Monday, November 14, 2016

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 four or more years ago.

“AFTER MANY A SUMMER” by Aldous Huxley (first published in 1939)

I’ve dealt with Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) a number of times before on this blog, noting my opinion that Eyeless in Gaza is his most compassionate novel, while the garrulous and gossipy Point Counter Point is probably the most malicious fun. (I also, for some reason that now escapes me, wrote a post on his early short story collection Mortal Coils). If I were to nominate the Huxley novel that is most interesting because it is also very flawed, my choice would be After Many a Summer. It was published in America under the fuller title After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, both titles coming from lines in Tennyson’s dramatic monologue Tithonus: “And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes.

            Tennyson’s poem is based on the Greek legend of the man who asks for unending life and is granted it, but without the condition that he would remain young and healthy. Consequently Tithonus ages as we all do, but remains alive ancient, sick, in permanent pain; miserable and lamenting; but never knowing the release that death would give.

            Huxley’s novel is about a millionaire wanting never to die.

Before I read it, I located (thank you, internet) an American radio adaptation of the novel broadcast in the early 1950s and introduced by the actress Eva Le Gallienne. It was a neat one commercial hour long. Is simplified. It stuck to the essential fable that is buried in Huxley’s novel – a fabulously-wealthy American millionaire wants to achieve physical immortality and invests in a new scientific process to help him do so. But the punch-line shows that this will lead to his reverting to an ape-like animalistic state – all vitality and very little brain. Hence the vanity of human wishes, the fatuity of sheer materialism, the imbecility of clinging to worldly riches; not to mention generous side-swipes at American narcissism.

I think this simple fable is indeed the heart of Huxley’s novel and is quite strong in itself. The experience of actually reading the novel is the experience of finding the strong central fable muddied up with a lot of extraneous side-issues and the more typical Huxlyan sardonic chitter-chatter.

It goes thus:

Jeremy Pordage, weakling English intellectual and bachelor, is summoned to California to catalogue and put in order the Hauberk Papers, heirlooms of an English aristocratic family, which have been bought and are in the possession of the billionaire Jo Stoyte.

Jo Stoyte (only once in the novel is he referred to by his full name, Joseph Panton Stoyte) is a philistine who has made his money in oil and real estate, but wants to conquer Art and Culture by possessing them. He has built a castle. It is stuffed with the world’s treasures. He has endowed a nearby college (“Tarzana”) and hospital, which he enjoys visiting and where he basks in the adulation of sick children to whom he gives gifts. He also owns a vulgar and monument-filled cemetery. But he is obsessed with health and (as he is moving from middle age to old age) with the possibility of prolonging his life, perhaps even of reaching physical immortality.

Stoyte has a young and very nubile mistress, Virginia Maunciple. She is Catholic and devoted to kitsch statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she is also sexually promiscuous, despite having such a wealthy sugar daddy. Jo Stoyte also retains a rather creepy doctor, Sigmund (“Sig”) Obispo, who ministers various potions to him, but also experiments (with mice, fish etc.) on prolonging life. In his laboratory, “Sig” is assisted by the young and idealistic American Peter Boone, who has come from Mid-Western Protestantism by way of Marxism and an involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which is coming to an end at the time the novel is set (and when it was written).

All this is the novel’s set-up, and Huxley does his usual Theophrastian once-over with each character. As in a late play by George Bernard Shaw, or a comedy of humours by Thomas Love Peacock or Ben Jonson, each character clearly and obviously represents a philosophical position or point of view. Jeremy Pordage (another of Huxley’s partial self-portraits) is the representative of pointless and fussy scholarship for its own sake – a man who, we are told, loves his mother and finds sexual relief in weekly visits to a pair of genteel prostitutes. Jo Stoyte is brainless materialism – vulgarity, the impulse to dominate without understanding, and the belief that merely prolonging life is the equivalent of living life to the full. “Sig” Obispo, who is cynical and manipulative, is scientific experimentation for its own sake, regardless of the human consequences. Virginia Maunciple is fake religion, where erotic and sensual self-gratification is mistaken for spiritual experience. And Peter Boone is immature idealism, always looking for something to worship or be led by, rather than examining himself realistically.

Pointless scholarship, vulgar materialism, misdirected science, religious false consciousness and immature idealism – and against these comes the Huxley spokesperson as pat as the presentation of pacifism as panacea in Eyeless in Gaza. Here he takes the form of the philosopher William Propter. Presumably he is thus named by the novelist because “propter” is the Latin for “because”, and he explains things. William Propter is the neighbour and sometime classmate of Jo Stoyte.  He explains that real human growth will come only when the ego is submerged in the divine oneness. Propter explains to Jeremy Pordage that he too was once a scholar (of Catholic Reformation writing) until he saw the pointlessness of it. Propter has a great influence on young Peter Boone, who may, however, merely be seeking, in his immature fashion, another idol to worship.

Thus the set-up: the thesis and antithesis.

“Plot” has Jeremy Pordage discovering in the 18th century and early 19th century sections of the Hauberk Papers the diary of an earl who sought for, and apparently found, the secret of physical immortality. Jeremy Pordage shares this discovery with “Sig” Obispo. Meanwhile Obispo has been seducing Stoyte’s mistress with the help of erotic readings from the Maquis de Sade. But at the same time young Peter Boone worships Virginia Maunciple from afar, believing (as Jo Stoyte does) in her innocence and (like the character of Brian Foxe in Eyeless in Gaza) imagining that love is an ideal unconnected with the erotic. Climax comes when Jo Stoyte believes he has discovered Obispo and Virginia in flagrante. He runs off to find his revolver to shoot Obispo. But when he returns, Obispo has left the scene and Peter Boone is innocently talking to Virginia. In error (he is looking at them from behind) Jo Stoyte shoots and kills Peter Boone.

Obispo is able both to clean up the mess and to keep the details from becoming public. He is also now able to blackmail Stoyte and make him become dependent on him. Obispo, Stoyte and the ironically-named Virginia travel to England and visit the Hauberk estate to find what became of the earl who claimed to have found the secret of immortality. What they discover is a gibbering two-hundred-year-old ape-man, matured from an “ape foetus”. Obispo laughs ironically and understands that their researches are at an end. But to the very last, Jo Stoyte is still convinced that he can have his life prolonged.

It does not take much research to realise that After Many a Summer draws upon a number of sources.

It was Aldous Huxley’s brother, the biologist Julian Huxley, who had once worked on an experiment which involved pumping an axolotl full of hormones and then watching it slowly become an unknown sort of salamander. The evolutionary principle was that, in their sexually-mature form, some species are the immature form of other species. Out of this, the novelist drew the idea of a man becoming a form of ape with unlimited longevity – but certainly not a man with unlimited longevity.

Quite unrelated to this, it is clear that Jo Stoyte is based on William Randolph Hearst. He has obvious parallels with Hearst – a castle-like mansion, obsessive collecting etc., although Huxley gives the Catholicism to Jo Stoyte’s mistress. In real life, it was Hearst’s wife who was Catholic and wouldn’t give him a divorce when he had taken up with his long-time mistress. As I’ve noted before on this blog (see the posting on David Nasaw’s The Chief – The Life of William Randolph Hearst), the part about the accidental killing of an innocent man instead of the mistress’s lover echoes the – probable, but never definitively substantiated – rumours that in 1924 Hearst accidentally shot and killed the film producer Thomas Ince, when he had meant to shoot Charlie Chaplin, who had been making up to Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. This well-known rumour was the basis of Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 film The Cat’s Meow. Outside Huxley’s novel, the other famous fictional version of Hearst is Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, though I do note that Huxley’s name Joseph Panton Stoyte “rhymes” better with William Randolph Heart than Charles Foster Kane does.

There are other miscellaneous things in this novel that interest me. Just as Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay (published in 1923) anticipates Evelyn Waugh’s novels about Bright Young Things (published in the later 1920s), so does Huxley’s disabused description of a Californian theme-park cemetery anticipate by nearly a decade Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). The two men had quite different temperaments and beliefs – but they often did choose the same targets for satire. Its also interesting that in expounding his ideas, the philosopher William Propter regards Stalin and Bolshevism as being as much of a menace as Hitler and Nazism – another nail in the coffin of the idea that nobody in the West really understood the nature of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Having noted all this, however, I’m also bound to note the literary shortcomings of After Many a Summer. There are the wearisome interpolated discussions and undramatised conflicts of opinions. There is the muddying of the central robust fable by too many side issues. There is the unceremonious dumping from the novel of Jeremy Pordage and William Propter after the death of Peter Boone, even though they have been built up as major characters. The novel’s thematic anchoring in the theories of Propter is as unconvincing as the world-embracing pacifism of Eyeless in Gaza. It is one thing to preach that one must step outside the fray of the ego, but this once again puts Huxley (or his most sympathetic character) in the position of looking down on humanity from a great height. When Peter Boone expresses concern about the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, Propter insists he needn’t worry his head about it as it is like attaching oneself to another false idea driven by the ego. This is dangerously like caring for humanity in general (i.e. theoretically), while not caring for real suffering people.

After reading this novel, my mind also jangles with rude ideas about Aldous Huxley and California. The novel begins with Jeremy Pordage being driven to Jo Stoyte’s castle through a landscape of Californian billboards and hucksterism and crassness. Upon all of this, Pordage makes satirical observations, which we are clearly meant to endorse. Yet this rejection of crass materialist culture comes from a very suspect source, given that Pordage has accepted a deal to earn his living working for the crass materialist Stoyte. Likewise, Stoyte’s neighbour William Propter lives the affluent Californian life, and though he does at one point rebuke Stoyte for exploiting underpaid migrant labour, his otherworldliness never leads him to question his own affluence. Are we seeing in embryo the development of Aldous Huxley? He was happy to go to California and earn his living writing screenplays for Hollywood (which he was already doing when After Many a Summer was written). But he still took potshots at the hand that fed him. And his later development (see his lamentable final novel Island) shows that his final enlightenment basically meant passive self-absorption. Not so much a rejection of the ego as a complete sinking into it.

So much for my perceptive dyspepsia. Apart from my grumble, I do salute After Many a Summer for being readable, as Huxley always is, and it has plenty in it to amuse. Pity about its flaky philosophy.

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