Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aldous Huxley, The Satirist

A great prose satirist. Examples of satire
With the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh, Huxley is the greatest prose satirist of the twentieth century. His saga of Hercules the Dwarf in Crome Yellow is unforgettable for its blend of satire and pathos. Nor can we overlook Mr. Scogan in his disguise as a fortune-teller. He predicts to an attractive woman client that next Sunday if she lin­gers by a certain point along the footpath she will meet and make love to a fascinating man (named, of course, Scogan).
In Those Barren Leaves the naive Irene offers the observation that contraception has rendered chastity superfluous. The same novel also contains pointed criticisms of Dickens and two fine spoofs of Dickensian situations: the boarding house scenes at Miss Carruthers’s, and the wooing of Miss Elver by the designing Mr. Cardan.
Some more examples of satire
In the strange world of Huxley’s novels, Swiftian ironies and Dickensian extravagance of humour alternate with more terrifying prospects. There are neo-Pavlovian “conditioning rooms” in Brave New World but these are balanced against the confrontation scene in which the Director of Hatcheries learns that he has a natural son by a wife who is an old-fashioned mother. In Point Counter Point Lord Edward can be telephoned in the laboratory by his crippled brother who insist that he has just at this movement discovered a most extra-ordinary mathematical proof of the existence of God. Then there is the scene in Ape and Essence where the Arch-Vicar offers the already outraged Dr. Poole a pair of binoculars so that he can see the annual orgy more clearly.
A daring satirist
Such scenes resulted from Huxley’s conviction of the importance of satire for the twentieth-century novel. He could certainly use with great skill such modern techniques as the stream of consciousness—especially in Eyeless in Gaza. But his primary concern was with satire. Even the essay-like Island can be seen as an attempt to re-emphasise the satire which was directed against the society of Mustapha Mond in Brave New World. Huxley’s main concern with satire is underlined in After Many a Summer when one of the characters quotes Mr Propter’s opinion of satire. Propter states that a good satire is more deeply truthful and much more profitable than a good tragedy. Propter also says that few satires have been effective because most satirists were not prepared to carry their criticism of human values far enough. Huxley, however, never hesitates. He questions twentieth-century ideas of the individual and national ego, ideas of sexual ethics, and ideas of religious practice and belief. In both Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza, the structural technique is itself part of Huxley’s satire against his characters (The structural technique here means the arrangement of chapters and the method by which discussion-scenes proceed).
Huxley’s wit
If Beavis, in Eyeless in Gaza, dreams of travelling in the east, Huxley says that Beavis “did a slight Jospeh Conrad in the East Indies.” Beyond the Mexique Bay, a travel-book, compares the officials at Copan to the Second Murderers of Elizabethan plays. An essay in Texts and Pretexts coins the phrase “intellectually Cupid”, an accurate epithet for Philip Quarles and, occasionally, for Huxley himself. Of Philip’s father Huxley observes in Point Counter Point: “Brought up in an epoch when ladies apparently rolled along on wheels, Mr Quarles was peculiarly susceptible to calves.” The susceptibility is not only comic, but Huxley’s image for nineteenth-century feminine motion seems particularly accurate. These are only a few examples of the amusing, and often cutting, phrases of Huxley’s wit.
Swiftian irony and Butlerian misquotation
Huxley revitalizes Swiftian irony in the section of Those Barren Leaves dealing with Francis Chelifer, and in those two modest proposals for the future, Brave New World and Ape and Essence. He also revives the device of the Butlerian misquotation as Henry Wimbush who pro­claims in Crome Yellow that the proper study of mankind is books. Huxley’s characters twist words and their meanings with great ease, thereby revealing the manifold distortions within their own minds and personal lives. The District Hatchery Commissioner gives us a pardoy of Browning’s optimism and becomes a caricature of his society’s scientific egotism when he declares in Brave New World: Ford is in his fliver, all is right with the world.” In Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Huxley, altering Pope for satiric purposes, observes that “hope springs eternal in the male breast in regard to the female breast.” In Those Barren Leaves, he says that on the 270 thousaud pounds of Mrs. Aldwinkle’s income, “the sun never set. People worked; Mr. Aldwinkle led the higher life. She for art only, they—albeit unconscious of the privilege—for art in her.”
Satire on escapism and eccentricity
The unique existence led by Francis Chelifer in Those Barren Leaves (1925) best illustrates the extent to which Huxley satirizes the majority of his characters for being escapists and eccentrics. The world in which we live, Huxley asserts, belongs to men such as Lord Edward Tantamount and Sidney Quarles, both in Point Counter Point (1928). The first is one of Huxley’s many caricatures of scientists. The second is the eccentric father of the novelist, Philip Quarles. Tantamount puts his whole self into his absurd experiments and is grotesquely asexual. Quarles, on the other hand, though intellectually a failure, enjoys cheap sexual adventures that his son Philip, imprisoned in an analytical mind, badly needs. In their futile pursuits both men become personifications of one-pointedness.
Each character in a novel by Huxley may thus be regarded as his own vested interest. Coleman, the diabolist, summarises the peculiarly hellish, yet comic, modern situation that all Huxley’s novels deal with when he realises in Antic Hay (1923) that walking through London put him in “the midst of seven million distinct and separate individuals, each with distinct and separate lives and all completely indifferent to our existence.” Coleman’s observations recall the satiric parable of Hercules the Dwarf that appeared in Crome Yellow, Huxley’s first novel. Hercules personifies the futility of eccentric escapism. The story of Hercules does not lack pathos. But the note of satire predominates, and Hercules provides the key to our interpretation of the countless eccentrics in Huxley’s world. Their Herculean efforts to make life suit their expectations rarely succeed. The eccentrics in Huxley’s world are countless. Crome’s founder, Sir Ferdinando, was pre-occupied by only one thought, the proper placing of his privies. Sanitation was the one great interest in his life. Even relatively minor characters in these novels Display remarkable eccentricities. After Many a Summer (1939) contains the legendary Charlie Habakkuk, “who had first clearly formulated the policy of injecting sex appeal into death.” A certain Tim in Point Counter Point sets fire to newspapers and lets the hot ashes fall on his wife’s naked body. As her bit of war work, Mrs. Budge of Crome Yellow eats over ten thousand peaches in three years to supply the army with the needed pits. Socially useless, morally perverse, and spiritually blind, Huxley’s eccentrics choose the exclusiveness of self over anything expansive or inclusive. Huxley’s satire aims at turn­ing them back towards the demands of society. It tries to open their egos to a vision of wholeness on levels both personal and divine.
Egotism, the proper object of ridicule
In short, Huxley agrees with William Hazlitt as opposed to Henry Fielding that the proper object of ridicule is egotism, not affectation. He wishes to persuade people to overcome their egotism and their personal cravings in the interest either of a supernatural order or of their own higher selves, or of society. Huxley’s satire began with assailing the eccentric for his incompleteness, then widened to attack the less than fully developed society, and finally narrowed again to challenge the spiritual eccentric before offering a final plea and blueprint for a perfect society.

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