Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual

With the possible exception of Brave New World, that remarkably prescient futuristic satire of 1932, there does not seem to be much contemporary interest in Aldous Huxley's fiction - though some of his novels and collections of short stories remain in print.This is not altogether surprising. By the late 1920s Huxley had turned his back on those bright, catty conversation pieces - Crome Yellow and Antic Hay - in which he mocked the rituals and ceremonies of the English upper-middle class. Several ambitious, speculative novels followed, particularly Point Counter Point (1928) and Eyeless in Gaza (1936). They have not stood up well to the test of time. Point Counter Point, in particular, is burdened with cringe-making pretentiousness: "In two hours the muscles of the heart contract and relax, contract again and relax only 8000 times. The Earth travels less than an eighth of a million miles along its orbit. And the prickly pear has had time to invade only another 100 acres of Australian territory. Two hours are nothing. Time to listen to the Ninth Symphony and a couple of the posthumous quartets" and so on, and so on.

Nevertheless, as Nicholas Murray argues in this unvarnished but absorbing account of the life of "an English intellectual", Huxley's ambitiousness, though it often made his prose collapse into long-winded pomposity, represented something almost unique in 20th-century English fiction: the desire to write fully-fledged novels of ideas. The reason for that, Murray surmises, may have had to do with Huxley's two illustrious forebears: his grandfather, the celebrated 19th-century scientist T.H. Huxley (known as "Darwin's bulldog"); and his great-uncle, another eminent Victorian, the poet-sage Matthew Arnold, who spent a lifetime trying to rescue culture from barbarians and philistines. With such a pedigree, Murray suggests, it was inevitable that the young Huxley would become disillusioned with the comfortable world into which he was born in 1894.
Not that his early years lacked shadows. Huxley's mother died in 1908 and a year later his father remarried. In 1911 he contracted a serious eye disease which forced him to leave Eton and left him all but blind for the rest of his life. His brother Trevenen committed suicide on the eve of World War I.
Nevertheless, for the first 25 years or so, Huxley led a predictable, even perhaps glamorous existence. After Oxford and a stint of schoolmastering at Eton, he decided to try his luck as a writer - of poetry in the first instance, then prose, making ends meet by what he considered to be hack journalism.
During these years he was taken under the wing of the formidable Lady Ottoline Morrell, the high priestess of Bloomsbury. So he came into contact with the famous and the infamous: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, the Sitwells, society beauties such as Nancy Cunard, and the Lawrences, D.H. and Frieda. All these, and snippets of Huxley's own life and affairs as well, found their way into his novels - so thinly disguised that several of his victims took extreme umbrage.
Even at the height of his fashionable notoriety, however, the purblind giant - he was 1.9 metres tall - entertained misgivings about that glittering world. His proper milieu, he implied, lay elsewhere.
The first step towards confirming that occurred in 1919 when he married Maria Nys, a young Belgian. The marriage was to survive - despite, or perhaps because of, Maria's bisexuality - until her death in 1955, whereupon Huxley remarried almost as promptly as his father had done. But by far the greater part of the Huxleys' married life was spent away from England: in France and Italy and, after 1937, in the United States.
The life of a cosmopolitan expatriate seems to have suited him. Yet, in a significant way, it only emphasised his fundamental insularity. In America he could allow himself to be associated with what he regarded as the Jew-ridden movie industry - working, for instance, on the screenplay of Pride and Prejudice - and to engage in several characteristically Californian pastimes, principally experimenting with mescaline and LSD and subscribing to various crackpot mystical cults.
In the long run, though, he was unable to ignore what his grandfather and great-uncle had stood for. To the end of his life he addressed himself to the great questions of European civilisation, scientific and philosophical as much as cultural. And he continued writing fiction while sensing all along that his true calling should have been as a thinker and an essayist.
Alas, most of his essays turned out to be as clodhopping as the poorest of his novels. And the reason for that? I think it was because, for all his ambition, he always remained what he had been in those early years of his fame among the London glitterati: just another English dilettante.

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