Saturday, March 3, 2012
Brave yellow hay
Old-time (13th century) Zen master Dogen said that studying the way is about studying the self, so here's more about me (not the real me; the pseudonymous one I'm more sure about). Seeing that he's a fictional character, it's not all that surprising that there's no good picture of Mr. Propter out there on the internet, so I had to make do with one of Aldous Huxley for my blogger's profile instead. When I introduced Mr. Propter a few weeks ago, the introduction amounted to a summary of some of the central ideas in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (to give the longer title of the US editions of the book). There Huxley comes across as rather straightforwardly as a proponent of a certain kind of social and political detachment, and more centrally of a particularly uninstitutionalized form of religious experience. He is, to put it more simply, a mystic, or at least an admirer of mystics. But if you read some of Huxley's other novels you come away with a quite different impression.
At first sight, Huxley's novelistic career presents a rather unusual development, progressing from the light-hearted yet mordant satires of the 1920s, to the spiritual and psychedelic utopianism of his final novel Island. The strangeness of writer's artistic trajectory is mirrored by what seems an unusual course through life for Huxley the man. Scion of a distinguished intellectual family - Matthew Arnold the poet and critic was his grandfather, and Thomas Henry Huxley ('Darwin's pit-bull') his great uncle - Huxley received the conventional education of an English gentleman, attending Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford. By the end of his life, Huxley had relocated to California and transformed himself into a disciple of the neo-Hindu mystic Prabhavananda and an enthusiastic advocate of New Age causes. The Doors of Perception, his report on his experiments with mescaline, published in 1954, went on to become one of the literary touchstones of the counter-culture of the 1960s.
Once you scratch the surface, though, and read through a few of Huxley's novels, this bewildering career begins to take the form of an understandable enough progression. It is true that the early novels are taken up almost entirely with the witty but ultimately meaningless chatter of the English upper-classes, and that the rather perfunctory episodes that punctuate their dialogue are chiefly calculated to expose the hypocrisy and moral emptiness of that particular slice of social life. In a characteristically inconsequential tale-within-a-tale embedded in Huxley's début, Crome Yellow, published in 1921 and set in an aristocratic country-house, a naive young suitor makes the acquaintance of three ethereally spiritual sisters, who declare their distate for the 'coarse' activity of eating. Later, he unintentionally comes across them feasting surreptiously in a hidden chamber, their hands clutching chicken-drumsticks to their mouths.
And yet it is possible to discern something else beneath the impeccably witty surface of these early books. What that something else is precisely is difficult to tell, but it's unmistakably present. Mr. Gumbril, the hapless anti-hero of Huxley's 1923 follow-up Antic Hay, in a rare break from galivating around fashionable London, reflects that there's 'a quiet...in spite of everythng, at the back of everything. Lying awake at night, sometimes - not restlessly, but serenely, waiting for sleep - the quiet re-establishes itself, piece by piece...The quiet grows and grows. Beautifully and unbearably. And at last you are conscious of something approaching; it is almost a faint sound of footsteps. Something inexpressibly lovely and wonderful advances...Nearer, nearer come the steps; but one can't face the advancing thing. One daren't. It's too terrifying, it's too painful to die. Quickly, before it is too late, start the factory wheels, bang the drum, blow up the saxophone. Think of the women you'd like to sleep with, the schemes for making money, the gossip about your friends...'
There are similar moments in Brave New World, Huxley's 1932 vision of a scientific future which has rather surprisingly proven to be by far his most enduring work. The world of the novel is both utopian and dystopian. All sources of pain and discomfort have been removed by scientific progress and the systematic application of reason; and if anything does go wrong, citizens can have recourse to soma, a kind of souped-up valium that acts as a panacaea for mental anguish. But precisely because of this, life has lost all meaning. A hint of where that meaning might still be looked for comes when Mustapha Mond, the Contoller, decides to suppress a new book because its ideas might lead people to 'lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness'. And as the Controller concluded, this was quite possibly true, 'but not, in the present circumstance, admissable.'
Huxley's denigration of chemically assisted happiness in Brave New World sits rather uneasily with his later eager adoption of drugs as shortcuts to spiritual experience. And for those inspired by Mr. Propter's advocacy of an autonomy grounded in meditative practice, Huxley's later championing of the psychedelic cause can seem something of a disappointment. As late as 1952, in his non-fiction work The Devils of Loudun, Huxley explained that there were two paths for those seeking to transcend the dissatisfactions of the ordinary self: downward transcendence, sought for in alcohol, which provided some refuge, but at the cost of the obliteration of all consciousness; and upward transcendence, which offered an escape from the mundane while preserving, and even enhancing, clarity of thought. Huxley died in 1963, too early to witness the discrediting of psychotorpic drugs as a toll-free highway to higher consciousness. But the quiet lurking below the chatter of his earlier novels can still remind us to listen out, every once in a while, for footsteps.