Saturday, 12 March 2022

Review: Huxley on Travel (1925-34)

 



Aldous Huxley

 

Along the Road

Jesting Pilate

Beyond the Mexique Bay

 

Triad/Paladin, Paperback, 1984/85.

12mo. 3 vols. In slipcase. Along the Road, 153 pp.; cover: The Road by Andre Derain. Jesting Pilate, 208 pp.; cover: Balinese painting Planting the Rice by G. A. Oka. Beyond the Mexique Bay, 191 pp.; cover: detail from Landscape of San Antonio de Oriente, Honduras (1972) by Jose A. Velasquez.

 

Along the Road first published, 1925.

Jesting Pilate first published, 1926.

Beyond the Mexique Bay first published, 1934.

Triad/Paladin editions, 1984/85.

 

Contents

 

Along the Road

Notes and Essays of a Tourist

Travel in General

Why not Stay at Home? – Wander-Birds – The Traveller’s-Eye View – Guide-Books – Spectacles – The Country – Books for the Journey

Places

Montesenario – Patinir’s River – Portoferraio – The Palio at Siena – Views of Holland – Sabbioneta

Works of Art

Breughel – Rimini and Alberti – Conxolus – The Best Picture – The Pierian Spring

By the Way

A Night at Pietramala – Work and Leisure – Popular Music – The Mystery of the Theatre

 

Jesting Pilate

The Diary of a Journey

Part I: India & Burma

Port Said – In the Red Sea – At Sea – Bombay – Kashmir – Srinagar – Taxila – Between Peshawar and Lahore – Lahore – Amritsar – Agra – Fatehpur Sikri – Jaipur – Bikaner – Jodhpur – Ajmere – Pushkar Lake – Chitor – Udaipur – Cawpore – Benares – Lucknow – Delhi – Calcutta – On the Hoogly – Rangoon – On the Irrawaddy – Bhamo

Part II: Malaya

Penang – Between Penang and Singapore – Singapore – Batavia, Java – Batavia – Garoet – Buitenzorg – At Sea – Miri, Sarawak – Labuan – Kudat, North Borneo – Sandakan – The Southern Philippines – Manila

Part III: The Pacific

Shanghai – Japan – On the Pacific – At Sea

Part IV: America

San Francisco – On the Train – Los Angeles: A Rhapsody – Chicago – New York – London

 

Beyond the Mexique Bay

On the Ship – Barbados – Trinidad – Caracas – Colon – Jamaica – British Honduras – Puerto Barrios – Quirigua – In the Train – Guatemala City – Ciudad Vieja – Antigua – On the Road – Atitlan – Sololà – Chichicastenango – Zacapulas – Momostenango – Copan – En Route – Progreso – Miahuatlan – Ejutla – Oaxaca – Monte Alban – Etla – Mitl – Puebla – Cholula – Mexico City – Taxco

Index

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According to my calculations, excluding Collected Short Stories (1957), Collected Essays (1958) and other volumes that consist of previously collected material, Aldous Huxley published 43 distinct works in the course of 47 years (1916–1963). This vast and varied output included eight collections of essays, five of poems and five of short stories, plus eleven novels, seven volumes of various non-fiction, four pamphlets and two anthologies “merely” edited by Huxley. Some of these books are more diverse than they seem: two of the short story collections also include one play each. Others are hard to classify, the so-called (for want of a better phrase) “travel books” being the prime example. All of them are recognisably the product of the same brilliant mind. Even the anthologies are highly personal selections with extensive commentaries, virtually full-length original works. Excepting one unfortunate experiment with mescaline and mysticism late in life, I have yet to come across a book by Aldous Huxley which is not worth reading at least once; many are worth re-reading and pondering; some stay for good.

All of Huxley’s “travel books” are included in this simple but handsome set of paperbacks in a slipcase published by Triad/Paladin in the mid-1980s. They do defy classification. There is a good reason for reprinting the first of them complete in Huxley’s Complete Essays (2000–2002). Along the Road, as the subtitle admits, is something between a travel book and a collection of essays. But the other two are hardly classic travel books. They, too, inhabit the no-man’s-land between travelogues and collections of essays; certainly, they are as far as possible from travel guides. In other words, they contain minimum of sightseeing and maximum of personal reflection. Quite rightly, they are reprinted complete in the next two volumes of Complete Essays.

Along the Road I have read before in the first volume of the aforementioned Complete Essays. I have read it again with considerably greater pleasure. The contents are so much more effective in their original arrangement.

The “plot” is simple. The author simply travelled, or motored as they said in those days, through Italy, France, Belgium and Holland on his “ten-horse-power Citroen”. That’s on the surface. Below, there is another plot, far more intricate and unpredictable, with twists and turns you’d never guess. Above all, there is a large cast of unforgettable characters, not least the author himself.

Aldous Huxley is the possessor of a magnificent mind: powerful but precise, encyclopaedic but perfectly organised, highly original and capable of the most startling parallels, commanding reflection from the reader even when one totally disagrees with the propositions or the conclusions. Not one of these 22 “notes and essays of a tourist” is without scope and depth; even the pieces in the second part, much the shortest and most descriptive of all, make a number of points that go way beyond mere travel narrative. It doesn’t hurt that the sightseeing part, so long as it is here at all, benefits from poetry in prose as evocative as anything ever penned in travelogues, or any other kind of imaginative writing. For example, Siena:

Our rooms were in a tower. From the windows one looked across the brown tiled roofs to where, on its hill, stood the cathedral. A hundred feet below was the street, a narrow canyon between high walls, perennially sunless; the voices of the passers-by came up, reverberating, as out of a chasm. Down there they walked always in shadow; but in our tower we were the last to lose the sunlight. On the hot days it was cooler, no doubt, down in the street; but we at least had the winds.

But be warned! Huxley expects you, if not to know everything about the art, science, history and geography he tells about, at least to know something about them, or to do your research along the road. He demands passionate involvement from his readers. This is to be expected. Reading a great book is an active experience, or at least it should be. To get the best from such book, you must first invest a good deal of yourself. You must make your experience, your ideas, feelings and prejudices, your whole personality in fact, part of the reading experience. Otherwise you might as well not read the book at all. If you’re not interested, as Huxley is, in comparing Brunelleschi and Alberti or Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, you’re welcome to ignore his discourse. But that will be your loss, while studying afresh those artists and giving some thought to Huxley’s reflections may actually enrich your personality. If you don’t know what it means for Bach to compose the 1812 Overture, you’ll miss a subtle point. You can afford that, of course. But the fault is yours, not Huxley’s.

The loss is yours, too. Aldous Huxley has often been blamed for showing off his vast knowledge, an intellectual snob so to say. There is a grain of truth in this. But it’s just a grain. It is by far not the whole truth, not even any appreciable part of it. It’s just a grain. Huxley can be a bit snooty, certainly, but his snootiness is based on something anybody can achieve without much hard labour; almost anybody anyway. Some people are simply too stupid or too lazy. Such tributes to incapacity are usually the most vocal complainers of Huxley’s snobbish, high-brow, elitist, whatever attitude. No need to waste time with riff-raff like that. If that sounds too snotty for you, you’re welcome to stop reading now.

In fact, snobbery in all of its numerous forms may be said to be one of Huxley’s favourite targets. If you haven’t read his wonderful essay “Selected Snobberies”, at once amusing and saddening, be sure to rectify this regrettable omission in your reading history. But “Why not Stay at Home?” is almost as fine. It opens the book with a big bang right on the money. Travel for pleasure is exposed as the vicious snobbery it so often is. There is still a widespread notion that widely travelled persons are somehow wiser than the rest. They are nothing of the sort, of course. Men are wise, Bernard Shaw once wisely said, not in relation to their experience, but in relation to their capacity for experience. A fool or a snob may travel around the world and experience everything any number of times: he will be no less foolish and snobbish after that.

Huxley knew all that, and then some, back in 1925. He is properly derisive of all those hordes of leisured parasites that go to Paris and Monte Carlo to taste “Life” and to Rome and Florence to learn “Art”. They taste everything and have no taste whatsoever. They learn nothing but what confirms their narrow, hidebound, myopic views. Consider an extensive quote from the opening essay in this gem of a book. It’s not easy to believe this was written 97 years ago. Travel has meanwhile become a great deal easier and cheaper, but not a whit, alas, more democratic. It is the same breeder of snobbish prejudice as ever; indeed, the world is more than ever before full of people who have been everywhere and seen nothing, heard nothing, learned nothing. Here is Huxley:

The fact is that very few travellers really like travelling. If they go to the trouble and expense of travelling, it is not so much from curiosity, for fun, or because they like to see things beautiful and strange, as out of a kind of snobbery. People travel for the same reason as they collect works of art: because the best people do it. To have been to certain spots on the earth’s surface is socially correct; and having been there, one is superior to those who have not. Moreover, travelling gives one something to talk about when one gets home. The subjects of conversation are not so numerous that one can neglect an opportunity of adding to one’s store.

To justify this snobbery, a series of myths has gradually been elaborated. The places which it is socially smart to have visited are aureoled with glamour, till they are made to appear, for those who have not been there, like so many fabled Babylons or Bagdads. Those who have travelled have a personal interest in cultivating and disseminating these fables. For if Paris and Monte Carlo are really so marvellous as it is generally supposed, by the inhabitants of Bradford or Milwaukee, of Tomsk and Bergen, that they are – why, then, the merit of the travellers who have actually visited these places is the greater, and their superiority over the stay-at-homes the more enormous. It is for this reason (and because they pay the hotel proprietors and the steamship companies) that the fables are studiously kept alive.

Few things are more pathetic than the spectacle of inexperienced travellers, brought up on these myths, desperately doing their best to make external reality square with fable. It is for the sake of the myths and, less consciously, in the name of snobbery that they left their homes; to admit disappointment in the reality would be to admit their own foolishness in having believed the fables and would detract from their merit in having undertaken the pilgrimage. Out of the hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Saxons who frequent the night-clubs and dancing-saloons of Paris, there are a good many, no doubt, who genuinely like that sort of thing. But there are also very many who do not. In their hearts, secretly, they are bored and a little disgusted. But they have been brought up to believe in a fabulous ‘Gay Paree’, where everything is deliriously exciting and where alone it is possible to see what is technically known as Life. Conscientiously, therefore, they strive, when they come to Paris, to be gay. Night after night the dance halls and the bordellos are thronged by serious young compatriots of Emerson and Matthew Arnold, earnestly engaged in trying to see life, neither very steadily nor whole, through the ever-thickening mists of Heidsieck and Roederer.

[...]

To the Parisians, the fable brings in several hundred milliards of good money. They give it a generous publicity; business is business. But if I were the manager of a Montmartre dancing-saloon, I think I should tell my waiters to act their gay parts with a little more conviction. ‘My men,’ I should say to them, ‘you ought to look as though you believed in the fable out of which we make our living. Smile, be merry. Your present expression, which is a mingling of weariness, disgusted contempt for your clients and cynical rapacity, is not inspiring. One day the clients might be sober enough to notice it. And where should we be then?’

But Paris and Monte Carlo are not the only resorts of pilgrimage. There are also Rome and Florence. There are picture galleries, churches and ruins as well as shops and casinos. And the snobbery which decrees that one must like Art – or, to be more accurate, that one should have visited the places where Art is to be seen – is almost as tyrannous as that which bids one visit the places where one can see Life.

All of us are more or less interested in Life – even in that rather smelly slice of it that is to be found in Montmartre. But a taste for Art – or at any rare the sort of art that is found in galleries and churches – is by no means universal. Hence the case of the poor tourists who, from motives of snobbery, visit Rome and Florence, is even more pathetic than the case of those who repair for the same reasons to Paris and Monte Carlo. Tourists ‘doing’ a church wear a mask of dutiful interest; but what lassitude, what utter weariness of spirit looks out, too often, at their eyes! And the weariness is felt, within, still more acutely because, precisely, of the necessity of stimulating this rapt attentiveness, of even going hypocritically into raptures over the things that are starred in the Baedeker. There come moments when flesh and blood can stand the strain no longer. Philistinism absolutely refuses to pay the tribute it owes to taste. Exasperated and defiant, the tourist swears he won’t so much as put his nose inside another church, preferring to spend his days in the lounge of the hotel, reading the continental Daily Mail.

This is what I call great writing: bold and brilliant, yet elegant and simple; lucid and readable, yet smart and literary; dealing with fundamental issues and making points that time, far from having made dated, has actually made stronger. This kind of writing occupies a very large part of Aldous Huxley’s massive output, including the whole of Along the Road. Imagine writing a book like that at the age of 31!

Huxley seldom misses an opportunity to attack snobbery, especially in the rarefied aesthetic circles. Oh, have we all seen those mighty connoisseurs who know everything about anything, be it painting, sculpture, architecture, music or literature! Especially amusing are those who habitually praise the obscure in order to appear more knowledgeable, more profound, more unique, more above the common herd. Mention to these people the Bronte sisters and they will say automatically that Anne is the one! Anybody can love Charlotte and appreciate Emily. But Anne – she is reserved for the truest of the true, the most sensitive and sophisticated souls of all!

Huxley was well aware of his own propensity in that direction. He was fond of lecturing about such stupendous obscurities like “Conxolus” or “Patinir”, painters compared to whom the fairly unknown Piero della Francesca is a household name. But Huxley kept this passion on a leash and never overindulged it; indeed, often used it as a springboard to launch timeless topics. Consider the geography of art appreciation. For that’s one of the funniest things about art: sometimes its fame, if not its greatness, is more or less an accident of geography. So far as I know, Huxley is the only writer who has ever expressed this seemingly bizarre yet, when you come to think of it, sensible notion:

If the principle works of Piero [della Francesca] were to be seen in Florence and those of Botticelli at San Sepolcro I do not doubt that the public estimation of these two masters would be reversed. Artistic English spinsters would stand in rapturous contemplation before the story of the True Cross, instead of before the Primavera. Raptures depend largely upon the stars in Baedeker, and the stars are more freely distributed to works of art in accessible towns than those in the inaccessible. If the Arena chapel were in the mountains of Calabria, instead of at Padua, we should all have heard a good deal less of Giotto.

Cynical, yes, but so accurate! Substitute “stars in Baedeker” with the recommendation of friends, critics, celebrities, bloggers, vloggers, “inlfuencers” (Huxley would have penned a lively essay about that greatest of modern perversions, the social network!) and you have a timeless observation. 

The best essays, or travelogues for that matter, are the most digressive. Huxley scores very high here. “A Night at Pietramala”, which Somerset Maugham was wise to reprint in one of his anthologies, is ostensibly a description of a freezing night spent in that small mountain village on the way from Florence to Bologna, complete with somewhat unflattering but invariably good-natured comments about the Italians. But all this is by the way. The piece is really a meditation, almost Plutarchian in its wit and depth, on the parallel lives of artists and scientists, incidentally including a fine character sketch of Michael Faraday who visited Pietramala in his youth and in the irascible company of Humphrey Davy. If he could be reborn in whatever calling he wishes and with some genius into the bargain, Huxley declares he would rather be a Faraday than a Shakespeare. The artist, he argues, is limited in his work and the subject of social snobbery. The scientist, on the other hand, studies nature, which is limitless, and is free from social constraints. Alas, this last point has changed completely today, in a world where science is all too often reduced to business or career. If I could choose, I would have been an artist.

“The Palio at Siena” is what the title says it is, on the surface, but somewhere in the middle, as if by the way, Huxley drops yet another bombshell. Italy’s comparative poverty is largely responsible for so much ancient and Renaissance monuments being so well preserved; richer countries have done too much “weeding, destroying and rebuilding”. The Italians did a good deal of weeding themselves, consciously because it was cheap and unconsciously because it was “symbolic of modernity”, but that was not, fortunately for them as well as for us, destructive enough. Another reason why Italy remains so enchantingly medieval and Renaissance-like, Huxley adds, is that the Italians of olden times built with massive solidity. It’s about as easy to demolish the Matterhorn as the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Huxley jokes. So, we started from the famous pageant on the streets of Siena and ended with musings on preservation of the Italian cultural heritage. Quite a journey to make in just a few pages!

“Breughel” does contain an extensive analysis of Breughel’s deep and disturbing humanity as expressed in his finest paintings; but it does, also, contain an engrossing lecture on modern painting, or what passed for painting at the time of writing. Huxley is dismayed that form has come to be regarded more highly than emotion or storytelling by the current “Kunstforschers”, as he likes to call them. Yes, allowances are made for the Old Masters who freely expressed their thoughts and feelings and filled their pictures with dramatic incidents: “Poor devils, they knew no better!” But if a painter did it in the 1920s, he was blacklisted as hopelessly old-fashioned. Curiously enough, though Huxley doesn’t mention it, similar development happened in music around the same time. Influential, guru-like figures like Stravinsky and Hindemith preached that music is an exercise in form devoid of emotion. Many fools were only too eager to believe this nonsense, with disastrous results. Huxley mentions them briefly in “Conxolus” and has a good deal more to say on the topic in his music criticism from the 1920s.

These examples of entrancing off-topic could be multiplied almost indefinitely. I conclude with a quote from one of the most striking. “Views of Holland” is a vivid description of “Euclidean North Holland”. But the best part is this innocent digression on history and human nature, a perfect evocation of the sick zeitgeist between the World Wars to which we are direct descendants:

Delightful landscape! I know of no country that is more mentally exhilarating to travel in. No wonder Descartes preferred the Dutch to any other scene. It is the rationalist’s paradise. One feels as one flies along in the teeth of one’s own forty-mile-an-hour wind like a Cartesian Encyclopaedist – flushed with mental intoxication, convinced that Euclid is absolute reality, that God is a mathematician, that the universe is a simple affair that can be explained in terms of physics and mechanics, that all men are equally endowed with reason and that it is only a question of putting the right arguments before them to make them see the error of their ways and to inaugurate the reign of justice and common sense. Those were noble and touching dreams, commendable inebriations! We are soberer now. We have learnt that nothing is simple and rational except what we ourselves have invented; that God thinks neither in terms of Euclid nor of Riemann; that science has ‘explained’ nothing; that the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness; that reason is unequally distributed; that instinct is the sole source of action; that prejudice is incomparably stronger than argument and that even in the twentieth century men behave as they did in the caves of Altamira and in the lake dwellings of Glastonbury.

If Holland is conducive to such reflective power, I’m all for going there. It doesn’t work like that, of course. As Huxley argues at another place (“Montesenario”), important as it is, environment is of far less importance than innate ability. An extremely bad environment can cause some loss of power even in the most formidable natures. But an extremely favourable environment can “do nothing to extend the limits set by nature to a man’s ability.”

“The Traveller’s-Eye View” extols the pleasures of looking at people from a distance, eavesdropping on them and speculating about their characters. This is an occupation for which travel gives ample opportunity, and for which authors have peculiar zest. They observe people and use them as raw material for their characters, but they are weary of getting to know them; for then all those fascinating candidate-characters become real and dull. It is no surprise, then, that the essay contains a good deal about writers. Joseph Conrad and Katherine Mansfield are subjected to devastating criticism because, in Huxley’s opinion I happen to agree completely with, they never get to know their characters. They give you nothing but vague shadows. This is especially true of Conrad. I cannot resist quoting Huxley’s deliciously deadly criticism, and I would certainly add Conrad’s male characters on the list:

Certain authors have exploited, either deliberately or because they could not do otherwise, their spectator’s emotion in the presence of unknown actors. There is Joseph Conrad, for example. The mysterious thrilling charm of his characters, particularly his female characters, is due to the fact that he knows nothing at all about them. He sits at a distance, he watches them acting and then wonders and wonders, through pages of Marlow’s winding narratives, why on earth they acted as they did, what were their motives, what they felt and thought. The God’s-eye view of those novelists who really know, or pretend they know, exactly what is going on in the minds of their characters, is exchanged for the traveller’s-eye view, the view of the stranger who starts with no knowledge whatever of the actors’ personalities and can only infer from their gestures what is happening in their minds. Conrad, it must be admitted, manages to infer very little; he lacks the palaeontologist’s imagination, has little power of reconstructing thought from seen behaviour. At the end of a novel, his heroines are as shadowy as they were at the beginning. They have acted, and Conrad had lengthily wondered – without discovering – why they have acted in this particular way. His bewilderment is infectious; the reader is just as hopelessly puzzled as the author and, incidentally, finds the characters just as wonderfully mysterious. Mystery is delightful and exciting; but it is foolish to admire it too highly. A thing is mysterious merely because it is unknown. There will always be mysteries because there will always be unknown and unknowable things. But it is best to know what is knowable. There is no credit about not knowing what can be known. Some literary men, for example, positively pride themselves on their ignorance of science; they are fools and arrogant at that. If Conrad’s characters are mysterious, it is not because they are complicated, difficult or subtle characters, but simply because he does not understand them; not knowing what they are like, he speculates, unsuccessfully, and finally admits that he finds them inscrutable. The honesty with which he confesses his ignorance is meritorious, not the ignorance. The characters of the great novelists, like Dostoievsky and Tolstoy, are not mysterious; they are perfectly well understood and clearly displayed. Such writers live with their creations. Conrad only looks on from a distance, without understanding them, without even making up plausible hypotheses about them out of his imagination.

Have you noticed the subtle introduction of general reflection into a rather specific discussion? This is something Huxley is a real master of, often summing-up whole galaxies of confused thought into superbly pithy conclusions: “But it is best to know what is knowable.” Try to tell this to the conspiracy theorists for whom by far the best thing to be known is that which is not known to anybody else. “There is no credit about not knowing what can be known.” Tell this to all those people, more numerous than ever before, who pride themselves on their ignorance of science, art, history, anything, in fact, but the most idiotic trash online.

Other examples of masterful digressions that stay with me include an incisive definition of the difference between an epigram and an aphorism (“Books for the Journey”), a meditation on the contrast between spiritual and worldly life while trying to reach a monastery in the mountains around Florence (“Montesenario”) and a striking illustration of industrial violence at the island of Napoleon’s first exile (“Portoferraio”). I will regretfully refrain from quoting them.

As for Mansfield, she fares a bit better. She is at least granted “a lively fancy” that invents plausible creatures, even if one cannot believe in them because they are “like those brilliant palaeontological reconstructions one sees in books of popular science [...] too excitingly romantic, in spite of their air of realism, to be quite genuine.” That the traveller’s-eye view is a viable technique for the creation of characters rather more substantial than shadows Somerset Maugham has shown conclusively. On the other hand, Huxley himself is a cautionary tale how the method can be misused to create, not characters, but collections of ideas. Then again, Aldous Huxley was not really a novelist. He was a born essayist who sometimes wrote fiction by mistake.

Huxley is nothing if no controversial and provocative, fearless indeed. It takes nothing to call Wagner and Bernini “first-rate men of genius”, but it takes a lot of guts to call them “charlatans [who] can turn what is false and theatrical into something almost sublime”. I suppose it was this brave defiance of convention, among plenty of other things, that made Somerset Maugham put Huxley as an essayist in the same league as Hazlitt. This is just about the greatest compliment Maugham, or I for that matter, can pay to any writer of non-fiction. Huxley did indeed write many of the finest essays of the last century. A few of them are included in this book as well.

Consider “The Pierian Spring” – meaning the fountain of knowledge and coming, of course, from Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711) – which makes a strong case that the vast knowledge that was amassed by the beginning of the 20th century was deadly for art. Huxley witnessed the decline of virtually all arts in the decadent decades between the World Wars and he all but predicted the process will continue until the complete destruction of all arts. Time finally sweeps away all mediocrity, or simply idiocy. Who remembers today Jackson Pollock or John Cage, the guys who turned painting and music, respectively, into apotheosis of formlessness? A few moronic collectors in Pollock’s case and not even those in Cage’s. The same fate has assailed composers who worshipped form at the expense of everything else and thus reduced music to mathematics. Who remembers, not to mentions plays or listens to, Boulez and Stockhausen today? They have been dead but for a few years. It might be a few centuries for all the world cares.

Even the lightest pieces in this book are not devoid of serious undertones. You don’t even have to read between the lines to catch them: it’s enough to read carefully the lines themselves. One of my favourites is “The Country” in which Huxley wonders why the love for the country grows stronger as one goes farther north from the Mediterranean, in other words as the climate becomes worse. As if by the way, tentatively inserted in round brackets, he gives a most plausible answer why the English are special in this respect: “It is, perhaps, not surprising that the people which first made their cities uninhabitable with dirt, noise and smoke should also have been the first to love nature.”

It is, perhaps, wrong to search for serious undercurrents in Huxley’s reflections on German tourists and automobile envy (“Wander-Birds”), his recommendation of poetry anthologies, the maxims of La Rochefoucauld and Encyclopaedia Britannica as “Books for the Journey” (I would add a mammoth novel by Dumas, although with the proviso that thus you may well spend your whole holiday reading), or his demolition of Baedeker and his ilk (“Guide-Books”). These pieces were obviously written as light relief among weightier stuff. They are one of the reasons why the book works so well as a whole. And yet, with Huxley one is constantly forced to think, if only to disagree with him. For instance, I disagree a guide book is necessary only on the first journey. Nope. It is not necessary at all even then. And what about that superb character sketch of La Rochefoucauld, his wisdom about man as a social animal and his ignorance about man in solitude, complete with a review of his maxims, and all that coming out of the blue in the middle of a presumably light essay!

Despite his inherent, inescapable seriousness, Huxley’s sense of humour is versatile and prodigious. It may be his most underrated quality. It covers a wide range from subtle irony to acerbic sarcasm, and hardly a page passes without some manifestation of it. Perhaps it is never put to a more hilarious effect than when the author decides to regale the reader with the finest contemporary theories in various fields of human knowledge, for example psychoanalysis (“Rimini and Alberti”):

The psycho-analysts, who trace all interest in art back to an infantile love of excrement, would doubtless offer some simple faecal explanation for the varieties in our aesthetic passions. One man loves masses, another lines: the explanation in terms of coprophily is so obvious that I may be excused from giving it here. I will content myself by quoting from the works of Dr Ernest Jones, the reason why the worship of form should come to be connected in so many cases with the worship of a moral ideal; in a word, why art is so often religious. ‘Religion,’ says Dr Jones, ‘has always used art in one form or another, and must do so, for the reason that incestuous desires invariably construct their fantasies out of the material provided by the unconscious memory of infantile coprophilic interests; that is the inner meaning of the phrase, “Art is the handmaid of Religion.”’ Illuminating and beautiful words! It is a pity they were not written thirty years ago. I should have liked to read Tolstoy’s comments in What is Art? on this last and best of the aesthetic theories.

The things people could get away with in print during the 1920s! Then again, think of the things people do get away with in print today!

Sometimes, of course, Huxley himself writes stuff that comes dangerously close to nonsense. This is to be expected in a writer so boldly original and I, personally, prefer it to your timid scribbler who never sounds silly simply because he never strays from the well-trodden paths. “Popular Music” is the chief culprit here. It is rather rash to blame Beethoven, if indirectly, “for all the languishing waltz tunes, all the savage jazzings, for all that is maudlin and violent in our popular music.” Do you know why? Because it was Beethoven who “first devised really effective musical methods for the direct expression of emotion”.

Leaving aside the implication that nobody before Beethoven, not even Mozart or Bach, expressed emotion effectively in their works (a ludicrous claim if there ever was one!), Huxley is way wide of the mark that “the weakest sentimentalities of Schumann, the baroque grandiosities of Wagner, the hysterics of Scriabine” can be traced to Beethoven in one way or another. Equally superficial – indeed, if not even more so! – is equating barbarism in music with the Russians. Which ones, one must ask in the first place? The melodic and (if you like) sentimental Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the exotic and nationalistic Mussorgsky and Borodine, the academic Glazunov, or the quite modern at the time Stravinsky and Prokofiev? Huxley makes no specific references except Rimsky-Korsakov without whom “modern dance music would not be the thing it is”.

There is something, perhaps, in Huxley’s main thesis that popular music follows serious music and necessarily copies, and perverts even more, its defects. But the case is weak and poorly argued, quite unusual for Aldous Huxley.

Jesting Pilate is a very different book, “diary of a journey” as the subtitle promises. The four major parts are separated into numerous short sections with generic titles after the places visited. Huxley travelled just about half the world this time, from South-East Asia to the United States via the Pacific. The space dedicated to them is very unequal. The Pacific takes but two pages to be crossed; America, about twenty. All of the rest are spent in South-East Asia, mostly India and Malaya, although China and Japan appear briefly on the stage as well. There is some internal evidence that the journey was taken, as one might suppose by the years of publication anyway, shortly after the Euro trip that spawned Along the Road.

Huxley’s eye for revealing detail is as sharp as ever, be it naughty like the dirty postcards in Port Said and the technical journals “of gynaecology, of obstetrics, of sexual psychology, of venereal disease” in the lounge of a Bombay hotel, or ornithological like the vast flocks of birds that made India, among quite a few other things, look so startlingly different than Europe. Huxley has a fine ear too, at once place shrewdly analysing Indian classical music, simplistic and yet surprisingly varied, in which the performer is just about everything from virtuoso to music archive (“Breitkopf and Hartel as well as Paganini”), even if the famous quarter tones proved to be disappointingly imaginary. But it’s Huxley’s mind, that nimble and darting mind, which again jumps in all directions and makes the journey unforgettable.

If one must reduce Huxley’s mind to a single thing, this is how complex, how ambiguous his opinions are. Supercilious he may be, occasionally and not too strenuously. Opinionated and iconoclastic, why, certainly, that he almost always is. But dogmatic he virtually never is. You can seldom guess what path his thoughts will take, still less what conclusions he would reach, but nearly always they are more complex and less one-sided than you might expect.

Take religion, as sensitive and contentious topic as you might want. An Indian holy man on the train, blissfully dozing while devotees were kissing his feet, started in Huxley a violent fit of “Voltairianism”, that is to say anti-clericalism. A common mortal would merely lapse into an incoherent and senseless rant against religion. Aldous Huxley, who was anything but a common mortal, provides you with a balanced assessment and food for thought:

It is a simple creed, Voltairianism. In its simplicity lies its charm, lies the secret of its success – and also of its fallaciousness. For, in our muddled human universe, nothing so simple can possibly be true, can conceivably ‘work.’

If the infâme were squashed, if insecticide were scattered on all the clerical beetles, whether black or yellow, if pure rationalism became the universal faith, all would automatically be well. So runs the simple creed of the anti-clericals. It is too simple, and the assumptions on which it is based are too sweeping. For, to begin with, is the infâme always infamous, and are the beetles invariably harmful? Obviously not. Nor can it be said that the behaviour-value of pure rationalism (whatever the truth-value of its underlying assumptions) is necessarily superior to the behaviour-value of irrational beliefs which may be and, in general, almost certainly are untrue. And further, the vast majority of human beings are not interested in reason or satisfied with what it teaches. Nor is reason itself the most satisfactory instrument for the understanding of life. Such are a few of the complications which render so simple a formula as the anti-clerical’s inapplicable to our real and chaotic existence.

Man’s progress has been contingent on his capacity to organize societies. It is only when protected by surrounding society from aggression, when freed by the organized labour of society from the necessity of hunting or digging for his food, it is only, that is to say, when society has tempered and to a great extent abolished the struggle for personal existence, that the man of talent can exercise his capacities to the full. And it is only by a well-organized society that the results of his labours can be preserved for the enrichment of succeeding generations. Any force that tends to the strengthening of society is, therefore, of the highest biological importance. Religion is obviously such a force. All religions have been unanimous in encouraging within limits that have tended to grow wider and ever wider, the social, altruistic, humanitarian proclivities of man, and in condemning his anti-social, self-assertive tendencies. Those who like to speak anthropomorphically would be justified in saying that religion is a device employed by the Life Force for the promotion of its evolutionary designs. But they would be justified in adding that religion is also a device employed by the Devil for the dissemination of idiocy, intolerance, and servile abjection. My fellow-passenger from Campbellpur did something, no doubt, to encourage brotherly love, forbearance, and mutual helpfulness among his flock. But he also did his best to deepen their congenital stupidity and prevent it from being tempered by the acquirement of correct and useful knowledge, he did his best to terrify them with imaginary fears into servility and to flatter them with groundless hopes into passive contentment with a life unworthy of human beings. What he did in the name of the evolutionary Life Force, he undid in the name of the Devil. I cherish a pious hope that he did just a trifle more than he undid, and that the Devil remained, as the result of his ministry, by ever so little the loser.

This is vintage Huxley. In other words, this is a model how to combine almost complete suspension of judgment with a small but inspiring dose of optimism. Not to mention the gorgeous writing!

Holy cows, as numerous as they are conscious of their sanctity in India, set Huxley to explore the glaring contradictions deeply religious folk have no qualms about. Sacred as they are, the Indians gladly leave their cows underfed and overworked for much of their lives. Migrating birds make Huxley reflect about the irrational component of our behaviour, the categorical imperative as he call it, often manifested without rhyme or reason, not even personal gain like, say, social prestige or whatever, and it seems “morally senseless and psychologically unaccountable. It is as though a god were playing practical jokes”. Cleanliness as a source of class prejudice was not a very original thought at the time – Somerset Maugham had noted a few years earlier during his journey through China that “the matutinal tub divides the classes more effectually than birth, wealth, or education” – but Huxley joined the band in the same tongue-in-cheek, yet not altogether flippant, way. It was a difference that the Western man in the East had to do something to overcome. It still is, worldwide.

Some of Huxley’s points are unwittingly prophetic. When he describes Indian education producing “educated unemployed” – and it’s worth remembering this is “the class most dangerous to an established government” – he describes to perfection the situation in science worldwide today.

Huxley is very much disillusioned with colonialism. This is what you’d expect from a British intellectual with a strong streak of humanitarianism to feel between the World Wars. It may come as a surprise to some readers, but there it is. Huxley is dismayed that in India it cost less to have your cart pulled by coolies than by oxen or bulls. He agrees with his fellow Britons that those coolies know no better and are happier to be exploited. But then he adds “all the more shame to the men and to the system that have reduced them to such an existence and kept them from knowing anything better.” However, when Huxley suggested that “the spirit of humanitarianism” is making its way even in India, slowly but steadily, as yet hardly noticeable but nevertheless present, I think he was being rather too optimistic. At any rate, almost a century has not fulfilled much of his hopes, and not just in India.

Predicting the loss of India was not, perhaps, terribly perceptive in the mid-1920s, but I guess many Empire Builders (mind the capitals!) at the time thought India, and Malaya for that matter, would remain British colonies for centuries yet. Huxley was no such fool. But neither was he a steadfast supporter of Indian independence. He suspended judgement and maintained that only experiment could prove whether the Indians can govern themselves better, or worse, or at all, because “in politics, as in science, one untested theory is as good, or as bad, as another.” The Indians, he never says outright but firmly implies, should be left to fend for themselves. Whether or not they would do a better job than the British, that is for the future to say. More important, for my part anyway, are Huxley’s general observations that go deeper than any specific point in history:

In social intercourse it is the acts that count, not the motives behind them. The courtesy of a duke or of a royal personage charms us, and we do not reflect that it is due to a contempt for ourselves far more crushing than that which the parvenu offensively expresses for his menials and tradesmen. The blustering rudeness of the parvenu is an admission of the precariousness of his superiority. The prince is so contemptuously certain of his, that he can afford to be civil. But civility, whatever its cause, is always civility; and rudeness angers and hurts, even when we know it to be the expression of the sense of inferiority. The official may be courteous only because he is inwardly convinced of his enormous superiority to the Indians with whom he comes into contact; but at any rate he is courteous, and courtesy never offends. Indians may regard the official’s rule as an injury to the country; but at least he refrains, generally speaking, from adding personal insult. Insult comes mainly from insignificant non-officials; it makes more enemies to English rule than official injury.

This is acute and subtle analysis, not to mention especially honest and broadminded as coming from a Briton. Huxley continues that most Englishmen in India genuinely love all Indian classes except one: the Indian educated in Europe, and for a very obvious reason. These were the would-be supplanters, the people who directly threatened the British rulers and, being a menace, were often subject to all sorts of insults, some covert and some gross. No wonder the educated Indian middle-class was nurturing hatred against the British. Huxley concludes that in the “creation of this hatred the worst bred and least educated of the Europeans have done more than their fair share.”   

India starts Huxley on a long train of thoughts on anything from cant in politics and  the meaning of democracy to human irrationality (as opposed to animal common sense) and the meaning of life (if any) and the purpose of our being here at all (if any). Huxley being Huxley, he is highly contentious. He maintains, for instance, that political cant is desirable because, sooner or later, even the most hypocritical politician is forced to act the high moral principles he has professed ardently but never believed in. Rather a good point that! Huxley is also candid enough to confess that his preference for democracy is a product of the place and class of his birth.

On the whole I have a notion Huxley is rather disappointed with India. He has little patience with the Indian propensity to glorify the past, a common denominator of oppressed peoples as he shrewdly notes, or the millions of sun worshippers who travel hundreds of miles to Benares to bathe in the filthy waters of the Ganges. He is not in the least impressed by the fabled Hindu spirituality, a prime example of Eastern philosophy usually, and sometimes violently one must add, praised at the expense of Western materialism. Huxley is not taken in. Not for him those simplified agendas. He finally reaches two surprising conclusions; some might deem them shocking: 1) that very spirituality is “the primal curse of India”; and 2) the main problem of Western civilisation is not too much materialism but, on the contrary, too less. Or in Huxley’s own and infinitely more powerful words:

Admirers of India are unanimous in praising Hindu ‘spirituality.’ I cannot agree with them. To my mind ‘spirituality’ (ultimately, I suppose, the product of the climate) is the primal curse of India and the cause of all her misfortunes. It is this preoccupation with ‘spiritual’ realities, different from the actual historical realities of common life, that has kept millions upon millions of men and women content, through centuries, with a lot unworthy of human beings. A little less spirituality, and the Indians would now be free – free from foreign dominion and from the tyranny of their own prejudices and traditions. There would be less dirt and more food. There would be fewer Maharajas with Rolls Royces and more schools. The women would be out of their prisons, and there would be some kind of polite and conventional social life – one of those despised appearances of civilization which are yet the very stuff and essence of civilized existence. At a safe distance and from the midst of a network of sanitary plumbing, Western observers, disgusted, not unjustifiably, with their own civilization, express their admiration for the ‘spirituality’ of the Indians, and for the immemorial contentment which is the fruit of it. Sometimes, such is their enthusiasm, this admiration actually survives a visit to India.

It is for its ‘materialism’ that our Western civilization is generally blamed. Wrongly, I think. For materialism – if materialism means a preoccupation with the actual world in which we live – is something wholly admirable. If Western civilization is unsatisfactory, that is not because we are interested in the actual world; it is because the majority of us are interested in such an absurdly small part of it. Our world is wide, incredibly varied and more fantastic than any product of the imagination. And yet the lives of the vast majority of men and women among the Western peoples are narrow, monotonous, and dull. We are not materialistic enough; that is the trouble. We do not interest ourselves in a sufficiency of this marvellous world of ours. Travel is cheap and rapid; the immense accumulations of modern knowledge lie heaped up on every side. Every man with a little leisure and enough money for railway tickets, every man, indeed, who knows how to read, has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, most of us prefer to spend our leisure and our surplus energies in elaborately, brainlessly, and expensively murdering time. Our lives are consequently barren and uninteresting, and we are, in general, only too acutely conscious of the fact. The remedy is more materialism and not, as false prophets of the East assert, more ‘spirituality’ – more interest in this world, not in the other. The Other World – the world of metaphysics and religion – can never possibly be as interesting as this world, and for an obvious reason. The Other World is an invention of the human fancy and shares the limitations of its creator. This world, on the other hand, the world of the materialists, is the fantastic and incredible invention of – well, not in any case of Mrs Annie Besant.   

The demolition of Indian spirituality is more than a little ironic in view of Huxley’s love affair with mysticism in the end of his life. It was this unfortunate infatuation that led to the writing of the only nearly unreadable and utterly worthless book in Huxley’s massive bibliography (which I have not read complete, of course, yet I doubt I would meet again with a disappointment of mescaline magnitude). Eastern philosophy, carefully pruned but still somewhat feeble, was put to a better use in his last novel, Island (1962), where it was combined with the best from the West to realise, at least on paper, Huxley’s utopian vision.

But the rest of the quote above, very much like the book on the whole, is the purest form of wisdom. It is frightfully relevant to our times of rampant consumerism and fake realities. Following Huxley’s argument, it is fair to say we have never been interested in a smaller part of reality than we are today. Travel is cheaper and more rapid than ever before, the whole of human knowledge is more easily available online than ever before. And yet, very few people care to expand their personalities and enrich their lives, to say nothing of the world. The vast majority prefers to wallow in the morass of mindless and worthless habits politely called “normal life”.

The rest of the journey, through Burma, Malaya, China, Japan and America, is comparatively less stimulating. I insist on using that uneuphonious adverb, “comparatively”. These few pages still contain a wealth of beautiful asides. The jungles of South-East Asia are the perfect place for meditation on the Seven Deadly Sins, especially gluttony, or Hollywood movies as presenting the West as a den of imbeciles and thus undermining the white man’s colonial prestige (there were other reasons also, Huxley hastens to add, but the Hollywood propaganda should not be underestimated). These and many other “digressions”, I feel, will be truly appreciated only on re-reading. Just by the way, if anything in Huxley’s meticulously crafted prose can be said to be “by the way”, there is a marvellous description of the general value of travel:

One is all for religion until one visits a really religious country. There, one is all for drains, machinery and the minimum wage. To travel is to discover that everybody is wrong. The philosophies, the civilizations which seem, at a distance, so superior to those current at home, all prove on close inspection to be in their own way just as hopelessly imperfect. That knowledge, which only travel can give, is worth, it seems to me, all the trouble, all the discomfort and expense of a circumnavigation.

America forms the rather depressing conclusion of the book. A withering satire of Hollywood is only the beginning. The movie mecca is presented as the City of Joy. But what a jolly cheerless, brainless, empty and sinister kind of joy this is! The full force of Huxleyan sarcasm is unleashed in “A Rhapsody” of five movements. It might have been written by a literary version of Stravinsky at his most acerbic mood. Little did Huxley know at the time that one day he would spend a good deal of time in Hollywood and even try his hand as a screenwriter. If Ape and Essence (1948) is anything to go by, he didn’t enjoy the experience at all.  

Huxley has virtually nothing to say about San Francisco, Chicago and New York, not even that he passed through them, but he is deeply disturbed by the “revaluation of values, a radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards.” In a nutshell, Huxley’s theory is that in America necessary occupations, like business transactions for example, have been raised above all activities that are not strictly necessary, such as scientific research and artistic creation, which have been the truly valuable things in history, the things actually responsible for civilisation and progress. Huxley’s example is hilarious, how the American firm of undertakers Kalbsfleisch became “morticians” (a significant word change that allied coffin-makers to “physicians”, “academicians”, etc.), yet his discourse is dead serious and very unsettling, to say the least.

But, really, I should stop trying to paraphrase what can only be spoiled that way. Quoting is hardly less crass, but it’s the best I can do:

All scientific research, all art, all religion are (by comparison with making coffins or breakfast foods) unnecessary. But if we had stuck to the merely necessary, we should still be apes. According to any proper standard of values, the unnecessary things and the unnecessary people who are concerned with them are much more important than the necessary ones. By exalting the merely necessary to an equality with the unnecessary, the American Business Man has falsified the standard of values. The Service rendered by a mortician or a realtor has come to be regarded as the equivalent of the Service rendered by an artist or a man of science. Babbitt can now honestly believe that he and his kind are doing as much for humanity as the Pasteurs and the Isaac Newtons.     Kalbsfleisch among his silk-lined caskets knows himself to be as good as Beethoven. Successful stockbrokers, certain that Business is Religion, can come home after a day of speculation on the Exchange, feeling as virtuously happy as Buddha must have felt when he had renounced the world and received his great illumination.

In every part of the world and at all times the vast majority of human beings has consisted of Babbitts and peasants. They are indispensable; the necessary work must be done. But never, except at the present time, and nowhere but in America, have the necessary millions believed themselves the equals of the unnecessary few. In Europe the ancient standards still persist, the ghost at least of the old hierarchy survives. The rich parvenu may despise the man of science for his poverty; but he still feels humble before his knowledge, his superior intelligence and his disinterestedness. That technique of humbug, by the employment of which successful stockbroking may be made to seem as valuable and noble an occupation as scientific research or artistic creation, has not yet been perfected in Europe, it has hardly been invented. True, there are many people who would like to see the technique introduced, ready-made and perfected, from across the Atlantic. I trust, and I am even moderately confident, that they will be forever disappointed.         

I think Huxley was rather too optimistic, and unduly Europhile, here. If that falsification of values has indeed happened in America, Europe has certainly followed; “forever” is a long time, and in this case it doesn’t seem to have lasted even a century – if, indeed, it has ever existed. Huxley seems not to disagree too strongly with that, apparently unaware of the flagrant contradiction he has just caught himself in. When he compares propositions for slogans most redolent of the Zeitgeist, France with “Intelligence, Sterility, Insolvency” comes perilously close to America’s “Vitality, Prosperity, Modernity”. Both could have come straight out of the yet unwritten Brave New World (1932).

These are deep and chilly waters. But great writers are nothing if not brave divers and excellent swimmers in such waters. Travel for Huxley, as for Maugham, was not just something like a drug they couldn’t resist. It was a life-changing experience. It made them better men, more broadminded and less intolerant, better reconciled to their fellow human beings as well as to their own weaknesses. It provided them with tons of excellent raw material they could never have obtained otherwise. Huxley sums up the whole experience in a way which, yet again, no paraphrase can possibly match, much less improve upon:

So the journey is over and I am back again where I started, richer by much experience and poorer by many exploded convictions, many perished certainties. For convictions and certainties are too often the concomitants of ignorance. Of knowledge and experience the fruit is generally doubt. It is a doubt that grows profounder as knowledge more deeply burrows into the underlying mystery, that spreads in exact proportion as experience is widened and the perceptions of the experiencing individual are refined.

[...]

Those who like to feel that they are always right and who attach a high importance to their own opinions should stay at home. When one is travelling, convictions are mislaid as easily as spectacles; but unlike spectacles, they are not easily replaced.

My own losses, as I have said, were numerous. But in compensation for what I lost, I acquired two new convictions: that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that the established spiritual values are fundamentally correct and should be maintained. I call these opinions ‘new,’ though both are at least as old as civilization and though I was fully convinced of their truth before I started. But truths the most ancient, the most habitually believed, may be endowed for us as the result of new experience with an appearance of apocalyptic novelty. There is all the difference in the world between believing academically, with the intellect, and believing personally, intimately, with the whole living self. A deaf man who had read a book about music might be convinced, theoretically, that Mozart was a good composer. But cure his deafness, take him to listen to the G minor Symphony; his conviction of Mozart’s greatness would become something altogether new.

[...]

But if travel brings a conviction of human diversity, it brings an equally strong conviction of human unity. It inculcates tolerance, but it also shows what are the limits of possible toleration. Religions and moral codes, forms of government and of society are almost endlessly varied, and each has a right to its separate existence. But a oneness underlies this diversity. All men, whatever their beliefs, their habits, their way of life, have a sense of values. And the values are everywhere and in all kinds of society broadly the same. Goodness, beauty, wisdom and knowledge, with the human possessors of these qualities, the human creators of things and thoughts endowed with them, have always and everywhere been honoured.

Our sense of values is intuitive. There is no proving the real existence of values in any way that will satisfy the logical intellect. Our standards can be demolished by argumentation; but we are none the less right to cling to them. Not blindly, of course, nor uncritically. Convinced by practical experience of man’s diversity, the traveller will not be tempted to cling to his own inherited national standard, as though it were necessarily the only true and unperverted one. He will compare standards; he will search for what is common to all; he will observe the ways in which every standard is perverted, he will try to create a standard of his own that shall be as far as possible free from distortion. In one country, he will perceive, the true, fundamental standard is distorted by an excessive emphasizing of hierarchical and aristocratic principles; in another by an excess of democracy. Here, too much is made of work and energy for their own sakes; there, too much of mere being. In certain parts of the world he will find spirituality run wild; in others a stupid materialism that would deny the very existence of values. The traveller will observe these various distortions and will create for himself a standard that shall be, as far as possible, free from them – a standard of values that shall be as timeless, as uncontingent on circumstances, as nearly absolute as he can make them. Understanding diversity and allowing for it, he will tolerate, but not without limit. He will distinguish between harmless perversions and those which tend actually to deny or stultify the fundamental values. Towards the first he will be tolerant. There can be no compromise with the second.    

I cannot agree with Aldous that values are universal. This seems to me rather too pat, too much like wishful thinking. Values are ticklish things. They may well be largely intuitive and thus ultimately immune to intellectual arguments. That much I agree with. But I rather doubt there is much agreement, even in the broadest outlines, between different individuals, to say nothing of different cultures. If indeed there is such common ethical ground for us all, it may be too deep to reach, too much buried under semantic debris. Words like “goodness”, “beauty” and “wisdom” have had numerous definitions through time and space. Superficial agreement about their value as values means very little indeed. Whether I have too little faith in human nature or Huxley had too much remains a mute question for now, but either way thinking on the subject is never entirely worthless. And some hard thinking Huxley simply compels you to do.  

Beyond the Mexique Bay follows the same diary format, only this time our intrepid traveller conquers the Caribbean and parts of Central America, mostly Mexico and Guatemala. The style is not much different. Huxley was eight years older and had meanwhile published two of his most important collections with essays and two of his most influential novels, among other things, but he was a finished literary artist back in his late twenties. He again mixes local history, picturesque detail from the present and philosophical reflections on sundry issues with verbal virtuosity which is second to none.                               

The difference in tone is rather more noticeable. Huxley certainly sounds more disillusioned and pessimistic, as he well might in the early post-BNW years. Psychology plays a major part in this book. The driving forces behind the human animal and our future as a global species are frequently dissected. Disturbing stuff, to say the least! Unlike Bertrand Russell, Huxley doesn’t seem to have much faith in widespread rationality and sceptical outlook. He doesn’t think much of the dumb masses, dumber than ever before if you ask him (and how do I agree with him today!), and he has no hesitation to advise mass indoctrination of them. Very Brave-New-Worldish that! Very much like Russell, however, Huxley carefully avoids sweeping generalisations and cocksure conclusions; or, if he must make them, does so only with great caution. He is not afraid of bold speculation, though.                                         

The climax of the book is one of those mighty Huxleyan digressions. It comes early on, in Guatemala City, under the form of twenty-five stirring pages on war and nationalism, two things the author finds to be irredeemable evils from time immemorial. Using the recent, war-rich history of Central America as a starting point, Huxley goes into an entrancing but depressing discourse on the second greatest idiocy (after religion) our history can boast of so far. Far from being economic in origin, he thinks, wars have for the most part been caused by violent and virulent forms of nationalism, in other words by vanity and hate on a massive scale. Huxley is emphatic that much historical research and field-work remain to be done before we can come with some plausible solutions how to put an end to that lunacy. But he does offer a few ideas, on a global scale at that, and he goes down, or back, to the fundamental urges of human nature. The picture isn’t pleasant, nor is it, of course, likely to cause complete agreement among thinking creatures. The first is not a licence to neglect it and the second is all the more reason to think about it. 

The task of doing Huxley’s writing some sort of justice is beyond my abilities, again. My powers of paraphrase are, again, woefully insufficient. Huxley’s gift for a gorgeous turn of phrase never deserts him (at another place, in Copán, he calls nationalism “one of the grandest labour-creating devices ever invented”); his lucid and lively exposition of complex matters at length has been equalled, and perhaps surpassed, by Bertrand Russell alone, at least in my admittedly limited reading experience. Therefore, I must resort to extensive quotation: 

The most striking fact about the wars of Central America is that none of them has had an origin which could possibly be interpreted as economic. There has never been any question of capturing markets, destroying dangerous commercial competitors, seizing provinces for the sake of their industrially valuable resources. The wars of the Five Republics have been wars between Conservatives and Liberals, between Clericals and Anti-Clericals, between those who desired a single federal republic and those who claimed sovereign independence for each state. They have not been wars of interest, but of ‘political principle’ – in other words, wars of pure passion. Wars are now generally attributed to machinations of rival groups of capitalists. Owning as they do the instruments of propaganda, they first emotionally involve the dumb deluded public (already prepared by all its education to be involved) in their private quarrels; then, when the emotional temperature is high enough, proceed, in their capacity as rulers, or powers behind thrones, to give the order for mobilization and slaughter.

This description is probably true enough; but it remains a mere description, requiring to be elucidated and explained. We want first of all to know why the exploiters quarrel; and, in the second place, why the exploited allow themselves to be involved.

[...]

So far from enriching and strengthening himself by war on the present scale, the capitalist ruler is likely to lose in the convulsion most of such money and power as he possesses. In spite of which, our rulers insist that the political and economic system shall remain (to their own manifest disadvantage) nationalistic. Safe and profitable, internationalism is yet rejected. Why? Because all capitalist rulers are bound by a theology of passion that prevents them from rationally calculating their profits and losses. And so long as such a theology continues to be accepted by rulers, it makes no difference whether these are private profit-makers or bureaucrats representing ‘the People’.

[...]

Hate is like lust in its irresistible urgency; it is, however, more dangerous than lust, because it is a passion less closely dependent on the body. The emission of a glandular secretion suffices to put an end to lust, at any rate for a time. But hate is a spiritual passion, which no merely physiological process can assuage. Hate, therefore, has what lust entirely lacks – persistence and continuity: the persistence and continuity of purposive spirit. Moreover, lust is ‘perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,’ only before action; hate, both before and during action. In the case of lust, the time of action is limited to a few minutes or seconds, and with the ending of the action coincides the temporary or permanent ending of that particular passion of lust. Very different is the case of hatred. Its action may continue for years; nor does the ending of any particular phase of the action necessarily entail the ending of the emotional state which was its justification.

Hate is not, of course, the only passion behind the theory and practice of nationalism. Vanity – the collective vanity manifested by each individual member of a group which he regards as superior to other groups and whose superiority he feels in himself – vanity is equally important; and both these passions are combined with, and derive an added strength from, that lust for sociability whose indulgence yields such enormous psychological dividends to the individual of a gregarious species. At ordinary times, indeed, vanity seems to be more important than hate. But it must not be forgotten that hate is the actual or potential complement of vanity. Delusions of greatness are always accompanied by persecution mania. The paeans of self-praise with which the nationalists are perpetually gratifying themselves are always on the point of modulating into denunciations of other people. Hatred, even when not actually expressed, is always there just below the surface. One is therefore justified in speaking of this passion as fundamental in the contemporary theory and practice of nationalism.

[...]

Nationalism is a set of passions rationalized in terms of a theology. When, in the natural course of events, the passions tend to lose their intensity, they can be revived artificially by an appeal to the theology. Moreover, ‘tasks in hours of insight – or orgasm – willed can be through hours of gloom fulfilled.’ A theology, with its accompanying principles and categorical imperatives, is a mechanism for making it possible to do in cold blood the things which, if nature were left to itself, it would be possible to do only in hot blood.

The commonest, one might call it the natural, rhythm of human life is routine punctuated by orgies. Routine supports men’s weakness, makes the fatigue of thought unnecessary, and relieves them of the intolerable burden of responsibility. Orgies, whether sexual, religious, sporting or political, provide that periodical excitement which all of us crave, and which most of us are too insensitive to feel except under the most crudely violent stimulation. Hence (beside all the private and domestic orgies) such public stimulations as gladiatorial games, bull-fights, boxing matches, gambling; hence patriotic demonstrations, hymns of hate, mass meetings and parades; hence saturnalia, carnivals, firsts of May, fourths and fourteenths of July; hence religious festivals, pilgrimages, miraculous grottoes and all the techniques for arousing what Professor Otto has called the ‘numinous’ emotions. Sensitive and civilized men are rare – as rare as the Americans who, after ten years of prohibition, can enjoy a glass of good wine. The vast majority can only get their kick out of the equivalent of proof spirit.

[...]

The bearing of these facts on Central American wars, and international disputes in general, is obvious. Nationalistic theology is not only a substitute for passion; it is also an excuse for it. It justifies those periodical orgies of emotion which are, for the great majority of men and women, a psychological necessity. So long as these orgies remain platonic, no harm is done. They are a bit undignified, that is all. But if people need to get drunk, if they cannot preserve their soul’s health without occasional orgasms of hatred, self-love and group-frenzy, why, then, drunk they must get and orgasms they must have. The trouble is that the greatest immediate happiness of the greatest number too often leads to the greatest ultimate unhappiness. The orgies of nationalism are not platonic orgies-for-orgies’-sake. They lead to practical results – to the piling up of armaments, a senseless economic competition, to embargoes on foreign goods, and ultimately to war.

[...]

What is the use of a disarmament or a World Economic Conference so long as the people of each nation are deliberately encouraged by their leaders to indulge in orgies of group-solidarity based on, and combined with, self-congratulation and contemptuous hatred for foreigners? Our need is rather for a World Psychological Conference, at which propaganda experts should decide upon the emotional cultures to be permitted and encouraged in each state and the appropriate mythologies and philosophies to accompany these emotional cultures.

[...]

The end proposed by our conference is international peace. The obstacle which it has to circumvent is nationalism. The material with which it has to deal is the psychology of very suggestible, rather insensitive, but emotional and excitement-loving people assembled in vast urban communities. The problem is to devise means for so treating this material that the obstacle may be avoided and the goal definitely reached.

The first thing our delegates would remark is that all governments deplore and carefully regulate the manifestations of lust, but deliberately encourage those of collective vanity and hatred. To boast mendaciously about one’s own gang and to slander and defame other gangs are acts everywhere officially regarded as creditable and even pious. It is as though our rulers, instead of merely tolerating prostitution, were to proclaim the brothel to be a place as sacred as the cathedral and as improving as the public library. Doctrines like that of race superiority are the spiritual equivalent of cantharides. Under the Nazis, for example, every German is made to take his daily dose of what I may call Nordic Fly. The Marquis de Sade was condemned to a long term of imprisonment for having distributed aphrodisiac candies to a few prostitutes in Marseilles. But nationalists who devise means for arousing in millions the disgraceful passions of hatred, envy and vanity are hailed as the saviours of their country.

One of the preliminary conditions of international peace is the inculcation of a new (or rather of a very old) scale of moral values. People must be taught to think hatred at least as discreditable as they now think lust; to find the more raucous manifestations of collective vanity as vulgar, low and ludicrous as those of individual vanity.     

Nationalists and militarists have tried to defend their position on ethical as well as on political grounds. War and nationalism are good, they say, because they stimulate individuals to display the more heroic virtues. But the same argument could be brought forward in favour of prostitution. There is a whole literature describing the devotion and tenderness, the benevolence and, positively, the saintliness of whores. But nobody regards this literature as justifying the wholesale encouragement of whoredom. Man’s is a double nature and there is hardly any critical situation in which he will not display, simultaneous or alternately, the most repulsive characteristics of an animal and a heroism equal to that of the martyrs. Nationalism and war stimulate men to heroism, but also to bestiality. So far as individuals are concerned, the bad cancels out the good. And so far as society is concerned, the bad – that is to say the harmful – enormously predominates. War and nationalism are without any justification.

[...]

There is a sense in which modern society can say with M. Valery, ‘la bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’ True, the intrinsic and congenital stupidity of the majority is as great as it ever was. But it is a stupidity which has been educated in the ideas invented by the relatively free intelligence of exceptional individuals. The result of this education is that stupid people are now no longer able to swallow the sort of theology which their predecessors unquestioningly accepted. Universal education has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid, hungering for certainty, yet unable to find it in the traditional myths and their rationalizations. So urgent has been this need for certainty that in place of the dogmas of religion they have accepted (with what passionate gratitude!) the pseudo-religious dogma of nationalism. These are more obviously false and mischievous than the dogmas of religion; but they possess, for the New Stupid, the enormous merit of being concerned not with invisible, but with visible entities. Nationalism is not the theory of a God whom nobody has seen. It is a theory of some actual country and its flesh-and-blood inhabitants. The theory is demonstrably untrue; but that does not matter. What matters to the New Stupid is that the subject of the theory is real. The New Stupidity is positivistic. One of the tasks of our delegates will be the devising of a mythology and a world-view which shall be as acceptable to the New Stupid as nationalism and as beneficial as the best of the transcendental religions.  

Much of all this is made more poignant to read when one considers the times in which it was written. The political climate was noxious, to say the least, and probably many could already smell war. But very few, I guess, probably not even Aldous Huxley, could have predicted the scale of the disaster that was to wreck Western Civilisation in just a few years.

The Nazis also make a memorable appearance in another digression. Again, while this obviously could not have been written before the 1930s, it does differ drastically from the lots of conventional anti-totalitarian claptrap fashionable at the time. Huxley describes Nazism as “rebellion against Western civilization” and concludes with the chilling sarcasm that the “result promises to be extremely gemütlich”. But the best is saved for a kind of postscript. This is classic Huxley, erudite and explosive: 

The French are the people most immediately menaced by Nazi fanaticism; and there is in this an element of poetic justice. For the two cardinal points in the philosophy, by which the Nazis justify their violences, were both invented by Frenchmen. Gobineau was responsible for that doctrine of race superiority used by the Nazis as an aphrodisiac to arouse hatred for Gobineau’s own countrymen. And it was Bergson who led the intellectual’s disastrous attack on the intellect, and so prepared the way for the systematized paranoia of Hitler. The sins and errors of the Brahmins are visited in a most disquieting way upon the low-caste masses of their fellow-men.

A few examples more of Huxleyan digressions should convince you the book’s way more than travelogue. Whether or not it is worth reading, only your personal opinion matters there as far as you’re concerned. And only your personal experience can, or at least should, serve to form your opinion.

The Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, where they are “busy on bananas”, makes Huxley think of applied anthropology. It’s infinitely more important, he argues, to devise a way how to make enlightened self-interest as interesting as animal impulse, yet there was no Imperial College of Applied Anthropology. So far as I know, there never has been such a college anywhere in the world. One possible reason might be that it would never work, “applied anthropology” being a most inexact science liable to misuses of epic magnitude.

“Man looks out on reality through an intervening and partially transparent medium – language.” The bizarre oranges of Trinidad prompt Huxley to deliver a brief but rather shattering lecture on language. We all know it’s an ambiguous, double-edged weapon, very difficult to use with a decent degree of precision. But Aldous goes a good deal further, or rather deeper: 

A vocabulary is a system of platonic ideas, to which we feel (illogically, no doubt, but strongly) that reality ought to correspond. Thanks to language, all our relations with the outside world are tinged with a certain ethical quality; before ever we start our observations, we think we know what it is the duty of reality to be like. For example, it is obviously the duty of all oranges to be orange and if, in fact, they aren’t orange, but, like the fruits of Trinidad, bright green, then we shall refuse even to taste these abnormal and immoral caricatures of oranges. Every language contains, by implications, a set of categorical imperatives.

As it turned out, the oranges of Trinidad proved to be “particularly juicy and aromatic”. But they would never compete on the market with the golden Californian orange, even though the latter “may have no flavour and hide like a crocodile’s”.          

Mahogany, once the most fashionable furniture material in Victorian England and a staple industry on British Honduras (today Belize) but nowadays (in 1933) out of fashion in both places, is as good a reason as any to reflect on “the inadequacy of man’s imagination and his immense capacity for ignorance”. Huxley reaches the apparently surprising, yet come to think of it quite logical, conclusion that these limitations are quite a blessing. An excess of imagination and knowledge “leads to a kind of paralysis”, an inability to decide and act even on simple matters because you are constantly considering the consequences – and it’s quite true, as Huxley notes casually in brackets, that the tragedy of this excess has been written in Hamlet. He concludes that this must not be used as an excuse for indecision and inaction: 

To rail against destiny because it has decreed that we shall live in darkness and insensibility is foolish. We should rather be thankful that it has been made psychologically possible for us to choose and to act. If we find that our acts and choices result in damage to others, it is our duty, as human beings, to try to remedy the evil we have caused. It is certainly not our duty to refrain from choice and action because all choices and actions may – indeed must – result in some evil to somebody.

(There is another charming Hamlet reference. Nearly all history written so far, Huxley remarks at one place as if by the way, is like Hamlet without the Prince because it has been written in terms of politics and economics, while “the fundamentals of human existence – physiology and psychology – are everywhere ignored.” To this one may object that politics and economics are by far the most important parts from psychology and physiology, respectively. But this seems too obvious. I guess Huxley meant that politics and economics have been interpreted too much as impersonal social forces rather than as affecting profoundly influential individuals.)

There is infinitely more in this deceptively slim book. Vulgarity in popular art and civilisation as an exercise in specialisation – these are only two of the topics that enjoy solid discussions. You can almost see the making of Ends and Means (1937), Huxley’s masterpiece of social philosophy. Many of his essays, the masterpiece on “Comfort” for instance, are echoed on these pages as well. Indeed, at one place there is an allusion to “Popular Music” from Along the Road, including the same strange claim that “Beethoven made it possible to give direct and poignant expression to a great number of thoughts and feelings which, owing to the absence of a suitable idiom, were inexpressible even by the most highly gifted of his predecessors.”

Beyond the Mexique Bay is among the most harshly criticised of Huxley’s books. A typical review accuses him of massive doses of racism and condescension. One cannot help being amused. I hope I have shown above how much more there is the book, how infinitely rich, wide in scope and great in depth it is: to reduce to racism and condescension is absurd. The quotes alone should be sufficient proof that such irascible reviews are hopelessly one-sided, based, at best, on a very selective reading buttressed by knee-jerk reactions. Their authors prove Hazlitt’s point that it’s better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else.

Racism is present but insignificant, reduced to a few mild, guarded references. Huxley does say that “Bushmen, Australian Blackfellows and perhaps some races of negroes are perhaps a little less bright in the head than Europeans and Asiatics.” The Modern Apostles of Political Correctness (talk about the New Stupid!) would go bonkers at something like that. But it’s a very minor issue as far as I’m concerned. Like Huxley’s simplistic explanation of homosexuality as a compensatory mechanism in female-less circumstances, it is a function of the times rather than of the man. Even the greatest genius cannot transcend completely his times. We know nothing whatsoever of Shakespeare as a man, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a fervent believer in astrology and alchemy. That would not make him a lesser Shakespeare. It is regrettable that Huxley succumbed to the casual racism prevalent in those days. But it’s not a big deal at all. It can be made be into a huge deal, however, by readers thoroughly controlled by their prejudices.

As a matter of fact, Huxley doesn’t think much of the concept of race. Pure races are fiction according to him, at least on large parts of the globe, certainly in Europe. The above quote comes from his wondering whether “racial determinism” may be held responsible for the vastly different artistic traditions around the world. He concludes that the influence of race is very minor, if any; more likely a combination of tradition and the Zeitgeist is responsible. 

As for the Native Americans, of whom he met many in Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley admits frankly they are the kind of primitive men he never liked very much because they made him uncomfortable. To Huxley it was simply stupid that a musician should stand at the church door and repeat the same six-bar tune for twelve hours straight. That kind of primitivism doesn’t appeal to me, either. Huxley has some extremely sensible things to say about those that profess great admiration for a primitive way of life or, more specifically, folk art. Primitivism, Huxley argues, can teach civilisation something, although it wouldn’t work the other way round. But as a life philosophy primitivism is – sorry, no other word will do – primitive; not without positives, for sure, but to rave about it betrays a barren, or simply hypocritical, mind. As for the aesthetic thrills of folk art, oh dear, what fun Huxley has at the expense of Mr Stuart Chase, an economist and author of a then-recent book on Mexico. I cannot resist quoting, again at some length and without apologies:

Peasant art is hardly ever intrinsically significant as art; its value is social and psychological, not aesthetic. Mr Chase says of a well-known arts-and-crafts shop in Mexico City that it is ‘as exciting to him as any art museum.’ If that is so, then either Mr Chase is wholly without feeling for aesthetic values, or else he is mistaking for aesthetic excitement the pleasure which he derives, as a sociologist, from the mere idea of craftsmanship. The wage-slaves of Middletown spend their days alternately working at machines and being passively amused by machines. The craftsmen of Mexico simultaneously work and play at making pots and blankets, lacquer bowls and the like. The wage-slave’s life is restless and unsatisfying; the craftsman’s life (at any rate in many cases) is serene and satisfying. Moreover, the craftsman is unaffected by slumps; the wage-slave periodically starves. Pots, blankets, lacquer, are the symbols of the Mexican craftsman’s safer and more wholesome life. In the presence of these symbols, Mr Chase, the sociologist, feels excited, and, through a roseate fog of mental confusion, the excitement communicates itself to Mr Chase, the aesthete. This is, I think, the most plausible, as it is certainly the most charitable, explanation of Mr Chase’s remark. For, if he really finds a collection of peasant brick-a-brac as exciting as an art museum – any art museum, mark you: the Prado, for example, or National Gallery – well, then, heaven help him! For he is a man to whom nature has denied all sense of the qualitative difference between things.

This is by no means the end of Huxley’s admiration for the past and present cultures of Central America. He is more than a little appreciative of the Maya and Aztec cultures, especially the chaste art of the former which he compares with the highly sensual art of India. He is awed by the architectural wonders of Monte Albán and Copán. He waxes lyrical about modern Antigua; no grand architecture there, no masterpieces, but “much that is charming; much that is surprising and queer; and much – indeed everything – that is picturesque and romantic in the most extravagantly eighteenth-century style.” He chuckles a good deal while describing the religious beliefs and ceremonies of modern Mexicans and Guatemalans. But it’s a good-natured chuckle, rather appreciative of the Indian imagination that has played havoc with Christian mythology (Judas a saint, an affair between St John and Mary, delicious stuff like that). He describes the poverty and desolation of Mexican villages in a striking and vivid way. But he is not in the least condescending about it. On the contrary, he is compassionate about the plight of, say, coffee and tea pickers. Next time you drink coffee or tea, even in the vastly different world of today, think about Huxley more than 80 years ago:

If coffee and tea grew in Western Europe and had to be picked up by people drawing European wages, the cost to the consumer of these commodities would be, I suppose, about eight or ten times what it is at present. Which means that the consumer simply would not consume. ‘The cups that cheer but not inebriate’ will continue to cheer only so long as tropical countries continue to be backward in relation to temperate countries. Our afternoon tea and our after-dinner coffee depend on the existence of a huge reserve of sweatable coloured labour. An unpleasant thought. And if the labour is no longer sweated, then tea and coffee at once become luxuries beyond the reach of all but millionaires. In an economically equitable world we shall have to depend for our stimulants on the chemist rather than the farmer.  

Last but certainly not least, as I hope you have just seen, Huxley’s humour is as sharp as ever, though sometimes rather subtle. Here is one example that bears a quote out of context:

Prostitution and the sale of curios and antiques seem to be the two staple industries of this very depressing city. And since sailors cannot afford to be too particular, the first industry is, only too often, merely a branch of the second.

Last and least, it’s interesting to note that this is the only book of the three that has an index: short and poorly done, as it turned out (the Hamlet references are missing, for instance). The other two volumes also deserve indexes, extensive ones at that, but for some mysterious reason they were not supplied with that useful device. This book, too, is the only one with a map in the beginning, also rather a crude specimen. The other two should have had maps as well, rather better drawn and more detailed, why not even including some of the historical incidents mentioned by Huxley.

When all is said and done, it’s been a pleasure to roam the world together with Aldous Huxley. It’s been a privilege and a challenge to roam through his endlessly fascinating mind. It’s a shame these three books are so little read today, and then mostly by self-righteous prigs who see nothing in them but snobbism, racism and I don’t what other –isms. It is indeed a shame. And it is very much at our own expense.

In the opening essay from Along the Road, Aldous Huxley says that for him “travelling is frankly a vice”. He did it, much like his reading, compulsively and unsystematically. May we all have vices that lead to the writing of books which can still be read with pleasure and profit a century after their first publication!

          


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