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Aldous Huxley and the dangers of a world without ideas

(www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com)

Perhaps the most forgotten of the novelists who seemed important between the wars is Aldous Huxley. He had a most distinguished pedigree, being descended from the T H Huxley who had been the companion in arms of Charles Darwin when he battled the Creationists to establish the principle of evolution. Huxley’s father was the editor of the ‘Cornhill Magazine’, when such commentaries on literature and life were influential, and his brother was the famous scientist Julian.

In the twenties however Aldous Huxley seemed destined to outstrip them all. David Cecil, in comparing his own contemporaries to the great Victorian novelists, noted that those earlier prodigies had to cover every aspect of fiction, whereas in modern times individuals specialized in particular areas. Thus, if I remember right, Galsworthy dealt with social change while Virginia Woolf created a dazzling tapestry of words. But most important as it seemed to me at the time was Aldous Huxley, who was said to be the great exponent of the novel of ideas.

I am not so sure now, unlike in my naïve teens, that the life of the intellect is quite so significant. But at the time I wondered too about the characterization, since much of Huxley’s work seemed to me simply a more serious version of the country house conversation fiction that other writers had made familiar. In fact I thought he was more in the line of the long forgotten novelist of the Romantic period, Byron’s contemporary Peacock I think it was, who wrote romps such as ‘Crotchet Castle’. This was most obviously true of Huxley’s early novels, with the bizarre titles ‘Crome Yellow’ and ‘Antic Hay’, but I found even his last major work, ‘Eyeless in Gaza’, more concerned with discussion than thought – as compared with the great Europeans, Thomas Mann for instance, or Kafka, whose contribution to literature is still so obviously seminal.

But perhaps that less resounding effect was all that David Cecil could mean, the English having always had their suspicions about those who wore their hearts or their intellects on their sleeve. Huxley’s work was about the exchange of different points of view, concentrating on no ideas in particular but taking in a range of thought, and setting it in the context of gradual social change. The work can therefore seem dated now, and thus lacking in importance, but in glancing through a few of the novels again to write this, forty years after I first read them, I felt I wanted to read them again.

And there is certainly one novel that was bursting with ideas, and which would certainly bear rereading now, for intellectual rather than purely nostalgic reasons. I refer to ‘Brave New World’, with its account of a Utopia of the future, a world of endlessly satisfactory sensations. It is set in AF 632, since dates are calculated in terms of Ford. The motor car is seen as the catalyst for a new world dominated by technology.

Some of the uses to which technology is put might have seemed preposterous then, way back in 1932 when the novel was written. But test tube babies for instance are a quite acceptable phenomenon now, less than a hundred years afterwards, though Huxley thought such innovations would take half a millennium more. And something of the sort has occurred too with what Huxley describes as politically correct thinking, long before the term was coined or the concept became commonplace.

In this respect Huxley goes well over the top even more absurdly in what was intended as a comic novel too, so we are for instance introduced early on to children at primary school level being taught ‘Elementary Sex’, followed by ‘Elementary Class Consciousness’. We find too a marvelous confusion between Our Ford and Our Freud, the other great begetter of modern civilization, who ‘had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life’. The result is a world in which everyone has to be promiscuous, even if one does not feel very keen on it, simply because one has ‘got to play the game. After all, everyone belongs to everyone else.’

If all this is not the norm everywhere, there are certainly places where such thinking is prominent. Interestingly enough, Huxley at one stage seemed a guru of the world of permissiveness that he had mocked so effectively in this novel of the thirties, when he found a new lease of life in California in the decades after the Second World War. He wrote then about drugs (described politely as ‘visionary experience’ in blurbs) and seemed to have been an early exponent of an alternative life style that came to fruition a few years after his death. Ironically, he was perceived then as having contributed conceptually to the Hippie Culture that was in enormous vogue at just about the time I was discovering the earlier Huxley.

Perhaps it was his interest and involvement in drugs that led to his writing career reaching a dead end. Though he lived on in America till 1963, in a world very different from the Eton he had attended sixty years previously, he wrote nothing much that was memorable after the War. Some of his meditations, on Art and Science and Literature and Life, had a limited appeal to a free thinking intelligentsia, but he was no longer taken seriously as a novelist. And with his novels, of ideas and discussion, not suitable for being transferred to celluloid, he was denied even the fame of the period piece films that brought to life some of his initially less celebrated contemporaries.

And yet, I think the idea behind ‘Brave New World’ is well worth thinking about, even if we now know that any forces capable of controlling the world will not be quite as indulgent as Huxley’s Controllers. We have after all had since then Orwell’s ‘1984’, a much more realistic account of what people who want to perpetuate their power and the order they have created will perpetrate. But it is interesting that Huxley, and E M Forster too in his account of a disastrous Utopia in ‘The Machine Stops’, think of humanity being lulled into quiescence through being indulged. After the horrors of Hiroshima and much else, we know that man is – as Thucydides taught us all those years ago – really quite malign. But in the days when we believed that day by day, in every way, we were getting better, the danger as it seemed to men of ideas was that we would cease to make the effort to think. And, even if we are now acutely aware that there are worse things to guard against, the consequences of intellectual laziness, of simply falling in with trends, are things we also need to shun.

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