Commentary Magazine

Collected Essays, by Aldous Huxley

More than a Clever Man
Collected Essays.
by Aldous Huxley.
Harper and Brothers. 399 pp. $5.00.


When people told me I was clever to console me when I was growing up, I would add, sotto voce, to myself, sourly, “Like Aldous Huxley, I suppose.” He somehow summed up the word clever for me, filled it out in more directions than one could imagine, almost than one could believe, and yet did not overflow it. And nobody, I thought, wanted to be like that.

And I have discovered since that he fills this same role, of “the clever man,” for lots of other people. It is not only that he knows such a lot, about painting and music, art and nature, statistics and philosophies, mysticism and mescalin. It is not only that he writes about all these things so unfailingly well; the challenging first sentence, the clarity of construction, the richness and precision of the diction, the brilliant pacing of paragraph and essay. The really dazzling thing is that he has felt everything, experienced everything, and can give you a quick run-down on the act of love with a great courtesan, or the opening of a rose at dawn when your best friend died last night.

At the same time one cannot escape, while reading him, the recurrent, quite spontaneous reflection, “This is all mentally known, purely mental; there should be so much more to life than this.” One has a sense, constantly, of running aground, quite grittily, on the conscious analysis and conscious assimilation of whatever experience it may be. This is of course most drastically and damagingly true of his creative writing (he is now the author of forty-five books, including ten novels and six volumes of short stories) but it mars even this collection of essays, which represents him at his best. You get an almost physical sense of power and speed and scope as you pass from “In a Tunisian Oasis” to “Variations on a Baroque Tomb” to “Landscape Painting as a Vision-Inducing Art” to “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds”; forty-seven brilliant pieces of writing, truly intelligent and incredibly well informed. But every other time you turn a page you say, “But it’s so limitedly mental.”

Why should we feel this so much more with him than we do with, say, his grandfather, T H. Huxley, or his brother, Julian Huxley, or even Lytton Strachey or Bertrand Russell, people who have limited themselves much more completely? Partly, I suppose, because Aldous has not accepted his limitations, because he has exposed his sensibility to every possible mode of experience. In fact, he has deliberately sought out those modes of experience to dwell on longest which most resist rational assimilation, the religious, the aesthetic, the sexual. And he has done this not with any ambition of extending the empire of pure mind, but rather with the desire to see it defeated and humiliated. D. H. Lawrence once wrote to Richard Aldington that he, Aldington, and Huxley, were alike in that what they both most deeply wanted was to be raped; I think one can see what he meant reflected in this active seeking out of, but passive self-presentation to, self-subjugation to, “experience.”

Could one perhaps say, in fuller answer, that he has chosen the philosophies most fatally unadapted to his temperament? He has most consistently been, throughout his changing career, an irrationalist. In 1929, “It is life itself; and I, for one, have more confidence in the rightness of life than in that of any individual man, even if the man be Pascal.” And in 1956, “For, after all, Love is the last word”; this feeling we have when reading him, that mentality is not enough, that mental experience is not real experience, is an irrationalist’s feeling. In other words, it is Huxley himself who is inciting us all the time to that spontaneous and deadly criticism.

It is possible, I suppose, to dismiss this as masochism, as a desire to aggravate his own humiliation. But I wonder if it isn’t as much the result of his strength, of a stubborn fidelity to the best as he saw it. He grew up, after all, through the Great War and after, when, especially in England, the life-worshippers were completely routed. From 1880 on, with Whitman, Bergson, Nietzsche, the deification of multifarious, amoral Life had been a powerful international movement; in the pre-1914 novels of E. M. Forster and H. G. Wells, and the acclaim that greeted Sons and Lovers, you can see the general expectation of more life, more freedom, more beauty, more passion, more sunlight, for everyone in England, But with 1918 and Eminent Victorians, and 1919 and The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a much more ironic, self-conscious, selective, “civilized” mode of sensibility took over. A much more limited expectation of happiness, a much less enthusiastic approach to experience; life-worship became unfashionable. Aldous Huxley obviously fitted in, by personal temperament, with that new cynical self-consciousness, but he continued to believe in the earlier, more enthusiastic attitude as the theoretical best.

This comes out most strikingly in his relationship to D. H. Lawrence. “Of most other eminent men I have met I feel that at any rate I belong to the same species as they do. But this man has something different and superior in kind, not degree.” His whole essay on Lawrence is not only one of the finest things in the book, it is one of the finest things on Lawrence there is. And not, let us note, primarily for its intellectual power, but for its dignity and generosity and fullness of response. Writing about Lawrence, by people who had known him personally, is almost universally marred, at one level or another, by a quite ugly effort at self-defense, or revenge, or sheer destruction. Huxley almost alone records the impact and challenge with humility, with enthusiasm, with generosity. Not so much with intellectual understanding; what he says of their arguments about science seems to show Lawrence dancing ahead, out of Huxley’s reach. But Huxley almost alone gave a moved and moving human response to the total human phenomenon.

The others, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, excluded Lawrence from consideration, because he could not be fitted into the scheme of life which they had constructed for their comfort. Huxley has constructed no such schemes. In consequence, he has known very little comfort. But he has achieved a movingly naked purity, within his limits, and he has moments of a humanity which transcend not only his own limitations but theirs too.



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