Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948)
Written in the aftermath of World War II
, Ape and Essence
is one of the great dystopian
novels. Like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
, which would be published a year later, it set a standard for science fiction
that has rarely been matched. And though the two novels are similar in many respects there is a significant distinction: Orwell's
is, in the end, a political novel while Huxley's is metaphysical
The leech's kiss, the squid's embrace,
Ape and Essence
The prurient ape's defiling touch:
And do you like the human race?
No, not much.
has three main themes: we are slaves to our animal natures, through nationalism
we justify the inhuman and wanton killing of one another, and we are destroying our physical world and future as a species with technological progress
. It is an unfortunately apt diagnosis and as pertinent today as it was a half-century ago when written.
The story begins with the death of Gandhi, a tidbit noted in the morning paper and discussed by two of the characters - who both work for a film studio. Huxley here signifies not the death of an individual, but the death of an idea - the death of peace. From here he moves into the realm of human sexuality and the fools we become to our sexual passions, expectations, and fantasies.
The two characters chance upon a rejected movie script that falls off a garbage truck on the way to the studio's incinerator. This is the screenplay Ape and Essence. This novel within a novel or, more accurately, screenplay within a novel, is almost the entirety of Ape and Essence.
Give me, give me, give me
Give me detumescence...
The screenplay opens with a painted harlot
dancing and singing onstage to an admiring crowd, she's a baboon
. She has on a leash, with a collar around his neck, Michael Faraday
. Intellect is subservient to our animal nature.
This scene segues to a pair of Albert Einsteins, similarly shackled, each working apologetically for rival baboon generals. The message here is that science - despite its protestations - is handmaiden to the governments and their military war machines that have and will continue to slaughter millions upon millions. Nuclear, biological, chemical - the term weapons of mass destruction wasn't in vogue yet, but Huxley covers them all. There is an especially nauseating paragraph on glanders. But Huxley saves his harshest words for nationalism:
Vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, noughts and crosses, eagles and hammers. Mere arbitrary signs. But every reality to which a sign has been attached is thereby made subject to its sign. Goswami and Ali used to live in peace. But I got a flag, you got a flag, all Baboon-God's children got flags; and because of the flags it immediately became right and proper for the one with the foreskin to disembowel the one without a foreskin, and for the circumcised to shoot the uncircumcised, rape his wife and roast his children over slow fires.
Two world wars in such a short span of time - how could this be? Huxley essentially sees this international insanity
as a result of the arbitrary lines on a map that give us the ability to ignore our neighbor's humanity - nationalism
. Whether it be the fascism of Hitler
, the communism of Marx
, capitalism, socialism - all are susceptible to the jingoistic tribal necessity of us against them
From these opening scenes that presaged Planet of the Apes, we move into the more prosaic territory of the post-apocalypse novel. The Third World War has destroyed most of the planet. Small bands of humans roam the planet. Only New Zealand was spared. Now a ship of explorers from New Zealand is rediscovering California.
They find Los Angeles a city of ruins. For the few thousand humans who inhabit it, grave robbing is a major industry. Nuclear war and its lethal radiation has played havoc with human genes. Most babies are born deformed and quickly killed. The major religion is logical Satanism. In the great battle between good and evil, Satan proved the winner.
This is a disturbing picture of our planet, of human societies. It is difficult to find solid arguments against Huxley's position. Though Huxley does not completely crush all hope - the future is not bright. We can continue to ignore the questions Huxley raises, but then that just confirms his proposition that our essence is ape.