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For the main work of his new volume of essays, Aldous Huxley has drawn upon the journals of an obscure French philosopher of the nineteenth century and used them as a basis for expounding his theories about the sad drift of the world. This takes up about three-fifths of "Themes and Variations"; the rest is a jumble of essays ranging from "Variations on El Greco" to a plea for population control.
Maine de Biran was notable for not being representative of his time, and strove in his journal to record only personal emotions and the fruits of his philosophizing. He might have lived in any country at any time, and it is upon this isolation from the environment that Mr. Huxley builds his longest essay, "Variations on a Philosopher."
The central theme of this essay, as of several of the smaller ones, is the struggle of men to remain more than mere cogs in an impersonal, institutional machine. The "right to a private existence, unconditioned by history and society," is Mr. Huxley's shibboleth, the one he propounded so effectively in "Brave New World."
Unlike most contemplative philosophers, Biran pays great attention to the philosophical significance of the frailties of his body. For both Biran and Huxley, even philosophical systems are too rigid if they take no account of individual personal variations.
In the minor essays which follow "Variations on a Philosopher," Mr. Huxley treats of art, religion, prisons, and food shortages. His demonstration that art and religion bear almost no relation to each other at a given period of history is challenging and witty. "Man and society are, doubtless, wholes; but they are wholes divided, like ships, into watertight compartments." In the essays on the individual painters and works, this tearing at the unified pictures of society presented in history books is also evident.
"The Double Crisis," which gives a dreary Mathusian view of an overpopulated, starving world, is an unsatisfying conclusion to the volume. The change from a critical to a vaguely constructive approach afflicts Mr. Huxley's usually confident style with a certain awkwardness. And most of his observations and proposals are either aged or admittedly impractical, leaving an impression of dilettantism which one does not receive from the critical works in this volume.
All the essays except the last display a verse style that is as sparkling as it is smooth, and as stimulating as it is comprehensive. After thirty years of criticizing the colossus of mechanized society, Mr. Huxley can still expand his thesis delightfully.
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