Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Individual Life of Man

Excerpt from Aldous Huxley

To what extent is individual life, which runs parallel with the great stream of history, in fact within that stream? The most startling fact about every individual life is that a third of it is passed entirely outside of history and even outside of space and time, so far as subjective experience is concerned: a third of our life is passed in sleep, in which we are neither in space nor in time, from an internal point of view. Nor are we in history; we just pass out of the world of history into a state of temporary non-being. It is a state which is absolutely essential to us because in it we take refuge from our hideous egotistic activities in order to regain a certain amount of the health and sanity which are always undermined by our conscious activities.

This is exactly what sleep is-- the extraordinary accession of new life and new insight which come in during those eight hours out of twenty-four when we can escape ourselves. Even the most violent fanatic or the most deliquent gangster is, for a third of his life, in this moment of complete unconsciousness when he can forget his ego, in some way reconciled with the deep, divine source of all being. It is a beautiful thought that even a Hitler, even a Himmler, even a Ghenghis Khan, even a Jay Gould, even a Richelieu can forget for a moment his fearful daytime preoccupations.

A very interesting fact, when we come to social organizations, is the discovery that they never sleep. Social organizations live, so to speak, in a state of chronic insomnia; they never depart from themselves nor open themselves up to new accessions of life and insight. They are corrected from time to time only by individuals- who do get the benefit of sleep and therefore can reform social organizations in a rational way. As Mr. Brumble said, ìthe law is an assî- the reason is that the law never sleeps. The Church suffers similarly. There was a hymn which I used to sing very frequently at school, one of whose verses goes,

We thank Thee that Thy Church unsleeping,
While earth moves onward into Light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.

This watchful sleeplessness may account for the deplorable facts of ecclesiastical history... it suffers from the defects of all organizations inasmuch as, not being an organism but merely an organization, it does not have the capacity to retreat and take holidays from itself; it never sleeps and cannot recuperate.

To come back to the individual and the extent to which he is in history, we find that there are a great many periods in his life besides those spent in sleep when he is out of history. These include infancy and most of childhood. During those periods he is living an almost wholly private life in which public affairs have very little influence at all. The same is true of old age and decrepitude, and periods of sickness, too; here the individual is so much diminished that he falls out of public life altogether, and because of his narrowed attention and the chronic pain and frustration, he lives quite out of all relationship with the public world. Finally, the most private and non-historical act of all is the act of death, in which there is a narrowing down of attention until the individual is taken totally out of the world of history.

When we add up all the periods during which we are out of history- the period of sleep, the period of infancy, the period of extreme old age and decrepitude, and the period of sickness- we find that out of the average seventy-year life span the individual probably spends about forty years completely outside of history. He just isnít there at all in relation to the grand historical generalizations which sociologists and historians make.

Even as a mature and self-conscious being, however, the individual spends a great deal of time in a life which is purely private and not historical.... Such facts are of enormous significance. They show that even this small-scale, short-range, catastrophic history, which goes on all the time in its violent and brutal way, and which, as Toynbee says, occupies ìthe headlines of our newspapers and the foregrounds of our mindsî, does not very much engage us. Although at certain moments we may be painfully involved, for the most part we can continue to live our intensely private lives.

This was certainly the experience of a great many people during the catastrophes of recent years, although a very important point which has to be stressed is that in contemporary times the government authorities have gone out of their way to prevent peopleís escaping into their private lives during moments of crisis. It would be very difficult now for a Maine de Brian or a Jane Austen to live quite so completely apart from the historical moment, largely because wars and revolutions involve entire populations rather than small bodies of professional fighting men.

Nevertheless the difference between private life and public life, between biography and history, still remains a very strong one. We see clearly in the nature of our newspapers the fact that most people are not much interested in the public life of their times. Most of the space in newspapers is given up to the more sensational events of private life, such as murders, and a relatively small amount is given to the consideration of great historical events of our time.

One of the best ways of looking at the divorce between private and public life is to consider the idea and the fact of progress. To what extent is it a fact of our subjective life?... There are many reasons that we donít experience progress as much as we might expect that we should. Man has an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. When something new comes in, it is rather astonishing for a day or two, and then it is accepted as part of the order of things. What today is a golden ceiling overhead becomes- when we make the climb and get to it- a disregarded floor under our feet. Then, too, we must remember that every child is born into the world as it exists at that moment and has no experience of the world as it was before. To a child born into the world at the present time, TV and jet planes are a part of the order of things. He has no idea of the sort of world in which I was brought up, which was a world of horses and trains, although these curious (to him) neolithic survivals still exist. This is another reason why it is as exceedingly difficult for us to experience progress subjectively as it is to experience other aspects of public and historical life: most of us are concerned only with the facts of our private lives, with family relationships, with squabbles, with jealousies, with pity for the people around us, with envy, with sex, with gossip. We are involved only in the life of the molecule, not in the life of the gas.

As Dr. Johnson says, ìpublic affairs vex no man and the news of a lost battle never caused any man to eat his dinner the worseî. Conversely, the news of a scientific breakthrough or some immense discovery never makes any man eat his dinner the better.

This state of amphibiousness between society and the individual, between history and biography, is an odd and uneasy kind of existence. But we have to accept it, and in any process of education we have to prepare young people to live in both worlds- to live as best they can in their individual world and, if possible, to take an intelligent interest in the historical one. They probably can never feel the historical world subjectively as they should-- or perhaps they shouldnít; I think it is a great blessing that we donít feel it subjectively most of the time. Anyhow, they should be aware of it intellectually and objectively, so as to be able to be useful citizens. For this is always the problem of human beings- to realize amphibiousness and to know tht they must make the best of this world and of that.

No comments: