Huxley, and the meaning of words
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 10, 2008, 00:49

�Words are dangerous as well as useful,� thus wrote Aldous Huxley in his essay, A Few Well-Chosen Words. He continued, � . . . they have made it impossible to think except in terms of language.� [1]

This seeming statement of the obvious conceals deep implications. Huxley fixes on a few well-chosen words, as his essay title warns. The words are for the most part innocuous and simple, which is unfortunate. For if words are dangerous, he would have done well to pick dangerous examples. The words he selects are: democracy, sex, god, the East, society, good time. Only the first word is dangerous, and his analysis of the syllables superb.

�The word [democracy] conjures up ideas of universal liberty and happiness. The hearer feels an expansive emotion, a pleasing enlargement of his personality, following on the idea of the loosening of restraints. He can be moved by repetition of the word to take violent action.�

Spot on. The American voter has been moved by repetition of the word to take violent action in Afghanistan, and Iraq. In Bangladesh, the word has unleashed barbaric levels of violence. In India, the word resulted in nuclearisation. In Israel, the word has sanctified the suffering of three generations of Palestinian refugees.

With these supportive observations, let us return to Huxley.

�As a matter of historical fact, however, democracy has come to mean, not universal liberty, but the absolute rule of majorities. In republican America the formula of democracy is: Agree with the majority, or clear out.�

No doubt the African-American and the Native American, as these victims are euphemistically called, would heartily agree with Huxley. For the former group, America is a ghetto filled with crime and crack; for the latter, America is a reservation filled with alcoholism, unemployment and suicide. They can�t clear out; it is the majority that, having imported the first group, and corralled the second, should clear out.

Huxley, of course, doesn�t explain how words acquire the connotations that they do. If the miserable minority of America -- and the refugees of Palestine and now the victims of Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh -- should find the experience of democracy so intolerable, how is it that the word comes to impart the quasi-orgasmic feeling described by Huxley? Why does the utterer of the word feel � . . . a pleasing enlargement of his personality, following on the idea of the loosening of restraints?�

Because Americans and the Western world in general find it useful to endow the word with aphrodisiac potentials, for it enables them to appear benign while committing the worst of atrocities. For the question must be asked: whose restraints? Surely not the restraint of the black man in jail for selling crack on the streets because, unlike his white counterpart, he had nowhere else to make the transaction? Surely not the Indian who had to give up the Ghost Dance as he was conquered, and took to swallowing peyote for relief from the white man�s chains? Surely not the Palestinian whose land has been confiscated behind a security fence? Surely not the Iraqi woman who lost her baby for want of medical care due to UN sanctions?

The loosening of restraints must refer to the restraints of the white, Western man and woman: the loosening of all moral restraint, in short.

If that is the true connotation of the word, why do we -- who are not Americans -- experience the erotic titillation and salivation at the mere mention of the word?

This brings us to the second and third words in Huxley�s list: sex and food.

It is clear that words are sexy in a way that men and women are not. But there is a similarity. They are also disgusting or delicious, like food. �Eating and lovemaking are the most important and indispensable occupations of the human race; the life of the individual and the persistence of the race depend on them.�

We are no longer hunter-gatherers and we no longer copulate in groups. We specialise, we exchange and we use cash. Food must, and sex can, be purchased. The lower orders, who eat little and fornicate much, we treat with contempt; we, the higher orders, eat much and fornicate less (or so we believe).

When a word has a high value in the marketplace, we get both repast and pastime, purchased with the cash made available. This explains why democracy as a word stands in such high esteem with us: we can buy whatever we want with it. Uttering the word is like ingesting manna; hearing it is like penetration. And all because the word has cash-value.

In Huxley�s day, sex was a controversial subject: Freud was merely making inroads. In the East, on the other hand, where such erotic masterpieces as The Perfumed Garden and the Kamasutra had long been openly available and read, the word �sex� had none of the associations of guilt and hush-hush.

�Westerners have outgrown the prejudices with which their eastern brothers still surround the notion of food. We are prepared to eat practically anything. . . ." By �eastern brothers,� Huxley had Hindus and Muslims in mind, for further east, they are prepared to eat practically anything. He looks forward to the day when � . . . the word �sex� will be pronounced and heard with as complete a calm.� That day has arrived in the West. Having surpassed the East, they condemn the latter for being prudes.

The West has achieved �loosening of restraints� in matters of nutrition and copulation. That has been the outcome of democracy. When one can effectively control other people by means of bombs and bullets, it is useless to control what they eat or with whom they make love.

Liberty and the libertine and the gourmet all go together.

Those of us then who claim to be Westernised clearly cannot have the same experience of food and sex and democracy like our Western counterparts. We learn English words in English medium schools but the associations are local. We think we are thinking and feeling like white persons, but that is only a trick of words. At the level below words -- what words refer to and intimate -- we are as alien to them, and they to us, as reptiles and mammals.

When a Palestinian uses the word �democracy,� he means oppression. When a white, middle-class American uses the same word, well, he or she feels the reverse. When a Hindu uses the word �beef,� he definitely does not have the same sensations as a Muslim. And when a Frenchman says soixante-neuf, well, we have a fairly clear idea of what he is getting up -- or down -- to.

And if all the foregoing are not enough to persuade, take the word �family.� For us, the word evokes a sepia-tinted picture of grandparents, children, grandchildren in three rows -- the children standing, the grandparents sitting, the grandchildren kneeling. And what does it mean for the European? Husband, wife and children in one snapshot, and then years later, only the first two -- if that -- and years older. Alone.

That�s freedom.

[1] Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays, Volume II, 1926-1929, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), pp. 58-62

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor