ALDOUS HUXLEY appeared above the horizon and stepped into the world of letters, in 1916, at the early age of twenty-two. He arrived from Eton and Balliol with their distinctive labels still on his baggage and, son of the distinguished author and editor Leonard Huxley, grandson of the great scientist Thomas Henry Huxley and linked on his mother's side to the great poet and critic Matthew Arnold, he came with the prestige of a famous ancestry to clear the way before him. But though in our social world a man's forefathers may give place and honour and precedence even to one who is no more than
"the tenth transmitter of a foolish face,"
in the literary world the most they can do for him is to give him an excellent send-off; if he cannot do the rest for himself he soon drops to his proper level and remains there. Every author is necessarily a self-made man, and, lacking the ability to make himself, he gets no inheritance from his fathers, in the end, but the right to sleep with them.
Possibly Aldous Huxley inherited some of his qualifications, but he has acquired enough of his own to render him independent of collateral distinctions. Arriving in 1916, on "Burning Wheels", he has advanced rapidly at the head of a brilliant procession of books in verse and prose which is still lengthening behind him. "Burning Wheels" was followed in 1918 by "The Defeat of Youth"; by "Limbo" and "Leda" in 1920; "Crome Yellow" in 1921; "Mortal Coils" and "On the Margin" in 1922; "Antic Hay" in 1923; "Little Mexican" in 1924; "Those Barren Leaves" in 1925; and "Essays Old and New" and that admirable chronicle of a pilgrimage in the East and to America, "Jesting Pilate", in 1926.
Twelve books in ten years—poems, essays, short stories, three novels and one book of travels—all before he was thirty-three; and as the dazzling procession passed it was greeted with acclamations loud enough to drown the outcries, here and there, of any scandalised dissenters. He was praised as a thinker, a scholar, a writer whose verse and prose had grace and charm and a delicate finish of style; who could turn from fantasy and classical myth to the sordid and sometimes gross activities of the human animal in the sophisticated world of to-day and could touch the squalor and meanness of such lives with occasional beauty of thought and phrase, which, by the way, are no more inherently theirs than the glory that comes to it when it happens to reflect the sunlight is the property of the cesspool. He was hailed as the last word in modernity, a splendid rebel against convention, an artist, a realist who boldly painted ugly truths in their native colours and tore aside those reticences with which, to his thinking, an hypocrisy or false delicacy, commonly practised in literature, veils what are conventionally known as the lusts of the flesh. And much of this praise was unquestionably due to him; he had the art to adorn some of the unloveliest themes he took in hand, but whether some of them were worth adorning still remains an open question.
Always this doubt has been a respectful under-tone in the general chorus of praise. His critics have deplored his tendency to lapse at times into a mere coarseness of language, to indulge now and then in "genial blasphemies", to give undue prominence in his tales of men and women to their sexual relationships. You may say it is nothing against his books if there are things in them that would have shocked his aunt, Mrs. Humphrey Ward—that would have shocked most people who were brought up in the too-narrow Victorian tradition of social and literary propriety; but the critics who have deprecated his extravagances have not all been old-fashioned or elderly—critics of the new generation, themselves at war with conventions, have suggested, purely on artistic grounds, that he allows himself too much licence in these matters. After all, the sexual functions, their use and abuse, are as much commonplaces of human experience as was the proverbial philosophy of Martin Tupper, and to expound the obvious in any kind does not indicate that a writer has either originality of outlook or a knowledge of life. Of course there are plenty of men and women who have no morals, or no more intelligent self-restraint in the exercise of their procreative aptitudes than have cats or dogs; everybody knows that, and it is only the inexperienced who are too surprised to keep quiet about it; but these raw children of nature are a minority in civilised communities, otherwise society would be a chaotic sort of pig-sty, and the writer who allows them too much space in his stories is so far from revealing the whole truth that, by not keeping it within due proportions and presenting it as a small, unripe part of a more wholesome whole, he is even distorting the little truth he shows.
These faults are inevitable faults of youth, to whom naturally all old things are surprisingly new. Aldous Huxley began to publish when he was very young, and over certain of his work is the trail of the clever undergraduate who is a little too cock-sure about a world he has not yet had time to explore, and who fully believes he is more sophisticated than he actually is. These immaturities and errors in taste would not be worth mentioning if the mind behind them had not proved itself also rich in other knowledge, endowed with humour and human kindness, finely susceptible to beauty of thought and emotion and subtly skilled in the art of expressing them.
Of his three novels, "Antic Hay" is the best known and the best, I think, in the portrayal of character, in narrative power and in literary quality. There is a far maturer note in it than in "Crome Yellow", which preceded it by two years, though "Antic Hay" is much more flawed by crude pre-occupations with sexual traffic. The libidinous adventures of Mr. Mercaptan, Coleman, Rosie, Mrs. Viveash, of the egregious Gumbril, especially the detailed account of Gumbril's ecstatic fumblings over the naked body of the amoral but virginal Emily, smack unpleasantly of that yeasty interval between boyhood and manhood which Keats refers to in his preface to "Endymion."
There is cleverness in the satire and whimsical humour of "Crome Yellow", but it is all a coming and going of people who look like men and women but are not more so than are the figures in a puppet show. They simulate human passions and play at life amusingly as puppets do when their strings are pulled, but they never quicken to any warmth of humanity, so that even the futile Mary's talk of her sex-repressions, her fears that they are dangerous, and her method of dealing with them all seem artificial and harmless. Nothing else in "Crome Yellow" is nearly so good as Mr. Wimbush's history of the dwarf Sir Hercules Lapith and his dwarf wife, Filomena, and their son who grew to the stature of ordinary men and, with his friends, ridiculed and made his parents ashamed of their misfortune. This, which so easily might have been only a quaint, curious fantasy, is curious and quaint but strangely piteous, strangely tragic, and remains in one's memory as a beautifully human interlude in a country house comedy whose actors and their actions are lively but trivial unrealities.
With more of ripeness, there is more of unripeness, or perhaps over-ripeness, in "Antic Hay". But if half-a-dozen of its characters are primitive, unredeemed animals, they are more robustly mortal than any in "Crome Yellow"; and Gumbril's father, that ambitious old architect, and his friend the solid Mr. Porteous are little masterpieces of delightfully humorous characterisation; so is the fashionable tailor with Bolshevik leanings, Mr. Bojanus. The talk between him and Gumbril concerning Gumbril's absurd invention of pneumatic small-clothes is worth all the amorous intrigues and bleary facetious chatter in the book put together. These men and Lypiatt lift it to a higher level; and it is significant that it is Lypiatt, the eccentric, half-mad poet and artist, who gets near the truth about the lives and ideals of most of the persons in "Antic Hay" when Gumbril, Mr. Mercaptan, Coleman and Shearwater are guying him, as they dine together in a Soho restaurant, and he breaks out angrily against their cheap cynicism and airy mockeries:
"You disgust me," said Lypiatt, with rising indignation and making wider gestures. "You disgust me—you and your odious little sham eighteenth-century civilisation; your piddling little poetry; your art for art's sake instead of for God's sake; your nauseating little copulations without love or passion; your hoggish materialism, your bestial indifference to all that's unhappy and your yelping hatred of all that's great."
"Charming, charming," murmured Mr. Mercaptan, who was pouring oil on his salad.
"How can you hope to achieve anything decent or solid, when you don't even believe in decency or solidity? I look about me," and Lypiatt cast his eyes wildly round the crowded room, "and I find myself alone, spiritually alone. I strive on by myself, by myself." He struck his breast, a giant, a solitary giant. "I have set myself to restore painting and poetry to their rightful position among the great moral forces. They have been amusements, they have been mere games too long."
For all his extravagant egoism, Lypiatt holds your sympathy, your liking. He develops into a grotesquely pitiful and tragic figure, is something of a counterpart in fiction to Benjamin Haydon in real life. There is strength of character, a sane manliness and depth of feeling in Lypiatt's wild ravings, which emphasise the lack of those qualities in the flashy witticisms and automatic amours of his friends, those degenerates of the half-world who swagger as men of the world.
Lypiatt makes me wonder whether I am misunderstanding Huxley's purpose and philosophy—whether there is not the scornful satire of a dispassionate but interested looker-on in the unrestrained, sometimes repellant realism of his pictures of the sex-obsessed specimens exhibited in this and other of his stories. Anyhow, I suspect that in Lypiatt's fierce outcry he is letting his private opinions loose and satirising passing tendencies in his own work and tendencies that are passing or permanent in the work of some of his contemporaries.
One ignores the fussy prudery that brands the use of sex problems in imaginative literature as a forbidden sin; but there is more than one way of using them. In "Antic Hay" they are used, apparently, for their own sakes and to no end; they are nothing new; they only disclose what every adult reader knows perfectly well already, and the baldly frank discussion of them leads nowhere. One can admire the candid treatment of such matters when it is done with the object of achieving an artistic effect, as it is in some of Huxley's short stories—in "The Gioconda Smile", for instance. That is a story worth telling, brilliantly told, and depending essentially for its developments on the sexual proclivities of the deftly psychologised Mr. Hutton. One cannot say the same for the sex stories in "Limbo"; but there are finer things elsewhere, notably the title story, in "Little Mexican and Other Stories"; and always Huxley writes with grace and charm and a feeling for the magic of words, even when he is spending his exceptional gifts on themes that are not good enough for them, wasting an exquisite art on subjects that are inherently inartistic.
In his time he has worked for the press as a critic of art, drama and music, and has done a good deal of miscellaneous writing, selections from which have been gathered into his books of essays. These range from a dissertation on pantomime songs to lucid and scholarly studies of Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Sir Christopher Wren. He began as a poet, and has written vers libre with a larger sense of its delicate nuances than most English poets seem to possess. He made an early sensation with the stark realism of such poems as "Frascati's", which pictures an evening in that famous restaurant from the point of view of the balcony, the "human bears beneath, champing with their gilded teeth", and the jazz band in full blast, until,
"when the wearied band
Swoons to a waltz, I take her hand.
And there we sit in blissful calm,
Quietly sweating palm to palm."
There is enough beauty in "Leda" to more than justify Huxley's reputation as a poet; but the best of his poetry, apart from that, is I believe in the little volume of "Selected Poems", published in 1925, from which he has excluded all the startling things that tickled the ears of the very modern groundlings. And I hazard a guess that you get a glimpse of the real Huxley, the man whose spiritual qualities are continually breaking through his materialism, of his self-dissatisfactions, his aspirations, in "The Reef", where he tells how he stands watching the "phantom fish goggling in on me through the misty panes", and feels
"I am grown less
Than human, listless, aimless as the green
Idiot fishes of my aquarium,"
and has a sea-dream of voyaging to great depths and a desired haven where he might find "an endless sequence of joy and speed and power"—a mystic reef where
"the body shall be
Quick as the mind; and will shall find release
From bondage to brute things; and joyously
Soul, will and body, in the strength of triune peace,
Shall live the perfect grace of power unwasted.
And love consummate, marvellously blending.
Passion and reverence in a single spring
Of quickening force, till now never yet tasted
But ever ceaselessly thirsted for, shall crown
The new life with its ageless starry fire.
I go to seek that reef. ..."