The Magazine

Aldous Huxley's World

The satirist as mystic.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Aldous Huxley

A Biography

by Nicholas Murray

Thomas Dunne, 496 pp., $29.95

ALDOUS HUXLEY published fifty books before his death in 1963. For years he was one of Britain's most-recognizable writers: handsome, quotable, urbane, a literary star. But mention Huxley's name today, and a surprising number of people can name only his futuristic 1932 novel "Brave New World"--and even then they're a bit confused: "Or was that the one by George Orwell?"

Like Orwell's "1984," Huxley's "Brave New World" remains a staple of high-school reading lists: sex, drugs, test-tube babies, a sensual but sterile state--no wonder it seems a piece of uncanny prophecy. But "Brave New World," published in 1932 when Huxley was thirty-eight, may be as much about the past as the future. It's about the brave new world of eugenic biotechnology into which we are, only now, rapidly descending. But it's also about the 1920s, when jazz was the fad, movies were new, and public intellectuals like Aldous Huxley rued the rise of mass entertainment, mass advertising, and mass production: the making of mass man.

Perhaps there's no great puzzle why. As Nicholas Murray reminds us in his recent "Aldous Huxley: A Biography," Huxley belonged to one of Britain's most distinguished Victorian intellectual families. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin's most ardent defender, a biologist who addressed scientific subjects in an elegant and accessible style. Huxley's great-uncle, Matthew Arnold, was also a central literary figure of the Victorian Age. Both men saw life as brutal and harsh and both believed that Christianity, as traditionally practiced and understood, was doomed. But both also assumed that a modern culture unbuoyed by collective ideals--by some kind of ennobling faith--was a frightening prospect.

What to do? Thomas Huxley assumed that the wider application of science and education would bring moral illumination to mankind; Arnold similarly urged his contemporaries to forgo the worship of power and mammon and to pursue instead "the best that is known and thought in the world"--in brief, the high artistic culture that "places human perfection in an internal condition, in the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality."

In many ways, Huxley never escaped his Victorian roots. "I was born," he once observed, "in the upper-middle, governing class of an independent, rich, and exceedingly powerful nation." He attended Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he was well known for the breadth of his reading and the barb of his wit. But when Huxley was fourteen, his mother died of cancer. Two years later, his brother Trevenen, despairing over a broken romance, committed suicide. And as an adolescent he was afflicted with a serious eye infection that left his vision permanently impaired. All of this, as Murray understandably suggests, darkened the young Huxley's view of the world.

AT SCHOOL Huxley persevered by using magnifying glasses and eye exercises and learning Braille. But his bad eyesight discouraged him from pursuing a career in medicine and--after a brief stint as a teacher--he began to write. Brilliant, promising, blessed with a famous pedigree, Huxley caught the attention of Lady Ottoline Morrell, one of the most influential patrons of the age, and she brought the young man into an intellectual circle that included Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Roger Frye--"a roll-call," writes Murray, "of Bloomsbury's most celebrated names."

Huxley caricatured some of these figures in the early satirical novels that made him famous. He lampooned Lady Ottoline herself as the affected Priscilla Wimbush in the 1921 "Crome Yellow." As Murray notes, Lady Ottoline was not amused, accusing Huxley of ingratitude and betrayal. "I am not a realist," Huxley blithely replied, and "don't take much interest in the problem of real people"; his characters are merely "puppets" performing a "marionette show." In fact, although Huxley became more ambitious as a novelist, he never really mastered the form; his final novel, the utopian "Island," published in 1962, offers yet more marionettes, however much they mouth different ideals from the marionettes of the 1920s.