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Ape and Essence ()


Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84) (1949)

    'There are limits,' he says.

    'That's where you're wrong,' replies the Arch-Vicar.  'There are no limits.  Everybody's capable of
    anything--but anything.'

        -Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence

When you are a conservative, here's what passes for optimism : things aren't very good (they're definitely worse than they used to be) and they are likely to get worse still; but there will always be a small, but hardy, band of resistors, summoning the species back to first principles, and, in the long run, we may even prevail--God willing.  That's not particularly optimistic, is it ?   Moreover, to many, what's particularly objectionable about this dark view is that it flows from a fairly low estimation of our fellow men, which is perhaps best expressed in Edmund Burke's aphorism : "There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men."   Unpleasant they may be, but these attitudes are on full and glorious display in Aldous Huxley's novel, Ape and Essence.

The story is told in screenplay form--a narrative device which I found awkward--a script having blown off of a truck which is hauling studio detritus to the dump.  The deceased screenwriter, William Tallis, posits a future in which most of the world has been devastated by nuclear war.  Their island nation having been spared major damage, the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition to North America lands on the California coast in 2108, looking for survivors.  Dr. Alfred Poole gets separated from the rest of the party and taken in by the Belial worshipping natives.

In the wake of the catastrophe--which they refer to as the Thing--the remaining Southern Californians are held in thrall by the sterilized priests of Belial, who seek to limit knowledge and quash human desires, relegating the populace to a single two week period of sex a year (following Belial Day), which produces an annual litter of mutant babies, some of whom are actually healthy enough to replace the dead and dying adults.  This suffices to fulfill the rather limited purposes of their decimated society : to serve Belial by accepting the punishment that has been visited upon them and to avoid extinction.  Dr. Poole falls in love with Loola, a native girl, and they run away, the book ending with them on their way to Bakersfield, stumbling upon the grave of William Tallis, where they quote from the poem Adonais by Percy Bysse Shelley :

    That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
    That Beauty in which all things work and move,
    That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
    Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
    Which through the web of being blindly wove
    By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
    Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
    The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
    Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

and share a hard-boiled egg.

Such are the bare bones of the rather meager plot, but the real meat of the book is Huxley's scorching attacks on Man's faith in himself :

    Cruelty and compassion come with chromosomes;
    All men are merciful and all are murderers.
    Doting on dogs, they build their Dachaus;
    Fire whole cities and fondle the orphans;
    Are loud against lynching, but all for Oakridge;
    Full of future philanthropy, but today the NKVD.
    Whom shall we persecute, for whom feel pity ?
    It is all a matter of the moment's mores,
    Of words on wood pulp, of radios roaring,
    Of Communist kindergartens or first communions.
    Only in the knowledge of his own Essence
    Has any man ceased to be many monkeys.

and on the idea of Progress :

    Progress --the theory that you can get something for nothing; the theory that you can gain in one
    field without paying for your gain in another; the theory that you alone can understand the meaning
    of history; the theory that you know what's going to happen fifty years from now; the theory that,
    in the teeth of all experience, you can foresee all the consequences of your present actions; the
    theory that Utopia lies just ahead and that, since ideal ends justify the abominable means, it is your
    privilege and duty to rob, swindle, torture, enslave and murder all those who, in your opinion
    (which is, by definition, infallible), obstruct the onward march to the earthly paradise.

I have to admit that I've always been so intent on using Brave New World as a scourge against totalitarian Utopias, I blinded myself to the deeply anti-technology aspects of Huxley's vision.  But you can't make the same mistake here, as Huxley clobbers the reader over the head with his contempt for "science" :

    ...what we call knowledge is merely another form of Ignorance--highly organized, of course, and
    eminently scientific, but for that very reason all the more complete, all the more productive of
    angry apes.  When Ignorance was merely ignorance, we were the equivalents of lemurs, marmosets
    and howler monkeys.  Today, thanks to that Higher Ignorance which is our knowledge, man's
    stature has increased to such an extent that the least among us is now a baboon, the greatest an
    orangutan or even, if he takes rank as a Saviour of Society, a true Gorilla.

As court jesters once served to deflate the pomposity of kings and as servants followed Roman Emperors, whispering in their ears, "Thou art human," perhaps it is the role of conservative literature, not so much to educate or convert, but to remind men of the signal human sin of hubris.  If such truly is the case, it can rightly be said that no writer has done so better than Aldous Huxley.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Aldous Huxley Links:

    -REVIEW: of Aldous Huxley: A Biography by Sybille Bedford (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Aldous (Leonard) Huxley (1894-1963)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "aldous huxley"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Huxley, Aldous Leonard
    -Aldous Huxley - soma web
    -ALDOUS HUXLEY (Perennial Philosopjy)
    -Spiritwalk Teachers: Aldous Huxley
    -KNOWLEDGE NETWORK: Great Writers: Aldous Huxley
    -Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) (Bohemian Ink)
    -Aldous Huxley's Island
    -BRAVE  NEW  WORLD
    -Literary Research Guide: Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (SparkNote by Selena Ward)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Brave New World (Classic Notes, Grade Saver)
    -Plot Summary : Ape and Essence & Brave New World (Keith Mason)
    -ESSAY : Which are the most overrated authors, or books, of the past 1,000 years? Continuing our series, the critic and author John Sutherland nominates Aldous Huxleyís Brave New World  (booksonline uk)
    -ESSAY: Themes in Aldous Huxley's Life and Literature (Brock Bakke)
    -ESSAY: Science and the Story that We Need (Neil Postman, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Big Sister : Orwell and Huxley foretell late-20th-century sexual mores  (JOHN O'SULLIVAN, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Fatalists and Utopians (John O'Sullivan, Hudson Institute)
    -ESSAY : Did these books foretell? Was Aldous Huxley a visionary? (GAIL H. WEISS, Charlotte Sun Herald)
    -ESSAY: Five and a Hal Utopias : Despite its dismal record, the utopian impulse is by no means extinct. An eminent physicist looks at several of the guises in which utopian thinking is likely to appear during the century ahead - and at the perils that lurk behind each one  (Steven Weinberg, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY : Uplift and Suspicion :  How Aldous Huxley Managed to Avoid the Temptations of His Time (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, LA Times)
    -ESSAY : Darwin's Brave New World (Roberto Rivera , Touchstone)
    -ARCHIVES : "aldous huxley" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Brave New World (John Chamberlain, NY Times, February 7, 1932)
    -REVIEW: of Aldous Huxley Brave New World Ý(1932) (Leon R. Kass, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of JACOB'S HANDS By Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood (William Ferguson, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Huxley in Hollywood By David King Dunaway (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of  Huxley in Hollywood By David King Dunaway (Kathleen Quinn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Aldous Huxley: A Biography by Sybille Bedford Huxley at Home (Robert Craft, NY Review of Books)
    -BOOK LIST : Modern Novels, the 99 Best  (Anthony Burgess, NY Times Book Review, February 5, 1984)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Aldous Huxley (Imdb)

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