I recently came across this quote from twentieth century author Aldous Huxley in The Week magazine: “I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark, like celery.” I don’t know when in his life Huxley said this; it was probably early in his writing career, since later on he did become quite famous for Brave New World and other writings. Huxley died in 1963, before computers, before the internet, before all the vast machinery of celebrity that is so much a feature of our current maddening century. The quote is a fascinating insight into Huxley’s own inner process and self-regard. He aspired to be a man of good character, and he wondered if in the limelight of fame he could maintain that character. “I’m afraid of losing my obscurity”: perhaps he said this as his first big best-seller was rocketing him to fame. I also love his quirky addendum, “like celery.” There is a way of growing celery called “trenching,” where the plant is buried in soil so that the stems emerge with a pure white color. Huxley seems to be referring to this method as a metaphor for the effect on character and the creative process of remaining largely hidden from view.
How many of us these days are afraid of losing our obscurity? Probably very few. Most people can’t wait to leave their obscurity behind and rush onto a stage of celebrity and bright lights. Such people equate success with the pseudo-reknown of having a YouTube or Instagram following—and the riches that come with it. Some of these people have followings in the tens of millions. What has that done to their genuineness, or is genuineness even something anyone would care about these days?
For most of human history and pre-history, people lived in small disparate groups. If they were well-known, it was only to the modest circle of people in their village and community—perhaps two or three hundred people at most, often just forty or fifty. Fame in the modern sense wasn’t even possible in those ancient days. What people aspired to was to be respected, and to be known as an honorable contributor to the welfare of the group.
Genuineness means straightforwardness, trustworthiness, humility, and honesty. It is deeply important, especially in the close relationships of couples and families. I read now that young people—raised on the pseudo-intimacy of social media–are having real difficulty forming deep, long-lasting relationships. Romance suffers, love suffers, friendship, family and children suffer. In Huxley’s terms, these deep bonds of affection can only blossom in the “dark” of privacy and honesty. By always striving to live in the bright light, we are losing something tender, something that can sustain us through thick and thin. The craving for celebrity and artifice is making us weak, and preventing us from fulfilling one of our deepest human needs, the need for intimacy, openness and trust with another person.
I don’t know how Huxley ultimately dealt with his burgeoning fame. I know he lived a full life, and made numerous literary and cultural contributions, including his early research and experience with psychedelics. My guess is that despite his fears he maintained his genuineness, and lived a full life of intimacy and depth. Now, sixty years after his death, where are we? Has our loss of genuineness become something permanent, or can it somehow be restored? I think the loneliness and isolation that is the consequence of our technological wizardry is ultimately doomed to fail. But what will that failure look like? Will it send us hurtling deep into a pit of violence and endemic conflict, or can we rescue the seed of genuineness from its exile and nurse it back to life—trenching up the soil, so to speak, and protecting its fragility, like celery?
That future is, like so much these days, unknown even to the most prescient. We are sailing into uncharted waters.