The Magazine

Aldous Huxley's World

The satirist as mystic.

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