True Truth

I’ve been watching the 1971 BBC adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1936 novel Eyeless In Gaza.

Every episode starts with the sight of a slow grinding wheel, and the sparse, mournful theme music composed by Richard Holmes, with stabs of menacing notes at the end.

A problem with adapting Eyeless In Gaza is that the novel is split into 54 fairly short chapters, which jump back and to between events occurring from 1902 to 1935. There is an overall plot and the characters develop, but we encounter them through “snapshots”, and that structuring image is planted in the opening chapter in which Anthony Beavis is looking through his old photographs, in 1933, before the great dramas that change his outlook on life.

This adaptation by Robin Chapman solves the difficulties by essentially making the story linear, from that first chapter to the final one, and only using a few strategic flashbacks, signalled by a brief freeze in the 1930s present frame and then a jump to 1914 or whenever. The earliest parts of the chronology – the scenes with Anthony and Mark Staithes, Brian Foxe and Hugh Ledwidge together at Bulstrode prep school around 1902, and all of Anthony’s mother’s funeral – are mostly omitted, with only 2 scenes remaining, inserted one each in the first and last episodes. There are many casualties amongst the secondary characters, with Anthony’s family reduced to one scene with his elderly dad. The old queen Beppo Bowles only gets one brief speech lamenting his life, and we lose all his enthusiasm for the gay bars of Weimar-era Berlin.

Losing the school scenes means we don’t need to get child actors struggling with dialogue for Edwardian proto-intellectuals cramming their Latin grammar to get their scholarships to Eton. It also avoids the problem that the school chapters are quite frank about what public school life was like, as Huxley took advantage of more relaxed attitudes about what was acceptable in print. In Antic Hay (1923) there had been a slight allusion to adolescent boys having crushes on each other, but in Eyeless In Gaza they are bantering about farting, masturbation, excrement, as well as being snobbish little shits generally. But the timeshifts still require the adult actors to be aged appropriately. Here, the production cheats terribly: only Adrienne Corri has to put on an awful makeup job to show how Mary Amberley in 1930 is just a haggard old wreck of the beauty of 1914.

However it saves effort on cosmetics for Ian Richardson and Lynn Farleigh to look like slightly younger versions of Anthony Beavis and Helen Amberley by just not having their faces in shot during those particular flashbacks. It gets the job done. Obviously it wouldn’t be made that way in a 21st century version, but then we wouldn’t be filming most of it on interior studio sets with 2 cameras either. Special visual effects would now be used to give an actor an apparent amputated leg, rather than the old theatrical trick of having him hitch up the bottom half behind the top.

The story is reorganised into 5 episodes of around 45 minutes. Each has been assigned a title that is a line from Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which was also the origin of the title of the original novel (but the novel did not use the episode titles): “Eyeless in Gaza, at the Mill with slaves”. The extra lines are: “O Dark, Dark, Dark Amid The Blaze Of Noon”, “With inward eyes illuminated”, “Come, come, no time for lamentation now”, “All is best, though we oft doubt” and “And calm of mind, all passion spent”.

Episode 1 starts with that scene of Beavis sorting through his snapshots. He is a gentleman amateur intellectual of the rentier class, with a Double First in Greats from Oxford, and now devoting his life to a treatise to be called Elements Of Sociology. He was lucky to avoid war service due to injuries caused by a “country bumpkin” having an accident with a grenade during his training.

Whilst sunbathing with Helen Ledwidge on the roof of his villa in the south of France, the couple are shocked when a dog is thrown from a low-flying aircraft, splattering them with blood. We never find out why that incident occurred but of course it is a fine symbol of the horrors of the world intruding on the idle rich.

Anthony is haunted by memories of his old schoolfriend Brian Foxe, who killed himself by jumping off a cliff back in 1914.

As the flashbacks unwind later, we discover he has a bad conscience about Brian’s death, which was recorded as an accident. Anthony concealed the suicide note, written when Brian discovered Anthony had had an affair with his girlfriend Joan. Anthony was encouraged to try it on with Joan by the malign old witch Mary Amberley, a soulless hedonist who ends up broke, lonely and addicted to morphine, living in squalor in Paris.

Back in London, Helen is angry at her tiresome husband Hugh Ledwidge, a dried-up stick who was very lucky to catch her when she was keen on learning from a bookish man. Now he’s written a novel about their marriage and she turns up at the launch party to scream at all the awful men, and read out loud a letter from Anthony. Watching cynically at the side is Mark Staithes, another of Anthony’s old chums, played by Michael Gambon.

Staithes was a horrendous snob at Bulstrode – he only sat the exam for the “beastly schol” to get in to Eton because it was family tradition and all that – but he turned to the Left, and competed with Brian Foxe to lead the Fabian Society at Oxford, before having a phase as an actual Communist. He is now quite ahead of his time, already being disillusioned with the bureaucratic oppression of the USSR by the early 30s.

Helen can’t stand these phonies, spouting cliches about the spiritual wonders of Art, and quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, which just makes her gag. She is taken up with the émigré German Communist Ekki Giesebrecht, who has had to flee his country after the Nazi takeover. Mussolini and Hitler are well-known dangers in this world. I don’t think Stalin is mentioned, though the original novel features Anthony musing at start of 1935 that “For English Catholics, sacraments are the psychological equivalents of tractors in Russia.”

Under Ekki’s influence Helen becomes a Marxist and sees through the ideological deceptions of Anthony and his decadent liberal bourgeois culture. Meanwhile Mark Staithes has persuaded Anthony to join him in a jaunt to Mexico. Mark was managing a farm out there for a while, and heard about a landowner who refused to give his estates away to the revolutionaries. The landowner’s family were all killed and he has been brooding for revenge, which he can now get with a coup against the President. He needs the Englishman to come out and help him. I suppose Staithes needs a spare pair of hands but it’s still quite unclear how he’s expecting to swing the balance of forces. Despite all the chatter about political philosophy and the Machiavellian realities, these 2 gentlemen amateurs really are ludicrously out of their depth even by their own standards. But they’re too busy brooding about what Shakespeare meant to notice.

Mark falls off his horse and the injury on his leg turns gangrenous. Anthony has to voyage off to find the local doctor, James Miller. Miller amputates the leg as well as chattering about life and religion and the world (in the book he’s a bit sharper with Anthony, chastising him to buck up and be useful during the operation).

Back in Blighty, Beavis is now a transformed man who wants to preach his new Gospel of radical pacifism and life-changing resolutions to become a better person. However it’s hard to convince angry young lefties, especially the ones that Helen knows in the Party. They’re furious at the British working class for singing hymns and showing a lack of revolutionary potential during the General Strike.

Helen herself is quite sad and disillusioned now that Ekki got kidnapped by the Nazis after being lured to a meeting in Switzerland. The final one and a half episodes are taken up with Anthony’s activities in trying to get a pacifist movement underway (obviously mirroring Huxley’s involvement with the Peace Pledge Union). In the book this part is presented as a diary he keeps since returning to Britain, and Robin Chapman has had to expand on the material as it is very heavy on discursive chatter and internal philosophizing, with not much incident directly described. The encounter with the young Communists is only a short paragraph lamenting that they seemed to be so keen on “liquidating” their class enemies; also the appearance of “A GROUP OF PATRIOTIC ENGLISHMEN” who wanted to put down this unpatriotic movement is only mentioned in the final chapter, but here we see them observing, gathering, and plotting, before the final (off screen) confrontation, and it is indicated here that they are Mosleyites.

Mosley is not mentioned explicitly on screen or in the book, though Huxley was certainly aware of the potential for such a figure. In his earlier novel Point Counter Point (1928) there is a movement called the Brotherhood of British Freemen, who wear green shirts and are led by former Cabinet Minister Everard Webley. When anyone reads this in later decades the obvious assumption is that this is a Mosley parody, but in fact it predates Oswald’s career change by a few years. In all the talk about Brave New World as a “prophetic novel” it’s overlooked that Huxley did get one prophecy right.

Ian Richardson’s performance is a perfect rendition of a detached, selfish intellect, disgusted at the stupidity and cruelty of the world but keeping his emotions under tight control. The tone is already present for Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a few years later (“You know what’s killing the West, George? Constipation.” etc.) In fact Haydon would have been aware of this book, up at Oxford at the end of the 30s. Huxley would be the sort of character Smiley described as a “flabby liberal” when recalling his meeting with Karla; Haydon would agree but decided to take the other side of the closing arguments.

This is a story of polyglots travelling around the world. Most of the dialogue is in English, of a very polysyllabic, structured kind, with plenty of allusions that do not come with footnotes. The moments of Latin do not have translations either, unless Anthony is speaking in earshot of Helen. French, German and Spanish are also spoken without any subtitling, but the audience can just about follow.

Like all of Huxley’s novels – not just the very famous one – Eyeless In Gaza was in print for a long time as a Penguin Modern Classic, but it fell off their list, and there seems to be a prevailing wisdom that nobody reads the other novels nowadays, or at least they don’t need to or shouldn’t do. Brigid Brophy took a swipe at Point Counter Point in Fifty Works Of Literature We Could Do Without, which was mostly sneering at Aldous for being a too-clever 6th form essay writer, not a great line to take in a book which itself just contains examples of too-clever 6th form bad reviewing. Maybe a PR problem these novels have is just that they were written in English, about characters who had nearly all backgrounds identifiable as privileged British lives by British readers outside of that world. If only they were about the fading Austrian aristocracy, and Vienna was substituted for London, then contemporary British critics could be solemnly respectful about these pages and pages of musings about the universe, and what Spinoza and Kant had to say about the place of human lives and choices within it. The trouble with Beavis is that the people who write about books in newspapers nowadays probably met someone like him at Oxford.

The criticism started early, with Cyril Connolly complaining in Enemies Of Promise that Huxley had “squandered his gifts” as a writer by sliding in to cliches in order to move his characters about; that as an intellectual he was more at home with ideas than people. “How hard to admit that a man can use clichés and yet be intelligent!” wondered Anthony Beavis on April 5th 1934, well in advance of this judgement. Connolly did his own parody of Eyeless, “Told In Gath”, in which a group of Aldousian fictional creatures gather for a pot-smoking session mixed with highbrow chatter, and hardly notice the end of the world they’re causing. Cyril was himself being frightfully clever with that title, from 2 Samuel 1:20, for which the full KJV source is: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.” But who is hurt most by the parody? The sniggering young parodist expresses the outlook that Huxley had grown out of many years earlier. He was now writing characters who could look back in sadness and lamentation at all that youthful affected cynicism. The sense of a world in crisis, that needs the effete liberals to get engaged with, is already being described in Eyeless 2 years before Connolly (also living in the south of France) was handwringing about the Spanish Civil War.

The charge that Huxley could only relate to ideas is hard to contest since on the face of it it is clearly untrue. He had an active non-academic life, he had a family, he earned a living from a variety of writing, including later Hollywood scriptwriting. Intellectuals in his novels are typically incomplete, foolish people, and right from his earliest novels there is a self-consciousness that the cynicism is a pose or a performance, usually playing to an older (and usually female) audience who take it as entertainment. Huxley’s anti-heroes never make a fortune from underestimating the masses; even the controlling minds of the Fordist future state are trapped in the boxes they have created. In Antic Hay Gumbril gets a lecture on the methods of modern advertising by an expert, whose advice is to pitch for the middle market, and offer faux-sophistication to consumers insecure about how smart they are. Perhaps the truly cynical strain in Huxley is that he saw himself working that game, at least with some of the essays he contracted to produce at a steady rate through the 1920s. All those collections with titles like Along The Road and Proper Studies and the anthology Texts And Pretexts, cited in passing by Connolly as one of the ways in which the youthful promise was wasted.

The voice of Huxley in those essays certainly plays up an image of the detached thinker viewing the world in a day trip away from his library. But that is precisely the sort of character he could describe in stories like “After The Fireworks” or “The Rest Cure”, a personality as a literary brand. The ideas he expressed were distinct from others on the market: not religious or uplifting, but not scornful or proudly rationalist either. The 12 essays of Do What You Will (1929) could and were put in a pocket-sized edition of this world-view. Here Huxley stakes the position of the sceptical humanist, who accepts the insights of Darwin and Russell and others, but is not concerned to discard the entire heritage of religion and the art it may have inspired. Science can’t and shouldn’t try to rule over metaphysics, and we should reconstruct the philosophies of the past as expressions of individual psychologies. The intellectual failing of the religious zealot is his demand for “consistency” (also a flaw of the too-certain non-believer), failing to grasp the multiplicity of human responses to the world. Huxley instead commends the goal of “harmony”, and the real charge to be put against the religious life is that it stultifies and perverts human material. The quest for certain foundations is a futile one, since none are available and in any case they could not do the work of founding ethics and aesthetics. Instead we should accept the plurality of idioms and not bother about any form of reductionism. “Truth” is a trick-word used by churchmen.

As Anthony wonders, whilst sunbathing:

The thirty-five years of his conscious life made themselves immediately known to him as a chaos—a pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic. And who decided which snapshots were to be kept, which thrown away? A frightened or libidinous animal, according to the Freudians. But the Freudians were victims of the pathetic fallacy, incorrigible rationalizers always in search of sufficient reasons, of comprehensible motives. Fear and lust are the most easily comprehensible motives of all. Therefore . . . But psychology had no more right to be anthropomorphic, or even exclusively zoomorphic, than any other science.

He was never exactly Anthony Beavis, but rather Beavis is a way to think around the changes needed in the years after 1929, when all good men need to get engaged in making the world better. This outlook, far from being too engaged with ideas, is instead open to the charge of shallowness, not caring about the big ideas and big questions enough. Aesthetic experience is primary, and all those paintings of the Holy Family are just too good to discard because of any concerns about their ideological meanings.

‘MacTaggart knows his personality by direct acquaintance; others by description. Hume and Bradley don’t know theirs at all, and don’t believe it really exists. Mere splitting, all this, of a bald man’s imaginary hairs. What matters is that “Personality” happens to be a common word with a generally accepted meaning.

There are plenty of times in his novels when emotions and intimations are more important than ideas. The description of Anthony’s mother’s funeral, ending with father and son alone together, and then distracted by the sight of birds going by. “[H]e saw one of the grey birds come swooping down, out of the sky, towards the bridge; nearer, nearer; then it leaned, it swerved away to the left, gleamed for a moment, transfigured, and was gone.” A moment with a feeling of significance, but no rational significance. Although Freud is rejected, the notion of images and motifs clotting together life experiences and trauma underlies the brutally dense description of Helen’s pregnancy and abortion in chapter 39, which is passed over very quickly and elliptically in the adaptation.

Connolly himself passed along a journey to writing The Unquiet Grave within a few years. One of his other judgments in Enemies Of Promise was on Evelyn Waugh: that in his early books he “found things funny because he did not understand them”. That could have been his line to take against Huxley; but in Huxley’s early novels it is always the uncomprehending cynic who is the ironic target.

Huxley liked Waugh’s early novels, but he had a base view of the motivations of English Catholic converts. As well as the comparison of them to Stalinists, there is Anthony’s memory of his lonely Uncle James and his sad secret:

He shook his head mournfully; but the old, tired eyes had brightened with an irrepressible light. ‘Poor James!’ He sighed. ‘We hadn’t seen one another much these last years. Not since his conversion. How did he do it? It beats me. A Catholic—he of all people . . .’

Anthony said nothing. But after all, he was thinking, it wasn’t so surprising. The poor old thing had grown up as a Bradlaugh atheist. Ought to have been blissfully happy, parading his cosmic defiance, his unyielding despair. But he had had the bad luck to be a homosexual at a time when one couldn’t avow it even to oneself. In-growing pederasty—it had poisoned his whole life. Had turned that metaphysical and delightfully Pickwickian despair into real, common or garden misery. Misery and neurasthenia; the old man had been half mad, really. (Which hadn’t prevented him from being a first-rate actuary.) Then, during the war, the clouds had lifted. One could be kind to wounded soldiers—be kind pro patria and with a blameless conscience. Anthony remembered Uncle James’s visits to him in hospital. He had come almost every day. Loaded with gifts for a dozen adopted nephews as well as for the real one. On his thin, melancholy face there had been, in those days, a perpetual smile. But happiness never lasts. The armistice had come; and, after those four years in paradise, hell had seemed blacker than ever. In 1923 he had turned papist. It was only to be expected.

But Mr Beavis simply couldn’t understand. The idea of James surrounded by Jesuits, James bobbing up and down at Mass, James going to Lourdes with his inoperable tumour, James dying with all the consolations of religion—it filled him with horrified amazement.

Waugh went on to write his own novel of an ageing cynic having a transformation, at least that’s how we are instructed to read it. I read Brideshead Revisited in the same summer as Eyeless In Gaza, long ago, but only one of them convinced me as a story of a man awakening from a blindness in his soul; the other is about a terrible prig who takes up the terrible Spectator spirituality of feeling giddiness near Gothic architecture. That is too close to the Crowleyite neopagan yearning for the hidden powers, secret knowledge, ancient lore… not the rock of any faith. It is as much a novel of ideas as Eyeless, but they are unexamined and not very good ones, nodding at the rise of Franco and his allies and overlooking the evil that they do. It is the later Sword Of Honour trilogy that was Waugh’s mature work.

The flaw in Beavis is he is not responding to the drive that brings these memories back to him: the need for forgiveness and atonement for the bad that he did to Brian Foxe. But his meditations do not lead him to any orthodox religion because that would be simply beside the point: just another version of the story about the whirling particles setting an inscrutable hidden pattern in the universe. Modern science does not offer a better replacement for ideas of providence, but the old ones were not much good for answering the unanswerable silence of the world. What remains is the clear goodness of the hopeless naïve hearts of Brian’s christian socialism, and Ekki’s Marxism, both led to disaster by hoping for too much in others. The vision is clear even in the midst of all the great tomes. The scene makes it in the TV version, but it cuts the crucial details, and has Anthony reading Sorel rather than The Way Of Perfection Of St. Teresa, and insisting that he respects the truth of mysticism against the simple-minded politics of legislating humans to be perfect:

‘But if you w-want to be f-free, you’ve g-got to be a p-prisoner. It’s the c-condition of freedom—t-true freedom.’

‘True freedom!’ Anthony repeated in the parody of a clerical voice. ‘I always love that kind of argument. The contrary of a thing isn’t the contrary; oh, dear me, no! It’s the thing itself, but as it truly is. Ask a diehard what conservatism is; he’ll tell you it’s true socialism. And the brewers’ trade papers; they’re full of articles about the beauty of True Temperance. Ordinary temperance is just a gross refusal to drink; but true temperance, true temperance is something much more refined. True temperance is a bottle of claret with each meal and three double whiskies after dinner. Personally, I’m all for true temperance, because I hate temperance. But I like being free. So I won’t have anything to do with true freedom.’

‘Which doesn’t p-prevent it from being t-true freedom,’ the other obstinately insisted.

‘What’s in a name?’ Anthony went on. ‘The answer is, practically everything, if the name’s a good one. Freedom’s a marvellous name. That’s why you’re so anxious to make use of it. You think that, if you call imprisonment true freedom, people will be attracted to the prison. And the worst of it is you’re quite right. The name counts more with most people than the thing. They’ll follow the man who repeats it most often and in the loudest voice. And of course “True Freedom” is actually a better name than freedom tout court. Truth—it’s one of the magical words. Combine it with the magic of “freedom” and the effect’s terrific.’ After a moment’s silence, ‘Curious,’ he went on, digressively and in another tone, ‘that people don’t talk about true truth. I suppose it sounds too queer. True truth; true truth,’ he repeated experimentally. ‘No, it obviously won’t do…

The picture in the banner at the top is the Christian Schad painting from 1920s Berlin that was on the cover of the old Panther edition I read:

This old Penguin has a sketch of the scene where young Helen steals a kidney from a butcher’s shop, not included in the adaptation:

The first edition made it clear from the start that this was all about the problem of freedom:

The modern day Huxley is of course Edward St Aubyn.

4 thoughts on “True Truth

  1. What a wonderful review! Thanks very much.

    Dunno if you know Beyond the Mexique Bay, but I think that was my favorite book of Huxley essays. Re the novels, I think Eyeless is probably his best, though I also love Point Counterpoint, Antic Hay, Chrome Yellow, and Those Barren Leaves. I don’t like any of them much after Time Must Have a Stop (including Brave New World).

    FWIW, I used to teach Grey Eminence in an intro to Ethics class, and of course, Devils of Loudon was worthy of both the Ken Russell movie and the Penderecki opera. Huxley was a treasure–even if Russell’s remark about his memorizing bits from the 1911 Britannica for purposes of dinner confabs was true.

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think “Ends And Means” is his most sustained attempt at a long work on ethics.

    I read Sybille Bedford’s 2 volume biography and there are some parts in there I could have quoted about the impact those mid-30s books had on the lives of younger readers who decided against various conventional careers. It also has moments about eg. when Huxley met James Joyce. His comment on Joyce (“he thought language was omnipotent”) is questionable but it’s certainly his attitude towards “the linguistic turn”, and the character of Anthony’s dad in Eyeless summarises that kind of intellectualism.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had the occasion, in connection with one of my “Hornbook” democracy reviews at 3:16 AM Magazine, to look at Ways and Means again for the first time in many years. The only chapter that did much for me this time around was the one on group v. crowd behavior. But that is indeed a terrific chapter. (And, tbh, I also haven’t read Mexique Bay in many years, so maybe that wouldn’t hold up for me too well either, but I remember just being knocked out by it.)

    The other thing that now dawns on me is that the (quite possibly awful) title of my 2003 book on mysticism was mostly the fault of “The Perennial Philosophy”–a book that might have been really good with more Isherwood and less Heard.


  4. Finally got my copy of the Bedford biography out. Fun fact: Huxley was in debt to Chatto & Windus at that point and was obliged to put out the book even though he wasn’t completely satisfied with it: “w’d have liked, if it had been possible, to put it aside and look it again in two or three years. Wolves at the door imposed immediate publication and I let it go, feeling uncomfortably in the dark about the whole thing.” But it did well in sales, even though his existing readers weren’t all happy about it.

    According to Bedford, Professor J.M.Tanner (Professor of Child Health at the University of London) told her, about ‘Ends And Means’:

    “A tremendous influence on my actual life. I had been reading Ends And Means at Marlborough at the age of seventeen. Shortly afterwards I had an interview at Woolwich – I come from an Army family, my father had decided… Some elderly military gents were asking questions.
    “What do you read?”
    “Ends And Means, Point Counter Point, Eyeless In Gaza is more serious.”
    “What, no Buchan?”
    “Oh yes. I enjoyed that very much at prep school – stuff for kids.”
    I was flooded by the realization: this won’t do. Wrote to Daddy that night. Then began doing medicine and physics.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s