Title: Ape and Essence
Author: Aldous Huxley
Genre: Fiction/ Literature/ Allegory
Length: 152 pages
Of the four Aldous Huxley books included on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, is not one of them.
With good reason.
While I was reading I kept thinking, I like the concept, but I am aghast that this is the man famous for a book that millions are required to read for school. Not because there is anything bad about it… it’s just… really? This is the kind of stuff we want to force teenagers to read? It’s disjointed, surly, and… dare I say… a little boring.
The best moment, by far, was when I read:
‘Give back that ring.’
‘Which ring?’ the man falters.
At which point my nerdy self said to my book: “The one that will rule them all, duh!”
To be fair, the book that is typically required reading for students is Brave New World, not Ape and Essence. So, naturally, I had to do a bit of research before considering reading Brave New World, giving Huxley a chance to prove himself in my eyes. If I can’t stomach 152 pages of the man, why would I submit myself to more?
I feel justified in my disappointment, because as my kid sat and worked through a literacy program on the computer at the library, I consulted the Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 6: Modern Writers 1914-1945, and read up on Huxley and this piece of drivel I had just plowed through.
There I read, “Aldous strained to pile horror upon cross horror… the book, it always seemed to me, achieves a high degree of unbearableness.”
There I also read, “most the characters and ideas come from a discount Huxley warehouse.”
Deep sigh of exasperated relief. I don’t have to like this book. Thank God.
Mikhaul Bakhtin described Huxley’s work as the “Canivalesque Novel.” Others in this category would be Rabelais’ Gargantua and Cervantes Don Quixote. These novels are known for “emphasizing inclusion rather than selection” and are “structured like a ‘plate of mixed fruit.’” They are known as the anti-novel.
Sheldon Sacks, on the other hand, considered Huxley’s work as apolgoues, like More’s Utopia, Voltaire’s Candide, and Johnson’s Rasselas… fictions structured as persuasive arguments. (For the record, I am basically paraphrasing – and point blank quoting – the CDBLB!)
The title for Ape and Essence was taken from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, when Isabella says:
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
A sFor every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Again, I have not read Brave New World, but I come away with the overpowering sense that perhaps it is easier to digest because, like the CDBLB says, Brave New World is about what could happen; Ape and Essence is presented as something that probably will. Ape and Essence leaves you with nothing to hope for, and in a world full of agony – hope is vital. The whole book is about how “faith in progress has led to outright regression,” and the book ends with an egg being cracked over a gravestone.
A society so driven by perfection and stamping out rebellion and evil that they have destroyed everything. They do not have the hope and insight of Steinbeck when he wrote in East of Eden, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Instead, everyone strives for perfection until they’ve essentially destroyed themselves and everything around them. They’ve destroyed the world’s ability to think and grow.
Ape and Essence is the most depressing piece of near-satire I’ve ever encountered.
The man himself, however, had some awesome things to say on the nature of writing. Many people read his novels and were irritated by finding mirror images within some of his characters. After a few lost friends he responded,
“Of course I base my characters partly on people I know – one can’t escape it – but fictional characters are oversimplified; they’re much less complex than the people one knows. There is something of (John Middleton) Murry in several of my characters, but I wouldn’t say I’d put Murry in a book.”
I could not say it better myself. Characters may seem a bit like this person or that, but never, never is any fiction that I write in any way biographical. So even though I did not care for Ape and Essence, I came away from researching Huxley fulfilled – and justified.