Aldous Huxley, the British writer for the counter-cultural milieu, is a name everyone ought to be familiar with.
His "Brave New World" is a mainstay within school curricula, his "Doors of Perception" is on the shelf of every LSD-dropping hippie from the 1960s, and his "Perennial Philosophy" is the book of tenets for every amateur explorer of world religions. He was a writer of enormous talent, enormous depth, and enormous productivity.
However, while he is recognized often enough as a literary master, most of his works remain unread. His esoteric 1941 "Grey Eminence" is one such ignored work.
"Grey Eminence" somewhat novelizes the story of François Leclerc du Tremblay, a man now forgotten but – at least for historians of religion and politics – historically significant and, frankly, impressive.
Du Tremblay was a Capuchin monk in the 17th century who operated under Cardinal Richelieu as an intelligence adviser and a Machiavellian ideological guide.
This was a man who, due to his regime of religious proscriptions, walked without shoes and did not travel by coach. He scoured Europe barefoot and participated in the Thirty Years' War; opened a series of churches whose nuns prayed for Richelieu's success in the war as if they were battery installations; wrote thousands of pages of material and originated the term "l'eminence grise", or "grey eminence," which means the real power broker behind the political figurehead. One need only think of Dick Cheney in this regard.
Huxley dissects Du Tremblay's role in the war and extrapolates his function to Huxley's own time in the early 20th century.
"The Grey Eminence"'s ideological role in producing and reproducing consent to a war which decimated France's population parallels certain catastrophes in 20th century Europe, no doubt.
How best can you make people consent to their own destruction? Du Tremblay, though a true-blue believer himself, answered simply: religion.
In the 1960s, Louis Althusser, the architect of the French riots of 1968, wrote an essay entitled "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" that outlined his theory of ideology along structural lines. Althusser, like Du Tremblay, thought ideology can reproduce itself in certain institutions and "recruit" adherents unconsciously.
The churches Du Tremblay set up throughout France mirror such ideological apparatuses like no other; extending even further, institutions like UT and schooling in general also function to reproduce dominant ideologies.
While I am no conspiracy theorist, I do hold that literature has as much to tell us about ourselves as history, be it our own or that of one whose consciousness must be so alien to the modern mind as to be understood only by prosthesis.
Huxley's book, in the light of Althusser's theory of ideology, makes me reflect on our own current affairs.
Which of our hallowed institutions make us work against ourselves? Which of them implant certain historically contingent ideas into our thinking which we find ourselves unable to excise?
The idea of "self-esteem" – now a cultural commonplace that fits in nicely within our capitalist paradigm – was popularized by Ayn Rand's lover, Nathaniel Branden, a man who renamed himself Branden because it has Rand's name in it.
His bourgeois cult of self-esteem descended throughout our culture: now we feel remiss if we gauge our self-esteem to be low, but we do not ask if self-esteem is a valid ethical and moral category. A strange man invented it and the meme stuck. Doubtless many other commonplaces find their way into the culture in a similar manner, yet we come to think of them as somehow natural, as rigidly set into our collective unconscious to the point we don't even think of them as produced.
Ayn Rand started an entire movement based around her questionable fiction. Du Tremblay maintained a horrible war through his knowledge of how the mind works.
If a man in early modern France understood how ideology works and controlled human behavior on a fundamental level, the science of ideology must be much more advanced in 2014.
Huxley's book makes me wonder if we are not all pawns in a gambit larger than ourselves, perhaps ruled over not by overlords, as in "Brave New World," but rather by our own unconscious habits which, if they do not aid us, must only destroy us, as in "Grey Eminence" and the entire landscape of Huxley's own century.
Perhaps in our own century, we will finally manage to free ourselves of ideology and acknowledge our real conditions of existence, however happy or grim such a portrait might be.
Jeremy Brunger is a senior in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.