Saturday, 15 August 2009

Amen and step on the gas

I have copied out below a fascinating chapter from Aldous Huxley's 1928 novel Point Counter Point. It's really a monologue of one man, Mark Rampion, based on DH Lawrence, punctuated by the intrigued intellectual Philip Quarles, based on Aldous Huxley himself.

I look out at the vulgar constraints of the modern world as if it were a new problem. However, as this text and plenty more from Huxley and Lawrence suggest that I am what is new, not the problem.

To have one's disorganised thoughts summarised so succinctly by someone else is always a thrill. I share them with you now, and urge you to read the book should this passage excite you as much as it does me:

'But it's so silly, all this political squabbling,' said Rampion, his voice shrill with exasperation, 'so utterly silly. Bolsheviks and Fascists, Radicals and Conservatives, Communists and British Freemen - what the devil are they all fighting about? I'll tell you. They're fighting to decide whether we shall go to hell by communist express train or capitalist racing motor car, by individualist 'bus or collectivist tram running on the rail of state control. The destination's the same in every case. They're all of them bound for hell, all headed for the same psychological impasse and the social collapse that results from psychological collapse. The only point of difference between them is: How shall we get there? It's simply impossible for a man of sense to be interested in such disputes. For the man of sense the important thing is hell, not the means of transport to be employed in getting there. The question for the man of sense is: Do we or do we not want to go to hell? And his answer is: No, we don't. And if that's his answer, then he won't have anything to do with any of the politicians. Because they all want to land us in hell. All, without exception. Lenin
and Mussolini, MacDonald and Baldwin. All equally anxious to take us to hell and only squabbling about the means of taking us.'

'Some of them may take us a little more slowly than others,' suggested Philip.

Rampion shrugged his shoulders. 'But so very little more slowly that it wouldn't make any appreciable difference. They all believe in industrialism in one form or another, they all believe in Americanization. Think of the Bolshevist ideal. America but much more so. America with government departments taking the place of trusts and state officials instead of rich men. And then the ideal of the rest of Europe. The same thing, only with the rich men preserved. Machinery and Alfred Mond or Henry Ford here. The machine to take us to hell; the rich or the officials to drive it. You think one set may drive more cautiously than the other? Perhaps you're right. But I can't see that there's anything to choose between them. They're all equally in a hurry. In the name of science, progress, and human happiness! Amen and step on the gas.'

Philip nodded. 'They do step on it all right,' he said. 'They get a move on. Progress. But as you say, it's probably in the direction of the bottomless pit.'

'And the only thing the reformers can find to talk about is the shape, colour and steering arrangements of the vehicle. Can't the imbeciles see that it's the direction that matters, that we're entirely on the wrong road and ought to go back - preferably on foot, without the stinking machine?'

'You may be right,' said Philip. 'But the trouble is that given our existing world, you can't go back, you can't scrap the machine. That is, you can't do it unless you're prepared to kill off about half the human race. Industrialism made possible the doubling of the world's population in a hundred years. If you want to get rid of industrialism, you've got to slaughter half the existing number of men and women, Which might,
sub specie aeternitatis or merely historiae, be an excellent thing. But hardly a matter of practical politics.'

'Not at the moment,' Rampion agreed. 'But the next war and the next revolution will make it only too practical.'

'Possibly. But one shouldn't count on wars and revolutions. Because if you count on them happening, they certainly will happen.'

'They'll happen,' said Rampion, 'whether you count on them or not. Industrial progress means over-production, means the need for getting new markets, means international rivalry, means war. And mechanical progress means more specialization and standardization of work, means more ready-made and unindividual amusements, means diminution of initiative and creativeness, means more intellectualism and the progress atrophy of all the vital and fundamental things in human nature, means increased boredom and restlessness means finally a kind of individual madness that can only result in social revolution. Count on them or not, wars and revolutions are inevitable, if things are allowed to go on as they are at present.'

'So the problem will solve itself,' said Philip.

'Only by destroying itself. When humanity's destroyed, obviously there'll be no more problem. But it seems a poor sort of solution. I believe there may be another, even within the framework of the present system. A temporary one while the system's being modified in the direction of a permanent solution. The root of the evil's in the individual psychology; so it's there, in the individual psychology, that you'd have to begin. The first step would be to make people live dualistically, in two compartments. In one compartment as industrialized workers, in the other as human beings. As idiots and machines for eight hours out of every twenty-four and real human beings for the rest. '

'Don't they do that already?'

'Of course they don't. They live as idiots and machines all the time, at work and in their leisure. Like idiots and machines, but imagining they're living like civilized humans, even like gods. The first thing to do is to make them admit that they are idiots and machines during working hours. "Our civilization being what it is," this is what you'll have to say to them, "you've got to spend eight hours out of every twenty-four as a mixture between an imbecile and a sewing machine. It's very disagreeable, I know. It's humiliating and disgusting. But there you are. You've got to do it; otherwise the whole fabric of our world will fall to bits and we'll all starve. do the job, then, idiotically and mechanically; and spend your leisure hours in being a real complete man or woman, as the case may be. Don't mix the two lives together; keep the bulkheads watertight between them. The genuine human life in your leisure hours is the real thing. The other's just a dirty job that's got to be done. And never forget that it
is dirty and except in so far as it keeps you fed and society intact, utterly unimportant, utterly irrelevant to the real human life. Don't be deceived by the canting rogues who talk of the sanctity of labour and the Christian Service, that business men do their fellows. It's all lies. Your work's just a nasty, dirty job, made unfortunately necessary by the folly of your ancestors. They piled up a mountain of garbage and you've got to go digging it away, for fear it might stink you to death, dig for dear life, while cursing the memory of the maniacs who made all the dirty work for you to do. But don't try to cheer yourself up by pretending the nasty mechanical job is a noble one. It isn't; and the only result of saying and believing that it is, will be to lower your humanity to the level of the dirty work. If you believe in business as Service and the sanctity of labour you'll merely turn yourself into a mechanical idiot for twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four. Admit it's dirty, hold your nose and do it for eight hours and then concentrate on being a real human being in your leisure. A real complete human being. Not a newspaper reader, not a jazzer, not a radio fan,. The industrialists who purvey standardized ready-made amusement to the masses are doing their best to make you as much of a mechanical imbecile in your leisure as in your hours much of work. But don't let them. Make the effort of being human." That's what you've got to say to people; that's the lesson you've got to teach the young. You've got to persuade everybody that all this grand industrial civilization is just a bad smell and that the real, significant life can only be lived apart from it. It'll be a very long time before decent living and industrial smell can be reconciled. Perhaps, indeed, they're irreconcilable. It remains to be seen. In the meantime, at any rate, we must shovel the garbage and bear the smell stoically and in the intervals try to lead the real human life.'