ISSUE 16 — September, 2011


 

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Aldous Huxley

“The proper study of mankind is books.” Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

 

First reading that quote some years ago, I was perplexed, and thus unenlightened. I liked the implied reverence for books, which I have shared all my life, but—what did it mean?

Now, with the benefit of a few more years of living, reading, and learning to understand how great minds express themselves, I realize those few chiseled words have to be parsed with Aristotelean precision. An intellect as cultivated and rigorous as Aldous Huxley’s would weigh and measure each word that way.

So I read a motorcycle magazine instead.

But no—the preposition is the key. Books are not the proper study for mankind, but for our study of mankind. That was the purpose of Aldous Huxley’s life, and the aim of his art. After reading After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, my mind continued spinning off into a myriad of reflections, on Huxley himself, his life, his work, and his ideas—not least that one, about books as the proper study of mankind.

In the course of any individual’s life, we can only truly know a very few people, in the way of being able to understand their lives. But history, poetry, and especially literary fiction can allow us inside the thoughts and feelings of many more people. In the handcrafted worlds of a skilled and insightful writer, we can share the existences of a multitude of characters—what they experienced, felt, lived and breathed.

As John Steinbeck wrote, “The best stories are true, whether they happened or not.”

That level of insight, and shared experience, can be true in non-fiction, too. History, biography, memoir, and perhaps most effectively hybrid forms like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Dave Eggers’s What is the What and Zeitoun take you inside otherwise hermetic worlds and lives.

For me, travel books of all kinds are always an important resource in understanding the places I have lived or traveled. My own life experience has been necessarily narrow—like everyone’s—but it has been immeasurably deepened by travel, and books about places that teach something about why it is the way it is, why people there speak and behave the way they do, and, in the case of the best literary fiction, what it feels like to be someone else.

That is perhaps art’s greatest gift—allowing us to learn to empathize with many more different kinds of people than are near us in our everyday lives. I would venture that books do that—take you inside other people—better than any other art form. In the most engaged kind of reading, you are not just watching someone else’s life, emotions, and thoughts, you are sharing them.

Another quote of Huxley’s from near the end of his life expresses a depth of empathy not often associated with the “intellectual” type, though it is in fact an indispensable quality for a truly excellent poet or novelist.

 

It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’”

 

That distillation of Huxley’s lifetime study of humanity, as artist and intellectual, echoes the quote from Philo of Alexandria that led off the previous edition of Bubba’s Book Club, and appears in the conclusion of Far and Away:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Books can bring us inside many more of those struggles than life typically does, giving us vicarious acquaintance of other circles of life. Vast numbers of fully-drawn characters with entirely human virtues and vices stand as examples to illustrate a reality we all recognize. For example, a literary personage might illustrate how “character is destiny,” “love conquers all,” “power corrupts,” or Murphy’s famous law: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Guided by a great literary artist, we are able to share the interior struggles of others, and that makes all the difference. It often seems that people who don’t read books also lack empathy, and both are a kind of ignorance. I know for sure that a lifetime of reading books of all kinds has brought me not only knowledge, but deepened wells of emotion. Perhaps vicarious feeling, including Aristotle’s idea of “catharsis”—cleansing one’s own emotions through art—is no less powerful and life-shaping than the personal, everyday kind of moods and reactions. When we learn to really feel that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle, with the scope of empathy learned through great art, we may be more inclined to “try to be a little kinder.”

Travel is another great stimulus to heightened empathy, of course. Visiting new places is not only glorious for its own sake, but quickens curiosity and caring, which inspire further reading, toward greater understanding. The pursuit of glory, inspiration, and transcendent understanding sounds like the province of religion—and for many, that’s just what travel is.

 

“My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”

 

When I traveled fairly widely in Africa in the ’80s and early ’90s, I wanted to read the histories and memoirs, and also the great literary fiction: classics like Chinua Achebe’s unforgettable Things Fall Apart and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and other gems by Alan Paton, Mariama Bâ, J. M. Coetzee, Nobel-laureate Nadine Gordimer, and a few “visitors,” like Graham Greene (Journey Without Maps in non-fiction, and the novel The Heart of the Matter), and Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible).

Likewise, after traveling around Mexico several times in the mid-to-late ’90s, I was compelled to absorb every fragment of understanding about the place, from writers like Octavio Paz, Malcolm Lowry, and again Graham Greene (The Lawless Roads, The Power and The Glory) and Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna), to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent.

D. H. Lawrence leads us right back to Aldous Huxley, for they were contemporaries and great friends. And in the same way that The Plumed Serpent was an unexpected standout in all the fiction I read about Mexico, after a decade of living in Southern California and pursuing “the proper study of mankind” through books about the area, Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan unexpectedly became the most enduring of them all.

Since reading the novel earlier this year, my mind has not stopped returning to its ideas, visual scenes, and larger philosophical themes.

As I have written before, when you are a traveler by both profession and temperament, it is wise to live where your oft-abandoned spouse chooses. So when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000 to marry Carrie, a local girl, I set out to read the many histories, natural and human, by Mike Davis, Elna Bakker, John McPhee, Marc Reisner, and the multi-volume, masterly collection by Kevin Starr. I devoured the memoirs by Joan Didion and other less-celebrated natives, and the fiction by Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West, James Ellroy, John Fante, and T. C. Boyle. The purely factual history is unexpectedly rich and fascinating, especially when illumined by the graceful writing of a dedicated historian like Kevin Starr, and the range of fiction is wide and deep, too.

Southern California’s artistic and intellectual life flourishes as in any other large gathering of humanity—it just tends to be overshadowed by Tinseltown and Disneyland. As I worked my way through the literature, I learned of Huxley’s “California novel,” After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, but it was often described as a “parody,” so I didn’t get to it for a while. What could be easier than offering a mere parody of such a complicated web of life as Southern California was and is?

In fact, I was finally inspired to read the novel by learning more about the author.

Aldous Huxley was raised and educated in England, lived in Italy and France in his twenties and thirties, then settled in Los Angeles in 1937, where he remained until his death in 1963. He continued his intellectual fascinations with spirituality and pacifism (his application for U.S. citizenship was denied because he wouldn’t plead a religious reason for being a pacifist), as well as finding occasional work as a screenwriter. (Mostly on Jane Austen-type projects—Walt Disney rejected Huxley’s script for Alice in Wonderland because he said he “could only understand every third word.” So obviously Huxley wasn’t trying to pander himself to the movie people.)

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan was published in 1939, when Huxley was a relative newcomer to Los Angeles. There are certainly elements of parody in the book’s opening, as a visiting English scholar is driven through Los Angeles, and a wonderfully elaborate series of outrageous set-pieces. However, such a limited description of this novel diminishes the accomplishment Huxley achieved: a true “novel of ideas,” on a level seldom attempted by fiction writers, then or now. His Oxford education and his experience in writing poetry, essays, novels, and a little screenwriting are all displayed to full effect here. The story is decorated (seems the right word) with the erudite references of a classical education, the descriptions and characters are lively and believable, and the settings are cinematic. The range of content and “special effects,” and the genre-bending blend of satire, psychological thriller, dialectic discourse, and High Gothic, unite in a magnum opus that spirals toward the Poe-like horror of the shocking finale.

Huxley was also part of a circle of European artists who gathered in Los Angeles in the years surrounding World War II—such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Maria Remarque, Arnold Schoenberg, Christopher Isherwood, George Balanchine, Arthur Rubinstein, and Bertolt Brecht. They waited out the war in the Mediterranean climate, flowers, palm trees, and cozy bungalows of Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica, but not without guilt and ambivalence. Contemplating his Santa Monica garden during the bombardment of London, Brecht wrote: “I / Who live in Los Angeles and not in London / Find, on thinking about Hell, / that it must be / Still more like Los Angeles.”

(Perhaps the earliest source of a present day sobriquet for the city, “Hell-A.”)

On the subject of war, Huxley voiced the clear and inarguable conviction of a committed pacifist.

 

“The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”

 

That is powerfully true, and the word choice of “shocking” is apt. I have felt the same simple, yet profound, responses while visiting the battlefields of Belgium, Wounded Knee, Gettysburg, or the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The word “monstrous” is also perfectly suited to the subject.

Huxley was a true humanist, a thoughtful and intelligent man with great sympathy for the sufferings of others, and he could express all that with immaculate talent.

 

There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all its virtues are of no avail.”

 

The novel’s title comes from a poem by Tennyson which reflects one of the plot’s main themes: longevity. The central character, Jo Stoyte, is cast in the mold of William Randolph Hearst (or Charles Foster Kane, in the movie that was released the same year as After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), and his fatal flaw is a neurotic fear of aging and death.

In the parody aspect of the novel, each of the main characters possesses elements of caricature, but are also given subtlety—humanity. They possess enough recognizable qualities to give them believability, with the intentional exception of the saintly Propter—whose name, Huxley said in an interview for the Paris Review, “came from the Latin for ‘on account of’—because, as a wise man, he is concerned with ultimate causes.” William Propter is the author’s “mouthpiece” in the novel, and embodies the philosophical, or mystical, element in Huxley’s tapestry. The other characters are more nuanced, from the sentimental egotism of Stoyte to the scientific passion combined with sociopathic amorality of the villain, Dr. Sigmund Obispo. (The first name after Freud; the second not because it is Spanish for “bishop,” but because Huxley thought it “sounded funny.”) He is Stoyte’s personal physician, and conducts research into longevity in his laboratory deep beneath Stoyte’s enormous castle, which towers above the San Fernando Valley with its drawbridge, moat, and battlements. (At his first sight of that edifice, the visiting English scholar recoils in gasping, inarticulate horror, and can only describe it as “The Object.”)

Stoyte is a fantastically wealthy sixty-year-old widower with a twenty-year-old mistress, Virginia Mauncipal, who blends simplicity, piety, and bisexual promiscuity. She keeps an image of the Virgin Mary in a velvet-curtained, electrically-lighted niche in her all-white room, and dresses it up like a doll in silk and pearls, while lamenting her inability to resist sexual temptation. Stoyte is a fearful hypochondriac, rude and ruthless in his dealings with others, yet takes joy in his hospital for sick children—to whom he is kind, playful, and generous.

Dr. Obispo’s research assistant, Peter Boone, is the kind of idealist who went to fight with the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He not only loves Virginia, but worships her on a shining pedestal—blind to everything she really is, to herself and others. Like many another idealist, he is a willing martyr to romantic illusion, and can see no flaw in his beloved. Think Don Quixote, Candide, John Barth’s Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor—or in real life, how the shattering of such illusions plays out in the number of marriages that change so quickly and completely from glowing adoration to burning hatred.

The story touches on particular themes of Southern California life, in the 1930s and now, like the political corruption in the matter of coveted water rights that was dramatized in the film Chinatown. Through hired agents, Stoyte secretly buys up land in a desert valley that is soon to receive irrigation, gleeful over the prospect of raking in a million dollars or more (in 1939, mind) from this subterfuge. However, his own illusions about the innocence and loyalty of Virginia, “The Baby,” are undermined by changes in her behavior, and all his happiness evaporates into a torment of uneasy suspicion. Even the sick children can’t bring him joy anymore.

William Propter, as the “model” human looking to the future, is working on a solar-energy device for his self-sufficient home, both concepts that were far-seeing for the time. Huxley also looks at the plight of the migrant workers—Dust Bowl refugees as in The Grapes of Wrath then; Latin Americans today. (On that subject, another indispensable Southern California novel is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain.) The migrant workers are portrayed with sympathy, but without sentimentality. Huxley shows that as individuals, they were not completely blameless for their own fates, or heroic in response to them, and should not be glorified or sanctified (no Tom Joad here). Still, he argues, they deserved sympathy from others, and decent treatment from their employers.

A minor character, Hansen, manages Stoyte’s farming enterprises, and although he is a kind man, he treats the workers abominably. When Propter tries to argue against this inhumane treatment, Hansen retreats into saying it is his “duty.” As he chooses to view his behavior, to properly serve the estate, he has to be cruel to the workers.

Huxley reflects, through Propter, “The only way between the horns of the dilemma is to persist at all costs in the ignorance which permits one to go on doing wrong in the comforting belief that by doing so one is accomplishing one’s duty—one’s duty to the company, to the shareholders, to the family, the city, the state, the fatherland, the Church.”

 

“The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

 

That is a very far-reaching observation, about people like Hansen (or Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann—“I was only following orders”), and about the world. For example, I recognize the idea of duty to family as a major reason for the widespread corruption in African bureaucracy. Most Africans have far stronger loyalties to their families, their villages, and their tribes than Westerners can even imagine, so a different scale of values and ethics is in play. If a minor official in the capital city can make a little extra money through accepting bribes, he can justify it because he sends most of his money home to his people. If an education minister has to choose between granting a scholarship to a deserving student from another tribe or to one from his village, he pretty much has to be loyal to his people. That is the “moral” thing to do.

Some readers may find Huxley/Propter’s ruminations tiresome, unnecessary interruptions to the story’s pace, but they are worth contemplating, and add to the “novel of ideas” part of Huxley’s accomplishment. You don’t have to agree with them, or even enjoy them, to be enriched by that elevation of applied intellect.

Structurally, the novel is very modern, the sinuous plot woven around the technological and psychological preoccupations of the mid-twentieth-century, from Ford to Freud. Like The Great Gatsby, the main character plays no part in the action, but merely witnesses it. In this case, Jeremy Pordage is not the narrator, but rather an unlikely (and quite unlikeable) lens for the third-person-omniscient narrative. He is a middle-aged English historian, with mother issues and repressed desires he releases at bi-weekly trysts with Doris or Mae in a “sordid” flat in Maida Vale. Huxley chose the name Jeremy Pordage for him because it sounded “spinsterish.” Pordage has been brought to Stoyte’s castle in the San Fernando Valley to catalogue some ancient documents—the Hauberk Papers—that Stoyte has bought on the advice of his London agent, though he knows or cares little about them. Pordage begins to unpack and catalogue a vast hoard of documents representing generations of an ancient family, going back centuries, and those papers are insinuated into the plot ingeniously, as instruments of seduction, and an unexpected twist toward the dark climax.

It is the sexual tension among Stoyte, Virginia, Peter, and Dr. Obispo that precipitates the novel’s drama; but it is Stoyte’s pursuit of longevity that drives the deeper themes. The characters are often portrayed from their own points of view, however shallow and misguided, then again in a deeper psychological analysis—a kind of vivisection—that is sharp and wisely insightful about humanity in general.

Today, Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World, in which a docile populace is pacified by a drug called “soma,” which is both tranquilizing and euphoric, and by the promotion of gratuitous sex to encourage sensual indulgence and mindless compliance with the Authorities. Reproduction is industrialized, dehumanized, and “castes” of people are bred into specific levels and functions in society.

To people of my generation, growing up in the ’60s, Huxley was also famous, and infamous, for having written about his experiences with mescaline and LSD in The Doors of Perception (said to be where the rock band the Doors got their name) and Heaven and Hell.

 

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

 

On that subject, I have been saving the most eyebrow-raising biographical fact about Huxley—his deathbed request.

Aldous Leonard Huxley’s last day on Earth was November 22, 1963—the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (C.S. Lewis also died that day.) During Huxley’s last hours, at his home in Hollywood, California, he was unable to speak. According to his wife, Laura, in her memoir, This Timeless Moment, he wrote her a note requesting, “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” She duly gave him an injection at 11:45 a.m., and another a couple of hours later.

One cannot even begin to imagine what he felt, or saw, as he faded away . . .

 

Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.”

 

Obviously, I consider this book to be a masterpiece, a major and enduring accomplishment by a writer who possessed a certain genius—a lively intelligence with the art to express it gracefully. As stated earlier, the novel’s deeper themes have echoed back to me for months now, a rare and enduring resonance that a musician would call a “long reverb.” Or another musical term, with subatomic associations, a “slow decay.”

That is also a metaphor for the grail of longevity—for which Jo Stoyte is willing to sacrifice everything.

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is a rich and varied feast for the mind.

A final quote from Huxley demonstrates the delicacy and power of his intellect, and offers a thought well worth contemplating in regard to our own lives. Like the novel, you can think about it for a long time.

 

The most valuable of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it has to be done, whether you like it or not.”

 

 

 

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