“In silence, an act is an act is an act. Verbalized and discussed, it becomes an ethical problem …”
– Aldous Huxley, from ‘The Genius and the Goddess’
If you’ve checked out ‘A Confession,’ you’ve come across this quote. I use it to open the book, before any of the story takes place. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since I read ‘The Genius and the Goddess,’ the novella from Aldous Huxley. One of my favorite authors, Huxley has obviously left a huge impact on the world through his writing, in particular with his most famous work, ‘Brave New World.’ From that book, however, I think a lot of people wrongly assume he is a sort of dystopian/sci-fi writer, when in fact ‘Brave New World’ was the only of his to really fall into that genre. Much like how a lot of people still think of Hitchcock as someone who made “scary movies” (when Psycho and The Birds are really the only ones that fit into that genre) the standard perception of Huxley is a bit off. Yes, ‘Brave New World’ was set in a dystopian future, but above all it was an exploration of the human condition, a theme covered extensively throughout his works.
Of all the Huxley books I’ve read (and I admit, I haven’t gotten through all of them yet), my personal favorite is ‘The Genius and the Goddess’ (with his final work, ‘Island,’ at a close second). It’s really a short, simple book, but it’s also one of the more beautiful pieces of literature I’ve read. The quote in particular stuck out to me as a question as to if the things we do carry any true moral weight, or if the things we do are simply the things we do – completely bereft of ethical questioning until at some point we actually turn them into something more through discussion.
Similar in many ways to the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so,” Huxley asks us to separate pure action from perception. Intent, or lake thereof, is separate from the act in itself. Is something truly “unethical” or “immoral” if we just do it? When a cat kills a mouse, even for play, it is not considered unethical. It is simply what cats do. What about the things we do? Do they in themselves have ethical value? Are the good? Or bad? Or are these acts simply acts, and nothing more, until we put them into the framework of our own philosophies?
This overarching question is at the core of ‘A Confession.’ The acts recalled by the protagonist … in his views, they may be considered excusable, if not ethical in their own right – within his framework. But is that truly the case? Does the morality of an action actually change depending upon the person’s subjective views? Can what is “right” for one person be “wrong” for another, and both interpretations be true? Or are the ethics of what we do determined solely by our own interpretations, and on their own, simply acts? Acts that until they are “verbalized and discussed” hold no moral value until we, as humans, imbue them with our own perception? How about us, the reader? Where do our own actions fall?
When we meet the protagonist of ‘A Confession,’ we find him at a time in which he begins to question his perspective. Through one event, tragic in his own mind, he finds himself looking back at what has come before in his life, and if the rules he’s put forth and build his life decisions around are actually true, if he’s been wrong all along, or if maybe there aren’t any rules to begin with.