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"Beowulf." Translated by. Kevin Crossley-Holland. 128 pages. Oxford University Press (1999)

"Beowulf", regarded as one of the most important texts within Indo-European literature, is a vast Anglo-Saxon poem of epic proportions, set in a half-historical, half-mythological Germanic past. The events portrayed are located at what now is the south of Sweden and north of Denmark.

"Beowulf" is the story of a man with the same name, who lives among the people of the Geats. There, his father Ecgtheow is a powerful and noble leader, son to Hrethel. One day Beowulf hears of the misfortunes that have struck the Danish ruler Hrothgar, and thereafter decides to bring some men with him, to help Hrothgar in need. It turns out that the mighty Danish hall Heorot has been under attack by a fierce monster named Grendel. This beast of nature has slain many of Hrothgar's men, and he now cries out for help. Beowulf comes to Hrothgar's rescue and manages to kill the monster with his might, strength and bravery in fight.

However, not a long while after this deed, a new monster shows up in Heorot and continues to unmercifully take the bloody life of a man very close to Hrothgar. In time, he finds out that this is Grendel's mother, acting out her revenge on the mortal foes that killed her son. Beowulf sets out to slay Grendel's mother as well, which he also does. The last deed told of in the poem, is when a cruel dragon attacks Beowulf's own kingdom, Geatland. This monster spits fire across the land where Beowulf now is king, and the only chance for his people to survive, is for him to prove his bravery in a last life-threatening battle. So he does, and it is here that he finally dies in the arms of a friend in war.

"Beowulf" is a very beautiful and immersive poem. Lengthy and descriptive, the adjectives are often those of celebration of the life as a hero. The poem itself could best be described as an archetype of Indo-European culture. These three events that together make up for the reading experience as a whole, set the reader into an epic past where civil wars, monsters and vengeance are part of the daily life as a warrior under the rule of a leader. The poem celebrates, not only Beowulf, but the men that travel with him and the men he helps. Hrothgar, although seemingly in a desperate need for help to save his people and kingdom from Grendel and his mother, is still described in the book as a heroic and brave man, where his old age has set in and prevented him from acting out his anger and sadness toward the threat.

As such, "Beowulf" is not merely upholding one man, but instead tries to explain and have the reader engage in values that are eternal to Indo-European culture. Self-sacrifice, bravery in war, love and hate, vengeance and despise, mockery and laughter; all of these feelings and values define a period of time where people transcended their human state and sought to reach for things higher than personal comfort and material wealth.

This is experienced in moments like when Beowulf and the dragon are dead, and the Geatish men take the gold from the cave where originally the dragon safeguarded it, and bury it deep down under the surface of the earth. Having seen their king sacrificing his own life for glory and heroism, they regard the treasure as mere material objects with no inherent value, and from there decide to instead honour Beowulf by building an enormous barrow on the headland to his name. As much as this is breathtaking, it is also saddening and emotive.

There is a more emotional side to this poem, especially at the end when Beowulf slowly is bleeding to death, and he makes his last request as the bravest man ever to have walked the Earth, to have his men build a barrow to the memory of his deeds. One cannot hold back the strong emotions afflicted by such intense events, notably as a result of a past that the reader engages in. The fact that this epic poem can induce such strong feelings for the people involved in the text, is both amazing and understanding. "Beowulf" is written, not as a cold and pale description of suffering and death, but as an oftentimes warm and celebrative way of upholding forces of good in a time when evil forces were trying to take over.

In relation to this, it might be worthwhile to mention the notable Christian influences found throughout "Beowulf". Many heroic deeds are concluded as influenced by God, and more celebrative feelings and joys go out to the same. However, as one could guess, this is not something that produces an overall negative reading experience. Although there is a certain presence of dualistic notions of good and evil, these two are defined from the aspect of Indo-European culture. Where goodness is heroism, self-sacrifice, generosity, bravery and thankfulness, evil is most often defined as destructive forces upon a people, such as inhuman monsters representing plagues or manslaughters of innocent men. However, something that should be mentioned, is that the old heathen (pagan) religions from the past are viewed by the characters in "Beowulf" as evil and up roaring against God and His kingdom. Found only as small traces from larger criticism, this fact can easily be overseen as a mere result of the belief and history of the time this poem was written.

Another thing which is reoccurring throughout "Beowulf", besides the beauty and expressiveness of intense moments, is the despise for cowardice and fright instead of immediate action. Where gratitude for war gear is given, the use of and return for it, are less given. Beowulf at one point hands over parts of the gifts received by Hrothgar, to many of his closest men. However, as he will see, this is a favour not entirely to rely on being returned and taken use of. "Beowulf" condemns the treachery where men fail to oblige their heroic life and instead relapse into passiveness. Also, experienced later into the book, this is one of the main causes that lead to the tragic end for our hero.

There is much to analyze and regard as beautiful in "Beowulf", as well as there are moral and cultural lessons to value and uphold for future European generations, hence its priceless value as art, historical document and living proof of times once so great and rich on human, as well as natural, understanding, that now have degenerated into passiveness, cowardice and material comfort. Where it is vague, it nonetheless achieves clear conclusiveness and self-reflection. It remains as one of the most important Indo-European literary works, and to this day baffle its vivid and curious readers with stories of unimaginable heroism, human vengeance and a strong will to live. Timeless. - Alexis


Aldous Huxley: A Biography
by Sybille Bedford (1973, Alfred A. Knopf/Harper & Row, New York)

Biographies are summations of lives; lives include ideas; thus biographies of great people are a mixture of travelogue ("and then he went to, and then she went to") and idea analysis. Sybille Bedford, while dramatic in the way most English women drive English men to homosexuality, is a talented writer and had a second-row seat to the drama, thus gives us a nicely factual biography divided by the progression in idea-scope of the writer Aldous Huxley.

The 730-page behemoth is nearly comprehensive but one can tell the writer agonized over what to leave out; a full life, after all, is rarely simple and Huxley's was more of a journey than most, from middle class "post-aristocratic" origins to the disease that nearly removed his sight to a series of ideological problems as he analyzed the major source of study in his life: the future of twentieth-century humanity. While Huxley is a mixed bag, ideologically, and often failed to leave us clear statements of belief on certain ideals, he is alone with the greats (Conrad, Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Mencken, Hemingway) in believing that we in the West as a meta-culture have lost our way and are heading for disaster.

Huxley is best known for his apocalyptic "Brave New World," a novel of the future in which the pursuit of individual pleasure has replaced rationality and through that, created a "fair" but tedious and empty world in which characters surfeited by pleasure cannot find moral or intellectual significance to any act -- a world that, to this reviewer, scarily resembled my own or at least the destination it seemed to seek. That book, written during his 38th year, defined the rest of his career as he tried to posit a Utopia to counter the Dystopia he had not just conjectured but saw arising around him. One of Bedford's greatest strengths is that she does not characterize him as backing away from the ideas of "Brave New World," but for expanding on them, even if sometimes he has said the opposite.

Unlike most writers both then and now, Huxley did not believe that greater distribution of wealth and political power would dramatically solve the problems of humanity. Although he spoke in the tokens of power manipulation common to democratic societies (Bedford gives us linguistic analysis indirectly as chapters pass, attempting to define these terms outside of their assumed meanings) Huxley had a more existential view of the human purpose and thus was not confined to either material or spiritualist viewpoints, solely; his seemingly paradoxical approach is that of a scientific mind which sees beyond the manipulation of matter, as have most of the greatest thinkers. "All that is being maintained here is that progressive science is one of the causative factors involved in the progressive decline of liberty and the progressive centralization of power, which have occurred during the twentieth century" (450) he wrote. Bedford's triumph as a biographer is making the balance of Huxley's ideas despite the ease in which they could be assimilated into the dominant trend of liberal democratic thought.

Indeed, if praise for this biography has a rational basis, it is laudative of the way Bedford stitches together the scraps of Huxley-related material that remain, mating them to ideas from his books in a double helix of ideal and action. Its failing, by contrast, is in the history of the Huxleys, which is often wordy and gives us too much detail where a scene or two of profound demonstrative influence would do. Still, it's easy to forgive, since the author clearly has enthusiasm for her subject and if it's a rainy day, nothing feels better than a brick of seven hundred pages of which several hundred will contain provocative, succinct formulations of ideas. Some of this excess seems intended to balance out the explorations of Huxley's more provocative behaviors, such as his LSD-taking or perceived promiscuity or adaptation to his near-blindness, and in those difficult subjects Bedford succeeds in turning sensationalism into an exploration of the reasons Huxley indulged in such ways. She is also adept at revealing by omission the somewhat nerdly and world-confused outlook of her subject.

Where the writing of this book may be admissible of critique, the information it holds is so vast that one wants to suggest it as a textbook next to Huxley's cut-and-paste book of modern spirituality, "The Perennial Philosophy" (60% of the text was derived from historical sources of spiritual information; it does not so much present a perspective as the essential data for obtaining the grounding necessary to have one). Of interest to traditionalists are three major planks of idea. First, his approach to genetics. Second, his belief in coming ecological crisis. Third, his political assessment of our future, including his belief that Europe had not only depleted itself but bought itself a future of many enemies.

Huxley would be inscrutable to both a modern neo-Nazi and anti-fascist. Although he detested fascism, he also feared its opposites, both the overflowing death camps of Stalin and the pleasure-seeking vapid and tedious society of the imminent future portrayed in "Brave New World." Fortunately, this puts him in good company, since most of us both fear totalitarian regimes but recognize that since most people are airheads, totalitarian methods are necessary in some if not many cases. (It's another five years before you can say that in public, however.) Bedford expertly juxtaposes his fear for Europe, originating in his time living in fascist Italy, with his migration to the United States and the bizarre disposable culture he confronted, including its effects on his family and mental stability. This dual avoidance led him to seek a Realism that was praised his whole life, something formulated in a theory of genetic determinism: "Our fundamental physical pattern is something given and unalterable, something we can make the best of but can never hope to change" (428).

Unlike almost all writers and leaders of his day (notable exceptions for Hitler and Faulkner), Huxley saw an ecological crisis looming before the world even had three billion people upon it and wrote about it, although not unopposed by a string of editors who could not visualize what he saw. "Industrialism is the systematic exploitation of wasting assets. In all too many cases, the thing we call progress is merely an acceleration in the rate of that exploitation. Such prosperity as we have known up to the present is the consequence of rapidly spending the planet's irreplaceable capital. Sooner or later mankind will be forced by the pressure of circumstances to take concerted action against its own destructive and suicidal tendencies. The long such action is postponed, the worse it will be for all concerned...Overpopulation and erosion constitute a Martian invasion of planet...Treat nature aggressively, with greed and violence and incomprehension: wounded Nature will turn and destroy you...if, presumptuously imagining that we can 'conquer' Nature, we continue to live on our planet like a swarm of destructive parasites--we condemn ourselves and our children to misery and deepening squalor and the despair that finds expression in the frenzies of collective violence" (465). Other than a failure to connect the "freedom" of most people with their low judgment as a motivic factor behind industrialization, the above could have been written by Ted Kaczynski, Adolf Hitler or Pentti Linkola.

Intelligently, Huxley was apolitical, or rather, he criticized philosophical trends and values instead of obsessing himself with the politics of the moment. World War II broke his heart in that while he wanted peace, he knew that the peace which was coming would not be a positive either, in that while he detested fascists they were taming some of the out-of-control aspects of English and American thought. Like most of the great thinkers, Huxley did not fit into a political category, and by freeing himself from such artificially polar allegiances, he was able to grasp that Realism which made his vision farsighted: "What we are paying for four hundred years of white imperialism --and how long, to all appearances, we shall go on paying! Asians and Africans do not forget and are so far from forgiving that, if they can thereby do some harm to the ex-imperialists, they will blithely damage themselves, even commit suicide. If I can spite your face I will cut off my nose. There is no appeal from these passions even to self interest...And the trouble is that these deep rooted passions can now be implemented in violent practice. The great truth enunciated by Hilaire Belloc: Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not -- has unhappily ceased to be true. They now have the Maxim gun -- and unless the West is prepared to out-trump the gun with atomic missiles, they will soon be in a position... to win all the "little wars." If I remember rightly, Nostradamus prophesied that in the year two thousand or thereabouts, yellow men would be flying over Paris. It may easily turn out that he was right" (608).

As one can easily see from these excerpts, Huxley did not offer a simple task to the biographer, and despite its failings, Bedford's lengthy tome avoids the critical error of leaving its subject unexplained. At a time when more and more people are suspecting that none of the multiple-choice options offered by a society in decline will reverse that decline, interest is Huxley is reviving, as he was one of the few who dared "peer behind the curtain" and examine the motivic forces of modern society. Patience is a virtue, and for those so virtuous, "Aldous Huxley: A Biography" is a circuitous but rewarding read. - vijay prozak

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