Sunday, July 26, 2009

Point Counterpoint, by Aldous Huxley

Well, I said I might write about books occasionally. Let's give the first one a try:

I just finished reading Point Counterpoint. Huxley has become one of my favorite authors, if not the favorite. Eyeless in Gaza, also by Huxley, was a book I stumbled upon in a used book store (it was one of those classy-but-not-too-much-so 1950s editions, fabric-bound with gold lettering) and bought because I thought "hey, it looks nice, has a cool title and I liked Brave New World". It was an extremely pleasant surprise and would be my answer for "favorite book" if I had a gun against my head. I found Point Counterpoint in the same bookstore, in the same shelf and in the same kind of edition (only faded green instead of faded red), so I had high expectations. And I wasn't disappointed.

The book, speaking in broad terms, is about the eternal struggle between mind and body, reason and passion, intellect and instinct. Not a small subject matter, eh? It is a question I've always been fascinated with (aren't we all?). Point in case: the tattoo I had done in Mexico, the one I did planning for it to be my 'first and last' one, signifies, among other things, this very basic dilemma and the quest towards solving it (or at least get to a working relationship). Now that I think about it, I should post something about the tattoo as well, at some point.
Getting back on subject: what I think of as Huxley's answer (if you can call anything in a book where so many complicated and opposing ideas are presented convincingly the author's "answer"... it's not as simple and straightforward as that), written into Mark Rampion's conversations and pseudo-monologues, is this: it shouldn't be a struggle at all, the real human should be balanced between mind, soul and body, but all societal structures invented thus far have failed because they've stressed either one or the other. True in 1928, when the book came out, and just as true (maybe even more so) today.
Huxley's perceptiveness into human characters, relations and motivations is in full display with this book: the full cast, almost entirely consisting of upper class Londoners, is rich and fascinating, and the characters compliment each other and make up a wide spectrum of ideas. Some of the written conversations read like fleshed out ideas instead of actual people arguing, but it's done very skillfully and holds your interest, so the fact that people don't really talk like that doesn't matter that much (to me, at least).
As is alluded to in the book's title, its structure tries to emulate that of a musical pattern, weaving seemingly contradicting themes, plots and ideas into one large whole. Several times he fleshes out an idea while writing about one character, then proceeds to go completely the other way right after, creating distorted reflections and echoes between the characters. Most characters have their antithesis, and almost none of them escape Huxley's sharp sense of irony. But at the same time, you can see that he sympathizes with them, and can see the partial truth in almost all of them. No black and whiter was he.
Reading 'Eyeless...' and this book, I've often been taken aback by how modern some of Huxley's ideas seem, and how much they fit in with my thought processes today. I'll quote some passages to illustrate.
First, one of those aforementioned monologues by Rampion:
"Industrial progress means over-production, means the need for getting new markets, means international rivalry, means war. And mechanical progress means more specialization and standartization of work, means more ready-made and unindividual amusements, means diminution of initiative and creativeness, means more intellectualism and the progressive atrophy of all the vital and fundamental things in human nature, means increased boredom and restlessness, means finally a kind of individual madness that can only result in social revolution. Count on them or not, wars and revolutions are inevitable, if things are allowed to go on as they are at present." Close to perfect, as far as I'm concerned.
The next quote is spoken by Lord Edward, a scientist that several times talks about how everything in the world is interconnected, is part of the balanced cycle, and humans are taking way too much and destroying the balance:
"It's for the chapter on phosphorus. Human interference with the cycle. How much P2O5 did we find out was dispersed into the sea in sewage?... Practically irrecoverable. Just thrown away. Then there's the stupid way we deal with cadavers. Three quarters of a kilo of phosphorus pentoxide in every body. Restored to the Earth, you may say... but how inadequately!... Huddling bodies together in cemetaries! How can you expect the phosphorus to be distributed? It finds its way back to the cycle in time, no doubt. But for out purposes it's lost... But then one has to remember... that there are a lot of people who dispose of the dead much more sensibly than we do. It's really only among the white races that the phosphorus is taken out of circulation. Other people don't have necropolises and watertight coffins and brick vaults... will you work out the grand total for the world? And another, if you don't mind, for the white races. I've got a list of the populations here somewhere. And, of course, the death rate will be lower than the average for the whole world, at any rate in Western Europe and America." Sharp satire and great black humour, in my opinion.
Besides all this, Huxley puts a healthy dose of self-consciousness in the book, most of all by having the over-intellectual Phillip Quarles write notes for his book, which are very similar to Huxley's finished product, therefore identifying himself with Quarles, who is obviously failing at life emotionally. I think Huxley posits himself between Quarles, who in large part represents the way he sees himself, and Rampion, the way he would like to be. There are also several passages describing music, which I'm pretty sure are a motive that is supposed to symbolize the plot structure. If I was smarter, maybe I could figure out exactly how, but I'm left with only a hunch on it.
What else? Well, this might be long enough as it is. This book is more readily available than 'Eyeless...", so I really recommend finding it and reading it. And if you do, let me know so we can discuss it. Hopefully at length.

1 comment:

  1. I just read point counterpoint and loved it. It is probably the best 'book of ideas' I have read if not the best 'novel'.

    I love the use of Quarles's notebook to tackle what Huxley realised was the major weakness of the book (that the characters were necessarily unrealistic because of the complex nature of the ideas he was dealing with and that the book wouldn't sell well because he wanted it to be good rather than popular). Those weaknesses of course are the only way the book could be intellectually consistent with the point you mention above about Huxley worrying about the dehumanising affects of commerce on standardised art and entertainment.

    The biggest problem with the book apart from not being as moving as it could be is that the fundamental premises as put by Rampion are more limited by realism than he admits. His assumptions around the fundamental nature of pre-organised humans are a bit too positive and so the 'right' point of balance between anarchy and organisation is probably bit closer to organisation than he admits.

    I loved his list of ways in which each of us is perverted away from our humanity. The challenge with living in a balanced way between our Id, ego and super ego (in Freudian terms) is that its hard to know which is which sometimes. Society tells us we 'want' things that we don't really want. In that situation, what is the balanced way of living halfway between our urges and reason?

    I'm sure the book will be life changing for me. The arguments about being wary of work fetishism were particularly resonant.

    The book strongly relates to Freud's 'Civilisation of Discontents.' I'm sure both Huxley and DH Lawrence (who Rampion is based on) had read it.