Academic journal article The Space Between

Modernist Aphasia: A Scientific Basis for Neologism in Huxley's Early Fiction

Academic journal article The Space Between

Modernist Aphasia: A Scientific Basis for Neologism in Huxley's Early Fiction

Article excerpt

I. A Mandate for Invention

In his essay Literature and Science (1963), Aldous Huxley issues the modern writer a challenging task: "To speak about the ineffable, to communicate in words what words were never intended to convey." Because the existing lexicon is "wholly inadequate," he urges the writer to look elsewhere: "Every literary artist must therefore invent or borrow some kind of uncommon language capable of expressing, at least partially, those experiences which the vocabulary and syntax of ordinary speech so manifestly fail to convey" (10-11, emphasis mine). Although this direct mandate for invention did not emerge until 1963, the last year of his life, it is evident that Huxley was experimenting with these precepts as early as the 1920s.

As T. S. Eliot would quip in 1920, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" (153). A primary target for Huxley's many thefts was scientific discourse. One might well say the impulse was inherited. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), made significant contributions to nineteenth-century evolutionary theory; his older brother Julian Huxley (1887-1975) would extend this legacy in the twentieth century. Aldous Huxley became a writer, in part, because his scientific and medical training was abbreviated by his failing eyesight, but his interest in scientific inquiry persisted, especially in his clinical regard for words. Throughout his early fiction, he disassembles words with artful precision, tracing their halting and fragile resonance through the clinical guise of speech pathologies. Specifically, he introduces to his short story "Half-holiday" (1925) and novel Point Counter Point (1928) stuttering and aphasia as surprising sources of invention. He engages aphasia, in particular, to experiment with the novelty and sonority of unfamiliar words. To a certain extent, such lexical vulnerabilities as stuttering and aphasia portend cultural decline, an effect that Huxley explored at greater length in the following decade. Though he would become known for scientific dystopia in Brave New World (1932), we see him laying a lexical groundwork for this satire throughout the 1920s. As we will see, though, even as he inflected words with dystopic disorder, he also reimagined them in novel formulations.

Disorder gives rise to reorder: words disassembled become, in Huxley's imagination, a pantry of ingredients for augmenting modernity's lexicon. In seeking to rebuild, he turns to scientific discourse. Specifically, taxonomic vocabulary (itself a manifold hodgepodge of roots, prefixes, and suffixes) comprises a generative vehicle for neologism that cultivates proliferating and all-encompassing nuance. Taxonomic growth-and, indeed, the progress of scientific inquiry itself-hinges on the invention of new words. Playfully but also pragmatically, Huxley mimics and scavenges from these structures to enliven and broaden the reach of modern words. In this light, aphasia and taxonomy can be yoked together as the source material for neologism. These seemingly incongruous processes in fact recur in tandem across his early fiction, suggesting that Huxley understood word-making in terms of a continual cycle of mutuality: words must be unmade and remade in the service of novelty.

This essay explores Huxley's work in light of the oft-examined affinity between aphasia and the writings of his modernist peers. David Lodge, for example, argues that clinical accounts of aphasia (most notably, instances of "dislocation or distortion") comprise a telling lens with which to examine the difficulty of modern literature. Building on Roman Jakobson's work with linguistic models of selection and combination, Lodge proposes that certain modern writing, such as that of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, "aspires to the condition of aphasia" (77-79).1 Although some have grappled with speech disorder as modern metaphor, what concerns me are the formal ripples leftin the wake of such disorders-how aphasic language comes to inflect the text in novel ways, and how the very concept of aphasic language models new methods for word-making. …

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