Aldous Huxley's Trolley Car into the Abyss

Portrait of Aldous Huxley

Portrait of Aldous Huxley


What follows is an excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s novel, Those Barren Leaves. It’s a scripted Q & A framed by introductory and conclusory paragraphs. I bought the book for $1 before work, opened to a page at random, and landed upon this ‘recipe’, as Huxley calls it, for shaking up the banality of office life. 

As with any Huxley device, it runs deeper. It’s an invitation to contemplate our lives from their broadest vantage point. It’s an antidote for the unquestioned habitual patterns of drudgery modern work culture normalizes. 

“Those who chafe at the tameness an sameness of office life, who pine for a little excitement to diversify the quotidian routine, should experiment with this little recipe of mine…All you have got to do is to pause for a moment in your work and ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What is it all for? Did I come into the world, supplied with a soul which may very likely be immortal, for the sole purpose of sitting every day at this desk?…

Q: Why am I working here?

A: In order that Jewish stockbrokers may exchange their Rovers for Armstrong-Siddeleys, buy the latest jazz records and spend the week-end at Brighton. 

Q: Why do I go on working here?

A: In the hope that I too may some day be able to spend the week-end at Brighton.

Q: What is progress? 

A: Progress is stockbrokers, more stockbrokers and still more stockbrokers.

Q: What is the aim of social reformers?

A: The aim of social reformers is to create a state in which every individual enjoys the greatest possible amount of freedom and leisure.

Q: What will the citizens of this reformed state do with their freedom and leisure?

A: They will do, presumably, what the stockbrokers do with these things to-day, e.g. spend the week-end at Brighton, ride rapidly on motor vehicles and go to the theatre.

Q: On what condition can I live a life of contentment?

A: On the condition that you do not think.

Q: What is the function of newspapers, cinemas, radios, motor-bikes, jazz bands, etc.?

A: The function of these things is the prevention of thought and the killing of time. They are the most powerful instruments of human happiness.

Q: What did Buddha consider the most deadly of the deadly sins?

A: Unawareness, stupidity.

Q: And what will happen if I make myself aware, if I actually begin to think?

A: Your swivel chair will turn into a trolley on the mountain railway, the office floor will gracefully slide away from beneath you and you will find yourself launched into the abyss.

Down, down, down! The sensation, through sickening, is really delightful. Most people, I know, find it a little too much for them and consequently cease to think, in which case the trolley reconverts itself into the swivel chair, the floor closes up and the hours at the desk seem once more to be hours passed in a perfectly reasonable manner; or else, more rarely, flee in panic horror from the office to bury their heads like ostriches in religion or what not…”

The exchange strikes me as a short literary corollary to the film of a similar theme: My Dinner with Andre. 

Over the course of a thinking life, bits like these appear, scattered about and too often left unexamined. It’s another clinking tap upon the icepick wedged into the cracking layers of my habits and conditioning

Enough of these taps upon the icepick, and an unthinking life might just break open and release surges of vitality. Sure, there’s a lurking fear that upon breaking conditioning open, there’s nothing inside. No creative and original relation to the Universe waiting to be formed, just a blank emptiness. But Huxley’s Q&A reminds me that the alternative, remaining sealed up inside calcified habits of foreign design — whether of evolution’s invisible hand that’s hungry for mere survival, or the acquisitive and competitive agenda of a hypercapitalist culture — bowing to these forces and living a tame life of acquiescence is no better than discovering my own emptiness. 

Besides, emptiness, too, is one of the most vitalizing forces around.