Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence is a work of pure, sardonic wit in which a man, William Tallis, writes a screenplay about Dr. Poole, his love for a woman named Loola, and the suicide of mankind as a direct result from man’s underlying nature to rely on science and technology in an increasingly nuclear age. The characters within are baboons, intellectuals are beaten and collared, God is little more than an afterthought, and sex is only allowed for the polygamous after Belial Day, after which babies without deformities become their very hope for existence, and love is stamped out without a second thought because it is wrong.
Huxley takes a different approach with this novel and only writes the first few pages as actual story, while the rest of the text becomes part of a deeper story, written in screenplay form, by his character, Tallis. While this style makes it easier for a reader to take a step back from the characters, more so than regular literary prose, it also allows Huxley the luxury of satirizing everything he wanted to, while also telling the story he hoped to tell. His themes have no less resonance, and his style is no less for his efforts because the story he has told is a shocking, horrifying premonition of the world after mankind makes the wrong choice.
But the interesting thing about Huxley’s style is that he leaves so much open to interpretation that his satire is entirely up for analysis because his language is so irreverent. Huxley’s use of language to satirize the 20th century as a nuclear age is derisive yet authoritative as he crafts vignettes, chooses symbolic codes, and manipulates themes on the existence and suicide of mankind to be certain his message rings out loud and clear. In many ways, Huxley’s language can be scrutinized to ascertain the meaning behind his words, but to fully understand the boundaries his satire crosses, the themes must be analyzed to gain a better perspective on what exactly Huxley is mocking.
Aldous Huxley’s Primary Themes in Ape and Essence
Of the numerous themes, three main ideas stand above the rest and work as a whole, like an outline for his satire. Huxley explores the death of mankind’s intellect from warmongering and nationalism, the death and suicide of mankind from science, and the ultimate death, the death of mankind’s soul, having lost all faith in love and spirituality. While each theme is purely sardonic and satirical in nature, they all seem to resonate on a deeper level with Huxley’s past, which adds that little something to make Ape and Essence stronger and more transcendent than the average satire.
1. The Death of Intellect
Huxley’s first theme, the death of intellect via the effects of nationalism and warmongering, “applies to the future of all mankind, in his intention, and, only as far as terror and lies are concerned, it definitely strikes the anti-totalitarian note” (Vianu). Huxley’s language is straight and as to the point in this as possible, killing off Gandhi, blasting the earth with a Third World War, and demeaning the most famous and influential scientific leaders of the time with his cutting vignettes.
In this world everything is twisted, from science to religion, and it is in this that Huxley’s message reads loud and clear. This is not a world that anyone would want to visit, much less live in, and it is perhaps easier to take and suffer through because Huxley cleverly uses the script to tell the tale, and not the full text of the novel. From this, it becomes apparent that the world isn’t exactly like he tells it, but the consideration remains that it certainly could be. And because one man happened to write it down, and understand, quite deeply, the ramifications should his vision come true, it makes this novel all the more hard to rationalize.
2. A Broken Utopia
Huxley’s second theme examines “the pragmatic quality [in which] this story was not of a perfect utopia, but of the shambles and chaos that are Huxley’s predicted result of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. The antagonistic society is one whose turmoil is caused by its own internecine tendencies” (Bakke) and is an archetypal theme in Huxley’s work. Indeed, it is Huxley’s main satirical purpose to parody the nuclear age and all that means for humanity due to the very nature of humanity and mankind as a whole. The turmoil in the script could very well have been avoided had mankind thought twice about inciting a Third World War.
3. Mankind as Animals
Because it would be too easy to satirize mankind using mankind as figures, Huxley chose to install baboons, while poking fun at the main men of science. So, this is the age of the baboon, where the remnants of the nuclear war have vanquished all hope of intellect and scientific discovery by literally taking the baboons back to before the stone age, where their only hope for survival is to rob the graves of their dead for clothing and to burn the books in libraries for food and warmth. Where all babies born seem to have gruesome deformities and Belial (Satan) becomes their punisher and savoir through their always impending deaths.
In the first pivotal vignette of the book, a singing, rather kitschy, baboon croons out loud and proud about love, of all things, while dragging a chained and collared Michael Faraday behind her. Faraday is a perfect example of Huxley’s satire on the death of mankind’s intellect because Faraday “discovered electromagnetic induction and the relationship between light and magnetism” (Everything Development Company). To see a man who has scientific laws passed with his name on them and who is perhaps one of the greatest minds of the century sobbing in his chain as he is beaten to a bloody pulp by the singing baboon while the “audience applauds tumultuously” (Huxley 28) is a vignette too obviously sardonic to ignore. This is Huxley’s open satire. This is what mankind will come to: collared and beaten by apes as the heart and soul of science becomes merely a footnote in existence.
Finally, the baboon’s song ends and she declares that the baboons in the audience “give [her] detumescence” (Huxley 28). Now, detumescence can roughly be defined as the need for a lessening of a swollen organ and is yet another example of extremely sardonic language because baboons, especially female baboons, are known to have a swollen rump when they are ready to mate. Detumescence, then, would clearly be a plea for sex, while pronouncing the bestial sexual nature of mankind. Which, in a world ruled by Belial, is a sin, on any day other than the two weeks after Belial Day; and if her wish were granted, this baboon would surely be vaporized for her actions.
4. Humans are Weak-Willed, Polygamous Creatures (Baboons)
Now, Huxley could have chosen any animal for which to satirize mankind, but he chose the baboon. While the red-butted baboon of the animal world clearly has certain connotations as a creature, perhaps that wasn’t the only reason this animal garnered the starring role. So why would Huxley choose a baboon to satirize mankind? Baboons have a condition known as sexual dimorphism which means that the baboon may be hunted more easily because of its bright red behind, makes it an easy target for hunters. Although this also means that the baboon will be polygamous and be more likely to mate purely to experience the act of mating.
Their survival counts on this, and in a twisted way, the baboons in the novel have this same problem. While they are only allowed to mate during a certain time of the year, they do it in the most bestial, uncompassionate, and polygamous way possible. Huxley could be taking a hint from the animal kingdom with this, and using it as a moment to not only satirize mankind, but to also satirize the disinterest baboons (or even man) have in their own offspring because the offspring of the baboons in the novel are most always taken with horrific deformities and must be destroyed immediately.
Huxley’s language is so important to a study of his work that his symbolism must be looked at for deeper connotations than their literal meaning. For example, using the baboon to satirize mankind suggests something much greater than simply comparing man to ape.
5. Man’s Spirituality / Intellect Lost to War and Conquest
Huxley is using ancient Egyptian mythology to compare man’s loss of spirituality to his greater desire for war and conquest. Huxley’s baboons have no thought for God, only Belial, and in this way, they have fallen quite far from grace. Like many of the symbols, Huxley’s use of language to code things while openly mocking them is not only fascinating but deeply disturbing as a truth is touched upon that goes further than just social commentary. In fact, “it slowly transgressed from an overly structured and ignoramus utopia of a society [to] being the end-all worst possible scenario of human fate” (Bakke).
In a short vignette, and perhaps the most discussed scene in the entire novel, the camera moves in on two warring troops of baboons and the Albert Einstein that each side has captive to blast the other side into total annihilation. But it is the language and imagery in this scene that makes it most striking. The narrator describes the camera moving between the two frightened and bewildered Einsteins and moves in for “close shots of the two identical faces, staring wistfully at each other between the polished leather boots of their respective masters” (Huxley 30) all the while the singing baboon still croons about demanding someone give her detumescence.
This scene works as a satirized vignette on two main levels. The first is to show the absolute destruction of man’s intellect by his very nature for desiring war and nationalism without giving thought to the consequences. While the Einsteins are bewildered and frightened for their very lives, the baboons only care for the total annihilation of the other and set about the task without thought to the consequences of their actions.
The second purpose of this scene is to not only show the destruction of man’s intellect, but to almost literally raise a leg to piss on it as well. The baboon’s crooning of her swollen bottom while both Einsteins eye each other, well aware of their fates, even feeling hopelessness about it, is both hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking. There is no room in this world for intellect, and for the baboons to rule, even though they don’t know or understand the rules of the game, they must first destroy all remnants of civilization by warmongering before destroying themselves.
In a surprising twist, after the Third World War, New Zealand remained the only population spared from total annihilation and remained safe from the radiation of the nuclear bombings, as it was too insignificant to bother with. In fact, New Zealand may have been chosen as a symbolic code by Huxley for two reasons. The first is that after World War II, New Zealand become notoriously financially wealthy because; and the second reason is because New Zealand has a somewhat tawdry history. When James Cook ventured forth to New Zealand on his voyage they traded European goods for other ‘basic’ human needs like food and sexual desires. As is obvious from the baboons, sex is a large part of their existence because it is only allowed after a major holiday and it is quite literally the only method for their continuing existence as a race.
6. The Death (Suicide) of Mankind from Science
Huxley also prominently focuses on the death and suicide of mankind from science. In an interesting way, this theme can be traced to Huxley’s background and stems from a deep rooted anger at something he once loved but became unable to pursue because he had exceptionally poor eyesight. In fact, “the greatest impact of Huxley’s near-blindness was on his scientific interests…his sight put an end to the possibility” (Derbyshire) that he might pursue a career in the field of science. It is perhaps because of this fact alone that Huxley chooses to satirize science and mankind in such a manner.
Huxley also appears to have modeled the main character, Poole, roughly after himself because “Poole is characterized as a 38 year-old, unmarried, well-educated scientist who has had many problems with human contacts, as if he lived behind a ‘glass plate’…[and] he always finds refuge in his lecture room ‘when personal contacts threaten to become too difficult’” (Brettnacher). Huxley had the same problem, and though he married a young and beautiful woman, he wasn’t able to pursue his one true love, which was the need to study and experiment with science.
Moreover, “the monumental changes in Huxley’s life are mirrored in the themes in his writing, from his early rambunctious cynicism to his much-expressed enthusiasm for psychedelic philosophy” (Bakke). After Huxley discovered his dreams of being a scientist were dashed on the road of unfulfilled potential, he became extremely spiritual and found a path into the metaphysical world of things. It is from this bit of his past that the cynicism in his language becomes more precise and his true satire of science begins.
On a side note, Huxley’s novel came out at nearly the same time as another satire, this time on Big Brother and the government, 1984, by George Orwell. Orwell actually happened to be a student of Huxley’s at one point, though their relationship seemed tedious at best. After Orwell had become more established as a writer, he seems to have taken an entirely different view of Huxley, bordering on contempt, when he wrote in a letter to Richard Rees: “you were right about Huxley’s book, Ape and Essence—it is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex. He cannot get off the subject of flagellating women” (Derbyshire). Orwell noticed what any could notice if they knew a bit about Huxley’s past, that he satirized what he had come to dislike most in the world: war, sex, and science, and it came through to great degrees in his writing.
7. Death (Suicide) of Mankind’s Soul due to Loss of Belief System / Spirituality
Huxley’s final theme is perhaps the ultimate theme of the entire novel and expresses the death of mankind’s soul due to a failure to believe in love or spirituality any longer. In the very first lines of the story, the narrator reveals the death of Gandhi, which seems to represent the more figurative death of spirituality, harmony, and love in mankind. The novel begins, “on the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance” (Huxley 1). Even with a great religious icon murdered, mankind cares of nothing more than themselves and even fails to see the significance of the tragic event as anything more unusual than an ordinary day.
And, a bit later, the narrator is having a conversation with a friend on the death of Gandhi and asks if Gandhi was interested in art. His friend replies ‘of course not’ and the narrator comes to a realization that Gandhi was interested in “neither art nor science. And that’s why we killed him” (Huxley 6). Gandhi represented, in a strange way, nationalism for the people, because he was utterly devoted to their well being and spared little time for other luxuries and interests in life. But Gandhi was more than a symbol of nationalism, for Huxley, he was also a true beacon of peace and spirituality.
And, without peace and spirituality, mankind falls into the lustful existence of animals and has little hope for any future but to turn away from God entirely and worship Satan instead. Or become the baboons in this script because they basically killed themselves from their own ignorance. It can be taken that mankind, as a whole, only exists as separate from the animal kingdom because of their inherent capability for love and spirituality. For without either, mankind becomes lost to the more savage existence of the baboon.
But as such, mankind is given a reason to suffer from this, at least, as “they worship and fear the devil because God allowed the destruction of the Earth” (Brettnacher). Basically, the reason religion has turned to Satanism after the destruction of the world is because the baboons think God allowed it to happen and that they clearly are being punished for their actions. But the weird thing is that they don’t even appear to comprehend that worshiping Belial isn’t going to make their fate on the planet any better. It only seems to make things worse.
The highlight of their worship comes two weeks after Belial Day, during which they mate like fiends and hope, in some way, to conceive a baby that isn’t deformed enough to be immediately destroyed. Their world is trapped in this period of time, because without the ritual, the baboons would cease to exist as they are essentially a dying population. And for a population that is already on the brink of extinction from the war they caused, the baboons have no other choice. Or, more simply, they believe any other choice is wrong. But more importantly, they believe that love is wrong.
The narrator even debunks the myth of demon-like joy for anything of the sort with the words, “Love, Joy, and Peace—these are the fruits of the spirit…but the fruits of the ape-mind, the fruits of the monkey presumption and revolt are hate and unceasing restlessness and a chronic misery tempered only by frenzies more horrible than itself” (Huxley 142). In this the narrator is revealing that while love and joy and peace were part of the essence of mankind, now the only emotion that can fill them is hate and death and misery. They have been given their lot in life because of what they are, because of what they did to themselves as a whole, and because of what they chose to destroy.
A number of times, Poole faces off with the Arch-Vicar, but it is in a final sermon that the true nature of the Belial religion is spoken. In it, the Arch-Vicar says to his congregation, “for as in the Order of Things all might, if they had so desired, have lived, so also in Belial all have been, or inevitably shall be, made to die. Amen” (Huxley 136). This is the ultimate pronouncement for the baboons of Belial. The Order of Things is for them to live, just so they may die. It is not only inevitable, but it is their purpose in life. It is their punishment. It is the satirical suicide of mankind.
However, because Poole is still a God-faring man, he is unwilling to believe in ritualizing and worshiping Belial and the way of this society of baboons, and he manages to escape with Loola, the woman he comes to love, in an attempt to find the “Hots,” the community of people who have found, or at least still believe in, love. In one of the greatest letdowns of the novel, Poole and Loola never actually found that mythical community, but they did come across something much more interesting, and it in fact, turns out to be the reason for their very existence: the grave of the man who wrote the script that they are currently living.
Technically, the story of William Tallis begins before the script, but it turns out that he not only wrote the screenplay, but came to a deep understanding about it as well. Going back in time a bit more, before the script was found, Tallis told his housemates over and over that if he died in their home, he wanted to be buried out in the desert and even wrote as much in his script (Huxley 23). Later, when the two movie execs come across the script, they also find a handwritten note that says, “Rejection slip sent…No self addressed envelope. For the Incinerator’ [which was] twice underlined” (Huxley 11). It seems, that after Tallis wrote down his thesis on mankind and sent it to the movie studio, it apparently came back to him because he didn’t have a self addressed stamped envelope, a SASE, which every writer knows is the most important factor in sending out a manuscript. At the very least, a SASE guarantees some sort of critique, be it only “your work isn’t right for us at this time.”
But Tallis did more than just accept his rejection, he must have come to a deeper understanding that he was right. For his script was about the suicide of mankind, and as he wanted to die in the desert, so would his manuscript because the real mankind wasn’t ready to hear the truth of their very own nature. By marking his script “incinerator” and underlining the words, twice, he must have felt that his words deserved to forever be turned to ash, just like mankind.
Moreover, Tallis’ words overreach the simple note on his script. In this way, Tallis is not only using limerick to compare the human race to the kiss of a leech or the embrace of the squid, but also to pronounce, once and for all, that he holds no favor for the human race, whatsoever. Then, when Poole and Loola come across Tallis’ gravestone, they find a little ditty about William Tallis.
The note serves to satirize the eventual suicide of mankind and illustrates the fact that Tallis gave up on ever finding love, claiming that there is no love to be found and for that reason, all hope is lost for mankind. Perhaps Ape and Essence came from this inner sadness that he could never find love, and perhaps, because Huxley is in so many ways tied to the messages within his work, Huxley felt the same way, giving more heart to this satire than a first glance would reveal.
In the final scene, after they come across Tallis’ grave, Poole and Loola have a short discussion about Tallis being a sad man. Poole pulls out his copy of Percy Shelley that he saved from being burned for fuel and reads her a poem to prove his point. A brief analysis of the poem indicates that it is a pastoral elegy, expressing the speaker’s grief at having lost a beloved muse. It can be taken literally, as Shelley wrote this after the death of John Keats and lost a friend and fellow poet, or it can even be taken figuratively in context with Huxley’s satire. For example, in lines one through four, the speaker is professing that the “Light…Beauty…[and] Benediction” have not been destroyed by the “eclipsing Curse/of birth,” or death of the muse. And, “Love” though perhaps too open and generous, “blindly wove” and all, still transcends all life boundaries, “burns bright” and is able to still touch the speaker’s heart even though the muse has been snatched up by “cold mortality.”
For Huxley’s writing, “metaphysics had become a hobby-horse, and many of [his] essays end with a little coda, relating the principle theme to the need for ‘direct experience of the basic fact of the divine immanence’” (Derbyshire). Shelley’s poem placed in the last few lines of the novel are a blatant attempt by Huxley to make sure the reader gets the point. And the use of such a random poem here, not just to satirize mankind, but to somehow honor Shelley and his poetic pronouncement about the death of a beloved friend, leads well into the ultimate message of the Ape of Essence.
After the poem is read, instead of a reaction, good or bad, Loola hands Poole a hard boiled egg. He cracks it on the gravestone and “scatters the white fragments of the shell over the grave” (Huxley 152). Poole’s action here, to sprinkle the remains of an egg on the grave of the man who wrote the script they are living, is perhaps the most satirical statement in the entire novel.
The egg is commonly known in modern mythology and medicine as a symbol of new birth, fertility, and life. There is no life without the egg. To sprinkle its remains over the grave of a man who believes mankind committed their own suicide resonates almost on a transcendent level, and serves to broadly proclaim once and for all, the very essence of what Huxley set about to satirize.
But mostly, the broken egg serves as a symbol that mankind, once whole, pure, and full of life and possibility, has been broken, crushed, and sprinkled into the dirt because of their ignorant actions. While Poole and Loola seem somewhat hopeful, having found love and spirituality in each other, the rest of mankind is as the fragments of egg. Nothing more than damaged pieces.
Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence is a work of pure, sardonic witticism in which William Tallis wrote a screenplay of his vision for the future of mankind that hinged on the lives of a man named Poole and a woman he came to love named Loola. Tallis seemed to understand, quite deeply, what the future he envisioned would mean for mankind. And as he planned for his screenplay to find a home in the incinerator, he wished to be buried in the desert, which parallels his inner knowledge that mankind would find themselves blasted from existence. In his screenplay, Tallis is unforgiving as he describes a world lost to faith, where scientists are little more than toys for vicious tramps, and love is an afterthought too dangerous to consider, much less search for.
However, Poole and Loola become transcendent characters as they break from society because they have fallen in love and they give a glimmer of hope at the end of this novel for mankind. Though, as is his way, Huxley hammers home the point that mankind is destined for suicide of their existence and will be little more than dust in the wind, however things end.
Huxley takes heed to carefully craft his language throughout his satire by implementing clever vignettes, symbolic codes, and even manages to manipulate themes on the existence and suicide of mankind to be certain his message is clear: he is satirizing the 20th century nuclear age and mankind is doomed to live a pitiful existence, if not cause their own outright extinction. In many ways, Huxley’s language can be scrutinized to ascertain the meaning behind his words, like the use of the baboon, New Zealand, the various scientists, among other things, but to fully understand the boundaries his satire crosses, the themes must be analyzed to gain a better perspective on what exactly Huxley is mocking.
Of the numerous themes, three main ideas stood above the rest and worked as a whole, just like a neat little outline for his satire. Huxley explored the death of mankind’s intellect from warmongering and nationalism, the death and suicide of mankind from science, and the ultimate death: the death of mankind’s soul, having lost all faith in love and spirituality. Without love, peace, spirituality, and harmony, mankind becomes nothing more than part of the animal kingdom—just like the baboons Huxley crafts to represent. And, while each theme is purely sardonic and satirical in nature, they all seem to resonate on a deeper level with Huxley’s past, which added that little something to make Ape and Essence stronger and more transcendent than the average satire of its time.
Bakke, Brock. “Themes in Aldous Huxley’s Life and Literature.” <http://somaweb.org/w/sub/ThemesInHuxley.html>
Brettnacher, Dominik. “Aldous Huxley: Ape and Essence.” Revised 2007. <http://www.brettnacher.org/users/dominik/index.php3?topic=apeandessence-text&subtopic=apeandessence>
Brother’s Judd.com. “Anthony Burgess: 99 Best Modern Novels.” Revised December 28, 2000.http://www.brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/192/Ape%20and%20Esse.htm>
Derbyshire, John. “What Happened to Aldous Huxley?” Revised February 2003. <http://www.olimu.com/Journalism/Texts/Criticism/Huxley.htm>
English History.net. “Percy Shelly: Adonais. Revised February 12, 2004. <http://englishhistory.net/keats/adonais.html>
Everything Development Company. “Ape and Essence.” Revised February 23, 2002. <http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1179730>
----. “Michael Faraday.” Revised January 24, 2001. <http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=Michael%20Faraday>