Thursday, 18 February 2021

Review: Aldous Huxley - Complete Essays, Vol. I: 1920-1925 - Ivan R. Dee, 2000

Aldous Huxley

Complete Essays

Volume I, 1920–1925

Ivan R. Dee, Hardback, 2000.

8vo. xx+487 pp. Edited by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton. Introduction by Robert S. Baker [xv-xx]. Index [467-87].

First published, 2000.

NB. In square brackets: first publication in periodicals or first time the piece was collected in On the Margin (1923, OM) or Along the Road (1925, AR). All musical pieces appeared in The Weekly Westminster Gazette (including, probably, the last piece, though the editors are silent about that).


A Note on This Edition


I. Architecture, Painting, Literature 

Proust: The Eighteenth-Century Method [8 Aug 1919, Athenaeum]

A Ghost of the Nineties [10 Oct 1919, Athenaeum]

(On Essays) [20 Feb 1920, Athenaeum]

(Proust and Best-Sellers) [12 Mar 1920, Athenaeum]

(Godwin and Bailey) [16 Apr 1920, Athenaeum]

(Balzac and Social History) [23 Jul 1920, Athenaeum]

(Aristocracy and Literature) [27 Aug 1920, Athenaeum]

(Alfieri) [8 Oct 1920, Athenaeum]

(Bacon’s Symbolism) [19 Nov 1920, Athenaeum]

The Cry for a Messiah in the Arts [Jan 1922, Vanity Fair]

The Modern Spirit and a Family Party [Aug 1922, Vanity Fair]

Marie Laurencin: A Woman of Genius [Sep 1922, Vanity Fair]

A Film with a Warning [Oct 1922, Vanity Fair]

The Salzburg Festival [Dec 1922, Vanity Fair]

The Portraits of Augustus John [Jul 1923, Vanity Fair]

Royalty and a Caricature [Dec 1923, Athenaeum]

Centenaries [OM]

On Re-reading Candide [OM]

Subject-Matter of Poetry [OM]

Water Music [OM]

Bibliophily [OM]

Accumulations [OM]

On Deviating into Sense [OM]

Polite Conversation [OM]

Nationality in Love [OM]

How the Days Draw In [OM]

Beauty in 1920 [OM]

Great Thoughts [OM]

Advertisements [OM]

Euphues Redivivus [OM]

The Author of Eminent Victorians [OM]

Edward Thomas [OM]

A Wordsworth Anthology [OM]

Verhaeren [OM]

Edward Lear [OM]

Sir Christopher Wren [OM]

Ben Jonson [OM]

Chaucer [OM]

How to Write a Tragedy [May 1924, Vanity Fair]

The Importance of the Comic Genius [Jul 1924, Vanity Fair]

A Ballet in the Modernist Manner [Apr 1924, Vanity Fair]

Fashions in Visual Imagery [Oct 1924, Vanity Fair]

Popular Literature [Nov 1924, Vanity Fair]

Art and Life [Feb 1925, Vanity Fair]

The Spread of Bad Art [Mar 1925, Vanity Fair]

What, Exactly, Is Modern? [May 1925, Vanity Fair]

Where Are the Movies Moving? [July 1925, Vanity Fair]

The Pleasant and the Unpleasant [Sep 1925, Vanity Fair]

Books for the Journey [AR]

Sabbioneta [AR]

Breughel [AR]

Rimini and Alberti [AR]

Conxolus [AR]

The Best Picture [AR]

The Pierian Spring [AR]

The Mystery of the Theatre [AR]


II. Music 

Brahms [18 Feb 1922]

Busoni, Dr. Burney, and Others [25 Feb 1922]

The Interpreter and the Creator [4 Mar 1922]

Good-Popular Music [11 Mar 1922]

Instruction with Pleasure [18 Mar 1922]

Emotional Contributions [25 Mar 1922]

Light Opera and the New Stravinsky [8 Apr 1922]

The Mysteries of Music [15 Arp 1922]

Some Easter Music [22 Apr 1922]

Music and Machinery [29 Apr 1922]

Beethoven’s Quartets [6 May 1922]

Singing and Things Sung [13 May 1922]

Patriotism and Criticism [20 May 1922]

The Criticism of Music [27 May 1922]

A Problem of Musical History [17 Jun 1922]

The Question of Form [3 Jun 1922]

Literary Music [10 June 1922]

A Few Complaints [24 Jun 1922]

Mr. Lawrence’s Marchioness [1 Jul 1922]

Supplementing the Concerts [8 Jul 1922]

Orientalism in Music [15 Jul 1922]

Music in a Museum [22 Jul 1922]

Popular Tunes – Past and Present [29 Jul 1922]

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [5 Aug 1922]

Thayer’s Beethoven [12 Aug 1922]

The Salzburg Festival – I [19 Aug 1922]

The Salzburg Festival – II [26 Aug 1922]

The Salzburg Festival – III [2 Sep 1922]

Mozart at Salzburg [9 Sep 1922]

Popular Music in Italy [16 Sep 1922]

Some Very Young Music [23 Sep 1922]

Reflections in the Promenade [30 Sep 1922]

Busoni Again [7 Oct 1922]

Reflections in the Concert Room [14 Oct 1922]

New Friends and Old [21 Oct 1922]

Variations [28 Oct 1922]

Music and Politics [4 Nov 1922]

An Orlando Gibbons Concert [11 Nov 1922]

The Arnold Bax Concert [18 Nov 1922]

Temporaries and Eternals [25 Nov 1922]

Verdi and Palestrina [2 Dec 1922]

Round About Don Juan [9 Dec 1922]

Delius and the Nature-Emotion [16 Dec 1922]

Bad Music [23 Dec 1922]

Music in the Encyclopaedia [30 Dec 1922]

Going to the Opera [6 Jan 1923]

Handel, Polly, and Ourselves [13 Jan 1923]

Music Clubs [20 Jan 1923]

Cherubini – Emotion and Form [27 Jan 1923]

Madrigals and Program Music [3 Feb 1923]

The Hymn and the Dream [10 Feb 1923]

Barbarism in Music [17 Feb 1923]

Notes on a Pianist and on Pianos [24 Feb 1923]

A Mozart Program [3 Mar 1923]

Contemporaneousness [10 Mar 1923]

Bach and Handel [17 Mar 1923]

Books About Music [31 Mar 1923]

What Are the Wild Waves Saying? [7 Apr 1923]

Brahms’s Birthday [12 May 1923]

Opera, Marionettes, and Battistini [19 May 1923]

Eclecticism [26 May 1923]

Music and the Interpretative Medium [2 Jun 1923]

Popular Music [AR]


III. History, Politics, Social Criticism

Accidie [OM]

Pleasures [OM]

Modern Folk Poetry [OM]

Democratic Art [OM]

Follow My Leader [Jan 1924, Vanity Fair]

The Dangers of Work [Mar 1924, Vanity Fair]

On Not Being Up-to-Date [Apr 1924, Vanity Fair]

Fashions in Love [Sep, Vanity Fair]

By Their Speech Ye Shall Know Them [Dec 1924, Vanity Fair]

The Importance of Being Nordic [Mar 1925, Vanity Fair]

The Horrors of Society [Jun 1925, Vanity Fair]

The Psychology of Suggestion [Aug 1925, Vanity Fair]

Talking of Monkeys [Nov 1925, Vanity Fair]

A Night at Pietramala [AR]

Work and Leisure [AR]


IV. Travel 

Tibet [OM]

Why Not Stay at Home? [AR]

Wander-Birds [AR]

The Traveler’s-Eye View [AR]

Guide-Books [AR]

Spectacles [AR]

The Country [AR]

Montesenario [AR]

Patinir’s River [AR]

Portoferraio [AR]

The Palio at Siena [AR]

Views of Holland [AR]





It boggles the mind that the ghost of Aldous Huxley, easily among the finest essayists of the twentieth century (rivalled only by George Orwell and Bertrand Russell, but hardly surpassed by either of them[1]), had to wait almost forty years for a relatively complete edition of his essays. It was completed in two years and six volumes between 2000 and 2002. Most of them are still available, if pricey, but they remain little read and almost never reviewed.

The first volume covers the five years between Huxley’s ages of 26 and 31. It collects 146 pieces, 49 of them reprinted from his first two collections with essays, On the Margin (1923) and Along the Road (1925), and 97 from various periodicals (two of them come from 1919 and three more from the beginning of 1920 when Huxley was 25). The sheer number of pieces belies the fact that during the same period Huxley also published his first three novels and first three short story collections. The depth, variety and maturity of the writing certainly belie the author’s age. Only an occasional dose of extra dogmatism betrays the relative inexperience. But first things first!

The editorial work, I must say, is rather disappointing. It is intellectually dishonest, to begin with. The words “Edited with Commentary” can be found on the title page and the dust jacket, even on the black spine in golden letters. This is rather a grand name, printed in rather too many places, for an occasional and rather superficial footnote. Only little-known names are explained (these include Glinka and Albeniz, interestingly), and only when they are essential to the essay’s point; quotations in French are supposed to be translated, and they are – sometimes. The editors confess their “austere policy regarding footnotes” in a brief “A Note on This Edition”. They needn't have bothered to state the obvious. I do appreciate light editorial work. I prefer it to heavy, aggressive, oppressive and, all too often, self-indulgent annotations by people who think the editor is just as important as, if not more than, the author. But why then put such a grand word like “commentary” on three notable places?

Messrs Baker and Sexton evidently didn’t have much time. The source of the copy text is briefly given in square brackets after each piece. And that’s that! All the editors condescend to tell us, in the aforementioned “Note”, is that for essays which were published in periodicals and then revised for inclusion in book form the later version was chosen to reprint. And that’s that! For all we know from this book, no fewer than 97 essays written between 1919 and 1925 were never collected during Huxley’s life. That is hard to believe, but it may be true. The appendix gives the contents of On the Margin (1923) and Along the Road (1925) in case we care to “read the essays in the original order as determined by Huxley”, but whether these 49 pieces were first published in periodicals remains elusive. The best I can say about the editorial work is that the new thematic order works relatively well. But the publication history and the footnotes should have been a great deal more extensive.

The introduction by Robert Baker is a brief biographical essay of no distinction whatsoever. Its only virtue is a bit of context about Huxley’s life in the 1920s. Thus we learn that the essays sourced from “Marginalia” were actually published in the Athenaeum (“Marginalia” was the title of Huxley’s column). We also learn that Huxley was a regular music critic between February 1922 and June 1923. That is all. Mr Baker actually spends most of his little space telling us what we are going to read further in the volume. Much better read the essays and see for yourself. Why bother with second-hand and third-rate critical ramblings?

Last and least, though the editors may not responsible for that, the index is somewhat sloppy. Musicians and musical works suffer the most. Mozart and Beethoven, for instance, enjoy detailed entries with works and topics attached to their names, but Schumann and Tchaikovsky do not.  So, for example, if you want to know on which page Huxley kills Schumann’s Kinderszenen (see below), you are lucky Schumann has but a single page dedicated to him in the index. This is not to say he is not mentioned more in the book. If you want to know on which page Huxley kills Schumann’s Fantasia in C (see below), you are not given even a clue in the index. But I’ll tell you the secret: page 255.

The large number of music essays was a pleasant surprise. I knew Huxley was an avid music fan, but I had no idea he worked as a music critic for some time. Indeed, for some sixteen months he wrote a regular column in the Weekly Westminster Gazette. Most of them are reprinted here, all are hardly two and three pages long, none is without interest. Even reviews of actual performances by now forgotten musicians contain a great deal of timeless substance besides. It’s a real shame these little gems languished in the archives of some obscure newspaper for almost eighty years.

Had they contain nothing worth reading, these pieces would have been worth studying by aspiring writers. The writing, even that early in Huxley’s career, is superb. The prose is distinguished and literary, occasionally even poetic, but always simple, clear and lucid. Huxley detested obscurity and vagueness. He explains every cryptic phrase as unambiguously as such an ambiguous medium like language allows. It is a deeply personal style, peppered with stray opinions and bits of autobiography, but nothing like the vain and self-absorbed “look at me” rambling of other famous essayists. In short, Huxley’s writing is a happy marriage of powerful mind and able pen, both of them erudite, witty and precise.

(Huxley abandons his customary precision, it may be added parenthetically (as he likes to say), in terms of titles. You can meet on these pages strange animals such as Tchaikovsky’s “Enchanted Princess” or Beethoven’s “Sonata III”? What on earth are these? An alternative translation of Sleeping Beauty and Op. 111 misspelled? The editors could have sacrificed a few footnotes on these subjects, but I guess they were too busy with more important matters. I am not going to complain about “John” Sebastian Bach and “Charles” Philip Emmanuel Bach. One must make allowances for some linguistic chauvinism, especially in a British writer.)

Huxley was a self-thought but thoughtful music critic, less perceptive, less amusing and far less acerbic than Bernard Shaw, but in his own way provocative and thought-provoking. He was not an inexperienced concert-goer. He attended the then brand new and saturated with contemporary music Salzburg Festival (including Mozart operas conducted by Richard Strauss), heard in concert Busoni (who played the two-piano version of his Fantasia contrappuntistica with Egon Petri), Battistini, Chaliapin (whose program included “a distressingly large proportion of musically worthless items”; pity no examples are given), Fritz Kreisler and Frieda Hempel. In general, he seems to have heard live a good deal of the standard repertoire today plus quite a few curiosities that have disappeared from the concert programs, if not from the recording catalogues. He was also an avid record collector in times when the gramophone was brand new and, for most people, undistinguishable from magic.

The essays are peppered with gorgeous turns of phrase and penetrating descriptions. It was almost a shock to read my own thoughts (formulated better than I ever could) about that “curious austerity which pervades so much of Brahms’s music, an austerity which one feels to be forced, and which is in reality consciously suppressed sentimentalism”. Beethoven’s development is marvellously described as “steady” and “ruthlessly persistent”. Huxley speaks about “Beethoven’s Quartets” here, although the symphonies and especially the piano sonatas would have afforded him even better examples of Beethoven’s fantastic transformation from a diligent Classicist into a Romantic visionary. It is quite a long way, indeed, from the Pathétique to the Hammerklavier. The gulf between the First and the Ninth symphonies is even greater.

In “Round About Don Juan”, Huxley wonders why similar combinations of notes have such profoundly different effect when employed by Mozart and Cimarosa. The answer that Mozart had genius and Cimarosa had not is obvious and pointless. There is a subtle way in which music works on the mind, a combination of psychological effect and historical convention, difficult to analyse but nonetheless real for that. This complex but compelling matter has been explored with much greater force in Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music (1959). Of course Huxley had nothing like Cooke’s musicological expertise, but in his own small way, as a layman, he was there 37 years earlier.

“Light Opera and the New Stravinsky” testifies to the catholicity of Huxley’s musical taste. He easily jumps from Rossini and Offenbach to Stravinsky and Hindemith, with Gilbert and Sullivan, Debussy and Chopin, to say nothing of Palestrina and Delius, thrown in for good measure. This essay introduces the concept of “inverted transcendentalism”. It sounds like some sort of pretentious nonsense. In fact, it is anything but that. Huxley develops the phrase into a powerful and disturbing argument, altogether remarkable for a writer not yet 28 years old. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

But the most interesting music to be heard at Covent Garden in Stravinsky’s Ragtime. I cannot describe this odd work better than by calling it a piece of inverted transcendentalism. Beethoven was transcendental in the direction of heroism, of the soul, of infinity. But it is possible to transcend along other planes and in different directions. Stravinsky’s Ragtime is transcendental in the direction of soullessness, of mechanics rather than heroics. In this respect the work is remarkably expressive of the contemporary weltanschauung. M. Massine’s extraordinary mechanistic choreography was a perfect interpretation of the music. The chief defect in Ragtime is the fact that it is not large enough in conception, not vigorous, or certain, or emphatic enough. The heroic transcendentalism of the Ninth Symphony convinces by mere force of affirmation. Ragtime is small and dubious. One of these days, Stravinsky or someone else will write a work of inverted transcendentalism as prodigious and convincing as the Ninth Symphony – and there will be nothing to do, when one has heard it, but to go home and quietly commit suicide.

“The Mysteries of Music” tries to enter the most inaccessible place to non-musicians: the composer’s mind. If Huxley ever read Maugham’s essay “Reflections on a Certain Book”, published well over 30 years later[2], he would have agreed that musical composition is “the most mysterious of the processes which produce a work of art.” Huxley marvels that Mozart could compose ravishing music for strings at the age of 14. No other art, he rightly observes, can boast an artist who achieves such perfection that early. And yet, Huxley is quick to recognise that Mozart at 14 “could not conceivably have written the reflective, mysterious, almost tragic G minor Quintet of his late maturity.” The obvious point is that very many composers never managed to write such music even at 31, or any age indeed. The question is why? How much is innate genius and how much experience? The essay ends with a typically Huxleyan point, ironic and yet revealing, providing thought-provoking analogy instead of dogmatic answers:

Dogs and cats have very compact, efficient little minds; none the less, they must have a sadly imperfect understanding of the mental processes of those human beings with whom they live. To me, the mental processes of Einstein are almost as obscure as any soliloquy of mine on Shakespeare and the musical glasses would be to a listening audience of dogs. Between myself and the absolutely tone-deaf person, who may, in all other respects, be my superior in intelligence, there is, in the matter of musical appreciation, a gulf as great as that which separates me from Einstein; and to a Beethoven, musically, I stand in the relation of an intelligent cat to a man. The surprising thing is that there should be as much understanding and appreciation in the world as there is.

There is plenty more, the breadth and scope of these little music essays is really something. “Popular Music in Italy” is a perfect combination of evocative description of Italy in the 18th century and rather a chilling short story set in Fascist Italy. Quite a contrast, musical and otherwise! “Some Very Young Music” is dedicated to the premiere of a now totally forgotten opera based on The Merchant of Venice, written by the then very young Adrian Beecham (1904–1982, son of the famous conductor, but don’t ask the editors). More light-hearted but hardly flippant are Huxley’s “Reflections in the Promenade”, in which he argues that standing in concerts (as opposed to sitting) makes one a more acute critic, better able to spot mediocrity. Truly great music should make you forget a mild dose of physical discomfort. “A Problem of Musical History” deals with the perennial problem of nature versus nurture, in this case the musical genius and his environment. How many Beethovens, Huxley wonders, perished in ancient Greece because they hadn’t the necessary resources to develop their gifts? We shall never know, but from this mundane starting point Huxley goes on to speculate about, among other things, the musical quality of Greek drama.

There is plenty to disagree with, of course. But as I have said a number of times and am not tired of repeating, it is a pleasure and a privilege to disagree with a great mind. It is more fun and much more productive than even the most enthusiastic agreement. More than that, it is an opportunity to challenge yourself, to examine even your most cherished beliefs and see if they can stand the test of scrutiny. So, let us disagree, shall we?

In “Beethoven’s Quartets”, Huxley makes a controversial distinction between Beethoven’s “profound humour” and Mozart’s “light-hearted gaiety”. The truth, as I see it, is precisely the opposite. Beethoven’s humour I find – when I can find it at all – rather noisy and superficial (e.g. the Eighth Symphony). It is indeed gaiety rather than humour, and it is heavy-handed rather than light-hearted. Mozart, on the other hand, is the most profoundly humorous composer known to me. The most sublime examples of this are, of course, the three Da Ponte operas. But Huxley doesn’t think so. According to him (“Light Opera and the New Stravinsky”), the perfect musical comedy has yet to be written. “Meanwhile”, he adds condescendingly, “we have Mozart to go on with”.

Beethoven is something like Huxley’s musical god. Truth to tell, the author’s worship tends to get a little tiresome. Worship usually does. It is true, of course, that Beethoven did make unique “Emotional Contributions” to music. But so did every other great composer. No music lover in his right mind will dispute Beethoven’s greatness. But he, too, had his limitations, and none but the most foolish worshipper would deny this. Most notably, Beethoven failed in the field of opera, partly because he was uncomfortable with writing for voices, but mostly because he lacked the all-embracing humanity of Mozart. There are things in Beethoven missing in Mozart, most notably heroic defiance of destiny. But there is more in Mozart missing from Beethoven, most notably intense interest in human nature. Bernard Shaw has put it best of all:

Beethoven had a moral horror of Mozart, who in Don Giovanni had thrown a halo of enchantment round an aristocratic blackguard, and then, with the unscrupulous moral versatility of a born dramatist, turned round to cast a halo of divinity round Sarastro, setting his words to the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God.[3]

Even about Beethoven, Huxley can be contradictory and all but nonsensical. At one place in “Literary Music”, he says the late sonatas are “just music [...] not even expressive of any particular emotion”. Strange claim! But not, perhaps, quite unexpected. Huxley, like other great intellectuals (Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell are examples), suffered from a certain emotional sterility. I am not suggesting these people were incapable of feeling. Far from it! They felt deeply and passionately about everything. But they never surrendered themselves to passion as all ordinary people, more or less often, do. They generally used this emotional detachment to their advantage, yet sometimes it did lead them astray.

That is why, I think, Huxley seems preoccupied with musical form, the most intellectual part of musical appreciation. You can’t say he doesn’t know better. “Emotional Contributions” is proof enough, and there is more elsewhere. A few lines after his bizarre dismissal of the late sonatas just quoted, he says, quite truthfully as far as most music lovers are concerned, that “direct expression and evocation of feelings is one of the principal functions of music.” This is why, I suppose, Huxley considers Palestrina’s choral works more expressive than Verdi’s Requiem. If that is merely quirky, calling Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp “passionless” is almost as ludicrous as calling the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony “sufficiently melancholy” (Bernard Shaw in his most emotionally crippled state[4]). Mind you, I don’t want to disparage the intellectual pleasure one gets from dissecting musical form. But if that is the major (or even only!) pleasure you take from music, I pity you with all my heart. You have no idea what you’re missing!

“Literary Music” is about the ever-thorny subject of program music. And Huxley again backs the wrong horse, not because he prefers absolute to program music, but because he fails to recognise that the distinction between them in entirely spurious. Music is music, good and bad if you like, serious and popular if you care (Huxley did care about that equally silly distinction), but certainly not “absolute” and “program”. Music must stand or fall as music. No program has ever saved a poor piece of music, nor has a truly great work ever been spoiled by ridiculous program. Even the greatest masters of “program music” never intended their programs to be taken as anything more than a possible starting point, if that. Liszt and Tchaikovsky certainly didn’t take that stuff seriously, and I don’t think even Richard Strauss, the most pictorial of all composers, did either. Performers and public who take program titles very seriously do so at their own expense. Schumann, no stranger to the subject himself, put it best of all: “First of all let me hear that you have made beautiful music; after that I will like your programme too.”[5]  

It is curious that Huxley should give Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetic” Symphony (was this a pun at Tchaikovsky’s expense? Pathétique is the correct title) as an example of program music, unfavourably compared to Beethoven of course. (Huxley conveniently forgets to mention that even his musical god could produce as vulgar and tasteless a piece of “battle music” like Wellington’s Victory, vastly inferior to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) At least he is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t know why “absolute” music should be preferred to “program” music. Tchaikovsky is on record that his Sixth Symphony does have a program, albeit a personal one that can’t be put into words.[6] This is, of course, true of every musical work. Tchaikovsky put it even better in one of his wonderful letters (mandatory reading for every music lover, whether or not he likes Tchaikovsky’s music) in regard to his Fourth Symphony:

As to your remark that my symphony is programmatic, then I am in complete agreement. I just do not understand why you consider this to be a defect. It is the opposite that I fear – i.e. I should not wish symphonic works to flow from my pen that express nothing, and which consist of empty playing with chords, rhythms and modulations. My symphony is, of course, programmatic, but the programme is such that it is impossible to formulate in words. Such a thing would provoke ridicule and laughter. But is this not what a symphony, that is, the most lyrical of all musical forms, ought to be? Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed?[7]

Huxley’s unabashed adoration of Beethoven (and Palestrina: “there are one or two greater names in the history of music”) is just as hard to understand as his ill-hidden contempt for Parsifal (“Some Easter Music”). I am not familiar with the Italian Renaissance master, but I do know something about Wagner. And Huxley’s case passes belief.

Huxley could see sex, only sex and nothing but sex, “plain sex, unsublimated into anything appreciably nobler or finer than itself”, in Wagner’s last work. This is so thoroughly wide of the mark that one must agree with Arthur Clarke about Huxley’s “unfortunate string of asceticism”.[8] There is, of course, a great deal of shameless sensuality in Parsifal. But there is a great deal more of very pure and very noble spirituality. The whole point, if there is one, is the triumph of compassion over sensuality. It is certainly a religious work. And if the religion it teaches is not suitable for your Sunday school, so much the worse for your Sunday School. If anything, Wagner went too far with the spiritual orgasms. He, too, had an unfortunate streak of asceticism in him. (I understand this is a strange claim to be made about Wagner, but a somewhat deeper study of his works, as opposed to the very superficial “study” of his life we’re often given, would support the claim.)

A few weeks later (“Singing and Things Sung”), Huxley becomes even nastier: “The composer of Parsifal is too much preoccupied with his eternal sex problems and his visions of material splendour to be able to find the way into it [the world of sublimity and purity in which Beethoven moves].” Parsifal is admittedly a problematic and uneven work. It is regularly praised by Wagnerites as the perfect masterpiece quite obviously it is not. But surely it doesn’t deserve such bashing, either. Nor does Schumann’s C major Fantasia (“curiously tedious”[9]) or Kinderszenen (“Schumann’s worst work [...] a work of the fifth class”). Scriabin gets it in his neck as well; his Prometheus is “a truly and fundamentally silly piece of music.” The passage about Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony is worth quoting at some length as an example of Huxley at his most devastating as a music critic:

One of these minor works of art, which forty years ago appeared to possess a considerable significance, was dragged, some few nights ago, out of a reposeful obscurity that should have been eternal, and galvanized by Mr. Coates’s exuberant vitality into a semblance of life. There must have been many who, like myself, went to the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert last Monday for the sole purpose of hearing what Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony would sound like on revival. Most of them, I venture to believe, must have agreed with me that the poor thing was better dead, must even have budgeted it its allotted hour of re-existence; have wished, long before the end, to see it safely under the tombstone again.

At a time when it was complimentary in the highest degree to be compared with Wagner, Bruckner was called “the Wagner of the Symphony.” People listened to his music with all the seriousness and good-will which he himself brought to the making of it. We who listen with forty years more experience in our ears than they, perceive that the Wagner of the Symphony was a man who wrote for the Wagnerian orchestra pieces of music which he believed to be in the form of Beethoven’s symphonies. We perceive that his thematic invention was of a vulgar and commonplace character. (All his learning and ingenuity are lavished on themes that would not do any very great credit to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.) We see that he has fallen heavily between his Wagnerian and classical stools; that he takes noise and climaxes from Wagner and cramping limitations from the classics, and that he makes of the two something that is at once curiously childish and pretentious.

Posterity has not agreed with Huxley in any of these cases. Even Scriabin’s noisy imitation of symphonic poem has found a place in the fringe of the standard repertoire. Bruckner’s Fourth is much closer to the centre. Parsifal and Kinderszenen (and the Fantasia too, for that matter) may be said to be in the very centre. All are regularly performed worldwide and all have generated immense discographies.

Here is a valuable lesson for us all. Huxley reminds us that even the greatest and wisest are human after all. They have some embarrassing blind spots. Heaven knows, Schonberg had a few (most notably Mahler, up to a point Liszt too) and Bernard Shaw had plenty (and violent in degree, especially Brahms, Liszt and Tchaikovsky). So, Huxley has nothing to be ashamed of; and neither have we, common mortals. The only music lover without blind spots is the one who doesn’t really love music.

It should be noted, however, that Huxley was far from being all wrong in his predictions. He certainly guessed right in the case Leo Sowerby (who?!) and Busoni. Not much played either of them these days, is he? Bruckner has recovered from the low ebb at which he apparently was in the 1920s, at least in Britain, but Huxley did well to predict that the future “will be astonished that anyone ever took the young Frenchmen of the nineteen-twenties as much more than a joke. Some of us are astonished even now.” These were, of course, Les Six. Not much Milhaud and Poulenc on the concert programs these days, is there? And who the heck remembers Auric and Durey! Last but not least, some of Huxley’s criticism of Bruckner is worth considering by everybody but a diehard Brucknerian.

“Long live the virtuosi!”, Huxley exclaims in “The Interpreter and the Creator”, and then continues: “But let us not make the mistake of confusing them with the real artists, the creators for whom they serve as interpreters.” This is tosh. The creators and the interpreters need each other equally. Otherwise music would be accessible only to the very few who can read scores fluently.

Huxley seems genuinely incapable of distinguishing between the virtuosi and the truly great re-creative artists. It has been well said (by whom? reportedly by Liszt, but I’ve never been able to source it) that to be something more than a mere virtuoso you must first be a virtuoso. Karajan, Horowitz and Boris Christoff were all super virtuosos. But they also created a wealth of unique interpretations; like or dislike them, love or hate them, it matters not: you cannot mistake them. Performers of that calibre are no servants to anybody, not even to the composers they perform. Harold Schonberg has put it best of all, and with wisdom beyond Huxley’s early essays:

A performer is no good at all if he does not express himself as much as he expresses his concept of the composer’s meaning. If ever there was a symbiotic relationship, this is it.[10]

“Music and Machinery” is a hilariously dated essay, but that’s not the major problem with it. One can hardly blame Huxley for not predicting electrical recordings, LP and stereo. He lived to hear them all. I wonder what he thought when he listened, if he ever did (he must have!), to the “Decca sound” from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Did he remember his early essay “Music and Machinery”? Did he laugh at himself and that “fidelity that is often amazing” on gramophone recordings? This was written in 1922, remember! Electrical recordings were still three years in the future. Singers are captured remarkably, often fantastically, well on acoustic discs. But the piano sounds like banjo (in the apt words of Arthur Rubinstein) and the symphony orchestra is unlistenable (even though it was always a chamber orchestra). Some fidelity! And what about piano rolls and pianolas? Did Huxley really think these primitive toys would last? Did he really think they were any supplement to piano recitals? Granted that times have changed unimaginably since then, it is hard to believe that a music critic could ever have been satisfied with acoustic records and piano rolls.

And yet, again, the situation isn’t nearly so simple as all that. “Supplementing the Concerts”, another ode to the gramophone, describes one of Huxley’s home concerts. Besides its historical importance (fantastic to know how much was available on acoustic recordings!), the essay looks far into the future, right until the present in fact. Here Huxley was indeed ahead of his time.

As every music lover knows only too well, it is a great pleasure to be able to hear whatever you want and whenever you want it. And yes, there are plenty of things on record which you have no chance of hearing in the concert hall or the opera house today. Of course there is a thrill in the live performance impossible to replicate at home. But it’s a thrill easily spoiled by mood, circumstance or, most often nowadays, poor performance. With the latest generation audio equipment and a vast recorded legacy easily available in the best possible restored sound, the music lover of today doesn’t really need concerts. This is a controversial claim worthy of Huxley himself. But one thing is certain. We have gone a long way in “Supplementing the Concerts” for the last century!

Enough about music! There is a great deal more in this book. Actually the musical section, although it contains 63 pieces, is only 120 pages long. But, like I’ve just said, enough about music!

Let me try to be a little more concise with the other three parts. (I’ve read them in a very disorderly fashion anyway.) I propose to give a brief list of the qualities that the great essayist must possess and illustrate with a few examples the great degree to which Aldous Huxley does possess them. Needless to say, this method leads to rather a gross oversimplification. But for the purpose of finishing this attempt for a review it will have to do.

The great essayist is an inspirational force. He makes you explore lots of new things, from new thoughts and concepts to new works and artists. No essayist is a hundred percent successful there, as it should be expected. Even Huxley couldn’t make me care about Proust, Chaucer, Lytton Strachey, Ben Jonson or John Donne. But he did convince me that my ignorance of Bacon, Shelley and La Rochefoucauld cannot be extended much longer. I am also grateful to Huxley for convincing me that I needn’t bother with the greatest modernist masterpiece of all (“The Pleasant and the Unpleasant”):

A play, a novel, in which there is no conflict, no crucial alternative between good and evil, strikes us as dull. Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses is an obvious example.

In spite of its numerous qualities – it is, among other things, a kind of technical handbook, in which the young novelist can study all the possible and many of the quite impossible ways of telling a story – Ulysses is one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant. This is due to the total absence from the book of any sort of conflict and to the absolutely static nature of the characters. Bloom is consistently and statically unpleasant. At no point in the course of that interminable narrative does he make anything in the nature of a choice between pleasantness and unpleasantness. He is just a Theophrastian character: “The Nasty Man.” Theophrastus would have described him in a page. Mr. Joyce has taken six or seven hundred to produce a portrait no more significant.

Since Huxley is just as erudite about the plastic arts, he forced me to reconsider on the intellectual, if not emotional, plane the work of Peter Breughel, Piero della Francesca and Christopher Wren. As for startling thoughts and concepts, ample amount of both will be provided below. But for now consider a few appetizers, for instance the role of education in “The Spread of Bad Art”, with a digression on the pernicious influence of technology (specifically photography catalysing the transformation of painting from one of the greatest of all arts into the purest form of abstract self-indulgence), or the obvious but little understood fact that “Popular Literature” cannot be written by trying, still less by everyone who tries. It requires a good deal of talent and perfect sincerity. Incidentally, this essay is a fine proof that a highbrow – Huxley was certainly one – is not necessarily devoid of sympathy with common men and pop culture.[11] And one last hors d’oeuvre in this category which deserves a longish paragraph on its own.

“What, Exactly, Is Modern?” argues that there is a good deal of difference between “modern” and “fashionable”. Thus Stravinsky isn’t modern at all: he is merely fond of repackaging primitive rhythms. Thus the notion of “free love” is not modern at all: merely a rehash of Babylonian debauchery. But let me disagree with Huxley yet again. First of all, it is highly debatable that “an enormously enhanced mental elasticity and freedom distinguish this age from past ages.” (Which age? The delusional post-Victorian dolce vita? The harsh post-WWI depression?) It follows that the most modern work of literature is “the most intelligent, the most sensitive and the most spiritual, the freest and most tolerant, the most completely and widely comprehending” – and these are the novels of Dostoevsky. If The Karamazov Brothers (1880) is anything to go by, I totally disagree. Dostoevsky with his hysterical melodrama instead of plot and warped stereotypes instead of characters, Dostoevsky with his verbal diarrhoea and tons of religious claptrap, Dostoevsky with his puppets instead of people – he is the most sensitive, spiritual and comprehending of all novelists? Sorry, Aldous, but this will not do. But to Huxley Dostoevsky is the literary version of Beethoven, not an artist to be appreciated but a god to be worshipped. To me, Dostoevsky, far from being in any way modern, is positively medieval, not to say Palaeolithic.

The great essayist remains relevant for centuries, and often out of the blue. It’s easy to be timeless (but not necessarily profound or even worth reading!) when you write about “death, love, religion, nature; the primary emotions and the ultimate personal mysteries” (this is the “Subject-Matter of Poetry” according to Huxley who regrets that poets able to tackle scientific and philosophical ideas have been so few in history). It’s much more difficult to remain relevant when you have to extrapolate from the past to the future.

Huxley’s prescience is sometimes really astounding. Nearly everybody who has read Brave New World (1932) agrees on that point. It is rather surprising to find the same piercing mind, probing the near future with gusto, full ten years earlier. (Brave New World, be it remembered, is set six centuries ahead – hardly the near future!) Reading “Bibliophily”, “Accumulations” and “A Film with a Message”, to take but three among at least a dozen examples, I had to remind myself those pieces were written nearly a century ago.

“Accumulations” is frighteningly dystopian – and modern. Huxley argues that sooner or later books, to say nothing of newspapers and magazines, will have to be burned. This is more than a decade before the Nazi bonfires and more than three decades before Bradbury’s overrated Fahrenheit 451 (1953) made the concept fashionable (though it wasn’t in the last modern). Huxley’s argument is the simplest possible: there will be no space to store a copy of everything ever printed. Nor is it necessary. Most printed matter is ephemeral stuff of no value. It is not even helpful, Huxley thinks (and so do I), to the historian of the future who would be quite overwhelmed should he decide to use every book and every periodical from a certain period. Of course, the problem of selection is enormous. Huxley knows this only too well, and he is not altogether flippant in his conclusion (I give the last two and a half paragraphs for better context, although it is crass to extract even that from a perfectly written essay):

Nobody wants to know everything – the irrelevancies as well as the important facts – about the past; or in any case nobody ought to desire to know. Those who do, those who are eaten up by an itch for mere facts and useless information, are wretched victims of a vice no less reprehensible than greed or drunkenness.

Hand in hand with this judicious process of destruction must go an elaborate classification of what remains. As Mr. Wells says in his large, opulent way, “the future world-state’s organization of scientific research and record compared with that of today will be like an ocean liner beside the dug-out canoe of some early heliolithic wanderer.” With the vast and indiscriminate multiplication of books and periodicals our organization of records tends to become ever more heliolithic. Useful information on any given subject is so widely scattered or may be hidden in such obscure places that the student is often at a loss to know what he ought to study or where. An immense international labor of bibliography and classification must be undertaken at no very distant date, if future generations of researchers are to make the fullest use of the knowledge that has already been gained.

But this constructive labor will be tedious and insipid compared with the glorious business of destruction. Huge bonfires of paper will blaze for days and weeks together, whenever the libraries undertake their periodical purgation. The only danger, and, alas! it is a very real danger, is that the libraries will infallibly purge themselves of the wrong books. We all know what librarians are; and not only librarians, but critics, literary men, general public – everybody, in fact, with the exception of ourselves – we know what they are like, we know them: there never was a set of people with such bad taste! Committees will doubtless be set up to pass judgment on books, awarding acquittals and condemnations in magisterial fashion. It will be a sort of gigantic Hawthornden competition. At that thought I find that the flames of my great bonfires lose much of their imagined luster.

(“Hawthornden” is probably a reference to the Hawthornden Prize. I guess. The editors were too busy to enlighten us. Again.)

What would Huxley say today? Staggering amounts of paper continue to be wasted on books even more worthless than magazines and newspapers. Nobody seems to care. But Huxley did care, back in the 1920s when the concept of e-book was beyond comprehension. As I have said before, I am old-fashioned enough to dislike and avoid e-books, but I’d love to see books on paper abolished. (Don’t worry about us, old-fashioned booklovers: there are more than enough books on paper to last us for a dozen lives of constant reading!) Of course, that would make sense only if we also abolished newspapers, magazines and, most of all, bureaucratic red tape. When, if ever, will this happen? Digital technologies have solved the space problem, but what about that “immense international labor of bibliography and classification”? We have made very little progress for last century indeed!

“Bibliophily” is a scathing – and for my part vastly enjoyable – attack on book collectors who spend thousands on “rare editions”. There are few better examples of the pathological depths human nature can reach. Collectors of “rare editions” are truly at the top, or the bottom, of human depravity. Huxley puts them below the lunatics who collect paintings at even more exorbitant prices, and he makes a fine case indeed. It is very much worth quoting. Note the personal touch in the end; another hallmark of the great essayist is that he cannot but paint a most candid self-portrait in his essays (I guess that’s one of the reasons for the genre’s decline in our times of hypocritical confessions and hysterical candour):

Moreover, the book collector who pays vast sums for his treasures has even less excuse than has the collector of pictures. The value of an old book is wholly a scarcity value. From a picture one may get a genuine aesthetic pleasure; in buying a picture one buys the unique right to feel that pleasure. But nobody can pretend that Venus and Adonis is more delightful when it is read in a fifteen thousand pounds unique copy than when it is read in a volume that has cost a shilling. On the whole, the printing and general appearance of the shilling book is likely to be the better of the two. The purchaser of the fabulously expensive old book is satisfying only his possessive instinct. The buyer of a picture may also have a genuine feeling for beauty.

The triumph and the reductio ad absurdum of bibliophily were witnessed not long ago at Sotheby’s, when the late Mr. Smith of New York bought eighty thousand pounds’ worth of books in something under two hours at the Britwell Court sale. The War, it is said, created forty thousand new millionaires in America; the New York bookseller can have no lack of potential clients. He bought a thousand guinea volume as an ordinary human being might buy something off the sixpenny shelf in a second-hand shop. I have seldom witnessed a spectacle which inspired in me an intenser blast of moral indignation. Moral indignation, of course, is always to be mistrusted as, wholly or in part, the disguised manifestation of some ignoble passion. In this case the basic cause of my indignation was clearly envy. But there was, I flatter myself, a superstructure of disinterested moral feeling. To debase a book into an expensive object of luxury is as surely, in Miltonic language, “to kill the image of God, as it were in the eye” as to burn it. And when one thinks how those eighty thousand pounds might have been spent.... Ah, well!

The chances are that the painting collector has no aesthetic sense whatsoever. It is more likely, however, that the book collector is no book lover at all. It depends on the price. The more is spent on such acquisitions, the more they are viewed as possessions to brag about. They have long ceased to be works of art that provide aesthetic satisfaction or enrich the personality.

“A Film with a Warning” is not, as you might think, a movie review. It is a short story written in the form of screenplay, except that it contains no dialogue at all. It’s a little satirical masterpiece, poking merciless fun at common morality. You can really see Huxley, one of the great satirists of the decadent decades between the World Wars, emerging with full force, as did he in his first two novels, Crome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), still in his twenties. It is rather amazing that Huxley could see – back in 1922! – that movies are the most potent propaganda weapon. Apparently he found it hard to imagine sound and colour on the silver screen, yet he writes about the visual power of the movies – in “Where Are the Movies Moving?” – with the inside knowledge of a great film director. It beats me why Huxley apparently never reprinted either essay in any of his collections.

The great essayist is not hampered by titles and introductions. He has a nimble mind that delights in “asides” and “off topics”. Huxley is a virtuoso in this department as well. He lets his vast erudition roam everywhere you do or don’t expect, yet he always keeps it on a leash. However distant keys he may modulate into, he always returns to the home tonality in the end.

“Centenaries” begins with a lyrical description of the Tuscan beach on which Shelley’s body was washed ashore. Using the centenary of his death as a pretext, Huxley launches a scorching attack on the British way to celebrate centenaries from the death of so-and-so (it was Shelley’s turn in 1922). Huxley is outraged by the hypocrisy of stuffy and pretentious academics who praise Shelley in their articles but would have hated him had been alive. “Rare people!”, he waxes ecstatic about the Italians who celebrated 600 years from Dante’s death with football matches, bicycle races and just about every other way ever invented to have fun (including grandiloquent Fascist speeches). He hopes that for the Shelley bicentenary the British would adopt the Italian way and commemorate one of their greatest poets with “aerial regattas and hydroplane races”. Well, let’s see next year.

“Royalty and a Caricature” was ostensibly inspired by the hullaballoo which a caricature of some royalty by Max Beerbohm caused in the papers at the time. Huxley uses this modest incident as a springboard to reflect on the curious paradox that the less power royalty have, the more they are revered as a symbol. This is still relevant, nowhere more than in Britain where the Royal Family is nothing short of the Holy Family. “On Re-reading Candide”, far from being just a review of Voltaire’s most famous work, is really an attack on the soulless zeitgeist of the interwar years. This is a prominent leitmotif, of course (though not as prominent as Mr Baker would have you believe in his introduction), but here it is expressed with rare power – and it makes me want to read Candide again. And, speaking of telling digressions, what is wrong with a penetrating description of the zeitgeist in the middle of an innocent travel piece (“Views of Holland”)?

Possibly my favourite example in this category is “Conxolus”. Ostensibly about a minor Italian painter from the 13th-century, this essay veers, as if just by the way, into an entrancing discourse on Baroque and Romantic art. Huxley’s controversial idea, in a nutshell, is that “the baroque and the kindred romantic style are the two styles best fitted in the nature of things for the expression of comedy.” This is to be expected, he continues, because comedy is based on exaggeration, even extravagance, much like the “wild gestures” of the Baroque and Romantic artists, and it is also to be expected that “except in the hands of prodigious men of genius (such as Marlowe and Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Rembrandt) this style, when used for serious purposes, is ludicrous.” I must differ about Marlowe’s “prodigious genius” (an overrated scribbler if there ever was one; what a turd his “masterpiece” turned out to be!), but otherwise Huxley’s idea is most stimulating indeed!

The great essayist has versatility and personality. This is rather obvious, but one of its less obvious and more charming side effects is that he can write a readable and entertaining piece on pretty much every subject. Swift, I am told, was once challenged to write a discourse on a broomstick and “acquitted himself very creditably.”[12] Huxley did the same with anything from melancholy poetry (“How the Days Draw In”), nonsense poetry (“Edward Lear”[13]) and utterly boring comic verse (“Ben Jonson”) to curious printing errors (“On Deviating into Sense”), dripping taps (“Water Music”) and even the Irish novelist Amanda M. Ros (“Euphues Redivivus”), generally considered the Worst Writer of All Time. These are trifles, to be sure, and they may not be able to bear the weight of re-reading. In a separate collection like On the Margin, they would detract from the overall value of the book. But in a large selection like this one, they are welcome points of relief between weightier pieces.

Last but not least, the great essayist makes thematic separation all but nonsensical. Thus musical references abound everywhere. Many of them are delicious, but they do require some background to be appreciated. I almost laughed when I read “as though Bach had written the 1812 Overture”. Even hard-core classical music lovers would be baffled by that simile out of context. But those who are also lovers of painting would appreciate anew the intellectual power and emotional restraint of Piero della Francesca. I don’t in the least agree with Huxley that Piero’s Resurrection is “The Best Picture” in the world, but all the same he made me look with fresh eyes on this neglected master of the Early Renaissance.

“The Salzburg Festival” really belongs to the musical section. This Vanity Fair piece makes for a fascinating comparison with Huxley’s columns as a regular music critic. There is a good deal of repetition, of course, but there is no copy-paste. Indeed, there are some charming differences. Huxley is still fond of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Bartok and, more cautiously, Bloch. But the violin sonata by Willem Pijper now “sounded as though it had been written for performance in a very high-class cinema, so refined was it and so bottomlessly commonplace.” The sting in the tail is stronger here. And I cannot resist quoting this delicious musical aside from an essay already mentioned in quite a different context (“Conxolus”):

We have changed all that nowadays; and so thoroughly that there are many young people who, in their anxiety not to be thought old-fashioned, regard all pictures bearing a close resemblance to their subjects as highly suspicious and, unless guaranteed chemically pure by some recognized aesthetic authority, a priori ridiculous. To these ascetics all natural beauty, when reproduced by art, is damnable. [...] This doctrine applied to music has led to the exaltation of Bach, even Bach in his most mechanical and soulless moments, at the expense of Beethoven. It has led to the dry “classical” way of playing Mozart, who is supposed to be unemotional because he is not vulgarly emotional, like Wagner. It has led to steam organ-like performances of Handel and senseless bellowings of Palestrina. And the absurd young, in reaction against the sentimentalities and lachrymose idealisms which they imagine to have characterized the later Victorian age, being left absolutely unmoved by these performances, have for that very reason applauded them as in the highest degree artistic.

“The Portraits of Augustus John” had me browsing the Web to look at the pictures of a painter I hardly knew even as a name before, but the meat of the essay is an entrancing discussion of genius. There is nothing essentially new in it; on the contrary, it is yet another variation of the ancient “nature versus nurture” conundrum. But it has seldom been expressed with such originality and concision. Huxley makes the bold claim that Schubert “had perhaps a greater natural gift than Beethoven”, and he goes on from there:

One fact there is, however, on which the Sunday School teachers might dwell with a certain justifiable satisfaction: the greatest and most inimitable gifts are in many cases (I will not say all, for generalizations of this sort are altogether too dangerous) improved and developed by a systematic application to them of the ordinary imitable virtues. Schubert had perhaps a greater natural gift than Beethoven; his native woodnotes came to him almost too easily – so easily, indeed, that Beethoven’s slower, more laborious methods of composition seemed to him incomprehensible. These painful efforts of concentration and selection and arrangement – were they, he could ask himself, worthwhile? With the most complete confidence we can answer: they were. Decidedly, the imitable virtues have scored a point.

I do think Huxley failed to realise here that the capacity for hard work and intellectual labour are also part from the mystery of genius. These are less “imitable” than he thought. It is nonsense, of course, to say (as the proverb goes) that genius is merely an infinite capacity for taking pains. But this is part, if not from true genius, certainly from true greatness. That is why Schubert, great genius as he was, was certainly no Beethoven, never mind the misguided attempts of some pundits to put both composers on the same level. On the other hand, Schubert’s lesser genius was certainly great enough to secure his immortality. A composer without genius, even if he is very talented, would never get there, never mind how many decades of toil he puts into it.

So, I am back where I started, arguing about music with Huxley. This must be a sign from the merciful Providence that it’s time to conclude this long and rambling attempt for a review. After all, the great essayist should be read and experienced intimately. He makes reviews worse than superfluous.

All in all, I now understand why Somerset Maugham was ready to rank Huxley as an essayist with Hazlitt.[14] Maugham could have paid no greater compliment, neither can I, and this ultimate accolade is well deserved. Richer and more rewarding read than Huxley’s essays I at least find hard to imagine. I’m looking very much forward to reading the other five volumes in the near future.


[1] For the matter of that, where are the complete essays of Russell and Orwell? The closest we have of the former is The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, a mammoth 35-volume edition that has been going on for nearly forty years now. I don’t know if it has ever been finished, nor do I care. The volumes are exhaustive and expensive, most of them well beyond the pocket and the patience of ordinary readers like the present scribbler. As for Orwell, random collections with his essays are legion, but nothing like a complete edition has ever been attempted, so far as I know. The closest we have is probably The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968, 4 vols.), edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Paperback reprints may still be affordable, but whether the edition is worth having I don’t know.

[2] The essay is collected in The Vagrant Mood (1952). Read it complete here.

[3] “Beethoven’s Centenary”, first published in The Radio Times, 18 Mar 1927, and one of Shaw’s finest essays on music. Reprinted in: Pen Portraits and Reviews [1931], Constable, 1949, pp. 30-5; Shaw on Music [1955], ed. Eric Bentley, Applause, 2000, pp. 83-9; Shaw’s Music, ed. Dan H. Laurence, Second Revised Edition, The Bodley Head, 1989, Vol. 3, pp. 742-8.

[4] Bernard Shaw, Music in London 1890–94 [1932], Vienna House, 1973, Vol. 3, p. 179.

[5] Quoted by Alan Walker in Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861 [1988], Cornell University Press, 1993, p. 308.

[6] Letter to Vladimir Davydov from 11/23 February 1893. Read it on Tchaikovsky Research.

[7] Letter to Sergey Taneyev from 27 March/8 April 1878. Read this revealing letter on Tchaikovsky Research.

[8] Arthur Clarke, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, HarperCollins, 1999, p. 273. The essay in question is titled “The Mind of the Machine” and was first published in the collection Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations (1972).

[9] This is curiously reminiscent of Bernard Shaw who once murdered this mighty piano piece which “seems so hard to fathom because there is next to nothing in it”. See London Music in 1888–89 [1937], Vienna House, 1973, p. 394.

[10] Harold Schonberg, The Glorious Ones, Times Books, 1985, p. xvi.

[11] Cf. the equally wise and devoid of snobbishness remarks about best-sellers in Maugham’s notes, A Writer’s Notebook (1949), Ch. “1941”. Incidentally, Maugham has some first-hand memories to share about Charles Garvice (1850–1920), a once popular but now forgotten writer of romance novels, also mentioned several times in passing by Huxley (but not in the index, alas). Indeed, the passage from “Popular Literature” is worth quoting, if only in a footnote:

Your highbrow, who, after reading a novel by Mrs. Barclay or Nat Gould, declares derisively that he himself could do that sort of thing in his spare time, if he wanted to, is not telling the truth. He couldn’t write that sort of thing; he couldn’t write anything, in all probability, half so good. The fact that he can read Henry James is no guarantee of his being able to write Charles Garvice.  

[12] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), Ch. 23.

[13] It is no surprise that many essays deal with poetry, and many more mention it in passing. It is seldom remembered today, but Aldous Huxley began his literary career as a poet with four collections published between 1916 and 1920. Later came two more, Arabia Felix and Other Poems (1929) and The Cicadas and Other Poems (1931). All these remain even more forgotten than Huxley’s music criticism.

[14] Great Modern Reading, ed. W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday, 1943, p. 335.