Already too long nauseated

From Swift’s “apology” to A Tale of a Tub, in its fifth edition (1710):

The greatest part of that book was finished above thirteen years since, 1696, which is eight years before it was published. The author was then young, his invention at the height, and his reading fresh in his head. By the assistance of some thinking, and much conversation, he had endeavoured to strip himself of as many real prejudices as he could; I say real ones, because, under the notion of prejudices, he knew to what dangerous heights some men have proceeded. Thus prepared, he thought the numerous and gross corruptions in Religion and Learning might furnish matter for a satire, that would be useful and diverting. He resolved to proceed in a manner that should be altogether new, the world having been already too long nauseated with endless repetitions upon every subject. The abuses in Religion, he proposed to set forth in the Allegory of the Coats and the three Brothers, which was to make up the body of the discourse. Those in learning he chose to introduce by way of digressions. He was then a young gentleman much in the world, and wrote to the taste of those who were like himself; therefore, in order to allure them, he gave a liberty to his pen, which might not suit with maturer years, or graver characters, and which he could have easily corrected with a very few blots, had he been master of his papers, for a year or two before their publication.

Not that he would have governed his judgment by the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless, which he mentions with disdain. He acknowledges there are several youthful sallies, which, from the grave and the wise, may deserve a rebuke. But he desires to be answerable no farther than he is guilty, and that his faults may not be multiplied by the ignorant, the unnatural, and uncharitable applications of those who have neither candour to suppose good meanings, nor palate to distinguish true ones. After which, he will forfeit his life, if any one opinion can be fairly deduced from that book, which is contrary to Religion or Morality.

Preceding this is a satirical list of forthcoming works:

Treatises wrote by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published.

A Character of the Present Set of Wits in the Island.
A panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE.
A Dissertation upon the principal Productions of
Lectures upon a Dissection of Human Nature.
A Panegyric upon the World.
An analytical discourse upon Zeal,
histori-theophysi-logically considered.
A general History of
A modest Defense of the Proceedings of the
Rabble in all ages.
A Description of the Kingdom of
A Voyage into
England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the Original.
A Critical Essay upon the Art of
Canting, philosophically, physically, and musically considered.

And from the long-last opening, after pages of other prefatory material:

WHOEVER hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable Pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain Degree of Altitude above them. Now, in all Assemblies, though you wedge them ever so close, we may observe this peculiar Property, that over their Heads there is Room enough, but how to reach it is the difficult Point; it being as hard to get quit of Number, as of Hell.

Evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.

To this End, the Philosopher’s way in all Ages has been by erecting certain Edifices in the Air; But, whatever Practice and Reputation these kind of Structures have formerly possessed, or may still continue in, not excepting even that of Socrates, when he was suspended in a Basket to help Contemplation, I think, with due Submission, they seem to labour under two Inconveniences. First, That the Foundations being laid too high, they have been often out of Sight, and ever out of Hearing. Secondly, That the Materials, being very transitory, have suffered much from Inclemencies of Air, especially in these North-West regions.

The varieties of lexicographic experience

Some instances of an understudied genre, predominantly satirical:

Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas

Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage [which I include under the banner of satirical for such entries as “genteelism”]

Heifetz, Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary

Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

How far can the dictionary form depart from the norm? Can there be a dictionary (or encyclopedia?) of—say, jokes? What else? Another lexicographic genre is that of the collection of keywords (not quite a straightforward glossary or scholarly lexicon)—for a culture, for a theme, for a discipline. Some examples:

Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

Jay, Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time

Lewis, Studies in Words

Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

Freely and sportively bombinating

A month ago I finished Charlotte Brontë’s vastly underrated first novel The Professor, which she completed at 31 but could never get published; her husband Arthur Bell Nichols finally got it out two years after her death, in 1857.

This week I happened to pick up Aldous Huxley’s first, Crome Yellow (1921), which he published at 27. It is just as forgotten and just as brilliant, and the critics have been just as wrong about both.

Each is dense with learning, psychological insight, and piercing characterization. (Each taught me several new words—indurated comes to mind in Brontë, pullulation in Huxley. At least 5% of The Professor is in French.) Both fell out of favor in part due to the facile charge of plotlessness—as if all the talking and thinking and feeling at work in them were not forms of action. Both feature intelligent men in their twenties who take a special interest in language and, of course, fall in love. And both partake of the satirical, but not relentlessly so; the authors clearly see something of themselves in their protagonists, though even they are not spared. I winced in self-recognition at several moments in each.

Brontë’s prose is purpler, more earnest and romantic: it frequently climbs to high and impassioned registers, but never loses contact with its undertone of intelligence. Writing on the other side of the Great War, Huxley, of course, would blush at such rapturous profusion, though I’d like to think he would admire its freshness. He is instead tersely witty, more straightforwardly and charmingly comic, at times virtually slapstick. (Chapter 1 ends, “He would take them by surprise.” Chapter 2 begins, “He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.” [I’m not sure there’s a six-word sentence anywhere in Brontë.] In probably the funniest scene in the novel, our hero waxes romantic and at length about the beauty of the word carminative, only to have his ego—quite aptly—deflated, when he finally learns what it means. It is the most alembicated fart joke that has ever been told.) His monikers evoke Saki and Wodehouse: there is a Priscilla Whimbush, a Mr. Barbecue-Smith. But most of his humor operates quietly, by the irony of rhythm and understatement—as tight-lipped and corseted as the aristocrats he spoofs. The joke is all the richer because we are proud to have noticed it.

An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 1921, reprinted in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt:

“I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social plenum; I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, freely and sportively bombinating.” The plan was ascribed to a fabulous author in Crome Yellow, by Mr. Aldous Huxley. A vacuum is suggested by the rarefied seclusion of his fantastic coutnry house, where a small group of human beings reveal their amusingly simplified traits. But the void is, judiciously, not quite complete. The tone of Mr. Huxley’s story matches the title and the covers; it is a rich, full yellow, which suggests the exhilarating glow of summer and the answering temperature of mind. In this atmosphere the characters bombinate, so far as the heat allows. On the high towers of Crome by starlight (Mr. Huxley will explain in whimsical fashion why they were so absurdly tall), in the cool shadows of the granary, along the deep yew alleys by the swimming pool, the transitory action passes; while the things that are not done (so often more important than those that are) bubble in the mind, betray themselves in spontaneous gestures, or float down the stream of talk.

Mr. Huxley’s personages are drawn with an extreme verve of crispness; in fact the merit of his comedy is that it becomes always more amusing as it grows. Little Mary Bracegirdle, with the earnest blue eyes and bell of short hold hair, would be very tiresome if she talked much of her “repressions”; so she is confined, for the most part, to simple and fatal acts. Mr. Scogan, on the other hand, whose forte is a dry, racy monologue which drones at intervals beneath the bombination, is enlivening for just so long as he would naturally be; only near the end is he revealed in the full colours of a bore. The way in which Mr. Huxley manoeuvres his party, displaying them by adroitly contrasted little scenes, has a good deal of Anatole France’s touch; and it is quite in the manner of that master to stay the narrative which a choice extract from the family records or a fuliginous sermon on the Second Advent by the vicar. Mr. Huxley suggests the same tone, too, by his rich converse with books, and by the “direct action” of the younger members of the party, which puts ideas to rout. But then the master himself, though he is steeped in knowledge and plays with contemporary follies, never leaves us with a notion that he limited by fashions or by culture. Of Mr. Huxley we do not feel quite so sure; like his Henry Wimbush, who remarks at a village dance that “if all these people were dead this festivity would be extremely agreeable”—for then one could simply romantically read about them—he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books. Almost; but not quite; for in Denis, the hero of this little story, through whose eyes we see most of it, the tragi-comedy of adolescence becomes really poignant at the end. The stroke which ruined Denis’s hopes and chances was something that went deeper than his love-affair; it was the discovery, in a humiliating form, that there was a real world of remorseless and self-centered persons which impinged on his own crystal world of illusions and ideas. This shock gives the point to Mr. Huxley’s fantasy, which is so engaging that we hardly wish it other than it is; all we miss is a certain feeling of assurance that he is using his imagination freely for himself.

From Watt’s introduction to The Critical Heritage:

For Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) life and music shared a common quality: they could each be described as a simultaneity of co-existing incompatibles. The same description may be applied to the critical reception of Huxley’s work. He was hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker; celebrated as a leading intelligence of his age and denounced as an erudite show-off; admired as the wittiest man of his generation and dismissed as a clever misanthrope. A few pages of his writing or half a career served equally to evoke the incompatible opinions. Opening the cover of Point Counter Point, Wyndham Lewis objected to a “tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library-readers,” while André Maurois discovered in the same opening pages scenes “worth of the great Russians.” In 1933 C. P. Snow claimed that Huxley “ought to seem the most significant English novelist of his day”, while G. K. Chesterton quipped: “[He] is ideally witty; but he is at his wit’s end.”

Huxley’s writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction, provoked controversy at almost every stage. Those very features of his work which drew most praise—the scientific contexts, the detached irony, the panoply of startling ideas—provided as often as not evidence which his critics felt could be used against him. The Huxley critical heritage is a history of vigorous contention spurred by not always equal shares of insight and misunderstanding.

At the center of that history was Huxley’s own peculiar approach to fiction, what George Catlin called “that strange mutt of literature,” the “novel of ideas.” The term provided at most a sketchy description of Huxley’s books, but his critics were at a loss to suggest anything better. His attitude toward fiction seemed to casual and iconoclastic. “There aren’t any divinely laid down canons of the novel,” he asserted. “All you need is to be interesting.” Huxley’s novels flaunted those conventions of logical realism followed faithfully by older writers, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett. Accordingly, his younger audience in the 1920s found him refreshing: “By comparison, most other contemporary writers seemed stuffy, unenlightened, old-fashioned.” But at the same time his writing appeared to defy the new authoritative view of fiction as an organic art form which had evolved through the influence of Flaubert and Henry James. Developing standards of criticism in the earlier twentieth century were deeply affected by Jamesian aesthetics, by Bloomsbury’s belief in the autonomy of art, and by a severely formalist approach to literature. Huxley’s practice of the novel ran counter to these trends: “From a Jamesian perspective that insisted on rigidly delimiting a fictional world through a filtering consciousness with which the reader was asked to identify but could never wholly rely on, Huxley the novelist was inevitably unsatisfactory” (Firchow). To many observers the failure of Huxley’s fiction either to adopt a traditional posture or to adhere to a formalist criterion meant that he was stuck in an untenable sort of writing which hovered indecisively between the novel and the essay.

Huxley’s critics were slow to realize that he held a different concept of fiction. Like Quarles in Point Counter Point, he readily admitted the problems he had in creating conventional plots: “I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all” (Paris Review interview). But the telling of stories, for Huxley, was only a small part of what fiction could accomplish. He wrote to Eugene Saxton on 24 May 1933: “I probably have an entirely erroneous view about fiction. For I feel about fiction as Nurse Cavell felt about patriotism: that it is not enough.” The popular style of fiction written by Dumas, Scott, or Stevenson could not satisfy Huxley. Also, as much as he appreciated Arnold Bennett’s friendship and advice, he recoiled from the elaborate realism of books like Riceyman Steps. Throughout his life Huxley sought to write another kind of fiction. “My own aim,” he told an early interviewer, “is to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all” (Maraini). The drive to synthesize multifarious attitudes towards life moved Huxley to develop an integrative approach to fiction which in its breadth, he hoped, would transcend the limits of purist art. In this radically charged sense Huxley believed that fiction, along with biography and history, “are the forms”:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on—like Coleridge—why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.