Saturday, April 8, 2017

Quote of the Day (Aldous Huxley, on the ‘Immemorial Sacredness’ of Print)

“Now, print enjoys a strange and almost invincible prestige. A man must be an extremely hardened, cynical, and skeptical reader before he can quite ignore that prestige. The great majority of human beings are simple-hearted, trustful and unsuspecting folk for whom the printed word still has (in spite of newspapers, in spite of hyperbolic advertisements) a certain mystical and almost sacred authority. They start with a predisposition to be impressed by the written word, to believe in it, to obey its suggestions. If they met the author of the printed word and he tried to ‘put it over them’ by word of mouth, their natural instinct would be to resist, to be skeptical, to reject his claims to exercise authority. But then the author is only a man; whereas the printed word still preserves something of that talismanic and supernatural quality which letters and symbols, hieroglyphs and formulas have possessed from the remotest beginnings of civilizations….Universal education has made us all readers. But familiarity with words has not bred contempt. Even for newspaper readers words retain something of their immemorial sacredness.”—British novelist-essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), “Print and the Man,” in Complete Essays, Vol. 2: 1926-1929, edited by Robert S. Baker and James Sexton (2000)

In this year in which real life has confirmed many of the worst fears of dystopian fiction, Brave New World has found a new rapt readership. It’s been years since I read the 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley, but I have to confess that it never made the kind of impression on me that 1984, by Huxley’s student at Eton, George Orwell, did. 

But I was interested enough in Huxley to take out a book of his essays from a local library. From what I’ve seen in this thick volume from only a short period in his life, I think that the novelist missed his natural genre: essayist. (You could say that the form was practically in his blood: his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a biologist and essayist of such immense rhetorical skill that his defense of evolution earned him the nickname "Darwin's bulldog.")

Several months ago, I was intrigued by Aldous Huxley’s thoughts, in “Political Democracy,” on the dangers of demagogues. Late the other night, I turned to his thoughts on print. The almost anthropological tone noticeable here (see, for instance, his observation about print’s “talismanic and supernatural quality”) goes down far more easily than it should have because of Huxley’s lightly ironic, almost crystalline, prose.

There is another quality on display here: Huxley’s love-hate relationship with his subject. During the 1920s, as he tried to carve out the necessary time to work on the novels he cared about, Huxley couldn’t resist the short-term but certain and lucrative lure of literary journalism presented by British press baron Max Beaverbrook: “I so resent the pressure these swine put on one with their beastly money,” he wrote his lover, Bloomsbury hostess Mary Hutchinson. “At the same time it's almost a duty to milk them of as much of it as one can. So I remain torn between a desire to send him to the devil and a desire to haggle for the highest price.”

“The voice of the linotype is the voice of God,” Huxley wrote sardonically. But, considering the reputation he developed as a 20th-century Cassandra in Brave New World, Huxley—at least in the quote above—cannot imagine a future without print. Nor does it appear that he anticipated the possibility that the Internet might create the exact opposite of the kind of unquestioning faith in authority that he dreaded—i.e., the discounting of any news that does not comport with the reader’s preconceived notions.

He does present one idea here worth putting into practice, however: that all newspapers "must publish extensive and truthful biographies of their proprietors, editors and writers." It would certainly go a long way toward detailing not only the vested interests of those in the media business, but of making clear the assumptions that underlie any claims to publishing "all the news that's fit to print" or conveying a point of view that proclaims as its motto, "We report, you decide."

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