Aldous Huxley: Reaching beyond the confines of the physical
Mankind’s perennial certainty that the future for which it strives will necessarily be an improvement on both the present and the past is a theme whose folly and contemporary relevance is brought to the fore in two classics by Aldous Huxley, now reissued by Vintage.
Born in 1894, and exempted from military service in the Great War due to a childhood illness that left him almost blind, Huxley was nevertheless no stranger to death. The loss of his mother to cancer when he was 14, and the suicide of his elder brother Noel in 1914, just as the demise of a generation of his contemporaries began, lent Huxley’s writing an abiding preoccupation with mortality.
Both After Many a Summer and Time Must Have a Stop hint at their author’s personal pursuit of a divine level of consciousness, reaching beyond the seemingly infer-ior confines of the physical. Originally published in 1939 and 1944 respectively, each novel confronts the reader with metaphysical truths concerning the relentless struggle between good and evil, while examining the motivations underlying social interactions and the relationship between the body and soul. Taking its title from Tennyson’s Tithonus, the Trojan prince and lover of Eos who was doomed to live and age forever, After Many a Summer tells the tale of Jo Stoyte, a discriminating philanthropist and self-made millionaire who seeks and eventually finds the secret of eternal life but at the cost of his own humanity.
Set in a wryly depicted late 1930s Los Angeles, the city Huxley called home after emigrating in 1937, and borrowing freely from the gothic literature of the 18th century, the novel has castles, cemeteries, iniquitous doctors and simpering maidens. In the dénouement, man is finally exposed in his most primal form, condemned like Tithonus but more horrifically so in the absence of the civilising self-awareness that comes with catharsis. In a further Faustian twist, we see plainly what Stoyte’s desperation has blinded him to. By binding himself solely to the earth and eschewing both moral and spiritual development, he has forfeited any hope of sublime contentment.
Despite the eloquence of Huxley’s prose, it is hard to muster any real sympathy for the book’s characters. The only exceptions are Peter Boone, a young, hopelessly idealistic medical researcher, recently returned from fighting for the Republican side in Spain, and an old school friend of Stoyte’s, the academic Mr Propter. Assessing the virtues and pitfalls of just about every conceivable “ism”, Propter chiefly appears as the emissary of Huxley’s own philosophical suppositions, on the intelligent application of free will and its power to cause both immense happiness and untold harm.
Written during the Second World War, which had left him dejected at the failure of the inter-war pacifist movements, such as the Peace Pledge Union and For Intellectual Liberty, in which he had played an active role, Time Must Have a Stop was felt by Huxley to be his best work. Ripened in the upheaval wrought by the new conflict, a timely reminder of how war or its expectation were a constant companion to preceding generations, the impressions originally explored in the earlier novel seem to have come to fruition in the later one. Retrospectively set in 1929, its ribald touches lend its narrative a comic air, and its characters seem altogether more cognisant of their fallibility and are thus capable of remorse.
An angelic-looking 17-year-old whose impulsive egocentricity inevitably leads him into having to wrestle with his own conscience, Sebastian Barnack is a budding poet who is afforded the opportunity of broadening his rather narrow horizons by an invitation to the Florentine home of his limerick-loving uncle Eustace. The robust bon vivant suffers a somewhat awkwardly-timed fatal heart attack soon after his nephew’s arrival.
Attempts to contact Eustace through a séance, convened by his eccentric mother-in-law, accompany the dead man’s bemusement at his continuing existence as a mind without matter. While uproarious, such scenes simultaneously impart the text with a sharp injection of melancholy. As Huxley was writing, millions across the globe were grieving, and his empathy for those who sought comfort through similarly unorthodox means is palpable.
The callowness of Sebastian’s youth reaches a crescendo when he thoughtlessly sells a drawing, for a paltry sum, driven by his overwhelming desire to buy a dinner- jacket. The piece is a Degas nude, gifted to him by his late uncle in exchange for a humorous verse written by the young poet, which describes the “two buttocks and a pendulous bub” depicted in the work.
Though the poem is enough to keep Eustace guffawing beyond the grave, the ensuing furore over the missing artwork lands Sebastian in hot water, until Bruno Rontini, a pious antiquarian bookseller and his second cousin once-removed, comes to the rescue. Bruno is left to atone for Sebastian’s sins, however, and his retrieval of the Degas results in his arrest by local Fascists.
The epilogue takes us to 1944, when Sebastian, now missing an arm as a result of his wartime service and left a widower following the death of his wife after a miscarriage, recalls his last meeting with Bruno. Ten years after the debacle caused by his lack of judgment, Sebastian is offered the chance of redemption, and he cares for Bruno as his cousin succumbs to throat cancer.
Irrevocably changed by his experiences, Sebastian declares that mankind’s insistence on fighting and dying for an unknown future is a form of enslavement. Liberation can only truly be found, he concludes, by living both wholly and meaningfully in the present moment. Sebastian’s realisations also allow him finally to repair the strained relationship with his father.
A staunch socialist who placed his faith in the future, and neglected the here and now during his son’s youth, the older man has become a victim of time. In a candid moment between the two, Sebastian confesses that Bruno taught him to make sense of life, by showing him that death can be seen not as an ending but as a beginning.
In the words of his widow Laura, Aldous Huxley died “the most beautiful death”, on November 22, 1963, while the world was transfixed by a more violent demise. Though it is tempting to imagine what he would make of today’s world, one hopes he is enjoying immortality too much to care.