The proper study of mankind is books

From Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow. Making due allowance for some irony, I think Wimbush here comes closer to the author’s own voice than any other character in the novel, certainly more so than the focalizing Denis. It’s not that Huxley would ever phrase the point so confidently himself, it’s that no one truly book-bound hasn’t at least flirted with this line of thought at some point.

“I do not know how it is,” Mr. Wimbush continued, “but the spectacle of numbers of my fellow-creatures in a state of agitation moves in me a certain weariness, rather than any gaiety or excitement. The fact is, they don’t very much interest me. They’re aren’t in my line. You follow me? I could never take much interest, for example, in a collection of postage stamps. Primitives or seventeenth-century books—yes. They are my line. But stamps, no. I don’t know anything about them; they’re not my line. They don’t interest me, they give me no emotion. It’s rather the same with people, I’m afraid. I’m more at home with these pipes.” He jerked his head sideways towards the hollowed logs. “The trouble with the people and events of the present is that you never know anything about them. What do I know of contemporary politics? Nothing. What do I know of the people I see round about me? Nothing. What they think of me or of anything else in the world, what they will do in five minutes’ time, are things I can’t guess at. For all I know, you may suddenly jump up and try to murder me in a moment’s time.”

“Come, come,” said Denis.

“True,” Mr. Wimbush continued, “the little I know about your past is certainly reassuring. But I know nothing of your present, and neither you nor I know anything of your future. It’s appalling; in living people, one is dealing with unknown and unknowable quantities. One can only hope to find out anything about them by a long series of the most disagreeable and boring human contacts, involving a terrible expense of time. It’s the same with current events; how can I find out anything about them except by devoting years to the most exhausting first-hand study, involving once more an endless number of the most unpleasant contacts? No, give me the past. It doesn’t change; it’s all there in black and white, and you can get to know about it comfortably and decorously and, above all, privately—by reading. By reading I know a great deal of Caesar Borgia, of St. Francis, of Dr. Johnson; a few weeks have made me thoroughly acquainted with these interesting characters, and I have been spared the tedious and revolting process of getting to know them by personal contact, which I should have to do if they were living now. How gay and delightful life would be if one could get rid of all the human contacts! Perhaps, in the future, when machines have attained to a state of perfection—for I confess that I am, like Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the perfectibility of machinery—then, perhaps, it will be possible for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion. It is a beautiful thought.”

“Beautiful,” Denis agreed. “But what about the desirable human contacts, like love and friendship?”

The black silhouette against the darkness shook its head. “The pleasures even of these contacts are much exaggerated,” said the polite level voice. “It seems to me doubtful whether they are equal to the pleasures of private reading and contemplation. Human contacts have been so highly valued in the past only because reading was not a common accomplishment and because books were scarce and difficult to reproduce. The world, you must remember, is only just becoming literate. As reading becomes more and more habitual and widespread, an ever-increasing number of people will discover that books will give them all the pleasures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium. At present people in search of pleasure naturally tend to congregate in large herds and to make a noise; in future their natural tendency will be to seek solitude and quiet. The proper study of mankind is books.”

A mental carminative. That’s what you need.

From Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, a long-winded joke – the overbuilt sort that makes you feel Huxely spent more time imagining witty exchange than engaging in it. Explanation passed below.

“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean. Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined, just because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative—it’s admirable, isn’t it?”

“Admirable,” Mr. Scogan agreed. “And what does it mean?”

“It’s a word I’ve treasured from my earliest infancy,” said Denis, “treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold—quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. ‘Isn’t it carminative?’ I used to say to myself when I’d taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that—what shall I call it?—physical self-satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later, when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well. The carminative virtues of burgundy, of rum, of old brandy, of Lacryma Christi, of Marsala, of Aleatico, of stout, of gin, of champagne, of claret, of the raw new wine of this year’s Tuscan vintage—I compared them, I classified them. Marsala is rosily, downily carminative; gin pricks and refreshes while it warms. I had a whole table of carmination values. And now”—Denis spread out his hands, palms upwards, despairingly—“now I know what carminative really means.”

“Well, what DOES it mean?” asked Mr. Scogan, a little impatiently.

“Carminative,” said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, “carminative. I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen-carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivations, like carnival and carnation. Carminative—there was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Careme and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative—the warmth, the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word. Instead of which…”

“Do come to the point, my dear Denis,” protested Mr. Scogan. “Do come to the point.”

“Well, I wrote a poem the other day,” said Denis; “I wrote a poem about the effects of love.”

“Others have done the same before you,” said Mr. Scogan. “There is no need to be ashamed.”

“I was putting forward the notion,” Denis went on, “that the effects of love were often similar to the effects of wine, that Eros could intoxicate as well as Bacchus. Love, for example, is essentially carminative. It gives one the sense of warmth, the glow.

‘And passion carminative as wine…’

was what I wrote. Not only was the line elegantly sonorous; it was also, I flattered myself, very aptly compendiously expressive. Everything was in the word carminative—a detailed, exact foreground, an immense, indefinite hinterland of suggestion.

‘And passion carminative as wine…’

I was not ill-pleased. And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked up the word in a dictionary. Carminative had grown up with me from the days of the cinnamon bottle. It had always been taken for granted. Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures.

‘And passion carminative as wine…’

It was the first time I had ever committed the word to writing, and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: ‘Carminative: windtreibend.’ Windtreibend!” he repeated. Mr. Scogan laughed. Denis shook his head. “Ah,” he said, “for me it was no laughing matter. For me it marked the end of a chapter, the death of something young and precious. There were the years—years of childhood and innocence—when I had believed that carminative meant—well, carminative. And now, before me lies the rest of my life—a day, perhaps, ten years, half a century, when I shall know that carminative means windtreibend.

‘Plus ne suis ce que j’ai ete

Et ne le saurai jamais etre.’

It is a realisation that makes one rather melancholy.”

“Carminative,” said Mr. Scogan thoughtfully.

“Carminative,” Denis repeated, and they were silent for a time. “Words,” said Denis at last, “words—I wonder if you can realise how much I love them. You are too much preoccupied with mere things and ideas and people to understand the full beauty of words. Your mind is not a literary mind. The spectacle of Mr. Gladstone finding thirty-four rhymes to the name ‘Margot’ seems to you rather pathetic than anything else. Mallarmé’s envelopes with their versified addresses leave you cold, unless they leave you pitiful; you can’t see that

‘Apte à ne point te cabrer, hue!

Poste et j’ajouterai, dia!

Si tu ne fuis onze-bis Rue

Balzac, chez cet Hérédia,’

is a little miracle.”

“You’re right,” said Mr. Scogan. “I can’t.”

“You don’t feel it to be magical?”


“That’s the test for the literary mind,” said Denis; “the feeling of magic, the sense that words have power. The technical, verbal part of literature is simply a development of magic. Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them! With fitted, harmonious words the magicians summoned rabbits out of empty hats and spirits from the elements. Their descendants, the literary men, still go on with the process, morticing their verbal formulas together, and, before the power of the finished spell, trembling with delight and awe. Rabbits out of empty hats? No, their spells are more subtly powerful, for they evoke emotions out of empty minds. Formulated by their art the most insipid statements become enormously significant. For example, I proffer the constatation, ‘Black ladders lack bladders.’ A self-evident truth, one on which it would not have been worth while to insist, had I chosen to formulate it in such words as ‘Black fire-escapes have no bladders,’ or, ‘Les echelles noires manquent de vessie.’ But since I put it as I do, ‘Black ladders lack bladders,’ it becomes, for all its self-evidence, significant, unforgettable, moving. The creation by word-power of something out of nothing—what is that but magic? And, I may add, what is that but literature? Half the world’s greatest poetry is simply ‘Les echelles noires manquent de vessie,’ translated into magic significance as, ‘Black ladders lack bladders.’ And you can’t appreciate words. I’m sorry for you.”

“A mental carminative,” said Mr. Scogan reflectively. “That’s what you need.”

Windtreibend is something like ‘gas-expelling.’ The whole joke is that anyone with a bit of Latin would expect carminative to relate to carmen (loosely – poem or song, spell, or charm in verse) while the actual derivation is from an unrelated rare technical verb carminare (to card wool) and the meaning is a purely medical ‘anti-flatulent’. The OED gives the derivation as carminare participial stem + ive suffix but it also seems possible the English comes via French carminatif since that one has the proper proposed path of sense as Classical Latin ‘card wool’ -> Medieval Latin ‘break up by scrubbing’ -> French ‘cleanse by purging.’

Varro has a relevant entry in De Lingua Latina (7.54) for Plautus Menaechmi 797, though his etymology is not accepted.

In The Menaechmia:

Why, you’d bid me sit among the maids at work and
card the wool.

This same word carere ‘to card’ is in the Cemetriab of Naevius. Cārĕre is from cārĕre ‘to lack,’ because then they cleanse the wool and spin it into thread, that it may carere ‘be free’ from dirt: from which the wool is said carminari ‘to be carded’ then when they carunt ‘card’ out of it that which sticks in It and is not wool, those things which in the Romulus Naeviusd calls asta, from the Oscans.

In Menaechmis:

Inter ancillas sedere iubeas, lanam carere.

Idem hoc est verbum in Cemetria Naevii. Carere a carendo, quod eam tum purgant ac deducunt, ut careat spurcitia; ex quo carminari dicitur tum lana, cum ex ea carunt1 quod in ea haeret neque est lana, quae in Romulo Naevius appellat asta ab Oscis.

I’m too blown out now to gloss Mallarme’s poem-addresses.

But being a young man of sense, he preferred leisure, if a choice had to be made, to money

From Aldous Huxely’s Those Barren Leaves:

The road is steep that leads up from Vezza to the palace of the Cybo Malaspina, perched on the hill above the town. The Italian sun can shine most powerfully, even in September, and olive trees give but little shade. The young man with the peaked cap and the leather wallet slung over his shoulder pushed his bicycle slowly and wearily up the hill. Every now and then he halted, wiped his face and sighed. It was on an evil day, he was thinking, on a black, black day for the poor postmen of Vezza that the insane old Englishwoman with the impossible name bought this palace; and a blacker day still when she had elected to come and live in it. In the old days the place had been quite empty. A couple of peasant families had lived in the out-houses; that was all. Not more than one letter a month between them, and as for telegrams – why, there had never been a telegram for the palace in all the memory of man. But those happy days were now over, and what with letters, what with packets of newspapers and parcels, what with expresses and telegrams, there was never a day and scarcely an hour in the day when some one from the office wasn’t toiling up to this accursed house.
True, the young man went on thinking, one got a good tip for bringing a telegram or an express. But being a young man of sense, he preferred leisure, if a choice had to be made, to money. The expense of energy was not to be compensated for by the three francs he would receive at the end of the climb. Money brings no satisfaction if one has to work for it; for if one works for it one has no time to spend it.

A pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic

From Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza (pg 17)

A chalk pit, a picture gallery, a brown figure in the sun, a skin, here, redolent of salt and smoke, and here (like Mary’s, he remembered) savagely musky.  Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them out at random, shuffled once more and dealt them out in different order, again and again, indefinitely.  There was no chronology.  The idiot remembered no distinction between before and after.  The pit was as real and vivid as the gallery.  That ten years separated flints from Gauguins was a fact, not given, but discoverable only on second thoughts by the calculating intellect.  The thirty-five years of his conscious life made themselves immediately known to him as a chaos – a pack of snapshots in the hands of a lunatic.