Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Aldous Huxley

The frankly bad

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“You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad,” Gertrude Stein once told the young Ernest Hemingway. It was Paris in the early twenties, and Hemingway had just confessed that he had been reading Aldous Huxley, whom Stein contemptuously described as “a dead man.” (In fact, Huxley was still alive, and he would go on living for decades, surviving Hemingway himself by more than two years.) But it isn’t hard to guess what she meant by this. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls that he had been reading Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and other writers “to keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked.” When Stein asked why he even bothered, his reply was a simple one: “I said that his books amused me and kept me from thinking.” And her response—that he should read only the truly good or frankly bad—strikes me as genuinely useful. On the one hand, we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of great books, and there are times when we justifiably read to avoid thinking, or to keep our minds off the possibility of writing for ourselves. Anything else would destroy us. On the other hand, the danger of reading what Stein called “inflated trash” is that we’ll lose the ability to distinguish between fake value and the real thing. When we don’t have the time or energy to fully engage with a book, it might be better to stick with something that we know is frankly bad, so we don’t waste time trying to make the distinction.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from works of literature that occupy the middle ground between mediocrity and greatness, but I’ve also found myself unapologetically seeking out books that are frankly bad. They aren’t even great trash, as Pauline Kael might have put it, but trash of the most routine, ordinary kind. The most obvious example is my fascination with the novels of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace, two men who were among the bestselling writers of the sixties and seventies, only to be almost entirely forgotten now. Yet I keep reading them, and I can rarely resist picking up their books whenever I see one at a thrift store, which is where most of them seem to have ended up. (As I type this, I’m looking at the back cover of Wallace’s The Prize, which is described by its jacket copy as “one of the most compelling bestselling novels of all times.” As far as I can tell, it’s long out of print, along with all of Wallace’s other novels.) I particularly like them on long plane rides, when I’m too tired or distracted to focus on anything at all, and I can skim dozens of pages without any fear of missing anything important. On a recent trip to Europe, I carried so many of these books in my bag that it set off some kind of special alarm at security—the sensors evidently detected an unusual amount of “organic material,” in the form of yellowing mass market paperbacks. And when the security agent pulled out my flaking copies of The Prize and Hailey’s Overload, I felt like a confused time traveler with very bad taste.

This isn’t the place for a full consideration of either writer, but I feel obliged to share a few passages that might help to explain what they mean to me. Here’s my favorite line from Hailey’s Airport:

In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.

As I’ve noted here before, another writer might have written, “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would know that people sometimes drink coffee to stay awake. An author who wanted to be perfectly clear might have added, “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” As for Wallace, take the moment in The Prize when a distinguished scientist contemplates cheating on her husband with a younger colleague:

Lindblom discoursed with nervous enthusiasm about the work in progress. His love for algae strains and soybean nodules and Rhodophyceae and Chlorella dinned on her eardrums…Trailing Lindblom, she peered at her watch. She had arrived at 11:05. It was now 11:55. The zero hour that she had set herself loomed close. The ultimate decision. Question One: Should she do it? There were two courses open: (a) mild flirtation, a holding of hands, an embrace, a kiss, romantic whispering, to be followed by similar meetings devoted to the same and no more; or (b) sexual intercourse.

That’s a big load of organic material. Yet it also wouldn’t be quite right to say that I’m reading these writers “ironically.” I view them totally without affection, and I don’t gain any cultural cachet by being seen with them on an airplane. You could even argue that I’m guilty of a weird reverse snobbism by reading books that aren’t beloved by anyone, but I prefer to think of it as a neat act of triangulation. The real risk of spending time with “frankly bad” books is that you’ll either dull your own taste or turn your default mode as a reader into one of easy condescension. I’ve found that Hailey and Wallace allow me to indulge my need for bad books in the least harmful way possible. Both authors are long dead, so their feelings can no longer be hurt. They were smart men who made enormous amounts of money by aiming squarely at the mainstream, and they clearly knew what they were doing. These weren’t cult books, but novels that millions of readers bought and promptly forgot. Neither left a devoted following, and they’ve dated so badly that they can barely be endured even as period pieces. But they’re still readable in their own way, and they can hardly be mistaken for anything except what they are. For all their attempts to inject sex and scandal into their Parade magazine view of the world, they’re the most complacent books imaginable, and I could even argue that they tell us something valuable about the complacency of their original readers. But that would be taking it too far. They amuse me and keep me from thinking—as they were supposed to do.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2018 at 8:13 am

Quote of the Day

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All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience what Catholic theologians call “a gratuitous grace,” not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception 

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

Aldous Huxley on intuition and training

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Aldous Huxley

Non-mystics have denied the validity of the mystical experience, describing it as merely subjective and illusory. But it should be remembered that to those who have never actually had it, any direct intuition must seem subjective and illusory…Of the significant and pleasurable experiences of life only the simplest are open indiscriminately to all. The rest cannot be had except by those who have undergone a suitable training. One must be trained even to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol and tobacco; first whiskies seem revolting, first pipes turn even the strongest of boyish stomachs. Similarly first Shakespeare sonnets seem meaningless; first Bach fugues, a bore; first differential equations, sheer torture. But training changes the nature of our spiritual experiences. In due course, contact with an obscurely beautiful poem, an elaborate piece of counterpoint or of mathematical reasoning, causes us to feel direct intuitions of beauty and significance…Knowledge is always a function of being. What we perceive and understand depends upon what we are; and what we are depends partly on circumstances, partly, and more profoundly, on the nature of the efforts we have made to realize our ideal and the nature of the ideal we have tried to realize…This training is one which he will certainly find extremely tedious; for it involves, at first, the leading of a life of constant awareness and unremitting moral effort; second, steady practice in the technique of meditation, which is probably about as difficult as the technique of violin playing. But, however tedious, the training can be undertaken by any one who wishes to do so.

Aldous Huxley

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January 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Aldous Huxley on a poet’s experience

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The poet is, etymologically, the maker. Like all makers, he requires a stock of raw materials—in his case, experience. Now experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and co-ordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. It is a gift for dealing with the accidents of existence, not the accidents themselves. By a happy dispensation of nature, the poet generally possesses the gift of experience in conjunction with that of expression.

Aldous Huxley

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The senses taker

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Writing about Borges last week led me, inevitably, to think of his blindness, and what the loss of one’s sight might mean to an author. Borges began going blind around age thirty, and his sight had failed completely by his mid-fifties—although he didn’t live in the world of darkness that we tend to imagine, but in a sort of “luminous greenish mist,” and in fact no longer saw the color black at all. We often think of Borges as a blind seer, and doubtless his later work was influenced by his blindness, as when he speaks of “God, who with such splendid irony granted me books and blindness at one touch.” In reality, though, his best work was produced before his sight failed, and his later stories, while often remarkable, wouldn’t be read at all if it weren’t for these early masterpieces. (It’s remarkable, and humbling, to note that the most famous stories we associate with Borges, the ones published in Ficciones, were written over a period of less than five years in his early thirties.)

And as much as Borges is now defined by his blindness, it’s hard to see it as anything but a tremendous loss. For one thing, he had worked as a film critic for over a decade, and while we have memorable accounts of him doing to the movies after he lost his sight—he went to see West Side Story multiple times—one wishes that he had been able to write, for instance, about the later Hitchcock. And as an author whose work was defined largely by his engagement with books, the loss of the ability to read could only result, as it in fact did, in the more circumscribed quality of his later stories. Borges’s earlier fictions, with their engagement with Pascal’s sphere, with Zeno’s paradox, with The Conference of the Birds, have a wonderful serendipity of influence that his blindness eventually denied him. A blind author can do many things, but except in a limited way, he no longer has the ability to browse.

The relationship between a writer and his own senses is a fascinating problem. Some writers, of course, suffer from inordinately keen or unusual perceptions; Nabokov, for one, wrote at length about his synesthesia. Yet it’s unclear whether good eyesight or other forms of perception would confer any advantage in what writers do for a living: the inner refinement of outward experience. Exceptionally vivid senses might even hinder the imagination. In On Directing Film, David Mamet makes fun, and rightly so, of a critic who expressed surprise that an author might try to become a screenwriter while blind: “One does not have to be able to see to write films,” Mamet notes; “one has to be able to imagine.” And that’s true of all kinds of writing. Even if you don’t believe in the tradition of the blind Homer, the examples of Milton, Huxley, and others speak for themselves. As Huxley’s brother Julian wrote:

I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking up medicine as a career…His uniqueness lay in his universalism. He was able to take all knowledge for his province.

As for me, I’m hardly a model of sensory perception: my eyes are as bad as you might expect, given a lifetime of reading, and I’m pretty sure that my other senses are below average. (I have no taste for wine, for instance.) At times, I wonder if this means I’ve chosen the wrong career. But the thing about writing is that it forces you to see better than you normally can. You’re constantly thinking about all five senses, and when you’re in the zone, hungry for material, everything around you seems vivid and relevant, which strikes me as the best kind of hyperesthesia. In my own case, I usually feel this way only for a few weeks at a time, when my work is really cooking, and if I have any goal as a writer, it’s to get to the point I’m living this way all the time, as I imagine Nabokov did. I’m hoping, in other words, to will myself into the world of senses. And maybe then I’ll know what it means to use my eyes at last.

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2012 at 9:34 am

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