March 11, 2014
BooksSunday, December 29, 2013
Huxley and the rest of humanity
For The Herald
If someone — a visiting Martian, say — wanted to gain a real understanding of the twentieth century, the best advice would be to read three great novels that expose the political dread at the very heart of that era. Namely, George Orwell’s 1984, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Of these three anti-utopias, the first two are the most immediately horrifying — but Huxley’s is arguably the cleverest. Orwell incandescently portrayed the brutality of totalitarianism, and Kafka emphasized the destructiveness of a totalitarianism that additionally is inscrutable and arbitrary. We have seen regimes of those kinds; and we have seen some of the worst of them eventually fall. Huxley instead imagined a system in which people remain in lengthy bondage not through fear but by being kept in a state of lying, stupid contentment.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, Huxley is being criticized — anew — for not being truly democratic either. His vision is allegedly showing its age, on account of his essential elitism. Maybe so. But his deepest insight is anything but stale: the dystopia he created retains a special insidiousness. It is particularly hard to shake off a tyranny if its artifically blissful victims don’t even perceive it as such. This doesn’t only apply to politics; it’s found under theocratic worldviews too.
His elitism is something that Huxley was perfectly aware of, and very uncomfortable about. The character patterned on himself in his wonderful novel Point Counter Point loves humanity but cannot stand the common man’s very commonness. The publication of Cuentos selectos gives us an opportunity to look at this matter in the context of Huxley’s short stories. If a common thread can be found through the tales in this collection, it is Huxley’s lifelong worries of intellectual haughtiness, insensitivity, snobbery, holier-than-thouness, poseurism of all kinds (he himself was not an intellectual poseur; he really did know everything, and his thinking was suppleness itself). One particular form of insensitivity that he hated, we find, is that which smothers the emotional needs of children.
This reflection can be made: by definition, a person isn’t responsible for the character traits that he comes hard-wired with. But he is responsible for what he does about them once he becomes aware of them. In this regard, Huxley found a way to try to counteract any innate superciliousness: he constantly wrote against it, to keep himself and others alert to that type of danger.
And he wrote so observantly and well. Here he describes a very self-consciously idealistic man, who (in a retranslation into English) demonstrates “spirituality and disinteresteness” by always sporting shorts, a beard and a knapsack on his back: “Even on Bond Street... Herbert looked as if he were about to climb Mont Blanc. The knapsack is a badge of spirituality.”
It can be mentioned that half the stories unfold in Italy. An Italy of a very specific date. It is festooned with Fascist officials whom resident Britons either consider just another colourful ingredient of the landscape, or positively admire. This part is indeed a time tunnel.
A second book for this column is something quite different, though it also involves tunnelling through time. Psychoanalyst-singer Gabriel Rolón hit on the idea of taking Woody Allen’s concept in Midnight in Paris — travelling into the past and meeting famous people there — and applying it to Buenos Aires. Actually, Rolón does it differently; some of the people he runs into aren’t Buenos Aires figures at all, nor, save for one episode out of six, do they interact together the way those in Allen’s film did. Still, it’s Rolón’s daydream, and he can do whatever he wants to in it. He not only can meet Freud in BA, he could even have been Freud himself, if that’s where his imagination had taken him.
The thing is what he does with the encounters he sets up. Results: uneven. The idea of its main character finding himself within an Allen project is a good one. Discépolo with Manzi, each claiming the other is the better poet, works well. On the other hand, the conversation with Freud is quite basic — and yet Freud is made to say he has found it “very interesting.”
Overall, a slight book, in length and depth. Even so, thirty percent of its pages are about the people who made it. A bonus CD version, by including music, spreads out the material better.
Cuentos selectos, by Aldous Huxley (Edhasa); 180 pages, 115 pesos. Medianoche en Buenos Aires, by Gabriel Rolón with Teresa Castillo (Planeta); 141 pages plus CD, 179 pesos.
Nicolás Meyer, who welcomes comments
at firstname.lastname@example.org, is a