Meaningless meaninglessness

Antic Hay

There's no end to the fun one could poke at the Bloomsbury Group. Self-acknowledged legislators of their little literary world, their sense of their own worth led them to greater and greater excesses of pomposity; even as they wrote the occasional tract that might have supported their beliefs, were these essays not so easily buried under their public personas. The more recent concepts of celebrity were alive and well in the first third of the last century, and Bloomsbury exemplified them.

Satirist and novelist Aldous Huxley was, if not a close member of this set, then a well-liked one: close friend of Lawrence and indulging in a ménage à trois with his wife and Mary Hutchinson. It's therefore odd to find his stance in Antic Hay that of on the inside, pissing in.

Written in 1923 and set around that time, this novel charts the lives of a handful of the bright young things flung from the dizzy merry-go-round of Great War moralizing into amoral, immoral or supermoral lifestyles. Predominating in the numerous personal strands that make up this tangled book is the narrative of Gumbril, inventor, everyman, made independent by his pneumatic innovation---inflatable pants---and quitting the drudgery of pedagogy in favour of the social whirl exemplified by Mrs Viveash, Mr Mercaptan and others.

From ridiculous trousers Huxley moves to the more and more ridiculous, culminating in a whirlwind farewell journey made by Gumbril. His one chance of emotional depth has been sacrificed for a triviality, and it is to a triviality he is about to depart: he and Viveash thus make one last pointless tour of his empty-souled companions. The strength of the satire, in this procession of emblems of uselessness, is palpable but like Gumbril it goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. If the joke of this novel is in ironic vacuity, then once the instinctive and immediate comprehension of the period is lost, then so is the irony: what then is left?

It's true: there's no end to the fun one could poke at the Bloomsbury Group. But then; not now. Now they're all simply dead, and dust, and the joke at the heart of this novel is already tight as parchment skin and dry as bones. Without the life of the carnival running through it, Antic Hay is a grinning, empty skull, laughing at a joke that maybe no modern reader can really get.