Point Counter Point is Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel about a group of writers, artists, heiresses, politicians and scientists, going to parties, having affairs, setting up fascist organisations, all while having long conversations about the nature of art, science, God and humanity.
The prose style ignores all the guidance given to beginner writers. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, point of view flits all over the place and adverbs are everywhere. Taking the adverb situation as an example, judge for yourself with the following sentence:
They looked at him calmly, coldly, as though they had seen everything before and were not much interested – only faintly amused, very faintly and coolly amused.
Calmly, coldly, faintly (x2), coolly.
Huxley also loves the word rather used as a qualifier. Things are rather this and rather that. There are five uses of rather in the first chapter alone, and 225 in the whole book – that’s between seven and eight per chapter.
The writing is stuffed with redundant words. I came to this book fresh from reading Hemingway. There I was, all rugged, tanned and lean from my time in the great Spanish outdoors, suddenly confined to an over-furnished drawing room, eating too many rich pastries and wishing someone would open a window.
That all said, I did keep reading – for over a month – even with my daughter giving regular and sensible advice to “DNF”.
I kept reading because through the thicket of words I saw a book that was oddly relevant to contemporary concerns. Through those long, intellectual discussions about science and art, Huxley portrays science as something that is not human, since a scientist has to put all their human foibles aside, their assumptions and prejudices, in an attempt to see what’s in front of them.
What the scientists are trying to get at is non-human truth. Not that they can ever completely succeed; for not even a scientist can completely cease to be human.
For Huxley, people don’t live in the world of science. They live in a world of opinions, which they raise to the level of fact – where one person’s facts can be as good as another. For example, some people love certain types of music and others don’t. Some people admire Point Counter Point, and others don’t. Who is to say who is right or wrong? A novel can be good or bad depending on who you talk to. This is fair enough, until Huxley seems to raise all these opinions to a kind of folk wisdom, where experts and non-experts have the same claim on authority about anything:
The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred.
I don’t think that is true. People used to think that the sun went round the Earth, which was the obvious view. Science showed the not so obvious reality that the Earth went round the sun.
In recent times, we have seen the downside of assuming that everyone’s opinion has the status of truth. Political views, alternative facts, apparently rigged elections, pandemics which some people want to deny are even happening – people express their opinions on all of these things, as though they are experts. I do wonder whether the idea of science crushing our humanity is increasingly old-hat. We live in a time which has provided a graphic demonstration of the downside of people’s crazy desire to see the universe revolving around them – to see truth in whatever supports their narrow interests and world view. There is no reason to believe science is somehow anti-human, when in the end, science can save people from themselves.
So, in my subjective opinion, Point Counter Point has some interesting moments and ideas, but suffers from flabby writing and a cynicism about science, which is unwarranted.