Pacifism as Practical Mysticism in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza
October 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza is a story of a sociologist named Anthony Beavis overcoming personality through pacifism as a kind of practical mysticism. I want to argue here that in the open and divinatory nature of the political action of pacifist protest Huxley shows a move from transcendent and ecstatic Christian mysticism toward immanent, intentional mysticism; but it is the literary quality of the novel as medium that allows Huxley to better present this move than the many non-fiction works Huxley wrote in the period after Eyeless. I define mysticism here as it relates to mystical theology, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “belief in the possibility of union with or absorption into God by means of contemplation and self-surrender; belief in or devotion to the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the intellect.” Yet, one of the first principles of R. P. Poulan’s classic explication of Christian mystical experience, Graces of Interior Prayer – a book with which Huxley was familiar – is that one cannot will a mystical experience; it must come from outside (114). Poulan distinguishes between mystical union, simple “Affective Prayer” and “Meditation”: he says, “Either we reason, and then it is meditation, or we do not reason, and then it is affective prayer” (11). Mystical union is something entirely different for him, and any practical conception of mysticism exists in tension with this. The question becomes: How can practice overcome intention?
Huxley articulates his theory of action derived from Early Modern Christian mystics and Vedantic thought in the non-fiction that followed Eyeless in Gaza. In Ends and Means Huxley describes his concept of Goodness as action, derived from Meister Eckhart, as “the means by which men and women can overcome the illusion of being completely independent existents and can raise themselves to a level of being upon which it becomes possible, by recollection and meditation, to realize their one-ness with ultimate reality” (345). Such action demands the transcendence of personality as well as a transcendence of conceptions of the divine as personal – a collapse of immanence and transcendence. This does not mean the ego has no use; rather, the benefit of personality is in its malleability, and the action toward Goodness, as it appears in Huxley’s work, reveals a conception of citizenship that counters what some critics mistakenly believe to be his anti-politics.
While we might quickly point to Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, in The Grey Eminence, Huxley gives historical grounds for his take on mysticism, tracing the political conflict of Second World War to religious conflict during the 30 Years’ War. Huxley interprets Father Joseph’s belligerent political actions during the 17th century in terms of Joseph’s own mysticism, influenced by his teacher, Father Benet’s “break” with the traditional Christian mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. In Huxley’s reading, Father Benet’s inclusion of the image of Christ’s Passion at the highest level of meditative prayer introduced a kind of worldliness to Christian mysticism that had political consequences during the emerging Enlightenment (78). This aestheticized “Copernican Revolution,” as he terms it, relativizes true mystical experience in Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (83). In Huxley’s view, the absence of “true” mysticism during this period exacerbates political violence and accompanies the modern conception of the nation-state based on territorial and military violence. So, whether it is Christian-centered or Rousseau’s “civic religion,” modernity’s alienation as the ground for the emergence of liberal subjectivity is suspect for Huxley. He is not anti-political; he is against a European-derived conception of politics that arises during the Counter Reformation and secularization. It is in Huxley’s fiction, however, where he actually performs a critique of this subjectivity.
As practice, one immediately must wonder what place, if any, words – much less politics, which since Aristotle has meant a performance through words – has in relation to mysticism’s silent contemplation. Huxley’s answer is that words must transcend and undo their own form. As a writer, Huxley’s efforts at transcendence, unlike his high modern peers, are theorized through the hypothetical space of the literary. His language is more austere and less radical. Huxley says,
What interests me in writing, in expression, in thought, is the attempt to coordinate different fields; the attempt to say many things at the same time; the attempt to bring together in a single and coherent meaningful whole a great many disparate events and data. (“Huxley Interviewed”)
In Eyeless this “coherent whole” collects the successive states through multi-layered attributes of Anthony’s characterization. Let me parse some of these out here.
Each chapter of Eyeless is set at a different time in Anthony’s life and intercut so as not to follow a chronological sequence. Such disruption postpones direct identification with characters and the Bildungsroman conventions of the novel. Eyeless begins in 1933 with Anthony looking at photographs and then cuts to one of many chapters presenting passages from his diary. Chapter two, set in 1934, begins with a recurring phrase for Huxley: “Five words sum up every biography. Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor. Like all other human beings, I know what I ought to do, but continue to do what I oughtn’t do” (9). By chapter four the reader accompanies Anthony as a young boy having just lost his mother (10). He is comforted by Mrs. Foxe, who reads to him from the New Testament. She tells him,
The wonderful thing for us […] is that Jesus was a man, no more able to do miracles and no more likely to have them done for him than the rest of us. Just a man – and yet he could do what he did, he could be what he was. That’s the wonder. (79)
As a young man, Anthony tells a friend, “I do believe […] not in orthodox explanations, of course. Those are obviously idiotic. But in the facts. And in the fundamental metaphysical theory of mysticism”(89). Experience of the thing itself, he pedantically asserts, tells more than any bookish knowledge. Yet, despite his aspiration to be a saint, Anthony is still capable of ditching his poor and pious friends for rich idiots. Longing for an experience of being more than he can be consumes Anthony as he acts in a way he ought not to act. A bit older, Anthony comes to find solace in literary imagination, writing of Hamlet being the character that could rise above the knowledge of his time (106):
Man, according to Blake (and, after him, according to Proust, according to Lawrence), is simply a succession of states. Good and evil can be predicted only of states, not of individuals, who in fact don’t exist, except as the places where the states occur. It is the end of personality in the old sense of the word. […] Such a man is the antithesis of any of the variants on the fundamental Christian man of our history. And yet in a certain sense he is also the realization of that ideal personality conceived by the Jesus of the Gospel. (107)
Anthony comes back to his interpretation of Hamlet after this, claiming that “Hamlet didn’t have a personality – he knew altogether too much to have one” (109). Anthony thus longs to overcome personality itself, but his move toward impersonality also betrays a kind of heartlessness.
In perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the book, a dog absurdly and mysteriously falls from the sky, splattering blood all over Helen and Anthony as they sunbathe. Anthony’s inability to feel sympathy for the dog or Helen causes her to leave him, but it also signifies his inability to act, to do what one ought to do. He tries to get Helen to come back, but it is too late. In her absence, Anthony travels to Mexico and comes to find meaning through a political commitment to pacifism as a way to overcome his misanthropy and general lack of compassion. Building on his youthful aspirations to mysticism, Anthony’s pacifism becomes the political action by which upward transcendence is to be achieved. He fully expresses the practical qualities of mysticism through a sacrificial and potentially annihilating gesture as he commits to give a public speech despite death-threats. In this commitment, openness to the unpredictability of the threat to performs an act of divination through the exposure to violence.
As with most Huxley novels, the intersections between the people in his life and characters in his books – and particularly with his own life – are thinly drawn. Anthony displays many of the conflicting emotions that Huxley’s biographers attribute to his life. As David Dunaway says, it “is probably his most autobiographical novel” (vii). Eyeless then philosophically creates a collision of historical time with mythical time in the subject of the protagonist quasi-autobiographically figured. And while more recent Huxley scholars such as Jake Poller have argued a gradual shift toward immanence over transcendence in Huxley’s later work, particularly in his characters’ sexual relationships, I want to suggest that such a shift begins earlier in his career and his approach to mysticism marks his emerging metaphysical grounding. Huxley’s interest in both mysticism and pacifism can be traced to his student days at Balliol College, Oxford during the First World War.
Less biographically, Eyeless In Gaza alludes to John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a dramatic retelling of Samson’s fight against religious oppressors. The allusion to Samson invokes a tension between mythological and historical temporality and between religion and politics. The allusion as literary device performs transcendence of subjectivity and attempts to accomplish in figuration what Huxley’s modernist peers sought in linguistic performance. This is not the only occasion in the book where history and mythology oversaturate the dramatic occurrences of the narrative.
The superimposition of allusion upon allusion associatively disrupts the literal fabric of the novel, creating an anagogical transcendence. This more directly happens with Huxley’s allusion to the Greek King, Polycrates. At one point in the book, Anthony Beavis and his lover, Helen, have a discussion in 1933 about pain in reference to a scar on his leg. Anthony had received the scar eighteen years before, training to be a soldier in the Great War. An “imbecile recruit” had thrown a grenade short during training that wounded Anthony and prevented him from going into battle. He tells Helen:
“In hospital, I had all the leisure to think of that other royal progress through the earth. Stupidity has come back, as a king – no; as an emperor, as a divine Fuhrer of all the Aryans. It was a sobering reflection. Sobering and profoundly liberating. And I owed it to a bumpkin. He was one of the Fuhrer’s most faithful subjects.” There was a silence. “Sometimes I feel a bit nervous – like Polycrates – because I’ve had so much luck in my life. All occasions always seem to have conspired for me. Even this occasion.” He touched the scar. “Perhaps I ought to do something to allay the envy of the gods – throw a ring into the sea next time I go bathing.” He uttered a little laugh. “The trouble is I don’t possess a ring.” (68)
In this passage historical, mythical, and political time all collapse into the present as an almost Proustian accumulation of Anthony Beavis’s personal experiences. The time of kings becomes the emperor, then the dictator or tyrant. But during the silence this is transferred over into Anthony’s imagination of himself. In this sense, Polycrates operates as a kind of mystical persona, disseminating the figure of Anthony.
The historical account of Polycrates is given in The Histories of Herodotus. Herodotus makes a striking claim about him: “Of the allegedly mortal race Polycrates was the first” (3.122). Herodotus is making a distinction between the age of heroes and the historical age (Lateiner 183). Polycrates thus represents the entrance of mortals into history and an accompanying hubris, or at least ignorance of how to appease the gods through sacrifice. This agonistic relationship with the divine can be seen in Polycrates’ death as well. Against the warnings of his diviners and an ominous dream of his daughter’s, Polycrates made an alliance with Oroites, a Persian, who “killed him in a manner not fit to be told” and impaled his body (3.125). His daughter’s vision saw him “bathed by Zeus and anointed by the sun,” which foretold his exposure. Polycrates’ body and life become the sacrifice he was unable to make through his own deeds. Rather than being a man of action, he is subject to the force of fortune and history.’
In referencing Polycrates as one of the layers to Anthony Beavis’s personality, especially because the character imagines himself as Polycrates, Huxley portrays a character trying to transcend his “succession of states” and enter something that perhaps transcends history. Adding to the saturated allusions, Anthony implies that the character of Hamlet is a model for transcending of personality. As political figures, both Hamlet and Polycrates meet their respective ends through violence to their bodies. According to Anthony, Hamlet was “just a succession of more or less incongruous states” (109). And he says a bit later, “Only the rather stupid and insentient, nowadays, have strong and sharply defined personalities. Only the barbarians among us ‘know what they are’” (110). For Anthony at this point, the truly sentient seem to be void of personality while being held in place by their bodies. Anthony comes to the conclusion: “There is no remedy except to become aware of one’s interests as a human being, and, having become aware, learning to act on that awareness, which means learning to use the self and learning to direct the mind” (343). Such direction is Anthony’s openness to martyrdom through the communicative action of non-violence – a theological-political action immanently performed as practical mysticism.
Dunaway, David. Huxley in Hollywood. New York: Anchor, 1991. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. Ends and Means. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2012. Print.
—. Eyeless in Gaza. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.
—. Grey Eminence. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.
Poulan, R.P. Aug. Graces of Interior Prayer. United States: Kessinger Publishing, 1910.
 In The Grey Eminence, Huxley traces the emerging Second World War in Europe to religious conflict during the 30 Years’ War. He characterizes Father Joseph’s belligerent political actions in terms of his mysticism acquired through Father Benet’s break with the traditional Christian mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. In Huxley’s reading, Father Benet’s intentional use of the image of Christ’s Passion at the highest level of meditative prayer introduced a kind of worldliness to Christian mysticism that had political consequences during the emerging Enlightenment (78). This aestheticized “Copernican Revolution,” as he terms it, relativizes true mystical experience in Europe from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (83). In Huxley’s view, the absence of “true” mysticism during this period exacerbates political violence and accompanies the modern conception of the nation-state based on territorial and military violence. Whether it is Christian-centered or Rousseau’s “civic religion,” modernity’s alienation as the ground for the emergence of liberal subjectivity is suspect for Huxley. He is not anti-political; he is against a European-derived conception of politics that arises during the Counter Reformation and secularization.
 High modernist contemporaries of Huxley such as Yeats and Joyce sought to perform the occult through extraordinary use of language, but Huxley was critical of this. Joyce, Huxley says, “seemed to think words were omnipotent” and had “a magic view of words” (“Huxley Interviewed: Part 1”). Such a linguistic approach is itself is indicative of a trend toward material immanence, but Huxley has an altogether different conception of literature.
 “By the mere force of social and economic circumstances, these ignorant barbarians found themselves quite naturally behaving as he did not dare to behave even after reading all Nietzsche had said about the Superman, or Casanova about women” (96).
 But also on a literary level, Eyeless in Gaza’s biographical aspects reflect a continuing commitment to the Bildungsroman as filtered through Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses. Later in Huxley’s life, he claims that Ulysses, although a great book, displays more the limitations of the novel as a form than the characteristics of a successful one (“Aldous Huxley Interviewed”). He recounts a Joyce’s flawed personal etymology of Odysseus’s name as a blend of the nobody (ουδείς) and God (Zeus) as an inspirational idea for Leopold Bloom. He tells an interviewer in the , “What interests me in writing, in expression, in thought, is the attempt to coordinate different fields; the attempt to say many things at the same time; the attempt to bring together in a single and coherent meaningful whole a great many disparate events and data.”
 Dunaway claims that Eyeless in Gaza captures Huxley’s move from his grandfather, T. H. Huxley’s, agnosticism to “that hard-sought substitute for religion – pacifism” (14). Dunaway also calls Eyeless in Gaza “a modernist novel with a postmodern structure; its antihero, Anthony Beavis, is caught between these two eras.”
 the grounding which he will claim in Ends and Means a few years that that is “the finally determining factor in all our actions” (11).
 Huxley’s poor eyesight prevented him from participating in The Great War, which killed off more than half of his classmates, including his closest friends at Oxford. He was the only male student to major in the then “effeminate” concentration of English Literature (as opposed to the more masculine Anglo-Saxon) (Bradshaw). His isolation fueled his emerging pacifism. And as early as 1917, Huxley had written his father with his early take on mysticism and Theosophy:
Except for the bunkum about astral bodies, spiritual hierarchies, reincarnation and so forth, theosophy seems to be a good enough religion – its main principles being that all religions contain some truth and that we ought to be tolerant, which is the sort of thing to be encouraged in an Anglican stronghold like this. A little judicious theosophy seems on the whole an excellent thing. (Letters 136-7, also cited in Washington 312)
Huxley comes to desire something practical, something grounded with mysticism. This tendency was perhaps exacerbated by his close relationship with D. H. Lawrence’s adamant claims of the spiritual in the material. Lawrence’s death in 1930 marked the loss of yet another of Huxley’s close friends just prior to the novel that would make Huxley internationally famous, Brave New World.
Following Brave New World’s success, Huxley became deeply influenced by two men: Gerald Heard and F. M. Alexander. And as the 1930s saw the rise of Hitler and the steady escalation in preparation for the emerging continental war in England, Huxley’s existing pacifism was invigorated. He joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as the belligerent escalation continued, Huxley’s pacifism was seen as more and more idealistic and naïve in England, but what not often considered with regard to Huxley is that this was as much a spiritual act as it was a political one.
 Polycrates became the despot of Samos by overtaking the government and then dividing the land between himself and his two brothers, only to put one to death and drive the other out. He made a guest friendship with Amasis, the King of Egypt, who curiously dedicated offerings in Hellas, first to Athena and then, in Samos with two wooden figures of himself, to Hera as a gesture of his friendship with Polycrates (2.182). Polycrates was so successful that Amasis wrote him a letter saying:
It is a pleasant thing to hear that one who is a friend and a guest is faring well; yet to me your great good fortune is not pleasing, since I know the Divinity is jealous; and I think that I desire, both for myself and for those about whom I have care, that in some of our affairs we should be prosperous and in others we should fail, and thus go through life alternately fairing well and ill, rather than that we should be prosperous in all things: for never yet did I hear of anyone who was prosperous in all things and did not come to an utterly evil end in the last. (3.40)
So, Amasis advised Polycrates to take something he treasured dearly and cast t away so no man would find it and to jeep doing so until his fortune changed. Polycrates, heeding his friend’s advice cast an emerald ring into the sea, only to find it inside a large fish gifted to him by one of his subjects days later. Upon hearing this news, Amasis broke off his friendship with Polycrates fearing evil to come.
 This is a strange allusion for Huxley to use for character named Anthony, whose name derives from the Greek words for “man” or “flower” and Beavis, meaning “dear son,” especially as he speaks to a lover named ‘Helen.’ Also at work here is St. Anthony, patron saint of swineherds, who was invoked to cure the mania of “St Anthony’s Fire,” caused by ergot poisoning – a subject Huxley returns to often in later work.
 Yet Anthony describes Hamlet as unrecognized by his peers because of his body: “Only one thing prevents Polonius and the rest from immediately perceiving the fact: whatever the state of mind, Hamlet’s body is still intact, unatomized, microscopically present to the senses” (109).