May 26, 2012

I figure that in Huxley’s Brave New World,I would rank as a Beta-minus, on the scale from Epsilon-minus up to Alpha-plus.  Not on the basis of my intelligence, mind you, but on examination of my status in society and the nature of Huxley’s dystopia.  Hmm…maybe I should exit for 1984.

It has been eighty years since Huxley’s satire was published, and it remains fresh and entertaining, and sharp, precisely because it was written as a satire, and not an attempt at ‘science-fiction’, which hardly existed as a genre in that day.  Of course, he was remarkably prescient on some points, genetic engineering, before genetics was even developed in its modern form, for example, but that’s a small thing next to his wicked skewering of industrial-consumerist-ideology and religion.  The people of his future world worship Henry Ford, swear by him, “By Ford!”, and display ‘T’ pendants (for the Model T, that is) everywhere, conveniently similar to the ancient Christian cross.

Huxley gets in a sly observation about the literary history of cults and religions, the way that popular culture and orthodoxy twist and mold the facts of history, when he remarks on Ford and Freud.  Freud too, is revered in the new world, but his name is unknown.  His ideas are assumed to have been those of Henry Ford – how could two such moral and mental giants have existed?  Scholars, exegetes, and philosophers have simply determined that Ford, when he spoke of matters psychological, chose to speak under the name of Freud.  The prophets have their ways.

The book is marvelously funny, and the device of having Mr. Savage, a visitor from the ‘uncivilized regions’, speak constantly in Shakespearean verse, a result of his compulsive reading of the only book he has ever seen, is wonderful. Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way when I read The Bard, i.e., that the glorious quality of his words is somehow an ironic comment on, and critique of the world I live in.  It also provides a frame on which Huxley can hang his implied and explicit speculations about culture, civilization, and politics – always the weakest point in any of his books.

Despite his brilliance and originality, Huxley always seems to me to be tip-toeing through the muck of modern culture: shocked and appalled by it, and so concerned that it not dirty his clothes.  How paltry all this is, he is thinking all the time.  Oh dear, nobody has time for real culture, but these…ordinary people…are so interesting at times, their pastimes and songs, and whatnot…  For me, his work’s appeal is limited by the fact that it is that of a man who never quite shakes off the upper-class twit aspect of his social background.

Diana is very…beautiful

December 12, 2004

John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but the truth of this beautiful formulation is that we don’t seem to get what beauty is, or can be at times. I admit that it may seem odd that this picture of Diana appears on my web pages and other productions with great regularity, but I’ve never been able to get it out of my mind. A slight erotic confection by F. Boucher and nothing more you say? Well, its rococo frivolity is all the more fascinating given the story behind it, as rendered here in an 18th century translation from the Metamorphoses by Ovid:

Now all undrest the shining Goddess stood,
When young Actaeon, wilder’d in the wood,
To the cool grott by his hard fate betray’d
The fountains fill’d with naked nymphs survey’d.
The frighted virgins shriek’d at the surprize
(The forest echo’d with their piercing cries).
Then in a huddle round their Goddess prest:
She, proudly eminent above the rest,
With blushes glow’d: such blushes as adorn
The ruddy welkin, or the purple morn;
And tho’ the crowding nymphs her body hide,
Half backward shrunk, and view’d him from a side.
Surpriz’d at first she would have snatch’d her bow,
But sees the circling waters round her flow;
These in the hollow of her hand she took,
And dash’d em in his face, while thus she spoke:
“Tell, if thou can’st, the wond’rous sight disclos’d,
A Goddess naked to thy view expos’d.”

Thus said, the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a

Actaeon was simply out hunting, his passion, with his best companions, his dogs, when he happens upon the beautiful goddes Diana, the virgin huntress, bathing with her entourage after a hot sweaty day at the chase. She punishes Actaeon for his unwitting invasion of her privacy by splashing water in his face, which has the effect of immediately starting his transformation (metamorphosis) into a a stag, which his own dogs then proceed to run down and devour. He did nothing wrong but cast his eyes upon the beauty of a goddess, a terrible beauty. Which brings me to my point, at last.

Our notion of the universe, and of beauty in it, tends to be sentimentalized. Huxley wrote an essay some years ago called “Wordsworth in the Tropics.” Would he have written so lovingly of nature if he’d grown up amongst enormous termites and voracious leeches that appeared in every burbling brook? No, the Greeks understood that beauty, in women, in nature, in the world, can be terrible, and they frequently describe the piercing flash of a goddess’s terrible eyes. Beauty, terrible to behold. Lookout Hallmark Greeting cards! Meteors crash and destroy eons of evolution’s work, galaxies collapse into peanut sized kernels of energy, taking whatever was in them there too, stars become engorged with physics and turn into red giants that destroy whole solar systems, and…from the viewpoint of our back porch, it’s such a wondrous site, those heavens up there!

So, that terrible beauty is everywhere, serving as some sort of a portal to the terribly violent and indifferent reality that is the world. Look into Hera’s eyes, and glimpse the seething ground of being. The universe is a cold and hostile, or rather, cosmically and crushingly indifferent place. A place to be fearful and feel alone. Rush back to the beauty of flowers, smiling children, the warmth of hearth and home, until you feel the need to get another shot of the great unknowing reality. Or go to the museum…

Now here’s an image that captures the terrible, the true, and the beautiful all at once – Judith severing the head of Holofernes, by Caravaggio. Look at her posture, that determined…and beautiful face…as she goes about the nasty business of saving her people while the old crone looks on. It’s a dirty job, but some fair maiden’s got to do it. As far as I know, Carravaggio didn’t do subjects from Greek mythology – what a shame.  And finally, the folds. Folds of cloth in a Renaissance Flemish masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece at the NYC Metropolitan Museum. Huxley, in his mescaline induced euphorias rhapsodized about the “dharma in the hedge,” the Buddhist apprehension of the ultimate reality and beauty in a simple green, garden hedge. He identified it here too, in the crinkled gothic folds of a garment in oil paint. Why did they paint fabric endlessly, after all? They must have seen something there.