The Magazine

Aldous Huxley's World

The satirist as mystic.

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