Saturday, December 24, 2016

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

Listened to this one as an audiobook about a decade ago, and decided then that I would like to read the hard copy someday. Here’s what I jotted down at the time of hearing the audio version:

Huxley is such an interesting writer, capturing ideas and emotions on paper that I never even knew existed. My favorite character, by far, is Coleman, who is always on the lookout for the obscene and blasphemous, not because he is particularly vile himself, but because life is so stuffy and dull that only the obscene and blasphemous can get his attention.

Coleman is exceptional. But so is Lypiatt, an artist, who I suspect is wearing more than one disguise.

He had, indeed, a remarkable face, a face that ought by rights to have belonged to a man of genius. Lypiatt was aware of it. The man of genius, he liked to say, bears upon his brow a kind of mark of Cain, by which men recognize him at once--“and having recognized, generally stone him,” he would add with that peculiar laugh he always uttered whenever he said anything rather bitter or cynical. A laugh that was meant to show that the bitterness, the cynicism, justifiable as events might have made them, was really only a mask that beneath it the artist was still serenely and tragically smiling. Lypiatt thought a great deal about the ideal artist. That titanic abstraction stalked within his own skin. He was it--a little too consciously, perhaps.

His face, his laugh; they are both masks that he hides behind, but lurking within his skin is creature more elusive than the ideal artist--that being, Huxley himself.

And, of course, if we’re talking about exceptional characters, or men of genius, we’ll have to mention the novel’s the main character, Theodore Gumbril, Jr.

Gumbril Junior was lighting his pipe. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, speaking in little jerks between each suck of the flame into the bowl, “that most people … ought never … to be taught anything at all.” He threw away the match. “Lord have mercy upon us, they’re dogs. What’s the use of teaching them anything except to behave well, to work and obey. Facts, theories, the truth about the universe--what good are those to them? Teach them to understand--why it only confuses them; makes them lose hold of the simple real appearance. Not more than one in a hundred can get any good out of a scientific or literary education.”

Gumbril, obviously and even from these opening pages, is presented and bears the conscious affectation of a self-styled superman. But a superman--or The Complete Man, as Gumbril himself fashions it, that must wear a disguise in order to find the inner fortitude to be taken as such by the world around him.

It is a novel very much about appearances and the search for substance that some seek and that others have abandoned.

Like most Huxley works that I’ve read, there are wonderful allegorical commentaries on the role and struggle of the artist in society. Lypiatt serves this role, but so does Gumbril’s father, who, as an architect, far prefers to work on structures of superhuman scale and grandeur, but who is forced, like many an artist, to make his living by providing serviceable dwellings to the masses of humanity he and his son look down upon.

“And to think,” he said after a pause, “that I’ve been spending these last days designing model cottages for workmen at Bletchley! I’m in luck to have got the job, of course, but really, that a civilised man should have to do jobs like that! It’s too much. In the old days these creatures built their own hovels and very nice and suitable they were too. The architects busied themselves with architecture--which is the expression of human dignity and greatness, which is man’s protest, not his miserable acquiescence. You can’t do much protesting in a model cottage at seven hundred pounds a time. A little, no doubt, you can protest a little, you can give your cottage decent proportions and avoid sordidness and vulgarity. But that’s all, it’s really a negative process. You can only begin to protest positively and actively when you abandon the petty human scale and build for giants--when you build for the spirit and the imagination of man, not for his little body. Model cottages, indeed!”

Is this Gumbril Senior talking about architecture, or is this Huxley talking about literature? Read it again and you’ll see that it retains its meaning either way.

There is also, like other Huxley works, political philosophy transparently dressed up as dialogue. And, as such, it often has to be quoted at length in order to grasp its full allegorical meaning. Here, as an example, Gumbril Junior engages in a conversation with his tailor, a Mr. Bojanus. He has gone there to see if Bojanus can make a novel and ridiculous style of clothing which Gumbril believes he can exploit for commercial purposes.

“Perhaps you would like a share,” suggested Gumbril.

Mr. Bojanus shook his head. “It wouldn’t do for my cleeantail, I fear, Mr. Gumbril. You could ‘ardly expect the Best People to wear such things.”

The Best People is a key phrase. It will come to connote people of a certain class and disposition. People that generally surround Gumbril, but from whom Gumbril inwardly holds himself apart, something Bojunus instantly understands.

“Couldn’t you?”

Mr. Bojanus went on shaking his head. “I know them,” he said. “I know the Best People. Well.” And he added with an irrelevance that was, perhaps, only apparent. “Between ourselves, Mr. Gumbril, I am a great admirer of Lenin…”

“So am I,” said Gumbril, “theoretically. But then I have so little to lose to Lenin. I can afford to admire him. But you, Mr. Bojanus, you the prosperous bourgeois--oh, purely in the economic sense of the word, Mr. Bojanus…”

Mr. Bojanus accepted the explanation with one of his old-world bows.

“ would be among the first to suffer if an English Lenin were to start his activities here.”

“There, Mr. Gumbril, if I may be allowed to say so, you are wrong.” Mr. Bojanus removed his hand from his bosom and employed it to emphasize the points of his discourse. “When the revolution comes, Mr. Gumbril, the great and necessary revolution, as Alderman Beckford called it, it won’t be the owning of a little money that’ll get a man in trouble. It’ll be ‘is class habits, Mr. Gumbril, ‘is class speech, ‘is class education. It’ll be Shibboleth all over again, Mr. Gumbril; mark my words. The Red Guards will stop people in the street and ask them to say some such word as ‘towel.’ If they call it ‘towel,’ like you and your friends, Mr. Gumbril, why then…” Mr. Bojanus went through the gestures of pointing a rifle and pulling the trigger; he clicked his tongue against his teeth to symbolize the report… “that’ll be the end of them. But if they say ‘teaul,’ like the rest of us, Mr. Gumbril, it’ll be: ‘Pass Friend and Long Live the Proletariat.’ Long live Teaul.”

“I’m afraid you may be right,” said Gumbril.

“I’m convinced of it,” said Mr. Bojanus. “It’s my clients, Mr. Gumbril, it’s the Best People that the other people resent. It’s their confidence, their ease, it’s the ‘abit their money and their position give them of ordering people about, it’s the way they take their place in the world for granted, it’s their privilege, which the other people would like to deny, but can’t--it’s all that, Mr. Gumbril, that’s so galling.”

Gumbril nodded. He himself had envied his securer friends their power of ignoring the humanity of those who were not of their class. To do that really well, one must always have lived in a large house full of clockwork servants; one must never have been short of money, never at a restaurant ordered the cheaper thing instead of the more delicious; one must never have regarded a policeman as anything but one’s paid defender against the lower orders, never for a moment have doubted one’s divine right to do, within the accepted limits, exactly what one liked without a further thought to anything or anyone but oneself and one’s own enjoyment. Gumbril had been brought up among these blessed beings; but he was not one of them. Alas? Or fortunately? He hardly knew which.

Remember that to truly move among them, among these Best People, Gumbril has to disguise himself. Comically, as we’ll come to see, with a false beard and an adopted confidence, but otherwise and always with a cynicism that keeps anything of substance at bay. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, let’s hear the remainder of what Mr. Bojanus has to say about the coming revolution.

“And what good do you expect the revolution to do, Mr. Bojanus?” he asked at last.

Mr. Bojanus replaced his hand in his bosom. “None whatever, Mr. Gumbril,” he said. “None whatever.”

“But Liberty,” Gumbril suggested, “equality and all that. What about those, Mr. Bojanus?”

Mr. Bojanus smiled up at him tolerantly and kindly, as he might have smiled at some one who had suggested, shall we say, that evening trousers should be turned up at the bottom. “Liberty, Mr. Gumbril,” he said. “You don’t suppose any serious-minded person imagines a revolution is going to bring liberty, do you?”

“The people who make the revolution always seem to ask for liberty.”

“But do they ever get it, Mr. Gumbril?” Mr. Bojanus cocked his head playfully and smiled. “Look at ‘istory, Mr. Gumbril, look at ‘istory. First it’s the French Revolution. They ask for political liberty. And they gets it. Then comes the Reform Bill, then Forty-Eight, then all the Franchise Acts and Votes for Women--always more and more political liberty. And what’s the result, Mr. Gumbril. Nothing at all. Who’s freer for political liberty? Not a soul. Mr. Gumbril. There was never a greater swindle ‘atched in the ‘ole of ‘istory. And when you think, ‘ow those poor young men like Shelley talked about it--it’s pathetic,” said Mr. Bojanus, shaking his head, “reelly pathetic. Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working--mostly working. When they’d got all the political liberty they wanted--or found they didn’t want--they began to understand this. And so now it’s all for the industrial revolution, Mr. Gumbril. But bless you, that’ as big a swindle as the other. How can there ever be liberty under any system? No amount of profit sharing or self-government by the workers, no amount of hyjeenic conditions or cocoa villages or recreation grounds can get rid of the fundamental slavery--the necessity of working. Liberty? Why it doesn’t exist. There’s no liberty in this world, only gilded cages.”

You may now be realizing that this is quite a subversive little book that Mr. Huxley has written. The masks and disguises continue and blossom all around us. Now, even political liberty is a shadow without substance. But it doesn’t end there.

“And then, Mr. Gumbril, even suppose you could somehow get rid of the necessity of working, suppose a man’s time were all leisure. Would he be free then? I say nothing of the natural slavery of eating and sleeping and all that, Mr. Gumbril; I say nothing of that, because that, if I may say so, would be too ‘airsplitting and metaphysical. But what I do ask you is this,” and Mr. Bojanus wagged his forefinger almost menacingly at the sleeping partner in this dialogue: “would a man with unlimited leisure be free, Mr. Gumbril. I say he would not. Not unless he ‘appened to be a man like you or me, Mr. Gumbril, a man of sense, a man of independent judgment. An ordinary man would not be free. Because he wouldn’t know how to occupy his leisure except in some way that would be forced on ‘im by other people. People don’t know ‘ow to entertain themselves now: they leave it to other people to do it for them. They swallow what’s given them. They ‘ave to swallow it, whether they like it or not. Cinemas, newspapers, magazines, gramophones football matches, wireless telephones--take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself. The ordinary man can’t leave them. He takes; and what’s that but slavery? And so you see, Mr. Gumbril,” Mr. Bojanus smiled with a kind of roguish triumph, “you see that even in the purely ‘ypothetical case of a man with infinite leisure, there still would be no freedom. And the case, as I have said, is purely ‘ypothetical; at any rate so far as concerns the sort of people who want a revolution. And as for the sort of people who do enjoy leisure, even now--why I think, Mr. Gumbril, you and I know enough about the Best People to know that freedom, except possibly sexual freedom, is not their strongest point. And sexual freedom--what’s that?” Mr. Bojanus dramatically enquired. “You and I, Mr. Gumbril,” he answered confidentially, “we know it’s an ‘orrible, ‘ideous slavery. That’s what it is. Or am I wrong, Mr. Gumbril?”

“Quite right, quite right, Mr. Bojanus,” Gumbril hastened to reply.

“From all of which,” continued Mr. Bojanus, “it follows that, except for a few, a very few people like you and me, Mr. Gumbril. There’s no such thing as liberty. It’s an ‘oax, Mr. Gumbril, an ‘orrible plant. And if I may be allowed to say so,” Mr. Bojanus lowered his voice, but still spoke with emphasis, “a bloody swindle.”

This is far more, I think, than just wool gathering. Huxley is setting up his narrative here, giving Gumbril both the motive and opportunity to perpetrate a deception that makes up most of the rest of the story. He has gone out of his way to position Gumbril in between the established strata of early 20th century English society, a time when the chaos and loss of the First World War had seemed to suck all the substance out of life.

He [Gumbril] was not sure, now he came to think of it, that he didn’t belong to all the herds--by a sort of honorary membership and temporarily, as occasion offered, as one belongs to the Union at the sister university or the Naval and Military Club while one’s own is having its annual clean-out. Shearwater’s herd, Lypiatt’s herd, Mr. Mercaptan’s herd, Mrs. Viveash’s herd, the architectural herd of his father, the educational herd (but that, thank God! was now bleating on distant pastures), the herd of Mr. Bojanus--he belonged to them all a little, to none of them completely. Nobody belonged to his herd. How could they? No chameleon can live with comfort on a tartan.

So, as alluded to earlier, he decides to disguise himself with a false beard and an affected confidence, and wander into these different herds and see what substance, if any, he can find within them. And in this guise, as the calculated fate of fiction would have it, he meets and falls in love with a young common woman named Emily. He finds himself taken with her and her simple world in a way that supercedes any of the transient pleasures he had been able to enjoy in the circles of The Best People. He sheds his disguise upon subsequent rendezvouses with her and, at a pivotal time--the eve of a journey he and Emily planned to take when he had decided to reveal his love to her--he finds himself not entirely unwillingly enticed back into the glitz and spectacle of that other world.

Mrs. Viveash, one of The Best People in Gumbril's circle, is his temptress, and she takes him, among other things, to see a play, an allegorical thing in which a character known only as The Monster unrequitedly seeks love and companionship.

The Monster (Solus): Somewhere there must be love like music. Love harmonious and ordered: two spirits, two bodies moving contrapuntally together. Somewhere, the stupid brutish act must be made to make sense, must be enriched, must be made significant. Lust, like Diabelli’s waltz, a stupid air, turned by a genius into three-and-thirty fabulous variations. Somewhere…

“Oh dear!” sighed Mrs. Viveash.

“Charming!” Gumbril protested. like sheets of silky flame; like landscapes brilliant in the sunlight against a background of purple thunder; like the solution of a cosmic problem; like faith…

“Crikey!” said Mrs. Viveash.

...Somewhere, somewhere. But in my veins creep the maggots of the pox…

“Really, really!” Mrs. Viveash shook her head. “Too medical!”

...crawling towards the brain, crawling into the mouth, burrowing into the bones. Insatiably.”

The Monster threw himself to the ground and the curtain came down.

“And about time too!” declared Mrs. Viveash.

“Charming!” Gumbril stuck to his guns. “Charming! Charming!”

The fact that Gumbril is taken by The Monster’s melodramatic dream of love, while Mrs. Viveash is repelled by it, is not lost on me. It shows not only that he is, in fact, different from the libertines that surround him in his social circle, but that he is now coming to view himself as decidedly different from them.

There was a disturbance near the door. Mrs. Viveash looked round to see what was happening. “And now on top of it all,” she said, “here comes Coleman, raving, with an unknown drunk.”

“Have we missed it?” Coleman was shouting. “Have we missed all the lovely bloody farce?”

The lovely bloody farce. Is he referring to the play Viveash and Gumbril were just watching? Are you sure?

“I hear,” [said Coleman], “by the way, that there’s a lovely prostitute in this play.”

“You’ve missed her,” said Mrs. Viveash.

“What a misfortune,” said Coleman. “We’ve missed the delicious trull,” he said, turning to the young man.

The young man only laughed.

“Let me introduce, by the way,” said Coleman. “This is Dante,” he pointed to the dark-haired boy. “And I am Virgil. We’re making a round tour--or, rather, a descending spiral tour of hell. But we’re only at the first circle so far. These, Alighieri, are two damned souls, though not as you might suppose, Paolo and Francesca.”

The boy continued to laugh, happily and uncomprehendingly.

As well he might. Paolo and Francesca are from the second circle of Dante’s hell, a literary device he used to explore the relationship “between love and lust, between the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire.” Even I had to look that one up online.

“Another of these interminable entr’actes,” complained Mrs. Viveash. “I was just saying to Theodore here that if there’s one thing I dislike more than another, it’s a long entr’acte.” Would hers ever come to an end?

Oh, and there’s the dead giveaway. The whole novel, in a sense, wrapped up in a single sentence. Would hers ever come to an end? Because the play they are watching, and the countless other happy and mindless distractions that comprise the world of The Best People, are the antic hay of the book’s title, it’s absurd dance. And to the Mrs. Viveash’s and Coleman’s of this world, life consists only of suffering through an on-going series of intervals between these dances, each entertaining, but each as shallow and as meaningless as the last. And Gumbril, as he is revealed in this scene, not only wants there to be meaning in these pantomimes but, like those moved by melodrama, is now willing to create it himself if necessary.

In the light of these experiences, Gumbril comes to deeply regret having lied to Emily about his inability to meet her, conjuring up, as he did, a fictional but unavoidable accident in a telegram he sent before his night with Mrs. Viveash and the others. Determined to make amends, he grabs the next available train, and it is there that we find him, reading the reply Emily had quickly dispatched upon receiving his telegram.

Your telegram made me very unhappy. Not merely because of the accident--though it made me shudder to think that something terrible might have happened, poor darling--but also, selfishly, my own disappointment. I had looked forward so much. I had made a picture of it all so clearly. I should have met you at the station with the horse and trap from the Chequers and we’d have driven back to the cottage--and you’d have loved the cottage. We’d have had tea and I’d have made you eat an egg with it after your journey. Then we’d have gone for a walk; through the most heavenly wood I found yesterday to a place where there’s a wonderful view--miles and miles of it. And we’d have wandered on and on, and sat down under the trees, and the sun would have set and the twilight would slowly have come to an end, and we’d have gone home again and found the lamps lighted and the supper ready--not very grand, I’m afraid; for Mrs. Vole isn’t the best of cooks. And then the piano; for there is a piano and I had the tuner come specially from Hastings yesterday, so that it isn’t so bad now. And you’d have played; and perhaps I would have made my noises on it. And at last it would have been time for candles and bed. When I heard you were coming, Theodore, I told Mrs. Vole and lie about you. I said you were my husband, because she’s fearfully respectable, of course; and it would dreadfully disturb her if you weren’t. But I told myself that, too. I meant that you should be. You see, I tell you everything. I’m not ashamed. I wanted to give you everything I could and then we should always be together, loving one another. And I should have been your slave, I should have been your property, and lived inside your life. But you would always have had to love me.

It is a domestic but no less melodramatic version of The Monster’s dream. A love like music. Love harmonious and ordered: two spirits, two bodies moving contrapuntally together. And unlike the tortured Monster of Coleman’s “lovely bloody farce,” this love is actually within Gumbril’s reach. Except note Emily’s constant use of that foreboding future tense. We’d have… You’d have… I’d have… The other shoe is about to drop.

And then, just as I was getting ready to go and call at the Chequers for the horse and trap, your telegram came. I saw the word ‘accident’ and I imagined you all bleeding and smashed--oh, dreadful, dreadful. But then, when you seemed to make rather a joke of it--why did you say ‘a little indisposed’? that seemed, somehow, so stupid, I thought--and said you were coming tomorrow, it wasn’t that which upset me; it was the dreadful, dreadful disappointment. It was like a stab, that disappointment; it hurt so terribly, so unreasonably much. It made me cry and cry, so that I thought I should never be able to stop. And then, gradually. I began to see that the pain of the disappointment wasn’t unreasonably great. It wasn’t merely a question of your coming being put off for a day; it was a question of its being put off forever, of my never seeing you again. I saw that that accident had been something really arranged by Providence. It was meant to warn me and show me what I ought to do. I saw how hopelessly impracticable the happiness I had been imagining really was. I saw that you didn’t, you couldn’t love me in anything like the same way as I loved you. I was only a curious adventure, a new experience, a means to some other end. Mind, I’m not blaming you in the least. I’m only telling you what is true, what I gradually came to realise as true. If you’d come--what then? I’d have given you everything, my body, my mind, my soul, my whole life. I’d have twisted myself into the threads of your life. And then, when in due course you wanted to make an end to this curious little adventure, you would have had to cut the tangle and it would have killed me, it would also have hurt you. At least I think it would. In the end, I thanked God for the accident which had prevented you coming.

Emily has seen through the facade Gumbril tried to embrace in front of her. Despite the dropping of the false beard, she has seen through to the utter fecklessness that consumes Gumbril’s life and those in his circle. She understands, with some pain, but ultimately with relief, that, to him, she is just another absurd dance.

But is she? Clearly not. She was about to be and could have been something more, but Gumbril, like the melodramatic Monster in the play, winds up conspired against by his own milieu.

We might well now take a step back and ask a more literary question. What is Huxley doing here? Why has he set up this cast of characters and why has he created this tragic farce? For that answer, it may be best to return to the words of Lypiatt, the author’s artistic alter ego, in the closing pages of the novel.

But then every man is ludicrous if you look at him from outside, without taking into account what’s going on in his heart and mind. You could turn Hamlet into an epigrammatic farce with an inimitable scene when he takes his adored mother in adultery. You could make the wittiest Guy de Maupassant short story out of the life of Christ, by contrasting the mad rabbi’s pretensions with his abject fate. It’s a question of point of view. Everyone’s a walking farce and a walking tragedy at the same time. The man who slips on a banana skin and fractures his skull describes against the sky, as he falls, the most richly comical arabesque.

Antic Hay, then, may well be Huxley's attempt to come to terms not with the fractured skull, but with the comic fall.

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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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