Childhood In Anglo-American Fiction: A Review Of Huxley’s ‘The Genius And The Goddess’

One cannot approach American literature today in ignorance of the significance which Deleuze imparts to our understanding of temporality and what- let us call, for now, the mode of narratorial production, in its variance from the traditional style of the novel as enshrined in the 19th and 20th-century European Bildungsroman.

In such an approach, a student of literature notices that the unfolding of the narrative begins neither in an existential soliloquy, as in classics of the form, such as the underground man’s self loathing exegesis in Doestoevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’ (1864), nor in a narratorial microcosm which underlines the beginning of English Victorian fiction in works such as Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813). What we notice instead in ‘The Genius And The Goddess’ (1955) by Aldous Huxley is a dialogic character of narrative that isn’t grounded in the interiority of a thought, theme or character but which emerges between personas who are introduced impromptu via a get together over Christmas Eve; John Rivers and the unnamed interlocutor, as they recollect the Maartens family, whom John Rivers once worked and lived with; they are to emerge as the real subject of the novel. The characters who thus constitute such an oblique and tangential subject, via the two interlocutors retroactively frame our vision of the interlocutors themselves.

This transition is crucial, to notice how the reader of the novel is no longer the one confessed to (as opposed to the traditional European bildungsroman) the inner world of the narrator is, hence now, distinct from the idea, the topos of the novel, yet what accompanies this is not a refrain of a lost idyllic innocence so often found in laments of childhood in Victorian novels, a trope whose self-indulgent ‘tragedy’ is perhaps exemplified in George Elliot’s ‘The Mill On The Floss’ (1860). What we see emerging, instead, is a reconstruction of the qualitative maturation, of the direction and hermeneutic horizon of narratives. It was Gilles Deleuze who perhaps first traced this. In ‘Dialogues’ (1977)m the chapter on ‘Anglo-American’ literature identifies and presents how narrative in the anglo-phone world is not constructed within the classical contours of historical time, whether in interiority or exteriority, yet is charted as a transversal line that cuts across history and into geography. Lines not in search of a horizon, whose ‘dream’ the reader is privy to as in the great migratory myths such as the Biblical exodus, but an exposition that unfolds itself between characters, now constituted as points of experience and predispositions, whose creative play nurture a ‘memory’ that emerges. What we are perhaps witnessing is the vanishing of the omniscient narrator and the opening of a line of inquiry that is imminent to the play of resemblances and equivalences that are true only to the desire of the inquiry.

The question that emerges now is how do we apprehend the truth value of such narratives? The debunking of the instructional style, the collapse of traditional ideals with modernity, and the abandonment of even the fiction of the omniscient narrator perhaps bring into question what some may call the ethical value of fiction. While there are those who may dismiss  such a question too as the vestige of a bygone era, I would however choose to illumine how this emerging narrative actually reveals and unknots silences and brings into light closeted anguishes, particularly those of childhood which the modern novel often overlooked in the breadth of it’s historical and psychoanalytic sweep.

This is in fact where, I feel, Aldous Huxley excels and it is worth illustrating how far the narratorial form has come from its early continental origins. If the collapse of feudalism brought with it the disillusionment in the faith of the ideals of the rural community, it also created a leveling in the temporalities in which the narratives of the lords and serfs were charted. Such a history, however, posits the breakdown of feudalism itself and the emergence of mercantile trade and capitalism as the telos of a process whose greatest achievement was the construction of a novel narratorial space which the German and early English Bildungsroman negotiated. 

This movement is unmistakable in Victorian classics such as Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, where we witness the archetype of many a folk fairy-tale adapted to the form of the novel which was gathering steam in England. Childhood, however, in Victorian fiction, yet retains the disciplinary aspects and the segregation of ‘adults’ and ‘children’ – a practice so embedded that the position of the ‘governess’ owes its origins to this period. An upper-class household in Victorian England, the symbolic milieu of much of such literature was hence a space and a form of social organization that necessitated the institution of the governess. What does this tell us about familial relations from the era? That child-rearing and education were outsourced from the institution of the family, yes, but also that the socialization of children was closely scrutinized and emerged as a formally disciplined procedure. Such icy formalisms are not limited to child-rearing alone, it was common for example for husbands and wives to sleep in different rooms, indicative of where the tropes of the sexually restricted Victorian couple arise from.

In returning, however, to what we called the desire of the inquiry, the cite of this question is what is necessarily left unmarked by Huxley. The unnamed interlocutor is a friend of John Rivers, one who socialises in similar circles, yet beyond that we are in the dark and it is perhaps this darkness itself which permits us to place ourselves in the shoes, chair, and voice of such an interlocutor, and allow us to be led by a conversation that we witness through another’s eyes.

Regarding the events of the novel itself, we witness how Henry Maartens, in his bid to get his wife Kathy back home, who is away nursing her sick mother, works himself to illness. This childlike self-inflicting is symptomatic of the relationship which Kathy and Henry share, her being the immune system and ‘womb’ substitute for his intellectualism and libido. Such a symbiosis, if it can yet be called that, is no longer a symbiosis of characters in the protestant sense, the space which marks the domain of romantic love, but one of organ systems and forms of life, a relationship whose attachments are perhaps best described under the title of Zizek’s radicalization of Deleuze’s focus on the theatrics of the body, as ‘organs without bodies’. A cite which can think the inter-connectedness of forms of life in their nuptial rather than ecological dependence. We are at the cusp of entering a space where the narrative is no longer subject to the plots and destinies of the classical conception of ‘characters’ but where the immanence of a desire reaches immediately for the object cause of its fruition. The strength or force of such a desire, in the above case Henry Maartens’ symbiotic dependence on his wife, encounters resistance not of will or choice, but of the process of maturation that another desire requires to fulfill itself. This other, the desire of Kathy to care for and mourn her ailing mother, is curtailed from the end of its maturation and Kathy decides that she might as well try to save her ailing husband as her mother already appears beyond reprieve. What we are witness to here is the dilemma of choice within a field, reaching for the vigor and health of a life which can participate in the metaphysics of a subject whose name at such a juncture we shall continue to call desire, yet a desire which is also at the same time the desire of the unarmed interlocutor whose inquiry we inhabit, our desire as readers who share a concern and perhaps relate to the complexity of the situation that the Maartens find themselves in, the desire of old John Rivers for some company and conversation during Christmas eve; and in a larger horizon, the desire of a literary genius Aldous Huxley to brush history itself against the grain in a post-war booming economy in America in the sixties, crippled by anti-communism and social conservativeness to demonstrate the resilience of life in its animation for what it yearns for.  Such a gesture plies open a new horizon within the narratorial schema of the novel, and one – which I would suggest bears consequences for the field of medicine as well. We shall leave that however for a later date.

In discussing the dialectical antagonism between adults and adolescence, it is impossible not to notice the sacrilegious reversals that Aldous Huxley employs in ‘The Genius And The Goddess’. The confessional style of the early Bildungsroman, where we witness the life-world of a story through the trials and maturation of the protagonist, dissolves and what emerges is a dimension which is unmistakably more cinematic. The concept of the flashback is married to the Christian milieu of nostalgia and story-telling to bring to notice a place of striking inversions which are remarkable in their innocence. Adults find themselves hiding their misdemeanors from children, who now; though yet unable to exercise direct coercive measures, are able to cause narrative shaping decisions via poetry, a form which subverts the strength of the novel itself, being the plot.

The child in question is Ruth, the daughter of Henry and Kathy Maartens, who after being spurned by the young John Rivers, living as he has been with her family, grows increasingly suspicious of John and Cathy’s escalating attraction. The night when Kathy returns to her husband from her ailing mother’s home, exhausted and emotionally battered from the strain of nursing two of her family at death’s door, is when she requires John’s amorous adoration of her to consummate itself, and it is this consummation that provides her with the resolve to nurse Henry back to health. It is easy to see how we can oedipalize our reading of such events. The woman who nurtures her ill husband, as a ‘womb substitute’ requires the injunction of a libidinally charged eroticism to supplement her nurturing instincts when no longer dealing with what can be thought of as a mature and reasonable adult, for that is precisely what dissolves in Henry Maartens when he saddens himself to sickness in his bid to bring Kathy back.

From Ruth’s perspective, however, this is the nightmare that has shorn her adolescent sexual longings of the fairy dust that sustains the symbolic nexus of dreams. The object cause of her desire can’t tolerate the emergence of the trauma of her fantasy’s copulation with her mother and, this nurses a vindictiveness whose traces can be symptomatically registered without the requirements of any metaphysical axis of evil. The disciplinary inversion that arises here is not that of a return of some diabolical evil, as in the genre of horror narratives that captured the minds of Hollywood audiences not two decades hence, neither is it the ‘terror’ of an invasive force, be it political, such as the threat of communism which gripped America at the time, or ‘extraterrestrial’ as immortalized by Hollywood’s fantasisation of the space race. This is an inversion of forms in the truest sense. Ruth’s poem confronts the unnamed interlocutor with his adultery. The horror of its complicity with her mother emerges in the gaze before whom Ruth places her amorous interest and mother, before the bar of God at the Last Judgement.

Note what John Rivers recounts of the poem here is,

“Standing there in the huge accusing silence, they feel themselves being stripped by invisible hands of all their disguises, garment after garment, until last they are stark naked. More than stark naked indeed; for their resurrected bodies are transparent. Lights and liver, bladder and guts, every organ with its specific excrements – all are revoltingly visible…”

The revanchist fantasy of Ruth’s poem is clear to see as are the causes of its anger, transferring the inhumanity she is subjected to, onto the violating couple. A couple whose relationship within a Marxist theory of literature would take on a peculiar light. as while the injustice felt by the child in their act of copulation could easily be re-coded within an oedipalized reading, it also provides the raw materials which furnish and ignite her poetic anguish. Further, it is precise to the object cause of her desire, John Rivers – that she hands her poem to and it is this act which bears with it the gravity of an event marking the point from where John Rivers decides to leave the Maartens family.

I would, however, like to stress the point here to test the depths to which it may hold. It was, after all, none other than Adorno who questioned the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz, yet within the fold of the micro-politics of desire we see that the imaginary landscape of the budding poet in the mid 20th century drew from the intimacy of courtship in ways that bear marked resemblances to the semantics of courtly verse, yet a courtly verse stripped of all its metrical limitations, arising into a literature free of the word itself, where the only trace of the poem is as it is recounted in prose.

It is here that us literary critics perhaps need to go back to the drawing board. For while psychoanalytic criticism, as well as the hermeneutic project for the last century or so have been deciphering the trace from the word, revealing in its historical moorings as we brushed the dust between intricate figurations, Aldous Huxley seems to have completed the circle by no longer penning the originary formulation itself, yet drawing from it’s mere idea in furnishing a plot shaking event in a narrative. Can there be a better example of what Deleuze names the reality of the virtual, or the multiplicity of ways in which allusions themselves inflect how we cognize the mind map of a poet at work, such as Ruth?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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