Apes, éminence grise and soul gazing

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If you were to ask me what is the one thing in the world I couldn’t live without I would say books.

I love books.

They are my friends, my companions, my addiction. I love the way they look with all their different sizes and print types and with their covers and illustrations. I love the way they smell, some are sharp and biting, while others are soft and rich. I love the way they feel under my fingertips; paperbacks with their glossy soft covers and sharp edges, hardbacks with their rough cloth; the raised letters of old printed books; the unevenness of the books whose pages you need to cut open yourself…

But most of all I love the way a book can change you.

There are books that you don’t just read, you feel them, you live them. They affect you so much that years after you’ve read them  you can still remember where you were when you first read them. You remember what you felt like while you were reading them and you especially remember what you felt like after you’d read them. You remember that you had become someone different to that person who opened and read the first page.

I judge my reading years by the number of such books, by how many times I was changed. (This might be a good year.)

Well, this last book I read is one of those books: Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley.

I’d already read Brave New World by Huxley some 4 years ago and I liked it. It wasn’t a book that would make me go “wow, I have to read more of his books immediately,” but it was very good. And it had some good quotes:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

And even after finishing Brave New World I had felt like reading more of Huxley’s books, Ape and Essence wouldn’t necessarily be the next one on my list (mainly because I have Point Counterpoint on my bookshelf). It is the 9th on the goodreads list of Huxley’s works and the plot itself isn’t something that would make me go “I gotta read this now.” You know what I mean, it’s just another post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, nothing new there.

But last week a friend mentioned it as a very good book. We’d had a bit to drink by that point but I seem to remember him saying that he’d read it a couple of times and this made me curious.

I am a firm believer that you can learn a lot about a person by reading their favourite books (especially those they’d read more than once) and I wanted to see what this new friend is like. So, I found the book and read it. It took me 2 days to read some 60 pages, and then one morning to read the remaining 160 pages.

The book is weird, and I mean really weird, but good weird. I don’t mean just in the textual sense where it begins like any other novel and then transforms into a screenplay. I mean the plot, the characters…

The plot of the screenplay is a fairly simple one – following a nuclear holocaust a group of scientists sets off on an expedition and they come across a society which is very very different from their (normal) society. But however much this plot is set in the “future” it is also very reflective of both Huxley’s present and our present. Reading the description of the mores of that society today seems almost prophetic at times.

It is a society which believes at its core that the war that destroyed most of the world, the destruction people brought on to themselves, is all the proof one needs that the Darkness has defeated God (which ever god, I feel like it doesn’t really matter here). It is a society where a small group of people rule over the rest of the population. Where the majority of the population is kept in practical servitude to the state and the mores. Where each individual is treated like just another clog in the machine. Where the emotions are discouraged. Where physical pleasure is allowed only within strict guidelines defined by the ruling elite. Where physical traits that step too much outside the “normal” are seen as demonic and detrimental to the society. And where women are seen as incubators and as the root of all evil.

Any of this ring a bell?

“Not a shot had been fired and civilization was already in ruins. Why the soldiers ever found it necessary to use their bombs, I really can’t imagine.”

In addition to this, there is Huxley’s writing. There are moments when he gives you such beauty only to then replace it with the cruelest of humanity.

“Night seems to linger in the darkness of an almost unruffled sea; but from the fringes of the sky a transparent pallor mounts from green through deepening blue to the zenith.”

He makes you question yourself all the time. Question your own humanity, your own soul.

“Cruelty and compassion come with the chromosomes; All men are merciful and all are murderers. Doting on dogs, they build their Dachaus.”

When you look at the world today, with the idiots making money, with the aristocracy of morons running the governments, with the éminence grise pulling the strings, have things changed that much since 1948?

He says that fear is what is in all of us and what makes us what we are now. Love is strong, it can cast out fear, but you really gotta work at it.

“Love casts out fear; but conversely fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth. What remains in the bum or studiedly jocular desperation of one who is aware of the obscene Presence in the corner of the room and knows that the door is locked, that there aren’t any windows.  […] in the end fear casts out even a man’s humanity. And fear, my good friends, fear is the very basis and foundation of modern life. Fear of the much touted technology which, while it raises out standard of living, increases the probability of our violently dying. Fear of the science which takes away the one hand even more than what it so profusely gives with the other. Fear of the demonstrably fatal institutions for while, in our suicidal loyalty, we are ready to kill and die. Fear of the Great Men whom we have raised, and by popular acclaim, to a power which they use, inevitably, to murder and enslave us. Fear of the war we don’t want yet do everything we can to bring about.”

The ending of the book might surprise you, but just go with it, don’t fight it. And if you can, read the book again, I plan to, but not this year, maybe next year when the things have settled a bit.

Oh, and there’s angst (for my angst-loving friends):

“But you’d give everything in the world just for five minutes, to be free for five minutes.”

And now it’s time to say good night.

“Sleeping, we cease to live that we may be lived (how blessedly!) by some nameless Other who takes this opportunity to restore the mind to sanity and bring healing to the abused and self-tormented body.”

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