Serendipity: “The Great Orgy of Universal Nihilism”

British Writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

I have always loved the work of Aldous Huxley and have been reading him almost worshipfully for over fifty years. While I admire his fiction, particularly Point Counter Point (1928), I like his essays best. Several years ago, I dished out a couple hundred dollars to buy a clothbound six-volume set of his collected essays. Today I picked up one of his essays, “Revolutions,” written in Do What You Will in 1929, where I found the following:

The revolution that will then break out will not be communistic—there will be no need for such a revolution, as I have already shown, and besides nobody will believe in the betterment of humanity or in anything else whatever. It will be a nihilistic revolution. Destruction for destruction’s sake. Hate, universal hate, and an aimless and therefore complete and thorough smashing up of everything. And the levelling up of incomes, by accelerating the spread of universal mechanization (machinery is costly), will merely accelerate the coming of this great orgy of universal nihilism. The richer, the more civilized we becomes, the more speedily it will arrive. All that we can hope is that it will not come in our time.

Huxley was lucky. It came well after his death in 1963. It started with the Tea Party movement around 2009 and reached an apogee with the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. Whether that particular individual lasts, we still have the revolutionaries in their Southern or Midwestern fastnesses.

 

 

Good Time

Dancing the Charleston

On a cruise to India around the Cape of Good Hope, Aldous Huxley laments the behavior of his fellow passengers. The following is from his 1926 collection of essays entitled Jesting Pilate:

Everybody in the ship menaces us with the prospect of a very “good time” in India. A good time means going to the races, playing bridge, drinking cocktails, dancing till four in the morning, and talking about nothing. And meanwhile the beautiful, the incredible world in which we live awaits our exploration, and life is short, and time flows stanchlessly, like blood from a mortal wound. And there is all knowledge, all art. There are men and women, the innumerable living, and, in books, the souls of those dead who deserved to be immortal. Heaven preserve me, in such a world, from having a Good Time! Heaven helps those who help themselves. I shall see to it that my time in India is as bad as I can make it.

I like Aldous Huxley. I admire his questing mind and, with him, deplore those who pretend to be “with it” but who actually are as boring as drying paint.

 

 

The Man Who Wanted to Change the World

Aldous Huxley Pictured on Cover of One of My Books

Aldous Huxley Pictured on Cover of One of My Books

When I was a young man in my twenties and thirties, I regarded Aldous Huxley as one of my gurus. I read his novels and essays and treasured quotes from him, such as “I wanted to change the world. But I found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Then there was this one: “A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.”

In time, I found that Huxley was a very good novelist and an even better essayist. But he was a human being like all of us and, as much as he tried, turned out not to be the universal guru. One of the fun things about going back and re-reading his works is encountering my young self when I was most vulnerable: after my brain surgery in 1966 and in the twenty years that followed.

Last night, I finished reading Huxley’s short novel The Genius and the Goddess, about a young man, himself a scientist, who joins the household of a Nobel prizewinner, as I described in my Goodreads.Com review:

John Rivers is a young scientist who idolizes Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Dr. Henry Maartens, and jumps at the chance to not only work with him, but to join his household, including his Goddess-like wife Katy and children Tim and Ruth. Rivers puts Katy on a pedestal, but circumstances bring her to his bed when Maartens is ailing and the children are staying with a relative. Alternately crushed and ecstatic, Rivers finally comes out of his funk; and circumstances take an odd turn, leaving him to wonder at this early encounter late in his life.

I concluded my review:

I will continue to read Huxley and like him, but he is no longer the guru I once thought of him as being when I myself was equally torn and conflicted about love, wondering whether it would ever “happen” to me. It did, and continues to do so; but the experience is much more complex and mixed than I would ever have predicted.

On an entirely different note, I noticed a strange “separated at birth” coincidence based on the photo above. In it, Huxley looks almost exactly like George Bancroft, who played Marshal Curly Wilcox in John Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach (1939):

George Bancroft

George Bancroft

The only difference is that Huxley was a bit thinner, but the faces are amazingly close.

Aldous Huxley Foresees the Future

The Young Aldous Huxley

The Young Aldous Huxley

The Twentieth Century gave us two dystopias to consider: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is interesting to note, years after the fact, whose vision is closer to the reality. My vote goes to Aldous Huxley, as does the writer of this website, which compares the two point by point using comics to make their point.

In 1949, right after 1984 came out, Huxley wrote a letter to Orwell in which he doubts the latter’s vision would ever come true:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful.

My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

Corybantic Dancers on Reverse of Coin

Corybantic Dancers on Reverse of Greek Coin

Last night, I saw a DVD containing what my friend Lee Sanders claims is the only filmed interview with Huxley, shortly before his death in 1963. Considering the extent to which Huxley has been one of my gurus over the last half century, it is no surprise that I found it fascinating. During the interview, Huxley repeatedly made the point that our own intellectualism was over-rigorous. He brings up the point that the Ancient Greeks needed the frenzied Corybantic Dances to maintain their lives on an even keel.

He also quoted two related poems by William Wordsworth entitled “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned.” The the former, a visitor, thought to be Hazlitt, remonstrates with the poet, who appears to be sitting and doing nothing:

‘The eye—it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

’Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

’Think you, ’mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

’—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.’

In “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth goes on the offensive:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Significantly, Huxley wrote a novel entitled Those Barren Leaves (1925), which I have not yet read.

Whether we fling our clothes off and engage in wild corybantic dances, or we sit still and let the world communicate with us in its own time, we are in the process sharpening and shaping our minds using all of our faculties, rather than just a few.