Friday, February 10, 2012
Mr. Propter's koans
It's been some weeks since I told you about my real self, so I thought it might be about time that I told you about my fake self as well. It is was when I was (really) living in Italy that I first made the acquaintance of Mr. Propter. He was in a novel called After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley (pictured - no, not there). I'd read some of Huxley's earlier novels, mordantly satirical and sharply witty observations of the social life of the English upper classes, and enjoyed them well enough. If you're careful you can detect in them the seeds of the meditative mysticism that would later reach full bloom in Island, Huxley's final novel, and that would eventually collapse into the championing of psychotropic substances in such works as The Doors of Perception. But I don't know of a fuller or more coherent expression of Huxley's mature views on meditation, God, and much else besides, than that communicated through the speeches of the character Mr. Propter in the first part of After Many a Summer.
The novel follows the progress of Jeremy, an English historian, on his mission to the lavish mansion (modeled on Hearst Castle) of the oil-baron Jo Stoyte. Jeremy has been employed to examine the manuscripts in the Stoyte private collection, but soon becames absorbed in the drama playing itself out among the residents of the mansion. Pete, a young idealist, is hopelessly in love with Virginia, Stoyte's unreasonably young and desirable girlfriend, who is cheating on her wealthy lover with the house physician, the cynical and manipulative Dr. Obispo. Down in the valley, vigilantly independent of Stoyte's money, the luxuries of his mansion, and the lure of his girls, lives Mr. Propter, a retired professor, who dedicates himself to silent contemplation and living off the land, all the while humouring Jeremy, mentoring Pete, and nudging Stoyte towards a more compassionate treatment of his workers.
We first meet Mr. Propter hitching a ride in the car that takes Jeremy to the mansion. When we next meet him, he is sitting and watching the sun go down and meditating on koans. Of course, that's not how Huxley describes it, but that's pretty much what's going on. Sitting alone, he asks himself 'What is man?' and contemplates the answer given by Pierre de Bérulle, the 17th century cardinal: 'C'est un néant environné de Dieu, indigent de Dieu, capable de Dieu, et rempli de Dieu, s'il veut'. As if that weren't enough, he then asks himself, 'What is God?' and whispers to himself the definition offered by the 13th century mystic John Tauler: 'God is a being withdrawn from creatures, a free power, a pure working'. Like those of any koan practitioner, his thoughts then wander from the object of meditation to thinking about other matters, in this case, how to improve the lot of Stoyte's employees. But he soon brings them back again:
'Little by little these thoughts and wishes and feelings had settled like a muddy sediment in a jar of water, and as they settled, his vigilance was free to transform itself intoa kind of effortless unattached awareness, at one intense and still, alert and passive - an awareness whose object was the words he had spoken and at the same time that which surrounded the words. But that which surrounded the words was the awareness itself; for this vigilance which was now an effortless awareness - what was it but an aspect, a partial expression, of that impersonal and untroubled consciousness into which the words had been dropped and through which they were slowly sinking? And as they sank they took a new significance for the awareness that was following them down into the depths of itself...The busy nothingness of his being experienced itself as transcended in the felt capacity for peace and purity, for the withdrawal from revulsions and desires, for the blissful freedom from personality...'
Mr. Propter sets out his philosophy in a series of conversations with Jeremy, Stoyte, and above all Pete, who becomes a kind of apprentice, across three or four of the central chapters of the novel. Fundamental to Mr. Propter's modus vivendi is a 'skeptical attitude of mind', maintained in the face of political creeds at both ends of the spectrum, nationalism of any sort, and even organized religion. Despite his work on behalf of exploited labourers, the only liberation worth seeking, in Mr. Propter's view, is a spiritual liberation: 'Liberation from time...Liberation from craving and revulsion. Libration from personality'. The end of liberation is so important that it structures Mr. Propter's ethical system, in which a good act is simply 'any act that contributes towards the liberation of those concerned in it'. Science and art are good, bad, or simply indifferent depending on whether they aid or hinder people on the way to this over-arching end.
Once we appreciate the importance of liberation in Mr. Propter's system, it becomes easier to see why he rejects attachment or devotion to any other cause. After all, 'scientists and artists and men devoted to what we vaguely call an ideal. But what is an ideal? An ideal is merely the projection, on an enormously enlarged scale, of some aspects of personality...And that's true...of every ideal except the highest, which is the ideal of liberation - liberation from personality, liberation from time and craving, liberation into union with God'. And even among those who feel the desire to search for God, 'most find, through ignorance, only such reflections of their own self-will as the God of battles, the God of the chosen people, the Prayer-Answerer, the Saviour'. So where might they find the real God? Only in contemplation, 'in timelessness, in the state of pure, disinterested consciousness'.
Mr. Propter's determination to achieve spiritual liberation is accompanied by an eccentric desire to free himself from political and economic dependencies of all sorts. He has solar cells and his own generator so that he can live off the grid; he grows his own vegetables in a greenhouse and builds his own wooden furniture in a workshop. His explanation for all this is that he is a 'Jeffersonian democrat'. What does democracy have to do with anything? He answers simply, 'The more bosses, the less democracy. But unless people can support themselves, they've got to have a boss who'll undertake to do it for them. So the less self-support, the less democracy.' Hence his interest in the generator, which promises to 'help to give independence to any one who desires independence'.
Unsurprisingly, Huxley's Mr. Propter is a pacifist, though his answer to the question of what we should do about Fascists ('something appropriate') is unreassuringly vague considering the year in which the novel was published (1939). He is also, very surprisingly indeed, committed to violent revolution, although here too concrete details are disturbingly scarce. He says only that he is willing 'to do active work on the techniques of a better system' and to 'collaborate with the few who understand what the system is and are ready to pay the price demanded for its realization.' His final comment on the topic - 'incidentally, the price, measured in human terms, is enormously high' - should be chilling to anyone who has lived to the end of the 20th century.
So Huxley's hero is hardly an unblemished role-model for the would-be contemplative, the ardent democrat, or even for those (and there are a lot of them here in California) looking to go back to the land. All the same, he possesses what he calls 'the most characteristic features of an enlightened person's experience', that is, 'serenity and disinterestedness'. In him, Huxley has provided us with a portrait of someone who has worked towards 'the absence of excitement and the absence of craving' without losing any of his humanity. And how is he going about it? As he tells Jeremy and Pete, there is really only one way - the path of direct experience, looking at reality head on. They can go and look at it just as they can go upstairs to look at the priceless paintings on the walls of Stoyte's mansion. Except that in this case, 'there isn't any elevator. You have to go up on your own legs. And make no mistake...There's an awful lot of stairs'.