The nature of the essay as a form of literature
In the course of English literary development, the essay has been handled differently by different writers. Thus an essay by Bacon consists of a few pages of concentrated wisdom, with little elaboration of the ideas expressed. In an essay byNor is there any general agreement as regards the definition of an essay. According to Dr. Johnson, an essay is “a loose sally of the mind, an indigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition” But this is a view which certainly does not tally with the highly-developed essays of modern times. A standard dictionary speaks of the essay as “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject or branch of a subject, originally implying want of finish, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range. Brevity and want of exhaustiveness are certainly the features of a true essay.” As for the content, an essayist may choose any subject under the sun.
Addison, the thought is thin and diluted, and the tendency is sometimes towards personal gossip. An essay by Charles Lamb is a medley of reflections, quotations, personal experiences and reactions to life, and anecdotes. In other words an essay means different things to different writers.
The variety of his essays
In his preface to his Collected Essays, Aldous Huxley tells us that essays belong to “a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within three poles of reference.” The first is the personal and autobiographical. The second is the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular. The third is the abstract-universal. Huxley did not make use of the autobiographical material on any big scale, but it does make its appearance, time and again, and lends grace to his essays. Under the second heading we can place the pamphleteering essays about the bomb, and drugs, and the two cultures. The third kind of essays he wrote rather late in his life. He thus describes the range of his essays: “Essays autobiographical. Essays about things seen and places visited. Essays in criticism of all kinds of works of art, literary, plastic, musical. Essays about philosophy and religion, some of them couched in abstract terms, others in the form of an anthology with comments, others again in which general ideas are approached through the concrete facts of history and biography. Essays finally, in which, following Montaigne, I have tried to make the best of all The essay’s three worlds, have tried to say everything at once in as near an approach to contrapuntal simultaneity as the nature of literary art will allow of.”
His essays relevant to his times
To be an essayist, a writer must have the gift of style and this Huxley undoubtedly had and in an abundant measure too. Huxley had a vast knowledge also, which was gained from much travel, immense reading, and constant meeting with intelligent people. He had a full mind and an unquenchable spirit of inquiry. His essays are relevant to the situation in his time and ours, and give us a real view of the intellectual life of the western man during the period in which they were written. It was a time of revolution and upheaval. It was a time of the knowledge explosion. The knowledge explosion was bringing forward so much that was old and had been forgotten, as well as what was altogether new and revolutionary. Huxley believed that behind all the appearances there is reality, and for him the reality was the unitive knowledge of God. All his work leads to that, and his essays record the search and the affirmation.
The discursive quality of his essays
Huxley had an intelligence which always amused and braced the reader. He had the discursive quality which is native to the essay-form. In writing his essays he could begin anywhere; anything started him off, and he proceeded without, any jerks or jumps to a serious consideration of one of the many subjects which absorbed him. He himself had the quality which he found in Montaigne and which he thus describes: “Free association artistically controlled—this is the paradoxical secret of Montaigne’s best essays. One damned thing after another—but in a sequence that, in some almost miraculous way, develops a central theme and relates it to the rest of human experience.” Huxley is nearly always easy to read, though sometimes he expects close attention to an abstract argument. He is never trivial. The world and the times were too wonderfully exciting to permit light-heartedness or triviality. However, some of his essays are as gay and light as a short story. And the endings may be a rounding of the subject into a calm finale, or an unexpected flash of wit, or a jest. The final gesture was part of his style.
I.“On the Margin” (1923)
On the Margin was the first collection of Huxley’s essays. There is nothing very remarkable in the contents of this volume. About these essays a critic says: “Here and there one detects an interest that will develop into something more substantial and mature ; an essay on ‘Advertisement’ which will blossom into the outrageous commercial fancies of Mr. Boldero in Ante Hay; a note on ‘Accidie’ which shows the beginning of Huxley’s interest in Baud elaire; an appreciation of Sir Christopher Wren that reflects his enduring admiration for the neo-classical in architecture. And here and there emerges one of those youthful points of view which Huxley will invert long before the end of his career. I think particularly of the essay on
in which he mocks what to him in his mid-twenties seems an ancient and elaborate civilization of which almost no detail is not entirely idiotic.” Tibet
Essays on Chaucer Jonson, Edward Lear, and on
. Criticism of ready-made amusements Tibet
Among the contents of this volume are two excellent essays on Chaucer and Ben Jonson, and a delightful piece on Edward Lear. Huxley wrote these essays on themes which he enjoyed, and he wrote them in the hope that others would share his enjoyment. The times were changing fast and, in one of the essays, Huxley thus comments on this fact: ‘In no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heels with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth, for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and so profound.” In another essay he speaks of the ready-made amusements that were then beginning to take the place of active or creative pastimes: “With a mind almost atrophied by lack of use, unable to entertain itself and grown so wearily interested in the ready-made distractions offered from without that nothing but the grossest stimulants of an ever-increasing violence and crudity can move it, the democracy of the future will sicken of a chronic and mortal boredom.” This prophecy was repeated by him at greater length in his next collection of essays, Do What You Will. In the essay on
. Huxley has a swing at three usual targets of the time, speaking of “the depression into which the Peace, Mr. Churchill, the state of contemporary literature, have conspired to plunge the mind.” But the mood of these essays is not always condemnatory. For instance, in the essay on Wren he mentions certain qualities of gentlemanliness representing an old ideal which he supports with great enthusiasm. Tibet
II. “Do What You Will” (1929)
Monotheism versus polytheism
Do What You Will, Huxley’s next collection of essays, opens with “The One And The Many”, in which he assesses the merits of monotheistic and polytheistic creeds. Monotheism he sees as a religion of the desert, flourishing in Islam and Judaism, and extended in Christianity. Glancing over history, he points out that the driest and most materialistic times have been those when monotheism held sway, and that the richest times were those in which polytheism had a greater influence over the minds of people. Yet, according to Huxley, a sense of unity should exist within a sense of diversity. Only a new religion can save mankind from the peril into which modern civilisation is leading it. This new religion must be one whose primary aim should be the enhancement of life. But such a religion will recognise that life is diverse and, therefore, needs many gods. Yet, for all his diversity, man is individually a unity and in this way the One will exist beside the Many.
The world enjoyable and also deplorable
In the essays of this volume Huxley celebrates the pagan joy of living. He is overflowing with energy and he looks at the world in one mood as a fascinating creation which man must enjoy as much as he can, and in another mood as wholly deplorable and clearly getting worse. We can enjoy this volume as a vigorous, wholehearted acceptance of the world. Huxley as a life-worshipper urges the reader to explore all possible worlds of experience. But the volume is also partly a study of man’s mental sickness, especially in the essays on Swift, Baudelaire, and Pascal. The volume is furthermore partly a study of social sickness, of a civilization in which man is being corrupted by machines and by mechanical amusements.
The Greek way of life recommended
The opening essay gives us the thought behind the early novels. Huxley is opposed to masochism and asceticism, which are restrictive, and which starve one side of man’s nature whereas the human mind naturally believes in both diversity and unity. The saints represented only the spiritual side of life. By contrast, the Greeks enjoyed a much more complete life, embracing the instincts as well as the spirit, passions as well as reason, the self-regarding as well as the unselfish side of human nature. In the essay called “Spinoza’s Worm.” Huxley quotes Black: “Do what you will, this world is a fiction”, and he reminds us that it is no less inescapably our world. Let us, therefore, make the best of it. Let us concentrate on living, as fully as we can, here and now. Let us think about the present, not the future. He quotes Pericles, who held that men should accept their natures as they found them. The mind, senses, instincts, passions, imagination, all these must be excerised. The Greeks accepted human nature, and so they live multifariously, inconsistently and contradictorily.
Criticism of machinery
In “Spinoza’s Worm” Huxley also asks what are the dangers threatening the modern world and his first answers are monotheism and acquisitiveness. The third danger is the machine. In the essay called “Revolutions” he says that the industrial system makes life fundamentally unlivable for all. Machines are here to stay but they inflict on humanity an enormous psychological injury that must, if uncared for, prove deadly. As we have seen, he especially objects to the mechanization of leisure. Mechanical amusements are spreading an ever-increasing boredom through ever-increasing spheres. (When Huxley wrote Brave New World he found that very few people would by that time be capable of creative leisure, and so he provided the soma drug).
Essays on Baudelaire. Swift, and Pascal
The writers and teachers who are the subjects of some of these essays were chosen because in differing ways they denied the cult of life-enhancement. But the fact needs to be pointed out that Huxley partly shares the pre-occupations of the writers or the historical figures whom he criticizes. Precisely because he had recorded so well the ennui which descended on the survivors of World War I, he was able to appreciate Baudeliare, that high priest of spleen ; Huxley’s awareness of the variability of personality made him understand the processes by which a Satanist and a Godist lived within the same man. With regard to the essay on Swift, it is well to remember that in Huxley’s own writings we can hardly ever escape from the smell of ordure and decay which he finds in abundance in Swift. And, indeed, Da What You Will, with its essays on Swift, Baudelaire, and Pascal, parallels its glorification of life with a liberal quantity of the corruption that is part of life’s process. The essay on Swift is especially interesting because Huxley discusses a writer whom he resembles in his inclination to offer a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. It is not the negation of Swift’s view that really stirs Huxley; it is the special morbidity with which Swift presents it, laying so much stress on the process of excretion as a symbol of the evils of the flesh. But Huxley becomes so concerned over this aspect of Swift precisely because he himself is addicted in a somewhat different manner to the symbolism of decay. The symptoms of disease, the disgusting signs of old age, the insult of death, all these find a prominent place in Huxley’s novels. In spite of all its invocations of the cult of life, the feeling of the unanswerable presence of death hangs over the essay on Pascal.
One of the outstanding essays in this volume is “Holy Face”. Huxley’s description of the festival of the Holy Face of Lucca is really impressive and he declares that extraordinary artefact to be “the strangest, the most impressive thing of its kind I have ever seen.” Huxley stood for hours watching the worshippers gathered at the shrine. But the essay opens on a different note altogether: “Good times are chronic nowadays. The fine point of seldom pleasure is duly blunted. Feasts must be solemn and rare, or else they cease to be feasts. Me personally the unflagging pleasures of contemporary cities leave most lugubriously un-amused.” There speaks the censor of his times.
III. “Music at Night” (1931)
Four sections of the book
Music at Night is divided into four sections : the first deals with aesthetics ; the second is philosophical and is one of the seed-beds which Huxley laid down for all his later work ; the third is concerned with sex ; and the fourth deals with social questions and looks forward to Brave New World. (Music at Night was published between Point Counter Point and Brave New World and the main interest of the essays in this volume is that they canvass the ideas in these two novels). The volume closes with a highly entertaining piece on cats. This last essay is one of those excellent performances in the comic spirit which Huxley managed so well, and which he enjoyed using as a coda to a serious collection. Music at Night can be read with particular profit as a kind of notebook for Brave New World. In these essays Huxley discusses a whole series of possibilities which he saw as latent in the European-American world of the late 1920’s and which afterwards formed part of the fabric of Brave New World—the cult of perpetual youth, the problem of leisure, the perils of Fordism to the human psyche, the possible development of eugenics as a means of shaping the man of the future, the implications of the attempt to make man primarily a consumer, and the perils to freedom of a dogmatic egalitarianism. Music at Night is less definite in its expression than Brave New World because Huxley often presents his possibilities neutrally with the suggestion that men in the future may use them either for good or for ill. This is the case in his discussion of the ideal drug which, in the essay called “Wanted, a New Pleasure”, he suggests as a possible benefit to mankind. He would like a band of research workers to find the ideal intoxicant which would afford us four or five hours of escape daily from the sordidness of life but which would have no injurious effects of any kind on us. (Later in life Huxley personally tried the effects of the various existing drugs in order to know at first-hand what exactly they did to the human mind and body).
Theory of literature
The volume includes several essays which develop a theory of literature that reflects Huxley’s changing practice. In the opening essay, called “Tragedy and the Whole Truth”, he draws the opposition between two types of literature: that which like Shakespearean tragedy acts quickly and intensely on our feelings by isolating the dramatic elements in life, and the wholly truthful literature represented by writers like Proust, Dostoevsky, and Lawrence, which is “chemically impure” and mild in its catharsis because it is based on “the pattern of acceptance and resignation,” on taking life as it is. Huxley admits that we need both kinds of literature, but it is clear that he is more attracted by “whole-truthism.” This idea of presenting the whole truth had been growing in Huxely during the twenties until in Point Counter Point we get the whole range from the ugly to the beautiful and from the detail to the philosophical view. It was the fashion, he says ; “however different one from the other in style, in ethical, philosophical and artistic intention, in the scales of values accepted, contemporary writers have this in common that they are interested in the Whole Truth.”
IV. “The Olive Tree” (1936)
Travel and writing
The Oliver Tree is a collection of essays mainly on two of Huxley’s interests, namely, travelling and writing. The title essay is a short piece of inspired travel-writing, with its neat descriptions and amusing scholarship. Huxley’s descriptive gift is a quality by itself, quite detached from his interest in people, sex, religion.
“In a Tunisian Oasis”
In the essay called “In a Tunisian Oasis” Huxley is content to be descriptive and amuses us most when he sketches little boys and their various ways of getting money from tourists. However, what depresses Huxley is that the Arabs, once heirs of the inquiring tradition of classical Greek science, are now ready to attribute everything that happens to the will of God, and to leave fate to do things in its own way.
The essay on Crebillon the Younger
There are a few similar other slight pieces in this volume and a couple of essays on sex. There is an essay on Crebillon the Younger who was a minor 18th century French novelist. Huxley felt interested in this novelist because of the latter’s gift for analysing the psychology of love.
The essay called “Justifications” may be described as an intellectual romp. The subject this of essay is the Revd. Henry James Prince, a popular preacher and leader of an extravagant sect in the 19th century. Here is truth stranger than fiction. Henry James Prince discovered in himself a faculty for dominating people and used it over women to get control of their money and on occassion to enjoy their persons. His personal magnetism was so great that he was able to have carnal communication with a nun on a sofa inside the chapel itself. The essay ends with a generalization on the nature of God. The idea of a personal God, says Huxley, lends itself to all sorts of abuses, including a sinister kind of nationalism, beside which the sexual adventures of erring clergymen are of little importance.
The essay on Haydon
Like Huxley, Benjamin Robert Haydon had suffered in childhood from an eye disease but persisted in pursuing his art despite this affliction. Yet Haydon had really chosen the wrong art. As a painter he was ambitious but incompetent, and when he became popular it was for the wrong reasons—for his politics rather than his paintings. It was as a writer that Haydon really excelled. Of Haydon’s literary talents, Huxley gives a description that might admirably fit himself: “His special gifts were literary and discursive. His brain teemed with ideas. He was an acute observer of character; he could talk, and he could write.”
The introduction to D. H. Lawrence’s letters
In this piece Huxley tried to recapture for the reader his memories of a friend who had died, a fellow-craftsman for whose genius he had a very great respect. Huxley is able to write with complete sympathy about
, even about Lawrence ’s religious beliefs. Huxley distinguishes the essence of Lawrence ’s novels and he speaks of Lawrence ’s wanderings. Huxley urges us to read Lawrence ’s letters and he gives us a general view of their effect. The essay is, indeed, a model of its kind. Lawrence
“Words and Behaviour”
This essay is a contribution to Huxley’s anti-war writings. He contends that it is wrong and unfair to cover up or conceal the reality of war by using words and expressions designed to throw a veil over the facts. “Politics can become moral on only one condition: that its problems shall be spoken of and thought about exclusively in terms of concrete reality.” Huxley strongly opposes the distortion of the English language for political and military purposes.
‘‘Writers and Readers”
In this essay Huxley distinguishes three kinds of writing: the first is an anodyne; the second is propaganda; the third is imaginative literature. Popular scientific exposition, a field in which his family had made such a conspicuous contribution, comes under the heading of propaganda. Huxley deplores the fact that western writers have lost their old imaginative guides, the literatures of the Jews and the Greeks, and that their new guides are coming from the knowledge, explosion.
V. “Themes and Variations” (1950)
Portraits of writers and artists
The distinguishing feature of this collection of essays is Huxley’s view that sainthood is somewhat more rare and remote than Perennial Philosophy suggested. These essays are mainly portraits of men who have passed into the dark night of the soul but have never reached the full light at the end of the vast metaphysical tunnel. They are, all of them, writers and artists—Goya and El Greco, Piranesi and the French philosopher Maine de Biran. In considering the cases of these men Huxley seems to be partly analysing his own inability to escape from time and its realm of darkness.
The essay on
do Biran Maine
The principal essay—almost a book in itself since it fills more than half the volume—is “Variations on a Philosopher” a study of Maine de Biran. Living from 1 766 to 1824 Biran served in Louis XVI’s life guards, survived the Revolution, defied Napoleon as a member of the Emperor’s Corps Legislatif, and eventually gained public office under the Restoration to die, prematurely aged, in opposition to the ultra-Conservatism of Charles X. Huxley treats Maine de Biran as one of those whose inclinations turned them towards mysticism but who never made that escape from the world of time towards which their philosophy directed them. There is a great deal of the novelist’s art in the way Huxley treats Biran. We are introduced to him first through an imaginary sketch of him; next we are given enough biography to set him in time and place; then Huxley proceeds to consider his patterns of behaviour, his role in the world, and the inner man whom the behaviour and the role so deceptively present. The most depressing lesson which Biran’s case reveals is the dependence of the mind on bodily states. Wavering between ill-health and a condition of partial well-being, Biran observed; “Certain bodily states produce good dispositions of the mind. Sometimes these dispositions have led me towards God; they were not for the body, though they came from the body.” But to the end of his life, Biran never acquired the true contemplatives power of shutting out distractions to maintain his mind on a course of meditation. Huxley’s essay on Biran is also a criticism of the inadequacies of introspective psychology as a means of gaining the ends of the perennial philosophy. For, if we are concerned only with our own thoughts, we are aware merely of our attitudes and our conscious minds. Biran’s lack of interest in mesmerism showed an unawareness of those states of consciousness in which the mind receives influences from outside and becomes more open to the intuitions that lead towards the apprehension of mystical truths.
According to Huxley, Biran’s Journal Intime is almost unique in the history of philosophy. “Thanks to its minute and detailed sincerity, we know Biran as we know no other of the great metaphysicians of the past,” says Huxley. Huxley used this private document to discuss those aspects of man’s nature and destiny which were his constant concern. The result is a microcosm of all the worlds of thought which Huxley explored most happily throughout his writing life. It is the warmest and richest presentation of his views on the great subjects which pre-occupied him. With all his faults and failings, Biran pursued his search for truth unfalteringly. Biran failed, as Huxley failed; but Biran’s as recorded in this private journal, stirs the heart and the imagination.
An all-inclusive essay
Huxley uses his subject in his usual way. He awakens our interest and sustains it so easily that he can afford to go off on some personal interest, which we see has illuminated the subject when we return. All the great subjects of Huxley’s meditations appear in this magnificent essay : time and transcendence, the dual nature of man, man in society and solitary, the nature of ultimate reality and the possibility of our becoming aware of it in our existential condition. This essay can be used as the most attractive introduction to Huxley’s thought.
On art, religion, and the population problem
Of the remaining essays, most in one way or another reveal the dark places of the sub-conscious of the artists dealt with. These studies are prefaced by a short piece on “Art and Religion” and followed by a long piece on the demographic and ecological crisis the human race was passing through in the late forties and which it has not yet overcome. This penetrating essay on the population problem seems an odd addition to the richly cultivated essays on art and philosophy, but it sometimes takes all sorts to make a volume of essays.
Huxley, unduly pessimistic
Huxley was pessimistic regarding the resources which mankind will have at its disposal in the not very remote future. He expressed the view that it was a matter of great urgency to tackle the problem of the growing population and the diminishing natural resources of the world. However, much of Huxley’s pessimism was unjustified. Today even though the population problem remains, we find ourselves nearer solutions. For instance, deserts can be made fertile, fish can be farmed instead of hunted, the backward countries are developing fast, and even the general level of intelligence seems to be rising.
“Variations on a Baroque Tomb”
The essay called ‘“Variations on a Baroque Tomb”, is a study of the emphasis on the physical presence of death in baroque mortuary sculptures which Huxley sees as the sign of an age when the belief in progress and man’s perfectibility was weak. This recognition of the reality of death, when the social being is shed and man stands alone before the light, Huxley considers praiseworthy because the consolations of philosophy are obtained at the price of experiencing its desolations, and man can know himself only by learning the worst truths about his destiny.
The essay on Piranesi’s engravings
The fine essay on Piranesi’s sombre series of engravings deals with works that have reference only to what is negative in the depth of human souls, “to acedia and confusion, to nightmare and angst, to incomprehension and panic bewilderment.” No spiritual light shines through the insane mechanisms of Piranesi’s nightmares. Nor is there any sign of that light in the terrible works of Goya. Goya’s works present the grim metaphors of human destiny familiar to the world’s great religions but reveal none of the consoling ways to the ending of sorrow those religions have also shown.
The essay on El Greco
Even in the works of El Greco, Huxley is disturbed by a strange duality. Huxley sees El Greco’s paintings as genuine attempts to express mystical aspirations. Yet, “for all their extraordinary beauty” these paintings are to Huxley “strangely oppresive and disquieting”, filled with “an agitation wholly incompatible with a spiritual life”. Yet the essay on El Greco ends with that ironic twist which Huxley often gave to his stories. After dwelling at length on the negative duality of El Greco’s paintings, Huxley expresses at the end the paradoxical view that this artist created a new kind of order and perfection, re-affirming the possibility of man’s union with the Divine Spirit.
An examination of the morbid area of the human consciousness
The essays in this volume are a significant contribution to Huxley’s examination of the morbid area of the human consciousness. They are a record of spiritual casualties, of the gulf that may lie between the truths of art and the truths of religion, and of the fragility of that life of the spirit which the mere weakness of the flesh can endanger beyond repair. However, as has already been noted above, the unity of this volume, with its reflections on the religious elements in certain forms of literature and art is broken at the end with an essay of a completely different character, namely the piece entitled, “The Double Crisis”, in which Huxley dwells upon the political and economic crisis and upon the demographic and ecological crisis.
VI. “Adonis and the Alphabet” (1956)
A greater sense of purpose in this volume
Adonis and the Alphabet was Huxley’s triumph as an essayist. In addition to the old urbanity there is a far more serious sense of purpose. The subject of these essays is education, the education of the human race as well as its children, and one necessarily compares them with Proper Studies (1928), greatly to the disadvantage of the latter. The difference is simply that in the period between the two publications Huxley had worked out a valid conception of man, and therefore knew what he was dealing with. In the earlier volume he is merely, often awkwardly, feeling his way. The later essays lie in the shadow of Ends and Means and The Perennial Philosophy and benefit greatly.
The merits of this volume
This last collection of essays, says a critic has “the golden touch” which Huxley’s work possessed at that time. Huxley had matured his world outlook; he was seeking a unitive knowledge of God serenely; his prose technique was not only adequate to the demands he made on it, but he exploited it with a masterly skill. There are hardly any new ideas in this collection; it is the word-management and shaping of his material which gives us most pleasure, as he confirms his findings on life and the things which he most enjoyed.
A new concept of sex
In Adonis and the Alphabet Huxley advocated a mode of sex activity called karezza, according to which the man does not allow himself to have an orgasm. Three comments on this view are possible. First of all, it harmonizes admirably with Huxley’s demand for some kind of birth control. Secondly, it does away with the orgasm which Huxley regarded as a deplorable aspect of man’s animal nature. Thirdly, no healthy young man would be capable of practising karezza. It belongs to an old man’s philosophy.
Two essays an biographical psychological manner
In this last collection of essays, there are only two examples of true criticism, but both are excellent in his characteristic biographical-psychological manner. “Doodles in a Dictionary” is one of the most sensitive appreciations ever written of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, while the essay on Gesualdo evokes with sombre eloquence both the agonized personality of that murderer, masochist, and musical genius, and his setting of Renaissance Italy in which the transition between medieval and modern music took place.
The insufficiency of symbols
Significantly, however, Huxley does not write in this volume on literature, though he does write on the imprisoning of thought by language. Several essays here are concerned with the obscurantist effect of the verbalised symbol. In “Mother” he urges the value of direct experience. Whenever we are dealing with mystery, the verbalised concept is less satisfactory as a means of presentation than the pictorial or diagrammatic symbol. This is to admit the potency of symbols (which no one denies) and to deplore the insufficiency of Christian religious symbols. The Hindu religion has been more successful in symbolising Nature and the processes of continuous creation and destruction than the western religions. Nature has been monopolised by science. The West must learn how to express the reality of both worlds—the world of clear conceptual knowledge and the world of obscure understanding, “the world of verbal analysis and the world of comprehensive symbols, the world of science and the world of religion and metaphysics.”
The title essay
The title essay in this volume, “Adonis and the Alphabet”, urges us not to take language too seriously. Nature presents us with a complexity of material to express which words and sentences are inadequate. Language is serious as an instrument, but it is a crude interpreter of direct experience. It would thus seem that Huxley in the final stages came to regard literature as a lesser art: that he felt that words, as distinguished from a pictographic language, emphasized the separateness of things and tended to increase man’s knowledge but to diminish his understanding, whereas in painting it was easier for an artist to see things as they are, shining in their own essential nature, and to render them according to their proper rhythms. Needless to say that this meant that he rejected abstraction in art as much as in science, for to him the ultimate purpose of art was to convey “the underlying rhythm of the mysterious spirit that manifests itself in every aspect of our beautiful, frightful, unutterably odd and adorable universe” (“Doodles in a Dictionary”), and that aim could not be achieved by the separation from the natural world which abstraction involves.
Huxley’s subsequent interest in non-verbal education
As a logical result of this approach to language and reality, Huxley became increasingly interested in the possibilities of non-verbal education in his later years. There are two points to be noted here: first that we should not regard symbols, any symbols, as being interchangeable with reality; and secondly that we should not rely too much on verbal symbols, because there are others which are equally potent and in some cases more closely connected with direct experience. The two innovations which, in Huxley’s view, held out most hope for the human race in their present unhappy condition were mind-improving drugs and non-verbal education.
Harmonizing the self and the not-self
Education was always a leading pre-occupation with Huxley and the two opening essays of this volume, “Education of an Amphibian” and “Knowledge and Understanding” are concerned with the prime problem which, according to Huxley, is to harmonize the many selves and not-selves that man contains. This task, says Huxley, can be performed satisfactorily only if the ego learns not to assert itself, and if the conscious mind allows itself to accept the guidance of the unconscious as it does, of course, in any creative process. Mere knowledge is not enough. The failure of universal education to improve the condition of man is proof of that. “Today everybody can read and write,” says Huxley, “and we find ourselves living in a world where war is incessant, liberty on the decline, democracy in peril, a world moreover where most of the beneficiaries of universal education read only the tabloids, the comics, and murder mysteries.” What has to be discovered is a way in which human beings can enjoy the best of what Huxley calls “the small, bright world of personal consciousness and the vast mysterious world of the unconscious” which can achieve things impossible for the unaided ego. This requires a liberation from the tyranny of words and conditioned reflexes, the re-establishment of “direct, unmediated contact with experience,” and the establishment of a state of mind in which understanding, a spiritual quality that cannot be acquired by deliberate intent, may come to us.
The essay, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”
But important as education may be, it cannot alone avert the human and natural catastrophe which will come if the growing population of the world, with all it means in the rising depletion of natural resources, is not stabilized. One essay, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, is a survey of studies by scientists in the 1950’s on the kind of future which humanity can expect. Their views are no more optimistic than those of the more strident prophets of the 1970’s ; and Huxley himself, while he cannot give up his faith in the power of life to continue, is not at this point especially hopeful regarding the physical prospects of the human race. As for the political prospects, he foresees scientific dictators using parapsychology and every other means of conditioning the human mind in the psychological revolution to end all revolutions.
Huxley, the prose craftsman
A perceptive critic’s immediate thought on reading Adonis and the Alphabet is that, even if Huxley the artist died after Eyeless in Gaza, Huxley the prose craftsman remained as much alive as ever. The discussion is brilliant; the style is vigorous and economical; and the insistence that the perennial philosophy provides the only way out of mankind’s troubles, though not absent, is surely not too obtrusive. Many of the essays in this volume were occasional pieces, starting off from books which Huxley had read or places which he had visited. The collection has no formal unity, though there is the same kind of loose unity of intent which existed earlier in Do What You Will.
The discursive character of Huxley’s essays
The essays are mostly written in a discursive form. Huxley would take a book, a detail of travel, a historical incident and use it as the point of departure for a series of loosely related reflections on which the mind would soar into the realms of generalization. The essay called “Faith, Taste and History” begins with Huxley and his wife driving through
in driving gusts of untimely snow, and finally coming into Nevada , to the great Mormon capital beside the glittering lake of salt. At the sight of the vast but ugly Utah , Huxley goes into a meditation on the relationship between faith and taste. This leads him to a consideration of church architecture and to the conclusions that religious enthusiasm and the traditions of high art are less closely linked than we like to believe. temple of Salt Lake City
The general and the particular
In such an essay there is none of the indiscipline of mere free association; yet the movement of thought is flexible, and the interaction of the particular and the general is preserved in a way that attract the attention of the reader and also illustrates Huxley’s philosophic view that in human matters we must never lose sight of the concrete in an excess of abstract thought, just as we should not allow our concern for the particular to lead us into too much specialization.