Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Genius and the Goddess (1955) by Aldous Huxley

Published as a 'novel', this book has the length of a novella, but in point of fact it is a very long short story, being concerned with a small group of a characters and a very circumscribed part of their lives and relationships. So publishing this on its own may have been a disservice: one expects novelistic qualities, and perhaps judges the thing too harshly for their absence.

However, even as a short story, much of this is pretentious tripe. When the author calls one of his characters a Genius and another a Goddess, and proceeds to treat them as such (even if with a touch of irony, which may or may not be the case here), somehow one knows from the start that the author cheats, because his business is to flesh out a character first, and then, if appropriate, to give that character symbolic or allegoric attributes. Huxley neither bothers with the characters nor properly tells a story here: it boils down to an anecdote. But an anecdote full of philosophical comment, generalisation and would-be important ideas. Rivers, the character telling the story, practically in monologue, barely can report a line of dialogue before launching on an insightful interpretation of what the speaker meant, felt and thought. Instead of describing people's actions, he describes - at length - their presumed inner states, with a lot of fancy twaddle like She was a goddess, and the silence of goddesses is genuinely golden, or She experienced the creative otherness of love and sleep. And he is nothing if not maddeningly didactic, very sure of the profound value of what he has to impart.

Another thing that I found peculiarly annoying was the taking for granted that Maartens, the quantum physicist and Nobel Prize winner, was in fact a genius by virtue of those facts alone. Now, almost 100 years on (the story is set in the 20s), we realize that humanity would hardly notice a quantum physicist more or less. Moreover, we know that all scientists produce their most important work when young, and then the quality of their output declines quickly. Maartens is an old man, but the whole purport of the story is predicated on the assumed fact of his enormous value to humanity and the need to keep him going at any cost.

The only interesting aspect of the book was the Man Ray photograph of the young Huxley, who is absolutely indistinguishable from the young Robert Aickman. I would have constructed a conspiracy theory around this fact - suggesting they might have been the same person - if I could believe Aickman capable of writing such unmitigated rubbish, not worth the three paragraphs I spent on it. Actually, the young Huxley seems to have been a decent writer, and one can't help wondering if it had been his LSD and mescaline experiments which enfeebled his mind and his literary capacities so dramatically.

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