Aldous Huxley: The Latest Phase

I

SINCE his first novel, Crome Yellow, was published in 1921, Aldous Huxley has been not only one of the most interesting novelists of our time but also a spokesman for his generation. He has not spoken for his generation as a whole, — his writing has been too intellectual for that, — but he has spoken for an important part of it, the part that consists of those people who are at the same time the intellectually emancipated heirs of nineteenth-century liberalism and the victims of emotional confusion combined with moral sterility. Huxley has presented, with growing seriousness and skill, the chief dilemmas about the human situation which confront most thinking people of our time, and it is a tribute to his success that his readers look forward to each of his books as they appear with an excited curiosity which they feel about few other writers.

They will not be disappointed in Mr. Huxley’s latest novel. After Many a Summer is on the whole the best he has written, and a rereading only confirms the first impression of economy, force, and subtlety. The situation in the book is as follows. A middle-aged half-epicene Englishman arrives in California to edit the famous Hauberk papers which, along with other priceless objects, have been bought by a childlike millionaire named Mr. Stoyte. Mr. Stoyte lives in a fantastically elaborate castle, where — surrounded by numerous and invaluable possessions — he shudders in fear of death. He is, among other things, the owner of a highly profitable cemetery. To protect him against his fear he has hired two specialists: one a doctor named Obispo, whose specialty is the study of longevity; the other a ‘Baby’ — virtually nameless — whose specialty may be left to the imagination. In addition there is Mr. Propter (read Gerald Heard?), whose preachings represent the point of view against which the rest of the action is judged: that ‘the nature of things is such that, on the strictly human level of time and craving, you can’t achieve anything but evil,’ and that one must be either an animal or an intelligence divorced from the senses, but not a mixture of the two, for the mixture can only lead to chaos. There is also Pete, on his way to being Mr. Propter’s disciple, an inarticulate and not quite convincing young American who is mistakenly murdered by Mr. Stoyte in a fit of jealous rage.

There is, finally, the Fifth Earl of Goniston.

The Fifth Earl, who was born in the eighteenth century, is in a sense the hero, or villain, of the book. Jeremy Pordage, the middle-aged literary expert, reads about him in the Hauberk papers; he learns of the Earl’s speculations concerning the longevity of carp; the Earl’s eighteenth-century speculations are paralleled by Dr. Obispo’s scientific speculations about carp; and when it becomes clear that the eighteenth-century Earl, as a result of eating the entrails of carp, is still alive, the millionaire Mr. Stoyte and his two specialists, the doctor and the ‘Baby’ (who have joined forces in more ways than one), rush over to England to find him. What they find is awful. Apparently immortal, an anthropoid and vital Struldbrug, the Earl, 201 years old, is a red-haired naked beast, his forehead jutting out like a shelf. Like the housekeeper he has preserved as his beastly companion, he is capable only of bestial acts; he is the hideous goal toward which the ambition and the power of the millionaire have led him. The book ends with these words; they are as effective and terrible as anything that Huxley has written: —

Mr. Stoyte broke his silence. ‘How long do you figure it would take before a person went like that?’ he said in a slow hesitating voice. ’I mean, it wouldn’t happen at once . . . there’d be a long time while a person . . . well, you know; while he wouldn’t change any. And once you get over the first shock — well, they look like they were having a pretty good time. I mean in their own way of course. Don’t you think so, Obispo?’ he insisted.

Dr. Obispo went on looking at him in silence; then threw back his head and started to laugh again.

II

There are usually three characteristics present in a first-class satirist: a sense of comedy that is largely intellectual, a bitter sense of human evil, and a strong, if frequently concealed, sense of good. As one looks back over Huxley’s eighteen years of novel writing, the development in his use of all three characteristics is very striking. Crome Yellow, delightful as it is, is a slight book; the contrasting individuals brought together in a country house are seen with an ironic eye that hardly goes below their surface peculiarities. Antic Hay, the next novel, is deeper; under the comic surface it presents problems of a wider emotional and social range; there is for the first time an occasional concentration on evil which at times in the later books, especially Eyeless in Gaza, burns with a morbid and nervous violence. But though Antic Hay is a much richer book than Crome Yellow, and the intellectual comedy and the sense of evil are strongly presented, there is as yet no attempt to describe the third aspect of satire: a sense of good — or, more accurately, a sense of values which makes evil what it is.

To find that sense of values is the main problem of contemporary civilization, and Huxley’s realization of the fact is perhaps the chief reason for his importance as an interpreter of our age. In Those Barren Leaves he discusses it for the first time in his fiction, though not with much assurance. At the end of the book one of the characters retires to solitary contemplation, seeking for something superior to the ‘level of time and craving’ of which the other people in the book are the pathetic or despicable slaves. Calamy’s conclusions are very tentative, but they are an interesting foretaste of the views that Mr. Propter, in After Many a Summer, expounds at length and with much greater certainty.

Point Counter Point makes another statement of the problem. In the person of Mark Rampion (D. H. Lawrence thinly disguised) we have an individual whose way of life is completely human —whole, fused, and complete — a sharp contrast to the incompleteness and insufficiency of the other characters. But though Huxley seems obviously to have been attracted to Lawrence, to the sureness of those remarkable intuitions which came with such force from an emotional core, nevertheless Lawrence and Lawrence’s ideas must have been at bottom antipathetic to his more intellectual view of things, to his satirist’s partial detachment from the objects wriggling on pins which are his case histories and his victims. Another solution, one on a less human level, was necessary; and though nothing is directly said about it in Brave New World, it is clearly enough stated in Eyeless in Gaza and its companion book, Ends and Means. It is the doctrine of non-attachment, of removal from the ‘level of time and craving,’ which finds its present, somewhat altered, expression in After Many a Summer.

It is not necessary, though it may be natural, to ask whether or not this positive doctrine is Huxley’s own belief. The critic’s business is with its place and its value in the specific work in which it is stated. And here, in this latest novel, there are certain real difficulties. For Pluxley’s positive views about human life (if they are Huxley’s), those stated by Mr. Propter at a length of about eighty pages, are private views; they are not shared by most of his audience; he has had to dig them out himself. This puts him at a considerable, if unavoidable, disadvantage as a satirist. Compared with Swift, he has a much harder task, the difficulty of which is caused by the state of contemporary thought. For Swift’s positive views did not have to be expounded; they were what everybody in Swift’s time accepted. It was one of the platitudes of his age, for example, to believe that man was superior to animals; hence when he reversed the situation in the last section of Gulliver’s Travels the shock was easier to produce than it would be today when that superiority is open to question.

Huxley’s less fortunate position — that of having to work through to a sense of values which has to be described instead of being able to accept one readymade that can be taken for granted — makes his new book less satisfactory as a novel than it would be otherwise. About a fifth of it is devoted to the exposition of Mr. Propter’s views, and though in the long run this exposition is an essential part of the structure, a reader anxious to get on with the highly entertaining story is likely to resent it, and more likely to skip it.

In addition to this major difficulty, there are certain minor weaknesses in the book. For example the pattern of contrasts, which from the beginning of his career has been Huxley’s chief structural device, is here presented with great, skill, but the skill is a little too mechanical, too much what we expect; we see the wires that move the puppets, and hence are too conscious that what we are watching is, after all, an abstraction from life itself; vivid and even violent though it. may be, it tends to be less an organism than an arrangement. It is what we often feel when we read Ben Jonson, and what we rarely feel when we read Shakespeare. And some of the characters are themselves not very plausible. Pete, for instance, is rather a dummy, and one or two of the others are merely the necessary pawns in the game.

These minor weaknesses may be related to the major one: Mr. Propter’s positive point, of view presents not only an artistic problem, but a problem that affects life as well. For if existence on the human level of time and craving can only produce evil, the human level can hardly be worth notice; and therefore character — the human life of Shakespeare and Balzac — is not worth creating. The satirist, brilliant as he may be, gives only a part of life, and the particular angle from which Huxley satirically views experience docs not widen, it restricts, the satirist’s congenital limitations. Mr. Propter (or Huxley) may be right, but he is right from a point of view which transcends any concern with the traditional subject matter of the novel.

To say this, however, docs not take away from the force and brilliance of Huxley’s book. When we read it we feel, as I mentioned at the beginning, that we are dealing with one of the most honest and fascinating of contemporary minds — a mind that has rarely before worked with such clarity and success.