Eyeless in Gaza

By | January 11, 2010

I picked up a copy of Aldous Huxley’s 1936 novel, Eyeless in Gaza, soon after I returned from a trip to Gaza. I knew that the book was not related to the modern Gaza – the title was taken from Milton’s Samson Agonistes:

… Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves …
But still: the title called to me. It has sat on the shelf, unread, until this year’s resolution to tackle all of the unread books, or give them away. Gaza was Huxley’s first novel after the more famous Brave New World. In those four years the world had changed: Hitler became chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1933 and quickly transformed it into the Third Reich and the British Union of Fascists began it’s rocky rise in Great Britain.
Huxley was a pacifist, a supporter of the Peace Pledge Union and a follower of the visionary Gerald Heard. The central figure of this novel, Anthony Beavis, is Huxley’s alter-ego; Miller is based on Heard.
Gaza has passages that I would call Gandhian, yet in a letter to his brother Julian Huxley ridiculed Gandhi as one “who plays the ascetic in his loin cloth.”By the time of Gandhi’s funeral in 1948 Huxley’s view was more charitable and considered. He wrote: “Gandhi’s social and economic ideas are based upon a realistic appraisal of man’s nature and the nature of his position in the universe.” The opening of his “Note on Gandhi,” published in the May-June edition of the magazine Vendanta and the West, is fascinating:
“Gandhi’s body was borne to the pyre on a weapons carrier. There were tanks and armored cars in the funeral procession, and detachments of soldiers and police. Circling overhead were fighter planes of the Indian Air Force. All these instruments of violent coercion were paraded in honor of the apostle of non-violence and soulforce. It is an inevitable irony; for, by definition, a nation is a sovereign community possessing the means to make war other sovereign communities. Consequently, a national tribute to any individual—even if that individual be a Gandhi—must always and necessarily take the form of a play of military and coercive might.”
Here is an excerpt from Eyeless in Gaza, one of many that speak directly to nonviolence. This would be an appropriate additional reading in Lesson six of The Class of Nonviolence, where we discuss techniques of nonviolent action. At the time Huxley was writing this novel, Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were quite famously treating hecklers with violence; contemporary readers of this chapter would have been reminded of Mosley’s rally at Olympia in June, 1934, when the forced ejection of hecklers resulted in mob violence.
Eyeless in Gaza
Aldous Huxley
Chapter Thirty-three
January 29, 1934
With Helen today to hear Miller speaking at Tower Hill, during the dinner hour. A big crowd. He spoke well – the right mixture of argument, jokes, emotional appeal. The theme, peace. Peace everywhere or no peace at all. International peace not achievable unless a translation into policy of inter-individual relations. Militarists at home, in factory, in office, towards inferiors and rivals, cannot logically expect governments which represent them to behave as pacifists. Hypocrisy and stupidity of those who advocate peace between states, while conducting private wars in business or the family. Meanwhile, there was much heckling by communists in the crowd. How can anything be achieved without revolution? Without liquidating the the individuals and classes standing in the way of social progress? And so on. Answer (always with extraordinary good humor and wit): means determine ends. Violence and coercion produce a post-revolutionary society, not communistic but (like the Russians) hierarchical, ruled by an oligarchy using secret police methods. And all the rest.
After about a quarter of an hour, and angry young heckler climbed on to the little wall where Miller was standing, and threatened to knock him off if he didn’t stop. “Come on then, Archibald.” The crowd laughed: the young man grew still angrier, advanced, clenched, squared up. “Get down, you old bastard, or else . . “ Miller stood quite still, smiling, hands by his side, saying, All right; he had no objections to being knocked off. The attacker made sparring movements, brought a fist to within a inch of Miller’s nose. The old man didn’t budge, showed no sign of fear or anger. The other drew back the hand, but instead of bringing it into Miller’s face, hit him on the chest. Pretty hard. Miller staggered, lost his balance and fell off the wall into the crowd. Apologized to the people he’d fallen on, got up again on the wall. Repetition of the performance. Again the young man threatened the face, but again, when Miller didn’t lift his hands, or show either fear or anger, hit him on the chest. Miller went down and again climbed up. Got another blow. Came up once more. This time the man screwed himself up to hitting the face, but only with the flat of his hand. Miller straightened his head and went on smiling. “Three shots a penny, Archibald.” The man let out at the body and knocked him off the wall. Up again. Miller looked at his watch. “Another ten minutes before you need to go back to work, Archibald. Come on.” But this time the man could only bring himself to shake his fist and call Miller a bloodsucking old reactionary. Then turned and walked off along the wall, pursued by derisive laughter, jokes and whistlings from the crowd. Miller went on with his speech.
Helen’s reaction was curious. Distress at the young man’s brutality towards the old. But at the same time anger with Miller for allowing himself to be knocked about without resistance. The reason for this anger? Obscure; but I think she resented Miller’s success. Resented the fact that the young man had been reduced, psychologically, to impotence. Resented the demonstration that there was an alternative to terrorism and a nonviolent means of combating it. “It’s only a trick,” she said. Not a very easy trick, I insisted; and that I certainly couldn’t perform it. “Anyone could learn it, if he tried.” Possibly; wouldn’t it be a good thing if we all tried? “No, I think it’s stupid.” Why? She found it hard to answer. “Because it’s unnatural,” was the reason she managed to formulate at last – and proceeded to develop it in terms of a kind of egalitarian philosophy. “I want to be like other people. To have the same feelings and interests. I don’t want to make myself different. Just an ordinary person; not somebody who’s proud of having learnt a difficult trick. Like that old Miller of yours.” I pointed out that we’d all learn such difficult tricks as driving cars, working in offices, reading and writing, crossing the street. Why shouldn’t we all learn this other difficult trick? A trick, potentially, so much more useful. If all were to learn it, then one could afford to be like other people, one could share all their feelings in safety, with the certainty that one would be sharing something good, not bad. But Helen wasn’t to be persuaded. And when I suggested that we should join the old man for a late lunch, she refused. She said she didn’t want to know him. That the young man had been quite right; Miller was a reactionary. Disguising himself in a shroud of talk about economic justice; but underneath just a Tory agent. His insistence on changes in social organizations weren’t enough, but that they must be accompanied by, must spring from a change in personal relations – what was that but a plea for conservatism? “I think he’s pernicious,” she said. “And I think you’re pernicious.” But she consented to have lunch with me. Which showed how little stock she set on my powers to shake her convictions! Arguments – I might have lots of good arguments; to those she was impervious. But Miller’s action had gotten between the joints of her armor. He acted his doctrine, didn’t rest content with talking it. Her confidence that I couldn’t get between the joints, as he had done, was extremely insulting. The more so as I knew it was justified.
Perseverance, courage, endurance. All fruits of love. Love goodness enough, and indifference and slackness are inconceivable. Courage comes as to the mother defending her child; and at the same time there is no fear of the opponent, who is loved, whatever he may do, because of the potentialities of goodness in him. As for pain, fatigue, disapproval – they are borne cheerfully, because they seem of no consequence by comparison with the goodness loved and pursued. Enormous gulf separating me from this state! The fact that Helen was not afraid of my perniciousness (as being only theoretical), while dreading Miller’s (because his life was the same as his argument) was a painful reminder of the existence of this gulf.



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