Novel * Aldous Huxley * Nothing Matters! Hooray! * 1928
If The Great Gatsby is the sad, inflatable kiddy pool of Modernist literature, then Point Counter Point is the grandiose, pristine Olympic pool where nobody does any swimming and instead lounge around the perimeter drinking and trying to figure out why they’re unhappy. That metaphor got out of hand quickly, let’s regroup. The Great Gatsby is lame, sure, but everyone has read it at some point so it makes a nice touchstone for Modern lit. One of the hallmarks of that novel is that that nobody is happy and material fatuousness gets in the way of being human. This is true in most Modern literature. Very few people are happy, and when they are even close to happiness, it’s because they’ve eschewed the material trappings of civilization. The thing about Fitzgerald’s novel, the reason why it’s taught in freshman year of high school and not in graduate school, is that the story kind of skims over the underlying issues which cause everyone to be unhappy. That and the ham-fisted symbolism and trite characterization. Aldous Huxley, by contrast, swings hard in the other direction, giving almost too much context for the empty, dire lives of his characters.
Want to know if the book you’re reading counts as Modernism? That’s pretty easy. Does every character suck? Was it written roughly between 1910 and 1940? Is there a sassy, rich female character who’s bored all the time? Cool, it’s Modernism. If all that sounds awful, well it is. That’s kind of the point. But it’s awful in a fascinating, important way. Point Counter Point is filled with terrible people, nearly none of which are in any way sympathetic. That said, they are fascinating and compelling, their massive flaws a fractured reflection of a society decimated by the first industrial war and scrambling to keep up with the sheer speed of technological change. The rules of society are still hard in place, but as we see over and over in the literature of the time, the rigidity of social structure is fracturing, becoming corrupted and less binding. Meanwhile, technology and science continue to advance in great, shuddering leaps and bounds while revolutions in political thought threaten the standing governance of the world powers. The people in Point Counter Point have a lot on their minds.
The novel doesn’t really have much of a plot, and not all that much happens over course of its many, many chapters. However, there are many, many conversations between characters and many, many more internal monologues. Point Counter Point is often referred to as a “novel of ideas,” and that pretty much sums it up. Everybody in this novel is very smart, and not shy about expressing their opinions about the state of society. There are many characters, all of whom are some shade of terrible. That’s a flip assessment of these people, but Huxley does nothing to varnish their flaws, and in fact seems to highlight them as opposed to their more congenial qualities. This is not to say that the characters aren’t relatable – they absolutely are – it’s just that Huxley tends to emphasize their negative attributes and it’s often uncomfortable to recognize and identify with characters who behave poorly, have petty, nasty thoughts, and say terrible things to each other. Everyone has personality flaws, yes even you, snowflake, but it’s rare for a novel to magnify those and make you stare right at them. It makes for difficult reading from time to time.
There is an additional layer to the characterizations in Point Counter Point, which is to say that many of the characters Huxley write about are loosely based upon real people in the author’s life. Aldous Huxley, grandson of accomplished scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (who was bros with Charles Darwin, and therefore has street cred), rolled with the Modernist crew of the time. Modernism was a whole thing, even at the time, and all of these now-famous authors and literary heavyweights hung out and drank together. A lot. While this active socializing helped to cross-pollinate ideas and art – which the novel illustrates – it was also a reminder that even brilliant writers and thinkers aren’t immune to petty back-biting, arguments, and otherwise treating each other poorly. Point Counter Point features kind-of-but-not-really facsimiles of people like D.H. Lawrence (who is rad) and more obscure figures such as John Middleton Murry (who kind of sucks) and Nancy Cunard (who sounds exhausting even if she worked toward good causes). If you know who these people are, great. If you don’t it doesn’t really matter, because the important thing are the ideas and actions of these people.
The novel begins with probably the best example of the everyone-is-terrible-all-the-time theme at work here. Walter Bidlake, son of a famous painter, is in a pickle. He’s currently living with a woman who’s pregnant with his kid. This lady is insufferably dull, which Walter realized too late because uh-oh, she’s already married and he convinced her to leave her husband for him. Now that they’re shacked up and she’s preggers, her husband refuses to grant a divorce because he loves Jesus too much. Also he’s an abusive drunk. Marjorie, the lady in question, is unhappy nevertheless. This is because Walter has fallen in love with another woman, Lucy Tantamount, even though he kind of hates her. This is because Lucy is the worst, but despite her general awfulness Walter still has it bad for her. It doesn’t really matter though, because at the opening of the novel, Walter is friend-zoned, hard. The first chapter is an internal monologue and Huxley does not shy away from the contradictory thoughts, the petulance and whining, the irrational lusting after a woman who doesn’t give a shit about him while simultaneously treating the woman who does love him like garbage. The thing is, Marjorie is terrible too. Weak-minded and whiny, boring and not all that bright, she should be a sympathetic character but isn’t. So what you’ve got is three people who are varying shades of miserable, with very little to show for it.
What’s the point of that, then? Each character in this unhappy triangle have their issues which are rooted in the shifting and changing society of the time. Marjorie, who should be sympathetic but isn’t, is portrayed in stark contrast to Walter’s circle of very smart, very socially mobile friends. Her husband, a religious relic, is depicted only once and it’s clear that he’s a waste of a human being. However, while Walter doesn’t yell at or hit her, he’s clearly not happy with her dull, moonish personality. Walter, who is bright and fits in with the intellectual circle he moves around with, can’t handle his emotions. He’s the 1920’s version of the ‘good-guy’ who can’t fathom why the woman he’s fixated on isn’t interested. Lucy, fully realized Modern woman (right up there with Sylvia and Lady Brett), likes to drink and fuck. She has zero time or patience for schoolboy puppy love, which is what Walter is offering. Eventually, Marjorie turns toward the solace of religion to soothe the constant, dull, confusing pain of her entire existence. She quickly becomes even more intolerable as her belief makes her condescending and her thoughts even more simplistic. Huxley does not have a high opinion of religion. Meanwhile, Walter’s frustration finally erupts and he basically takes Lucy by force, which she’s into because Lucy’s main enemy is boredom. So they bang for a while until Lucy inevitably gets bored and goes to Paris to take some random lovers and continues stringing Walter along, who takes it because he’s a little bitch who just doesn’t get it, and never will. Lucy is the spirit of Modernism personified: detached from the world, taking her pleasure where she gets it and not worrying about the emotional ramifications of her actions. Meanwhile, Walter is a Romantic throwback, endlessly self-involved and subscribing to a world-view that is hopelessly outdated.
Meanwhile, you’ve got a bunch of other ancillary characters running around who pretty much only exist to present ideas and others to contradict them. Almost like, I don’t know, someone making a point and others presenting a counter-point. One of my favorite examples happens early, and is an exchange between a budding fascist politician named Webley and a quiet, awkward old scientist, Lord Edward. They’re arguing about phosphorus, which Lord Edward is very passionate about because modern technology makes abundant use of it in agriculture. The pace of use is not sustainable, of course, and this upsets the scientist.
“Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It’s idiotic, it’s criminal, it’s… it’s fiddling while Rome is burning!” . . . “You think we’re being progressive because we’re living on our capital Phosphates, coal, petroleum, nitre – squander them all. That’s your policy. And meanwhile you go round trying to make our flesh creep with talk about revolutions.”
“But damn it all,” said Webley, half angry, half amused, “your phosphorus can wait. This other danger’s imminent. Do you want a political and social revolution?”
“Will it reduce the population and check production?” asked Lord Edward.
“Then certainly I want a revolution . . . The only result of your progress,” he said, “will be that in a few generations there’ll be a real revolution – a natural, cosmic revolution. You’re upsetting the equilibrium. And in the end, nature will restore it. And the process will be very uncomfortable for you. Your decline will be as quick as your rise. Quicker, because you’ll be bankrupt, you’ll have squandered your capital.”
Lord Edward is right, of course. Never mind that he’s arguing with a filthy fascist, he’s one of the few people taking a wide view of the trajectory of civilization. This is one of those instances where Huxley’s scientific background comes forward and makes itself known. It’s important to remember that there have been concerns about the sustainability of modern civilization pretty much from day one. For all the technology and speed-loving Moderns like Lucy Tantamount, people like Lord Edward and Rampion (the D.H. Lawrence analogue) know there’s a price to be paid for it. Everyone in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s knew another major war was coming. It was inevitable because the massive pressure of rapid industrialization and the devastation of the previous war created an environment to create demagogues like Webley to force their vision through, consequences be damned.
In the end, Webley is killed for a stupid reason and his death is a farce. He was never a terribly important character, although his ideas are a major force in the novel. On his way to hook up with Elinor Quarles (wife of Philip Quarles, loosely based on Huxley himself), Webley is cold-cocked by an angry socialist (and assistant to Lord Edward). Illidge, the Communist in question, got himself all riled up by the nihilist and ennui-sufferer Spandrell, who basically double-dog-dared him into action. Illidige murks the fascist, and after a little dark humor, disposes of the body. Of course, the death of Webley only strengthened the resolve of his movement, and British fascism moved a little closer to reality. Meanwhile, Spandrell realized that not even murder could awaken his latent humanity, and contrives of a way to commit suicide by police in a weird scene with Rampion.
Hey, here’s a song that has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than sharing a title. But it’s one of my favorite bands and a great song so deal with it.
It’s difficult to parse the meaning of these actions and thoughts. The novel ends with the super-creepy scene of the editor and manipulative shit Burlap enjoying some weird infantilized fetish play with the girl he seduced and why? Because it doesn’t fucking matter, as summarized by Lord Edward’s impassioned speech above. Huxley isn’t here to kink-shame anyone. Well, maybe a little, but really the detached tone of the narrative doesn’t lend itself to a moral stance of any kind. All of these kind of awful but definitely human characters do and say all kinds of questionable things and there’s no real condemnation of their thoughts or actions. Things just happen. Philip and Elinor’s son dies and even though he was a little shit, it’s still pretty sad and there’s no reason for it. Meanwhile, in the background, industrialization and the constant building of civilization is continuing unabated while humanity scrambles to keep up. Looking around the contemporary landscape of 2017, it doesn’t look like much has changed.