Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 3


I apologize that I haven’t come sooner with part 3 (and the final part) I wanted to share with you in the slow reading challenge, but I was visiting schools with my daughter in Chicago and Philly and I was of course hoping that you would all leave some feedback with regard to what was in store for Mr. Cardan as he was pondering the rest of his life (read: debilitating decline).

Now, we left Mr. Cardan by himself in the Italian countryside, lost, as darkness was rapidly descending. With it,  an all-enveloping darkness descended on Mr. Cardan’s soul, bringing about a fear of physical decay and deterioration. Maybe Cardan is a hypochondriac by nature, or maybe he is just being human– coz aren’t we all fearing the Great Extinction after decay sets in?

Here’s part of the rest:

Perhaps one ought to have married. Kitty, for example. She would be old now and fat; or old and thin, like a skeleton very imperfectly disguised. Still, he had been very much in love with Kitty. Perhaps it would have been a good thing if he had married her. Pooh! With a burst of mocking laughter Mr. Cardan laughed aloud savagely. Marry indeed! She looked very coy, no doubt; but you bet, she was a little tart underneath, and lascivious as you make them. He remembered her with hatred and contempt. Portentous obscenities reverberated through the chambers of his mind.

So there you have it; afraid to rot, decay and die alone, Cardan wonders whether he should have married (!). If we ever sympathized with Cardan, because he does wear those cool coats that have whole salamis, breads and bottles of wine in them, we sure do lose all sympathy for him here, because whoever Kitty was, she doesn’t deserve to be mocked like this, even if she were a lascivious tart. Cardan is a misogynist, although of course many men of his generation (and class) considered themselves superior to women in general. Besides, Kitty might have turned fat, or skinny, skeletal, i.e. Cardan still does have mortality on the brain. Marry indeed ! When young, reckless and male and not feeling the sting of mortality (yet), Cardan remembers that he, as so many men, didn’t want to get tied down by marriage or a wife, so the whole idea remains ridiculous and bourgeois, including Kitty and however she might have turned out. But then he goes down a dark road again:

He thought of arthritis, he thought of gout, of cataract, of deafness… And in any case, how many years were left him? Ten, fifteen, twenty if he were exceptional. And what years, what years!

Do you ever wonder how long you may have? I know I do and I can tell you, it’s a depressing thought because all the best years tend to be behind us: as my kids are going off to college, I am strangely envious of them because that’s when life begins and when dreams and aspirations still matter… at this point in my life, I feel that I have failed on many fronts and I don’t have the years to ever make that up, but I digress. Let’s take another sip of that bottle:

Mr. Cardan emptied the bottle and, replacing the cork, threw it into the black water beneath him. The wine had done nothing to improve the mood. He wished to God he were back at the palace, with people round him to talk to. Alone, he was without defence. He tried to think of something lively and amusing; indoor sports, for example. 

Hahahahahahaha! Something lively and amusing… and the first thing that pops in his mind is indoor sports… Granted, there is something sad, sweaty and silly about indoor sports but it’s the last thing I would think of to cheer myself up.

But instead of indoor sports he found himself contemplating visions of disease, decrepitude, death. And it was the same when he tried to think of reasonable, serious things: what is art, for example? And what was the survival value to a species of eyes or wings or protective coloring in their rudimentary state, before they were developed far enough to see, fly or protect? Why should the individuals having the first and still quite useless variation in the direction of something useful have survived more effectively than those who were handicapped by no eccentricity? Absorbing themes. 

Clearly, death, or survival is still foremost on Cardan’s mind as he quickly goes from dwelling on questions involving art to questions about Darwinism.

But Mr. Cardan couldn’t keep his attention fixed on them. General paralysis of the insane, he reflected was luckily an ailment for which he had not qualified in the past; luckily! Miraculously, even! But stone, neuritis, but fatty degeneration, but diabetes… Lord he wished he had somebody to talk to!

Mr. Cardan could easily make a rap song of all the diseases and disorders that pop in his head, and we might still be amused. Or pity him. Or be irritated by him. I think I feel a bit of everything and if I had the choice of meeting Mr. Cardan, I’d think I’d decline. His ego is getting too much in the way of himself.

Mr. Cardan does get “rescued” after this– by a young man and woman, not Italians, but Englishmen like himself. The woman is an heiress and slightly retarded, so yes, a “perfect mate”, if she didn’t die before the end of the novel is out–oops SPOILER ALERT, but then you may have read enough. Or not?

In a never-before published essay that TS Eliot wrote on “the moral interest” in “the contemporary novel” which the TLS published in its August 14th, 2015 issue, Huxley gets put in his place very quickly: “Mr. Aldous Huxley,” Eliot writes “who is perhaps the sort of writer who must produce thirty bad novels before he arrives at the good one, has a certain natural, if undeveloped talent for seriousness.” An underhanded compliment, or maybe just a terrible slam coming from the modernist critic and master, and yet, nine years after Those Barren Leaves, Huxley penned the visionary novel (and 7th book, so Eliot wasn’t even close) that would put him on the map and is still relevant today, i.e. Brave New World (1932). In the same essay, Eliot extols Virginia Woolf far above Huxley and other “contemporaries” and while he maybe right, my eye was also drawn to two reviews on Eliot and Virginia Woolf biographies in the same TLS: though Eliot and Woolf might be seen as both taking or being on the moral high ground of high culture, their sex lives were a dysfunctional mess, so great art always tends to come with great personal sacrifices.


Where does this leave us with slow reading and Huxley? Slow reading really does bring us closer to living, not so much living through the filter of someone else but re-living through relating: the more slowly and the more attentively we read, the more readily we recognize and relate and interact with the text as well as life.

If you want to read some non-fiction by Huxley, he wrote an extremely intriguing book on mind-altering drugs (The Doors of Perception: Heaven and Hell) , stemming from his experiments with de drug mescalin. During these experiments, Huxley experienced a level of extreme consciousness where the ego took a back seat to an essence of being (“or being in the moment” as the fashionable saying goes) which we may actually remember from childhood and which connects us more closely to our core essence or soul. Huxley is truly visionary in this book and if you have written off God, but nonetheless feel there is more between heaven and earth, I highly recommend this book, in which he’s saying stuff and connecting things that were new to me (no more spoiler alerts!). Heck, for all I know Cardan might have been a more lovable character if he had tried some mescalin with that wine…

I am signing off and realize that this 3-part blog was a total waste of time. Slow reading? Who cares? Forget about slow reading because people don’t read at all anymore, I just heard recently. People read inane stuff on social media all the time but they have a hard time finishing one book in a year. Reading, however, is good for the soul: a new study found that if you actually read from that book on your bedside table before bed, you may have an easier time falling asleep and you become a more interesting person to other people, and with that I am signing off. Read ON!!!

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4 Responses to Slow Reading Challenge: Aldous Huxley, part 3

  1. Eileen says:

    I really enjoyed your 3 part series Inez – is it me or did you take a morose turn at the end? I think that bit of reality is very sorry. I adore reading and even I have slipped recently although I cannot imagine reading only one book a year! Anywho – enjoyed this and I understand the feeling of seeing your kids off into their first adult chapter and reflecting on where that leaves us as women ‘of a certain age.’

  2. Melanie says:

    Inez, I am sorry that you are giving up. I really loved your insights and thoughtfulness (despite my rather boneheaded comment last time). I think this book and this character might have been a tough first choice. Mr. Cardan, as you sort of eluded to, is perhaps a bit too close to my own narcissism and modern over involvement with the self and in that way challenging to read because I too found myself sort of irritated but also couldn’t deny that he is far too like myself. But the good news is that it did remind my that I am boring…..

    • Hi Melanie, I wasn’t so much giving up– but maybe I wasn’t clear. Doing the whole book would bore everyone and I just wanted to do a sampling in 3 parts. The audience for these entries wasn’t exactly stellar, so it demonstrates that people find a topic like slow reading incredibly boring. We live in a different world I guess, of fewer readers, and with it, a waning cultural literacy which, to me, has always been an essential part of our humanity and ability to care for others. I love the internet like most, but the dark side is an erosion of our standards for art and culture. I am sure something fine will come in its place but for now it depresses me because the moron-factor, as epitomized in a character/caricature like Donald Trump, is growing exponentially as people don’t bother to read and check facts.

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