Aldous Huxley Then and Now
When we were young, clueless and longing to be profound, what a thrill it was to open a novel weirdly entitled Eyeless in Gaza. The thrill was doubled when the author turned out to be quoting Samson Agonistes. "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves." At one point in the text a pair of lovers are lying on the patio when a dog falls out of an airplane and explodes right beside them. A quotation from Milton and a canine kaplooey: sophisticated, or what? That, kids, was the kind of multilevel blast that Aldous Huxley used to give us when he was current. Nowadays, the titles of his books are more alive than his books, but still he won’t lie down. The legend lingers. God-like in his height, aquiline features and omnidirectional intelligence, Huxley was a living myth. He was the myth of the man who knew everything. Inevitably he attracted contrary myths designed to shrivel his looming outline. To borrow the haunting rhythm of another celebrated Huxleyan title,Point Counter Point, it was a case of Myth Counter Myth. Among the counter-myths was the one about his holding forth on a string of topics at the dinner table. On every topic, he knew all there was to know. But a fellow guest noticed that all the topics began with the same letter. Suspicious, the fellow guest retired to the library and checked up. Huxley had been quoting verbatim from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
That particular counter-myth had an element of possibility. Huxley did indeed know his way around theEncyclopaedia Britannica, from A ("This letter has stood at the heart of the alphabet during the whole period that can be traced historically") to Zygote ("the biological term for the fertilised egg ovum"). From one of his early essays we find that he owned a half-sized edition on thin paper and when travelling always had a volume of it with him. But from the same essay we learn that Huxley carried the volume only because he could not concentrate properly while on the move. From all his other writings we must deduce that when at his desk and undistracted he read everything, and not just in the humanities but in science, history, politics, sociology, psychology and religion. You name it and he’d read it. Especially he’d read it when you couldn’t name it. He made people who were merely quite bright feel worse than stupid: he made them feel narrow. In Britain, his land of origin, critical disparagement became common after his relocation to America in 1937. Even when set in Europe, hadn’t those brittle young novels — Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point — been flashily yearning for a wider world? So let him have it. But any British feelings that their star had deserted them were only an adornment to a more basic British feeling, expressed in an everyday motto you can still hear in the school playground, even from a teacher: "Nobody likes a clever-dick." Good riddance to scintillating rubbish.
When living in Britain, Huxley was already a presence in the American slick magazines: he was an adopted figure of fashion, showing up in Vanity Fair like Noel Coward or Cecil Beaton. When living in America, he was given space in Esquire for his views and photo-spreads in Life for his beautiful face, plausibly represented as the icon of higher thought: he was up there with Einstein. Fame in America, as usual, meant fame everywhere. While he was alive, Aldous Huxley was one of the most famous people in the world. After his death, his enormous reputation rapidly shrank, until finally he was known mainly for having written a single dystopian novel about compulsory promiscuity and babies in bottles, Brave New World. For that, and for having been some kind of pioneer hippie who took mescalin to find out what would happen. Where did he go? A glib answer could be drawn from the title of his first book of madly clever short stories: Limbo. A better answer might be that he vanished into the comfort zone where names are referred to with some confidence but not for the detail of what they did. People of a certain age might still say that say-and-so is like someone out of Point Counter Point but they will probably not have read it recently or at all. Only a specialist in post Great War literature could quote from Crome Yellow or Antic Hay the way we can all quote from The Great Gatsbyor Decline and Fall. In the comfort zone, a reputation is fragmented into the sort of quiz questions finely calculated to ensure that beyond a certain stage you will not go on doubling your money. Which of these books was written by Aldous Huxley? Was it (a) In Our Time, (b) Time and the River, (c) Time Regained, or (d) Time Must Have A Stop? Would you like to phone a friend?
But the time might have arrived for Huxley’s return to the discomfort zone, where we have to deal with what he said as a permanently disturbing intellectual position (point of view, counter point of view) rather than dismissing it as an obsolete set of fads and quirks. How should we live? Can nothing harmonize the turbulence of our existence? How can we stop development from destroying the human race? The questions that racked his brain are still with us. They drove him to mysticism in the end. If we don’t want them to do the same to us, we had better find out how so clever a man should come to believe in the All, the Good, the Transcendental and a lot of other loftily capitalized words that look like panic disguised as tranquillity.
Unless we are smarter than he was, which for most of us is a remote possibility, then our chances of escaping his decline into what sounds awfully like flapdoodle are remoter still. We need him back so that we can examine him. We need to know what happened in that clever head.
Shining a light in his eyes is a good way to start, because his eyesight, or lack of it, ruled his life more than he was willing to let on. He could talk about a wall-sized Paolo Veronese as if he could see it at a single glance. Actually he had to look at it a few square inches at a time. Chief among the many merits of Nicholas Murray’s new biography of Huxley is that it appreciates the full weight of his early tragedies without overdoing the retroactive prediction of his future behaviour. But underdoing it would have been a grievous fault. One of the tragedies was the early loss of his beloved mother, another was the loss of a beloved brother, but those were merely devastating. What happened to his eyes changed the way he saw the world. Later on, as a grown man, he had to read about the discovery of antibiotics by holding his face very close to the page. Had they arrived earlier, his disease would have been cured instantly. As things were, he was left at the age of sixteen with only one eye functioning, and that only partly. He was still one of Eton’s star pupils, but from then on nothing was effortless.
Nor should we conclude from the famous names of his school and family that he had been issued with a free pass by his background. His parents belonged to the working upper middle class, not the landed gentry. Most of the wealth in the house was the wealth of the mind, and he would have led no cushy life even had he been able to see properly. But his ruined eyes made the life of a writer into hard labour: right to the end, he was always hoping to score the hit in the theatre that would free him from the treadmill of piece-work, the forcing house of the multi-book contract, the debilitating chanciness of writing film-scripts. At the start, he showed heroic tenacity in continuing to prepare himself. At Balliol he went on reading at his usual rate of eight hours a day even if he had to do it with a magnifying glass. Sometimes not even the magnifying glass would work the trick. From his fluent prose style – it always loped along, even when its feet were no longer in contact with the earth – we could probably guess that he read Macaulay, but it is useful to be told that he read him in Braille. English was still a new subject at Oxford. Determined not to waste what was left of his eyesight on trash, Huxley read everything in English literature that mattered. He had already started to do the same in French literature while he was still at school. The result of his literary studies, formal and informal, was the solid foundation of what Murray calls his ‘wide and easy allusiveness’. We are bound to acknowledge the wide, but should put a question mark over the easy. A macaronic tendency to drag in an untranslated quotation, whether in French, German, Italian or Spanish, would be a mark of his prose for the rest of his life, and could have been a tacit claim that there was really not very much wrong with his eyes at all, if he could take in all that print. In any audience for the ballet there is someone with a bad leg who knows an awful lot about dancing.
Against the odds posed by his comparative indigence and absolute injury, Huxley had managed to give himself a magnificent preliminary education. But somehow it had to be turned to account, or he would have lived out his life as a schoolteacher whose pupils could guy him behind his back to his face. The option of enlisting as an officer and joining the bulk of his generation in the graveyards of the Great War had been providentially removed by his affliction. Instead, his front line was Garsington, the country house where Lady Ottoline Morrell assembled around her the most glittering cenacle of all time: Bertrand Russell met T. S. Eliot’s wife there, with the usual results, and D. H. Lawrence was present to study the hypercultivated haute bourgeoisie that he would later despise in print for having presumed to tolerate his rebellious nature. Eyeless in Garsington, Huxley orated to the gathering because he was unable to read faces well enough to pursue an ordinary conversation. Erratically enthusiastic even in her first youth, Ottoline was often made fun of in retrospect, and especially by the writers she fed for free. Huxley was not guiltless in that regard. Though his adult life was marked by his personal kindness, he made a cruel caricature of her as Priscilla Wimbush inCrome Yellow.
In its form a throwback to the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, Crome Yellow teems with bright people making speeches, which often clog the action. When they make speeches, they tend to quote other speeches. Even the few dullards, wheeled in for purposes of contrast, are weighed down with learning. Take the journalist Mr Barbecue-Smith, allegedly the author of platitudinous bestsellers peddling spiritual uplift. Huxley introduces him thus:
Mr Barbecue-Smith arrived in time for tea on Saturday afternoon. He was a short and corpulent man, with a very large head and no neck. In his earlier middle age he had been distressed by this absence of neck, but was comforted by reading in Balzac’s Louis Lambert that all the world’s great men have been marked by the same peculiarity, and for a simple and obvious reason: Greatness is nothing more not less than the harmonious functioning of the faculties of the head and the heart; the shorter the neck, the more closely these two organs approach one another...
Mr Barbecue-Smith should have been a perfect oaf, but Huxley could not resist making him an oaf who had read Balzac. So the range of reference deployed by Mr Scogan, the accredited philosopher, can be imagined. Or rather it can’t. One of his speeches goes on almost uninterrupted for two and a half pages, bringing in a large part of the history of civilization since the Renaissance as he forecasts the rationally ordered future. (‘In the upbringing of the Herd, humanity’s almost boundless suggestibility will be scientifically exploited...’) Pursuing an idea, the characters come to a standstill and spout, like the fountains in the garden. From our viewpoint they would do better to pursue their passions. Luckily Priscilla pursues hers: the New Thought, the Occult – for her these things are objects of desire, tantalizingly retreating before her down the corridors of her own house, out of the French windows and into the ha-ha. Weirdly got up and tireless in her extravagance, she made the book a hit. Everybody loved it except Ottoline. Murray points out that Huxley apologized when she bridled, but goes light on the sad fact that he betrayed her all over again when he sent Lilian Aldwinkle heavily emoting through the pages of Those Barren Leaves. As the chatelaineof the Cybo Malaspina, a Garsington transferred to Italy, Lilian has all of Priscilla’s mad passions plus one: she is a menopausal maneater aching to blend with just one more genius. Ottoline’s loopy but boundless enthusiasm for the arts was too much fun to go unspoofed. Huxley couldn’t leave it alone. In politeness, he should have. Luckily inspiration won the day. If all the other characters had been given the free rein he gave Lilian, Those Barren Leaves would never have ceased to be required reading. Alas, the book’s leading man is a typical Huxley hero: effortlessly knowledgeable and seductive, he tires of all that and retreats to a hill-top to make long speeches about his quest for a higher form of Being. The speeches leave you longing for Lilian, who has Ottoline’s lust for life along with her batso thirst for a fad. Ottoline might have been a bit much when bedtime loomed, but as a dinner-table hostess she was a genuine spotter of talent, and Huxley’s talent was hard to miss anyway. The only question was about the form in which it would express itself. Those orations to the mesmerized company were the spoken rehearsals for his written act. Professionally, he began as an essayist, and it could be said that forty years later he ended the same way. It was his natural form, and Garsington was an important stage in its first flowering. He talked himself into it.
But the crucial event at Garsington came in the bewitching form of his future wife, Maria. Belgian, art-struck and delicately lovely, she had a crush on Ottoline but transferred it to Huxley. He was a lucky man. His mother reborn, Maria became the key to his existence. Maria took care of everything. She typed his manuscripts, set up the houses, fended off the pests and vetted his mistresses, generously employing her own charms to help him pull in the best qualified candidates. This biography features, for the first time in print, the story of the ménage à trois between Huxley, Maria and the Bloomsbury siren who went to bed with both of them, Mary Hutchinson. (Make way for the movie that will do for Huxley’s back catalogue what The Hourshas done for Virginia Woolf’s.) Considering that Huxley spent so much time in later years talking about the necessity to civilize the sexual impulse, it is instructive to find out that he himself civilized it by indulging it up to the hilt. In Brave New World, it will be remembered, the Alpha males of the ruling elite get their fill of the designated babes. It turns out that Huxley wasn’t just dreaming.
The old, integrated European culture is generally thought to have been atomized by the Great War. But it had fallen apart only politically. Still the stamping ground of the artistically minded elite, Europe had entered on yet another civilized phase. For English people with the means and tastes to get themselves to a villa and stay there, France and Italy were homes from home. Effectively there were no borders for the enlightened. With Maria smoothing the way at the wheel of the new Bugatti, the successful young novelist Huxley was one of the star turns and recorders of a movable feast: Garsington on wheels. It is easy to see how he was confirmed in the insidious idea that the cultivated elite should cherish its separation from the mass of humanity. Though later on he softened the proclivity, he never quite lost his readiness to blame the mobile vulgus for multiplying at an indecent rate and thus threatening to queer the pitch for the patrician order. (He even had the percentages worked out: 0.5 per cent were in the club, 99.5 per cent were outside the rope. Hands up if you know where you fit.) The best we can say for him is that he did not fall for Fascism.
There were Fascists all around his Italian villas. Though he initially saw them as not much worse than a bad comic opera whose chorus was prone to fisticuffs, he finally concluded, and long before the Nazis established their full grip on Germany, that a totalitarian solution to the anomalies of mass society was worse than the problem. Commendably, he spotted most of the horrors of the Soviet regime straight away, even if he had no idea as yet that its own experiments in population-reduction would raise legitimate doubts about the supposedly ameliorative effects of that end. On the subject of ends and means – Ends and Means, among his best collection of essays, was another of his resonant titles – he was always capable of questioning the means. His weak point, however, was his failure to see that some of his favoured ends would inevitably bring questionable means into existence, and that the ends were themselves questionable for that reason.
But the weak point was yet to become obvious. For the time, he looked good. He wasn’t the only one who thought that industrial society was turning out too many idiots (most of us still think it when we are caught in a traffic jam) and he was on the side of the angels, or seemed so, in proclaiming that one of the greatest dangers the idiots posed was that they might elect dictators. Not liking dictators qualified him as a progressive in a period when George Bernard Shaw saluted Hitler as an exemplar of creative energy and H. G. Wells nose-dived to the foot of Stalin’s throne. As soon as 1928, in Point Counter Point, the crowning novel of his early success, Huxley had created a British proto-Fascist called Edward Webley. With a strident rhetoric that would later be echoed by Sir Oswald Mosley (moving in the same high social circle, Huxley had spotted Mosley on the way up), Webley makes long speeches about planning. The long speeches help to wreck what might have been a classic novel. An obvious victim of Huxley’s multi-book contract, Point Counter Point has at least two different false starts folded into it (why leave them out when you can bodge them in to make up the bulk?) and many a promising conversation is padded out with the unlikely erudition that the author could shovel in so much more speedily than he could invent plausible action and follow where it led. Most of the characters do more orating than real talking. In other words, they speak essays. But the essayist who speaks for Huxley is not Webley. It is the brilliant (of course) writer Philip Quarles. ‘The problem for me is to transform detached intellectual scepticism into a way of harmonious all-round living.’ Quarles is after the All. Webley is after power, and Huxley knew there was a difference.
Nevertheless Huxley followed prevalent fashion in assuming that the mass industrial societies would have to be organized somehow, and some form of elite would do the organizing. Beneath the supposed satire of Brave New World there is a deep acceptance of this putative necessity. Brave New World was a sensation in 1932 and for long afterwards. When I first read it in Sydney in the late 1950s, all the male students of my generation were running around calling themselves Alpha plus and deciding which of our female contemporaries was the most ‘pneumatic’, the book’s word for bedworthy. The book remains famous today, although it is probably now more referred to than read. When referred to, it is often supposed to be the book that did a better job of forecasting the future - i.e. our present – than Orwell did when he published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948. When read, Brave New World rules that supposition out. Orwell wasn’t trying to forecast the future: he was trying, for the benefit of the West’s gullible progressive intellectuals, to demonstrate what the Soviet Union was actually like to live in. Orwell’s vision never came true for the West: a turn of events, or non-events, for which we partly have him to thank. After Orwell’s book came out, Huxley was fond of saying – he said it to Orwell himself – that he, Huxley, had come nearer to projecting the probable future. But Brave New Worldhasn’t happened either, and there are good reasons for thinking that it never can.
In the book, the Alpha ruling elite controls the supply of sex and drugs, the reward by which they themselves are consoled in their task, and all the lower orders down to the Epsilon semi-morons are kept in line. It hasn’t turned out that way. Bill Clinton, nominally the top man of the ruling elite, never controlled the supply of sex: indeed the supply of sex came very near to controlling him. Drugs remain the enemy of the state, and not its friend. It might very well be true that a liberal democratic state would do better to make drugs legal, thus to pacify the inevitable dissatisfactions in a society where glamour and success are free to exalt themselves. But the same society which allows the freedom for such anomalies would be unlikely to apply the restrictions that would confine reproduction to approved genetic programming. Only a totalitarian society could line up the bottles. If Huxley was warning the world that even a free society might be tempted into totalitarianism, he was doing something useful. The society of Brave New World includes an outcast reservation of Savages – they can be visited in their theme park by helicopter – who suffer from love, pain and poetry as the human race once did before science came to its aid. Thus Huxley pays lip service to his humanist belief that creativity is too important a hostage to be given over to an ideal of improvement. But he was scarcely likely to aid his humanist cause by assuming that the alternative to planning wrong was to plan right. Deep under the book is the idea he had nursed from childhood and would never lose: one way or another an elite would have to be in charge. Brave New World doesn’t attack that idea. It reinforces it, by leaving open the possibility that there might be a less flagrantly manipulative way for an authoritarian intelligentsia to determine the lives of the common people.
Huxley’s fondness for the idea of ‘intelligent and active oligarchies’ (the term popped up in an article forHarper’s Magazine called ‘The Outlook for American Culture’) might have sprung from his shortage of sympathy for the 99.5 per cent. No doubt he backed Eugenics for the same reason. But his pacifism was something else: it indicated a shortage of political nous. As a leading light of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s, he went public with his private notion that war would happen less often if more people could be persuaded to dislike it. The persuasion would be done by the enlightened. Somewhere in the glowing bowl of this pipe-dream bubbled the notion that human mentality, or at any rate the elite’s share of it, would need to be transformed by some kind of collective access to a higher form of existence. Just as he could never accept that a decent system of ethics would be more likely to arise in a school for mentally handicapped children than amongst any intellectual elite no matter how attuned to the Transcendental, he could never accept that peace is not a principle, merely a desirable state of affairs.
Huxley, however, was not the only genius talking poppycock about politics, and few of the others had his cachet as a novelist. His success in Europe was complete but his need to earn would never let him rest. Financially, he was walking a tightrope no stronger than a shoe-string. His reasons for resettling in California were excellent, and there was not even any need to lower his exalted standards of smart company. Garbo and Chaplin greeted the Huxleys as fellow lions. The stars bowed to the sage. With America’s share of the next war drawing ever nearer, Los Angeles became one of the intellectual centres of the modern world as the European refugees flocked in. Thomas Mann had been on the Normandie with the Huxleys on the trip over (characteristically the modern Goethe had travelled first class but uncharacteristically he condescended to visit them in steerage) and now he was sharing the same sunlight. With Thomas Mann at the other end of the dinner table, Huxley had no need to think that he was casting his pearls before swine. And even Mann was onlyprimus inter pares. The intellectual level was stratospheric. Above all, it was European, and in the best sense. Huxley heard all the news from the old world. America didn’t isolate him. But it did insulate him.
Those who think that Huxley’s fine brain turned to mush in California are apt to describe his declension to the mind-bending stuff he took in: the Wisdom of the East, hallucinogenic drugs, ESP. They tend to ignore the significance of what he left out. He never really grasped that the war was bound to be something much bigger than a conflict between nationalisms; that it would leave, when the smoke cleared, no alternative to accepting liberal democracy as the only guarantee of liberty; and that in liberty there could be no such thing as a universally shared Perennial Philosophy. (The Perennial Philosophy, his book compounding all the positive thoughts of West and East into a tutti-frutti of moral uplift, was the equivalent for its day of It Takes a Village: there was nothing in it to object to, which was, of course, the objection.) As even Solzhenitsyn would fail to realize, the one thing a free society can never be is spiritually united. It was a conclusion that Huxley might have been forced to if he had been in the middle of the action. But he was fatally well placed to go on believing that mankind could and should aspire to a higher state than the one it was stuck in.
There was nothing perverse about his interest in Eastern philosophy. Millions of people, after all, had always believed that there was something to it, and he can be forgiven for assuming that swamis who could tie their legs in knots or inhale mercury through the penis might have commerce with the Transcendental. Nor was there necessarily anything preposterous about his conviction that mind-expanding drugs might be worth looking into. If we ourselves are contemptuous of materialism, people who appear to have everything must be excused for bombing their own brains in the hope that there might be something more. Huxley’s interest in ESP, however, showed a serious anomaly. At Duke University, Professor J. B. Rhine had made extra-sensory perception a laboratory study. Huxley was not just keen to believe that Rhine had discovered something substantial, he was keen to believe that statistical analysis had proved Rhine correct. If Rhine had been correct, research into telekinesis would now be funded by General Motors. Huxley knew next to nothing about statistical analysis, or any other form of mathematics beyond arithmetic and school-level algebra. He was right to be interested in all forms of science. His sympathy for the sciences made him a permanently valuable advocate for their creative connection to the humanities. (In 1962, the second last year of his life, when the Two Cultures controversy between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis shook the intellectual world, Huxley’s intervention was a welcome note of sense.) But he was debarred from the language that connected the sciences themselves. His admired and admiring friend, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble, could understand everything Huxley meant when he talked about music. But Huxley had to take the mathematics for granted when Hubble talked about the expanding universe. About science, the best Huxley could do was talk an extraordinarily good game.
Damagingly, his fluent talk about science mesmerized even him: the biggest trap lying in wait for eloquence, no matter how self-deprecating. He tried to sound scientific about the world’s political crises, and trying to sound scientific made him insufficiently critical. He went on advocating solutions to problems he had misstated. He kept on wondering how an economy could be rationally planned, without ever wondering whether it should be. As if Malthus had been right instead of wrong, Huxley still thought that if the world’s population increased beyond a certain point all those people would run out of food. Never having placed sufficient weight on the fact that it was the advance of technology that had increased the birth-rate, he placed still less weight on the capacity of technology to solve the problem. He also failed to notice that all the famines took place in countries that were not democracies. With ideological extermination reducing the world’s population almost as fast as it might otherwise have increased, he still thought that the world’s bugbear was nationalism, as if, for totalitarianism, nationalism were not merely a tool, and as if totalitarian states would not go on killing people whether at war or not.
Safely domiciled in the part of the world that suffered least from deprivation and political instability, he took his surroundings for granted as a set of conditions from which Mankind could aspire to higher things, instead of as the higher thing that the rest of the world could only aspire to, and with increasing desperation. Exiled to New Zealand, Karl Popper was forced by the memory of his experience in Europe to reach a minimum definition of democracy. It was the system in which the government could be replaced at the people’s whim, so that no oligarchy, intelligent or otherwise, could perpetuate itself in power. The implication was that the 99.5 per cent didn’t need to be instructed. All they needed was to have a vote. Exiled to Britain, Friedrich von Hayek reached the conclusion that a liberal democracy could have a planned economy only to the point where government regulations protected the people against arbitrary injustice: but to restrict the free market beyond that point would always result in totalitarianism. In Paris when the war was over, Albert Camus, having seen both Nazis and Communists in action from close to, defined democracy as that regime created and sustained by those who know that they do not know everything.
Challenged only by orthodoxies that derive their notion of harmony from a supposed access to exalted knowledge, these were the conclusions that would dominate the world we have lived in ever since. Huxley missed out on every one of them. All the opportunities were there for Huxley in America, and he even, for a while, took one of them: the biggest one. Unfairly overshadowed by Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, Huxley’s own response to California, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, was and remains his best novel by miles. (In Britain it is more catchily called just After Many a Summer: an American editor must have thought the allusion to Tennyson needed spelling out.) Though his earlier novels show far more inventiveness than is nowadays credited to them, they were indeed all silted up by the Nilotic flood of his compulsive erudition. Rather than pursue to a conclusion the promising situations he had set up for them, his characters quoted literature to each other at length, and he often neglected to tip off the reader about what literature they were quoting. But even without the learned bric-a-brac, every novel would still be weighed down by long speeches (essays, in fact) from guru figures preaching about the necessity of a higher state of Being than the one enjoyed around the dinner table.
In After Many a Summer there is less of that. For once there is a gusto for the vulgar. Every Los Angeles novel before or since quotes the billboards, but Huxley quotes them with enjoyment: possibly because the words were big enough for him to read. Sunbathing on the heights of her magic castle, Virginia Manciple the pure-minded sex-pot harks forward irresistibly to Candy Christian. Virginia knows nothing. She merely exists, while the men go mad around her. She had one antecedent: the raunchy, truth-telling servant girl Gladys inPoint Counter Point. But Gladys got only a few paragraphs, whereas Virginia is there from first to last. The William Randolph Hearst figure, Mr Stoyt, was bound to be aced out by Citizen Kane (Huxley got there first, but Welles got there the most), because Stoyt doesn’t even have any dignity to lose: but all the other characters are so alive that they speak their own individual dialogue, instead of getting it from the library that Huxley carried in his head. Even more unusual for Huxley, the import of the book is that the observable world is inexhaustible: i.e. is all there is. The shattering final scene when the immortal people turn out to be apes is there to tell us that wherever humanity might be heading, eternal life isn’t it. But there is still one guru, and he is an indication that Huxley’s quest for a more significant life is not dead yet. Huxley had always liked the idea of small, locally governed communities that would stave off the nefarious pressure of highly industrialized world states, thus to leave the minds of the elite free for the seeking of the All. This time the guru’s name is Propter, and his little workshop is designed to supply his simple needs. But the workshop is equipped with machine tools. Now where did they come from?
Nevertheless that one marvellous novel pointed the way Huxley might have gone next. But finally it, too, is programmatic, and proves that Huxley was right to suppose that he was something less than an artist. Ever since Garsington, the Huxleys had been great friends with D. H. Lawrence, who died in Maria’s arms. In homage to Lawrence, Huxley had always been generously ready to concede that feeling might rank above thinking. (F. R. Leavis, self-appointed guardian of Lawrence’s posthumous reputation, loftily ‘dismissed’ Huxley in favour of Lawrence, while declining to notice that Huxley’s written appreciations of Lawrence left his own in the cold.) But Huxley needed a humility beyond generosity: he needed a realization that there was indeed a harmony that would make a unity out of eternal conflict, and that art was it. Nobody in modern times has ever written better about poetry. When he talks about Chaucer, he beats even Chesterton, and sends you running to the nearest copy of The Canterbury Tales. From the arts angle, to read all the essays in sequence is like being enrolled at the college of your dreams. They have all recently been published again as Complete Essays in six scholarly volumes (not scholarly enough in places: too many of those foreign phrases still go untranslated) edited by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton. With due acknowledgement for their efforts, however, a less daunting way to read Huxley’s essays is in the original collections. Music at Night, his collection of 1931, would be a good place to start, because it shows how wide-ranging and undogmatic he could be when writing about his proper field, the humanities. In saying goodbye to the avant-garde, Huxley wasn’t embracing philistinism – he was just saying that popular art was more likely to stay in touch with ordinary human truths. It remains an important point, and made by so learned a man it carries extra force.
Despite the inevitable outbursts of bookishness, Huxley’s essays are easy to read and always informative, even when all they now inform us of is how much of his scientific information has gone out of date. What they lack is the inventiveness he lavished on his novels but seldom followed up because he wanted to philosophize instead. If the novels were too much invaded by the essay, his essays were insufficiently invaded by the novel, which is a soul-searching instrument, a register of the mind’s adventures, not of the memory’s contents. If he had put everything into his expository prose, he might have lifted it to the extra level at which it would have been possible to question his own assumptions, and thus make a drama out of a monologue. An essay written in 1956, ‘Hyperion to a Satyr’, hints that he might have invented the New Journalism all on his own, had he realized the potential. Beat this for an opening sentence. ‘A few months before the outbreak of the Second World War I took a walk with Thomas Mann on a beach some fifteen or twenty miles south-west of Los Angeles.’ And it gets better. ‘At our feet, and as far as the eye could reach in all directions, the sand was covered with small whitish objects, like dead caterpillars. Recognition dawned. The dead caterpillars were made of rubber...’
It turns out that the beach no longer has such visitations, thanks to the post-war construction of the gigantic Hyperion Activated Sludge Plant. Unfortunately for the reader, the intervention of the sludge plant is the point where Huxley’s tactics as an essayist return to normal. He gives us a long, global and no doubt reliable history of sewage treatment since earliest times, but neglects the opportunity to argue with himself. For a writer who had spent his lifetime decrying the onward march of the Machine and rooting for the ideal of the small, self-sustaining community, an industrial development the size of the Hyperion Sludge Plant should have given him pause to reflect. No small community could make a thing like that. But his knowledge was doing all the talking, as it so often did. If he had dramatized the conflicts that were inherent in his concepts, he might have arrived at the higher reality that was already all around him: liberal democracy. He might have helped to defend its inexorably confusing multiplicity against the attack that would be a long time coming but is now here: the attack from the imposers of harmony, the adepts of the All. Alas, he was one of them, and all because of his ineradicable belief – his one and only stupidity – that the mass of mankind was too dense to see the inner light. But there is no mass of mankind. There are only individuals, and except in a society that is not free they will always refuse to be persuaded that their everyday lives are not worth living. You can tell it from their faces, if you’ve got eyes.
New Yorker, 17 March 2003