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Fantasy With a Difference

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

Orlando—A Biography. By Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Point Counter Point. By Aldous Huxley. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

An air of strangeness declares the kinship of numerous and diverse present-day, novels. We are yet fresh in the discovery that man, however prosaic and undistinguished, is a veritable fantasm if he be viewed steadily and seen whole. To depict him with the assurance and the simple clarity that came so naturally to our fathers of the pen is now almost an impossibility. To set forth man in anything like his inner actuality we must resort to incantations and the lifting up of symbols, often huge and cloudy, at times highly romantic.

Thus books even so widely unlike as “Orlando” and “Point Counter Point” may with profit be considered jointly. The text for both is—What a piece of work is a man! Mrs. Woolf discourses upon the method of that fabrication and its amazing complexity. Mr. Huxley treats of its monstrous unshapeliness. “Orlando” is fantasy accepted, utilized, and rejoiced in; “Point Counter Point” is fantasy sardonically implied through what is ostensibly realism.

To read “Orlando,” one should have looked into Lucian, Rabelais, Swift, Sterne, and Anatole France, not to mention a childhood grounding in “Alice in Wonderland.” Also an acquaintance with Strachey’s “Queen Victoria” and with Joyce’s “Ulysses” will not come amiss; and certainly one must know Virginia Woolfs “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Thus fortified one need not be disturbed to find that in “Orlando” Mrs. Woolf has abolished time—and made it of supreme importance. Orlando lives through some three centuries and scarcely attains middle age; yet her mind would be without form and void were it not for the memories produced by those centuries. Orlando at “the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight” that ends the book, is quite literally what she has been and what she has become since the late sixteenth century—a nobleman (no less) in the courts of Elizabeth and James and the proprietor of vast estates and of the correspondingly vast Arlington House in midmost England; Ambassador to Turkey, for the later Stuarts; wanderer with Gipsies in Asia Minor; appreciator of wit and society (feminine now with mannish reversals) in the days of Anne and the early Georges; Victorian female; and twentieth-century author—in years thirty-six, of which only a few have been acquired since Sixteen Hundred or thereabouts.

It has been a pleasantly incredible tale, enlivened by wit and a play of fancy that is, one may suspect, often play with a symbol-hunting reader. Warning may be taken, surely, of Archduke Harry, down whose neck Orlando hopefully drops a toad, the which His Grace fatuously adopts as a sort of totem. But such as this must not render one unable to enjoy, for example, the very preface, in which Mrs. Woolf chants thanks to everything and everyone that might conceivably have helped a biographer —except the Comic Spirit.

To it she is mightily indebted, particularly in her treatment of Orlando’s adventures with literature and its makers. Thus are displayed—the brilliant automatism of the Wits of Anne’s Age, who are really naught but Styles; Johnson reduced to a grotesquely mouthing shadow upon a window curtain, uttering words that Orlando enjoyed deeply though they, were entirely inaudible; the dreadful facility with which Orlando’s pen produced Victorian verse; all the centuries of Orlando’s literary travail crowned at last by the Burdett Coutts Memorial Prize.

In truth, it is easy to insist over-strongly that “Orlando” is a parody of biography and an expose of the life literary. The book is in part these things, just as it is in part social criticism and in part sheer whimsy. Equally, and more persistently, it is an exemplification and allegory of the literary spirit and its ways. Thus, what Orlando herself wrote and what she was, have an identical value—her poem “The Oak Tree” and her responses to the diverse ages through which she has being. Indeed, the view of “Orlando” as an allegory of the distinctly English literary mind is understandable; for “through all these changes she had remained, she reflected, fundamentally, the same. She had the same brooding meditative temper, the same love of animals and nature, the same passion for the country and the seasons.”

Whether or no Mrs. Woolf employed this as a guiding definition of English literature, whether or no she attempted to produce the atmosphere of all its important epochs (and if so, why slight the later Romanticism?) it is clear enough that Orlando is an entity chiefly in so far as she is an embodiment of her love for English soil and her own Arlington House and the oak tree on the hill above it. Whenever she returns to these she is most a personality; elsewhere she is too often—Ambassador to Turkey and scarcely herself.

Surely the chief value of the book is not in the exhibition of a personality but in the allegorical setting forth of its components and their fusion. Only when the book is finished is Orlando ready to begin being herself. Perhaps Mrs. Woolf will give us a novel in which the Orlando, whom we now somewhat understand, can truly accomplish something in that quest of “the great fish who lives in the coral groves,” of the “kingfisher” and the “wild goose,” of “Life, Life, Life!” that can never be caught by any net of words.

That Mrs. Woolf has not made of “Orlando” another “Mrs. Dalloway,” is perhaps an admission of some discontent with character portrayals in the more advanced fiction. Indeed, why should not any or all of our later realists occasionally abandon the attempt to make expressionism evocative of personality or give up temporarily the hope to get a like result by strong insistence upon the miscellaneous-ness of any given mind; why not rather frankly abandon the attempt to produce potent personality and substitute for it a sort of large, almost epical symbolism; why not, for example, write an allegory of the mind as moderns know it and at the same time accomplish whatever else is appropriate and possible, for instance an exposition of literariness and Englishry? Later, both the writer and his readers may come back with profit to fresh essays at modern realism.

At any, rate, heterogeneity and simultaneity are constantly evident in Orlando, more and more insisted upon as the book progresses. Orlando begins “strangely compounded of many humors,” to which miscellany is attached an appropriately fantastic assortment of recollections as “memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.” “What a phantasmagoria the mind is,” exclaims Orlando midway the book, throwing her cheroot out of the window. Symbolic, that cheroot, of a difficult complexity in its smoker, an ideal hermaphroditism that survives in Orlando even during Victorian femaleness. “In every human being,” explains Mrs. Woolf, “a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness.” And within this duality Orlando develops, through the busyness of memory, a multiplicity of selves to dizzy any arithmetic. So much for the modern consciousness of heterogeneity.

As for simultaneity, that is rightly declared only when Orlando is our contemporary. Relativity, radio transmission of thought and energy, the universe an atom, the atom a universe, the rather appalling knowledge that nothing we have encountered ever ceases to be part of us—small wonder that Orlando finds the striking of a clock painful, and that in her first contact with modern life she cannot easily “synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which simultaneously beat in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past.” Yet just this Orlando does—Orlando the symbol of the “true self,” which is at any instant “compact of all the selves we have in us to be.”

In “Point Counter Point” Mr. Huxley works toward greater definiteness. Grotesquery rather than heterogeneity or simultaneity is of the essence of his portrayals. “The world’s an asylum of perverts,” remarks Rampion, one of Mr. Huxley’s most significant personages, explaining then that perverts are those . . . “non-humanly religious, non-humanly moral, non-humanly intellectual and scientific . . . non-humanly lascivious and Don Juanesque, non-humanly, the conscious individual even in love.” Most of the types named by Rampion make up, in this book, a background from which stand forth non-human intellection and non-human sexuality. Where one or the other exists alone in an individual, it produces dire distortion; where both unite in such a figure as Spandrell a most depressing incongruity.

This is not to deny Mr. Huxley a fine skill in the details of characterization or in certain entire portrayals. On almost every page there is some moment of insight, some nice bit of discrimination, some adroitness of description that is above cavil. The lighter dialogue has again and again all the happiest graces of high comedy; the many long and often oracular speeches are never out of character, never labored despite their heavy burden of ideas. And yet the total effect of the book is that of uncomfortable disproportion, and a remoteness from actuality which is not at all the aloofness of art.

The basic difficulty is that a piece of ostensibly realistic fiction should be so desperately non-human, should deal in the tone it does with such essentially monstrous, though doubtless authentic, specimens of humanity as are of major importance in “Point Counter Point”—a group including writers, artists, scientists, social leaders, all of high intelligence and all benefiting neither themselves nor the world by, continued existence.

One cannot, to be sure, complain because Mr. Huxley has played upon his theme only such variations as come naturally to counterpoint. There is withal a beginning, a middle, and an end, and much is done to achieve it. There is the story of the amiable and sensitive and besotted Walter Bidlake and the Lucy who prefers men that bite; the story of Spandrell, the philosophical and perverse pervert who progresses from debauchery to murder and self-destruction; the story of Phillip Quarles, the ubiquitous intellect incapable of emotion or of any valid association with his kind; the story of Burlap the sanctimonious lecher; the story of Sidney Quarles, rather more amusingly and pompously lecherous; and many, many more of less consequence. All these stories Mr. Huxley shuttles neatly with no puck-erings and no blurring of pattern; there is something of an emotional climax; and above all that which was to be proved has been proved.

The difficulty is not there. The fundamental fault is that the whole book has too much the flavor of the bit of narrative in which Mr. Huxley relates how Spandrell unspeakably debauched a girl named Harriet, “poor” Harriet. One turns from the account with the shame that is produced by reading the evidence of certain murder trials —and that is not a literary emotion. This exposition of Spandrell’s filthiness and brutality is touched with neither high indignation, nor awful wonder, nor with the fire of super-real vividness, nor with anything else that could make literature out of it. It is not even impersonal; that “poor” prevents impersonality. This narrative is, of course, an unimportant detail in a long novel; but it has undeniable symptomatic value. That whereof Mr. Huxley wrote should have moved him more if literature were to result. The treatment of Spandrell and a world to which he is native demands a power and artistry beyond Mr. Huxley’s noteworthy attainments in actualism, wit, and satire.

That the book may conceivably render other services than those artistic, is not to be denied. Put together the preachings of Rampion and of Spandrell and you will have a philosophy that sorts nicely with certain teachings of Behaviorism and the like and with our nervousness about suppressions and complexes. Be “human”; do whatever instinct tells you to; be whatever chance makes you— that is the sum of this philosophy. If Mr. Huxley is offering this fatalistic hedonism as a cure for over-sexuality and over-intellectuality, he has, to say the least, suggested a dubious homeopathy. Perhaps he is not offering it; perhaps he is merely exhibiting it just as in Spandrell and Lucy he is, after his fashion, exhibiting the spectacles of those who have worn out everything but desire for a desire lost in the pursuit thereof.

In truth, “Point Counter Point” is probably of more value as a diagnosis than as remedy of any disease afflicting us moderns. Spandrell and the others, though indubitable warnings, are too extreme, too remote from normality, too instinct with grotesqueness and fantasy to be strong deterrents for those readers of Mr. Huxley (and there may be several) who need deterring. And though the diagnosis is exact, there are certain questions not convincingly answered by the diagnostician: is the disease at all prevalent in such severity, as that shown in “Point Counter Point”; is it likely to spread?

In short, the remarkable circumstance about “Point Counter Point” is that it should contain so extraordinarily much of permanent value and yet should amount as a whole to so disproportionately little. Indeed for the lessening of “the difficulties of living properly in this grotesque contemporary world,” certainly for the truly moving and highly profitable exposition of its grotesqueries and fantasms, there are many reasons for preferring “Orlando.”


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