of peasant life, and covertly, as in the political protest of his religious paintings. One art critic describes Brueghel as "interested in the study and description of all aspects of life…. He is barely interested in showing man as he ought to be; on the contrary, he represents him as he really is, with a kind of humourous violence, with his defects, his passions and his prejudices, leaving to the spectator the task of drawing a moral from what he paints."
By changing "paints" to "writes," the same passage could apply equally well to the Huxley of the 1920's, whose characters too are full of flaws and foibles, and whose satire is presented without a contrasting "golden mean." Huxley wanted to record life exactly as it was lived, without a shaping sense of beauty or purpose. Consequently novels such as Crome Yellow and Antic Hay are often accused of shapelessness and diffusion. That is exactly the effect Huxley wanted, for it is the shapelessness and diffusion of life which he is attempting to recreate…. Huxley stands in contrast to other British novelists at the beginning of the twentieth century who were far more concerned with art than with an exact recording of life…. Huxley, like Brueghel, is more interested in making a record of life as it is going on around him, without losing control and therefore the reader's interest, but at the same time without forcing the experience toward a unified, "artistic" conclusion.
Huxley's view that life should dominate art did not change during his lifetime, although he did change from a recorder of life to a teacher. Island's purpose is to teach us a valuable lesson about life's possibilities; its primary purpose is not to entertain or astound us with its art. Brueghel also at times seems to attempt to teach a lesson about life, especially in his illustrations of various proverbs. Again, for both artists, life is the dominating force, art simply its tool, although it is a tool used remarkably skilfully by both. (pp. 369-71)
Charlotte Legates, "Huxley and Brueghel," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Autumn, 1975, pp. 365-71.