Monday, March 06, 2006

urban fervor: ape & essence

Part Three of the Urban Fervor series:

Aldous Huxley found no better place to relocate his invention of a mystic than Southern California. In her book Hollywood Utopia, Justine Brown devotes a chapter to Huxley, echoing Carolyn See in her questioning of what happens at the end of the frontier:

Huxley was increasingly certain that the only answer for man lay in the ancient practices of prayer, trance, and meditation…The coast itself embodies the question: now what? It makes the problem concrete. When geography runs out, when modernity’s lavish promises culminate in the turning of technology to evil ends – in more and better weapons, in corpses – now what? That was the question that Huxley wanted to tackle, and California seemed always to be posing it. At the end of the West’s trajectory, at the edge of the continent, literal space is replaced by figurative space; physical space gives way to the imaginary (150-1).

Brown’s reference to more and better weapons points to a main difference between After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Ape and Essence: the former was written before World War II, the latter composed in its aftermath. Once the reality of Adolph Hitler was made public, the idea of following one man’s dogma did not appear so innocuous. Huxley’s talking head in Ape and Essence is no longer a secular humanist seeking the plane of eternity, but the Arch-Vicar of a post-apocalyptic cult of devil worshippers. Mike Davis observes that Ape and Essence “prefigured the postwar fantastic novel…that exploited Southern California’s unsure boundary between reality and science fiction” (City of Quartz, 41).

In the novel, two studio executives retrieve a film scenario from the garbage that tells a horrifying tale: after a worldwide nuclear war, a team of New Zealand botanists sail to Los Angeles on a scientific mission and discover the city has become a nightmare of mutation, misogyny, and homicidal sacrifice. The framing device of the discarded script is quickly abandoned and the script itself comprises the bulk of the novel. Dr. Alfred Poole, a repressed English scientist, is kidnapped by the Belial cult, just in time to participate in the annual Belial Day ritual, in which deformed babies are murdered in the name of evil and the citizens are allowed to fornicate wildly in a once-a-year orgy. This is the only time sex with women is allowed because they are “vessels of the Unholy Spirit,” much to the dismay of Dr. Poole, who has become smitten with a young woman named Loola.

Dr. Poole is accorded special status due to his promise to assist the cult with their measly crop production. He witnesses the sacrament that precedes the orgy, where the masses recite the catechism of Belial.

Question: What is the chief end of Man?
Answer: The chief end of Man is to propitiate Belial, deprecate His enmity and avoid destruction for as long as possible…
Question: To what fate is Man predestined?
Answer: Belial has, out of his mere good Pleasure, from all eternity elected all now living to everlasting perdition…Belial has perverted and corrupted us in all the parts of our being. Therefore, we are, merely on account of that corruption, deservedly condemned by Belial (93-5).

As a result of his convenient position, Dr. Poole is welcomed into the fold of “His Eminence the Arch-Vicar of Belial, Lord of the Earth, Primate of California, Servant of the Proletariat, Bishop of Hollywood,” who launches into a sermon on the pre-history of Belial worship (104). Before the nuclear holocaust, humans had become slaves to technology, creating an insatiable hunger for modernity that led to the two primary causes of their downfall: progress and nationalism. In looking at the chronicles of Man, it was obvious, according to the Arch-Vicar, that only Belial, the prime source of evil, could have inspired such exquisite destruction. The cult of Belial had developed as a procrastination tool of destiny. “Then why,” asks Dr. Poole, do you go on worshipping Him?” The Arch-Vicar answers, “Why do you throw food to a growling tiger? To buy yourself some breathing space. To put off the horror of the inevitable, if only for a few minutes” (133).

After Many a Summer's William Propter and the Arch-Vicar share a rationality and a method of discourse, but the similarity stops there. Hope, goodness, and eternity have been completely evacuated, and Huxley paints a bleak picture of the future of Los Angeles religion and its accompanying spiritual pursuits. Ape and Essence fully surpasses the cynicism of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, but in his life outside of his fiction, Huxley is well-known for exploring a number of different avenues, spiritual and pharmaceutical, in his California quests to open the doors of perception.

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel

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