Friday, September 4, 2015

Travels with Huxley: Thoughts on "Jesting Pilate"

My current work in progress takes place in a lost world, a time and place I have never been and never will be, of which only the dimmest, rustiest shadows remain, almost all of them at the bottom of the dark sea.

I am well challenged. I’m trying to imagine myself in the minds, the skin and clothes and time of others who are not much like me at all, a Waspish white male and baby boomer (and outsider in his own tribe).

I’ve been told repeatedly that I should write what I know and only what I know. But where’s the challenge in that? But the world has read plenty of O’Neill, Cheever and Updike, and I’m neither driven nor inclined to add another provincial saga of white-male bourgeoisie decline. (Oh, sure you might shed a poignant tear, but you’re more likely react as I do when I reach page fifty: yawn and then send in the black helicopters, guns blazing. A guy can only grow up so much.)

Research into the 1920s carries me afar. I skim here, read closely there, mining, dredging facts, then wring them through the sieve of my imagination. From there, I slowly--very slowly with his book--weave the strands into colorful, picturesque (sometimes grotesque) exciting narrative—hopefully stitching is so skillful that I fool us both into thinking I was there, ninety years ago.

With you right there alongside my imagined self, the smells of salt air, coalsmoke and oil filling your mind, as you brace yourself on the swerving deck, leaning against the cold wet wind, as storm rises ahead, as white froth breaks upon the black sea.

“Hark! Gunfire from the bridge! A pirate ship on the horizon! Mutiny below! And who’s that fair gal beckoning me through her cabin door . . . ?”

It all beats exploring the dusty corners of my living room or detailing my war against the fruit flies clouding my tiny kitchen, the one the size of a ship’s galley.


Among my towers of research sources are travel books written in the early part of the twentieth century, written by those who were there; or at least passed through.

Only in the last hundred years or so has travel become “fun”, or a source of intellectual, personal or spiritual growth, at least in the West. Before then, most traveled only out of necessity. Primitive, rough, uncomfortable, and dangerous, to travel was to take your life in your hands, a voluntary venture only for the rough and ready (This excludes the countless enslaved ones who wouldn’t call their experiences “travel” at all.)

Starting in the late nineteenth century, thanks to technological and economic booms, travel became safer and with safety, pleasure was added like frosting. So it came within reach of the mass of Westerners and the genre of travel writing moved beyond the scope of Marco Polo and Lewis and Clark.

“Travel is cheap and rapid,” writes Aldous Huxley in Jesting Pilate (first published in 1926) said by some to be the first of the “modern” travel adventures. “The immense accumulation of modern knowledge lies heaped on every side.” (He should live so long, especially now.)

Huxley is best remembered as the author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, which is one of the first personal accounts of psychedelic usage (that other kind of travel).

Huxley was a pioneering thinker of his times: a socialist, atheist, pacifist whose influence is still with us (though he seems to have sloughed off his atheism in later years in favor of an Eastern spirituality). Much of his fiction is satirical, a genre out of fashion in our age of self-serious novels.

Huxley also suffered from poor eyesight for most of his life. But that didn’t stop him from writing three travel books. Pilate, the first of them, tells of a year-long journey through India, Burma, Malaya, and Japan, before winding up America, to which he would return to live out his life, dying the same day as C.S. Lewis and President John F. Kennedy, his final request an injection of LSD.

The cover of my copy (Paragon House, 1991) depicts a sportily dressed English tourist lounging on a spindly chair, suitcase by his side, his feet up on the clouds (as only the English seem to be able to do). Far far in the distance, across an expanse of water, in the lower corner, sits the Taj Mahal, an image almost like a tchotchke made for a doll house.

The cover turns out to be an apt picture of what’s inside, a journey through a world from afar. Mr. Huxley is still a great writer and thinker. His observations on his travels are detailed, thoughtful and undoubtedly well-meant and you’ll find eloquent pleasures on every page. His opinions are strong, witty, articulate . . . and maybe even sometimes spot on. The observations he makes

I got a special kick out of his razor-sharp takedown of popular Hollywood filmmaking of the 1920s, and how American movies grossly, absurdly misrepresent the West to Asian audiences. He makes the highbrow conservatism that seemed oppressive in my anything-goes youth seem refreshing and rebellious in this age of musclebound, muscle-headed Marvel Superheroes. (Maybe I will write about that cloud of flies hovering around my sink after all! Make them a Metaphor for Everything! Nobel here I come!)

But I can’t pass too much judgment on Huxley’s opinions, except to wonder how much the world he passed through then has changed in ninety-years. He was a man of his time, seeing through his own poor eyes as I see through my better ones. And modernity was still shiny and new. Air travel had not even begun.

Still, Huxley makes his judgments. In fact, opinion is what we mostly get for a large part of this trip (for one, he despises the Taj Mahal down to its foundation; and don’t get him started on Indian politics!). Huxley is not always a descriptive or detailing writer. Except for the constant oppressive heat and tropical greenery, I only occasionally got a vivid visual sense of his journeys (for example, during as voyage down Burma’s Irrawaddy River). I sometimes encountered a great gulf between observer and observed.

Modern readers whose politics are delicate will find Huxley insufferably English, a snobby son of the Empire, down to his wellies. He tends to carpet his sensibilities over the sweltering poverty of the world he travels through. Instead of the greedy craven Capitalist, we have the totalitarian Socialist, equally sure he knows what’s best for these people.

Me, I didn’t really mind (which may also be cause for alarm). The writing is so wonderful throughout, so acute, every sentence perfectly pitched, his opinions failed to goad me much either way, even if I didn’t capture much in the way of palpable detail, but for an incident of attempted murder by a ship’s crew member while passing through Malaya (now Indonesia).

Though I didn’t get a strong-enough sense of the world Huxley traveled through, I got a strong feeling for one man’s mind in his time, a peek through another door of perception, into another time, another space. Useful enough.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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