Antal Szerb

History of World Literature

(Excerpt, 1941)

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley bears much the same relation to his one-time friend, Lawrence, as Voltaire did to Rousseau. The anti-intellectual revolutionary confronts the ultimate intellectual, the prophet of the instincts meets the last great representative of the mind as creator. Someone who is so much an intellectual that he is fully aware of the dangers of the temptations his own type is subject to. The chief of these is the loss of contact with life as it is lived, of being trapped under a belljar with no means of escape from the unproductive and egotistic hold of the intellect. Philip Quarles, the novelist in Point Counter Point, and Anthony, the hero of Eyeless in Gaza, are people with such problems. Belljar Man tries to break out, wears a false beard in order to deny his own identity, attempts to begin a proper “life”, but is incapable of doing so. This is the theme of Antic Hay.

Around these more or less autobiographical heroes the entire intellectual zoo of the age is gathered. Their forms are drawn with terrifying Swiftian irony: intellectual snobs, conceited fools, the old with their idées fixes, lecherous pseudo-mystics, women who cultivate their souls, petty bourgeois folk lost in the bohemian underworld, and the vast unhappy hordes that jostle round these monuments of science and culture as supporters, admirers, pseudo-artists, or regular audience.

In his first novels (Chrome Yellow, 1921, Those Barren Leaves, 1925, Antic Hay, Point Counter Point, 1928 and novellas (The Gioconda Smile, Brief Candles, etc.) he wanted no more than to make inventory of these characters, to photograph them on their weekends as they dined in some bohemian pub, while ordering his own playful thoughts. Perhaps it is this high insignificance that makes Huxley’s early writings so attractive. He has nothing to say to the world. Nor does he give himself over to the world. He accepts his role as a hermetic writer who is “incapable of depicting life”. Because, in order to depict life in a realistic manner, we have to take stupidity and vulgarity seriously, even to go some way to becoming stupid and vulgar ourselves.

His other great appeal lies in his wonderful style. He is the greatest master of modern English prose, possibly the wittiest writer in contemporary literature.

His wit too is as reserved and refined as his entire creative conduct. He is wholly without passion, not a muscle moves on his face, he never betrays what he feels about his characters. He avoids jokes and punch lines: his best one-liners are delivered for him by his characters. His wit is expressed through predicaments, in the coincidence of character and situation, in the sudden startling illumination of character.

His early attitude made him the most outstanding exponent of traits that best represented the twenties, traits which, without being frivolous ourselves, we might say, added up to The New Frivolity. (In France the same attitude was articulated by Giraudoux and Morand.) The elite of the twenties feared seriousness: the Great War, they felt, was caused by seriousness. They enjoyed the brief moment of peace following the apocalyptic atmosphere of the immediate end-of-war years, when Europe had all but recovered and when, if you didn’t listen too carefully, you could console yourself with the illusion that now, in the age of Briand and Stresemann, there would be peace on earth. People took a quick look round and decided that a lot of nice things remained: Italy, women, science, painting, the art of refined speech, and the superior heights of irony.

And indeed, if we confine our gaze to the playful surfaces, we need not take note of the “alarming blind depths” beneath them. This is how superficiality passed itself off as worldly wisdom, the modern form of stoicism. The attitude was not entirely without its moral aspect: it was an unspoken protest against vaingloriousness, against loud and solemn lies, against false puffed-up notions of duty which only served to set people against each other. It is better to be superficial than evil, they said.

But you couldn’t maintain such a position for long. The illusion of Briand-Stresemannism was soon dispelled and the chief issue for Thirties Man was how best to prepare for the war to come. The first response of Huxley, the rationalist, is terror that the world of pure intellect should once more be wrecked by the instinctive forces of destruction, but then he begins to feel a new unfamiliar sense of responsibility and becomes a disseminator of ideas, like most great English writers who wrote because they wanted to broadcast their ideas about politics and society.

The transition is represented by Huxley’s amusing Utopian novel, Brave New World. In fact, like the phalanster scene in Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man, it presents an Anti-Utopia or Dystopia, because it shows us not how good but how terrible the future state would be. It shows us the implicit direction of the march of all-conquering technology, what happens when the one is made subservient to the many or when happiness is held to be the supreme human value, and where the tendencies of our period—as characterized in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase as “The Revolt of the Masses”—is leading us.

His message to the world is summarized in Ends and Means (1937). The book deals with the ultimate goal of mankind and the means required to reach it. He seeks to discover what it is that the great religious teachers and sages teach us. The wisest minds have always proclaimed that the supreme wisdom lay in submission, in the relinquishing of wealth, of delight, of power, of every selfish instinct. In the withdrawal into an inner sanctum where fate can no longer touch us. Modern civilization has entirely forgotten this lesson: our economic system, our politics, our individual lives are all founded on cynically self-confessed greed and lust for power. Humankind is not naturally good as the Enlightenment and the Romantic Period assumed it was: the anthropological studies that Huxley was so well acquainted with demonstrated that people were just like animals, aggressive from the start, ruthless by nature, and if civilization forced them to suppress their ruthlessness, then individual aggression would seek outlets in the community: on a local scale this might be through football matches or bullfights, but the general instinct could only be properly satisfied by mutual hatred and war. Anyone who surveys the whole of history will see no sign of progress. Civilized man is not a whit less aggressive that his caveman ancestor, it was only the forms that changed. “And yet we must try, again and again.” However hopeless the struggle, we must strive toward some future Golden Age. Man must educate himself first, rid himself of hatred, abide ill-treatment without batting an eyelid and realize the words of the One who preached, “Resist not Evil”. Having achieved this, people should organize themselves into groups of five to ten individuals and support each other.

It was these ideas he explored in Eyeless in Gaza. Its hero is a cold intellectual who has no real relationship with anything or anyone, who because of the world situation, because he is violently gripped by love and is under the spell of some miracle worker, finds a purpose in life through the proclamation of the doctrine of non-resistance: in the last scene we see him preparing for a public meeting, knowing he will be assaulted, practising the principle of non-retaliation.

His last novel, After Many a Summer, returns in some ways to the ideas of Brave New World and deals with the soul-destroying effects of mechanical civilization.

Huxley’s later writings are infinitely sad. They weigh heavily upon us even by virtue of their tone which is permeated by despair and an utter lack of confidence in the future. It is depressing too that the wisest novelist of the age could find no better principle than Gandhi’s passive, late-Hindu doctrine of non-resistance. In the Spenglerian system doctrines propounding inner detachment, such as Stoicism and Buddhism, some particular diet, the raising of physical lifestyle onto a moral plane—vegetarianism and other similar notions, for instance—ideas that Huxley embraced, appear at the exhausted end of a civilization, in its final phase. It is possible that Huxley was ahead of his time in arriving at the railway terminus of western culture.

Antal Szerb: A világirodalom története. Vol. 3, Budapest, Révai, 1941, pp. 303–307.


SOURCE: Szerb, Antal. “History of World Literature (Excerpt, 1941: Aldous Huxley),” The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XL * No. 153 * Spring 1999. Boldface is mine.—RD


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