Monday, July 27, 2020

Huxley and the "pessimism of outlook" of the 1920s, with help from George Orwell and William Pritchard - twelve buttocks slabbily resounding

Brave New World (1932) was the first book assigned at the University of Kansas, long, oh so long ago, in a course naively titled “Western Civilization,” in theory the first book a student new to college would read.  I had not read it since then, thirty years ago, when it was used as a source of ethical questions, not really as a work of art, which suits it well, except, for example:

Round they went, a circular procession of dancers, each with hands on the hips of the dancer preceding, round and round, shouting in unison, stamping to  the rhythm of the music with their feet, beating it, beating it out with hands on the buttocks in front; twelve pairs of hands beating as one; as one, twelve buttocks slabbily resounding.  (5.2)

I feel bad I did not file away “twelve buttocks slabbily resounding,” did not even notice it, apparently.  The magic word is “slabbily,” right?

I’ve read two other Aldous Huxley novels, Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928), and boy were they eye-openers, exemplars of “the British novel in the 1920s.”  I was discovering what every read had discovered before me, the phenomenon George Orwell describes in “Inside the Whale” (1940), where what is nominally a review of a Henry Miller novel turns into a quick history of British literature, 1910 to the present, the books of Orwell’s lifetime.  After the war, he argues, major writers had “a certain temperamental similarity…  What it amounts to is pessimism of outlook” (italics Orwell’s).  Caused by, for example, anti-Victorian puritanism, the scientific attack on religion, fashionable philosophers, the war, or all of the above.  Mostly, really, the war.

His other helpful phrase, borrowed from Joyce, is that these writers “see through” all of the old received junk – King, church, country, family, art – or hope they do, or pretend they do.  The title to Robert Graves’s 1929 memoir is a perfect distillation – Goodbye to All That – no, really, all of it.  William Pritchard borrows the term for his 1977 book Seeing Through Everything: English Writers 1918-1940, which spends more time with Lawrence, Eliot, and Woolf, but leads off, more or less, with Huxley, because he is the one who really sees through everything and behind everything sees nothing.  He is, for the British 1920s, a nihilist.  Antic Hay is the sort of book which might… provide a generation with the illusion that they were disillusioned” (Pritchard, 39).

Point Counter Point was particularly instructive, perhaps because it is longer and covers more topics – “first-rate material for cultural historians interested in how the English intelligentsia talk” (Pritchard, 32).  D. H. Lawrence is a character in the novel, functioning as the reasonable voice of unreason, the person who does not merely “see through” but sees something, who has beliefs and ideas and a purpose.  Often, with Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, I felt like I was reading books that were no longer quite alive, which has not been my experience with Lawrence, however exasperating he might be.

This has been the crushed-down version of an essay I have meant to write for two years, but have not, I suppose because it is just a rehash of Orwell’s masterpiece and parts of Pritchard’s fine book.  But I had wondered, how did the Huxley of the contemporary nihilistic London satire of Point Counter Point turn, in just four years, into the Huxley of dystopian nihilistic London satire or Brave New World?  Expressed like that, it does not seem like such a big change.  Just the one word.  I will turn to the less slabbily resounding parts of Brave New World tomorrow.


  1. i've come across several (of course i can't remember where)opinions declaring the death of civilization due to WW1... not hard to believe...

  2. It is hard to sort out the competing factors - the religious crisis, the semi-digested Nietzsche. Lawrence had a full-blown pessimistic ideology before the war, but he was more or less against civilization - against progress, for example - so the war would not have taught him that.

    What is a real change in mentality and what is fashion, it is a tough question.

  3. All good stuff, but I keep coming back to this burning question: how does one reconcile "hands on the hips of the dancer preceding" with "hands on the buttocks in front"? These dancers seem to have as many hands as Hindu gods.

  4. It is a good question. I guess the hands are in motion, as if it is some kind of dance. But Huxley's attention may well have wandered. He was never an "action" writer. He liked to have characters talk.