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Ape and Essence (1948) is a novel by Aldous Huxley, published by Chatto & Windus in the UK and Harper & Row in the US. It is set in a dystopia, similar to that in Brave New World, Huxley's more famous work. It is largely a satire of the rise of large-scale warfare and warmongering in the 20th century, and presents a pessimistic view of the politics of mutually assured destruction. The book makes extensive use of surrealist imagery, depicting humans as apes who, as a whole, will inevitably commit suicide.


The novel is divided into two sections, Tallis --the name of the novel's character most like Huxley himself-- and the Script -- the screenplay titled Ape and Essence which Tallis had submitted to the studio (it was rejected on 1947 November 26, a fortnight before his death, but not returned to him).


Tallis gives us two movie industry intellectuals--the narrator and screenwriter Bob Briggs--who, on the day of Gandhi's murder (1948 January 30), rescue Ape and Essence from the trash. Intrigued, they make the drive two days later to Los Angeles County's high desert to find its author, William Tallis. En route they discuss a range of ideas cultural and topical, from Gandhi to Goya.

They arrive at a remote and isolated old ranch, a solitary homestead in a surreal setting. (Huxley's evocative prose is actually an exact description of his own desert home, where he sits, writing.) They interact with the home's inhabitants, learning that Tallis died suddenly just six weeks before. As these characters serve mainly to establish the narrative frame or context, we do not see them again, except insofar as Tallis has written himself into the script's final scene, foreknowing his death (but misimagining his grave to lie at the desert farm he rents, rather than in a proper cemetery 30 miles away in Lancastermarker).


Ape and Essence is presented in its entirety, without remark by interruption, footnote or afterword. It begins with a vignette describing the destruction of the world by nuclear and chemical warfare at the hands of intelligent baboons - a critique of the human race (see more about these vignettes below). The two warring sides each have an Einstein on a leash which they force to press the button, releasing clouds of disease-causing gases toward each other.

The story then advances to a time 100 years after the catastrophic events of World War III, which characters in the book refer to as "the thing", when nuclear and chemical weapons eventually destroyed most of human civilization. In the script's timeframe, radiation has subsided to safer levels and the New Zealandmarker rediscovery scientists (New Zealand being spared from the bombings because it was "of no strategic importance") are sailing to Californiamarker.

Unfortunately, a strange society has emerged from the radiation and two of its men capture one of the scientists (Dr. Poole). Dr. Poole is introduced to an illiterate society which survives by "mining" graves for clothes, burning library books as fuel, and killing off newborns deformed by radiation (that is, newborns with over 3 pairs of nipples and more than 7 toes/fingers per hand) to preserve genetic purity. The society has also taken to worshipping Satan, whom they refer to as Belial, and limiting reproduction to an annual two-week orgy which begins on "Belial's Day Eve" after the deformed babies are "purified by blood."

The story climaxes during the purification ceremonies of Belial's Day Eve with an intellectual confrontation between Dr. Poole and the Arch Vicar, the head of the Church of Belial (much like the confrontation John the Savage has with Mustapha Mond in Brave New World). During the conversation the Arch Vicar reveals that there is a minority of "hots" who do not express an interest in the post-WWIII style of reproduction, but they are severely punished to keep them in line. In exchange for his life, Dr. Poole agrees to do what he can as a botanist to help increase their crops yields, but about a year later he escapes with Loola in search of the community of "hots" that is rumored to exist North of the desert.

The script--and the novel--end with Dr. Poole and Loola in the desert north of los Angeles, breaking their trek by a tombstone which bears the author's name of Tallis, the dates 1882-1948, and three lines from the antepenultimate verse of Percy Bysshe Shelley's elegy on the death of John Keats. Lest Loola find it sad, Dr. Poole, happily possessed of a duodecimo Shelley, reads her the poem's penultimate verse:

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe

That Beauty in which all things work and move

That Benediction, which the eclipsing Curse

Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love,

Which through the web of being blindly wove

By man and beast and earth and air and sea,

Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of

The fire for which all thirst, now beams on me

Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.


The story in the script is punctuated by a series of vignettes centering around a society which is much like 20th century human society, but with baboons substituted for men. These brief scenes serve to further satirize human society and depict it as brutal, warlike, and stupid. The opening scene shows two Einsteins, tied to leashes held by baboons on either side of a pair of baboon armies, facing each other and preparing for battle. They are then directed to operate machines which release "improved" disease-causing clouds at the opposition. This scene expresses the belief that society's most intelligent figures are exploited by ignorant warmongers, and the hopelessness of a society in which every party seeks to annihilate all others.

Several of the vignettes portray a female baboon singing sensually to an all-baboon audience "Give me, give me, give me detumescence..." Other vignettes involve apes performing various human activities, ape armies assembling, and other more surreal imagery.

Notes & References

  1. Bantam edition, 1958 July, p11

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