Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aldous Huxley, The Thinker

An artist with a mistrust of art
Huxley was a writer whose search in art for standards to live by its accompanied by a mistrust of art. He was a life-worshipper who feels that the physi­cal will always let you down, an alleged mystic who is always clear and rational, and a scholarly scientist who has written the century’s severest criticisms of science. He supports individuality but oppo­ses egotistic individualism and eccentricity; he advocates centricity but is careful to distinguish this from regimentation.

Man’s spiritual nature, his true subject
It was in Do What You Will that Huxley found the right road for himself, and thereafter he went from critical strength to strength. He had found this true subject, man’s spiritual nature. He could now make forays from his central position into the social wilderness and the spiritual landscape, with the latter always bringing the best out of him, giving his talents wider scope. Although it would not be true to say that there was an internal struggle between social commentator and spiritual explorer, for the same entity appeared in both roles, it was happier and more effective in the latter.
Mainly the upper middle class
In one respect Huxley’s novels deal with a very limited world. Almost all the action is con­fined to the upper middle class and only a section of that: the aesthetic and speculative branch, merging at one extreme with bohemia and at the other with the aristocracy. But it is not the conventionally landed aristocracy of English life and letters. It is rather a group that has been drawn into an alien sphere of action by the interests and friendships of a literary son or a dilettante wife. Within this group, however, there is a very wide psychological range. We rarely venture outside narrow class-limits. There is an occasional foray into the ranks of the unemployed and American transients; the odd businessman makes his appearance, and there is even an uneasy encounter with a representative of the depressed lower middle class. The major interest of “Fard” (Little Mexican) is shared between a restless, discontended woman of the world and her worn-out maid, and that is about the sum total of Huxley’s excursion outside the select group. Within the group, however, there is intensive exploration.
His horrified fascination with the human body
Huxley was fascinated by the human body and its physical functions, and this fascination is expressed again and again in his writings. According to one critic the “pathological wallowing in physical disgust” that occurred in Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza became tedious. Another critic feels that Huxley honoured the sensual life as a pornographer honours sex. Another would like to know what on earth had the type of sex-relationship described in After Many a Summer to do with the life of a normally poised human being. These are the normal criticisms brought against Huxley’s work.
The paradox of fate in his novels
There is a great deal of punishment in Huxley’s fiction, and it possesses a peculiar irony of its own. The case of the moron in Those Barren Leaves is one of the most significant examples of Huxley’s delight in the paradox of fate. Miss Elver, whose mind has never developed out of childhood, has been left with twenty-five thousand pounds. Her brother, a disappointed man, covets the money and he takes her to live in some malaria-infested marshland. The intention is obvious. But Cardan meets them accidentally, hears of Miss Elver’s fortune, proposes to her, and is accepted. He then takes her away with him in preparation for the marriage—and she dies of food poisoning. This is not just a simple case of wickedness failing in its object. Cardan is frustrated, of course, but the brother gets what he wants, and without even a burden on his conscience. Cardan did his dirty work for him.
Another case of the same kind
Then there is the case of Moria in “The Rest Cure” (Brief Candles). She fell in love with an Italian, whom her husband called “a black-hatred pimp from the slums of Naples”. The insult only intensified her desire. Then comes a quarrel with Tormio, the lover, after which Moria finds that her purse has disappeared. Her husband’s aunt comes back to her and, in despair, she kills herself. When “her body is removed from the bed the purse falls with a thump to the floor. It had got stuck between the bed and the wall. Huxley was always impres­sed by the importance of chance or accident in human affairs. He believed, for instance, that artistic progress can usually be attribu­ted to the chance appearance of a genius rather than to the action of impersonal forces.
The feeling of ennui in literature
In the book called On The Margin (a collection of essays published in 1923) Huxley was much concerned with the part played by ennui in literature. He pointed out that whereas ennui had been regarded as a sin it had now become an inspiration for literature. He attributed the change to the failure of the ideas of the French Revolution, the progress of industry with its filth and misery, and the futility of political enfranchisement despite the dreams it had given birth to. Life outside the big towns became increasingly insipid, inside them increasingly restless. And then, to complete the chain of disasters, came the First World War. “We can claim with a certain pride a right to our accidie. With us it is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondriacs; it is a state of mind which fate has forced upon us.
The feeling of melancholy
An essayist gives us himself, not imagined fictions. In On The Margin Huxley admitted that recently he had been enjoying only those poems which had been inspired by despair or melancholy. He thought that it might be due to the chronic horror of the political situation.
The charge of pessimism
The general view of Huxley as a confirmed pessimist has a good basis in fact, but it needs to be diluted. No other contemporary writer was more critical of the society in which he lived and yet he frequently expressed the belief that this society, however rotten, had the power to improve itself. According to him, modern society is in a state of transition and it is at such times that the less attractive, aspects of existence become prominent. But no society, is doomed until it stagnates. There are as yet no signs of stagnation in our society.
A vicious and stupid world
Huxley’s novels depict a world that is vicious and stupid, This is what he sees. And in two of his most pessimistic books, Brave New World and Ape and Esse­nce, he tells us of what the world might become in a few hundred years’ time if certain contemporary trends continue.
A contrast between his novels and his essays
Huxle y is a cynic about the universe rather than about man in isolation. He is cynical about men as playthings of the universe. Hence there is a greater concentration of cynicism in the novels than in the essays, because there he is dealing with men as embodiments of nature. The novels appear to be written by someone of immense experience, someone who is a little jaded by what the world can offer. On the other hand, his essays, though brilliantly perceptive in places, do not seem to come from the same Olympian mind. He finds a great deal to attack and even to despise, but it is usually done with sympathy. There is not much sympathy in the novels.
The remedy against the ills threatening the world
In Do What You Will, Huxley diagnosed the ills that threatened the world and suggested how they could be guarded against. These ills included monotheism and the super-humanist ideal, the worship of success and efficiency, and the machines. He urged us to emulate the Greeks, to live in a state of balanced hostility between our component elements, and to regard all manifestations of life as divine. Although it was too late to reject machinery, we should make a collective effort to de-mechanise leisure. He recommended Greek pessimism which perceived, behind the beauty of the world, that it was finally deplorable. It is our duty to make the best of the world and its loveliness while we can—at any rate during the years of youth and strength. “Hedonism is the natural companion of pessimism.”
What is wrong with society?
In Beyond The Mexique Bay (a travel-book published in 1934.
), Huxley declared that most people prefer boasting, hating, and despising others to living at peace. A high proportion of every human being is an automaton; a sense of inferiority always calls for over-compensation. Man, who is generalised by nature, is maintaining himself by specialisation. He congregates in large cites, which cannot avoid being ugly and in consequence cannot but produce a narrow suburban mentality. Meanwhile, the proportion of talented men to the reading and listening public is much lower than it used to be, thanks to universal education. The result is that we must pay the price, which is vulgarity, for the benefits of prosperity, education, and self-consciousness. A reconstruction of social and political institutions might assist the good in its human realisation, but Huxley never seemed either very enthusiastic or very hopeful about such a possibility.
Looking for a spiritual salvation
Huxley was the most eminent of the few writers who looked for a spiritual salvation. As we follow his progress from spiritual indifference to a spiritual interpretation of the universe, we have a strong intuition of a mind struggling reluctantly with matters it would prefer to ignore, but which impress themselves the more persistently as the years go by. The society which Huxley described was hopelessly corrupt. It was the intensity of the corruption, perceived more keenly by him than by any other writer of the time, that drove him to the other extreme.
The challenge of mysticism
Huxley was fully aware that the practice of mystical religion was unlikely to gain many followers in modern times. It required asceticism, while it is the first duty of every citizen in our times to consume as much as he possibly can. Yet it remained an intellectual challenge to him. He knew that the most important mystics have been men of the highest intelligence. He mentioned Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tze, Boehme, and Swedenborg, and also said that Newton had abandoned mathematics for mysticism. On the other hand a lot of intelligent people did not believe in God at all. If you have never had a religious experience, said Philip Quarles (a character in Point Counter Point.
), it is folly to believe in God
Monotheism versus polytheism
Do What You Will tackled the religious problem in a dozen essays, some direct assaults, others marginal skirmishes. First of all he examined the Judaic-Christian Islamic preference for monotheism. He felt that it was not essential to religion, but that it was a fashion that arose from the bare, undiversified desert. Today Europeans believe in one God, not because they have thought about it, but because they have taken the idea from an old tradition and because their neighbours have done the same. Later in The Perennial Philosophy he wrote that there could only be monotheism where there is singleness of heart. In fact, monotheism barely exists in the modern world. It is theoretically enthroned but in practice the western man worships a multitude of gods. But Huxley appears not to have understood this in 1929. In his essay, “One and Many” he writes: “We are aware of existing; therefore we are not merely one. We are conscious of remaining ourselves through inward and outward change; therefore, we are not merely diverse. Given these peculiarities of human nature, it is easy to infer the peculiarities of divine nature. Men are both simple and diverse; therefore, there are many gods and therefore there is only one God.” The modern trend of our civilization has been towards a unitarian mythology, that is, to a position where the God of man’s simple nature is regarded as truer description of reality than the gods of his diversity. But the only reason Huxley can offer for this choice lies in taste, not in logic. This tendency is regarded as a spiritual progress by the modern man. The modern man’s arrogance, and a historical accident, have together combined to displace polytheism.
The diversity of man’s nature
But in the process God dies. God has degenerated into an algebraical formula, a pure abstraction. “The modernists have all but spiritualised him out of existence. From polytheism to monotheism, from monotheism to the worship of an abstraction, from the worship of an abstraction to the worship of nothing at all—such are the several stages in the progressive spiritualisation of man’s conception of the divine. The old polytheism did at least answer the needs of man’s peculiar condition. The new monotheism does nothing of the kind. Our present tendency is to over-value the instrument and undervalue the food which alone can give us the vital power and health to use the instrument properly. Contemporary monotheism is an expression of the abstract knowledge which enables us to predict and organize, but it gives no sustenance”. Huxley concludes that man’s needs can only be met on the spiritual plane by a recognition of man’s diversity and a return to polytheism. We need a new religion of life, with many gods but also one God : “It will have to be Dionysian and Panic as well as Apollonian, Orphic as well as rational, not only Christian but Martial and Venerean too ; Phallic as well as Mineivan or Jehovahistic.”
The concept of life-worship
Life-worship, an idea which resulted from his intimacy with Lawrence, required the deification of the human personality. At least we know something of it which is more than we know of God, he says in another essay (“Fashions in Love”) in the same volume. It is necessary to classify our experiences, as Pascal classified them into the body, the mind, and charity, but the life-worshipper must never forget that reality is an organic whole. The purpose of life, Huxley says, is more life; the purpose of living is to live.
The deepening of Huxley’s mystical tendency
This is where Huxley stood in 1929. From then until the publication of Eyeless in Gaza in 1936 he added little to this conception. In the latter year we find him moving once again towards a more mystical interpretation of man and nature. But this time the change was to be permanent. Ends and Means (1937) showed that he had completely rejected the attitude expressed in Do What You Will and adopted the Perennial Philosophy. Henceforth every book he published showed a mystical base, some more than others. He could not deny the many gods but he knew that man could not reach salvation through their worship.
The influence of D. H. Lawrence
For some time Huxley came under the influence of D. H. Lawrence. The ripest fruit of this influence is to be found in Do What You Will and Brief Candles. In the former Huxley made a Lawrentian hero of Pericles. Huxley wrote, “What Pericles took for granted was briefly this: that men should accept their natures as they found them. Man has a mind: very well, let him think. Senses that enjoy: let him be sensual. Instincts: they are there to be satisfied. Passions: it does a man good to succumb to them from time to time. Imagination, a feeling for beauty, a sense of awe: let him create, let him surround himself with lovely forms, let him worship. Man is multifarious, inconsistent, self-contradictory; the Greeks accepted the fact and lived multifariously, inconsistently and contradictorily. There must, on occasion, be the exercise of restraint, but it should not come from religious spirituality. There should be no pretence of a conflict between a diabolical lower self and certain transcendental absolutes, but between a part of the personality and the personality as an organised whole. Such restraint would be fundamental and emotional, not artificial and intellectual. If we try to repress certain elements of the personality, spiritual blood-poisoning will result.
No return to primitivism
Huxley insisted, more and more forcefully as time pasted, that he did not advocate a return to primitive man. Primitive man and natural man are not the same beings at all. Primitive man is raw material, natural man is the finished product.
Not a complete Lawrentian
There is a great deal of Lawrentian reflection in Brief Candles, if not application—for how­ever impressed Huxley was by the Lawrentian thesis, he could never have become an active apostle himself.
Three kinds of grace—animal, human, and spiritual
Although Lawrence’s influence appeared to grow thin after his death, the part that remained helped to keep Huxley’s later thought more firmly based in physical reality than it might have been. The danger of conversion lies in the extremism it gives rise to From his early indifference and positivism Huxley might easily have attained the position from which he would have condemned nature and all her works. Thanks to lessons he derived from Lawrence, he never forgot that man is partly an animal. In The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley says that we are helped by three kinds of grace—animal, human, and spiritual. “Animal grace comes when we are living in full accord with our own nature on the biological level, not abusing our bodies by excess, not interfering with the workings of our indwelling animal intelligence by conscious cravings and aversions, but living wholesomely and laying ourselves open to the virtue of the sun and the spirit of the air. But, of course, the fullness of animal grace is reserved for animals. Man’s nature is such that he must live a self-conscious life in time, not a blissful sub-rational eternity on the hither side of good and evil. Consequently animal grace is something that he knows only spasmodically in an occasional holiday from self-consciousness, or as an accompaniment to other states in which life is not its own reward but has to be lived for a reason outside itself.”
The concept of non-attachment
The solitary ideal of life-worship did not survive Lawrence for long. It received its fullest expression in 1929; by 1936 it was considerably diluted; and in 1937 its place had been taken by the ideal of non-attachment. It was not a mere replacement, because Huxley retained his respect for “animal grace” but it gave a new direction to his thought. Non-attachment was the attitude that symbolised the latest spiritual change. He started Ends and Means with a description of the ideal non-attached man. Such a man is non-attached to his bodily sensations and lusts, to his craving for power and possessions, to his anger and hatred, to wealth, fame, social position, to science, art, speculation, etc. The practice of non-attachment involves the practice of all the virtues: charity, courage, intelligence, generosity, and disinterestedness. This ideal has been reached consistently over the last three thousand years by Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Stoics, Christians, and moralists outside the Christian tradition. The non-attached man puts an end to pain, not only in himself but also, by refraining from malicious and stupid activity, to such pain as he may inflict on others.
Conditions of non-attachment
The attitude of non-attachment is a choice. No man can be compelled into it. Non-attachment is also incompatible with a high income. The possession of too much wealth causes people to identify themselves with what is less than self. But extreme poverty is equally a barrier. The requirement which attracted Huxley more than any other was that of intelligence, the kind that sees the general implications of particular acts. He thought Buddhism decidedly superior to Christianity in this respect because, in the Buddhist ethic, stupidity or unawareness ranks as one of the principal sins. Bodily fitness is another requirement. There can also be no non-attachment without inhibition. As a life-worshipper Huxley had said that inhibitions resulted from the action of the whole personality acting on a part that had become rebellious or over-stimulated. Now he declared that the person practising non-attachment must be prepared to inhibit on various levels emotionally, by checking malice and vanity, lust and sloth, avarice, anger and fear ; intellectually, by rejecting irrelevant thoughts ; and physically, by refusing to be satisfied with our normal mal-adjusted actions.
Non-attachment a means, not an end
In The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley said that non-attachment was not an end in itself. Non-attachment possesses merely an instrumental value, as the indispensable means to something else. It is the “something else” that must remain a mystery, until it is personally experienced. The mistake lies in identifying stoic austerity with holiness. Holiness is the total denial of the separative self, in its creditable as well as discreditable aspects, and the abandonment of the will to God. Holy indifference is not stoicism but active resignation. We are to renounce particular attachments so that the divine will may use the mortified mind and body as its instrument for good.
Towards pacifism
An important change in Huxley’s thinking occurred with the writing of Eyeless in Gaza (1936) where Anthony Beavis came under the influence of a minor prophet named Miller and turned pacifist. He made the discovery that national policies are large-scale projections of individual desires. Incon­sequence political changes can only be worked through individual channels. He formulated four facts: we are all capable of love for other human beings; we impose limitations on that love; we can transcend the limitations; and love breeds love just as hate breeds hate. It was part of the general search for sounder moral principles that marks the Huxley of the early thirties; it also took place in the shadow of Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, and Stalin’s aggressive and disciplinarian tyrannies. Huxley said that the philosophy of constructive pacifism was based on these obvious facts.
The greater part of Huxley’s pacifist ideas are expressed in Ends and Means, An Encyclopaedia of Pacifism, and a pamphlet called “What Are You Going To Do About It?” Eyeless in Gaza shows Anthony Beavis finding his way towards pacifism in the manner that Huxley himself must have approached it. Just as Propter (in After Many a Summer) is the non-attached man, so Miller is the pacifist.
“Words and Behaviour”
At the time of his conversion to pacifism, Huxley wrote an essay entitled “Words and Behaviour” (published in The Olive Tree) which attempted to show how the reality or war is concealed by the words we use to describe it. It illustrates how the language of politics and strategy is designed to conceal the fact that war consists in the murder and suffering of individuals in quarrels which are not their own. Military writers use the terms “sabres” and “rifles” instead of “cavalry men” and “foot-soldiers”. As Huxley says, the accounts of some battles read like a clash of weapons only and not of human beings. Or, some times we get accounts of battles fought not between men but between ideas. Or the combatants become personifications. “The enemy is singular, “he” makes “his” plans, strikes “his” blows. Conflict becomes mythological, and no blood flows. In short a veil is thrown over facts so as to hide the hideousness of war.
Pacifism through the logic of technological advance
Ultimately Huxley reached the condition that the pacifist position would never be accepted on ethical or religious grounds, but that it might be forced upon the world by the logic of technological advance. The writer could only call attention to the psychological and demographic factors making for war. Huxley himself followed this method in some of his writings, notably in Science, Liberty and Peace (1947) and in Ape and Essence (1949).
Dark forebodings
In his later years, Huxley was greatly troubled by the wild squandering of resources that characterizes society today. We live like, “drunken sailors”, the irresponsible heirs of a “millionaire uncle”, Again and again he returns to the charge: “How long can this spending spree go no?” he asks in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”. Very soon man will have to learn to live on his income. Not everyone agrees that man will learn the lesson in time. Most thinkers are pessimistic Drawin did not believe that man would succeed in stabilising the human population on this planet. Many others also believe that man may not be able to make the transition, to new and less concentrated sources of energy and raw materials or abolish war. But if man can avoid regression to a simple agricultural existence it will probably be by the adoption of a completely controlled and collectivised industrial organisation. In other words, the nightmare of Brave New World was on the horizon, certainly much closer than Huxley had imagined, at the time of writing that book. During his last years he seemed almost obsessed by this vision which he had formulated, and he returned to it again and again. But there was also another vision, one of complete breakdown and return to savagery, and he expressed it in Ape and Essence. It was hot one on which he liked to dwell. But if it came it would be the direct consequence of a problem that seems insoluble: the tremendous rate of growth of population in developing countries. Not even a vast international plan providing subsidies in grains, money, machinery, and trained man-power will save the world. Huxley’s mind fluctuated unhappily between the two alternatives. In “Usually Destroyed” he makes a few guesses about the sum total of human misery we can look forward to. More people will be hungrier and mal-nutrition will be more widespread. Birth-control measures will, by and large, fail. Improvements in agriculture will be unable to meet the demands of the expanding population. The processes of erosion and deforestation will be speeded up. There will be increasing political and social unrest culminating in wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. The power of governments will increase and individual liberty will diminish. If we go on fighting wars, the future must be totalitarian. That is, if we do not destroy ourselves altogether.

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