Eyeless in Gaza

Author: Aldous HuxleyEyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley
Publisher: Flamingo Modern Classics (HarperCollins) (1994, first published 1936)
Number of Pages: 409
How long it took me to read: 6 weeks
Where I bought this book: This was another xmas present!
ISBN: 0-00-654730-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

The last of the books gifted to me last December, Eyeless in Gaza was my latest exposure to the works of a writer who has never failed to inspire me. Indeed, Island, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were among the books that most shaped my perspective during my undergraduate degree over 15 years ago. I’d always intended to read more, but somehow never got round to it. Last year, I finally borrowed a copy of Brave New World, (a book I’d intended to read in Secondary school following an English comprehension test based on it, but somehow managed to evade for over 20 years), and afterwards, swiftly added Eyeless in Gaza to my Amazon wishlist. As usual with Huxley, I had no idea what to expect, and deliberately made sure not to cloud my expectations with anyone else’s opinions or interpretations beforehand – including the blurb on the back. I was going in blind, oblivious even to the synchronicity between my state and the portent of the book’s title.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book (from a shortlist of 12) are:

5. “States and nations don’t exist as such.  There are only people.  Sets of people living in certain areas, having certain allegiances.  Nations won’t change their national policies until people change their private policies…One of the great attractions of patriotism – it fulfils our worst wishes.  In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat.  Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we’re profoundly virtuous.” (p.149)

4. ” ‘Breaking down your protective convention,’ he went on, turning again to Mary, ‘that’s the real fun.  Leaving you defenceless against the full consciousness of the fact that you can’t do without your fellow humans, and that, when you’re with them, they make you sick.’ ” (p.160)

3. “Note that we’re all ninety-nine per cent pacifists.  Sermon on Mount, provided we’re allowed to play Tamburlane or Napoleon in our particular one per cent of selected cases.  Peace, perfect peace, so long as we can have the war that suits us.  Result: everyone is the predestined victim of somebody else’s exceptionally permissible war.” (p.313)

2. “One goes on believing in automatic progress, because one wants to cherish this stupidity; it’s so consoling.  Consoling because it puts the whole responsibility for everything you do or fail to do on somebody or something other than yourself.” (p.322)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The green world slid past her half-shut eyes.  Green darkness of trees overarching the olive shadows and tawny-glaucous lights of water; and between the twilight stretches of green vaulting, the wide gold-green meadows, islanded with elms.  And always the faint weedy smell of the river; and the air so soft and warm against the face that one was hardly aware any longer of the frontiers between self and not-self, but lay there, separated by no dividing surfaces, melting, drowsily melting into the circumambient summer.” (p.146)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Anthony Beavis, the main protagonist, on only the second page is described as noting down the following words: ‘Progress may, perhaps, be perceived by historians; it can never be felt by those actually involved in the supposed advance.’  How the world has changed in less than a century.  Now, it seems, we feel progress bricking itself up around us so fast that we must repeatedly attempt to scale its walls for fear of becoming trapped in the depths of the cultural well.  Nothing stays still.  Ever.  There is a constant, grinding need for newness, be it technology, art or entertainment. Contemporary society drags us by the hair through a gallery of quick-moving wonders, screaming, ‘Look at this,’ ‘now this,’ ‘what about this?’ in our faces each successive day.  But not everything has changed.  When Anthony declares: ‘There is no gratitude – only irritation if, for any reason, the newly invented conveniences break down,’  I am reminded that we are still dealing with thesame recognisable species that surrounded Huxley in his day. The human mind is reliant on an incomparably slower rate of evolution than the cultural artefacts it continues to expel, regardless of what modern psychologies we may force across its neurons.  The base creature remains much the same in the limited scope of our lifetime, but the pressure to consciously adapt itself, to be accepted as part of the tribe, becomes greater.  A mass convergence of the social consciousness is upon us; has been for at least a decade.  Global communication.  Social networking.  Reality television.  Eyeless in Gaza is at once a record of a time when individual psychologies appeared to be more isolated, (a specifically English time, at that!), and a study of the realisation that, in fact, no individual exists in isolation.”

“I admire Huxley’s refusal to translate his use of other languages into English. At the same time, it’s quite an irritating presumption that the reader will understand them. I’m so accustomed to modern writers adding a translation directly after a foreign phrase, that I find myself reading the very next line as if it were a translation!”

“Huxley handles the internal dialogue of his main characters as if they were engaged in a game of ping pong, each batting away the reactions of others with their very ordinary self-obsessions and paranoia, never truly understanding what is going on around them, but acting as if they are coping with it.  Only when reality has slipped far enough away from their own mental formula is some kind of inevitable breakdown finally triggered.  As readers, we are given the valuable insight they themselves lack – and that we of course lack in our own lives: a detailed mapping out of how each action enters a character’s mind, how it is squeezed and processed by this over-complex machinery before being ejected in the form of a reaction. Cause and effect in motion.  I’m reminded of the advanced camera trick used in movies such as Three Kings – following the bullet as it flies through the air before puncturing the skin and internal organs. Replace the bullet with an action, the flesh with the characters’ psychologies, then watch as that action is absorbed, broken down, reconstituted and regurgitated back at its originator.”

“The shattered chronology of the book is an interesting choice. It forces the reader to submit to each selected situation from the characters’ lives as a single moment, existing in and of itself – interesting and challenging, as Huxley clearly believes that there is a psychological trail to follow here, but makes it much harder to trace in doing this.  It’s easy to forget the dates and years that head up each chapter, so I often had to trawl back several pages to remind myself whether a certain other event has occurred yet or not.  (Shortly after writing this observation, my favourite quote (above) leapt up at me like a puppy, begging for attention, yelping ‘This is key! This is key!’)  How tethered to time is our behaviour?  Do we exist in the ‘rational’ progression of events as we perceive it, or do our emotions, our reactions, spark unexpectedly in and out of existence like moths through a candle flame, to be pieced together in a later post mortem, tattered and scorched?”

“There are so many themes, issues and ideas discussed in this book that I’ve wrestled with myself, (perhaps even owing to my previous exposure to Huxley burrowing itself into my consciousness?) that it is impossible for me not to empathise with it.  We seem to have arrived at very similar discourses and (transient) conclusions on life through very different experiences in, at first glance, very different ages.  I find this reassuring: it suggests one’s personal thoughts are not just a whim, a reaction, to the time one finds oneself in, but something more solid, more lasting, that can stretch and inspire over centuries, maybe millennia: the residue of those fortunate enough to step outside of the personal perspective, by whatever means, for even the briefest moment, and gaze upon the human experience with a universal eye.  For the first half of the book I was underwhelmed, as there seemed to be little more within these pages than the psychology of characters locked within their personal dramas to give it any weight.  But it seems Huxley’s intention might have been to secure these characters in the reader’s mind so that, once the book pulls out a more universal toolset, this can be used to stitch together those elements of the characters scattered throughout the fragmented narrative.”

“Above all, and as usual in my experience of his work, one forms the impression that Huxley has the utmost respect and appreciation for those that truly live.  He realises the inherent hypocracies in all of us:the expression of emotions that belies their deeper, tactical intent. But so long as one is exercising free will in that, and attempting to recognise and adjust their behaviour to achieve more universally beneficial consequences rather than blindly stumbling on, oblivious to one’s flailing mental appendages, then it becomes a celebratory act of existence.”

“Like Hesse in The Glass Bead Game, Huxley prolongs his narrative here to view each of his characters from every possible angle, as if they are trapped within a maze of mirrors, catching fleeting glimpses of themselves and each other, and in those isolated moments they have limited time to achieve an outcome that might help them all escape.  It is when one thinks back on the book, rather than in the actual reading of it, that the effect of this structure snaps into place.  These characters suddenly appear as if they have engaged in a life, not just in a story.  We experience life to a fixed chronology, but we comprehend, or attempt to comprehend, our experience with scattered shards pieced together outside of that time.  In Eyeless in Gaza, Huxley has created not a convincing holistic psychology, but a convincing memory of a psychology, as such a phenomenon can only exist – through half-buried hindsight.”

Gareth Long

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