Time Must Have a Stop, by Aldous Huxley

I picked up this beautifully laminated paperback at Citylights in San Francisco- a rustic and sublimely homely book shop that contains shelves upon shelves of books. If I had the choice I would’ve willingly remained there for the rest of eternity. The comfortingly earthy smell of heavenly tomes blended right in with the roughly cut wooden shelves, the creaky floorboards and the white-washed walls, coalescing into some divine manifestation of literary heaven. The bookstore was the incarnation of one’s innermost desires- a haven of simplicity and unpretentiousness, a home of comfort, a space of creativity and imagination.

Pentax MX, Kodak Ektar 100 35mm

I could go on and on about the bookstore but this post should really be about the book.

Huxley published 11 novels in his lifetime, but I’ve only seen 5 or 6 around in bookstores here all over Singapore. So when I found Time Must Have a Stop as well as Point Counter Point in Citylights, I was pretty thrilled. However I only bought this book as luggage space is limited and quite honestly my bag was chocked full of cameras and other things so I could barely fit this one in.

No regrets buying this though, I think even with all the outlet shopping and good buys, this book was the best thing I bought during the trip.

I think after awhile you begin to realize and recognize books that are characteristically Huxley- the writing is flowery and elaborate without being laborious, the characters are real and three dimensional with both strengths and flaws, and the themes all resonate some aspect of human nature through irony and satire. Time Must Have a Stop is no exception; it has all the brilliance of his other books. The plot revolves around Sebastian Barnack- a callow boy of 17 at the beginning of the book- and his journey and transformation into a mature young man.

There’s only one corner in this universe that you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.

Self-improvement. You can try to encourage others to change, you can try to change things- but ultimately the fate of others depends on them. And a whole variety of other interconnected factors. The only thing you can do an be certain of doing is improving yourself- becoming a better person. But what is a better person? What is considered a good act, a good deed? Is it enough to take the ‘good’ course of action (Dumbledore: ‘There comes a time in our lives, where we have to choose between what is right and what is easy’), or do we have to change our entire mindset and perception? (For is it true that the choices we make shape who we are?) It doesn’t matter how things turn out, as long as you know for yourself that you have done the right thing.

But how do you know if you’ve done the right thing? We all have our own set of rights and wrongs.

When it comes to improving oneself I think there are two things that have to be done:

1. Choose to do what you think is right.

2. Improve your definition of what is right.

Most people don’t even follow the first step, so it renders our concepts of good and bad useless. We have to develop self-discipline, control- and then broaden our minds and challenge concepts of right and wrong to improve ourselves. Most of the time the two blend into each other- there is no right and wrong but rather many alternative actions that may affect any given situation. So we have to train ourselves to evaluate what the best course of action is and follow it.

Of course that isn’t easy.

An insular dislike of foreigners, a bourgeois conviction that unsuccessful people must be in some way immoral.

An insular dislike of foreigners.

That seems to exist in our school; the Vietnamese scholars are alienated by most, revered by some, and loved by a handful. People seem to fear that fact that the scholars have such potential and talent- some are now more proficient in English than 90% of our grade, even just after a few years of learning the language. I like having the scholars around, they’re friendly and easy to relate to- and they always remind us that we can do better, that human potential is left uncapped. They have achieved so much in the short span of a year- it inspires us to do better. However people seem to alienate and despise what is unknown and unfamiliar to them- an insular dislike of foreigners.

This not only pertains to our school, but is a reality that ravages Singapore in general, and reverberates all across the world.

All this outrage about foreigners. We think that we have more rights to jobs, to the land, to everything in this country. And all this while I was under the impression this country was built on meritocratic ideals, not racist notions! (So much for calling ourselves a culturally diverse and harmoniously multiracial nation.) Why should a Chinese bus driver earn less than one that holds a Singaporean passport? Why should we chase foreigners away when we are in dire need of manpower to do jobs no Singaporean wants to do? Why should we chase more talented professionals away when they can contribute to the dynamic workplace and innovative hub?

‘Of course, you realize,’ he added, ‘that you’ll always be disappointed?’
‘With what?’
‘With girls, with parties, with experience in general. Nobody who has any kind of creative imagination can possibly be anything but disappointed with real life […] People like you aren’t really commensurable with the world they live in. Whereas people like me are completely adapted to it. Your business isn’t doing things, it isn’t even living. It’s writing poetry. […] All the voices in the world. […] All of them impartially.’
‘Impartially,’ Sebastian repeated slowly. Yes, that was good; that was exactly what he’d been trying to think about himself, but had never quite succeeded, because such thoughts didn’t fit into the ethical and philosophical patterns which he had been brought up to regard as axiomatic. Voices, all the voices impartially. He was delighted by the thought.
‘Of course,’ Eustace was saying, ‘You could always argue that you live more intensely in your mental world- substitute than we who only wallow in the real thing and i’d be inclined to admit it. But the trouble is that you can’t be content to stick to your beautiful ersatz. You have to descend into evening clothes and ciro’s and chorus girls – and perhaps even politics and committee meetings, God help us! With lamentable results. Because you’re not at home with these lumpy bits of matter. They depress you, they bewilder you, they shock you and sicken you and make a fool of you. And yet they still tempt you; and they’ll go on tempting you, all our life. Tempting you to embark on actions which you know in advance can only make you miserable and distract you from the one thing you can do properly, the one thing that people value you for.

This passage left me speechless because it precisely sums up what I feel. There is nothing more I could add.

White-washing her husband by black-washing her brother. Not very logical, no doubt, but all too human.

Shockingly succinct in his writing, Huxley depicts an all too common scenario and reflection of human tendencies in that single sentence. We have this warped view that a person’s flaws highlights another’s superiority (everything is relative), and so we put down one to raise up another. Illogical and ridiculous, but understandable all the same.

Cynical realism- it’s the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.

Helpless.

The primal pattern. And then the chaos made of patterns. And the living patterns built up out of fragments of the chaos. And what next? Living patterns of living patterns? But man’s world was chaotically ugly and unjust and stupid.

[…]

And human individuals, he was thinking. As living patterns in space, how incredibly subtle, rich and complex! But the trace they left in time, the pattern of their private lives- God, what a horror of routine!

Patterns. Routine. History.

We are an incorrigibly warped race of repetitions.

Explicitly or implicitly, men of genius express their knowledge of reality. But they themselves rarely act on their knowledge of reality. Why not? Because all their energy and attention are absorbed by the work of composition. They’re concerned with writing, not with acting or being. But because they’re only concerned with writing about their knowledge, they prevent themselves from knowing more.

Knowledge is proportionate to being, you know in virtue what you are; and what you are depends on three factors: what you’ve inherited, what your surroundings have done to you, and what you’ve chosen to do with your surroundings and your inheritance. A man of genius inherits an unusual capacity to see into ultimate reality and express what he sees. If his surroundings are reasonable good, he’ll be able to exercise his powers. But if he spends all his energies on writing and doesn’t attempt to modify his inherited and acquired being in the light of what he knows, then he can never get to increase his knowledge. On the contrary, he’ll know progressively less instead of more.

He that is not getting better is getting worse, and he that is getting worse is in a position to know less and less about ultimate reality.

Conversely, of course, if one gets better and knows more, one will be tempted to stop writing, because the all-absorbing labor of composition is an obstacle in the way of further knowledge.

[…]

You get Wordsworth worshipping God in Nature and preaching admiration, hope and love, while all the time he cultivates an egotism that absolutely flabbergasts the people who know him.

A little excerpt from the deluge of thoughts running through my mind; an obstacle of poetic creation that impedes my further knowledge:

Parched in Sahara

Drinking words

Like precious water

Huxley’s words make me feel so small, so naive, so ignorant. I feel as if all this time I’ve been living on a barren wasteland, taking clumps of faded grass to be revelations of great significance; blinded to the lush rainforest of prolific greenery that lies beyond the horizon.

Reading this makes me want to end the review and stop writing- why bother converting complex thoughts to words for the sake of conveying to an invisible audience? Pursuit of knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge should be confined to that simple motive; not for the sole purpose of broadcasting to the world for that counteracts its roots. For how should a plant flower without its roots? But what is the purpose of a flower if it cannot be viewed? Catch 22, I say. A choice between selfish (and yet entirely selfless in that no glory, power, or worship is attained; only self-satisfaction in the knowledge of knowledge) pursuits and selfless (and yet substandard) altruism. Resonates Ayn Rand.

But then it was always a question between choosing of two evils.

There is no right or wrong; just the path less travelled and the other.

I feel oddly calm and at peace with myself now, as if I’ve just accepted this facet of human nature as inveterately part of life.

There is a fine line between cynical misanthropy and calm acceptance that pertains (to a greater extent than the former) to healthy realism.

I have more than once tried to convey the depravities of human nature to others; but yet they repel the thought with overwhelming concern that such ideas are unhealthy and only torturing to the overall wellbeing of a person- expressing worry at my profound thoughts and perhaps suggesting that it would lead to self-harm or even worse. I beg to differ. Realists laugh, live, love just as ardently as the rest; we just aren’t convinced by the delusion and remain detached and open to the idea of an imperfect reality. Even as I denounce myself and all of us as insignificant in the whole scheme of things; the world, destiny, or God’s plan as people of religion may call it- I do not take along the emotions of sadness, anger, or frustration- but of acceptance. And yet there is still a distrust of reality, and a foolish unthinking devotion to the upkeep of the ephemeral ways of humanity (an oxymoronic word that contradicts itself as its varying definitions are almost opposites: the first of which is human nature, the latter is benevolence. And rarely do the two correspond). Somehow this reminds me of the Matrix- people are so enveloped in the delusion that they would do anything to protect it; the illusion that has so been weaved is a categorical imperative, protected as something sacramental.

After re-reading my last paragraph even I feel a contradictory shock and appall at the words; as if they are uttered by someone tired of the world and it’s foolishness, enveloped by cynicism. They seem so decisive. But I’m still trying to navigate my way through the weeds of vacillation- I concur with the repelling of impeding altruism just as I agree with the abhorrence of selfish coveting. But what I have learned of these confusing and diverging thoughts is to take little heed- when such is the incorrigible nature of life we can only take it in our stride and do what we need to do because all things are ephemeral- little matters may become pivotal decisions but in the end we all meet a similar ending- death.

And in that way death is a sort of liberation, a reminder to us that we cannot afraid to live; life is too short for remorse- we make mistakes, we learn, we change. Nothing is set in stone unless we coat it in super-glue ourselves.

The book also delved into ideas of death, but I think my thoughts on this topic are too extensive to include in this post; I will write about it in another and attach the link soon.

Rating: 6.7/7 stars

Impartially.

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