Monday, May 26, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“EYELESS IN GAZA” by Aldous Huxley (first published 1936)
            A bit over three years ago, having some spare time on my hands, I embarked on a little reading project. I read my way through all the novels and short stories of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) in the order in which they had been written, starting with Limbo (1920) and ending with the lamentably flaky Island (1962), written when Huxley had degenerated into the mescalin-imbibing Californian sage. Most of his works were already sitting on my shelves, and I had read a number of them before, including the best-known, Brave New World (1930), which I used to inflict on Year 12 students, together with Orwell’s 1984, in studies of dystopian fiction.
            When I got to the end of my Huxley marathon, I asked myself which of his works I had enjoyed most. I had enjoyed most the two which happen to be the longest. As a piece of gossipy, bitchy fiction, and a roman a clef, Point Counter Point (1928), with its demolition of the London literary scene of the 1920s, is great fun, and much superior to Percy Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (1930), which attempts to do something similar. [Look up the index for comments on Wyndham Lewis’s book]. But for sincere human feeling I found the best of Huxley’s novels to be Eyeless in Gaza (1936), perhaps because for once Huxley let up on the cleverness a little and allowed himself to be vulnerable; almost heart-on-sleeve. Eyeless in Gaza has its flaws, including an overblown conclusion, but it appears to contain a version of a real tragedy, which touched Huxley closely.
            I first read Eyeless in Gaza when I was in my twenties. I re-read it when I did my Huxley-fest. From my first reading I recalled some isolated details. There were two boys sailing a toy ship in the flooded guttering of their school dormitory. There was the dog, which fell out of the sky and splattered over a courting couple. There was a former social butterfly (called Mary Amberley) who turns suddenly into a messy and disgusting old woman. And there was the lecture on pacifism in the novel’s closing pages which I recalled finding rhetorical and unconvincing.
            On re-reading the novel, I found my memory had not played me false. But what surprised me is how I had not remembered what should have been the novel’s more sensational bits. There is, for example, a quite explicit (by 1936 standards) account of a minor character, Beppo Bowles, who is an active homosexual seeking young men in public lavatories and being blackmailed by a piece of rough trade he picks up. There is a vivid account of school bullying, with one boy tormented when he is caught masturbating. In one scene a woman (Helen Amberley) comes out of a drug-induced nightmare after having an abortion. In another a man (Mark Staithes) has his leg amputated in primitive conditions in Mexico. Perhaps, between my two readings, I didn’t remember these things because they are the sorts of things which, since 1936, have appeared in hundreds of novels.
            Coming to my second reading of this novel I again gave Huxley points for the clarity and readability of his prose. I found myself able to whizz through the 620 pages of the first edition I was reading in less than a week – and I mean a week in which I was busy with other things. I am amazed to find people on (admittedly less sophisticated) blogs on the ‘net complaining that the novel’s non-chronological presentation was “confusing”. I found it no more confusing than Huxley’s shuffling of different storylines in Point Counter Point.
            Eyeless in Gaza has a plot spanning the years from 1902 to 1935. In 1902 the protagonist Anthony Beavis is eleven and his mother has just died. In 1935 he is 44 and has accepted the doctrine of pacifism. The chapters jump through various years between these two dates, gradually illuminating the spiritual despair and vacuity of Beavis’s social set and his increasing desperation to find something to fill the spiritual void. The most significant cluster of chapters, however, is in 1914 when a particularly traumatic event happens which, we realize eventually, led Anthony to deny the pointlessness of his values, deny his own personal guilt (as a means of self-protection) and embark on a life of sexual promiscuity and unsatisfactory relationships.
            Pace criticisms, the non-chronological time-scheme is in no way confusing, but I would fault the way Huxley postpones revealing what the traumatic event was until the last few chapters – like a conjuror producing a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment, or a stand-up comic artificially delaying the punch-line. Given the extreme nature of the event, it is hard to see how it wouldn’t have been on Anthony’s mind in the chapters set in the 1920s and 1930s when we are not told of it.
            At the risk of providing “spoilers”, then, let me explain.
            In 1914, the 23-year-old Anthony Beavis betrayed his emotionally fragile friend Brian Foxe and triggered Brian’s suicide. Brian Foxe was a sensitive young man with a stutter, apparently induced by the cloying over-protectiveness of his mother, the Christian idealist Rachel Foxe. Brian was so idealistic (or immature) that he could not combine his elevated view of love with the facts of sex (or sensuality). He was in love with, and engaged to, Joan Thursley, but could not bring himself to even kiss her without blushing. Though a simple and unsophisticated girl, Joan was living in London and getting tired of Brian’s prolonged courtship. Brian asked Anthony to be his go-between and visit Joan. Already a sexual cynic, and having an affair with the promiscuous, gossipy and manipulative older woman Mary Amberley, Anthony succumbed to Mary’s suggestion that he seduce Joan just for the fun of it. Anthony did so. Brian found out. Brian threw himself off a cliff.
            In one sense, then, the whole of this long novel can be read as the story of a trauma leading to a misspent life – from which the ideals of pacifism eventually save Anthony. In another sense it can be read as Anthony’s long-delayed atonement for so long denying his responsibility for his friend’s death.
            By the time I re-read this novel, I was aware (as various biographies of Huxley had told me) that Aldous Huxley’s brother Trevenen committed suicide in 1914. This seems to have been the emotional inspiration of the novel. But the year 1914 is artistically appropriate in another way, for it was just before the Great War, the recurrence of which Anthony believes he is averting by his pacifism towards the end of the novel. And in another sense, for Huxley and his generation, the Great War was the big divider between an old order of greater innocence and a cynical and more brutal new world.
            On re-reading this novel, I felt like totting up its strengths and weaknesses.
            Despite its lumpy texture, it is certainly the most sympathetic novel Huxley ever wrote, because it is the only one which substantially acknowledges childhood as a decisive factor in forming us. In all his earlier, and most of his later, novels, adult characters do not have any remembered childhood. Here we have Anthony’s childhood loss of his mother, and his having to accept the re-marriage of his father to a florid, plump and somewhat inadequate woman. There is the good recurring Dickensian gag centring on the pedantry of Anthony’s father, a philologist who keeps giving people conversational lectures on the origins of words and who uses slang self-consciously and condescendingly (as if quoting it in inverted commas). The childhood scenes also give us the horrors of boarding school and Anthony’s first friendship with Brian Foxe and first betrayals of him (joining other boys in mocking him).
            In such childhood scenes, the novel suggests the persistence of character. Mark Staithes, the admired schoolboy sports star and head bully, is later the man of action who wants to prove himself and drags Anthony off to Mexico (in 1934) to take part in some sort of half-defined revolution. He ends up losing his leg in an accident, but fortuitously introduces Anthony to the saintly pacifist Dr James Miller, who shows Anthony a way out of his spiritual impasse.
            Hugh Ledwidge, the weedy schoolboy who is persecuted for his masturbation, grows up to be a sentimental weakling and cuckold, who is married opportunistically by Helen Amberley after Helen is already bored with men and jaded by frequent affairs (and her abortion). After marriage, Helen then proceeds to have more casual affairs with other men, including Anthony.
            Anthony Beavis himself betrays Brian at school and is later fickle in love. He has affairs with both Mary Amberley (the character who later degenerates into a drugged, self-pitying hag) and her daughter Helen. He is easily swayed, to say the least.
This sort of characterization introduces a strong strain of determinism into the novel, as if Huxley is the Zola of the Smart Set. Are these characters ever capable of changing their essential values? By the 1930s, Helen Amberley is claiming to be past her pointless, promiscuous ways. She finds a cause in Communism through her German Communist lover Ekki Giesebrecht. But, a year after the tragedy of Ekki’s being kidnapped back to Germany by the Nazis, she is already saying she is tired of such social commitment and she is looking once more for pure hedonism.
This matter of the determined continuity of character raises an interesting possibility. If Helen can walk away from commitment to Communism and violent social change, should we then conclude that (for all the novel’s final pacifist sermon) fickle Anthony could walk away from his commitment to pacifism? Probably not. Huxley clearly intended the final pacifism to be the novel’s punch-line. We do have one scene of Anthony being a physical coward (in Mexico, when threatened by a revolver-wielding bully in a bar) and the novel does end with a sort of question mark. After experiencing epiphany in a moment of pure peace, Anthony sets out for a pacifist rally at which bullies have threatened to attack him. How will he live up to his new ideal of passive resistance? Even so, the pacifism is still the punch-line. (At the time Huxley wrote Eyeless in Gaza, he was heavily involved in, and writing tracts for, the Peace Pledge Movement.)
There is, however, another possibility. The novel is written in the “third-person limited” voice. It is in the third person, but we see and experience only what Anthony sees and experiences, he is the centre of consciousness, and it is only his memories that we share. Is there any possibility that he is an “unreliable narrator” on the Conradian model? He, after all, is the person most directly responsible for Brian Foxe’s death; yet it is his memory which presents Brian’s mother as the cloying and over-protective mother who stunts Brian’s emotional growth (and whose idealistic Christian activism is sardonically mocked). Is this in fact the way Anthony remembers things in order to justify himself? The burden of guilt for Brian’s death is thus shifted away from him and onto Brian’s mother.
As in all Huxley’s novels, the clever intellectual chitter-chatter is what is most ephemeral and easily-forgotten. The physical details work better. Certainly the dog falling out of the ‘plane and splattering over sunbathing Anthony and Helen is an excellent image of the unexpected horror that can change the course of a life (it hastens the end of Anthony’s and Helen’s affair). Probably in 1936, at a time when the aerial bombing of civilians was still a novelty, it was also a foreboding image of future wartime realities. As dogs can fall, so can bombs.
These are the positives of the novel, but what of its negatives? As a personal response, I was alienated from a protagonist who apparently never has to work for a living. At certain points we are told that Anthony is a “sociologist” and we once see him undertaking “research” in the British Museum. Apart from that, we have to conclude that he is one of the leisured classes who can agonize over the state of his soul because he has an inherited or unearned income. Or is this a symptom of the same problem Siegfried Sassoon faced when he wrote his George Sherston books? (Sassoon fictionalised circumstances of his own life, but did not allow his main character to be a poet – the very thing that defined what Sassoon was.) In so many ways, Huxley is writing about himself in the character of Anthony Beavis – from the youthful impact of a traumatic suicide to the pacifism – but without making Anthony a successful novelist and public intellectual. After all, he had already dealt with the literary set in Point Counter Point. So, in terms of work and livelihood, Anthony hangs in limbo.
Another weakness of Eyeless in Gaza is its “answers-at-the-back-of-the-book” aspect. Pacifism and a mystic sense of unity with the human race are presented as the answers to Anthony’s and the world’s problems. This necessitates the late introduction of Dr James Miller and the concluding sermon. It is a “moral” like the ending of an Aesop’s Fable but, as I’ve already argued, it is not entirely convincing with regard to the character of Anthony. It is glib.
Allied to this glibness is the journalistic aspect of the novel. Huxley may have gained some perspective on a misspent youth and the ferocious frivolity of his set in the 1920s; but his vision of the “present” (mid-1930s) is a very limited one which history denies. The choice his novel offers is between Communism (which he discredits) and pacifism. This was a woefully inadequate response to Hitler and everything he threatened. I think I already smell the retreat into California and mescalin. For this reader, Anthony’s pacifism is as much a disengagement from reality as Anthony’s earlier disengagement from real human relations. He is still running away from responsibility. There is the added unintentional irony that Anthony finally reaches his moment of love for all humanity while entirely on his own in his solitary room. Has he really become a human being who can relate well to others?
In spite of my misgivings, however, I still see this as Huxley’s best novel. The characterization is flawed, the solution to the protagonist’s problems is simplistic, the final, overlong vision of pacifism is Huxley’s botched Modernist attempt to have a conclusion rivalling something like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses.
But there is a sincerity to the novel’s anguish, a real tragedy being recalled and replayed, and a sense that, at least for the moment, the intellectual smart-arseries of so much of Huxley’s writing are for once kicked into the background. 

Redundant footnote: Just for the record, I consulted two biographies of Huxley after polishing off all his novels – Sybille Bedford’s rather worshipful double-decker Aldous Huxley, A Biography (1974) and Nicholas Murray’s much punchier Aldous Huxley, An English Intellectual (2002). Both confirm that, while not the roman a clef Point Counter Point is, Eyeless in Gaza has a number of characters drawn from life. Anthony Beavis is the author himself. Brian Foxe is based on memories of Trevenen Huxley (though the reasons for his suicide were quite different). The debauched and drug-addicted Mary Amberley was Huxley’s view of Sybille Bedford’s mother, and there is in the novel the minor character of a Christian pacifist leader called Purchas, clearly based on the Rev. Dick Sheppard. Just thought I’d feed your taste for idle gossip.

No comments:

Post a Comment