Saturday, July 9, 2016

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

This is a complex and thematically-intriguing novel, something I’ve more or less come to expect from Aldous Huxley. The title comes from Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.

This comes after Samson, the great hero, has been blinded and put into slavery by the Philistines, and it’s a good a title as any for this very philosophical novel that attempts to call into question the very nature of self that most everyone assumes to be true. In that way, the characters, and all of us readers, are similarly blind, slaves not to Philistines but to our own frail natures.

But let me get back to that. Let’s just start with the novel’s complexity. Part of what makes it complex is the way it jumps around in time, each chapter seemingly randomly plucked from one of four general periods (1902-03, 1912-14, 1926-31, and 1933-35) in the life of our protagonist, Anthony Beavis. These chronological gymnastics at times frustrated me (as they seem to have frustrated many of the people who have also shared their view on this book in various corners of the Internet). But Huxley is, I think, doing something useful with the device.

As I’ve often posited before, I believe that there are clues that can be used to discover a good novel’s secrets scattered about in its opening pages. Here, the initial scene has Beavis, in 1933, looking at snapshots of himself and his mother from much earlier in his life. To Beavis, this photographs are…

...a proof that progress can only be recorded, never experienced. He reached out for his note-book, opened it and wrote: “Progress may, perhaps, be perceived by historians; it can never be felt by those actually involved in the supposed advance. The young are born into the advancing circumstances, the old take them for granted within a few months or years. Advances aren’t felt as advances. There is no gratitude--only irritation if, for any reason, the newly invented conveniences break down. Men don’t spend their time thanking God for cars; they only curse when the carburetor is choked.”

And, a few pages later, when his friend and former lover, Helen, tries to engage Beavis in the fond remembrances that such photographs should evoke…

Then, in a tone of disgust, “All this burden of past experience one trails about with one!” he added. “There ought to be some way of getting rid of one’s superfluous memories. How I hate old Proust! Really detest him.” And with a richly comic eloquence he proceeded to evoke the vision of that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past. And all the stale soap suds of countless previous washings floated around him, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub or hung in dark suspension in the water. And there he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face, scooping up cupfuls of it and appreciatively rolling the grey and gritty liquor round his mouth, gargling, rinsing his nostrils with it, like a pious Hindu in the Ganges.

Okay. First, if I’m going to be treated to prose such as that, I’m not going to care if the novel jumps around in time or is successful in using that device in support of its larger theme. Reading Huxley is sometimes like reading a 19th century English version of T. C. Boyle.

Here’s a quick aside, but still on the general theme of blindness. I still very fondly remember one of the opening scenes in Water Music, my first experience with Boyle’s work, assigned to me in my college American Literature class, when Mungo Park is about to have his eyes drilled out.

Gloucester’s eyes, they say, were gray. Oedipus’ were black as olives. And Milton’s--Milton’s were like bluejays scrabbling in the snow. Dassoud knows nothing of Shakespeare, Sophocles or Milton. His rough fingers twist the screws. The explorer grins. Oblivious. The onlookers, horrified at his mad composure, turn away in panic. He can hear them rushing off, the slap of their sandals on the baked earth … but what’s this? -- he seems to have something caught in his eye ...

Huxley, like Boyle, is a writer you can enjoy merely for the flow of his prose. But like Boyle, Huxley is far more literate than most of his readers, and understanding who Proust is and the way Huxley intends to use him, he often provides just the same kind of lyrical satisfaction as Boyle’s allusions to Shakespeare, Sophocles and Milton.

But getting back to Eyeless in Gaza, let’s pay closer attention to what Huxley is actually saying here. Anthony Beavis is a protagonist set, in the opening pages of this novel, against the idea of fond remembrance of the past. Indeed, as alluded to in the opening excerpt against progress, he will challenge the very idea that one can remember the past, that there is even a past to be remembered.

With this as one of the novel’s central themes, the choice to eschew a strict chronology of the novel’s plot and events makes complete sense.

But things are actually even more complex than this. For what, in fact, is this thing we call memory?

Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them out at random, shuffled once more and dealt them out in different order, again and again, indefinitely. There was no chronology. The idiot remembered no distinction between before and after. The pit [where Beavis, as a boy, played with a childhood friend] was as real and vivid as the gallery [which Beavis, as a young man, visited with Helen’s mother, his former teacher and his first lover]. That ten years separated flints from Gauguins was a fact, not given, but discoverable only on second thoughts by the calculating intellect. The thirty-five years of his conscious life made themselves immediately known to him as a chaos--a pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic.

Only seventeen pages in, but still with Beavis’s snapshots, a fitting metaphor, based on how the images are resolved and pixelated on the paper, for what’s to come.

And who decided which snapshots were to be kept, which thrown away? A frightened or libidinous animal, according to the Freudians. But the Freudians were victims of the pathetic fallacy, incorrigible rationalizers always in search of sufficient reasons, of comprehensible motives. Fear and lust are the most easily comprehensible motives of all. Therefore… But psychology had no more right to be anthropomorphic, or even exclusively zoomorphic than any other science. Besides a reason and an animal, man was also a collection of particles subject to the laws of chance. Some things were remembered for their utility or their appeal to the higher faculties of the mind; some, by the presiding animal, remembered (or else deliberately forgotten) for their emotional content. But what of the innumerable remembered things without any particular emotional content, without utility, or beauty, or rational significance? Memory in these cases seemed to be merely a matter of luck. At the time of the event certain particles happened to be in a favourable position. Click! the event found itself caught, indelibly recorded. For no reason whatever.

Modern science now knows that this is not really how memory works, although I think Huxley would have been even more enamoured with the latest neuroscientific theories about the cognitive generation of memories at the time of recollection, given what comes next.

Unless, it now rather disquietingly occurred to him, unless of course the reason were not before the event, but after it, in what had been the future. What if that picture gallery had been recorded and stored away in the cellars of his mind for the sole and express purpose of being brought up into consciousness at this present moment?

It is with this extended passage that I think we find the key that unlocks the entire novel. It explains not just the jumping around in time, but the grander idea--equally dependent on the same narrative device to reveal itself--that the continuous and conscious entities we mostly think we are are just as transient and time-dependent as the events described in Huxley’s novel.

The story Huxley tells is dramatically in service to this idea, and that story relies at least partially on the life-long relationships and interactions of Anthony Beavis and two of his friends--Brian Foxe and Mark Staithes. Here’s an interesting snippet of dialogue between Beavis and Staithes from the earliest of the time periods. I flagged this text as interesting at the time I read it, but now, understanding the scope of the novel more completely, I’d like to go back and read it and all the interactions between these three characters again. Here, Staithes is complaining to Beavis about how Foxe treats him.

“I don’t want his damned niceness,” said Mark. “Why can’t he behave properly?”

“Because it amuses him to behave like a Christian.”

“Well, then, tell him for God’s sake to try it on someone else in the future. I don’t like having Christian tricks played on me.”

“You want a cock to fight with, in fact.”

“What do you mean?”

“Otherwise it’s no fun being on top of the dunghill. Whereas Brian would like us all to be jolly little capons together. Well, so far as dunghills are concerned, I’m all for Brian. It’s when we come to the question of the hens that I begin to hesitate.”

Mark looked at his watch again. “I must go.” At the door he turned back. “Don’t forget to tell him what I’ve told you. I like Brian, and I don’t want to quarrel with him. But if he tries being charitable and Christian again…”

“The poor boy will forfeit your esteem for ever,” concluded Anthony.

“Buffoon!” said Staithes and, slamming the door behind him, hurried downstairs.

Left alone, Anthony took the fifth volume of the Historical Dictionary and began to read what Bayle had to say about Spinoza.

There you go. Huxley has not only described these three characters in a nutshell, he has also now set them out as archetypes in the philosophical journey that is Eyeless in Gaza. Brian Foxe, the model of Christian charity; Mark Staithes, the aggressive conqueror; and Anthony Beavis, the detached observer. (Not only does Beavis turn to his books when Staithes leaves the scene, Huxley specifically points out that he “observes” what one philosopher observed about another. Talk about detached!)

In retrospect, I realize that I should have paid closer attention to what these three characters make of the novel’s underlying presumption--that people are not coherent entities acting with willful intent, but assemblages of particles acting randomly in accordance with fundamental laws. Foxe the Christian should certainly rebel against such a sacrilegious idea. Staithes the conqueror should craftily look for ways to exploit it or other people’s belief in it to his advantage. And Beavis the observer? Beavis the observer should simply steeple his fingers and comment dispassionately on it.

Do they? Well, maybe I can put that on my list of future doctoral dissertations.

I do know that Beavis acts pretty much to form, since many of the chapters are presented as if they were his journal entries, where what he thinks and observes about the external and internal universe are put down with unmistakable clarity.

It was left to Blake to rationalize psychological atomism into a philosophical system. Man, according to Blake (and after him, according to Proust, according to Lawrence), is simply a succession of states. Good and evil can be predicted only of states, not of individuals, who in fact don’t exist, except as the place where the states occur. It is the end of personality in the old sense of the word.

That’s about as plain as it gets, but Beavis (Huxley) continues, never satisfied to state things simply when a thrilling journey through a set of philosophical ramifications presents itself.

(Parenthetically--for this is quite outside the domain of sociology--is it the beginning of a new kind of personality? That of the total man, unbowdlerized, unselected, uncanalized, to change the metaphor, down any one particular drain pipe of Weltanschauung--of the man, in a word, who actually is what he may be. Such a man is the antithesis of any of the variants on the fundamental Christian man of our history. And yet in a certain sense he is also the realization of that ideal personality conceived by the Jesus of the Gospel. Like Jesus’s ideal personality, the total, unexpurgated, noncanalized man is (1) not pharisaic, that is to say not interested in convention and social position, not puffed up with the pride of being better than other men; (2) humble, in his acceptance of himself, in his refusal to exalt himself above his human station; (3) poor in spirit, inasmuch as ‘he’--his ego--lays no lasting claims on anything, is content with what, for a personality of the old type, would seem psychological and philosophical destitution; (4) like a little child, in his acceptance of the immediate datum of experience for its own sake, in his refusal to take thought for the morrow, in his readiness to let the dead bury their dead; (5) not a hypocrite or a liar, since there is no fixed model which individuals must pretend to be like.)

And who would be an example of this kind of man? This total, unexpurgated man with the ideal personality? Not Brian Foxe, and not Mark Staithes, but Anthony Beavis, of course, our humble protagonist. Anthony Beavis is a character, Eyeless in Gaza is a novel, and, dare I say, Aldous Huxley is a writer, all equally obsessed with this description of life, of the self, of the mind.

Put in four hours this morning at working up my notes. Extraordinary pleasure! How easily one could slip back into uninterrupted scholarship and idea-mongering! Into that “Higher Life” which is simply death without tears. Peace, irresponsibility--all the delights of death here and now.

And with this detachment comes the uncanny perception, bordering on the teetering edge of reality, that people are not people at all, not consistent entities with long and coherent existences, but transient collections of random particles, with today’s arrangement no more connected to yesterday’s than successive entries in the encyclopedia.

Anthony shook his head. “No, no, I’ve known it, of course. All the time. But theoretically. In the same way as one knows … well, for example, that there are birds that live symbiotically with wasps. A curious and interesting fact, but no more. I didn’t let it be more. And then I had my justifications. Work: too much personal life would interfere with my work. And the need for freedom: freedom to think, freedom to indulge my passion for knowing about the world. And freedom for its own sake. I wanted to be free, because it was intolerable not to be free.”

“I can understand that,” said Mark, “provided that there’s some one there who can enjoy the freedom. And provided,” he added, “that that some one makes himself conscious of being free by overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of freedom. But how can you be free, if there’s no ‘you’?”

“I’ve always put it the other way round,” said Anthony. “How can you be free--or rather (for one must think of it impersonally), how can there be freedom--so long as the ‘you’ persists? A ‘you’ has got to be consistent and responsible, has got to make choices and commit itself. But if one gets rid of the ‘you,’ one gets rid of responsibility and the need for consistency. One’s free as a succession of unconditioned, uncommitted states without past or future, except in so far as one can’t voluntarily get rid of one’s memories and anticipations.”

And with that perception, as Beavis begins to do at the end of that last passage, comes certain conclusions about how to conduct oneself in the world.

What was the point of doing things finally and irrevocably? What right had the man of 1914 to commit the man of 1926? The 1914 man had been an embodied state of anger, shame, distress, perplexity. His state to-day was one of cheerful serenity, mingled … with considerable curiosity.

And yet, there is something about our human existence that belies this interpretation. Cloistered with his books and intellectual pursuits, Beavis can convince himself that the man of 1914 has no designs on the man of 1926. But when he ventures into the real world, and meets other collections of particles (i.e., other people), his confidence is easily shaken.

She released his hand, and, clasping her own behind her head, leaned back against the pillows in the attitude, the known and familiar attitude, that in the Hotel des Saints-Peres had been so delicious in its graceful indolence, so wildly exciting because of that white round throat stretched back like a victim’s, those proffered breasts, lifted and taut beneath the lace. But to-day the lace was soiled and torn, the breasts hung tired under their own weight, the victim’s throat was no more a smooth column of white flesh, but withered, wrinkled, hollow between starting tendons.

She opened her eyes, and, with a start, he recognized the look she gave him as the same, identically the same look, at once swooning and cynical, humorous and languidly abandoned, as had invited him, irresistibly then, in Paris, fifteen years ago. It was the look of 1913 in the face of 1928--painfully out of its context. He stared at her for a second or two, appalled; then managed to break the silence.

The body of his first lover supports his philosophy of separation. Her eyes, and the intelligence that resides behind them, do not.

And it is the body and its sensations that most frequently confound Beavis’s view of the self, that restricts him from fully committing to the disjointed nature of existence both he and the non-chronological flow of the narrative would prefer to paint. In a powerful scene near the end of the novel, Beavis finds himself accompanying Staithes, a doctor, on one of his missions of mercy in Central and South America.

Puerto San Felipe was a village of huts, with some wooden sheds, near the water, for storing coffee. Don Jorge’s agent at the port helped them through the customs. A pure Spaniard, half dead with tropical diseases, but still elaborately courteous. “My house is yours,” he assured them as they climbed the steep path towards his bungalow, “my house is yours.”

Orchids hung from the veranda and, among them, cages full of incessantly screaming parrakeets.

An emaciated woman, prematurely old and tired, hopelessly tired, beyond the limit of her strength, came shuffling out of the house to welcome them, to apologize in advance for her hospitality. Puerto San Felipe was a small place, lacked commodities; and besides, she explained, the child was not well, not at all well. Mark asked her what was the matter. She looked at him with eyes expressionless with fatigue and answered vaguely that it was fever; fever and a pain in the head.

They went with her into the house and were shown a little girl lying on a camp-bed, restlessly turning her head from side to side, as if seeking, but always vainly, some cool place on which to rest her cheek, some position in which she might find relief from pain. The room was full of flies and a smell of fried fish came from the kitchen. Looking at the child, Anthony suddenly found himself remembering Helen, that day on the roof--turning and turning her head in the torture of pleasure.

He’s remembering a sexual encounter with Helen. The comparison seems inappropriate, but Huxley will drive it home in a few short paragraphs.

“I suppose it must be mastoid,” Mark was saying. “Or meningitis, perhaps.”

As he spoke, the child lifted thin arms from under the sheet and, clasping her head between her hands, began to roll still more violently from side to side and at last broke out into a paroxysm of screaming.

In immediate response, the noise of the parrakeets on the veranda swelled up, shriek after shriek, to a deafening maximum of intensity.

“Quiet, quiet,” the mother kept repeating, wheedlingly at first, then with a growing insistence, begging, exhorting, commanding the child to stop crying, to feel less pain. The screaming continued, the head went on rolled from side to side.

Tortured by pleasure, tortured by pain. At the mercy of one’s skin and mucus, at the mercy of those thin threads of nerve.

And that, of course, is the inescapable human condition that neither philosophy nor fiction can ultimately transcend. We are all, irrevocably, at the mercy of those thin threads of nerve.

“Quiet, quiet,” the woman repeated almost angrily. She bent over the bed and, by main force, dragged down the child’s lifted arms; then, holding the two thin wrists in one hand, laid the other on the head in an effort to hold it unmoving on the pillows. Still screaming, the little girl struggled under the constraint. The woman’s bony hand tightened round the wrists, rested more heavily on the forehead. If she could forcefully restrain the manifestation of pain, perhaps the pain itself would cease, perhaps the child would stop that screaming, would sit up perhaps, smiling, and be well again.

The scene is uncomfortable and it’s supposed to be. But the final punch is yet to come.

“Quiet, quiet,” she commanded between clenched teeth.

With a violent effort the child released her arms from the grasp of those claw-like fingers; the hands flew once more to the head. Before the woman could snatch them away again, Mark touched her on the arm. She looked round at him.

“Better to leave her,” he was saying.

Obediently she straightened herself up and walked away towards the door that gave on to the veranda. They followed her. There was nothing whatever they could do.

“Mi casa es suya.”

My house is yours, indeed. And here Huxley obviously means more than just a domicile and Spanish hospitality. The house he refers to is the body, the body that suffers both pain and pleasure, the vessel in which all of our seemingly transcendent existences--continuous or disjointed--reside. When it comes to philosophical novels like Eyeless in Gaza, the body is the great equalizer.

Inside the Craft

Huxley’s writing always provides interesting perspectives on the craft of writing. Frequently he drops out of the narrative completely and just provides unvarnished essays on the subject. But it’s always better, I think, when he’s able to include the commentary in the flow of the story.

That was the chief difference between literature and life. In books, the proportion of exceptional to commonplace people is high; in reality, very low.

“Books are opium,” said Mark.

“Precisely. That’s why it’s doubtful if there’ll ever be such a thing as proletarian literature. Even proletarian books will deal with exceptional proletarians. And exceptional proletarians are no more proletarian than exceptional bourgeois are bourgeois. Life’s so ordinary that literature has to deal with the exceptional. Exceptional talent, power, social position, wealth. Hence those geniuses of fiction, those leaders and dukes and millionaires. People who are completely conditioned by circumstances--one can be desperately sorry for them; but one can’t find their lives very dramatic. Drama begins where there’s freedom of choice. And freedom of choice begins when social or psychological conditions are exceptional. That’s why the inhabitants of imaginative literature have always been recruited from the pages of Who’s Who.”

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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