Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chrome Jell-o

“For if one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment's peace of mind... One is always alone in suffering; the fact is depressing when one happens to be the sufferer, but it makes pleasure possible for the rest of the world.”

--Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow

The problem for the author who writes a landmark novel is that once he or she has departed and is thus no longer capable of putting out new work, it is all too easy for posterity to associate him or her with that single legendary text. Herman Melville might have believed it all right we revere Moby Dick but it hardly stands to think that Jack Kerouac— who published eighteen novels in his lifetime and who disassociated himself from the Beat Generation—would be pleased that outside his small, committed fan base, anything not titled On the Road is mostly yellowing, dusty, forgotten, unread. It might be said that for any author who desires immortality, a beloved masterpiece is the ticket, but a caveat of oblivion for the remaining oeuvre is fair warning.

Aldous Huxley was one of those great geniuses who wrote one of the twentieth century’s masterpieces, Brave New World, which with its test tube babies, soma addiction, and sexual promiscuity predicts the pleasure principle of our contemporary times. It deserves its place in the literary canon but like said conundrum for many writers, most readers stop right there, as if all there was to know of Huxley and his godlike omniscience of the human condition was in that small, lovely book.

Published in 1922, Crome Yellow, Huxley’s first novel, demonstrates his unique gift for language, theorizes some of the blueprint that would become Brave New World, and vaguely predicts the Second World War as well as the eventual apotheosis of the machine as man’s best friend.

Crome Yellow is a quietly subversive parable, the whole of which takes place on the eponymous castle estate in the English countryside. It is less a story and more a forum for Huxley to air his many social theories regarding history, politics, reason, madness, love, and poetry. Not much really happens: a small party from Britain’s leisure class has congregated for the season to banter, create, review, discuss, and feast. The reader enters and leaves this tableau with Denis, a young, middling poet with a few published broadsheets and a modest book of verse to his name. His hosts, the Wimbushes, have a niece, Anne, whom Denis is hopelessly in love with (in the desperate, maddening vein romantic poets are wont) but whom treats Denis cynically as she would a kid brother for whose best intentions raise only snickering. She is more drawn to Gombauld, an artist of some repute and Byronic handsomeness.

Among the other guests, the primary character of interest is Mr. Scogan, who looks “like an extinct saurian… his nose was beaked…the skin of his wrinkled brown face had a dry and scaly look; his hands were the hands of a crocodile.” A friend and contemporary of Henry Wimbush, he is something of a pedantic, a bore, a philosopher king and, conjecturally, a mouthpiece for Huxley. He also has many of the novel’s choicest lines. Upon learning Denis is at work on a novel, in Scogan’s assumption of the plot he indicts nearly every writer of the 1920s, including, one supposes, Huxley himself:

“I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

His spot-on assessment humiliates Denis who vows quietly to tear the pages to pieces when he unpacks later that night. It’s a bad start for a young artist of marginal confidence and it’s a slippery slope from there. When alone with Anne he often contextualizes their time together by quoting poetry, an affectation which his muse calls “a bad habit.” In a setting of larger-than-life personalities at home with confirmed belief systems, the work-in-progress Denis inevitably flubs his lines (his social ineptness and half-cooked awareness is not dissimilar to Huxley’s more famous punching bag, Bernard Marx.) However, due his ingenuousness, Denis is an ideal sounding board, especially for the talkative Scogan, who often pins him down with breathless soliloquies.

Huxley would not publish Brave New World for another decade but here are the seeds being planted by Mr. Scogan, a self-described realist in an age of madmen. Anticipating the Greek alphabetical hierarchy of Huxley’s imagined future is a rough sketch of what would become the human organizing system of his greatest novel:

“In the Rational State, human beings will be separated out into distinct species, not according to the color of their eyes or the shape of their skulls, but according to the qualities of the their mind and temperament. Examining psychologists…will test each child that is born and assign it to its proper species. Duly labeled and docketed, the child will be given the education suitable to members of its species, and will be set, in adult life to perform those functions which human beings of his variety are capable of performing.”

This so-called Rational State consists of three distinct groups: the Directing Intelligences, the Men of Faith and the Herd. The breakdown is self-explanatory: the Intelligences devise the system, the Men of Faith sell it and the Herd follows orders. Of Denis’ role in this future society, Scogan is at a loss. Denis being independent but neither persuasive nor clearheaded, Scogan “can see no place for you; only the lethal chamber.”

Huxley before the Future

Denis’ host, Henry Wimbush, is a scion of some fortune. His magnum opus is a history of the village of Crome and especially the castle where they reside. On two occasions, Henry reads from his historical tome. One story involves an ancestor named Hercules, a dwarf, while another relates three sisters feigning an anorexic appetite as pseudo-spirituality. The first story is decidedly tragic, the second comic, which seems true for the novel as well. Although Huxley’s narrative voice is sportily sardonic, the philosophical musings on the future reflect an anxiety about the end result of technology intertwining itself with the worst instincts of human nature.

When the consequence is not deadly, it may be simply alienating. Even the affable Wimbush isn’t very much interested in mankind. Being a character in a Huxley novel, he is thoughtful, given to intelligent musings with some remarkable capacity to witness the distant future. Confiding with Denis the night of the country fair, Wimbush describes his own utopian vision:

“Perhaps, in the future, when machines have attained to a state of perfection—for I confess that I am, like Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the perfectibility of machinery—then, perhaps, it will be possible for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion.”

Huxley is not describing television, video games, and the Internet, or any of the quotidian appliances that guarantee a self-sufficient existence. But he knew human nature and its pull over us like moths to the flame. Would the descendants of Henry Wimbush bother hosting a party of individuals for the summer season if it stood to interrupt their online presence?

The answer is difficult to say. Denis might disagree. Humiliated multiple times he nevertheless needs other people to exist himself. He has no true form without recognition from others. In his own words:

“The individual is not a self-supporting universe. There are times when he comes into contact with other individuals, when he is forced to take cognizance of the existence of other universes beside himself.”

If we are to survive as a viable, energetic, empathetic species, may it always be so.


  1. Despite a rich library, Huxley is a great example of a perceived one-hit wonder. As Joseph Campbell said, once you find an author that moves something within you, devour their ouevre. It's only then that you start to get a feel for what the author is trying to say, i.e. a greater picture of how he or she lived their lives, and how it affects you.

  2. Rather hard to imagine, but Chrome Yellow reportedly scandalised english literary society (Bloomsbury Set i think...) when it was published. Many of the characters have analogs in reality, of whom you will be well acquainted.