My recent beginning reads – Martin Amis’s ‘Vintage Amis’ recommended by a friend in law class, George Orwell, Kathleen Tessaro, and Aldous Huxley amongst othera.
It was so nice to find another book lover in law class, who similarly loves Kundera and could remember intricate little details so fondly, and speaks of books at Portobello market as most precious in his time in London. In America (he did a masters in law at NYU), K also would ship back whole boxes of books at any one time back to Singapore, and reads on art history and other works. A little of him reminds me of Will, and I did forget to mention him to you Irving, but I was too occupied with your descriptions of macabre friendships and bloody porcupine shirts! Please read Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and do barbaric yawps with me over the rooftops over the world!
Personally, I don’t purchase books as much, as I do finish quite quickly and am quite a dilettante, moving on to the next fad to the next, and how else will I have sufficient space for my dresses and hats! But I do collect some of my favourites, like Roland Barthes, Pico Iyer, Susan Sontag, Milan Kundera, and other treasured biographies and books which have been offered as presents in my life. I do wish I was like K and could collect whole volumes of books at any one time, just like JC’s father’s amazing library of books! I think I would have to depend on my significant other to do the book collecting (so I can read them and have staircase bookshelves). I love the most – when I find little notes of the other’s thoughts in a book, or the lost look people have whilst in the middle of a book – and I loved very much when you had Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim at your bedside Irving (for I could remember, suddenly at once, the joy I had when reading Lord Jim and following his victories and tribulations!)
Everyone knows Aldous Huxley well for ‘Brave New World’ (a must-read, together with George Orwell’s 1984) but most do not know of his other works, most of which have been censured, censored or banned at one time or another. His social satires, and his concern with spiritual and ethical matters reflected the tone and unease of the zeitgeist, captivating his readers with imaginative plots on inflicted apocalypses, both physical and emotional. His books covered a wide range of issues, and he is often known for covering issues in scope, like the accelerating arms race globally in the period of his works, the enormity of the Jewish holocaust, and the impact of rapid deforestation and deforestation. The Devils of Loudon, a compelling psychological study of sexual hysteria in 17th century France, which was subsequently turned into a successful film, appeared in 1952. Evelyn Waugh and other authors often termed Huxley as ‘the gods of their adolescence’.
Towards the end of his life however, I felt his books became much stranger and rather eclectic, containing elements of short-lived but disturbing brilliance (ie. not to be followed). Like Yeats, he acquired new followers in pursuit of the newfangled obsession with drugs and religion, and even suggested in The Doors of Perception (1954) and its sequel, Heaven and Hell (1956) that mescalin and lysergic acid were ‘drugs of unique distiction’ which should be exploited for the ‘supernaturally brilliant’ visionary experiences they offered. The Doors of Perception, in the words of David Bradshaw, is a ‘bewitching account of the inner shangri-la of the mescalin taker, where ‘there is neither work nor monotony’ but only ‘a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse’ where the ‘divine source of all existence’ is evident in a vase of flowers, and even the creases of a pair of trousers’ revealed a ‘labyrinth of endless significant complexity’. The Doors of Perception was a set text for the beat generation and the psychedelic Sixties, earning Huxley a mention on the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.
I think Aldous Huxley’s works will be earning a place on my bookshelf after this book, graduating to the likes of Eliot and Orwell in my personal reading loves barometer, to be read and reread again. Music at Night earns only a short mention as a ‘typically energetic and wide-ranging volume of essays’, but already I love the few which I have read. Here are some excerpts from the first essay, Tragedy and the Whole Truth:
“There were six of them, the best and bravest of the hero companions. Turning back from his post in the bows, Odysseus was in time to see them lifted, struggling, into the air, to hear their screams, the desperate repetition of his own name. The survivors could only look on, helplessly, while Scylla at the mouth of her cave devoured them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands to me in the frightful struggle. And Odysseus adds that it was the most dreadful and lamentable sight he ever saw in all his explorings of the passes of the sea. We can believe it; Homer’s brief description (the too poetical simile is a later interpolation) convinces us. Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their supper prepared it, says Homer, expertly. The twelfth book of the Odyssey concludes with these words: when they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tears sleep came gently upon them. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth how rarely the older literatures ever told it! Bits of the truth, yes; every good book gives us bits of the truth, would not be a good book if it did not. But the whole truth, no. of the great writers of the past incredibly few have given us that. Homer, the Homer of the Odyssey is one of those few. Truth? you question. For example, 2+2=4? or Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837? Or light travels at the rate of 187,000 miles a second? No, obviously, you wont find much of that sort of thing in literature. The truth of which I was speaking just now is in fact no more than an acceptable verisimilitude. When the experiences recorded in a piece of literature correspond fairly closely with our own actual experiences, or with what I may call our potential experience experiences, that is to say, which we feel (as the result of a more or less explicit process of inference from known facts) that we might have had we say, inaccurately no doubt: this piece of writing is true. But this, of course, is not the whole story. The record of a case in a text-book of psychology is scientifically true, in so far as it is an accurate account of particular events. But it might also strike the reader as being true with regard to himselfthat is to say, acceptable, probable, having a correspondence with his own actual or potential experiences. But a text-book of psychology is not a work of artor only secondarily and incidentally a work of art. Mere verisimilitude, mere correspondence of experience recorded by the writer with experience remembered or imaginable by the reader, is not enough to make a work of art seem true. Good art possesses a kind of super-truthis more probable, more acceptable, more convincing than fact itself. Naturally; for the artist is endowed with a sensibility and a power of communication, a capacity to put things across, which events and the majority of people to whom events happen, do not possess. Experience teaches only the teachable, who are by no means as numerous as Mrs. Micawber’s papa’s favorite proverb would lead us to suppose.”
Another part I love, on the same point of tragedy:
“Six men, remember, have been taken and devoured before the eyes of their friends. In any other poem but the Odyssey, what would the survivors have done? They would, of course, have wept, even as Homer made them weep. But would they previously have cooked their supper, and cooked it, what more, in a masterly fashion? Would they previously have drunken and eaten to satiety? And after weeping, or actually while weeping, would they have dropped quietly off to sleep? No, they most certainly would not have done any of these things. They would simply have wept, lamenting their own misfortune and the horrible fate of their companions, and the canto would have ended tragically on their tears. Homer, however, preferred to tell the whole truth. He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat; that hunger is stronger than sorrow and that its satisfaction takes precedence even of tears. He knew that experts continue to act expertly and to find satisfaction in their accomplishment, even when friends have just been eaten, even when the accomplishment is only cooking the supper. He knew that, when the belly is full (and only when the belly is full), men can afford to grieve, and that sorrow after supper is almost a luxury. And finally he knew that, even as hunger takes precedence of grief, so fatigue, supervening, cuts short its career and drowns it in a sleep all the sweeter for bringing forgetfulness of bereavement. In a word, Homer refused to treat the theme tragically. He preferred to tell the whole truth.”
On catharsis and the make-up of tragedy:
“To make a tragedy the artist must isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience and use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something that is separated from the whole truth, distilled from it, so to speak, as an essence is distilled from the living flower. Tragedy is chemically pure. Hence its power to act quickly and intensely on our feelings. All chemically pure art has this power to act upon us quickly and intensely. Thus, chemically pure pornography (on the rare occasions when it happens to be written convincingly, by some one who has the gift of putting things across) is a quick-acting emotional drug of incomparably greater power than the whole truth about sensuality, or even (for many people) than the tangible and carnal reality itself. It is because of its chemical purity that tragedy so effectively performs its function of catharsis. It refines and corrects and gives a style to our emotional life, and does so swiftly, with power. Brought into contact with tragedy, the elements of our being fall, for the moment at any rate, into an ordered and beautiful pattern, as the iron filings arrange themselves under the influence of the magnet. Through all its individual variations, this pattern is always fundamentally of the same kind. From the reading or the hearing of a tragedy we rise with the feeling that our friends are exultations, agonies, and love, and man unconquerable mind; with the heroic conviction that we too would be unconquerable if subjected to the agonies, that in the midst of the agonies we too should continue to love, might even learn to exult. It is because it does these things to us that tragedy is felt to be so valuable. what are the values of wholly-truthful art? What does it do to us that seems worth doing? Let us try to discover. Wholly-truthful art overflows the limits of tragedy and shows us, if only by hints and implications, what happened before the tragic story began, what will happen after it is over, what is happening simultaneously elsewhere (and elsewhere includes all those parts of the minds and bodies of the protagonists not immediately engaged in the tragic struggle). Tragedy is an arbitrarily isolated eddy on the surface of a vast river that flows on majestically, irresistibly, around, beneath, and to either side of it. Wholly-truthful art contrives to imply the existence of the entire river as well as of the eddy. it is quite different from tragedy, even though it may contain, among other constituents, all the elements from which tragedy is made. (The same thing placed in different contexts, loses its identity and becomes, for the perceiving mind, a succession of different things.) In wholly-truthful art the agonies may be just as real, love and the unconquerable mind just as admirable, just as important, as in tragedy.”
I did feel however, his conclusion was a little weak and disappointing, and the lines he drew between tragedy and what he calls the ‘whole truth’ are not as clear. But still I appreciated that refreshing angle on tragedy, and he is a terribly charming writer! Over a smoke and him reading his essay over tea I might just have bought it all (I am a very gullible person, despite being a lawyer, and have a weakness for the Huxleys and Wildes of our world):
“Proust, D. H. Lawrence, André Gide, Kafka, Hemingway – here are five obviously significant and important contemporary writers. five authors as remarkably unlike one another as they could well be. They are at one only in this: that none of them has written a pure tragedy, that all are concerned with the whole truth. I have sometimes wondered whether tragedy, as a form of art, may not be doomed. But the fact that we are still profoundly moved by the tragic masterpieces of the past that we can be moved, against our better judgment, even by the bad tragedies of the contemporary stage and film makes me think that the day of chemically pure art is not over. Tragedy happens to be passing through a period of eclipse, because all the significant writers of our age are too busy exploring the newly discovered, or re-discovered, world of the whole truth to be able to pay any attention to it. But there is no good reason to believe that this state of things will last for ever. Tragedy is too valuable to be allowed to die. There is no reason, after all, why the two kinds of literature the chemically impure and the chemically pure, the literature of the whole truth and the literature of partial truth should not exist simultaneously, each in its separate sphere. The human spirit has need of both.”
ps: Apologies for any mistakes in copying as I typed the above quite quickly and might have missed some parts of grammer, and it is my fault entirely for misrepresenting any particular section. Applies to most of the sections I share, really!