Huxley’s primary thematic concern in his fiction is with the ramifications of humanness: what the authentic human values are, what lifestyles humans should adopt, and what type of society or world humans should create. He is particularly concerned, in that context, with the issue of modernist alienation and isolation in a complex scientific and technological society that, particularly in 1928 and 1932 (the respective dates of publication of his two most important novels, Point Counter Point and Brave New World), was in great upheaval because of the economic problems of capitalism that were all too evident. As a humanist in the classical and Renaissance sense of a broadly educated and talented person with a devotion to improving life on earth, Huxley particularly focuses upon the psychological effects of twentieth century life, of a life of nonstop action as it shapes human attitudes toward love, material possessions, and political structures, but especially as it affects the personal balance and happiness of individual human beings. If humans were not happier in the twentieth century than in the past (and Huxley firmly believed that they were not), then why not? Where did they err and lose the normal human balance of intellect and emotion, body and soul, love and hate, self-concern and concern for others—all the balances involved in being naturally adjusted and contented?
Implicit in such an assumption of balanced “naturalness” is the Romantic conception of humans living in harmony with nature, with all of the created, living world, and thus with themselves. Such a Goetheian Romantic stance inevitably led Huxley to be critical of science and technology and of any positive human future based upon such products of the rational side of human beings. Hence, Huxley continuously presents the scientist as a threat and his creations, his machines, as a similar danger because they control those who use them. The use of machines is implicitly connected to corrupted values in Point Counter Point and Brave New World, for example. In the former, this theme is depicted in Lucy Tantamount’s fascination with airplanes and fast travel as a way to avoid real emotion in relationships, as a way to speed to a new and superficial love relationship. Hence, Lucy deserts Walter Bidlake because he is too caring: too deep in his attachments, too unlike the mechanistic superficiality and temporariness and rapid pace of Lucy’s modern life. Similarly, machines in Brave New World adversely affect the normal freedom and balance and harmony in life; for example, mechanical birth processes that allow the creation of perfectly planned, robotic humans who are further controlled by science-created soma, a drug for pleasure and distraction that deprives humans of the pain and suffering that motivate thought and questioning, and thus intellectual development. The result is an acceptance of controlled, thoughtless, superficial lives that lack both emotional depth and intellectual attainment.
It was this kind of presentation of science and technology that led H. G. Wells, the positivist science-fiction writer, to write a letter to Huxley damning him for treason to science after Brave New World was published. Such presentation also led to Huxley’s being criticized for cynicism, with many critics not wanting to, or at any rate failing to, note the real human potential for success implicit in both Point Counter Point and Brave New World. Those successes include the balanced-living Mark and Mary Rampion in the former (who do their own housework, read and discuss ideas, and live emotionally and fully, as well) and Bernard and Helmholtz in the latter.
There are also unbalanced and tragic characters in Huxley’s novels, characters who embody Huxley’s ideas about flaws in human development, flaws that lead to unnaturalness and psychological aberration. The purpose of these characters in Huxley’s novels of ideas is to illustrate the causative forces of psychological aberration, such as Spandrell’s unnatural closeness to his mother, which causes him to hate her, himself, and everyone else when she remarries. He is led to murder as a product of his hate-filled imbalance. Such scenes merely illustrate one type of human perversion and do not indicate the cynical views of the author.
More justified criticisms of Huxley’s novels are that the concern with ideas is so pervasive that characterization is often limited to speeches and dialogue as a way to present ideas, and that plot unity is often lacking because too many characters are used to represent the mélange of ideas involved. However, both Point Counter Point and Brave New World present positive, hopeful ideas as well as negative ones, as Huxley conveys his messages about the need for more human psychological balance and for more skeptical analysis of the “advancements” in science and technology.
Point Counter Point
First published: 1928
Type of work: Novel
In early twentieth century England, a range of...
(The entire section is 2093 words.)
Time and the Machine by Aldous Huxley (1936)Time, as we know it, is a very recent invention. The modern time-sense is hardly older than the United States. It is a by-product of industrialism - a sort of psychological analogue of synthetic perfumes and aniline dyes.
Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specified periods, records to be broken by fractions of a second, machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with. Our consciousness of the smallest units of time is now acute. To us, for example, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance - did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time.1 [emphasis mine]
Another time-emphasizing entity is the factory and its dependent, the office. Factories exist for the purpose of getting certain quantities of goods made in a certain time. The old artisan worked as it suited him with the result that consumers generally had to wait for the goods they had ordered from him. The factory is a device for making workmen hurry. The machine revolves so often each minute; so many movements have to be made, so many pieces produced each hour. Result: the factory worker (and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the office worker) is compelled to know time in its smallest fractions. In the hand-work age there was no such compulsion to be aware of minutes and seconds.
Our awareness of time has reached such a pitch of intensity that we suffer acutely whenever our travels take us into some corner of the world where people are not interested in minutes and seconds. The unpunctuality of the Orient, for example, is appalling to those who come freshly from a land of fixed meal-times and regular train services. For a modern American or Englishman, waiting is a psychological torture. An Indian accepts the blank hours with resignation, even with satisfaction. He has not lost the fine art of doing nothing. Our notion of time as a collection of minutes, each of which must be filled with some business or amusement, is wholly alien to the Oriental, just as it was wholly alien to the Greek. For the man who lives in a pre-industrial world, time moves at a slow and easy pace; he does not care about each minute, for the good reason that he has not been made conscious of the existence of minutes.3
This brings us to a seeming paradox.2 Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time - of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines - industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.
Industrialism and urbanism have changed all this. One can live and work in a town without being aware of the daily march of the sun across the sky; without ever seeing the moon and stars. Broadway and Piccadilly are our Milky Way; out constellations are outlined in neon tubes. Even changes of season affect the townsman very little. He is the inhabitant of an artificial universe that is, to a great extent, walled off from the world of nature. Outside the walls, time is cosmic and moves with the motion of sun and stars. Within, it is an affair of revolving wheels and is measured in seconds and minutes - at its longest, in eight-hour days and six-day weeks. We have a new consciousness; but it has been purchased at the expense of the old consciousness.