Review: Eyeless in Gaza, Aldous Huxley

 

Eyeless in Gaza is a novel written by the English writer Aldous Huxley in 1936. The story, loosely based on Huxley’s own experiences in life, follows the story of Anthony Beavis, sociologist and intellectual who spends his time among English high society.  The novel is told episodically, out of chronological order, as memories of Anthony’s life act like:

 

‘Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them at random, shuffled once more and dealt them in a different order, again and again, indefinitely. There was no chronology. The idiot remembered no distinction between before and after.’

 

Our story, then, follows Anthony and his fellow idiots through their lives. From 1902 to 1935 we follow them, and through the scope of their eyes we see a bubbling pot of ideologies: the rise of the intellectual as a social figure, women’s issues, the rise of fascism and the Nazi regime, revolutionary fervour and eastern philosophies. These are explored and expounded upon, mainly through Anthony’s diary keeping and conversations at dinners.

 

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The idea of the self is one of the main themes of the novel. Anthony’s opinions move from the self as an emergent fiction of being bodily creatures to the holistic sense of self as being with a body, something fluid and pliable with discipline and perseverance.

 

Before his spiritual awakening and understanding of his Self, Anthony often causes severe problems in his social circle. He continuously exploits and abuses his childhood friend Brian Foxe, cows to the whims of his narcissistic lover Mary Amberley, disdains and rejects the love of Helen Ledwidge, Mary’s daughter, in his later years, and despite the emotional repercussions this inflicts, to the point where his irresponsibility causes a suicide, he justifies his actions through continuous self-justification and disbelief. His obsession with the belief that the Self is just an illusion borne of electrical signals is his justification for his aloofness, implying that you can cause no real damage to a person as there is no person to damage. To Anthony, people are just a phenomena to be studied from a safe emotional distance (this distance being the very thing that causes such tragedy).

 

As his belief in compassion emerges, he makes the following statement, labelling his previous ideology as an unconsciousness:

 

‘Why is one unconscious? Because one hasn’t ever taken the trouble to examine one’s motives; and one doesn’t examine one’s motives, because one’s motives are mostly discreditable. Alternatively, of course, one examines one’s motives, but tells oneself lies about them until one comes to believing that they’re good.’

 

To speak about this more accurately, I would like to employ the term ‘self-schema’. This is a psychological term which is defined as:

 

‘Self-schemas can be formed around a variety of aspects of the self, including social roles, physical appearance, experiences, values, attitudes, and interests  […] Self-schemas are functional cognitive structures that play an important role in what people pay attention to in the environment.’

 

When one is aware of having a self-schema, they are the sort of person who examines their own motives and can tell lies about those motives to remove negativity. Such is Anthony’s situation. However, in the case of his peers, they are truly unconscious, unaware of their own self-schema and how it creates their viewpoint of reality and therefore creates their problems. As a result, none of his peers come to change their relationship to the world. They continually suffer in the same manner throughout the novel.

 

Anthony, though using his knowledge of his self-schema to justify his abhorrent behaviour, eventually learns to use his self-concept to better himself. He begins to notice his own faults and trains himself to overcome them, to be honest, to be sincere. This is something he has been incapable of for most of his life.

 

He is able to do this after meeting Dr. James Miller, a blending of Huxley’s two influences and friends, Dr. James Radclyffe McDonagh, a doctor with the belief that most illnesses and bad outlooks were caused by intestinal problems, and Dr. Frederick Matthias Alexander of the Alexander Technique. Dr Miller is a Scottish doctor who promotes a pacifist revolution and Eastern spirituality in the form of self-overcoming and holistic views of all life, emotions, and compassion.

 

This meeting and Anthony’s openness to Miller’s ideologies is only possible after an episode of sudden compassion and understanding that Helen, his lover, is not just a body to be experienced sensually, but is a complete human being. They are on the roof of Anthony’s house when, in a freak accident, a dog falls from a plane. It lands on the roof, and the impact forces the dogs blood to explode over them, covering them in it. Helen, in shock and horror, begins to sob. Anthony tries to make a joke of it: his usual tactic in stressful or emotional times. However:

 

‘For a moment Anthony stood quite still, looking at her crouched there, in the hopeless abjection of her blood-stained nakedness, listening to the painful sound of her weeping. ‘Like seccotine’: his own words re-ecchoed disgracefully in his ears. Pity stirred within him, and then an almost violent movement of love for this hurt and suffering woman, this person, yes, the person whom he had ignored, deliberately, as though had no existence except in the context of pleasure. Now, as she knelt there sobbing, all the tenderness he had ever felt for her body, all the affection implicit in their sensualities and never expressed, seemed suddenly to discharge themselves, in a kind of lightening flash of accumulated feeling, upon this person, this embodied spirit, weeping in solitude behind concealing hands.’

 

This echoes Hegel’s understanding of the self. To quote Frances Berenson:

 

‘In the Phenomenology of Mind Hegel writes that the Other Self is the only adequate mirror of my own self-conscious self; the subject can only see itself when what it sees is another self-consciousness […] self-knowledge cannot be achieved through mere introspection into my own […] feelings, foibles, habits, likes and dislikes, capacities and so on.’

 

To know what is true of the Self, one must know what is specific to the self (their self-schema), and to know that one must be able to recognise what of themself is different to the Other. Similarly, if one doesn’t see the Other as a human, it is impossible to see humanity in oneself. So, for all of his introspection, Anthony cannot be made to feel his own humanity until he has felt it in others. Until he realises the Humanity in another person, Anthony would have always treated Humans as humans, dispassionately, with a hedonistic aloofness that damages those that surround him and that he can continuously justify through his cynicism and disbelief of the spirit.

 

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After his cynical hedonism, Anthony becomes politically active and responsible after this realisation of Self. Becoming an active member of Miller’s political movement, he begins to give talks about the importance of pacifist means to achieve true pacifist revolutionary ends.

 

He speaks of killing and its origins coming from those who have

‘a plan for the good of the people […] Axiom from which it logically follows that those who disagree with you and won’t help you realise your plans are enemies of goodness and humanity. No longer men and women, but personifications of evil, fiends incarnate. Killing men and women is wrong; but killing fiends is a duty.’

 

While there are, of course, a great number of violent acts that do not fall into this category, right now these acts of violence are certainly on the rise: xenophobic attacks, violent rallies, people punching neo-nazis in the face. The latter, a shocking display from the left, stems from a disillusionment with democratic institutions to prevent a ‘malignant narcissist’ from coming into power. These peaceful institutions clearly don’t work. In a world obsessed with binaries, the other option then must be anarchy, violence, dissidence.

 

According to EiG violent means will always culminate in violent ends: if violence can be justified, even only at 1% of the time, then there is always going to be a reason to turn to violence. Therefore no revolution built on violence can result in a truly pacifistic world.

The other problem is alluded to in the earlier quote. In violent acts we announce our belief that the other is a ‘fiend’ and is worthy of being attacks. Dehumanising them in this way will then, therefore, make them feel like the oppressed, and further bolster their belief in their cause and this leads to radicals means to achieve their ends.

 

When the left mocked the idea of Trump becoming president, his supporters of course felt mocked, patronised, and demonised. While we shouldn’t condone hateful beliefs, especially not when it results in a  sexist, racist, homophobic tyrant in a position of power, the point is that for our cause it is in our best interests not to become the ‘fiends’ of their story. The reason that Hitler grew so hateful, and managed to spread so much hate, is because he was able to point to a bourgeois class that mocked the beliefs of the everyday man. While, for us, the women, the people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, the immigrants, the refugees, the outcasts, feel like everyday people, the fact of the matter is that in Trump’s rhetoric we are the enemy, the Other, and can be blamed. We can be pointed to as the reason for America’s ‘no longer being great.

 

Huxley’s rhetoric suggests we must at all costs avoid behaviours which allows us to be further demonised. The best way to do this is through compassion, honesty, and dignity. We must be resolute in our ideals, in our protesting, and our resistance. But we must not do it at the expense of the ‘enemy’ – in this case, Trump supporters. We cannot give them any more ammunition. We must resist the urge towards violence as it will come back to us. The world is watching America, it is the new guinea pig to help us understand how the Left can overcome such blatant fascism. In the post-Brexit and Trump world, we watch with eager eyes to see how this will turn out. Hopefully, for the better for all of us. This is only possible through love and compassion.

 

The post-revolution utopia is something that Huxley talks about a lot in his later book Island. While writing Eyeless in Gaza, then, we can assume Huxley was transitioning from cynical intellect to hopeful spiritualist. This book is clearly an expression by Huxley of his change of character, and the wonderful thing about the book is that, as you read it, you realise you could be reading about the author or Anthony, receiving a dual consciousness through the text. If at any point this book feels like it therefore may be an indulgence on Huxley’s part, it quickly falls back into wider societal issues and how they may be overcome. Anthony is even careful to say that meditation can become a tool to ignore one’s responsibilities:

 

‘Quietism can be mere self-indulgence.’

 

In all, the book regards the growth of the self as the precursor to a loving world. If all individuals are trained in the art of self-management through understanding and overcoming of the ‘self-schema’, compassion, and are educated to truly be enamoured by the miracle of life – both conscious and unconscious life – then it is impossible that human happiness would not increase. The idea is expanded on by a huge deal in Island. However, as a personal approach to the subject, rather than a manifesto, Eyeless in Gaza does so much to introduce Huxley’s ideology and personal journey to the reader.

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