Ladies and Gentleman,
Welcome back to Books for Men. As I mentioned in my post last week, I’ll be reviewing Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence .
For those of you who missed last week’s post, I’ll break down the most important parts for you: Books for Men focuses on fiction that emphasizes history, philosophy, politics, religion, ideas, beliefs. The criticism centers on the author’s development of symbolism, allegory, and milieu, not the author’s development of character and plot. These conditions were decided based on well-documented trends in what men read, not on stereotypes regarding maleness, masculinity, what it means to be a “real man.” My goal has nothing to do with defining masculinity; it has everything to do with suggesting books that I think other men will like.
Without further adieu my review of Ape and Essence:
Ape and Essence starts out simply enough. Two men, both in the movie business, discuss an array of topics ranging from infidelity, to the assassination of Ghandi, to movie scripts that will never see the screen. The focus, however, appears to be the assassination of Ghandi. Through dialogue and inner narrative, Huxley juxtaposes two philosophical concepts: the plight of the marginalized individual vs. the machinery of civilized “Order”. Ghandi, of course, represents the individual serving his own cause, who is killed because he “refused any longer to go on dreaming our dreams of a national Order,” concluding that “Order begets tyranny,” inevitably.
This representation of Ghandi, this dichotomy between the “individual” and “order” serves as a central theme throughout the rest of the book, an assertion that the plot will seek to make self-evident.
From here, our two men, Bob Briggs and the narrator are nearly ran over by a truck loaded down with movie scripts destined for the incinerator. The truck takes a sharp turn and several scripts fall out onto the pavement. Most of the scripts are trash, but one catches the eye of the narrator: “Ape and Essence.” It is this script, this piece of trash, this meaningless item written by an obscure author, that will serve as the majority of the novel.
Now, the men don’t just start reading. If they had just started reading the script, the significance of the script as an object in itself might have been lost. Instead, they try to track down the author. I won’t go into the details of their search. The search ends like this: he’s already dead. But the point is this: the story that he wrote, “Ape and Essence,” is not a story that other men want to hear. It’s a story that humanity turns its collective eyes from. It’s a story that owes its existence to the exigency of chance and luck. It goes against popular opinion. It isn’t comfortable. It isn’t easy to hear. But it does exist. It’s real.
So, what’s in the script? Well, the second part of the novel titled “The Script,” claims to be a verbatim reading. And it does read a lot like a movie script and begins with a short vignette, an allegory portraying men with power, world leaders, perhaps, as apes controlled by an inexplicable need to destroy each other. The vignette closes with two warring factions, both in possession of an “Einstein” who pushes a button destroying the entire planet. Literally, this short scene represents a futuristic WWIII. It also represents the control that political powers have over scientific discovery; the “Einstein’s” are literally kept on leashes, and the devastating potential that science can achieve. Think: Prometheus bringing fire to man, except no positives outcomes, only destruction. A more contemporary comparison would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The message about the dangers of science is essentially the same.
From here, the script travels a hundred years or so into the future. With the exception of New Zealand, the entire world has been destroyed by nuclear blasts. The New Zealanders are scientists and in the midst of an exploration to California.
One of the scientists, Dr. Poole gets ambushed by the local Californian’s, a group of people who’s parents and grandparents somehow survived the initial nuclear blasts and weren’t killed by nuclear radiation.
From this point on, the suspense builds from a want to better understand these people. It becomes a milieu-based or world-building style narrative.
In the wake of nuclear catastrophe, Huxley creates a world where mankind has reverted to a state that is almost inhuman. He does this not by creating an absence of culture, but instead by describing a complete inversion of Western civilization. Instead of God, the people believe in Belial (the devil). Instead of Democracy, the people are ruled by despots (even though they call it a democracy, Animal Farm, anyone?). The women wear patches over their breasts that say “no”. They wear these patches over each of their orifices as well. The most grotesque manifestation of this new reality is in the mating ritual. Instead of marriages born out of love or arranged by parents or agreed upon by mutual recognition of common interests, the Belial worshippers engage in a yearly mating ritual in which any deformed children from the year before are slaughtered. Oh, I forgot to mention. The people are all deformed because of nuclear radiation. Any children who are “too” mutated are killed (This is Sparta!?!).
The slaughter is followed by an orgy. It isn’t a complete free for all. Much like deer during the rut, the men with the biggest horns get the women. The people in these scenes don’t seem like people at all. Reading these scenes was akin to watching the nature channel years ago, when all it ever showed was animals mating.
Much like in Brave New World, Huxley portrays women as a lower, unprivileged class whose main role in society is copulation. He goes further here, describing women as “vessel’s” for Belial. This brings about a strange irony: women are of a lower class because they carry “Belial” or evil with them; and yet, the people as a whole revel in, and celebrate Belial as their God. This also points out the inherent power that man, as an animal, has over women, as animals. Here, the men are shown as physically stronger, and the women are forced to “submit”. Although it isn’t clear, Huxley may have been commenting sarcastically about the inherent absurdity of gender inequality, showing that it’s a feature of our animal nature, not the part of our nature that makes us uniquely human.
After the ritual, our protagonist, Dr. Poole interviews the man who’s really in charge of this civilization, the head of The Church of Belial, the Arch-Vicor, and it’s from this Arch-Vicor the nature of this new world is fully explained, and for those who intend to read the book, I won’t spoil the reveal here, but I’ll give a hint: it has to do with the allegorical conversation from the beginning of the book regarding “Ghandi” and “Order”. He also reveals the reasons for the mating ritual and why the people are forbidden to have monogamous sexual relationships.
The novel concludes suspensefully. In spite of custom, Dr. Poole develops a romantic relationship with Loola, a native Californian who’s mutations are relatively unnoticeable: she has four nipples. Dr. Poole finds himself faced with a difficult choice: he can either join The Church of Belial and become a leader in the community (I forgot to mention that becoming a priest in this society requires surgery. Eunuchs), or he can leave with his new girlfriend in search of place that values individual freedom over collective order.
I won’t say how it ends. I hope you read it and please, feel free to comment below. There was so much more in this book then I had time to discuss and would love to hear your interpretations!
I’ll be posting my next Book for Men in two weeks. I’ll be reading and reviewing To Have and Have Not by Earnest Hemingway
Oh, and if you have any suggestions, know of any books that you think I should review, please let me know by posting them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!