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Recently I've been re-reading Point Counter Point by Aldus Huxley. 

Many commentators call it his masterpiece. Modern Library lists it as number 44 on its list of the 100 best 20th century novels in English yet there it ranks well below Brave New World (that's 5th), also by  Aldus Huxley. 

The book was an experimental novel and consists of a series of conversations, some internal to a character, the character's thoughts, in which a proposition is put and then a counterargument is presented, reflecting a musical contrapuntal motif.

Among his opposed characters are nihilists, communists, rationalists, social butterflies, transcendentalists, and the leader of the British Freemen (fascists cum Brexiteers, as we would now describe them).

Taken as a whole, it's an extended debate on 'the meaning of life'. And at one point, in my young-adult life, Point Counter Point was very influential.

Yet now, later in life, and perhaps more worldly myself, I find some of the intellectualism, that I once thought sophisticated, a little pretentious.

Other commentators, have objected to Huxley's 'unconscious racism' and have objected to the 'class-riddled Huxleyan voice' and one has described his characters as belonging in a mental hospital or to be from the pathology textbooks  - see: Point Counter Point - in Movie Review, September 8, 2021 - by Jay Ruud.

Huxley himself, anticipates this criticism, when he has Philip Quarles, the novelist within his novel, writes in his notebook:

The great defect of the novel of ideas is that it’s a made-up affair. Necessarily; for people who can reel off neatly formulated notions aren’t quite real; they’re slightly monstrous. Living with monsters becomes rather tiresome in the long run.

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Put a novelist into the novel. He justifies aesthetic generalisations, which may be interesting — at least to me. He also justifies experiment. Specimens of his work may illustrate other possible or impossible ways of telling a story. And if you have him telling parts of the same story as you are, you can make a variation on the theme... 

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Novel of ideas. The character of each personage must be implied, as far as possible, in the ideas of which he is the mouthpiece. In so far as theories are rationalizations of sentiments, instincts, dispositions of soul, this is feasible. The chief defect of the novel of ideas is that you must write about people who have ideas to express— which excludes all but about .01 percent, of the human race. Hence the real, the congenital novelists don’t write such books. But then I never pretended to be a congenital novelist.

See: Point Counter Point: Chapter 22

 

Huxley read 'Classics' at Oxford, (do they still have that?) and grew up among the 'brightest' and 'best' when the British Empire was still 'Great'. And he wrote the 'novel of ideas' in full knowledge  that it would seem a little contrived. So it's little wonder that the characters seem even more contrived today.

As to the class and casual racial prejudice issue. Maybe it's one of proximity? The class-differences and racial prejudices described in Jane Austin novels, for example, are so bizarre that we regard them as quaint and of no practical relevance to us. But Huxley is writing in 1928, when my parents were children; and when my grandparents were his contemporaries.

So he sounds like a typical liberal minded person from my grandparents' generation. Most of whom were inclined to believe in their own superiority.

In other ways he's very modern. He wouldn't have disapproved of my great-grandfather's openly kept mistress, nor of several other skeletons in my family's closets - on both sides. Adults have been setting up home out-of-wedlock for over a generation, so we are no longer as shocked as some of Huxley's, or DH Lawrence's, readers were a the time.

Two of the central characters are based on Huxley's friends, DH Lawrence and his wife, Frieda (the Rampions). 

Huxley himself appears, both as a married man (Phillip Quarles), and as a youthful, more naïve version (Walter Bidlake), who is similar to the protagonist in his early, semi-autobiographical, novel Chrome Yellow.

Nancy Cunard, with whom Huxley had a, somewhat notorious, affair appears as Lucy. And half-a-dozen other characters are based on well-known intellectuals of the period.

We also get a brief but interesting glimpse of India in the 1920's and rising opposition the the British Raj. I sympathised with the Rampions' reaction to the food. See our visits to India on this website. Read More...

There is also an interesting reference to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, and the subsequent outbreaks, that resonate with today's Covid-19 pandemic.

"Susan used to sit on poufs, like little Miss Muffett," Burlap resumed after a pause. His voice was melancholy. He had spent the last minutes in ruminating the theme of his dead wife. It was nearly two years now since Susan had been carried off in an influenza epidemic. Nearly two years; but the pain, he assured himself, had not diminished, the sense of loss had remained as overwhelming as ever. Susan, Susan, Susan - he had repeated the name to himself over and over again. He would never see her any more, even if he lived for a million years. A million years, a million years. Gulfs opened all around the words.

 

Burlap's character is said to be based on the publisher John Middleton Murry. He's mercilessly satirised, throughout the book, as a hypocrite, and mocked: for his transcendental ideas; his cloying Christianity; and disingenuous sentimentality.  And it's he who we see in the novel's last scene: splashing in the bath with his friend Beatrice: "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."

But in many other ways the novel is up-to-date.

In the 1920's, an important character, albeit an eccentric one, is concerned about over-population and over-production, leading to resource depletion:  

"That's the trouble with you politicians. You don't even think of the important things. Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It's idiotic, it's criminal, it's... it's fiddling while Rome is burning."
He saw Webley opening his mouth to speak and made haste to anticipate what he imagined was going to be his objection.
"No doubt," he said, "you think you can make good the loss with phosphate rocks. But · what'll you do when the deposits are exhausted?'' He poked Everard in the shirt front. "What then? Only two hundred years and they'll be finished. You think we're being progressive because we're living on our capital Phosphates, coal, petroleum, nitre squander them all. That's your policy. And meanwhile you go round trying to make our flesh creep with talk about revolutions."
"But damn it all," said Webley, half angry, half amused, "your phosphorus can wait. This other danger's imminent. Do you want a political and social revolution?"
"Will it reduce the population and check production?" asked Lord Edward.
"Of course."
"Then certainly I want a revolution."

 

Although embedded in the 'arts', Huxley was also very well informed when it came to science; as the nephew of the great Thomas Huxley (Darwin's bulldog) aught to be. Four years after this novel, he proposed, in his dystopian future of Brave New World, that all children, except those born in 'reservations', would be conceived by IVF (in vitro fertilisation) in a kind of Ford inspired production line. For Huxley, this was a dystopia, with science gone mad.

Forty-six years later, Louise Brown was the first child conceived by IVF and there was enormous public outrage, partly inspired by Huxley's vision.  Only one of the team would win a Nobel Prize, many years later, because everyone else had died of old age.

Yet in the next forty years another eight million babies would be successfully conceived by IVF and, eventually, a Nobel Prize would be granted.

On one level, Huxley might have been dismayed. But on another, as he clearly knew, IVF demonstrates that there's no need for a 'divine spark' in the process of conception. Unless it's one dressed in a white lab coat, like his scientists in Point Counter Point.

But the most extraordinary thing is the novel's prescience when it comes to nuclear energy.

Rampion is giving his view 'holistic truth', that echoes DH Laurence's passage about 'knowing', about flowers in a cold scientific way, in his novel Women in Love; and loving wholeheartedly in Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Lawrence was not a lover of industrialisation or 'modern progress' or science.  We gather that Huxley (Philip) was rather more enthusiastic - with reservations:

Rampion is talking:

"After all, the only truth that can be of any interest to us, or that we can know, is a human truth. And to discover that, you must look for it with the whole being, not with a specialized part of it. What the scientists are trying to get at is non-human truth. Not that they can ever completely succeed; for not even a scientist can completely cease to be human. But they can go some way toward abstracting themselves from the human world of reality. By torturing their brains, they can get a faint notion of the universe as it would seem if looked at through nonhuman eyes, What with their quantum theory, wave mechanics, relativity, and all the rest of it, they do really seem to have got a little way outside humanity. Well, what the devil's the good of that?"
"Apart from the fun of the thing," said Philip, "the good may be some astonishing practical discovery, like the secret of disintegrating the atom and the liberation of endless supplies of energy."

 

Point Counter Point was published five years before the Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard, is accredited with hypothesising a nuclear-chain-reaction, an idea he actually patented in 1934.

It was not until 1942 that the first nuclear fission reactor was successfully constructed, under the west viewing stands of Stagg Field, at the University of Chicago, as an experiment to test Szilard's hypothesis. A bunch of mad scientists in typical 'to hell with the safety committee' mode.

The team included Szilard, but was led by Enrico Fermi. So, it was Fermi who had the famous laboratory named after him and, subsequently, the fermion, of which all matter has been found to consist. Szilardon is a bit hard to say.

Although Huxley had proposed 'disintegrating the atom' as a source of unlimited energy, for the good of mankind, it was, instead or as well as, the founding technical experiment for the Manhattan Project, leading to the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

During this latest reading I've thoroughly enjoyed Point Counter Point again; and I can still recommend it as one of the hundred books one ought to read, before they die.

Huxley, of course, is dead. He died in California, as a result of voluntary euthanasia, on 22 November 1963, the same day that John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I commend his masterpiece to you.

 

 

Point Counter Point  is currently out of print - but you may find it in your Public Library

I also found it online, in a very messy OCR'ed version. So I'm trusting that it's in the Public Domain.

The download version was almost unreadable, so I've cleaned it up very substantially - but some character recognition and paragraph errors remain, in it's many, many pages. 

I've appended it as an e-book, in two formats, below.  

 

Attachments:
Download this file (Point Counter Point - Aldous Huxley.azw3)Point Counter Point[eBook for Kindle]701 kB
Download this file (Point Counter Point - Aldous Huxley.epub)Point Counter Point[ePub for e-readers]448 kB


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