Aldous Huxley, known for such works as Brave New World, Point Counter Point, The Doors of Perception, and Eyeless in Gaza, also wrote many other novels and essays. Ape and Essence is one of his more obscure offerings. The author who was known for his biting satirical vision here dissects the fear and desolation associated with a brand-new malignancy: nuclear weapons and total war. While Brave New World was quite an accessible prophecy of disaster, allowing it to be put on a pedestal beside the famously unpretentious Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ape and Essence is seemingly purposefully obtuse. The main narrative exists within a frame narrative, and there is symbolic interaction between them.
Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley opens with a friendly conversation between the narrator and Bob Briggs, two men who we must assume get their living from the movie industry. Their conversation flicks lazily between the banal romantic miseries of Briggs and the political profunities of the day – it is “the day of Gandhi’s assassination” but the rest of the world are “more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets”. This seems to be a favourite device of Huxley’s – using character dialogue to explore ideas directly. After ruminating for a time, the pair get up and leave, and happen upon a rejected movie script, bound in a nonstandard green, saved from the incinerator by the error of an incompetent truck driver. It is called Ape and Essence. We now see the purpose of the frame narrative – such as it is, anyway. The point, it seems, is to contextualise the dystopia we are about to see, and to juxtapose it with the turmoil of the postwar West. This is an admirable concept, but it does gives the impression, especially at this stage in the narrative, that the first chunk of the book has been for nothing.
Ape and Essence by William Tallis opens with a predawn landscape, paired with a score “flawlessly pure of all Wagnerian lubricity and bumptiousness, all Straussian vulgarity”. The film (which even in this novel has never been produced or screened) cuts to a movie screen, on which a female baboon croons “Give me detumescence”, while holding a clone of Michael Faraday on a chain. One is reminded of Brave New World’s “feelie” films. This level of abstraction – the kind of metaphor which ceases to function in a literal sense – is thankfully not maintained for long. We are to see a few more vignettes in this style, of apes engaging in thermonuclear and biological war. For now, though, the reader – and the imaginary Tallis’s imagined audience – see the Canterbury, a four-masted schooner adorned with the flag of New Zealand. The film’s narrator explains that New Zealand was the only area that scraped away from nuclear destruction, other than Equatorial Africa. After an awkward passage in which we are illuminated on the matter of the black man’s activities – an awful lot of female circumcision, apparently – the more wholesome New Zealanders draw closer to the Californian coast.
The hapless and helpless Dr. Alfred Poole, soon becomes lost to the rest of the crew. He has been kidnapped by a band of vicious brutes. We are acquainted with the society they represent in another scene, in which a group of grave robbers are overseen by the Chief, who castigates one man for stealing a ring for himself. We are introduced to this community’s methods of moralism when the Chief invokes the “Proletariat” in his abuse of the poor man, and a glimpse of a more sinister faith is revealed when the thief mentions “Belial Day”. Dr. Poole is shoved into the scene by the men who captured him, and agrees to help the Satan worshippers – for that is what they are – grow more crops. Already, Huxley has shown his disdain for orthodoxy and dogma, and we are henceforth treated to increasingly absurd caricatures of “Church and State”. It is through the lens of Dr. Poole’s knowledgeable yet naïve eyes that these horrors (burning of books for fuel, a complex system of Satanic hate-worship, purging of mutants) are lent their alien quality. Poole is like somewhat us in that he is accustomed to the mores of tepidly Anglican civil democracy, but unlike us in that he has read the new history books, and knows what “really” happened during and after World War Three. The Californians never ask him about these matters, however, and so we never find out ourselves.
It is very clear why Ape and Essence never achieved the success or acclaim of Huxley’s most notable works. It fiddles and fidgets with form in a way that is often funny, sometimes thoughtful, but occasionally irritating. Its core narrative is a harsh, acerbic satire of what Huxley thought might come, but for all that (or perhaps because of it) it is gloriously odd, and sometimes even surreally comic – more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than Brave New World, if that comparison can be tolerated. However underwhelming it may have been upon publication, it now serves as an intriguing look at the popular perception of nuclear arms at a time when the Cold War was still to come.