Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Tag Archives: Point Counter Point

The 1920′s- The End

My entire 1920′s literary journey can be summed up by a line from Point Counter Point.  Philip Quarles laments the current state of education; how children are taught by art and then expect real life to match- but it never quite lives up to the artistic ideal;

“We’re brought up topsy-turvy, ” Philip went on.  “Art before life; Romeo and Juliet and filthy stories before marriage or its equivalents.  Hence all modern literature is disillusioned.  Inevitably.  In the good old days poets began by losing their virginity; and then, with a complete knowledge of the real thing and just where and how it was unpoetical, deliberately set to work to idealize and beautify it.  We start with the poetical and proceed to the unpoetical.”

This was the 1920′s.  Everyone wanted life to be as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as literature and art, but had found out through bitter experience (usually living through WWI was enough) that this was impossible.  Disillusionment on a national level ensues.  All of the characters in Point Counter Point have their diversions, although most do nothing of significance.  Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise moves from self-absorbed youth to lost-soul wandering the Jazz Age landscape.  In general, people begin to live for the cheaper pleasures that are brought by partying, spending money, and having some intellectualized conversations that they know will come to nothing.

Profundity is the Point

Two of my favorite quotes from Point Counter Point reflect the theme of dichotomy that runs through the entire book.  Huxley continually sets up two, often disparate, ideas and plays one off the other, using his characters as sort of philosophical mouth-pieces.  Discussed are; love vs. singularity, animal passion vs. reasoned thoughts, art vs. life, ideal vs. reality, religion vs. modern philosophy.

As stated previously, much of the novel is conversations between a set of characters.  Obviously, some of these conversations are more profound and meaningful than others.  One of the young dilettante’s, Spendrell (a cynical war vet who seduces women to degrade them- truly the bitterest character in the novel) waxes philosophical on the phases of the night as he convinces his companions to join him in his continued revels;

“Still young,” was Spendrell’s comment on the night.  “Young and rather insipid.  Nights are like human beings- never interesting till they’re grown up.  Round about midnight they reach puberty.  At a little after one they come of age.  Their prime is from two to half past.  An hour later they’re growing rather desperate, like those man-eating women and waning middle-aged me who hop around twice as violently as they ever did in the hope of persuading themselves that they’re not old.  After four they’re in full decay.  And their death is horrible.  Really horrible at sunrise, when the bottles are empty and people look like corpses and desire’s exhausted itself into disgust.  I have rather a weakness for the death-bed scenes, I must confess,” Spendrell added.

Very clever, but not much point other than to convince others to join him in seeing the night “die”.  Contrast with another Spendrell scene- this is one with Philip Quarles (another Huxley avatar)- as they puzzle out the events in a person’s life, how certain things seem like fate while others seem like pure chance (good or bad);

“And that’s the sort of thing one’s life hinges on- some absolutely absurd, million-to-one chance.  An irrelevance, and your life’s altered.”  Philip disseminated more politely.  “But many people can be influenced by the same event in entirely different and characteristic ways.”  “I know, ” Spendrell answered.  “But in some indescribable way the event’s modified, qualitatively modified, so as to suit the character of each person involved in it.”

So- are we all the products of a certain chain of events and chances, or do we encounter certain chances because of who we were to begin with?  Or should we just throw our hands up to the capriciousness of fate?

The Point

I was supposed to write this post much earlier but i distracted myself by baking (and eating) hazelnut brownies.  But onward into the decadent world of post-war Britain!  Don’t look too closely at the gilded fixtures…they are a bit tarnished.

What is the point…of Point Counter Point?  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  However, a reader could really be thinking this at first.  This is not a singular story with a strong plot that moves in a straight line, like Huxley’s Brave New World.  This is a novel about characters, and about a certain time in history.  It is a novel of ideas.

The novel follows a group of characters in 1920′s England.  They are considered the “elite”; they are intellectual, educated, and almost all of them are wealthy.  All of the characters are connected, either through acquaintance or family ties, and much of the story is moved along by long (sometimes drunken) conversations they have on every possible subject that has at least a breath of “intellectual” merit.  Sometimes they remind me a bit of the Schlegel’s in Howards End- there is much talk of social problems but, unlike the Schlegel sisters, the characters in Point Counter Point know that they are only at leisure to discuss these injustices because they have money and education- this makes them bitter and cynical.

The characters have just fought (or have been brought up during) the “Great War” and, now that it s over, they find that their world is changed.  The poverty and injustices that were supposed to be ended are still very present.  Politics is entering a period of flux and fascism is on the rise.  Traditional religion is on the decline and psychoanalysis and more esoteric philosophies have been recently introduced.  Many feel that art and aesthetics have to be changed after seeing so much death.  These characters are supremely disillusioned; they see no point in meaningful pursuits and so spend much of their time at parties, having affairs, talking but not doing.

In a really funny passage Walter, one of our young “heroes” (and one of Huxley’s alter-egos), is working at a literary magazine.  He and one other colleague are responsible for sorting the mountain of writing sent to the magazine by those that consider themselves artists and writers.  His disgust with the current state of literature is clear;

“It was the day of the Shorter Notices.  Between them, on the table, stood the stacks of Tripe.  They helped themselves.  It was a Literary Feast- a feast of offal.  Bad novels and worthless verses, imbecile systems of philosophy and platitudinous moralizings, insignificant biographies and boring books of travel, pietism so nauseating and children’s books so vulgar and silly that to read them was to be ashamed of the whole human race- the pile was high, and every week it grew higher.  The ant-like industry of Beatrice, Walter’s quick discernment and facility were utterly inadequate to stem the rising flood.  They settled down for their work “like vultures”, said Walter, “in the Towers of Silence.”  What he wrote this morning was particularly pungent.”