Friday, 18 August 2000

Aldous Huxley: Eyeless in Gaza (1936)

Edition: Penguin, 1955
Review number: 579

The title of this novel refers to the Biblical story of Samson. Having told Delilah the secret of his strength - that it depended on his hair remaining uncut - Samson was betrayed to his enemies the Philistines, and taken with a shorn head to be a slave in their city of Gaza. Blinded to make him harmless, he was forgotten until brought before the crowd on a feast day. By then his hair had regrown, and even blind he was able to pull down the temple on the heads of the celebrating Philistines (and kill himself at the same time).

This story may not seem immediately relevant to Huxley's novel, which is about the confused arguments of thirties intellectuals, mainly left wing, and the events which shaped their ideas. This is particularly the case when we remember that the novel was published several years before the Second World War broke out, so that the war cannot be seen as the bringing down of the temple unless we credit Huxley with an uncanny gift for accurate prophecy. (Additionally, Samson deliberately brought down the building to destroy others, and this cannot be said of the origins of the Second World War in the political debates of the thirties.)

The real meaning of the title must be a pointer to the way in which the characters in the novel think that they are doing something new and revolutionary, something that will destroy the outdated society around them. This would of course give it an ironic twist, since Huxley must have been aware that this feeling was shared by the radical intellectuals of every generation and of every political viewpoint.

The novel is centred around Anthony Beavis, and tells the story of his life by picking out the important events in the development of his personality, from the death of his mother during his childhood onwards. The arrangement of these events is not chronological, but parallel - dated chapters, like entries in a diary, are arranged so that the significant events are revealed together, alternating between the different periods of Beavis' life. Some days have several chapters - a description of a party in 1926 occupies six of them - and the main concentration is on the period from autumn 1932 to spring 1935, which sees Beavis involved in an uprising in Central America and in public speaking for the pacifist movement.

An oblique connection is made between the events of the novel and the First World War. One of the most important sequences of events, which leads up to the suicide of one of Beavis' closest friends, takes place in July 1914 between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the declaration of war on Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This war was of course the one which entailed the self-destruction of the former world order, as the major colonial powers tore themselves apart. The War itself is hardly mentioned directly; Beavis' part in it was minor and overshadowed by the suicide.

The clear symbolic nature of this event leads one to look for connections between historical events and other important turning points in the novel. The most prominent of these are accompanied by two of the most repulsive descriptions in modern literature. The end of an affair between Beavis and Helen Elberley is caused by her repulsion when a dog falls from an aeroplane onto the house where they are staying, covering them in blood; and the revolution in Latin Anerica causes another old friend of Beavis', Mark Staithes, to lose a leg when a wound becomes gangrenous. (Other important moments are the abduction of Helen's later lover, the Communist agitator Ekki Giesebrecht, by Nazi agents in Switzerland, and the final event of the novel, in which Beavis goes to speak at a pacifist meeting in the fact of death threats.)

None of these events actually coincides with important dates in the history of the thirties, as far as I can tell, but they certainly have a symbolic air about them, particularly the dead dog. Whatever the meaning of these events individually, taken together they symbolise the ferment of the thirties, the opposition between political extremes (communism/fascism, pacifism/militarism) that was eventually resolved by the war.

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