A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

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By Ray Greenblatt
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Early in his career Aldous Huxley was a comic author in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank; a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and even P. G. Wodehouse. He was part of a well-to-do famous family: his father Leonard Huxley was a teacher, his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley was a scientist. His mother Julia Arnold Huxley was the headmistress of a girl’s school and the sister of the author Mrs. Humphrey Ward; also on his mother’s side Matthew Arnold was a renowned poet. Huxley displayed a flare for wit, irony, bombast, bon mot, and psychological probing of character. However, he did more than most satirists: he philosophically explored the questions  of twentieth century life and found them eternal.
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In this second novel Antic Hay written in 1923, Huxley employs many writing devices: sometimes he inserts a poem, musical lyrics or a short lecture on architecture, e.g. Yet, everything in this book is wrapped in comedy, whether it runs from light to just plain silly to mordant. I see his two major literary contributions to be description of character but especially philosophy of life including social mores as well as scientific speculation.
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                                                                I – IMAGERY
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Huxley is skillful at describing a scene. First a road: “Polished by the wheels and shining like an old and precious bronze, the road stretched before them, reflecting the lamps. It had the inviting air of a road which goes on for ever.” (235) Night: “Once more the wind blew; darkness came down and the gas lamps round the square lit up the outer leaves of the plane trees, touched the privet bushes inside the railings with an emerald light; behind them was impenetrable night; instead of shorn grass and bedded geraniums was mystery, there were endless depths.” (13) Stained glass in a church: “The vast window opposite, all blue and jaundiced and bloody with nineteenth century glass.” (1) And a house: “Gumbril senior occupied a tall, narrow-shouldered and rachitic house in a little obscure square not far from Paddington.” (12)
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However, he excels at bringing characters to life—no matter how absurd they might be—making each actor in this comedy distinct. Even many of their names could be taken symbolically to reveal their nature. Let us begin with Theodore Gumbril junior, our anti-hero, because he is as lost at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. He shows flashes of wit, but at heart he is a “glum” young man, on his way to nowhere perhaps by “tumbrel,”  thus his name.
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Here is Gumbril in a library: “He had been utterly incapable of thinking of any other book, among the two or three hundred thousand on the shelves, that he wanted to read.” (183) He momentarily thinks that he has found an aid to motivation: “The beard now supplied the deficiencies in the stylobate, and planted now on a firm basement of will, the order of the senses, the aerial attic of ideas reared themselves with  more classical harmoniousness of proportion.” (88)
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Mercaptan is a mediocre journalist at best, in love with his own prose and opinions; his scientific name means “a chemical compound with a disagreeable odor.” “Like movable raisins in the suet of his snouty face, Mr. Mercaptan’s brown little eyes rolled amorous avowals.” (201) Another man happy in his ignorance is a scientist who studies kidneys; “Shearwater” certainly suggests that biological process. His fate is to fall in love: “He was silent. Spectrally, like a dim haunting ghost, he had hung about  her; dumbly, dumbly imploring, appealing.” (63)
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Casimir Lypiatt is a dreadful painter, which everyone knows except him,  who roars about his greatness; “Casimir” is Slavic for “destroying the peace.” “Even the forehead was ruined when he laughed. Foreheads are generally the human part of people’s faces. Let the nose twitch and the mouth grin and the eyes twinkle monkeyishly as you like; the forehead can still be calm and serene, the forehead still  knows how to be human. But when Casimir laughed, his forehead joined in the general distorting grimace.” (69) Likewise, Coleman (“cold man”) is a total cynic about life including seduction:  “What an intoxication, he said,  looking up to the ceiling like a chicken that has taken a sip of water; he smacked his lips.” (218)
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As secondary characters, Bojanus is a simple tailor with many opinions about life: “He cocked his head on one side, and the fine waxed end of his moustache was like a pointer aimed up at some remote star.” (83) And yet, his name scientifically translates as “the excretory organ of a mollusk.” Boldero is a capitalistic investor, “bold” to make a profit. “He was like a caterpillar: he ate all that was put before him, he consumed a hundred times his own mental weight every day. Other people’s ideas, other people’s knowledge—they were his food. He devoured them and they were at once his own.” (109)
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Since they are the cynosure for most of the male characters, I have saved for last two ladies of quite different disposition. Myra Viveash is the siren who lures men to her. Indeed, “Myra” in Greek means “extraordinary” and Viveash sounds ironically similar to “vivacious.” However beautiful and enticing a woman, her soul is hollow supposedly due to the loss of her great love in the Great War. “At seven o’clock Mrs. Viveash woke up. She shook her head to feel if the pain were still rolling about loose inside her skull.” (224) And “slowly, walking along her private knife-edge between her personal abysses.” (151)  In startling contrast is Rosie who peers through rose-colored lenses at life: “She looked at him sideways, then closed down the magnolia petals, and smiled. This was going to be the real thing—one of those long, those interminable, or at any rate indefinitely  renewable conversations about love; witty, subtle, penetrating and bold, like the conversations in books, like the conversations across the tea table between brilliant young poets and ladies of quality,  grown fastidious through an excessive experience, fastidious, and a little weary, but still, in their subtle way, insatiably curious.” (95) Conversely Rosie’s husband thinks of her: “She seemed to have been improving lately. And tonight, she had been a model of non-existence.” (107)
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                                                            II – PHILOSOPHY
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Unlike most comic writers who go for the immediate gag, Aldous Huxley is more far-reaching. The observations about life in his characters ‘  thoughts and mouths are stimulating and for the most part true. Since the novel opens in a school, let us begin with ideas of education. About students: “They were two ugly, stupid-looking louts, who ought to have been apprenticed years ago to some useful trade. Instead of which they were wasting their own and their teachers’ and their more intelligent comrades’ time in trying, quite vainly, to acquire an elegant literary education.” (3) The teachers: “You weren’t sufficiently interested in anything to want to devote yourself to it. That was why you sought the last refuge of feeble minds with classical educations, you became a schoolmaster.” (14) “Until all teachers are geniuses and enthusiasts, nobody will learn anything, except what they teach themselves.” (15) The administrators: “For the Headmaster was as fierce as he was capricious. He was for ever discovering something new. Two terms ago it had been singeing; after the hair-cut and before the shampoo, there must be singeing.” (7)
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An appreciation of the Arts is strong in this novel: “The Chinese statues looked out from the niche; the Maillols passionately meditated, slept and were more than alive. The Goyas hung on the walls, there was a Boucher in the bathroom; and when he entered with his guests, what a Piazzetta exploded about the dining-room mantelpiece!” (9) About classical music: “How pure the passion, how unaffected, clear and without clot or pretension the unhappiness of that slow movement which followed! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Pure and unsullied; pure and unmixed, unadulterated. Not passionate, thank God; only sensual and sentimental.” (144) Even jazz, a relatively new musical form at that time, is touched upon: “At each recurrence of the refrain the four negroes of the orchestra, or at least the three of them who played with their hands alone—for the saxophonist always blew at this point with a redoubled sweetness, enriching the passage with a warbling contrapuntal soliloquy that fairly wrung the entrails and transported the pierced heart—broke into melancholy and drawling song.” (162)
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Architecture, too, is stressed as a Fine Art: “Knowing by a century of experience how beautiful, how graceful, how soothing to the mind is an ordered piece of town-planning, we pull down almost the only specimen of it we possess and put up in its place a chaos of Portland stone that is an offence against civilization.” (130) Architecture to some can be seen as even superior to music: “Architecture is a more difficult and intellectual art than music. Music—that’s just a faculty you’re born with, as you might be born with a snub nose. But the sense of plastic beauty—though that’s, of course, also an inborn faculty—is something that has to be developed and intellectually ripened. It’s an affair of the mind; experience and thought have to draw it out.” (128)
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Religion and its concomitant ethics is examined from many angles. “God is a sense of warmth about the heart, God as exultation, God as tears in the eyes, God as a rush of power or thought—that was all right. But God as truth, God as 2+2=4—that wasn’t so clearly all right. Was there any chance of their being the same? Were there bridges to join the two worlds.” (1) “Good; good? It was a word people only used nowadays with a kind of deprecating humourousness. Good. Beyond good and evil? We are all that nowadays. Or merely below them , like earwigs?” (2) “When the future and the past are abolished, when it is only the present instant, whether enchanted or unenchanted, that counts, when there are no causes or motives, no future consequences to be considered, how can there be responsibility.” (156) Coleman cynically reasons: “It’s only when you believe in God, and especially in hell, that you can really begin enjoying life. For instance, when in a few moments you surrender yourself to the importunities of my bloody beard, how prodigiously much more you’d enjoy it if you could believe you were committing the sin against the Holy Ghost.” (217)
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Under the heading of science, Gumbril wants to advertise the pneumatic trousers he has invented: “All we have to do is talk about the great nerve centres of the spine; the shocks they get when you sit down too hard; the wearing exhaustion to which long-protracted sitting on unpadded seats subjects them. We’ll have to talk very scientifically about the great lumbar ganglia.” (114) In the laboratory: “The animals devoted to the service of physiology were woken by the sudden opening of the door, the sudden irruption of light. The albino she-rabbits lollopped out and shook their ears and pointed their tremulous noses toward the door. The cock into which Shearwater had engrafted an ovary came out, not knowing whether to crow or cluck.” (246) Huxley even considers the possibility of ESP: “I let my telepathic faculty lie idle, preferring to employ an elaborate and cumbrous arrangement of symbols in order to make my thoughts known to you through your senses . . . If we knew a good method of educating and drawing out the latent faculty, most of us could make ourselves moderately efficient telepaths . . . By the twenty-first century I believe we shall all be telepaths.” (238)
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What do politicians look like? “Some wear orchids and eyeglasses, like Joe Chamberlain. Some let their ‘air grow, like Lloyd George. Some wear curious ‘ats, like Winston Churchill. Some put on black shirts, like this Mussolini, and some put on red ones, like Garibaldi. Some turn up their moustaches, like the German Emperor. Some turn them down, like Clemenceau.” (85) “Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working—mostly working.” (28) Politics dovetails with sociology: “Had one a right to be contented and well-fed, had one a right to one’s education and good taste, a right to knowledge and conversation and the leisurely complexities of love?” (63) “Cinema, newspapers, magazines, gramophones, football matches, wireless telephones—take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself.” (29)
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This leads us to Huxley’s humorous views of love through his varied characters. “Whether one can be in love with more than one person at a time, whether love can exist without jealousy, whether pity, affection, desire can in any way replace the full and genuine passion—how often he had to thrash out these dreary questions!” (96) On the other hand, an ideal view of love would be: “She would be waiting for him, expecting him; and they would walk through the twiddly lanes—or perhaps there would be a governess cart for hire, with a fat pony like a tub on legs to pull it—they would look for flowers in the woods and perhaps he would still remember what sort of noise a whitethroat makes.” (154)
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And from love to some general views of mankind: “If you will have sanitary conditions that don’t allow plagues to flourish properly. If you will tell mothers how to bring up their children, instead of allowing nature to kill them off in her natural way. If you will import unlimited supplies of corn and meat.  What can you expect? Of course the numbers go up.” (185) From the masses to the individual: “Every one’s a walking farce and a walking tragedy at the same time. The man who slips on a banana-skin and fractures his skull describes  against the sky, as he falls, the most richly comical arabesque.” (208) And finally what does time do to us: “Grief doesn’t kill, love doesn’t kill; but time kills everything, kills desire, kills sorrow, kills in the end the mind that feels them; wrinkles and softens the body while it still lives, rots it like a medlar, kills it too at last.” (152)
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I do not agree with the last statement above; only Mrs. Viveash would be so negative. Two passages, it seems to me, contain a subtle meaning and beauty we can adopt. One has to do with silence: “All the regular, habitual, daily part of you would die. There would be an end of bandstands and whizzing factories , and one would have to begin living arduously in the quiet, arduously in some strange un-heard-of manner.” (141) This connects with a magic time that Gumbril senior  experiences: “They sat and chattered till the sun went down and twilight was past,  with intervals every now and then of silence that fell suddenly and inexplicably on all the birds at once, lasted through a few seconds of thrilling suspense, to end as suddenly and senselessly in an outburst of the same loud and simultaneous conversation.” (13) Serenity in nature is what Huxley seems to be inferring in order to find fulfillment.
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As the years go on, Aldous Huxley’s novels darken into Brave New World, and his favored genre alters into non-fiction as in Science, Liberty and Peace and The Doors of Perception, in which he experiments with hallucinogenic drugs.  With weakening eyesight and multiple operations, he was to die at a relatively young age of 69. Yet, we have seen him at his most youthful and frothiest. No matter how much he changed, the early comedies will remain scintillating additions to the flow of humorous literature.
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You can find the book here: Antic Hay
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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society.His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.
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