Huxley on Proust and psychology (2020)

Psychological reality vs. realism

by Federico Soldani – 15th Oct 2020

In one of his very first published essays, today part of Complete Essays, Volume I: 1920-1925 (Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2000), entitled ‘Proust: The Eighteenth-Century Method’ and published in the literary magazine ‘The Athenaeum’ on the 8th of August 1919 in London, author Aldous Huxley addressed the topic of psychology straight away.

The editor of The Athenaeum was John MIddleton Murry. Under his editorship several members of the Bloomsbury Group contributed to the magazine. During the 1920s, many of them became Freudian psychoanalysts.

Murry in 1923 founded the literary magazine The Adelphi, which in 1927 became The New Adelphi under the editorship of Richard Rees, later the literary executor of George Orwell.

Here are the relevant passages in which Huxley highlighted the shift in French literature from psychological reality to psychological realism.

Some of the concepts expressed in his first published essay in the collection might be important in today’s debate about the shifting concept of reality, the psychologization of political and everyday language, and the so-called psychedelic renaissance, especially since the word psychedelic to characterize hallucinogens was developed in a rhymes exchange, several decades later, between Huxley and the psychiatrist Osmond, who coined the word ‘psychedelic.’


‘Proust: The Eighteenth-Century Method,’ by Aldous Huxley, The Athenaeum (1919) (emphasis added)

“In the second volume of his history of the French novel, Mr. Saintsbury let fall the remark that “psychological realism is perhaps a more different thing from psychological reality than our clever ones for two generations have been willing to admit, or, perhaps, able to understand.”

Psychological reality, as opposed to psychological realism, was what the eighteenth-century delineators of character aimed at. There is something extraordinarily satisfying and convincing about a good piece of their analysis. One thinks with admiration of the firmness of outlying the bare precision of Alfieri’s self-portrait, or of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, so subtle and yet so simply and economically drawn. They produced their effects by a process of abstraction from the multifarious and generally rather confused facts of psychology.

The “clever ones of the last two generations” have occupied themselves for the most part in exactly recording these muddled facts as they are actually observable. To them this psychological realism has seemed nearer the truth than the earlier abstractions and distillations of the real brute facts. But, as Mr. Saintsbury suggests, it may be that artistic truth and convincingness of character are arrived at more certainly by the other method.

The invention and development of the modern science of psychology has made us regard as important and interesting a multitude of small odds and ends of thought, emotion and sensation which seemed to our ancestors almost negligible. They did not insist on the phenomena because they were interested primarily in what they regarded as the reality behind them. They did not record little facts about their heroes’ sensations or fleeting velleities of thought; they rationalized and generalized the chaotic complex of psychological life into the unity of character. […]

M. Proust belongs in his method to the older school. He does not give us psychology in his crude, undigested state. He rationalizes and distills and peptonizes his data, serving up finally, for the consumption of his readers, a finished product of exquisite clarity.

Last Updated on October 17, 2020 by Federico Soldani

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: