In a Word

“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean.” ( 211) – Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow IMG_2167 Chrome Yellow was recommended to me by a lovely fellow blogger after I read Lady Ottoline’s Album. In this wonderful and often hilarious book, Huxley satirizes his ‘set.’ Chrome, the fictional name of the estate, based on Ottoline’s own Garsinton Manor, is seen and experienced by young Denis who comes with youthful ambitions to be a writer, poet, indeed – a man!

“Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative–it’s admirable, isn’t it?” “Admirable,” Mr. Scogen agreed. “And what does it mean?”

Huxley describes the ennui of the upper crust of society to perfection. He mocks  the superior “education,” bestowed with entitlement,  which often results in a shallow, dilettante class.

“They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold […] On the label was a list of virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. It seemed so wonderful to describe that sensation of internal warmth” 

While the Ottoline-esque hostess is distracted by occult mysticism, artists come to find their muse and paint, writers come to work, young girls to have serious discussions and not fall in love.

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.”

…of course everyone is there to fall in love or  at least die flirting. They all seem somewhat silly, either by virtue of excessive seriousness, or a certain passionlessness. But what does it all mean?

“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 derivatives, like carnival and carnation.”

A word is like a mystery, a snare of syllables encase it: understanding is within. The meaning is an opening, a pandora’s box of symbols and curiosities which mingle with the impression already given by the sound or vision of the letters: aligned, curving, swaying, with dancing periods hopping along the ‘i’s’ – a thing of beauty.

“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.”

A house, and the lives within,  seen from the outside can only be ill understood. Huxley takes that idea and has a lot of fun shrinking it to a word, then broadening it to person, a house, a village…

“I was putting forth 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.”

Of course true to our training, and nowhere is that training better than in England- except perhaps some Scandinavian countries that will remain nameless, we never simple state things, or leave our insides out for others to see or know. Often, one hardly knows one’s own insides.

“And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked the word up in a dictionary.”

Huxley’s story is highly amusing. The days are long, golden, frustrating for youthful would-be lovers, but full of quirky erudite conversations. The evenings are cool as the history of Chrome as its own heartbreaks and drollery is read aloud by Henry Wimbush, the current master of the grandiosity that is Chrome.

“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.’   Windtreiband!” he repeated. Mr. Scogin laughed.

Of course, there is always the possibility that we are exactly the ridiculous creatures that we fear we are.

*As Huxley does not, I will be kind to those that don’t know the word in German either, as it turns out it means: relieving flatulence. Oh, Poor Denis. Poor us.

** All quotes come from pages 211-14

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20 responses to “In a Word

  1. What a jolly laugh this gave me!!!!

  2. Love this. This line in particular: “…or at least die flirting.” Ha! And I LOVE that rooster!

  3. Great article. Though I’m only speculating from the excerpts provided, he seems to satirize the upper class in much the same vein as Evelyn Waugh… would you agree?

    • Yes in a way – I think I would say Waugh has more bite – or his satirical bite leaves a mark, at least! One is a bit more bruising than the other. Perhaps because this was Huxley’s first book? Waugh’s humor is slightly more wicked…but that is based on having read Vile Bodies eons ago but more recently a book of short stories which were wonderful – but wicked is a word that comes to my mind reading Waugh, and it did not while reading Chrome Yellow.

  4. What I remembered immediately about Chrome is the conversation between Anne while Gombauld painted her: ” … you men are always… ;
    it’s so barbarously naive. You feel one of your loose desires for some woman, and because you desire her strongly you immediately accuse her of luring you on, of deliberately provoking and inviting the desire. You have the mentality of savages. You might just as well say that a plate of strawberries and cream deliberately lures you on to feel greedy.”

  5. The link to Chemin faisant is welcome. Lovely stuff!

  6. Aldous Huxley was a provocateur. In April of 1962, he attended a symposium on Hypnosis hosted by the legendary Dr. George Estabrooks of Colgate University where your father then taught painting and art history. As a student, I attended both of Huxley’s speeches as he addressed the conference twice: once on ” The Visionary Experience.” and again on “Human Potentialities.” He had a brilliant, original mind. Given the importance of actually having Huxley on campus, Eric would have met him. At the time, the student body was roughly 1300 men with a faculty and administration of around 120. The atmosphere encouraged open and informal discussion and knowing Eric, h would have been in the thick of it. Just thought you’d like to know.

    • Wow, that is really fascinating and fantastic and I am thrilled that you shared it with me. How exciting that must have been for you to attend the lectures, and how wonderful it is for me to have something to add to my imagination regarding my father. Thank you so much.

  7. There are so many words we use but don’t really know what they mean, and yet we manage to keep using them
    Somehow the taste or the sound of them substitutes for meaning

  8. There ate so .any words we use without really knowing the meaning. And yet we seem to be understood Maybe sound & context ate as important as meaning

  9. Funny these slanted references to fine arts colors. Carmine [red] is an insect based “natural” pigment. Is it also wind reducing? And chrome yellow is artificial, made from a lead compound. Is there more of this in the book? Huxley was big on art v. society v. technology I should try to read more, yes? http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/

    • I don’t think there were any other overt references to color, but the entire book is about things not appearing quite as they truly are…there are some marvelous sequences in which the “history” of Chrome is gone into and they are hilarious, poignant, ridiculous…
      I suppose it is an odd choice of book for one, such as I, as a starting place in Huxley’s body of work, but it is marvelous fun, and smart social commentary. I’ve never read anything of his other than a graphic novel version of Brave New World not to mention his other provocative books, but I am quite interested. I think I should read more, yes?
      Love that link! Orpiment…orpimento…jaune royal…thank you, most kindly.

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