Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Point Counter Point

One of the happy rediscoveries of 2014 has been Aldous Huxley. I had read his dystopia, 'Brave New World' and his utopia, 'Island' many years ago and enjoyed both, not least for their prescience, and Nicholas Murray's excellent biography but had not gone further. I think I rather prissily disapproved of his experiments with psychedelics - enlightenment must never be on the cheap - disregarding his fundamental seriousness; and, was not quite sure what to make of his 'origins' as a fiercely satirical writer inhabiting a restricted, intellectually artificial, milieu, as if people cannot finish well beyond their starting points! Ah well we mature slowly...

Now, I find myself slowly reading my way through, in no particular order, as I notice him making his way into my wholly unofficial 'canon'.

I have just finished 'Point Counter Point' that is, I suppose, a transitional novel - the satirist is masterfully in place but the emphasis is on the ideas unfolded in the stream of his characters' talk. Indeed he has one of them, Philip Quarles, a novelist that borrows many of Huxley's own features, comment on this tendency in a novel of ideas for the characters to talk too easily in well-formed sentences of structured argument; and, how such a focus tends to narrow down on only a small cross-section of any society, locking out (except as deus ex machina) all those who do not find their lives dominated by (or with the leisure to) the recounting of their thought in sustained argument.

It is, however, a wonderful unfolding of the times and mores of England in the 1920s of a society shattered by the horrors of conflict out of its Victorian moral certainties (though they more than linger as a continuing framing reference point) and stumbling on its way to finding other ways of being and, with Huxley the pessimist at this point, mostly failing! He later became, I think, what I call an 'idealist realist' - you may hope for all because it, transformation, indeed transfiguration, is possible but you must expect nothing -  as you know not the hour of its coming (if at all a sceptical remnant reminds). It is a position akin to my own!

What struck me most was the aching gulf that Huxley depicts between aspiration and reality - in both noble and hypocritical forms. A search is on in his questing mind for not simply new ideas but the ways in which such ideas could be animators of life. The truth, if and when it can be found, must involve a transformation of being: to know is to be in a certain way of living. You can see the glimmering of his conversion to a practical mysticism.

However, the character here, who gets the best tunes, is Mark Rampion, novelist and painter, who carries more than an echo of D.H. Lawrence, and the celebration of the 'instinctual man' who neither aspires to be more than a man - lost in the unfulfillable idealism of Christianity - but nor less trapped in the moloch of materialism (and unfulfillable nature of grasping desires after progress). It is bravura performance but it remains that, simply, nobly performed. How it might actually be lived is left insecurely dangling in wishful thinking.

Finally, I, also, noticed the continuing thread of humour and, magnificently, its target is humanity in the whole, including the foibles that Huxley himself knows he carries. It ultimately has a humanising, compassionate purpose but that too you can see is a work in progress (on himself). There is a wonderful moment when one of his most unappealing characters finds himself distracting himself by reading a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica - a habit for which Huxley was famous!

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