THE LITERARY REVOLUTION
Not so long ago Aldous Huxley was my literary guru, or spiritual guide. I read everything by him that I could lay my hands on, and read it, for the most part, with considerable pleasure. These days, however, I am no longer the respectful disciple but rather more the disrespectful rebel, a critic of my one-time mentor. Like Nietzsche, I have rebelled against my master and gone my own separate way, dismissing Huxley with the ease and willingness with which Nietzsche was to dismiss Schopenhauer. To some extent I am a twentieth-century Nietzsche, a kindred spirit of the author of The Anti-Christ, Beyond Good and Evil, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, just as, to some extent, Huxley was a twentieth-century Schopenhauer, a kindred spirit of the author of The World as Will and Representation, The Parerga and Paralipomena, and lesser works. There are, of course, certain differences. But, broadly speaking, it is possible for me to identify with Nietzsche, and not simply as a rebel against a former master but, more importantly, as the advocate of a short-term positivistic attitude to life which radically conflicts with the long-term spiritual views upheld by both Schopenhauer and Huxley. For they were largely negative in their advocacy of non-attachment to the world through a form of Buddhist renunciation. They were pessimistic in their attitudes to social progress as reflecting the welfare of the masses, the social collectivity, and were consequently inclined to stress the importance of personal salvation through individual effort. They distrusted political means of improving the world and, because they rebelled against the social collectivity, were obliged to uphold the individual in the face of large-scale communal effort. In sum, they were philosophically and politically conservative, if not reactionary.
Nietzsche, by contrast, was revolutionary, which is why he has
had a much greater influence on the twentieth century than Schopenhauer. Like him, I too am revolutionary, and to the
extent, I hope, of having a greater influence on the twenty-first century than
Huxley will. At present, Huxley is still
regarded as an outstanding writer and thinker, probably the most outstanding
writer and thinker in
As a novelist, Huxley was superior to the great majority of novelists of his time by preferring an approach to the genre which gave far more importance to theory than to practice, to speculation than to action, to truth than to illusion - in a phrase, to philosophy than to fiction. He disliked story-telling, which is of course the traditional or conventional approach to literature, and endeavoured, especially in his late novels, to grant as much space to philosophical discussion and speculation as possible. This, alone, is the mark of a higher type of literature, a type of which the twentieth century has witnessed the development, and which may be said to reflect the predominance of the superconscious over the subconscious, in accordance with its author's degree of spiritual sophistication. To some extent, the environmental shift, over the past hundred or so years, from the town to the city has contributed to this change in priorities from illusion to truth, fiction to fact, insofar as the modern sophisticated city-dweller no longer experiences the sensuous influence of nature to the same extent as his forebears, and consequently is in a position to cultivate more spirit. Being cut-off from nature to a greater extent than ever before, the modern intelligent city-dweller is less under the sway of subconscious dominion than would otherwise be the case, and therefore is more disposed towards the superconscious. In the case of writers, such a disposition leads to the traditional criteria of literature being superseded by criteria reflecting a superconscious bias, in which truth, or something approximating to it, will take the place of illusory fictions, and a new type of literature, broadly termed philosophical, duly arises.
Now this new literature will only arise, it goes without saying, from the most intelligent writers, those who are the recipients of a greater degree of superconscious influence than lesser men, and it will even be possible for such writers to continue writing in their predominantly philosophical style whether or not they spend all of their time in the city. Provided they don't spend too much time amid the subconsciously-dominated plant world of nature, they are unlikely to become any-the-less intelligent. For one can flit from one environment to another, one town or city to another, and still maintain this higher kind of writing - as, indeed, Aldous Huxley managed to do, despite a distaste for large cities. He was, however, too much of a bourgeois, and therefore too fond of suburban environments, to be wholly content with a metropolitan context, and mostly lived, in consequence, on the outskirts of cities. Had he been less bourgeois in this regard, he might have become an even greater writer. But his suburban integrity necessarily restricted his mode of thought to a level compatible with bourgeois ethics, and so prevented its development into the reaches of what might be termed higher proletarian writing. For it must be stressed that the highest writing, the greatest thought, can only emerge from a writer of superior intelligence who is resident in a large city, where the sensuous influence of nature is negligible and a truly transcendental mode of writing can accordingly develop. Those, on the contrary, who confine themselves to the provinces or to the country inevitably detract from their spiritual development and, to a greater or lesser extent, fall behind the times. They develop a complacency in nature and, frankly, such a complacency is incompatible with higher spirituality, with writings that reflect a severance from and contempt of nature!
As an example of this, I might cite a remark made by Colin Wilson in the first instalment of his autobiography, Voyage to a Beginning, in which he claimed to be the foremost genius of the age - indeed, one of only two geniuses then at work in the world (the other apparently being a relatively unknown friend of his, whose name eludes me). Now Mr Wilson claimed priority in respect to his pre-eminent genius on the grounds that he had gone beyond Existentialism and furthered the development of a philosophy with a positivistic rather than a nihilistic outlook. No doubt, there is a justification of sorts for such a claim. For, these days, anyone who doesn't go beyond Existentialism, in one way or another, has no business considering himself a serious writer and thinker, let alone a genius! In fact, he is unlikely to be published. However, what especially intrigues me here is that the author of this immodest autobiography doesn't find his confinement to a small cottage on the Cornish coast a hindrance to his genius, but, on the contrary, regards life in Cornwall as generally very acceptable, if not preferable to the city. Clearly, his genius isn't disturbed by the close proximity of temperate nature, but is able to live in harmony with it, in spite of its sensuous essence.
Now anyone who lives for any length of time in such a simple environment, as Mr Wilson has apparently done, isn't likely to develop the most anti-natural sentiments, to become a contemporary Baudelaire or Mondrian, and consequently his range of thought will be restricted, in its formation, by complacency towards the natural, whether inorganic or organic. The fact that Mr Wilson hasn't waged a verbal war against nature would seem to be borne-out by the content of his writings, in which no overtly, nor even covertly, transcendental attitude is to be found. He does, however, prefer writings of a philosophical order to mere story-telling, and this is something for which we can admire him. But whether he is the foremost genius of the age is, under the circumstances, a somewhat debatable issue, especially in light of certain more recent developments in contemporary thought which have led to a condemnation of the natural and to a reappraisal of the transcendent, with particular reference to what I have called the transcendental Beyond. That Mr Wilson may have had a justification of sorts for considering himself the foremost genius of the age some thirty or more years ago, we shall not question. But whether such a justification still holds true now is highly questionable, and had better be left for posterity to decide. No doubt, it ought not to be forgotten that he was evaluating himself in relation to his contemporaries, not in relation to either his predecessors or his successors. He wasn't, for example, comparing himself with Aldous Huxley.
But was Huxley a genius, then? There have been times when I was inclined to think so, bearing in mind the content and scope of his work, particularly his late work. Nowadays, however, I am not so sure. There is a tricky borderline between men of genius and the clever-clever, and sometimes it is possible to confound those on the one side of that borderline with those on the other side of it. The clever-clever may, at times, have the appearance of genius, but they are generally either too pedantic and pedagogic or, conversely, too flashy and superficial. Huxley undoubtedly had a fair amount of the former about himself, while Evelyn Waugh might serve as a useful illustration of the latter. Genius, on the other hand, doesn't labour over textbook citations or strive to impose a superficial cleverness upon one. It is somewhat unique in that its recipient is motivated by deeply personal or original thoughts which fight shy of textbook authorities. Besides possessing the necessary intellectual credentials of exalted thought, the genius is rather one who pursues his own vision over the heads of and beyond the reach of lesser men, and to such an extent that it often takes generations for the more progressive members of society to catch-up with him and to properly appreciate what he had to say. Rather than being hampered by textbooks or numerous citations, the genius remains in the grip of his particular thought, regardless of how radical it may be from a traditional viewpoint. He is something of an outsider and a rebel, a challenge to the literary establishment and a champion of a higher sense of freedom. He leads the intellectual or creative field by dint of his innate ability to transcend the narrow boundaries of the conscious self. He has 'intimations of immortality', in Wordsworth's oft-quoted phrase.
Now, given these criteria, there was doubtless something of the genius about Aldous Huxley, though not a very great deal, considering his dependence on and, like so many well-educated Englishmen, gentlemanly deference towards traditional authority. At best, he might be described as one of the clever-clever who occasionally attained to a level of genius - in short, as a minor genius. For it should not be forgotten that exalted thought was not always to be found in Huxley's writings, and that he was more often than not a pedant and expounder of other men's theories, including, as we have seen, those of the American psychologist, W.H. Sheldon. Moreover, he wasn't always particularly consistent with himself, and if consistency is a hallmark of genius, as I incline to believe, then his lack of it with regard to intellectual positions must inevitably tell against him. Nevertheless, what he did achieve in terms of intellectual clarity and earnestness is sufficient to distinguish him from the majority of his contemporaries, and to accord him an honourable place in the eyes of posterity. In a generation that produced no outstanding revolutionary genius, his status as a minor genius is certainly not without merit. It simply wasn't given to him to be another Nietzsche or Strindberg. And neither, seemingly, was it given to anyone else.
Yet it was given to D.H. Lawrence to be an outstanding
traditional genius, and this fact we must readily acknowledge, if we are not to
do the man a grave disservice. For it
has long been contended among reputable literary critics, including Richard Aldington, that D.H. Lawrence was the finest English
novelist of his day, a contention which, strictly within traditional terms,
isn't without some justification.
Compared with Huxley,
Now anyone who judges writers solely by traditional criteria
Nor are Lawrence and Huxley the only examples of this
transitional dichotomy. Of more recent
writers connected with the English literary scene, one might cite the
But what applies to
However, before I deal with that subject at greater length, let
me go on to point out some further examples of this transitional dichotomy, as
manifested in twentieth-century literature, this time German, and thereupon
equate Thomas Mann with the traditional approach and, conversely, Hermann Hesse with the revolutionary one. Mann wrote primarily with a
view to telling a story, Hesse with a view to
propounding his religious philosophy.
The former philosophizes in moderation, the latter makes of philosophy
d'être. Between their last novels, The
Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Trickster
in Mann's case, and The Glass Bead Game in Hesse's, there is that radical distinction we have already
noted with regard to, amongst others, Huxley and Lawrence. Of the two writers,
Which state-of-affairs applies no less amongst Americans than Europeans, so that we may accredit Henry Miller's work a special priority over that of, say, Ernest Hemingway, despite the latter's unquestionable abilities from the traditional point-of-view. Hemingway spins stories, and does so well enough to win world-wide recognition. Miller, by contrast, dedicates himself to telling the story of his life, and spices this up with speculations of a philosophical order. He eschews literary fictions in the interests of autobiography, which could be defined as subjective fact, and to this is added the subjective truth of philosophy - at any rate, of theoretical speculations and contentions about life in its entirety, both as experienced externally and, especially, as reflected upon internally. From this twofold approach to literature he scarcely ever deviates, so that his novels remain consistently revolutionary and, in the best sense of the word, contemporary. It would be a mistake, however, to describe him as a major genius. For, at best, he is only a minor one, and a minor one, at that, without even the compensatory factor of being clever-clever. Yet his consistently radical approach to the novel is sufficient to establish him as the most revolutionary American author of his generation, and to accord him an honourable place in the ranks of the international avant-garde. As a type he approximates more to the subjective approach to the world than to its opposite, and may thus be described as a transcendentalist. He is, in a way, a less sophisticated version of Aldous Huxley. His nearest contemporary equivalent in American writing is probably Norman Mailer, whose philosophical approach to literature may be contrasted with the story-telling approach of, say, Gore Vidal, an author who, on the whole, would appear to be aligned with the narrative tradition.
We see, therefore, that the twentieth century gave rise to a split between what in historical terms could be defined as the ancients and the moderns - in other words, between the tail-enders of the literary tradition and the pioneers of the literary revolution. Generally speaking, the former have been blessed with more genius in their own sphere of creativity than have the latter in theirs, nor need this surprise us. For as a tradition reaches its climax, it stands to reason that the finest writings in that context will occur at the end rather than at the beginning of its development, to round it off in an appropriately climatic fashion, in accordance with the dictates of literary evolution. Consequently, where the finest works of authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, and Gore Vidal are concerned, the literary tradition would seem to have reached its peak and is unlikely to surpass itself. The fruit of the past three centuries has attained to full ripeness in the great works of these men, on whose shoulders rested the responsibility of its fulfilment. The narrative tradition was brought to a fruitful end. Not altogether surprising, therefore, if its practitioners should generally be blessed with more genius than their revolutionary counterparts!
In terms of painting, one might cite the difference, in this regard, between, say, Salvador Dali and Piet Mondrian, the former having been blessed with a considerable degree of genius to bring an egocentric representational tradition to full maturity, the latter not requiring any great genius to execute his simplistic, post-egocentric paintings, which were destined to initiate a new development in art. Admittedly, to some extent Dali is also post-egocentric, insofar as his work, particularly when surreal, often reflects a looking back and down upon the subconscious from a higher psychic vantage-point. But the fact that he uses a highly-accomplished egocentric technique in the service of figurative painting renders his work more closely aligned with the tradition than that of virtually any other Surrealist of his or, indeed, any other generation. Paradoxically, however, one is obliged to contend that, despite his considerable representational genius, he ranks lower in the evolution of art than Mondrian, who should therefore be regarded as his artistic superior.
Returning to literature, we may infer that, in contrast to the tail-enders of a tradition, the pioneers of a new development are unlikely to be men of outstanding genius, but either men of no genius at all or only very minor genius, its being understood that only towards the climax of a tradition, especially an egocentric one, can great genius come to the fore, a level of genius commensurate with the perfecting and completing of that tradition. Thus we needn't be surprised that the post-egocentric writers have not, on the whole, been men of outstanding genius but, rather, highly-talented foundation layers for the subsequent erection of the higher, predominantly philosophical literature. Whether in the guises of Huxley, Koestler, Sartre, Hesse, Miller, or Mailer, they have initiated or furthered a break with the fictional tradition, and so paved the way for a much greater fidelity to fact and truth in literature. We must respect them as pioneers and leave it to other men, of greater genius, to complete the new tradition in due course, whether or not such a completion is likely to occur during the next hundred years.
I spoke a little while ago about appearance and essence in literature and, in expanding on that subject, must now draw the reader's attention to the fact that avant-garde writing in literature, as in art, is divisible into that which focuses primarily on means and, conversely, that which attends more closely to ends. The first of these two categories, whether in terms of politics or science, has found its leading practitioners in writers like Sartre, Koestler, and Mailer, who may broadly be described as Social Realists. The second category, essentially being concerned with religion and art, has found its leading practitioners in writers like Huxley, Hesse, and Miller, who may broadly be described as Transcendentalists. Those in the first category are aligned with appearance, and thus means. Those in the second category, by contrast, would seem to be aligned with essence, and thus ends. The first category adopts an extroverted approach to the world, the second category an introverted one. Both, as already remarked, are necessary and justified, but they aren't necessarily so at the same time. It could well be that, in the necessity of putting means before ends, those who adopt the objective approach are more relevant in the short term, whereas those whose approach is subjective appeal to long-term solutions, and are accordingly less relevant at present. The former would be equalitarian, the latter elitist. However, the former's art would not be the highest but, rather, a comparatively second-rate art which was simply of more applicability to the short-term goals of social evolution. The highest art could only issue from the Transcendentalists, who, by concentrating on essence, point the way towards Eternity. For, in the long run, spirit must take priority over matter.
Clearly, then, in an age which stresses equalitarianism and is
tending, willy-nilly, towards a more equal society, the Social Realists are the
most relevant of avant-gardists. It may seem strange that Socialist Realism
should be equated with the avant-garde, but its approach to the world is
contemporary, if from a completely different angle than Transcendentalism. After all, there is nothing more
contemporary, from a revolutionary standpoint, than the urban proletariat. In the West, with the general acceptance of
Transcendentalism by the Establishment these days, the Social Realists are the
only genuine revolutionaries, whether in art or in literature. The Establishment can accommodate the
long-term solutions of Transcendentalism because it doesn't feel directly
threatened by them in the short term. In
the former Soviet East, on the other hand, the Transcendentalists, as
traditionally manifesting in unofficial avant-garde art, have been regarded as
a revolutionary or subversive threat to the short-term interests of the
At the beginning of this essay I remarked that I was once a disciple of Aldous Huxley, but had subsequently grown beyond him. Seen in the light of the above contentions, my reasons for no longer regarding Huxley as my guru should be sufficiently clear. I do not wish to make the fatal mistake of putting ends before means and concentrating on essence when the world cries out for a short-term solution in appearance. Like Nietzsche, I have turned against essence-mongering in the interests of world betterment. I can no longer sympathize with the individualist, elitist attitude propounded by Huxley; for it is destined to failure, no matter how earnest its practitioner may happen to be. The attitude of de-centralist Ghandi-like self-sufficiency, as illustrated by the guru-like figure of Propter in After Many a Summer, is totally inadequate to meet the requirements of ultimate salvation. For such a salvation can only be brought about through the most rigorous adherence to urban civilization and the accompanying development of higher technology. Naturalistic means of cultivating spirit in close proximity to nature are invariably limited in scope, restricting the practitioner of such means to a spirituality hampered by the sensual and, above all, by the natural body itself. Unless we develop our technology, in centralized cohesion, to a point where it will enable us to gradually supplant the natural body with an artificial support-and-sustain system for the brain, including the brain-stem and central nervous system, we shall never attain to holy (pure) spirit in the transcendental Beyond. Unless we concentrate first on appearance and then on essence, making the transformation of the phenomenal a precondition of enhanced noumenal sensibility, we shall remain the sordid victims of a delusive philosophy.
The modern world and, indeed, the modern novel have need, above all, of a correct philosophical approach to the difficult problems which confront the age. We needn't dismiss the Transcendentalists out-of-hand, but we would be well-advised to give Social Realists more credit in the short term. Their political and scientific approaches to the world will serve as a foundation for and springboard to the highest culture. They will pave the way for the greatest genius!