Monthly Archives: September 2009

September 20, 2009

Aldous Huxley: Collected Essays (1959)

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
Collected Essays (1959)

I don’t know which of the infinite monkeys over at picked this one for me, but it was a pointed choice. Surely this is the most broomlet-like of all the titles on Harold Bloom’s list.

On the face of it, the only organizing theme here is “Aldous Huxley is a thoughtful chap,” but either by editorial design, or simply due to the shape of his mind, there is an undercurrent running through much of it: the challenge and the necessity of reconciling humanism with the cold new truths of the 20th century, scientific, political, and technological alike. That this was the sort of thing that preoccupied Mr. Huxley will come as no surprise to anyone who, like me, tried to read Brave New World as a kid, but found it boring and stopped, and then was assigned to read it in high school after already knowing what it was about, and then either did or didn’t read it, I can’t remember.

Many of these essays put me through the same changes:
1. I am wary, based on the title, that the topic will be too bland or obscure to hold my interest
2. I find that the angle he has chosen is in fact uniquely interesting and accessible; the topic is really just a springboard to something universal and philosophical
3. I am touched by a finely made point and think: “What an excellent essay — I’m going to recommend this to people.”
4. I grow weary as the philosophical discussion becomes flat and repetitive.
5. I become disillusioned: “He doesn’t really have so much to say after all, does he.”
6. I end with a feeling of displeasure: Overall that had a lonely, hollow feeling to it.

That outline was given in the present tense, even though these are now decidedly past-tense essays for me. I have a lot to read, in this Western Canon, and despite the fact that many of his topics merited further reflection, I’ve let them go back to the library and moved on to other things. These were magazine pieces, and that’s how I read them, and that’s the level on which they made themselves seem significant. Even as they took on Big Questions — pretty much as Big as he could manage, in every essay — and often with real quality of thought and feeling, they still felt a little forgotten and gray, as though I were reading them out of a 60-year-old National Geographic that I found in the nightstand at a beach house. And his points, even the fine ones that made me 3. above, have all begun to flee from my memory already.

What lingers is principally the sense that here was a man striving to see above and beyond the niche of history in which he happened to live, straining to get the long view of things. I admire and sympathize with the impulse, but it is a tragic one. Yes, at its best, it leads him to some prescient perspectives on technology and other large-scale issues relating to the impact of man’s collective behavior on the earth and on himself. But the sad truth of it is that the long view — past, present, and future — is not particularly edifying. It is in fact on the whole depressing. Or, rather, it has no room in it for thought and feeling because it is on the wrong scale; our emotions were meant to handle smaller things — the things that, in general, Huxley is trying to speak beyond. And yet he tries to bring feeling with him. The result is a sense of ascending cynicism over the course of his career. The later essays were better-written, more deeply thought, much less hopeful, and of no clear use to me.

I suppose this is a repeat of my skeptical attitude about “pained” art already expressed in the entry about Rilke and the one about The Seventh Seal. And elsewhere. It’s my recurring question for shell-shocked 20th century art: what good can this possibly do?

Anyway: after thoughtful, wide-ranging commentary on art, politics, travel, nature, music, etc. etc., I come to the two essays about Huxley’s thoughts on psychoactive drugs — and lo and behold, only these two essays are heavily marked up in the library copy, thoughtfully underlined in pencil by some studious reader with a wholesome thirst for knowledge. But seriously folks. I felt like the disingenuousness and pretension of the typical “philosophical” drug enthusiast was laid bare: drugs open the mind, man, they’re part of the sacred spiritual quest for philosophical insight… and yet in this book full of thoughts about life, the world, and human experience, the only thoughts that this particular philosopher found stimulating were, coincidentally, the ones about taking drugs! Think of that!

If you’re going to tell people you get Playboy for the articles, you should probably read the articles. It’s the least you can do. This guy just opted for Hi-Liting the centerfold — who is, you will notice, studying a book and biting a pencil in deep thought.

“Read Doors of Perception; this is just part 7 of the whole book” this reader advised me in a thoughtful marginal scribble. Thanks, dude, for that tip — from one aficionado of mid-century British essayists to another.

Having made this jibe, let me also say that the Doors of Perception essay was in fact one of the most intriguing, containing as it does a measured and reflective first-person account of Huxley’s first mescaline experience. Coming at the end of these decades of increasingly hopeless writings, his sober enthusiasm for the spiritual possibilities of mind-altering drugs feels somehow a fitting final act for the book; you get the sense that, after years of questing, his consciousness had grown pretty disenchanted with what reality had to offer.

Your excerpt follows.

From the books the investigator directed my attention to the furniture. A small typing table stood in the center of the room; beyond it, from my point of view, was a wicker chair and beyond that a desk. The three pieces formed an intricate pattern of horizontals, uprights and diagonals — a pattern all the more interesting for not being interpreted in terms of spatial relationships. Table, chair and desk came together in a composition that was like something by Braque or Juan Gris, a still life recognizably related to the objective world, but rendered without depth, without any attempt at photographic realism. I was looking at my furniture, not as the utilitarian who has to sit on chairs, to write at desks and tables, and not as the cameraman or scientific recorder, but as the pure aesthete whose concern is only with forms and their relationships within the field of vision or the picture space. But as I looked, this purely aesthetic, Cubist’s-eye view gave place to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was back where I had been when I was looking at the flowers — back in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance. The legs, for example, of that chair — how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness!

At this stage of the proceedings I was handed a large colored reproduction of the well-known self-portrait by Cézanne — the head and shoulders of a man in a large straw hat, red-cheeked, red-lipped, with rich black whiskers and a dark unfriendly eye. It is a magnificent painting; but it was not as a painting that I now saw it. For the head promptly took on a third dimension and came to life as a small goblin-like man looking out through a window in the page before me. I started to laugh. And when they asked me why, “What pretensions!” I kept repeating. “Who on earth does he think he is?” The question was not addressed to Cézanne in particular, but to the human species at large. Who did they all think they were?

For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. “This is how one ought to see,” I repeated yet again. And I might have added, “These are the sort of things one ought to look at.” Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their Suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-Body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of God.

See, that was pretty good, wasn’t it. I want to be clear: this was a book full of good reading, just as I’m sure that “The Best American Essays 2009” or some such thing is also full of good reading. When I began it, I was delighted and surprised at how much I was enjoying reading essays, which I tend to think of as a tweedy, joyless substitute for actual reading — the Bert to fiction’s Ernie. “Why don’t I just read essays all the time?” I thought, delightedly. But now, finding myself writing this lackluster entry and thinking of Huxley as a bit of a Bert after all, I think I know why not. An essay, no matter how artful, doesn’t get filed in one’s memory under “aesthetic experience”; it gets filed with information, with conversations and glances at the newspaper and, at the very best, with one’s own thoughts. If this book is to have been significant for me, it will not be because of the experience it offered, but because I will find myself returning to those thoughts. I guess I simply can’t know that yet.

But I think this book may not have made much of an impression on me because I identified with it so readily. What impression was there for it to make? Perhaps to sharpen and focus the thoughts that I enjoyed reading because they were already mine but more acute. But were they actually more acute? Maybe I really only enjoyed reading them because they were printed in a book, whereas most of my thoughts are not. And that’s a transient pleasure.

NOTE AT THE FOOT: Having said that these essays were broomlet-like, I just now* decided to take a trip down memory’s fabled lane, skimming through 4 years of broomlitude to find out whether my sense of what it meant to be “broomlet-like” was on or off the money. Conclusion: On, but my style has really shifted over these years, don’t you think? My earliest writing here comfortably chats out its thoughts, seemingly as it’s having them. The more recent stuff feels pre-considered, clotted and uptight, like constipation that has been forcibly and uncomfortably loosened. Maybe I only think that because I can still clearly remember writing the more recent stuff. Still, there’s definitely something a little colder and more “grown-up” going on these days, which, in light of my displeasure with Aldous’s slightly-irritating thoughtful seriousness, is a self-cautionary observation.

* Months ago, at time of posting.