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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Visit from Huxley

Tuesday, September 23rd., London.

Aldous Huxley came yesterday afternoon to do what he had called on the telephone 'pay his homage'. He looked older and more distinguished. His clothes seemed to be Italian and in material if not in fit very nice. Altogether he looked better and talked more easily. We agreed on nearly all literary questions except the value of his "Antic Hay". He likes that book, thinks it has a point to it.

Most people know Aldous Huxley only from having read his Brave New World (1931). It's a good novel, but it's not really a fair representation of what Huxley the novelist was all about. Huxley began his career as a satirist, and Antic Hay is a dark and vicious look at the poseurs and pseuds inhabiting London's bohemian world just after WW I. It follows a half-dozen or so characters who form a kind of sampler pack of bohemians; there's Mercaptan the effete, womanizing writer of irrelevant scholarly articles; Lypiatt the blustering, self-important artist; Coleman the bombastic hedonist; and Theodore Gumbril, the main character, a dissatisfied intellectual who quits his teaching job to pursue a fatuous scheme to invent and sell trousers containing an inflatable seat for added comfort. The women in the group include Myra, a dark muse to two of the male characters, and Rosie, a bored housewife. The plot is a kind of dance in which various characters pair off for an hour, an evening or a day to expound their beliefs, strike intellectual poses or seduce each other. More often than not they come across as monstrously affected, self-absorbed and pretentious. Although Huxley's intention is satirical (characters are given ludicrous names like Bruin Opps), the novel has a dark edge that makes it more than just a benign jab at some ridiculous personalities. Myra appears to be a casually cruel, cold-hearted beauty, but Huxley shows that she's been terribly damaged, like so many others, by the death of a loved one in the war. Similarly, Lypiatt initially comes across as a buffoon, but at the end of the novel he comes to a devastating realization that his artistic life has been a failure and a farce. The last we see of him he's probably on the verge of blowing his brains out. Something that all the characters share is a realization that the world has changed profoundly and that there are no certainties or truths to anchor themselves to anymore. The nineteenth century ended with WW I, and the years following the war saw a sea change in the arts, fashion, politics and music. Huxley's characters are lost in this new world and their eccentric behaviour can be seen as a way of dealing with the stress of these changes. Huxley's writing also reflects the changes going on at the time. On the one hand he flaunts his classical education with references and quotes from Greek and Latin, but on the other hand he abandons a traditional plot structure in favour of something more freewheeling and unpredicatable. Antic Hay is a mostly amusing novel, although at times Huxley's erudite style can be grating, and the changes in tone from comic to serious to philosophical aren't always managed well. The strength of the novel lies in Huxley's ability to tease out the fear and uncertainty at the heart of his main characters. The spirit of the novel is captured best in this passage:

"And besides, when the future and the past are abolished, when it is only the present instant, whether enchanted or unenchanted, that counts, when there are no causes or motives, no future consequences to be considered, how can there be responsibility, even for those who are not clowns?"

He seems to agree with my few criticisms of "Uncle Spencer". He said his wife had driven him in a Citroen from Florence to Ostend, over the Alps etc. Said she was mad about driving and a bit inclined to be a speed-merchant. He told me some funny tales about Fascism. One friend of Mussolini's made 40 million lire in two years. He had four very big motor cars of the .......... Company. It was found out that in exchange for these cars he had let the company off taxation for two years - had promised to do so and had done so. The consideration for this great act seems rather trifling to me. Also he insisted on an edict enforcing the little red glass reflectors on the backs of bicycles. The Cabinet was not in favour of it, but he got it through, apparently behind their backs. I told Aldous there was bound to be a big rumpus in Italy soon. He thought there was too, but he couldn't see quite what was to be done against 400,000 well-armed Fascists, the only power in the country.

Benito Mussolini in 1919 described fascism as a syncretic movement that would strike "against the backwardness of the right and the destructiveness of the left". Later the Italian Fascists described fascism as a right-wing ideology in the political program The Doctrine of Fascism, stating: "We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the 'right,' a fascist century."
However Mussolini clarified that fascism's position on the political spectrum was not a serious issue to 
fascists and stated that:

"Fascism, sitting on the right, could also have sat on the mountain of the centre ... These words in any case do not have a fixed and unchanged meaning: they do have a variable subject to location, time and spirit. We don't give a damn about these empty terminologies and we despise those who are terrorized by these words."

I asked Aldous to come early and he came early. After one and a half hours I had to tell him I had to go out. So he left. very agreeable meeting, this was.

Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel writing, film stories and scripts. Huxley spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death.

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