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Uplift and Suspicion

How Aldous Huxley Managed to Avoid the Temptations of His Time

COMPLETE ESSAYS By Aldous Huxley Edited with commentary by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton; Ivan R. Dee: Vol. I, 1920-1925: 490 pp., $35 Vol. II, 1926-1929: 590 pp., $35

December 17, 2000|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is the author of the forthcoming collection of essays, "Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere." He is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation

And so it could, which would make Huxley a master of tautology rather than of contradiction. His pedantry seems to have protected him somewhat from this challenge to learned complacency. However, his fondness for bold contrasts seems to have predisposed him to Los Angeles as soon as he set eyes on it in 1926 (without apparently having read F. Scott Fitzgerald):

"Jazz it up, jazz it up. Keep moving. Step on the gas. Say it with dancing. The Charleston, the Baptists. Radios and Revivals. Uplift and Gilda Gray. The pipe organ, the nigger with the saxophone, the Giant Marimba phone. Hymns and the movies and Irving Berlin. Petting Parties and the First Free United Episcopal Methodist Church."

Indeed it can be fun, as one pages along, to detect the early shoots of "Brave New World." In a 1929 essay, "Silence Is Golden," he writes with almost insufferable condescension about his first visit to a "talking picture" or "talkie." Without giving away the title, he makes it fairly plain that he went to a minstrel-type show, since he reprobates the "dark and polished young Hebrews, whose souls were in those mournfully sagging, sea-sickishly undulating melodies of mother-love and nostalgia and yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristically Jewish contributions to modern popular music." (He also makes a rare allusion to the fact that he was almost blind after a childhood infection, a misfortune which perhaps helps explain why so many of his essays are about musical appreciation.) At the close he denounces the talkies--and we can see the idea of "The Feelies" in "Brave New World" being shaped--as "the psychical putrefaction of those who have denied the God of life and have abandoned their souls, already weakened by the hereditary malady of Christian spirituality and scientific intellectualism, to the life-hating devil of the machine."

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I pause to note that his languid Pyrrhonist mood appeared to have deserted him here, because he was impressed, in 1927, by the now-exploded IQ theories of Cyril Burt, one of the ancestors of those for whom the bell curves. "The more elaborate tests of Terman in America and Burt in England have shown that intelligence (or at least the correlated capacity to succeed in the tests) is distributed in a very symmetrical way round a numerically determined normal." The figures of "Brave New World's" Alphas and Epsilons are lurking there. In "A Note on Eugenics," written in the same year, he reviews a book by a certain Maj. Leonard Darwin and suggests that scientists will soon enough "learn to breed babies in bottles." Relishing the profusion of nubile young flappers in California, he says that, "Plumply ravishing, they give, as T.S. Eliot has phrased it, 'a promise of pneumatic bliss.' "

Suspicious alike of the materialists and the spiritualists and protected by a carapace of classical learning and admiration for high culture, Huxley could be penetrating even when it seemed he was being merely snobbish. One wants to object when he writes of James Joyce in 1925:

"In spite of its very numerous qualities--it is, among other things, a kind of technical handbook, in which the young novelist can study all the possible and many of the quite impossible ways of telling a story--'Ulysses' is one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant. This is due to the total absence from the book of any sort of conflict."

While this is not entirely true--there are some in those "dull" pages who think Leopold Bloom has no real right to be in Dublin--it is true enough to set one reflecting. Certainly, there are no Dostoevskyan dilemmas and agonies in "Ulysses," and it's a point in Huxley's favor that he admired those who faced tragedy and contradiction, even if he did sometimes try to avoid it himself. In a brilliant essay on Spinoza, which takes the form of an attack on all religious efforts to deny (while also seeking to mold) human nature, he has this to say:

" 'Homer was wrong,' wrote Heracleitus of Ephesus, 'Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away. These are words which the superhumanists [Huxley's word for the moralists] should meditate. Aspiring towards a consistent perfection, they are aspiring towards annihilation. The Hindus had the wit to see and the courage to proclaim the fact; Nirvana, the goal of their striving, is nothingness. Wherever life exists, there also is inconsistency, division, strife." The choice of the word "meditate" may be unfortunate above or it may be deliberate.

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