"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Huxley the Controversial Prophet

To Bath to deliver a lecture on "Aldous Huxley: Writer and Prophet".  As Huxley's biographer I try to avoid becoming too partial towards my subject but the reaction of some people to the writer does occasionally surprise me and make me want to come to his defence.  I am particularly struck by the reaction of some academics to Huxley and their readiness to brand him a "fascist". This has happened twice now at public events and I wonder what it is that makes people in universities so hot under the collar at his critique of 20th Century consumer culture.  In terms very similar to Arnold, Ruskin and Morris before him and the Marxist critic Adorno after him Huxley argued that the culture of the free and independent-minded individual that he favoured was being challenged by mass cultural forms that turned the individual into a passive recipient of what the controlling providers wanted him or her to consume.  This is the theme of Brave New World (1932) with its dystopian vision of a society controlled by deceptively benign manipulators of consciousness, wielders of 'soft power' who control us through the brainwashing of advertising and commercialisation of every natural experience ("a love of nature keeps no factories busy" is one of the jingles heard in the novel).  I must say that this seems very prescient to me as we look out on the world controlled for us by the digital oligarchs of today. But certain academic critics (who I hope are in a minority) beg to differ. These self-hating custodians of high culture rage against his 'fascist' critique that would insist on the individual's right and power to choose. They claim that Huxley was an 'elitist' who wanted to force decent people to have richer cultural lives. One senses that they like the lower orders to know their place and not to assume that they can come barging in through the front swing doors of the palace of the culture normally reserved for the toffs. Their business is to stay where they are and not get above themselves.  People like me, by contrast, whose slogan is "nothing is too good for the working class" beg to differ. Everyone has a right to a slice of the cultural cake. The debate will continue. Meanwhile I wonder what these spluttering dons would do if they met a real fascist.

4 comments:

Andrew said...

I think the clearly nonsensical attack on Huxley is one of self-defence, methinks they doth protest too much, and so on. Obviously terms like "fascism" can be pretty useld used and understood, but if we can call Brave New World totalitarian - which we obviously can, and that the ethos or internal logic of that world/our world is intrinsically totalitarian. The types you mention attacking Huxley fit very happily into the present, have their niche, and the brilliant analysis, dissections of someone like Huxley presumably hit home hard and make them uncomfortable. So what to do? Shoot the messenger.
There's incidentally, or perhaps not all that incidentally, a very good quote from the Russian writer Victor Pelevin apropos totalitarianism:
"The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms . . . "

Nicholas Murray said...

You are right, Andrew, these reactions tell us more about the people expressing them than they do about Huxley. I

Andrew said...

In my haste I did mess up the grammar of my post a little though! Meant I think to say that "Obviously terms like "fascism" can be pretty loosely used and understood" . . .

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