Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
Although British by birth, Aldous Huxley moved to California in the late 1930’s, partly because the pacifism he expressed in works such as What Are You Going to Do About It?: The Case for Constructive Peace (1936) made conditions uncomfortable for him in an England preparing for war. Although critics often generalize that the “American Huxley” was more a religious mystic than a satirist, his novels about Los Angeles— After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) and Ape and Essence—show that his harshly comic view of modern society had, if anything, grown sharper. Ape and Essence is, in part, a critique of a world in which art is disposable (like Tallis’ incinerator-bound script), in which scientists are manipulated by politicians into creating weapons of mass destruction (Huxley includes surreal visions of famous scientists led on leashes by baboons), in which sexuality is repressed while violence is not, and in which humanity poisons its habitat with by-products of scientific “progress.”
The novel has several obvious contextual relationships to the events of the time. The Holocaust and World War II showed that human beings are willing to destroy one another in massive numbers, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that science was providing spectacular means for massive slaughter. Huxley had argued in his essays, especially Ends and Means (1937), that nationalism is the basic cause of these problems because it is used by people in power to control the masses. In Ape and Essence, the narrator of the prologue makes a similar argument. The assassination of Gandhi is developed as an example of how even a pacifist can be drawn into the cycle of destruction that politics and nationalism create.
The prologue is perhaps primarily an attack on popular culture and the commercialization of art. The maudlin, soap opera life of Bob Briggs obviously mimics the films cranked out by people such as Briggs, and Briggs’s concerns, including marital infidelity and tax evasion, are trivial in comparison to the narrator’s concerns about the structure and direction of modern societies. Commercial art cannot deal with weighty issues because it must pander to popular opinion. It can serve only to distract people from what is really important.
Tallis’ script is focused more on the role of science in the modern world. In the New Zealand scientists, readers see how the segmentation of science into disciplines such as botany, psychology, and geology creates scientists who can see phenomena only from the perspectives of their fields; no one has a broad enough knowledge base to see the big picture. Huxley was a strong advocate of integrated education, which merged different fields rather than treating them as mutually exclusive entities.
Perhaps more important, scientists have been the means by which those in power have gained weapons like the atom bomb. In Ape and Essence, armies of baboons slaughter one another with viruses “improved” by science to kill more efficiently. In contrast, science is helpless to restore what has been destroyed. Poole cannot enliven the irradiated soil. Some critics have argued that the escape of Poole and Loola provides the potential for hope.
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