“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 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