Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Huxley changes into Huxley - who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius

Aldous Huxley wrote good literary criticism, travel writing, art criticism, short stories, as well as four novels during the 1920s, all loose contemporary satires.  London artists and writers and their problems.  Fifteen books during the 1920s, not counting his poetry.  What a monster.  The arts criticism and so on, as represented in Huxley’s Collected Essays (1958), is quite good, as are the two novels I have read.

And then it was goodbye to all that, all of it tossed out for mysticism, pacifism, and psychedelic drugs.  I have had great trouble seeing how the Huxley of Antic Hay turned into the proto-hippie psychedelic prophet of the 1950s.  A long, strange trip.  Brave New World (1932) is the hinge.

England, and apparently the world, is populated with clones, assigned to their social level and occupation in a strict, chemically-engineered hierarchy.  Industrial productivity has increased to the point that everyone has plenty of leisure and recreational drugs; social norms have changed so that everyone has plenty of sex, although Huxley hints at some complications in that area.  It is a utilitarian parody.  How many people would take this deal, so to speak?  For a plot, introduce a character who rejects the deal.

Huxley’s earlier novels are written in what I think of as the Platonic ideal of the British “house style” of the 1920s, clever, witty, and conversational, just a bit arch, capable of darker colors, but generally light on its feet.  (I would like to read an essay about how English Golden Age detective novels have survived so well in part because the British house style was so appealing, compared to, say, its heavier pre-war predecessor or the contemporary American pulp style.  Maybe that is not true, but I would like to see the case made.)  Huxley’s style in Brave New World is weighed down, compared to his novels with a contemporary setting, by the mass of information he has to impart, like all of the nonsense about how cloning and hypnotic conditioning works in the first chapter.

It is a relief, in chapter two, to find some satire.  An administrator is recounting the origin of hypnotic conditioning, when a boy falls asleep with the radio on and “woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer (‘one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us’), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius.”  That is a joke about 1932, not 2532.  The parenthetical is possibly more insulting that the punchline.

Just a few lines later, more satire:

“The case of [the boy] occurred only twenty-three years after Our Ford’s first T-Model was put on the market.”  (Here the Director made a sign of the T on his stomach and all the students reverently followed suit.)

This terrific gag, the pseudo-worship of Henry Ford in place of Jesus Christ, in a society where even the people are produced on an assembly line, recurs throughout the novel.  Two things blow my mind, and I wish I had looked them up back in college, but looking things up was work back then: first, Gramsci’s concept of Fordism is from 1934, two years later – all credit to Huxley; second, Henry Ford was not some distant, or even deceased, historical figure.  He was sixty-nine in 1932, running Ford Motor Company, and would live for another fifteen years.  By chance, 1932 was an especially important year for Ford, since it saw the introduction of the flathead V-8 engine, a major innovation.  I wonder if Ford ever read Brave New World.

The two chapters before the last, where the rebel and the ruler debate ethics, quoting Shakespeare and Cardinal Newman back and forth, are where Huxley gives up the game.  Why not write Platonic dialogues or some such thing after this, why bother creating novelistic characters?  And I guess that is what Huxley does.


  1. flathead V-8's are still popular in some esoteric associations; there are variations on the theme that trigger fierce arguments amongst aficionados: push rod types and cylinder displacements and the like...

  2. i got distracted: v-8's don't have pushrods; one of the reasons they're popular with some mechanics...

  3. Several times a year, one or another of those esoteric associations takes over our town square to show off their engines and paint jobs.

    Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, so he missed the flathead V-8, so no mention of it in the book. Just Model-Ts. Ford, caused the alternate histories to diverge, almost immediately.