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.

Although Huxley would later describe the world of Bloomsbury as "rather limited," he certainly shared Bloomsbury's doubts about democracy and the fear that rising forms of mass communication, driven by commercial concerns and pitched to the lowest common level, would degrade the role of the artist and the value of art. Consider his 1927 review of "The Jazz Singer," the first talking movie of note. Huxley at thirty-five hated films and their substitution of spectacle for subtlety, emotion for thought. Indeed the review shows not only Huxley's disdain for popular culture, but the misanthropic strain that never quite leaves his work. At the cinema, Huxley complains, there is "no escape" from "the full horror of the human countenance," amplified and filling a vast screen. "For the first time," Huxley writes, "I felt grateful for the defect of vision which had preserved me from a daily acquaintance with such scenes."

"Brave New World" is that review's horror come true. Thought is extinct; standards are low; coarse Philistines run the show, seeking absolute social control. Left with no other options--no galleries, museums, or libraries--blighted citizens have little left but their animality and the license to live thoughtlessly for the day. They frequent the "feelies," where the movie's illusion of reality is tactilely enhanced. Happily drugged, they attend state-run orgies and cabaret shows where tuneless music blares. (Huxley also hated jazz, calling it "drearily barbaric.")

The novel's characters are brainwashed, subject to "emotional engineering" in the form of inane slogans and hypnotic rhymes. Writing in the late 1940s, Huxley described radio as "nothing but a conduit through which prefabricated din can flow into our homes--a Babel of distractions." He added that advertising is "the organized effort to extend and intensify craving--to extend and intensify, that is to say, the workings of that force, which (as all the saints and teachers of all the higher religions have always taught) is the principal cause of suffering and wrong doing and the greatest obstacle between the human soul and its divine ground."

SPIRITUAL REFERENCES like these aren't found in Huxley's early novels, where religion, if it appears at all, is mocked and an air of jaded sophistication prevails. But by the time he wrote "Brave New World," he was starting to realize that spiritual values, even more than aesthetic standards, were dangerously missing from Western life. One of the novel's more sympathetic characters, the outcast John the Savage, is much drawn to both Shakespeare and the idea of God, which he equates with nobility, goodness, and heroism.

In the years during and after World War II, other writers and intellectuals were reaching similar conclusions. T.S. Eliot, for example, in a 1939 essay sounds much like the later Huxley when he writes that "for too long Europeans and Americans have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life." Huxley, however, couldn't accept Eliot's solution of restoring the Church to the center of cultural, intellectual, and artistic life. Indeed, he equated the Church with "organized sacramentalism"--mere dogma and clerical abuse. The last word in "Brave New World" is "east"--the direction to which Huxley turned to find his own language of belief.

Huxley first outlined this "existential religion of mysticism" in "The Perennial Philosophy" (1945), prompting a certain dismay among the admirers of his bitter satires. The book leans heavily on Buddhist principles and ideals but also quotes extensively from the Christian mystical tradition: William Law, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross. "Spiritual progress," it stresses, comes from "the growing knowledge of the self as nothing and of the godhead as all-embracing reality." Huxley's attraction to mysticism isn't really surprising; he was, after all, cerebral, introverted, and quite blind--already, by temperament and physical fact, withdrawn from the world. And unlike Thomas Huxley or Matthew Arnold, he found it nearly impossible to articulate any real hope for the future of humankind. Huxley had no more hope in democracy than in organized religion--and only a very guarded belief in the redemptive powers of science. Revealingly, in one late interview, he called Zen "just the sort of inward turning which makes for cushioning an otherwise intolerable existence."

STILL, Huxley's writings suggest that he didn't wholly free himself from some very worldly--and rather disturbing--preoccupations. Even in "The Perennial Philosophy" we find him pausing to evoke "the rules of aristocratic good breeding." A throwaway line, it clanks nonetheless, particularly in light of Huxley's advocacy of eugenics--the notion that human breeding requires regulation. The goal, he wrote in 1934, was to encourage "the normal and supernormal members of the population to have larger families," and even more importantly to prevent the "subnormal"--"half-wits" he called them--"from having any children at all."

Nicholas Murray's biography is less adoring than Sybille Bedford's influential account of Huxley, published in 1973, but it still offers a largely sympathetic portrayal of a man whose warnings of the dangers of big business, overpopulation, and the prospects of nuclear proliferation make him, by implication, a figure of continuing relevance to the Left. Still, Murray doesn't ignore the ironies and inconsistencies of Huxley's life and career. In "Brave New World" Huxley depicts promiscuous sex as dehumanizing--another form of mindless escape. But Murray makes much of the fact that Huxley and his first wife Maria Nays had "an easy and civilized enjoyment of the sensual life" that included dispensing with "conventional notions of fidelity" and, for several years during the 1920s, sharing the same lover, the novelist Mary Hutchinson.

HUXLEY AND MARIA remained married for more than thirty years until her death in 1955. Murray depicts Maria working devotedly as secretary, housekeeper, and chauffeur for her absent-minded husband, a man almost completely at sea in the face of life's more practical demands. After her death, Huxley said his wife was "more capable of love and understanding than almost anyone I have ever known, and in so far as I have learned to be human--and I had a great capacity for not being human--it is thanks to her." But as Murray also implies, Huxley seems to have been largely dense to her own needs and concerns. Maria's letters sometimes show a woman frequently lonely, exhausted, and bored. In one, she tells a friend that Aldous "never realizes what is going on with me." Huxley loved his wife, and he worked her like a mule.

Murray also points to the occasional displays of anti-Semitism that surface in Huxley's private writings. Lured by lucrative commissions, Huxley put aside his hatred of the movies long enough to write or collaborate on several movie scripts; but Hollywood, as he rued in one letter, was squarely in the hands of "Jews with money": "little b--s with curly hair and teeth." The "usual explanation" for these outbursts, Murray notes, "is that this was an unthinking feature of the English upper-middle-class milieu" in which Huxley grew up. But Huxley, Murray adds, "was not supposed to be unthinking."

Huxley's many fine critical writings include "Wordsworth in the Tropics," "Vulgarity in Literature," and "Variations on a Philosopher," all of them modern classics. The publisher Ivan R. Dee has brought out the complete set of his essays in six volumes over the last two years, and they are astonishingly brilliant and wide-ranging. Murray's failure to examine these closely means that the full context and genesis of many of Huxley's ideas go largely unexplored.

Still, the biographer provides enough evidence to show that Huxley's undisciplined mind was inclined to attach itself to some fairly dotty ideas. Living in Los Angeles during the final two decades of his life, Huxley attended seances, pondered the plausibility of flying saucers, and dabbled in hypnosis and ESP. He never tired of extolling the teachings of William Sheldon, the American psychologist who theorized that an individual's temperament was determined largely by his physique. Sheldon's notions are little better than those proposed by phrenology, which similarly proposed that anatomy was destiny, and that a man's character could be divined by examining the shape of his head. And yet, here is Huxley solemnly assuring us that the endomorph--Sheldon's term for a "soft and rounded" person with a "huge gut"--is prone to "nostalgia" and "ceremoniousness" and is "always seeking company and telling everybody just what he feels."

HUXLEY also turned to drugs. By his own account, he began taking LSD and mescaline in the early 1950s, thanks partly to his friendship with Timothy Leary, the Harvard-trained psychiatrist who grew increasingly screwy with each passing year. "The Doors of Perception" (1954)--next to "Brave New World," Huxley's most famous work--argues that hallucinogens could prove therapeutically useful to patients suffering from schizophrenia and other mental disorders. But they can also be used more widely as substitutes for the mystical experience that, as Huxley himself admits, is so difficult to achieve. They can "open the door" to enlightenment left closed during our daily distracted state. Huxley also urges the development of other drugs that, without the harmful side effects of alcohol, might provide millions with a mellowing buzz, since the "need for chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will remain." In the 1930s, Huxley mocked the use of chemical pacifiers in "Brave New World." In the 1950s he advocated their widespread use.

"The Doors of Perception" sold well during the 1960s as LSD became a craze and "psychedelic" a cultural byword. Perhaps mercifully, Huxley didn't live long enough to see Leary end up performing as a nightclub comedian or, worse, to find that he himself had become a pop culture icon. Jim Morrison--not exactly an exemplar of mental and spiritual discipline--named his rock band the Doors, in honor of Huxley's book. Along with Tony Curtis and W.C. Fields, Huxley was placed in a crowd of celebrities gracing the cover of the Beatles' 1968 album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

One does sense in the later Huxley a certain intellectual fatigue, a disillusion with words themselves. In "The Doors of Perception" he approvingly quotes Goethe: "We talk too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That figure, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future--all these are momentous signatures." In his final writings, Huxley often uses phrases like "the bottomless mystery of existence" and "the fathomless mystery of existence." This could, of course, be a kind of deep mystical enlightenment. Or simple befuddlement.

Still, in the final year of his life, Huxley offered words simple enough that even half-wits could understand. "It is a bit embarrassing," he admitted to a lecture audience, "to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and to find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.'"

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.