Those Barren Leaves, by Aldous Huxley

Starting with my first-ever book review on this blog! It seems rather apt to be reviewing this book, as Aldous Huxley is arguably my favorite author of all time-although that’s not much of a feat since I’m unfortunately not as well-read as I would like to be (due to time constraints).

Prior to this I’ve read Brave New World (last year, which radically altered my taste in books) and Island, both of which I’ve written extensively about in my journals. The deluge of Huxley books that sprawl across the bookshelves of Kinokuniya are rather daunting and consoling at the same time- it’s frustrating that I seem to never be able to find the time to get to reading them, and yet it’s reassuring that there will always be another great work to turn to, always something to crave.

Huxley has the uncanny ability to transform the raw emotions of humans and twist them into rational comments about human nature, depicting the most tangled and depraved human conditions in an almost offhand, dispassionate manner.

It makes his work strangely compelling.

Through his characters, he speaks volumes about human nature and brings out the hypocrisy that plagues society, but the way he does it is unlike many others. He does it so effortlessly- some of these notions may even be considered deep and to the typical reader, worthy of an ‘Eureka’ moment. Huxley, however, continually throws out bits of unnerving insight as if they are entirely clear for everyone to see- it becomes an inherent part of his writing and naturally envelops you in its cynicism, satirical beauty, and utter ingenuity.

Those Barren Leaves is in many ways different from Brave New World and Island. Perhaps most fundamentally, Huxley’s writing is much more complex than in the other two books. I was going to say sophisticated, but not entirely so. In fact, the writing could be considered straightforward and overwhelmingly simple for Huxley, but I suppose the thirties setting makes it harder for myself (as a reader) to understand. It is a rather unfamiliar setting- such formalities and customs and flouncing and social ladders do seem rather incongruous to the 21st century reader. That isn’t to say that it is alien, however- the concepts that Huxley mocks still strike a chord with us and quite perturbingly still rings true today.

It’s rather bizarre and grimly ironic that humans haven’t changed much in terms of our personalities and the nature of our greatest flaws, even as we hearken progress and self-improvement as core ideals of the 21st century. I can imagine nature/God/whatever-higher-deity smiling sardonically upon us as we stumble about our lives feeling good about ourselves and our liberation from old-fashioned, rigid ideals- while really, we haven’t changed anything but rather covered ourselves in a fantasy of self-professed moral supremacy to our early 20th century predecessors.

Perhaps as I highlight some of my favorite quotes you’ll be able to see what I mean.

“I don’t see that it would be possible to live in a more exciting age,” said Calamy. “The sense of everything’s perfectly provisional and temporary- everything, from social institutions to what we’ve hitherto regarded as the most sacred scientific truths- the feeling that nothing, from the Treaty of Versailles to the rationally explicable universe, is really safe, the intimate conviction that anything may happen, anything may be discovered—another war, the artificial creation of life, the proof of continued existence after death—why it is all infinitely exhilarating.”

Sometimes it feels as if everything is so fragile, and yet so concrete. At any moment everything we’ve worked for could crumble into little pieces and be rendered to nothing more than floating dust, and yet at others it feels as if everything is so stagnant and unmoving- as if we’ll be stuck in this rut for eternity.

At times I wish I could just retire to the comfort of an idyllic island in the archipelagos that dots the Indian Ocean and live life in peace, stability, and comfort- plant my own crops, cook my own food, relax on the beach- and just forget it all. Forget my wildest dreams, forget my academic pursuits, forget that urge for progress. That hunger. That aching hunger. I ache. I ache for excitement, for innovation, and above all, I ache for knowledge. It tears me apart and tugs at me in different directions. Now that the holidays have unofficially started, I have ample time to do what I like. And yet, 20 minutes into reading Huxley I feel as if I should be doing something else- and 20 minutes into doing my maths I start doodling on a sketchbook (who’d knew I had somewhat of an artistic inclination?) After a few minutes of that I end up playing on the piano, and in the end I don’t finish anything at all. I don’t get to fully enjoy what I do because I know my time is limited so I want to cherish it- but is it not ironical that this is the precise reason I can’t?

Which leads on to the next quote.

Precisely. I love thinking. I love reading. I love satisfying my curiosity of things. Here you can feel a sense of familiarity- Calamy, at this point, really reflects my take on the world right now. I love doing these things, and I’m at a loss as to what to do due to the numerous things I want to pursue. But yet for some reason I find myself doing the things I certainly know I do not want to do- for example I went out shopping in Orchard with mom when really I would have much preferred to stay home. There’s this conflict– no, not conflict- this subtle inclination to do the things that I truly don’t want to do- forever a victory of things society compels me to do over things I truly want to do. 

But how do we know what we truly want to do? Even without the impediment of external expectation, or of self supposition- would we end up pursuing what we like? Very few in the world end up doing what they truly want to do, but those who don’t may not realize it themselves.

But what’s the difference, then?

I sometimes wish I weren’t externally free. For then at any rate I should have something to curse at, for getting in my way, other than my own self.

It makes all the difference in the world. We’re perverse beings, humans- always searching for something to complain about, something to blame for our own failures. We bewail over the lack of time to do things, and yet waste our time away in small pockets. We abhor and curse societal expectations, and yet bend and twist ourselves to fit them. Such is the hypocrisy plagues the world.

If there’s one thing that’s incorrigibly part of most humans- it is our desire to be understood, to be accepted, to be respected by others. And yet, when someone completely understands you, you’re at their mercy. They know how best to manipulate you, hurt you, change you- and you are no longer your own person and instead a manifestation of someone’s fantasies. They prod you- the poor, unwitting victim- along a different path, one that you may not have chosen for yourself.

Perhaps it’s not so drastic. But being understood can be unexpectedly vexing. Humans seek connection- people they can identify with, people that have things in common with them- sometimes to the extent that they fabricate (or at the very least, exaggerate) fantastical stories of their similar adventures or similar tastes in food, wine, or music, etc. Sometimes these things serve as a basis for conversation, and perhaps provides a certain chemistry between people. At other times, it can feel as if someone is trying to imitate a part of you, scrounging the core of your identity, taking away the most personal and central things in your life and making it their own property. It can be marvelously stimulating to meet someone of your own disposition, and yet horrendously unsettling to find that your innermost thoughts and desires are not unique, not privy only to you and yourself.

It gives rise to a certain kind of jealousy.

I’ve felt that before. It’s not the best feeling. Perhaps, then, it’s better to be misunderstood than completely understood. After all, we all like to feel special, in one way or another.

Anyone who has anything to say can’t fail to be misunderstood.

Someone that completely understands you is either a lover or an enemy- or sometimes both.

So it’s an impasse. A Catch-22. A man cannot be happy when understood, because there is no more sense of uniqueness, no more sense of mystique. A man cannot be happy when misunderstood, because indignation and injustice at being wholly misconstrued translates into a burning anger. (Reminds me of Beatrice’s taunts in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing- ‘He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.’)

We’re impossible to please, humans.

We can never be entirely happy. Indefinite, eternal happiness would not be happiness. It would be mundane, which would possibly negate any feeling of happiness. Emotions are relative- if you’re always happy, it is no longer a happy and sacred thing- the only consequence is increasing intolerance of sadness.

Those Barren Leaves is evidently a cruel mocking of self-professed intellectuals, but I can relate to them- and out of them all the most likable character (to me, at the very least) is Francis Chelifer.

He has a healthy cynicism and practicality (and yet, does fall into the platitudes of insanity and petty thoughts now and then). Here are a few snippets of his words:

The art of writing well, is the art of saying nothing elaborately.

Too true, that. If you’ve ever read the classics in detail- they seem to be trying to convey a didactic message, but in actual fact it’s nothing. It’s like philosophy- nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I love philosophy, I love literature- but sometimes I feel as if we’re deluding ourselves. Sometimes it feels as if neglecting common, less abstract views of life and dedicating oneself to the beauty of thought and literature is a form of arrogance. It feels fake. As if we’re trying to appear better and more knowing than we actually are. And we are, aren’t we? There’s this undercurrent of wry humor that you can detect while reading Those Barren Leaves. It’s as if it’s mocking itself. As if it’s all a farce.

It’s quite intriguing.

… the conscious rational virtues that ought to belong by definition to a being called himself Homo Sapiens. Open-mindedness, for example, absence of irrational prejudice, complete tolerance and a steady, reasonable pursuit of social goods. But these, alas, are precisely what we fail to discover. For to what, after all, are all this squalor, this confusion and ugliness due but to the lack of human virtues? The fact is that- except for an occasional sport of Nature, born now here, now there, and always out of time- we sapient men have practically no virtues at all.

Clearly Chelifer is a pessimist misanthrope, and as Calamy terms it, a sentimentalist. 

You’re just the common variety of sentimentalist reversed. The ordinary kind pretends that so-called real life is more rosy than it actually is. The reversed sentimentalist gloats in its horrors.

Chelifer’s cynical and yet humorously self-deprecating and sarcastically polite manner makes him a very endearing character.

I love how Huxley knows his characters inside and out: they are there for a reason- not merely for the sake of being a delightful addition, but with a purpose. Every character in this book serves their purpose.

Another character that enthralls me is that of Mary Thriplow- the young and incredibly intelligent female author. There is something in her that resonates with my being and my personality- but then again there is something in all of these characters that reflect us all. They all serve as exaggerations and manifestations of the most common human flaws. The following is a quote from the first part of the book where Thriplow is the central character:

However much we should like to do so, however highly, in private, we think of our abilities, we generally feel that it is bad from to boast of our intelligence. But in regard to our qualities of heart we feel no such shame; we talk freely of our kindness, bordering on weakness, of our generosity carried almost to the point of folly (tempering our boasting a little by making out that our qualities are so excessive they are defects).

Entirely true. When people ask me of my greatest weakness, I proclaim that there I want to do too many things, and most humbly say that perhaps people could view it as a strength and not a vice. What I do not exclaim, though, is that the cause of this is my lack of conviction for committing myself to a few things. Nearly imperceptible contrast, but lasting and incredibly differential in the long term.

The truth is, I know my greatest weakness. And that is, I think too much. I think too much about things, rely too much on my emotions, and yet gladly declare myself to be a rational and pragmatic realist. It serves as an impediment to everything I do- I depend on my emotions for motivation, for response, for action- and yet when I have a lack of it I become completely and utterly undependable. I just can’t get myself to do anything. I spend eons of time thinking and thinking and thinking. Other people get distracted by the TV, the computer, the video games- I get distracted by my diverging thoughts. Always. I sit down with a textbook at an otherwise completely empty desk, draw my curtains so I can see no movement and no one, and simply cannot study. I always end up thinking about why I put myself through this, then thinking about what I would do if I could, and then I think about why I value it more, and start wondering if it is a fundamental part of human nature to conform to society and et cetera. Before you know it, two hours elapse and you haven’t even gotten through one page- with a hundred more to go.

Plain torture and insanity.

The next part to the paragraph has more in relation to Miss Thriplow:

Miss Thriplow, however, was one of those rare people who were obviously and admittedly clever that there could be no objection to her mentioning the fact as often as she liked; people would have called it only justifiable self-esteem. But Miss Thriplow, perversely, did not want praise for her intelligence. She was chiefly anxious to make the world appreciative of her heart.

This precise feeling aptly summed up my emotions and feelings at one point of time last year- I felt as if people only knew me by my cleverness. When people thought of Ruru, the words ‘smart’, ‘talented’, ‘clever’ were aroused- and not ‘humorous’, ‘bubbly’, or even ‘shy’. They didn’t know me for my personality, and they thought that as someone who did exceedingly well in school so seemingly effortlessly (they were wrong about the effortless part), I was already of a higher creed. I felt as if no one could be bothered to know me for who I was. I was so desperate to make people see the me for who I was- my personality, my kindness, my humor- I didn’t care for praise about my intelligence. In fact I deplored it. It was foolish, because people didn’t really see me that way- they just used my intelligence as a conversation starter, to breach that wall of unfamiliarity- but at that point in time there was nothing more vexing than praise.

Miss Thriplow’s character never fails to amuse. Her obsession with being able to feel is absolutely hilarious in its own ridiculous depraved manner.

But did she really care at all? Wasn’t it all just a comedy, all a pretense? He had died so long ago; he had nothing to do with her now. Why should she care or remember? And all this systematic thinking about him, this writing of things in a secret diary devoted to his memory- wasn’t all that merely for the sake of keeping her emotions in training? Wasn’t she deliberately scratching her heart to make it bleed, and then writing stories with the red fluid?

It’s all rather comical and laughable (and of course, ironic that she should not realize that she makes a fool of herself), but it has a serious message- we do over exaggerate things. We do make ourselves feel unnecessary hurt just for the sake of it. Perhaps it’s for the pity, or the sense of sadness that indicates our sensitivity (however debauched), or maybe just the unconscious toying with one’s own emotions.

Those nights I spent crying over our move back to Singapore years ago- they were an unnecessary outpouring of emotion. The crying only exacerbated the pain- and the heightened pain justified the crying.

It pains me to think of those days, but I learned a lot from them.

Thriplow tries to make herself feel, and scorns others that do the same:

“Certain people who have no natural capacity for feeling are yet convinced, intellectually that they out to feel profoundly. The best people, they think, have formidable instincts. They want to have them too. They are emotional snobs.

And yet she is an emotional snob!

She doesn’t see her own weaknesses. We all are more inclined to see our strengths than our weaknesses.

Of course I don’t think anyone has it as badly as Thriplow- she throws herself into love just for the sake of feeling. Calamy, likewise, does not love her per se- but rather loves the power he has over her. Calamy detests having to chase after her, having to kiss her and hold her- and yet insanely enjoys a morbid sense of satisfaction as he sees her tortured state.

Huxley explores the motives and purposes and true nature of love in his story- virtually every character falls into the banalities of love in one form or another. Irene and Hovenden in their puppy love, Mr. Cardan and his love for the sake of money, and Miss Elver and her love in insanity. Mrs. Aldwinkle- even her love was evidently not true, but borne out of desperation of some sort.

Chelifer may seem completely dispassionate and unaffected by love, but his love for Barbara was the most consuming.

The weeks passed. I saw her almost everyday. And everyday I loved her more violently and painfully, with a love that less and less resembled the religious passion of my boyhood. But it was the persistent memory of that passion which made my present desire so parching and tormenting, that filled me with a thirst that no possible possession could assuage. No possible possession, since whatever I might possess, as I realized more and more clearly each time I saw her, would be utterly different from what I had desired all these years to possess. I had desired all beauty, all that exists of goodness and truth, symbolized and incarnate in one face. And now the face drew near, the lips touched mine; and what I got was simply a young woman with a temperament, as the euphemists who deplore the word admiringly and lovingly qualify the lascivious thing.

And yet against all reason, in spite of all evidence, I could not help believing that she was somehow and secretly what I had imagined her. My love for her as a symbol strengthened my desire for her as an individual woman.

Delusional, that’s what Chelifer was. That’s what we all become at some point in our lives. Sometimes we feel deeply for what we imagine things to be, rather than things itself.

Huxley’s words flow with such poetic ease- I envy his ability to convey his thoughts so aptly.

There are a plethora of quotes that I could mention, but I’m already at 3390 words and it’s not because of the pictures (I suppose pictures can be worth a thousand words in this case- so, uh 7000 words?). I now know how people can write entire books about books.

I promise my other book reviews will be shorter. Crux of the matter: 6.5 stars out of 7. (Yes, my rankings are out of 7 because my luck number is 7.) I’ll go into it in a later blog post.

Go read this book. Although it wasn’t as refreshing as Island or Brave New World, I think it was due to the fact that some of the points raised were rather similar and not as shocking and revelational as I first found them to be.

Nevertheless, it’s definitely something you should read before you die. (But what is death? Why fear death?) Preferably before December 21, 2012.

Kidding.

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