Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Waugh on Huxley

On December 23, 1937 Evelyn Waugh reviewed for Night and Day Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization. Waugh entitled his column, "More Barren Leaves."

Ends and Means performs what most of Mr Huxley's lighter work has recently promised - a full-dress parade of his multifarious studies and of his ruminations. I do not suppose that the author himself would claim any finality for his conclusions. Like all thinking beings, he is in motion - in his particular case a painful motion, so burdened is his mind with superfluous luggage. Now and then he pauses to report progress.

There is no reason to suppose that in ten years' time he will hold any of the opinions he holds today; that is one of the great embarrassments of lonely and individual thinkers. No doubt it is convenient and clarifying for him to sum up now and then; but there is every mark of incompleteness and hesitation about Mr Huxley's present position. He has gone too far for the left-wing middlebrows, not far enough to be able to offer any more attractive goal than theirs. He eschews all the poetic-prophetic swoopings from point to point that have made the 'thinking aloud' school popular in the past.

It is a dull book.

One is often obliged to read dull books if one is to understand the world about one. Most of the great movements of
history have been founded on dull books, but these have all, by their abstractions and syllogisms, led to sensational and world-shaking conclusions; Mr Huxley's exposition leads only to what Mr Huxley is thinking in 1937.

It is a thesis which arouses few emotions except impatience; he knits away, taking now an objective, now a subjective point of view. As might be expected he refers casually to an enormous number of authors who are unknown to most readers -- Kierkegaard, for instance. Now it so happens that I have a friend who has made a prolonged study of Kierkegaard, so that I have heard a good deal about him from time to time. I always thought that he was the peculiarity of my friend -- indeed I sometimes suspected he was an invention; so that when, in his last book of essays, Mr Huxley began to quote him too, I displayed the passage m corroboration, which we all thought sadly needed, of Kierkegaard's historical existence. So far from being flattered, my friend exhibited the bitterest exasperation and said that Mr Huxley's acquaintance with the master must be of the slightest and his comprehension nil.

I report this for what it is worth, showing the dangers of being a know-all.

There are very few subjects on which I can hope to dispute with anyone of Mr Huxley's voracious reading, but I must admit to impatience at all his very frequent references to the Catholic Church. On t
his subject he gives verdicts so silly that not only a recently instructed convert but the most lax and casual 'born Catholic' can expose him. When one finds an author at sea in subjects of which one has some acquaintance one is less inclined to accept him on those of which one is ignorant.

The disability lies deeper than imperfect knowledge. It is in Mr Huxley's machinery of thought.
'The human mind,' he says, 'has an invincible tendency to reduce the diverse to the identical. That which is given us, immediately, by our senses, s multitudinous and diverse. Our intellect, which hungers and thirsts after explanation, attempts to reduce this diversity to identity...We derive a deep satisfaction from any doctrine which reduces irrational multiplicity to rational and comprehensible unity. To this fundamental psychological fact is due the existence of science, of philosophy, of theology. If we were not always trying to reduce diversity to identity, we should find it almost impossible to think at all.'

This seems to me the reverse of the truth. What our senses, unaided, perceive is far from multitudinous and diverse. We begin life in a world of practically uniform phenomena. A stretch of country to the Londoner, a street of houses to the Australian, a crowd of men and women to the book-worm, present no points of peculiarity; the trees and crops and lie of the land, the nature of the soil, require a long apprenticeship before they reveal their individual characters; a row of buildings may be a mere horizon of masonry or, to the instructed, an intricate narration of history.

Men and women are only types - economic, physiological, what you will - until one knows them. The whole of thought and taste consists in distinguishing between similars. Mr Huxley carries his enthusiasm for reduction so far that he will claim identity between radically dissimilar things upon the strength of any common, or apparently common, feature. It is the old Golden Bough trouble at its worst.

(Source: The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. 1983. Little, Brown and Company)