Point Counter Point - by Aldous Huxley

‘And besides,’ he added, forgetting that several excuses are always less convincing than one.

He had been brought up on baths and open windows. The first time that, as a child, he was taken to church, the stuffiness, the odour of humanity made him sick; he had to be hurried out. His mother did not take him to church again. Perhaps we’re brought up too wholesomely and aseptically, he thought. An education that results in one’s feeling sick in the company of one’s fellow-men, one’s brothers-can it be good? He would have liked to love them. But love does not flourish in an atmosphere that nauseates the lover with an uncontrollable disgust.

Philip was silent. These discussions of personal relations always made him uncomfortable. They threatened his solitude—that solitude which, with a part of his mind, he deplored (for he felt himself cut off from much he would have liked to experience), but in which alone, nevertheless, his spirit could live in comfort, in which alone he felt himself free. At ordinary times he took this inward solitude for granted, as one accepts the atmosphere in which one lives. But when it was menaced, he became only too painfully aware of its importance to him; he fought for it, as a choking man fights for air. But it was a fight without violence, a negative battle of retirement and defence. He entrenched himself now in silence, in that calm, remote, frigid silence, which he was sure that Elinor would not attempt, knowing the hopelessness of the venture, to break through. He was right; Elinor glanced at him for an instant, and then, turning away, looked out at the moonlit landscape. Their parallel silences flowed on through time, unmeeting.

‘Lucy,’ he said, ‘let’s go somewhere else. Not here; not this horrible place. Somewhere where we can be alone. ‘His voice trembled, his eyes were imploring. The fierceness had gone out of his desire; it had become abject again, dog-like. ‘Let’s tell the man to drive on,’ he begged. She smiled and shook her head. Why did he implore, like that? Why was he so abject? The fool, the whipped dog! ‘Please, please!’ he begged. But he should have commanded. He should simply have ordered the man to drive on, and taken her in his arms again. ‘Impossible,’ said Lucy and stepped out of the cab. If he behaved like a whipped dog, he could be treated like one. Walter followed her, abject and miserable.

Wass fur ein Atavismus! That was what my old German governess always used to say about me. She was right, I think. I am a bit of an Atavismus.’ Rampion laughed. ‘It sounds ridiculous in German. But it isn’t at all absurd in itself. An atavismus—that’s what we all ought to be. Atavismuses with all modern conveniences. Intelligent primitives. Big game with a soul.’

‘Living comes to you too easily,’ he tried to explain. ‘You live by instinct. You know what to do quite naturally, like an insect when it comes out of the pupa. It’s too simple, too simple.’ He shook his head. ‘You haven’t earned your knowledge; you’ve never realized the alternatives.’ ‘In other words,’ said Mary, ‘I’m a fool.’ ‘No, a woman.’

There are confessable agonies, sufferings of which one can positively be proud. Of bereavement, of parting, of the sense of sin and the fear of death the poets have eloquently spoken. They command the world’s sympathy. But there are also discreditable anguishes, no less excruciating than the others, but of which the sufferer dare not, cannot speak. The anguish of thwarted desire, for example. That was the anguish which Walter carried with him into the street. It was pain, anger, disappointment, shame, misery all in one. He felt as though his soul were dying in torture. And yet the cause was unavowable, low, even ludicrous.

This question of identity was precisely one of Philip’s chronic problems. It was so easy for him to be almost anybody, theoretically and with his intelligence. He had such a power of assimilation, that he was often in danger of being unable to distinguish the assimilator from the assimilated, of not knowing among the multiplicity of his roles who was the actor. The amoeba, when it finds a prey, flows round it, incorporates it and oozes on. There was something amoeboid about Philip Quarles’s mind. It was like a sea of spiritual protoplasm, capable of flowing in all directions, of engulfing every object in its path, of trickling into every crevice, of filling every mould and, having engulfed, having filled, of flowing on towards other obstacles, other receptacles, leaving the first empty and dry. At different times in his life and even at the same moment he had filled the most various moulds. He had been a cynic and also a mystic, a humanitarian and also a contemptuous misanthrope; he had tried to live the life of detached and stoical reason and another time he had aspired to the unreasonableness of natural and uncivilized existence. The choice of moulds depended at any given moment on the books he was reading, the people he was associating with. Where was the self to which he could be loyal? The essential character of the self consisted precisely in that liquid and undeformable ubiquity; in that capacity to espouse all contours and yet remain unfixed in any form, to take, and with an equal facility efface, impressions. To such moulds as his spirit might from time to time occupy, to such hard and burning obstacles as it might flow round, submerge, and, itself cold, penetrate to the fiery heart of, no permanent loyalty was owing. The moulds were emptied as easily as they had been filled, the obstacles were passed by. But the essential liquidness that flowed where it would, the cool indifferent flux of intellectual curiosity—that persisted and to that his loyalty was due. If there was any single way of life he could lastingly believe in, it was that mixture of pyrrhonism and stoicism which had struck him, an enquiring schoolboy among the philosophers, as the height of human wisdom and into whose mould of sceptical indifference he had poured his unimpassioned adolescence. Against the pyrrhonian suspense of judgment and the stoical imperturbability he had often rebelled. But had the rebellion ever been really serious? Pascal had made him a Catholic—but only so long as the volume of Pensees was open before him. There were moments when, in the company of Carlyle or Whitman or bouncing Browning, he had believed in strenuousness for strenuousness’ sake.

He made a habit of overtipping. It was not out of ostentation or because he had asked, or meant to ask, special services. (Indeed, few men could have demanded less of their servants than did Philip, could have been more patient to put up with bad service, and more willing to excuse remissness.) His overtipping was the practical expression of a kind of remorseful and apologetic contempt. ‘My poor devil!’ the superfluous gratuity seemed to imply, ‘I’m sorry to be your superior.’ And perhaps also there was a shilling’s worth of apology for his very considerateness as an employer. For if he was unexacting in his demands, that was due as much to a dread and dislike of unnecessary human contacts as to consideration and kindness. From those who served him Philip demanded little, for the good reason that he wanted to have as little as possible to do with them. Their presence disturbed him. He did not like to have his privacy intruded upon by alien personalities. To be compelled to speak with them, to have to establish a direct contact—not of intelligences, but of wills, feelings, intuitions—with these intruders was always disagreeable to him. He avoided it as much as he could; and when contact was necessary, he did his best to dehumanize the relation. Philip’s generosity was in part a compensation for his inhuman kindness towards its recipients. It was conscience money.

He had guessed, of course, from Sir Herbert’s vaguely professional words about ‘slight obstructions in the neighbourhood of the pylorus,’ he knew what was the matter. Hadn’t his son Maurice died of the same thing five years ago, in California? He knew; but he would not speak his knowledge. Uttered, the worst was more frightful, more irrevocable. Besides, one should never formulate one’s knowledge of coming evil; for then fate would have, so to speak, a model on which to shape events. There was always a kind of impossible chance that, if one didn’t put one’s foreboding of evil into words, the evil wouldn’t happen. The mysteries of John Bidlake’s personal religion were quite as obscure and paradoxical as any of those in the ‘theolatrous’ orthodoxies which he liked to deride.

Being with Rampion rather depresses me; for he makes me see what a great gulf separates the knowledge of the obvious from the actual living of it. And oh, the difficulties of crossing that gulf! I perceive now that the real charm of the intellectual life—the life devoted to erudition, to scientific research, to philosophy, to aesthetics, to criticism—is its easiness. It’s the substitution of simple intellectual schemata for the complexities of reality; of still and formal death for the bewildering movements of life. It’s incomparably easier to know a lot, say, about the history of art and to have profound ideas about metaphysics and sociology, than to know personally and intuitively a lot about one’s fellows and to have satisfactory relations with one’s friends and lovers, one’s wife and children. Living’s much more difficult than Sanskrit or chemistry or economics. The intellectual life is child’s play; which is why intellectuals tend to become children—and then imbeciles and finally, as the political and industrial history of the last few centuries clearly demonstrates, homicidal lunatics and wild beasts. The repressed functions don’t die; they deteriorate, they fester, they revert to primitiveness. But meanwhile it’s much easier to be an intellectual child or lunatic or beast than a harmonious adult man.

Till quite recently, I must confess, I took learning and philosophy and science—all the activities that are magniloquently lumped under the title of ‘The Search for Truth’—very seriously. I regarded the Search for Truth as the highest of human tasks and the Searchers as the noblest of men. But in the last year or so I have begun to see that this famous Search for Truth is just an amusement, a distraction like any other, a rather refined and elaborate substitute for genuine living; and that Truth-Searchers become just as silly, infantile and corrupt in their way as the boozers, the pure aesthetes, the business men, the Good-Timers in theirs. I also perceived that the pursuit of Truth is just a polite name for the intellectual’s favourite pastime of substituting simple and therefore false abstractions for the living complexities of reality. But seeking Truth is much easier than learning the art of integral living (in which, of course, Truth-Seeking will take its due and proportionate place along with the other amusements, like skittles and mountain-climbing). Which explains, though it doesn’t justify, my continued and excessive indulgence in the vices of informative reading and abstract generalization. Shall I ever have the strength of mind to break myself of these indolent habits of intellectualism and devote my energies to the more serious and difficult task of living integrally? And even if I did try to break these habits, shouldn’t I find that heredity was at the bottom of them and that I was congenitally incapable of living wholly and harmoniously?

Why couldn’t he love her actively, articulately, outright? When she gave him her love, he took it for granted, he accepted it passively as his right. And when she stopped giving it, he looked dumbly anxious and imploring. But as for saying anything, as for doing anything…

Meanwhile, it might be rather interesting to concoct a character on these lines. A man who has always taken pains to encourage his own intellectualist tendencies at the expense of all the others. He avoids personal relationships as much as he can, he observes without participating, doesn’t like to give himself away, is always a spectator rather than an actor. Again, he has always been careful not to distinguish one day, one place from another; not to review the past and anticipate the future at the New Year, not to celebrate Christmas or birthdays, not to revisit the scenes of his childhood, not to make pilgrimages to the birthplaces of great men, battlefields, ruins and the like. By this suppression of emotional relationships and natural piety he seems to himself to be achieving freedom—freedom from sentimentality, from the irrational, from passion, from impulse and emotionalism. But in reality, as he gradually discovers, he has only narrowed and desiccated his life; and what’s more, has cramped his intellect by the very process he thought would emancipate it. His reason’s free, but only to deal with a small fraction of experience. He realizes his psychological defects, and desires, in theory, to change. But it’s difficult to break lifelong habits; and perhaps the habits are only the expression of an inborn indifference and coldness, which it might be almost impossible to overcome. And for him at any rate, the merely intellectual life is easier; it’s the line of least resistance, because it’s the line that avoids other human beings. Among them his wife. For he’d have a wife and there would be the elements of drama in the relations between the woman, living mainly with her emotions and intuitions, and the man whose existence is mainly on the abstracted intellectual plane. He loves her in his way and she loves him in hers. Which means that he’s contented and she’s dissatisfied; for love in his way entails the minimum of those warm, confiding human relationships which constitute the essence of love in her way. She complains; he would like to give more, but finds it hard to change himself. She even threatens to leave him for a more human lover; but she is too much in love with him to put the threat into effect.

Rachel Quarles had no sympathy with those sentimental philanthropists who blur the distinction between right and wrong, between wrong-doers and the righteous. Criminals, in her eyes, and not the society in which they lived, were responsible for their crimes. Sinners committed their own sins; their environment did not do it for them. There were excuses, of course, palliations, extenuating circumstances. But good was always good, bad remained bad. There were circumstances in which the choice of good was very difficult; but it was always the individual who made the choice and who, having made, must answer for it. Mrs. Quarles, in a word, was a Christian and not a humanitarian. As a Christian she thought that Marjorie had done wrong to leave her husband—even such a husband as Carling—for another man. She disapproved the act, but did not presume to judge the person, the more so since, in spite of what she had done, Marjorie’s heart and head were still, from Mrs. Quarles’s Christian point of view, ‘in the right place.’ Rachel found it easier to like a person who had acted wrongly, while continuing to think rightly, than one who, like her daughter-in-law, Elinor, thought wrongly, while acting, so far as she knew, in a manner entirely blameless. There were circumstances, too, in which wrong action seemed to her almost less reprehensible than wrong thought. It was not that she had any sympathy for hypocrisy. The person who thought and spoke well while consistently and consciously acting ill was detestable to her. Such people, however, are rare. Most of those who do wrong, in spite of their sound beliefs, do so in a moment of weakness and afterwards regret their wrongdoing. But the person who thinks wrongly does not admit the wrongness of bad actions. He sees no reason why he should not commit them or why, having committed them, he should repent and mend his ways. And even if he in fact behaves virtuously, he may be the means, by his wrong thinking, of leading others into wrong action.

‘I feel so enormously much happier since I’ve been here, with you,’ she announced hardly more than a week after her arrival. ‘It’s because you’re not trying to be happy or wondering why you should have been made unhappy, because you’ve stopped thinking in terms of happiness or unhappiness. That’s the enormous stupidity of the young people of this generation,’ Mrs. Quarles went on; ‘they never think of life except in terms of happiness. How shall I have a good time? That’s the question they ask. Or they complain. Why am I not having a better time? But this is a world where good times, in their sense of the word, perhaps in any sense, simply cannot be had continuously, and by everybody. And even when they get their good times, it’s inevitably a disappointment—for imagination is always brighter than reality. And after it’s been had for a little, it becomes a bore. Everybody strains after happiness, and the result is that nobody’s happy. It’s because they’re on the wrong road. The question they ought to be asking themselves isn’t: Why aren’t we happy, and how shall we have a good time? It’s: How can we please God, and why aren’t we better? If people asked themselves those questions and answered them to the best of their ability in practice, they’d achieve happiness without ever thinking about it. For it’s not by pursuing happiness that you find it; it’s by pursuing salvation. And when people were wise, instead of merely clever, they thought of life in terms of salvation and damnation, not of good times and bad times. If you’re feeling happy now, Marjorie, that’s because you’ve stopped wishing you were happy and started trying to be better. Happiness is like coke—something you get as a by-product in the process of making something else.’

‘Or else we don’t see one another again.’ It was to be an ultimatum. Brutal. But Everard hated situations that were neither one thing nor the other. He preferred definite knowledge, however unpleasant, to even the most hopefully blissful of uncertainties. And in this case the uncertainty wasn’t at all blissful.

She was too squeamish, he thought, looking round, too sensitive about these new buildings. Everard found nothing displeasing in the massively florid baroque of modern commerce. It was vigorous and dramatic; it was large, it was expensive, it symbolized progress. ‘But it’s so revoltingly vulgar!’ she had protested. ‘But it’s difficult,’ he had answered, ‘not to be vulgar, when one isn’t dead. You object to these people doing things. And I agree: doing things is rather vulgar.’ She had the typical consumer’s point of view, not the producer’s. A luxury mind—that was what she had; not a necessity mind. A mind that thought of the world only in terms of beauty and enjoyment, not of use; a mind preoccupied with sensations and shades of feeling, and preoccupied with them for their own sake, not because sharp eyes and intuition are necessary in the struggle for life. Indeed, she hardly knew that there was a struggle.

The moment you allow speculative truth to take the place of felt instinctive truth as a guide to living, you ruin everything.’ Spandrell had protested. Men must have absolutes, must steer by fixed external marks. ‘Music exists,’ he concluded, ‘even though you personally happen to be unmusical. You must admit its existence, absolutely, apart from your own capacity for listening and enjoying. ‘Speculatively, theoretically, yes. Admit it as much as you like. But don’t allow your theoretical knowledge to influence your practical life. In the abstract you know that music exists and is beautiful. But don’t therefore pretend, when you hear Mozart, to go into raptures which you don’t feel. If you do, you become one of those idiotic musicsnobs one meets at Lady Edward Tantamount’s. Unable to distinguish Bach from Wagner, but mooing with ecstasy as soon as the fiddles strike up. It’s exactly the same with God. The world’s full of ridiculous God-snobs. People who aren’t really alive, who’ve never done any vital act, who aren’t in any living relation with anything; people who haven’t the slightest personal or practical knowledge of what God is. But they moo away in churches, they coo over their prayers, they pervert and destroy their whole dismal existences by acting in accordance with the will of an arbitrarily imagined abstraction which they choose to call God. Just a pack of God-snobs. They’re as grotesque and contemptible as the musicsnobs at Lady Edward’s. But nobody has the sense to say so. The God-snobs are admired for being so good and pious and Christian. When they’re merely dead and ought to be having their bottoms kicked and their noses tweaked to make them sit up and come to life.’